Millennium relapse
23 June 2007

When the rest of the world was waking up to news that the twin towers had been destroyed, most Ethiopians would have been waking up slightly groggy, probably on their mother’s couch and more than likely still dressed in their finest clothes from the party the night before.


Recent events may have designated September 11 a worldwide day of commemoration around the world, but for Ethiopians September 11 has always been the first day of their new year, according to the peculiar Coptic calendar which their country alone uses.


And this year more than ever is cause for celebration, for September 11 2007 will not only be the first day of Ethiopia’s 13 month cycle, but the beginning of the third millennium, the year 2000.


A national millennium celebration committee has been formed, and plans for major celebrations and commemorative events are underway. In Aksum, the former capital of an ancient civilisation, villagers will re-erect one of their famous obelisks, plundered by the occupying Italians in 1937 and returned 24,748 days later.


Half a million visitors are expected. In Shashemane the resident Rasta community is expecting reinforcements of between 20 and 30,000 from Jamaica, and from America, 150,000 ex-pat Ethiopians and Ja Rule are stopping by to party like it’s 1999 (again).


Villagers in the Muslim walled city of Harar, former home of under-appreciated French poet Arthur Rimbaud in the 1880s and famous for its nightly hyena feeding, are giving the 16th Century city a new coat of white paint. They have slightly less time than the rest of the country, since their calendar is different again after branching off in Medieval times and will thus celebrate on 2 July.


The millennium may be seven and a half years late by the rest of world’s standards, but it is just in time to give Ethiopian tourism a much-needed boost. Events of the past two decades have somewhat tarnished its potential: a horrific famine and drought in 1984-85 broadcast haunting images to the world of flyblown kids with distended stomachs and of Tina Turner singing a duet with Mick Jagger in Spandex pants.


Then in 1999 a border dispute flared with former friendly neighbours Eritrea after a school bombing killed 55. The conflict sealed Ethiopia off from its sea port and the travelling consciousness of would-be tourists.


Little wonder then the government of Meles Zenawi is hoping to capitalise on the millennium to put Ethiopia back where it belongs in a positive tourism.


Its people too are naturally looking forward to the months of celebrations. A large billboard outside the Sheraton in Addis counts down the days (90 days and counting) amidst advertising the hotel’s gymnasium; while street vendors hawk ‘Ethiopian millinnium’ [sic] t-shirts , and local publications already dedicate reams of newsprint to millennium hype. Strangely quiet are the country’s computer programmers, who have been unable to generate the same hysteria befitting another looming Y2K crisis. 


But to say the people are enthusiastically preparing for the millennium is not to say the entire country entirely believes the government’s agenda in promoting it. The same government won a controversial election in May 2005, the implications of which opposition party members had plenty of time to contemplate in jail.


Friuw, a tour guide in Gonder who differs from his countrymen in being both unafraid to speak out in favour of free political speech and against God: “The people don’t like the government and they see the millennium as belonging to the government. Even though it will be really good for the country.”


Ethiopia’s Big Issue magazine, Abiy Guday, which employs 22 vendors selected from among Addis Ababa’s many impoverished, asked three writers to express their feelings about the upcoming event. “When was the last time you had a good time at anything organised by a committee?” asked one cynical student.


“Don’t bother checking the program. You know what is coming. Huge, carefully organised events. Long, long speeches. Every civic group will have a chance to have its say. Every government minister will have their five minutes speaking on ETV.” 


And while sporting an Ethiopian Millinium (it took me seven years to spell it correctly too) t-shirt is for the most part an excellent way to curry favour and good grace from the locals, it doesn’t work all the time.


In Gonder, a young man in the market place yelled out: “Why are you wearing  that t-shirt? The millennium is used by the government to kidnap the Ethiopian people. I think you’re a government spy.”

“Do I look like an Ethiopian to you?”

“The Government employs many foreigners.”


…And here was I just thinking it was a nifty t-shirt.