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another 9/11: celebrating ethiopian new year*

November 21, 2010

Mid-morning, Shola, Addis Ababa: I walk from my compound past brightly-painted fruit stalls and communal games of table football into a sea of livestock. They’re everywhere, churning the earth to mud beneath them, bleating uproariously, and completely obstructing the way.

We’re here for the same reason: holiday season. In Ethiopia’s unique calendar, today is the last day of Pagume, the thirteenth month of five days, before the new year (2003) begins on September 11th. The alternative resonance of the date – many Ethiopians can tell you exactly where they were nine years ago, watching live celebrations on television when the news came in – is not forgotten, but the dominant mood is excitement, especially for muslims, who, through lunar serendipity, are also celebrating Eid on September 10th.

And this all means meat. A symbol of affluence and prosperity, it’s the only way to ring in the good times – and the more the better.
I’ve ventured out to celebrate Eid at the house of Hayat, a particularly lovely student of mine. As I ride one of Addis’ ubiquitous blue-and-white minibuses, full to bursting in the pelting rain, a young man in a red jumper starts up a conversation. ‘Nobody wants to be a teacher anymore, the pay isn’t good enough’, he’s lamenting when I notice a head protruding from the binliner on his lap. Delicate as a model, all clean, bright feathers and minute, baroque embellishments, a live chicken blinks at me.
‘At this time of year, we slaughter many sheep and chicken,’ explains the man, regarding his liveliest New Year’s Eve purchase. ‘It’s the eve of his life too’, he smiles.
At Hayat’s I get a taste of what he will become. When I arrive, her mother beckons me onto a padded cushion and, after a sumptuous prelude of sweets, biscuits and orange squash prepared especially for me, brings out the family’s maincourse: kitfo, raw meat, tibs, chunks of lamb, and doro wat, spicy chicken stew – with spongey injera bread to scoop it all into parcels.
She watches my progress keenly, anxious I am satisifed. ‘Ayezosh!’ she inists, ‘bi!’. Hayat translates: ‘Feel free! Eat!’ And I do – the food makes it easy to indulge her touching hospitality.
After the meal, we demolish the last of the sweets. Hayat notices a transfer curled inside each wrapper and presses one onto my hand until it sticks, before applying hers. We peel away the backs: blue stars for me, yellow moon for her, between us almost a night sky.
My cardigan is damp from the downpour, so her mother lends me a leather jacket, and all her children to accompany me half the way home. On the minibus, I test colour words against their clothes: ‘bunna ainet’, colour of coffee, ‘samayawi’, colour of the sky.
Later, nearing home, I watch sheep hides fly unceremoniously through the air to land – aim permitting – on the back of a white truck. A happy new year – for most.

new year's meat market, shola

* Neither the guardian nor the telegraph wanted this little vignette of ethiopian new year, but i like it, much more than my meskel one actually, so here goes – some proper travel writing to christen a proper travel writing blog.

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