x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A wrinkle in time

World Luke Jerod Kummer reports from Ethiopia, where the new millennium has literally just begun.

Luke Jerod Kummer reports from Ethiopia, where the new millennium has literally just begun.


Since humans learnt language and maths, time has been ours to divide, number and name. And to these increments, cycles and things we call beginnings and endings, we have ascribed meaning. Last month Ethiopia - the birthplace of one of the world's oldest civilisations - marked the end of a much trumpeted yearlong celebration of the "Ethiopian Millennium", according to the country's own reckoning of time.

The Ethiopian calendar - whose roots are in ancient Egypt - divides each year into 13 months. The first 12 have a uniform 30 days each, and the13th, a pause just before the new year, has five days most years and a sixth "leap" day every fourth year. The current date in Ethiopia remains seven or eight years behind the standard Gregorian calendar, owing to a centuries-old disagreement about the year Jesus was born. So while the rest of the world celebrated the millennium eight years ago, Ethiopia only ushered in 2000 a year ago on the holiday known as Enkutatash, which falls on September 11 or 12.

For Ethiopians the arrival of the third millennium was a symbol of pride - in the only African nation to have fought off a European coloniser - that its recorded history dated back thousands of years, and that Christendom had come to Ethiopia before many parts of Europe. For the government, however, the uniquely late celebration was an opportunity to promote Ethiopia abroad - and solidify the standing of the ruling party after a hotly contested election. The state declared 2000 a jubilee year, announcing a host of new public works projects and a line-up of high-profile concerts from the likes of the Black Eyed Peas, and promising an increase in tourism and an economic revival spurred by returnees from the Ethiopian diaspora.

But after a grand party to kick off the year at the new Millennium Hall in Addis Ababa - reported to have cost $10 million (Dh37 million) - construction projects were halted, only a few concerts took place and tourists failed to arrive in droves. As the jubilee year drew to a close in September, the big illuminated "2000" signs and fibreglass white doves that remained in Addis Ababa's Meskel Square looked like they had been forgotten by a carnival that had left town. The ceaseless toasts to the millennium in the local media had produced a kind of fatigue, compounded by a looming food crisis and an inflation rate topping 25 per cent.

But by the morning of New Year's Eve, the sprawling capital was gearing up for another turning of the clock - if with rather less fanfare. On city sidewalks, two-metre long branches joined together like tepee frames were being sold as easy-ignition bonfires. Churches were filled with petitioners, and alms seekers - the aged, the maimed and the mothers with their tiny, frail proxies - waited outside the gates with outstretched hands.

Across Ethiopia small ceremonies of celebration were underway, looking to the new year as a time of renewal. Those who could afford it fitted their children in new clothes, repainted their houses and purchased clay coffee pots and knives in the belief that goods bought for the new year will stay shiny and sharp for the next 13 months. Markets bustled as people prepared to celebrate with family and friends. At the Shiro Meda market women squatted on tarpaulins with umbrellas cradled on their shoulders while they bundled cut grass with adayababa, the little yellow daisies for which the city is named; Ethiopians decorate their homes and businesses with these flowers, which only bloom at the end of the rainy season in September. But inflation has taken its toll: bunches that cost 0.50 birr (18 fils) last year sold for 2 to 4 times as much last month.

Inside Shola market the smells of beriberi, must and animals mixed in a crisscross of hectic aisles. Chickens crammed together in cages were placed beside baskets of their own eggs - with the two likely to be reunited soon in doro wot, a stew traditionally cooked on New Year's Eve and served the next day. At the nearby sheep market, an uphill path of ankle-deep mud crowded with damp flocks and thousands of herders and shoppers, sheep were going for between 450 and 700 birr (Dh168 to Dh261). Sheep are an important symbol of plenitude at the New Year, and prices had risen for the occasion.

In a grassy patch in front of Saint Gabriel's Church the priest's sermon floated from a loudspeaker while several men bound the legs of a bull, twisted its horns until it fell to the ground and then slit its throat and stood back as the beast deflated and twitched. They divided the meat among families who could not afford to purchase their own animal. Across town in the upper-class Bole area, the floors of the shiny new Getu mall were decorated with flowers and grass. Though shop owners and mallgoers described business as brisk, it barely compared to a slow day at any mall in the UAE; customers for store-bought goods are scarce in a country where 80 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.

A few sharply dressed youths sat in the atrium drinking coffee, using wifi and listening to Abebayehosh, sung by Teddy Afro. A traditional New Year's song carolled by children, the reworked version crooned by Afro was ubiquitous this year, as were discussions of the singer's recent jailing on charges of vehicular homicide, with some alleging he had been targeted for the political criticisms that have recently coloured his reggae-inflected songs.

A few minutes' drive from the silver-and-glass mall, the houses in the Aware neighbourhood were largely patched together from scraps of corrugated metal. The smoke from stoves and bonfires crept from the settlements like a fog. Paved roads wound through the slums and then dead-ended where construction had abruptly ceased. Here and there new condominiums could be seen rising from the shanties like crystal vases in a pile of crushed soda cans.

At Jan Meda race ground, whose entrance was heavily guarded by rifle-toting federal police, a mucky trail led through knee-high grasses towards a stage beckoning with a skyward spotlight. The government had sent out a press release saying 100,000 people were expected to watch a free line-up of local musicians starting at 6pm. However, by 7pm there were only a couple thousand people lining a barricade set away from the stage, and the show had not begun. Meanwhile, at Millennium Hall, where a much-hyped event with DJ Slush from Dubai cost 200 birr (or 500 birr for VIPs), the cavernous building remained almost empty an hour after start time.

On a section of Chechnya Street where the sidewalks are studded with dozens of tiny cement houses, each a bar adorned with a different design of Christmas lights, a woman was strutting in a bikini despite the evening's rainy-season chill. These bars are a well known place to procure a "business woman", and inside one such bar called Sister House about seven ladies seemed eager for a dance partner.

Three of them, however, had donned the traditional white Abaysha camise dress for the holiday. The floors were blanketed in flowers and grass. At another cell-like bar, guests could not lean back on the couch because the walls were wet with fresh paint. Because Ethiopians believe the New Year starts at sunrise - not midnight - there is no Times Square-style countdown. The next morning the normally clogged streets were mostly empty. As people woke up to the first New Year of the third Ethiopian Millennium, they gathered with their families. Women put on traditional dress and outfitted their children in their best clothes so they could make the rounds of relatives' houses, singing and presenting hand-copied pictures of angels; sheep, goats and chickens met with brand new knives.
lkummer@thenational.ae