Perspectives: The New Year Celebration in Ethiopia and Other Atrocities

by Lillu Tesfa

Saturday, November 20, 1999

My cousins and I are planning on planning to have a most memorable New Millenniumís Eve celebration to end all celebrations. Trouble is, we are at a loss as to just how we can accomplish such a feat. Last yearís bash was lame. I mean we had fun and all, but the music was not what it should have been and the crowd was not exactly our speed. So this year, we worry that we are not going to have an appropriately exciting send off into the new Millennium. Personally, I worry that whatever high-heeled creation I slap on my feet is going to leave me crippled after a full night of shakiní my thang on the dance floor.

The cousins and I have discussed possibilities: a cruise; a house party or a nightclub; perhaps a jazz club or even a road-trip to NYCís Madison Square Garden where we can watch the apple drop in great style while deflecting the drunken overtures of fellow revelers. We realize that the cheapest we can bring in the new millennium for is $100.00, not counting the dress, the drinks, and other related expenses. But seeing as how itís the millennium and not any old ordinary new year, we probably have to shell out $120.00 or more just for the privilege of entering through the portals of any worthwhile establishment.

Then of course there are the parents. You canít very well leave them at home, disgruntled lumps on the couch, silently watching Dick Clarkís Ogelvie-brown hairdo as he excitedly pontificates on the virtues of the coming millennium (while the parents silently wonder if the end of the world is scheduled for the Western calendar or do we really have another seven years before maíibel and awlo-nífas make us all history in the worst possible way). So, the cousins and I discussed at length how to deal with the progenitor question as the new millennium continues to hurtle towards us at full speed. Perhaps a nice family dinner somewhere in DC or on one of those floating Potomac restaurants from where we can watch fireworks shoot into the cityís back lit sky. At $100+ per person, we wondered idly if it would be worth it to try to make it to a nightclub afterwards for an age-appropriate party session where we could gyrate to some primitive beat Ė sans the rounded eyes of the progenitors making distressingly inaccurate speculations as to the level of our maturity and sense of rhythm.

Itís not even about making life-changing resolutions for the coming year. Who wants to face the reality of life when we can rest comfortably on the momentous laurels of being amongst the few billion in human history who have lived to see the transition from one millennium to the next. After all, weíre only the second set to do so (if we donít get tangled up in the technicality of our ancestors, the Abyssinians, who make our Y2K redundant). Naturally, we disengage from active ruminations over how we can make the world a better place for all humankind and disregard with practiced ease the reasons why we donít volunteer at the local Ethiopian Community Center or why we are not a Big Brother or Big Sister to some needy Abesha kid or why we avoid the political process that might make our American neighborhood literacy program more viable than it is.

Areh wodezia!

Thatís the new millennium waiting for us around the corner, damn it! What else is one supposed to do but pull out all the stops and concentrate all efforts into having the best, most stupendous, outrageously outstanding time of oneís life? Hey, this comes around but once in a lifetime, if that. I, for one, plan on having the time of my life.

Okay, let me rephrase: I was planning on it. That was until I read the SELEDA-slam on the Ethiopian new yearís celebration excesses. Haysus! It was funny, Iíll guarantee you that, and I laughed, behodey iyaleqesku for those unlucky dehoch who were barred from enjoying the celebration with their wealthier counterparts. How could they? I silently accused the flagrantly rich. Then right on the heels of my self righteous indignation came the more honest: how could they not? It was the Ethiopian new year, for crying out loud. What do we expect Ė that they celebrate it with nifro ina buna? The haves back home always seem less kind, especially when viewed through the clinically distant magnifying glass of the mostly fortunate, seemingly altruistic occidental society of the transplanted.

But I ask you: why the holier-than-thou act? Are we not the mojas accusing the royalty of excesses of CHoma Ė if I may paraphrase a popular adage?

I came to this hardly flattering but honest conclusion about myself when one of my cousinís asked me if I were willing to stay home on new yearís eve this year in obscure solidarity with those who could not celebrate the addis amet, or any day of the year, back home. I thought about it for two (very short) beats, and I came back with a resolute: No. (Itís still echoing in my ear.)

While the SELEDA-slam definitely put the frein on my cyber-serfing for the A-List spot in DC where I could happily add to my credit card debt in honor of Y2K Ė alas, it did not turn off the engine.

Letís face a few facts here: as members of the growing Ethiopian Diaspora, weíre a thousand times better off here than anywhere else in the world, at least financially speaking. We are happily settling back into the comfortably padded chaise-longue of our existence amongst the middle class of America, with our eyes fixed ambitiously on the doorway to the upper-middle class and beyond. So, when the time comes to meshager from one century, nay, one millennium to the next, damn if Iím going to do it from my apartment, trying to catch the ChilanCHil of a distant display of fireworks set off by people who are not worrying about the starving Communists in China!

Of course, personally, I think that Iíll be in an even better financial position to have an even better time on the eve of the year 2001. Maybe, I could even mark the event by making a long overdue pilgrimage to Ethiopia. Iíll go to Addis where I can have a mind-blowing time at the Sheraton (the Taj Mahal of all luxury hotels) for a mere 100 to 200 birr - which is what, $12 to $25? No sweat, man. I could party forever, if I could make that mental leap over the twisting guilt in my guts because of the disadvantaged thousands salivating outside those hand-wrought iron gates.After all, is it not better to spend money in the Ethiopian economy than to fatten the fatted calf of the U.S. economy? I know, I know, twisted logic and all, but really when you think about it, it does make sense, doesnít it? But, unfortunately, it does nothing to assuage the pain of guilt in my heart. It sure would be easier on the old psyche to blow a few hundred dollars here in the States, donít you think? No hungry little kids with eyes wide enough to drown in stretching out their hands in noisy demand for your money while you try to make sure that they donít soil the tightly-woven, cotton-shot-through-with-silver neTela of your new a la mode qímis.

Whichever way you spin it, the story is the same. Either you have your fun and be damned the rest of the world, or you forego your festivities and hold a solitary candle-lit vigil in your home, wallowing in heightened bourgeois guilt as you remember those but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I members of your brethren who canít party "like itís 1999."

Oh, the guilt. The GUILT! Could any emotion run deeper or more true in any Ethiopian-bred heart?

So, it was, still writhing in my self-inflicted, over developed sense of social responsibility, I came up with the idea that might forever mark me as the Marie Antoinette of my Ethio-bubble world.

I would, I told my cousin, make a cash donation (matching dollar for dollar what I would spend on my festivities on the eve of the year 2000) to an Ethiopian charitable organization back in Ethiopia. ANDÖAnd I would challenge my counterparts in the Diaspora to do the same. This may make me seem little better than Marie Antoinette with her ill-timed comment about feeding the peasants cake prior to her untimely demise under the super-seif of Weizero Guillotine. I wonder, did her fellow aristocracy laugh at her cleverly naïve solution, or did they simply stare at her, utterly horrified?

I do hope that I garner a better, more positive reaction. There is no sense in railing against those who are doing just what we are planning on doing, even if the Chuhet of our guilt-ridden conscience will be muted by distance. So, why not turn our celebration into the possibility of a future for those back home who cannot do for themselves?

We could, I suppose, try to turn our atrocities of excess into something positive. So, I hope you will join me from wherever you are on January 2, 2000 (after youíve had ample time to recover from ringing in the new millennium) as I add up the receipts of the cost of my celebration on December 31, 1999 and prepare to make a cash donation to an orphanage, a clinic, or a vocational training school for Ethiopiaís growing number of street children and prostitutes.

And, in case youíre wondering, this is not a suggestion Ė itís a challenge.