Happy New Year! this post was written by Vulnerable Children Society President Arnica Rowan in September 2015 from Addis Ababa. Arnica and VCS Treasurer Tawnya Pattie’s took a break on their annual volunteer trip to check VCS projects to celebrate one of Ethiopia’s grandest holidays.
There are certain places that are famous for their celebrations. Last night, my friend Tawnya (VCS Treasurer) and I experienced the wonderment of the crowds, blaring music and smoky pyres of Meskel in Addis Ababa.
If you aren’t aware, Meskel is the celebration of the True Cross. It’s an Orothodox Christian holiday, celebrated across Ethiopia. The holiday is named after the Meskel flower, or maybe the Meskel flower is named after the holiday. In any case, the fields of yellow flowers only bloom this time of year, at the very end of the big rains. This is a picture of Mekel flowers from my Ethiopian art collection at home.
After a quiet morning of walking on the eve of Meskel, we took a cab up to our next guest house, on the north side of Addis Ababa. Vulnerable Children Society’s Teenage Sex Trade Worker Project is located on the far north west part of Addis Ababa, an hours drive from our former guest house (which was as close as we could get to the Love and Hope Centre in Kality.) We had picked the guest house for its location and recommendations, but when we arrived, we were less than impressed. The whole little place was surrounded by barred windows. But 5 minute later, we were off again, taxiing as close as we could to Meskel Square. We got dropped off just south of the Hilton out on the street, and joined the throngs walking down towards Meskel Square.
People were walking from all across the city. There were constant streams of families, young people with their friends, and couples decked out in fine clothes and natellas, the white scarves. Rich and poor, everyone had donned their best clothes for the occasion. We reached the square, and after being frisked by the military, climbed with the throng up onto the grassy slopes of the massive amphitheater. The usually busy traffic square was full of white robed priests, with expanses of pavement in between the groups from different churches. Tawnya and I had expected more milling about in the square, not an amphitheatre setup. After climbing up into the sloped grassy hills, we picked our way down a foot wide dirt path between sitting participants. After many minutes of stumbling walking, trying desperately not to step on anyone’s feet, we found two open spots next to the path, about a quarter of the way across the back. We sat down, much to the amusement of our fellow spectators. Amongst the thousands and thousands of people in the crowd, we only saw one ferengi (foreigner) family pass by, and a handful of ferengi individuals.
Our neighbours that we were squished into made us feel at home. The boy next to Tawnya kept taking cell phone pictures of the side of her head, shouting random English words he could think of. Rounds of shared laughter from the people nearby made us feel welcome. The sweet older lady beside me tried to strike up a conversation about the crowds. I couldn’t understand a word, despite my novice Amharic skills. I said “tinish Amharinga” (I only speak a little Amharic) and she laughed and replied the same. I don’t know where she was from, but her language wasn’t Amharic. I’m guessing she is Gurege, the tribe that is especially celebratory of Meskel. So we smiled and made little waving jokes with each other.
The crowds thickened and thickened. Whenever someone would stop on the little path in front of us, standing, a lady three spots down would hit them with her candle and tell them to move along. But after an hour of people filtering and filtering into the sitting crowd, the path was completely stopped up. I’ve never been so squished in my life. Even Tawnya, who once lived in India, said she’d never been in such a sitting jumble. There was one man with rough curly hair and a pressed dress shirt sitting on my boot toes in front of my knees, which were bunched up to my chest. He was leaning against my knees. Tawnya was glued to my left side, and I was sitting on a lady’s bare toes, that she had slipped out of her flip flops. I never saw her face, but my back was pressed to her knees. There was a twenty year old boy to my back right, whose knee up against my right shoulder. He softly and kindly asked about my Ethiopian and Meskel experience, encouraging me that soon we would be listening to some of the best “church music” in the world. I asked him if there was dancing. He laughs, and other laughed around us. “Priests don’t dance!” He guffawed. The lady to my right kept shooting me sidewise smiles. Both Tawyna and I felt so welcomed and included, despite not really knowing the details of what was happening.
After several hours of sitting, but still an hour or so from the huge pyre in the middle of the Meskel Square being lit, we had had enough. People were still picking their way, step by step, in between the seated crowd. I was starting to feel claustrophobic, and the trampled crowds on Mecca last week kept creeping into the periphery of my mind. The main event hadn’t even really started, and both of us had to go to the bathroom something terrible. So I asked Tawnya to leave. We speculated if it was even possible, then stood with difficulty. We said goodbye, and started picking our way, step by step, through the seated spectators. Once we reached the side, there was standing room only, and people were pressed so tightly against each other, it was impossible to move. I started using my Canadian charm, and with no care for personal space, switched spots with people, thanking them profusely in Amharic. I dragged Tawnya forward by the hand. She later said the crowds reminded her indeed of India.
At one point I flushed red with panic. We were trying to crawl uphill towards the entrance. The entire crowd was pushing and started to sway together, exclaiming in that communal tone “ohhh!” Panic raced through my mind, and then I saw a kind man several feet above me offering his hand. “Here sister!” He yelled. I grabbed his hand, grabbed Tawnya’s with my other hand, and hauled ourselves up towards the back wall.
It was easier after that, and we managed to break free of the throng as we hit the street. Much to our amazement, people were still flooding towards the square. We walked up and out against the crowds. Once and a while, a young man would shout exuberantly, “wrong way!” But we had had enough of being packed like sardines. We took in the rich cultural mood: absorbed the outfits, the families, the festive mood.
We stopped for a brief bathroom break at the Hilton. Yes, we totally exercised our ferenghi privilege on that one. I was desperate. We wondered… Where do people pee when they are stuck like canned oysters in a tin for hours on end? There certainly are no bathrooms in the square… hm.
We hailed a taxi and putted up to the university area. We got out at Arat kilo and looked for some supper. We ended up at a restaurant I had been to before during the day. It has two huge patios between the high rise buildings and the street. The music was blaring as we took a seat, as far as possible from the speakers. Blaring music is definitely one of those cultural things we’ve not quite gotten used to in Ethiopia. We ordered door wat (chicken stew,) shiro (spicy chickpea paste), a beer and a water, and it was less than $10. The best value meal we have had anywhere the whole trip! There was an MC who was constantly shouting advertisements into the mic for this occasion and other events at the restaurant, and breaking into dancing between sets. Six young dancers came onto the open area in front of the bar, scattered with grass, and did some of the best traditional dancing I have ever seen. Tawnya and I barely talked, but enjoyed watching the other diners. The cool thing about Ethiopia is that almost any occasion is for kids. Very one was drinking and eating, but there were families with small children, who occasionally joined the MC at the front, busting a move. Grandparents, parents, young men and couples were all celebrating together. That’s an Ethiopian custom I totally love.
After the restaurant, it was 15 minute walk to our new guest house. The streets were busy, with people walking. Just as we passed a military compound, the soldiers started to light the pyre, walking around it with torches, singing and dancing about. Further down the dark steer, neighbours in white natella were singing all together in someone’s yard, and they had laid out candles in the shape of a cross on the street. The pyre was covers in meskel flowers, waiting to be lit. We continued on, past a bar, and the streets got emptier. There were groups of young drunk men walking together, but less families, so I started to get nervous and beat a quick path for the guest house. Tawnya, as per usual, was non-plussed, but she has greater faith in humanity than I do.
Finally, uneventfully, we walked thought the locked gate, and up to our guest house apartment. The door was open, despite us having locked it when we left. Tawnya sat on the sofa, and looked at me. I looked at her. And within a minute, we decided to move. There was no guard, it was not a particularly fantastic neighbourhood, and we felt exposed with barred windows on all sides of our room.
So we made a late night taxi ride with a thankfully Muslim (aka sober) taxi driver back to our first guest house. After a half bottle of wine, some chocolate and deep sighs of relaxation, we fell to bed. A wonderful, eventful, exciting Meskel!