11 September 2008

On the evening before the New Year, I found myself sitting on my back step, peeling a kilogram of garlic. My landlady had recruited me to help with the preparations for this most celebrated of Ethiopian holidays. (I have told myself that her recent comfort in assigning me chores is a positive thing, demonstrating that she considers me a member of the family, capable of contributing to life on the compound. Perhaps, though, she just likes having a source of free work.)

A stripe of cloudless sky was visible between the edge of my peaked tin roof and the tops of the renters’ quarters behind my house, where my landlady was busy cooking injera over a smoking wood fire. Gradually, as I stripped my way through the pile of pungent cloves, the hazy dusk gave way to the clear, sharp nighttime sky, glittering with a million dazzling points of light. I reflected that, due to quirks in the history of man’s accounting of time, on the day that my home country would pause to remember tragedies of the past, my host country would be earnestly looking to the promise of the future.

The whole week had been one of anticipation, with a series of town hall meetings, culture shows, dances, and concerts all leading up to the main event. The most notorious of these featured a local girl performing the topless dancing of the South Omo tribes, which was rather shocking in the context of my highly conservative Gojjami town. My landlady’s second-born son, a singer, was thrilled to finally have me in the audience at some of his band’s shows, and I was inevitably pulled up out of the crowd to dance at the last song of each one (fully clothed, thank you).

New Year’s Day itself began this morning with a heap of fried sheep meat for breakfast. I ate with my landlady and her singer son, the only one of her five boys who had stuck around to spend the holiday with their mother. Planning ahead for future piles of sheep meat to be consumed throughout the day, I ate as little as I could get away with and left for my female neighbor’s home. I colored pictures with the family’s three little children while a male cousin slaughtered the holiday sheep, spilling its blood on the grass-covered floor of the house, as prescribed by culture. We ate together (more fried sheep) and took silly pictures in the yard before I had to leave again to join my landlady for lunch (yet more fried sheep).

In the afternoon, I had second-lunch with KB’s compound family and managed to coat myself in spiced butter while holding their fussy, butter-haired infant. Then, in my final stop of the day, I visited my office’s secretary for evening coffee, bread, and, reluctantly, more sheep meat. Having only interacted with her in the rather male-dominated office setting, I was thankful for a chance to get to know her outside of work in a setting where she felt more comfortable opening up. We bonded over talk about husbands: When I asked if she was married, she replied laughingly in Amharic, “No, I don’t want a husband,” which is my trademark reply to this common inquiry (followed typically by more questions about why I don’t want a husband, to which I usually reply with some variation of, “Husbands are nothing but trouble.”) Thus, the holiday was successful if for nothing else than my discovery of the only single female my age in the whole of my town.

Now, back at home, I’ve settled down into sheep meat coma and am watching from my living room window as, again, the hazy dusk darkens into deepest ebony. The anticipated day is over, and tomorrow, all that will remain of the festivities will be a scattering of sheep bones in the street-side ditches and the smell of garlic that has seeped indelibly into the skin of my hands. Judging, however, from last year’s abundance of posters and cards that proclaimed the arrival of the Ethiopian New Millennium long after the venerated day had passed, the hope of a new year and a brighter future will carry on with bated breath.

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