Exorbitant drink upcharges undermine Ethiopia’s new year traditions, community bonds
The air was filled with excitement and anticipation as the sun began to set on the eve of Ethiopia’s New Year. While most of the world celebrated September 12th as an ordinary Tuesday, for Ethiopians it marked the beginning of a special holiday and the dawn of a new year according to their ancient calendar.
All across the capital city, households buzzed with activity as families worked diligently in their kitchens, preparing delicious traditional foods that would be shared with loved ones the following day. The mouthwatering scents of Doro Watt, a local stew made from chicken, and Habesha Dabo, big bread made from wheat, wafted through open windows. Children assisting their parents would sneak bites, savoring the tastes that signaled renewal and hope for what the new year may bring.
As darkness fell, the streets began to come alive with lights and laughter. Proud families showed off their finest clothes and shone brightest smiles, full of pride and spirit for their culture. Excited children ran door to door, their new shoes scarcely broken in, eager to see cousins and play with neighborhood friends. Travelers crowded bus and taxi stations, carefully packing delicacies in woven baskets to share during long journeys to visit grandparents, siblings and other extended family in distant villages.
Meanwhile, those who remained in the city gathered around televisions and radios to watch special New Year’s Eve programs on local stations. Singers belted out patriotic songs and poets recited verses celebrating Ethiopia’s rich history and values of community. In cafes and town squares, the night life was just beginning as people of all ages socialized and reminisced about years past, bonding over their shared heritage and anticipation of the joys the next day would surely bring. As midnight drew closer, the capital came alive with music, dancing and beams of good cheer to usher in the new year.
Just minutes before midnight, the excitement in the capital reached a fever pitch. At a bar in front of Bole Millennium Hall, renowned singer Betelhem Shefredin was receiving well-wishers, shaking hands and offering greetings for the new year. As the countdown approached, she made her way onto the small stage to treat the crowd to something special.
“Happy New Year to all!” Betelhem announced to cheers and applause. Without further delay, she launched seamlessly into a rendition of “Eyoha Abebaye,” the iconic song made famous by the legendary singer Aster Awoke and synonymous with Ethiopia’s New Year celebrations.
When the last notes faded, the countdown began in earnest. “54…321!” Chants of “Abebayosh!” rang out throughout the festive assemblage as the clock struck midnight. For Ethiopians gathered here and across the homeland, the new year had officially begun as songs, dances and old traditions continued well into the morning light. The soul of the nation was fully alive and renewed, embracing all the promise a fresh beginning could hold.
While the festivities swirled within the heart of the city, the sense of celebration was not universally shared. For many facing economic hardship on the margins of society, there were few reasons to mark the occasion with joy.
At establishments like the bar hosting Betelhem Shefredin’s performance, exclusionary policies shut out those without means. Anyone wishing to attend the live music and join in community was effectively compelled to purchase alcohol. Even ordering a modest soda or water was an unthinkable expense, deemed too “unprofitable” by proprietors eager to maximize earnings on the holiday.
After 11pm, beer—usually an affordable indulgence—was no longer offered, encouraging binge drinking and higher food/beverage minimums that shut out many. For the masses struggling to afford basic needs, simply enjoying an evening in the company of others was increasingly out of reach.
When alcohol was permitted to be served, prices soared to take advantage of patrons celebrating without concern for cost. At Betelhem’s venue, a single unit of the cheapest beer was priced at 400 birr—a staggering ten times the standard retail value found in stores the rest of the year.
While festivities centered around Bole, the spirit of celebration also took hold in other neighborhoods such as Wollo Sefer. At Wube Bereha, a popular live music lounge, the crowds had gathered for a special performance by acclaimed artist Mesfin Shiferaw.
Renowned for his soulful interpretations of songs made famous by Mohammed Ahmed, Mesfin’s voice had completely captivated attendees. Within the venue, a mood of camaraderie and shared cultural heritage reigned supreme.
However, gaining entry to enjoy such experiences came at a significant cost, demonstrating how inequitably these traditions had become monetized across different classes. At Wube Bereha – like other establishments seeking maximum profit – only alcoholic beverages were offered to patrons wishing to take part.
Moreover, drink prices had been inflated exorbitantly from standard rates. A regular one litre bottle of Gordon gin that usually retailed for around 3000 birr was sold for a staggering 8000 birr inside the club – nearly triple the value.
While the performers, atmosphere and community spirit held value, these economic barriers prevented many residents of Wollo Sefer and beyond from partaking in the full spirit of their own cultural celebrations. The rising tide of commercialization had widened the gap between those who could revel without concern, and those for whom price alone remained the exclusion.
Yet as the sun rose on another year, the astronomical prices left many feeling excluded from their own cultural rites. Only time will tell if establishments can balance business interests with Ethiopians’ fundamental right to community sans financial barriers. For now, the future of these treasured traditions appears as uncertain as citizens’ bank accounts.