New Year, Old Habits

A Street Chicken MarketAt no other time of year do so many things happen in such quick succession that are so peculiarly Ethiopian. And it’s definitely not a good time to be a sheep, a goat or a chicken.

Today is New Year’s Day, 2009. The explanation involves Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, Egypt, Pope Gregory XIII, some revolting priests and, most importantly, Jesus. Click here for full details.

So obviously today must be the first of the month (the month of Meskerem). As was last Tuesday. Last Tuesday was the first day of the thirteenth month – Pagume (“par-goo-may”) – which only has five days (six for a leap year). You’ll find something similar in the Egyptian, Coptic and Mayan calendars, and also, rather bizarrely, in a calendar used by the French Republic for 12 years from 1793 to 1805. Apparently this was an attempt to remove anything religious or royalist from the French calendar. Bad call, Napoleon.

Saint_RaphaelNow comes the fun bit. During Pagume the Ethiopian Orthodox Church focuses on St Raphael, who they believe to be the third most powerful of seven archangels. St Raphael is reputed to have performed many miracles one of which, involving rescuing a church full of worshippers on an Egyptian island from a ravaging whale, is celebrated on Pagume 3 (last Thursday). This day is known as “Rehiwe Semay”, literally meaning “The opening of heaven”. If it rains, the rainwater is holy water. Well it did rain on Thursday, and I was caught in it briefly. On Friday morning I asked Sister Aster if I would accrue any spiritual benefit from being wet with holy water the previous day. “Sorry, no” she winked, “only if you were running around naked.” (I wasn’t). However had I been making bread or injera (which in Ethiopia I wouldn’t have been, being male) I may have added a few drops of holy rain water to the dough to make it blessed.

In fact, in Orthodox tradition all five (or six) days of Pagume are important, and centre on holy water. Kids run around in the rain; the faithful go from church to church rinsing themselves in holy water to stave off illness, bad fortune and evil spirits. Everything gets washed and cleaned, ready for New Year. What a good job Pagume is in the rainy season.

On New Year’s Eve (yesterday, Pagume 5; September 10th; keep up) because of some tenuous link with the Biblical book of Job people head off to the nearest river to bathe away their illnesses in water believed to be holy.

Not so much fun if you happen to be a sheep, a goat or a chicken though. Markets spring up all over the place selling live animals. Herds of sheep and goats; chickens in baskets or standing forlornly in groups awaiting their fate. By the road; down side streets; on central reservations. They are taken home in a variety of ways. Chickens are usually carried by their legs; single sheep or goats can be shoulder-carried, or walked along on two front legs, the proud purchaser driving it using the two back legs, like a wheel barrow. Those creatures unfortunate enough not to walk are tied to roof racks, stuffed in boots, or worse. As Haile drove me home on Friday I saw a Toyota Hiace minivan, full of passengers, the rear door wide open while two guys tried to stuff a second live goat under the back seat next to one already resident there.

ChiboThen there are “chibos”. These are thin bundles of long sticks that are traded widely, then on New Year’s Eve they are set fire to. I’ve just realised I have no idea why they do that. I’ll have to ask Sister Aster.

Haile texted me today. Here’s (precisely) what he said:

“New Day,New morning,New hopes,New plan,New effert,New success, I pray God 2 give u happy and successful life.”

Bless you Haile. You too.

Happy New Year everyone!

To illustrate what goes on here around New Year and if you have 3 or 4 minutes to spare, check out these two short video clips. (They are available in full HD).

Firstly, here’s a couple of minutes of our drive home from Safeway (it’s a fake) on New Year’s Eve. See if you can spot sheep trading on the central reservation, a Bajaj overtaking along the path, a pick-up coming the wrong way down the carriageway because the other side is congested, a couple of carts blocking the traffic, precariously loaded furniture, and a chicken and “chibo” market:


Secondly, here’s a minute and a half of our journey to church at 8am this morning. Look out for a huge pot hole that’s getting bigger with every rain storm; a long queue of people wanting to buy meat; a lot of sheep and especially one white one on a guy’s shoulders; a seriously smashed up truck being towed; and at the end as I go round a right-hand bend a lot of sheep trading and piles of sheep skins on sale (nothing goes to waste):


Click!!!! So many clicks! The furniture truck gave me hthe heebie-jeebies!

Yikes!  I shall enjoy our serene journey from Hemel to St Albans on our way to church next Sunday.  So glad you avoided the chap walking around in circles in the middle of the road!

Coral & I had great fun playing i-Spy. Had to re-run one to see everything - do we lose points for that?

Oh, and happy new year to you!

Amazing how many animals are used in that culture in comparison to up here.  I don't miss the driving, I got road rage while watching!

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