11 September 2012

happy new year! melkam addis amet!

You’ve probably heard of Chinese New Year. You may even know that Rosh Hashanah marks the passing of another year on the Jewish calendar. And seeing as we’re nearing our apocalyptic end in 2012, you’re likely well aware that the Mayans publish a different calendar every year featuring their hunkiest of tribesman. But did you know that Ethiopia follows an entirely different calendar than the rest of the world? It was news to me, too, and that’s just where the fun begins.

Just before heading out, someone referred to Ethiopia in an email as the “Land of 13 Months of Sunshine,” which I took to be nothing more than a metaphorical exaggeration utilized by the burgeoning tourist industry in the Cradle of Humanity. “Oh, hey, look at us. We have so much sunshine that we can’t even fit it into the standard 12 months,” is basically how I read it. Little did I know that Ethiopia really does, literally, recognize 13 months every year. 12 months comprised of exactly 30 days are followed by one bonus month of 5 days (6 days on leap years). If you ask me, Ethiopia got it right. 12 evenly distributed months and one extra batch of days makes a heck of a lot more sense than having to recite “30 days has September, April, June, and November. All the rest have 31, except for February, which has 28; except on leap years it has 29” every time you can’t remember how many days make up a given month.

The 13th month is called P’agume, which is a ton of fun to say. Make a soft “popping” sound for the “P” and follow with the “agume.” Go ahead. Try it. Just be sure to have a Kleenex handy to wipe the spit from your computer screen. This tasty linguistic nugget is brought to you by the Amharic “explosive,” which also comes in the S’, T’, Ch’, and K’ varieties. Nothing beats hearing an Ethiopian say T’ibs. It makes my day every time.

If that weren't enough, this New Year marks the passage from 2004 to 2005. So for all those looking for the fountain of youth, search no further. Hop on a plane and get yourself to Ethiopia, where you can shed a good 7-8 years off your age. Being 22 again is pretty sweet, I must say. Why the vast difference? It all has to do with discrepancies in calculating the birth of Christ. Go ahead and Google it to learn more. 

I’m sure by now you’re probably wondering when I’ll address the larger-than-usual elephant in the room. Dude…what’s up with Ethiopian New Year falling on September 11th? Don’t they know it’s one of the darkest days in American History? They do. And they’re very sympathetic to that, I promise you. Yesterday afternoon, over delicious bread and fresh coffee, my compound family told me of their experience on the day it happened; how they were celebrating their New Year as they always have, only to have it come to a screeching halt with such tragic news from across the Atlantic. But at the same time, they’ve been operating on this calendar for some 4,000 years, I don’t see them changing it any time soon. It really is pure coincidence that the “day our world stood still” is one of the most important days on the Ethiopian calendar, and has nothing to do with the Gregorian calendar. In fact, every once in a while (the year prior to a Gregorian leap year, if I understand it correctly) it falls on September 12th.

It really is a huge deal here. In many ways, it’s conceptually similar to that which most of the rest of the world celebrates on January 1st. The cross culture workbook distributed by the Peace Corps describes it as “a transition for the old to new and as a time to express hopes and dreams for the future.” Sweet! Resolutions mulligan! Score! The transition is both symbolic and literal, as the holiday is also seen as marking the shift from rainy season into harvest time. Also very similar to Western culture, the New Year is best celebrated in the company of friends and family. People have been crowding into mini buses from every corner of the country to arrive several days in advance of Ekutatash. Lucky for me the Ethiopians are quite hospitable toward foreigners, else I may have been stranded at the bus station the other day amidst the crowds making their way south. In the animal kingdom, it’s a terrible time to be a goat.

I’m incredibly stoked to celebrate the day with my counterpart and compound families, and give a “warm-wishes” call to my host family in Sagure. I’m well aware of the duality that will ever exist in my life when it comes to September 11th. Given the somber overtones of the day in the States, it will actually be nice to know that life is being lived on the complete opposite end of the spectrum in another part of the world. It’s more fitting than it might seem, really. While we, as Americans, mourn those we lost on 9/11, we also proclaim the day as a symbol of our collective resiliency in the face of mass tragedy. I’ll be damned if I’ve ever encountered a more resilient people than the Ethiopians.

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