Spending the holidays away from home can be one of the most difficult aspects of long-term travel. Whether people are religious or not, the holidays are a time for tradition and family togetherness. However, when people are far away from the familiar, it can be very easy to start feeling lonely; at least until they get used to their new environment and traditions, which include celebrating local holidays the way locals do, writes Samuel Getachew.
The newly minted Irish top diplomat to Ethiopia, Sonja Hyland, who has held her current position for mere months, has had a very busy few months in Ethiopia. For the veteran diplomat, who was previously stationed in Mexico, it is not Ethiopia’s booming construction in the capital – signs of the country’s progress which has been dubbed as one of the fastest growing economies in the world – that has grabbed her attention, but the cultural mystique of a nation whose culture is unique in the world.
Similar to the flock of tourists that are coming to the nation looking for a unique cultural experience, she is travelling throughout the country, especially in the rural parts inspecting aid projects supported from home and embracing a new culture. In the meantime, the local Irish embassy is in high gear recording her journey to its almost 4,000 followers on Twitter while also marking the opening of the first Irish pub in Addis Ababa.
There is her in Adigrat, helping light the Demera bonfire in celebration of Meskel (a holiday that marks the finding of the Cross of Jesus Christ).
In Addis Ababa the bonfire in Meskel Square towers above the crowd, and the lighting of it – by the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church – is a public spectacle. It’s preceded by colorful religious processions as large crowds light candles and sing hymns.
The lighting of the bonfire is based on the belief that Queen Eleni, as she is known, had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she should make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.
Addis is probably the most dramatic place in which to experience this Ethiopian orthodox Christian- festival, but you can enjoy the rituals, singing, dancing and feasting beneath red-yellow-and-green bunting in almost any town or village across the country.
“Amb Hyland experienced an exciting start to #Meskel in Adigrat,” the embassy said, while staff members of the embassy in the capital celebrated the day with its local and international contemporaries in front of a Demara bonfire at its compound.
Like the ambassador, most of her counterparts at other embassies are also taking advantage of the opportunities to embrace the cultures of their home and that of Ethiopia while living in what is fast becoming a metropolitan local society.
Unlike other holidays, Meskel is celebrated in a unique manner especially by the Gurages and other ethnic groups in Southern Ethiopia. For the holiday, every family member come to their parents’ houses and prepare different types of traditional food such as Kitfo, Kocho, Gomen Kitfo and raw meat. Everybody enjoys eating the cultural foods. Kitfo is minced beef mixed with a lot of melted and salted butter and ground red pepper. Kitfo is considered to be one of the delicacies of traditional Ethiopian cuisines. Kocho is bread made from false banana. Gomen Kitfo is minced cabbage with butter and ground red pepper. For this holiday every family member comes to their parent’s home five to three days earlier.
“I spent Meskel with friends outside attending the bonfire,” Marco Negrete, the Head of Mission at the Embassy of Mexico said. “For Christmas, we celebrated it once the way we do in Mexico and once more with the Ethiopian version, going to church, praying and singing.”
For many, it is not just the celebration of Meskel that is grabbing their attention, but the Ethiopian Christmas and the Ethiopian New Year’s even as the latter falls on a day that arguably the most tragic day in the United States – September 11. As a follower of the Julian calendar, Ethiopia is known to celebrate Christmas on January 7 along with most Orthodox nations and a vast majority of Christians here take part in a 55-day lent, known as the Abiy Tsom, which is loosely translated as ‘The Great Fast’.
For Budi Santoso, Minister Counselor/Information and Social Cultural Affairs at the Indonesian Embassy and a protestant, while in Ethiopia, he celebrates “the international version of Christmas on December 25 by going to church with my family and celebrate the day with other people from Indonesia. I usually invite other people from my community including the ambassador at my home.”
“For the New Year in September, we usually spend the day outside the house. We enjoy going to a restaurant with my family: most of the time it is a Chinese restaurant as the taste of the food is relatively similar to Indonesian one,” he told The Reporter.
As Ethiopia is home to thousands of Chinese businesses and institutions, there are now many Chinese restaurants giving the experience of home to many from similar backgrounds who long for a familiar feeling on holiday seasons within Ethiopia. Local hotels and restaurants are also catching up with the changing environment, offering many expatriates the opportunity to mark their unique cultures while finding a place to celebrate it.
For the Italian Deputy Head of Mission, Giuseppe Coppola, Meskel is one of the top events in the year in the Ethiopian cultural experience. Diplomats from the embassy are known faces at the official celebration at Meskel Square at the heart of Addis.
“I personally enjoy all the bonfires going on all around the city, including those close to the embassy – it is a wonderful opportunity for the kids to get in touch with the local culture, those are such beautiful images that stay in their minds for long. After the bonfires, we usually invite our closest Ethiopian friends for a party at home,” Giuseppe told The Reporter. “For New Year, we went to Djibouti for the long weekend. We were very satisfied about the local services and good flights connections. After a long summer of rain, it was so nice to see all the beautiful flowers, the pure beauty of Ethiopian nature – such an environment should not be taken for granted.”
As Ethiopia embraces American cultures such as Thanksgivings and Halloween especially within small but growing Diaspora communities of Ethiopia, for Stephen Moris, Office Chief at the Economic Growth and Transformation Office at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Ethiopia, he complements the feeling of home with family and also complements local cultures.
“We spend Christmas at home here in Addis with our kids coming back from university. We always try to buy a tree and re-create at atmosphere close to how it is at home. We have a couple of days off so my family and I take the opportunity to go outside of Addis and go on hiking trip.
All year long, we try to go outside to eat at traditional restaurants as we really enjoy listening to live traditional music,” he told The Reporter.
For British Council’s Operations Manager with the Civil Society Support Program, Kami Asamani, “If there is an event from my own religion, then I like celebrating it at my own local church with my friends. If I am back home, I celebrate holidays with my family. If it is going to be a day off here in Addis because of an Ethiopian holiday, then I like to take the opportunity to go out of Addis and visit whenever feasible (e.g. Bishoftu).”
True to form, when an expat moves to another country be it for state or personal business, it is a common practice for many to experience and at times be fully immersed in the culture and traditions.
For Sweden’s Deputy Head of Mission to Ethiopia, Annika Jayawardena, who has only been in Ethiopia for just a year, she tries to make the most of her stay and celebrate all the local cultural days with her husband.
“I have only been here for one year so every time there is a celebration/Ethiopian holiday we tend to either travel outside of Addis or go to a local restaurant we really like. For example, my family and I, went to a restaurant called Abusimia for the New Year, where we were the only foreigners, but we enjoyed the food and the traditional music tremendously.” she told The Reporter. “For Easter or Christmas, we usually tend to use the extra days off to visit Ethiopia.”
“Last Easter we took a seven-day car trip with my husband to explore the South of the country. And that turned out to be an amazing experience. I plan to go to Lalibella, to celebrate another day where I would have the opportunity to go where most of the exciting events happen.”
For others like Cuban Deputy Head of Mission, German Costa, it is a two-way celebration – one that is local, in which he values and that of his homeland, Cuba.
“We enjoy celebrating all events linked to the Ethiopian people as well as our own traditional events, such as Christmas or New Year, for example. It is indirectly our culture too, so my family and I eat injera and all the traditional food from here during those events.” he told The Reporter. “The staff at the embassy is deeply connected with the local community.”
“As for me personally, I stay in Ethiopia all year long and I try to attend all local traditional festivities. I only go back to Cuba with my family in either July or August during my own holidays.”
Ed.’s Note: Laura Wey has contributed to this story.