Ethiopians gather beneath Washington Monument to celebrate their new year
They arrived by foot and taxi, Metro and minivan, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Americans gathering beneath the Washington Monument, some waving their country’s flag, others dressed in the traditional gauzy-white clothing of their homeland. Tourists wandered by and wondered what was happening. World Cup? Political demonstration?
Not this time.
But tonight, he’s focused on turning the Ethiopian New Year into a popular American holiday. He has joined up with an eclectic group of leaders from the Ethiopian diaspora: Ellias Fullmore, a dreadlocked half-Ethiopian, half-African American hip-hop artist and video-game creator; Alemayehu Haile, a soft-spoken D.C. mental health counselor; and Anteneh Demelash, a gregarious banker. They call themselves the Ethiopian African 2000 Millennium Group, and together they raised $50,000 to stage the event, whose sponsors include Ethiopian Airways and Western Union, both visceral connections to the old country.
Washington is the perfect headquarters for the effort to make the Ethiopian New Year an annual event, the organizers say, because the Ethiopian population in the region has grown to 200,000 and the area is home to more African expatriates than any other place in the country, according to 2010 Census data.
A time-consuming calling
One night last week, Demelash, Teferra and other members of the Millennium Group crowded around a table for a strategy session at the Etete restaurant in the District’s Little Ethiopia.
Hosting the event at the Monument means that the group must have dozens of meetings with the National Park Service, which has to approve every detail. This entails, for instance, explaining the importance of serving Ethiopian honey wine because of its cultural significance as a celebratory new-year drink.
“At the Cherry Blossom festival, the Japanese got to serve their beer,” says Demelash, his eyebrows raised. “We did our homework. We know.”
They write letters to parks officials about the necessity of, say, lighting bamboo torches — or chibos — in a high-security area.
“Lighting chibo is critical for the holiday,” Teferra says. “Because it symbolizes the passing of seasons from darkness to light. People in the villages do this and sing afterwards, lighting up the countryside.”
All the explaining is a source of pride rather than irritation because securing the Monument is the key to making this holiday work, they say.
“It’s this assertion of our Ethiopian-American-ness, how much we respect our adopted country,” Teferra says.
“Did anyone get the letter from Obama’s people?” Fullmore calls out. At 34, he’s the youngest in the group. Because Fullmore understands both cultures, he serves as the group’s de facto liaison, simplifying cultural rituals and explaining the Ethiopian New Year to organizations like President Obama’s campaign.
“We got the Obama message to be read at the Washington Monument! And his campaign even put in Happy New Year — ‘Melkam Enkutatash’ in Amharic,” Demelash cheers. “We knew Obama sent a similar message to the Persians in Virginia during their New Year! We deserve that recognition, too.”
Demelash has his laptop open, and he’s fielding cellphone calls from Ethiopian American DJ Mamush about the event’s playlist and sound system.
“It’s like an obsession, a calling,” Demelash smiles, adding that he’s so dedicated to making the Ethiopian New Year an American holiday that he handed Oprah Winfrey a flier about the holiday when she was walking out of Howard University in 2007 after getting an honorary degree.
“Even my father thinks I work too much on it.”
A few hitches, but a good turnout
During the New Year, Ethiopians around the world attend prayer services, visit with family, exchange gifts and host colorful processions. Village children go door-to-door handing out fresh flowers to neighbors.
But at the foot of the Monument on Sunday, Ethiopian Americans gathered with their children, who played soccer, ran on the nation’s lawn and danced to music by traditional Ethiopian performers. Many American parents who adopted from Ethiopia brought their children for a dose of their home country’s culture.
Because this is America, there was lots of stuff for sale. Because this is Washington, there were voter-registration booths and a campaign station run by African Americans for Obama.
And because launching a new holiday can be a tricky business, there were a few hitches. Saturday’s rainstorm delayed the setup, a triathlon blocked traffic for several hours and a health inspector from the National Park Service turned away some of the food — meats and Ethiopian stews — because it didn’t meet Park Service requirements. Using a special thermometer, he found that the food was just a few degrees too hot. Caterer Askale Shiferaw, who had been cooking for two days, burst into tears. But in the end, she was allowed to bring in two trays of lentils and greens that were the right temperature.
“It’s all part of hosting an event this size at the Washington Monument. But it’s worth it. We want to be a part of American culture,” said Mackie Paulos, 35, wearing an “I love injera” T-shirt. She came from Ethiopia in 1995 and lives in Falls Church.
“The Ethiopian New Year is a great holiday. It can work. It has to work.”