Melkam Addis Amet is a phrase we have been hearing quite a bit this past week. It means Happy New Year in Amharic since the Ethiopian New Year is on September 1st which is our Gregorian (Western) calendar’s September 11th. Last year, we posted about the different calendar used in Ethiopia. It is 2010 here since the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has embraced the calculation of the birth of Jesus seven years earlier than the more commonly accepted Gregorian calendar used by us and most of the rest of the world. We were actually not here for New Year’s Day last year since we had to return to the United States for some medical issues. Lloyd had some problematic kidney stones that had to be removed and the Area Doctor for Africa felt the procedure would be more safe back home. So, this is our very first Ethiopian New Year celebration. And we have learned that it is probably THE biggest celebration of the year.
Even though we missed last year’s celebration there was some silver lining in having to go home to California for Lloyd’s procedure in that we were able to see John and Glenna Anderson. That was when we learned of his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and we sensed that this may be our last time to see him. He lost his battle with cancer a month ago which made our visit a year ago even more poignant. They have been dear friends of ours for over 30 years and we are just grateful for that time we had with both of them before returning to Ethiopia.
There are plenty of unique traditions surrounding New Year’s here. The thousands of sheep in the highway medians attest to the long standing feast tradition when families slaughter a sheep and prepare several tasty sheep “wot” dishes along with their traditional injera. Habtu, our co-worker, invited us to his backyard to watch how the sheep is slaughtered. We only had to sit down, so as not to faint, for about 10 minutes in the hour and a half long procedure. Two young men deftly took care of business.
New Year’s Eve is full of parties and celebrations similar to ours but New Year’s Day is not loaded up with football like in the U.S. The day is spent with family and close friends sharing meals. We had a lovely lunch at our Orthodox friend’s (Nigist) home followed by a dinner at Habtu’s home where his wife, Hana, prepared some pretty amazing dishes courtesy of our former and now deceased sheep acquaintance.
Another long standing tradition is called Ababa Ayehush which means “I saw a flower.” It is a New Year’s song sung with gusto and gratitude. The fields are green and laced with yellow Meskel flowers as the rainy season now winds down through the end of September. Young girls wear traditional dresses (as do most of the women for New Year’s celebrations) and sing the traditional Ababa Ayehush song knocking on neighborhood doors to perform. The families in the homes then give them about ten or twenty-five cents (2 to 5 BIRR) for their performance. The young boys draw pictures of angels, flowers or Ethiopian religious crosses and families give them some BIRR for that as well. The children are darling and we hope you enjoy some of the videos of them singing. Girls singing video #1 (click here); Girls singing video #2 (click here) Every girl and woman knows this song and delights in singing it at the celebrations. They also light chibos which are small teepee like sticks and bushes that are stacked in different neighborhoods and then burned on New Year’s Eve. Chibo signifies that “the light” is coming as some of the darker days of the rainy season come to an end.
About two weeks before New Year’s Day young boys will also go to homes and even businesses and sing the Bohe complete with sticks rhythmically pounding on the ground for musical accompaniment. This is a tradition and pre-cursor to the New Year’s celebration. It represents an Orthodox commemoration of the events surrounding the Biblical account of the Mount of Transfiguration.
Another celebration this past month was Ruth’s sixteenth birthday on August 19th. However, we celebrated it on August 26th as there was a sixteen day Orthodox fast that spanned her actual birth date and would have prevented any dairy or meat products for the celebration. What’s a party without a birthday cake swathed in frosting? We had a fun party at our home complete with the “birthday firecrackers” that are so popular here along with some confetti that we are still discovering embedded throughout the house. Ruth wore a traditional dress and invited a best girlfriend, Enos. We were joined by two fun returned missionaries, Jote and Desta, who were chefs and servers for her special day. Ruth’s mother, Nigist, and her sister, Yeabsra, rounded out the party.
Speaking of birthdays, I had very carefully not let the word out that my birthday was September 16th as we were gone last year and I figured no one would know. At this age I prefer to quietly acknowledge that I’m thankfully still alive and not overdo it! Since New Year’s fell on Monday this year the branch had planned a New Year’s party for the following Saturday which also happened to be my actual birthday. I think the missionaries saw birthdates on the transfer sheet and the word got out. Well, it was probably my best birthday ever as it was a TOTAL surprise and the Happy Birthday song in Amharic was simply the best. In the videos notice the ululation of the women. It’s a voice trill that’s pretty hard to do but is something they do whenever celebrating and is an expression of happiness and joy.
Lloyd and I had long since promised a man in that branch that we would attend his graduation from nursing school. It happened to fall on my birthday. Elias had no one else attending and we knew it was important to be “his parents” as well as the only ferengi’s in the National Theatre where it was held. Elias graduation video (click here) He joined the Church ten years ago when he attended English classes being offered by the missionaries. He then translated missionary lessons for Atsede, another pioneer here, who is like a mother to Elias. We told him that we have a white shirt coming for him when our kids come so that he can look great for his job interviews. Lloyd had an extra tie and Atsede and I had fun pinning his graduation amulets on. He said it was the happiest day of his life and we were really happy to spend it with him. Elias dancing video (click here) This is another reason that I was sure my birthday would remain “quiet” since we knew we would barely make it back in time for the branch party. All around it was a great day as Elias was also well recognized for his graduation with all of his branch family. Elias cutting the cake video (click here)
The day before my birthday we had a very special encounter with a young woman named Rebecca. She has volunteered for a two year stint with the Peace Corps and will be teaching English in a very remote village, Dimbira, which is in the southern part of Ethiopia. It is about two and a half hours from Jima, the nearest town of any consequence. She is from Utah and came by the office to get some scriptures and other material to take with her. She is actually a professional violinist who lived and worked in New York City for several years. It is an AMAZING commitment she has made in that she will live in the customary 10×10 foot room with one light bulb (and a daily prayer for any electricity). She will cook on a small propane stove with a backup “stove” consisting of the local square 10”x10” charcoal fire pot. We are praying for her safety and success as we are sure her parents are and we were glad to learn of how the Peace Corps is still very much functioning throughout the world. There are 40 here in Ethiopia and they are spread out all over the country. The next worker in a site near her is about 40 minutes away. She will learn Amharic as well as the local Kefigna dialect and will live much as the locals live except she is grateful to have her laptop. Who knows what phone or other reception will be available but we will stay in touch with her, for sure. After her swearing in at the U.S. Embassy, and the night before she left for her site post, we took her out to dinner at the best Italian restaurant we have found. It was a delightful evening.
We were recently talking about how, so far, we have had a chance to attend all of the major Ethiopian festivals and significant events in the cycle of life such as birthdays, baptisms, funerals, graduations, and so on. But, we had not yet attended a wedding. Well, when we went to Hawassa this past month we learned that the reason there were so many people at the hotel where we usually stay was that there was a huge Muslim wedding that weekend. There were 2, 500 guests at $15.00 (USD) a plate so we figured the family spent at least $37,000 (USD) for tying the knot. We have always heard about how big weddings are here so we were delighted to witness the bride and groom arriving at the hotel for the reception. This will probably be the closest thing we will get to attending a wedding. In the video it looks like the bridesmaids all used the same Revlon dye kit for their red hair, but it is actually a red turban since their heads need to be covered and their dress needs to always be very modest. So, the otherwise spaghetti strap evening gowns are modestly converted with a long sleeved garment. The bride was exquisite and it was a very HAPPY celebration.
Mission wise we said a few hellos and good-byes as we welcomed new elders and other elders went back to Uganda or, in the case of Elder Langford and Elder Farnsworth, went home at the completion of their missions. These are great young men and we are thankful that we have been able to serve with them. Our new elders are Elder Shelton from Washington State and Elder McLain from Provo, Utah. Going back to Uganda are Elder Gooch from Arizona and Elder Chandler from Idaho.
We were treated to a special P-Day just before Zone Conference since we were able to take this whole group up to one of our favorite spots called Portuguese Bridge. It’s a stone bridge built in the 1600’s and is still a footbridge used daily by the locals for transporting goods, donkeys and goats. Donkeys crossing bridge video (click here); cows crossing the bridge (click here) It is also shared by the local baboon troops who live in the surrounding caves. This time of year is a great time to go as the rains have produced wonderful waterfalls which careen throughout this gorgeous canyon blanketing lovely velvet green hills and valleys. Country life video (click here) With the accompanying morning mists it felt more like being in Scotland than in Ethiopia.
We were also particularly excited for a prospective missionary, Birhanu, who is the first Ethiopian ever to be called to the Liberia Monrovia Mission. Birhanu banging head video (click here); Birhanu reading his call video (click here) Liberia is in West Africa and was settled by former African-Americans and African-Caribbeans in 1847. They were a few of the “free” at that time and felt that their futures would be better if they returned to the land of their ancestors in Africa. They started their own republic and called it Liberia. Their flag resembles the stars and stripes of the American flag minus 49 stars. Instead, it features one big solo star in the corner. Birhanu leaves on November 9th.
We are still awaiting Abdulahi’s mission call. He is from Hawassa in the south and we are hoping that his call arrives any day now. He performed his first baptism though, as he baptized his cousin Dureso in the big plastic baptismal font in Hawassa a couple of weeks ago. Dureso only speaks the local Sidamu dialect so we had a three way translation of his testimony from Sidamu to Amharic to English. Abdulahi is very excited to receive his call and finish preparing to go.
We also had a great day in Debre Zeit Branch a couple of weeks ago where Lloyd was able to confer the Melchizedek Priesthood on Beyene. He is a faithful member who has somehow figured out how to maintain his Elvis hairdo. We don’t ask how he pulls that off as it looks like quite a process!
This has been another month filled with lots of memories and significant events. We are already struggling with withdrawal as we realize that we will probably never be able to see many of these dear friends again in this life. It is truly bittersweet to contemplate the joyous reunion with our children, grandchildren and so many of our dear family and friends back home and then the farewells from our Ethiopian friends and “family” here. Thank goodness for eternity.
Lloyd and Nancy