Addis Ababa

Habesha Christmas

If you may not know (I didn’t until I arrived in the country) Ethiopia functions under a different calendar than most other places in the world.  Currently its 2005, and 2006 isn’t going to roll around until September 1st.  The reason for the difference lies in Ethiopia’s unique brand of Orthodox Christianity.  Check out the wiki if you feel like it.  Drawing from a different interpretation of the life of Christ, Ethiopian religious holidays fall on different days than they do for those of us adhering to the Gregorian calendar.  For Orthodox Ethiopian Christians Christ was born on January 7th, hence Christmas is celebrated every year on this day.  Instead of being marked by widespread travel, familial angst, god-awful music and booming Cuisinart sales, Christmas in Ethiopia is marked by the beheading of chickens, goats, and the occasional ox if you’ve done well for yourself.  Despite the gore, its actually a relatively quiet day as most people sit indoors with their families talking, drinking, and eating the previously mentioned chicken, goats, and oxen.  Most families will have gallons of homemade tela, which is a slightly alcoholic drink made from fermenting ground up barley with water, sugar and other spices.  Great!  Homemade beer!  Lies.  In reality it tastes like flat, stale Coke with hints of mucus.  I remember back in college there was a refrigerator in one of the biology labs stuffed with petri dishes containing a bunch of assorted bacteria embedded in agar.  Tela more or less shares its aromatic qualities with this refrigerator.

I spent the day with the family that lives right next to my workshop.  I brought them bananas and cake.  We sat in their little two-room house (four people live there) drank coffee and tela and ate some food, most of which I think was goat, but really it could have been anything.  Whatever it was, it was delicious.  And the family was really nice.  They live in a house made primarily from mud and I have no idea how they make a living, but they still managed to feed me and get me a little bit  tipsy.  The head of the household is a woman who must be around 60 named Asfegitch.  I’m not sure how to write out her name in English.  There’s no real correct way to spell Amharic words using other alphabets, so you just have to sound it out phonetically.  So I choose “Asfegitch.”  She lives in the house with her youngest child Ellsa, who is 16 and her grandson Kirobill, who I believe is 8.  Now thats only three people.  I said four before because I believe that in the back room, which is both a kitchen and bedroom, there is a really, really old woman (possibly Asfegitch’s mother?) who is too immobile to leave bed.  Although I am not sure of this, it’s merely what I gathered from a few choppy conversations.  Anyway, the food was good, the coffee was amazing, and I eventually got force fed about 4 pints of tela.  Its really not too bad if you hold your nose while thinking about the single most delicious experience of your life.  I am good friends with this family, especially Kirobill, even though we can only speak about a dozen words to each other between my Amharic and their English.  Its a different kind of relationship, thats for sure.  I see them almost everyday and Kirobill and I often play soccer with a ball of trash or chase a cat around or something but I never actually talk to them much.

The next day (January 8th) isn’t properly Christmas, but its still a holiday with no work and more celebration.  I guess its kind of like Boxing Day.  I ended up going to meet the family of one of my house guards, Samu.  His family was amazing.  He too lives in a two-room house with his wife and two kids.  There is his four year old daughter Freselam who can only be described as bouncy, and his son Yared, who is something like 10 months.  Their home is in a little compound with about 5 other like houses enclosed by a wall, all occupied by members of  the family.  Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins.  The whole place can’t be bigger than your average suburban America yard.  I think Samu told there were about 24 people all together.  Can you imagine?  And none of them are alcoholics!  Samu’s wife made an absolutely amazing meal, the highlight of which were here hard-boiled eggs.  I know that hard-boiled eggs are frighteningly standard in terms of cuisine, but she did something to them that I will never ever be able to figure out, let alone replicate.  Clearly, it was an egg, but I swear it tasted like a cheese danish.  Again, we ate a lot of food and drank a lot of coffee and ended up watching a Chinese-produced nature documentary about rivers that was subtitled in Amharic.  Also Freselam can count to 50 in English.  I know this because while we were watching the video she completed the task about 10 times.  As far as I know she’s incapable of counting in her head.  Samu and his wife asked me take pictures of their kids, which I did, even though I think it freaked Yared out a little bit.

In the days that followed I made my way around the city as usual with the added obstacle of avoiding stepping on the heads of various post-sacrafice sacrificial animals.  Cleaning up after yourself is not a terribly important part of life here in Addis and to my knowledge there is no public garbage service.  So once you have decapitated an ox, eaten it, and fed the scraps to the dogs, you just leave the head, eyes tongue brain and all, laying in the street…even its over 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside.  At least it masked the smell of the open sewers for a while.

Happy Christmas!

Here are some pictures from the two days.  A lot of the photos were taken by another one of the house guards named Fitsum, so this album is thanks to him.

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