Don't bank on a Holiday

I drive past this mosque every dayThe cannons going off in the middle of Addis Ababa at 5am or so were very faint. But it wasn’t that that woke me up. It was the Imam in the local mosque who had cranked his PA system volume up to full and was calling the faithful to prayer through the loud speakers on his minaret. It was like he was in the room with me.

I groaned, stuffed my head under the pillow and tried to tune out the call to prayer that seemed to be coming right out of my wardrobe. I’m an owl, not a lark, and I don’t like 5am at the best of times, let alone accompanied by cannons and Imams. Then it gradually dawned on me – cannons are used to announce public holidays. Mawlid must be today, not tomorrow.

I have no idea whether the introduction of the annual celebration of the birth of Mohammed in the 13th century was anything to do with the fact that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus every year, but recently the two have both been in December. “Mawlid” (or መውሊድ as we say here) appears to be a bit controversial amongst different strands of Islam; both the name and the date. This year my Ethiopian calendar app (and many many other websites) told me it was due on Monday 12th December 2016. After I told my staff this they were rejoicing at a public holiday day that wasn’t on a weekend. On Friday I told them not to come to work on Monday and to enjoy a day off. Bingham Academy was definitely not working on Monday, so Chris had a day off and I decided to laze around with her. Bad decision.

Officially Sunni Muslims celebrate Mawlid on 12 Rabi' al-awwal, the third month of the Islamic calendar. However when the month of Rabi' al-awwal starts is dependent on someone somewhere sighting the crescent moon (the Islamic calendar is lunar so each month starts with the moon just visible). When Rabi' al-awwal started this year is open to conjecture – the moon was sighted either on 30th November or 1st December depending on which country reported it and how. In east Africa it was supposed to start on 1st December based on a sighting from Zanzibar off the Tanzanian coast. That would make Mawlid 12th December – last Monday. However there is a further complication. Islamic days start at sundown the evening before, so Mawlid officially started on Sunday 11th December in the evening. Hence my early morning disturbance.

Lazing around on Monday on the assumption of a public holiday started well. A cup of tea in bed and a hilarious half an hour successfully streaming “Have I got News For You” was followed by Chris eating something with lots of bran in and me scrambling some of the eggs one of our neighbours harvests from their salmonella-free chickens. As I’m piling the eggs on a piece of toast my phone pings on receipt of a text message. “Dr Phil, Are you OK?” texted Tigist, one of the clinic nurses. It’s 9am - she’s missing me. Dread fills my stomach instead of the eggs. I phone her. We greet each other, praise God together and ask about our families, then I ask the crucial question – “have you gone to work today?” “Of course,” she answers, “Mawlid was yesterday.”

Slightly cross at this whole unpredictable lunar calendar thing I gobble the eggs, shower and dress in double quick time then I have to drive to the clinic. My usual taxi ride isn’t here today – Haile had phoned me Sunday evening to ask if I was going to work on Monday. I told him I had given the staff Monday off as it was Mawlid. He told me Mawlid actually started Sunday. I ignored him. Oops.

Having forged through the worst traffic I’ve had to cope with for many a month I arrive at coffee time and my day off rapidly becomes a normal working day. All the Ethiopian staff are at work; they’re used to this slippery public holiday thing. I am now. I should be more Ethiopian in future – never plan anything in advance. Fortunately the next public holiday is Ethiopian Orthodox and not Islamic, so “Genna” Orthodox Christmas, will definitely be on 7th January. At least I think so…


When working in the Middle East, I was usually put up in a hotel which had triple-glazing. Not only did this help keep the external heat out and the cool air-conditioning in, it also sound-proofed against 5am wake-up calls. Apart from the one time the company put me up in a self-service apartment, where double-glazing was a luxury. I resorted to praying for the Imam & the faithful when I was rudely awakened. Needless to say, I reverted back the hotel pretty quick!

I can only imagine that sinking feeling...

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