Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Africa Cup: In which I join the rest of the world in going football crazy

What I should be doing tonight: writing yet another recommendation letter, working on a big grant proposal, revising a manuscript, outlining an invited paper, putting together a new professional talk. I fondly long for my first trip to Africa, when computers and the internet were extremely difficult to access, it was ok to be out of contact for months at a time, and you had no responsibilities other than staying alive and eventually returning to the US…

What I am going to do tonight: watch football.

Those of you who know me well will be surprised to that it is not American football I am watching (although I’m still optimistic about finding someplace to watch the Super Bowl). I’ve finally joined the rest of the world in appreciating the sport of football that is actually played with the feet (i.e. soccer, to the American audience). In this case, it’s the Africa Cup, the yearly tournament of 16 nations. Four nations per group, with two teams advancing to the next round, then single elimination to the final. This year, the tournament is in South Africa, and Ethiopia is participating for the first time in over 30 years!

It’s undeniable that having a vested interest in a team makes watching a sport much more interesting. There’s a parallel between my feelings about the Africa Cup and March Madness – you fill out your bracket, and all of a sudden you go from never having heard of Butler to cheering for them like your life depends on it, or at least two points and an upset bonus in your pool. I don’t have any money riding on these games, and my own national pride is not at stake, but living here and watching how excited this football-crazed nation is, it’s impossible not to be anxious before and during the games and put all your energy into cheering for the Waliyas (name of the men’s national team, meaning “Ibex.” On a side note, it should be a delight to paleo-aficionados everywhere that the women’s national team is named “Lucy”).

Although Ethiopia is a football-crazy country, the national team has been atrocious for as long as most people can remember. My contemporaries were not even born the last time Ethiopia played in the Africa Cup. Before the start of the second game, Gelachew explained to me how nervous he was. I could relate; his words echoed those I would have spoken in the build up to the 2007 Super Bowl, the first time my beloved Bears made it since I was four years old. Unlike my sister, I do not have vivid memories from such a young age, so I could just as well not have been born the last time da Bears were in the Game. And this is one of the things I love so much about sports – it brings people together, allows those of very different backgrounds to feel the same emotions, and reminds us that despite our differences, we humans are all fundamentally the same.

During the first game, versus last year’s champ Zambia, an older man sitting next to me said that this was the first goal they’d scored since he was in 4th grade. And, wow, did the crowd at the bar I was in, and in Addis in general, go crazy after that first goal! That game ended in a 1-1 draw, which was especially spectacular since the Ethiopian goalie was sent off and the Waliyas had to play a man down for more than half the game. Mesfin and I were watching in Bole, the hip part of town, and the streets were crazy afterwards – cars gridlocked and honking, people running around the cars whistling, yelling, and singing, huge crowds around Edna Mall watching replays on the big outdoor screen. Sadly, game two did not end as well – when the Burkina Faso goalie got sent off early in the second half with Ethiopia down 1-0, and the crowd went wild, but in the half hour that followed, Ethiopia gave up three more goals for an embarrassing 4-0 defeat. Not to make excuses or anything, but Ethiopia did lose their best player to injury early in the game. Tonight is the last match of pool play, and Ethiopia needs to beat Nigeria and have Zambia lose to Burkina Faso to advance. Tall order, but Roze and I will be in the crowd, hoping for the best!

And, since you’re not a real fan unless you’re wearing your allegiance, my friend Mesfin surprised me with a jersey before the second game. I shrieked in delight, and changed as soon as we got to the walled off parking lot where there was a modicum of privacy. On a humorous note, it is size XXXL, but I’m sure that’s because it’s actually a children’s jersey. I’m not that fat, even by Ethiopian standards, right? Proudly wearing it again today and looking forward to the game tonight!!!


Timkat: A Wild Ride through a Sea of Ethiopians

Timkat crowd outside the Green Valley
Timkat crowd outside the Green Valley
One of these things is not like the other one...
One of these things is not like the other one…

While Christmas involves church services and family gatherings, Timkat (Epiphany, “baptism” in Amharic) is all about spectacle: parades, music, dancing, and most of all enormous crowds of people pouring down the street following the Arks. In the late afternoon on Timkat Eve (January 19th), the Tabot, the model of the Ark of the Covenant found on every Ethiopian altar, is carried from the church to an open field for the people to see and pay their respects. The priests carrying the Tabot are dressed in lavish robes and sheltered by ornate umbrellas.

Priests carrying the Tabot
Priests carrying the Tabot
Another Tabot-toting priest
Another Tabot-toting priest

Once the Tabot reaches the field, there is plenty of time for praying, singing, dancing, ululating, and a joyous releasing of birds (ideally doves, but I’m pretty sure some were just pigeons). Services continue for the entire evening. On Timkat day, there is a ritual reenactment of baptism in remembrance of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. In some places, like Lalibela and Gondar, people fully immerse in water – more usually, though, the priests bless and “sprinkle” water on the congregation. Catholic priests sprinkle; Ethiopian priests douse, based on my one observation of the ceremony in the soccer field across from the Green Valley hotel. After the baptism, it’s time for the Arks to return to the churches, and the second parade begins.

The National Museum, where I work, is less than a block from St. Mary’s Church and the Pope’s House, which means that it is an excellent, albeit crowded, choice of Timkat parade. (Ethiopia’s patriarch died around the same time as the prime minister last year, and a new one has not yet been appointed. Tekie told me that there is a dispute between the Church in Ethiopia and the Diaspora, and it is uncertain when things will be resolved.) Friday afternoon, we anxiously awaited the start of the parade. Without doubt, my favorite part of the parade is the running around of the men with the red carpets (see photo). Bonnie and I have decided that it must be part of the tradition that they don’t know exactly what to do and end up putting the carpet down in the wrong place, rerolling it, hurrying off to another wrong place, unrolling, rerolling, and etc. I don’t envy them the job of hauling around those heavy rolls!!


Once the carpet is in place, the parade can continue.  There are musicians, groups of holy men and women in white or brightly colored robes, priests with processional crosses, and finally the priests with the Tabot, sheltered by umbrellas. As the Tabot got close to us, we were swept up in a sea of people, following the procession. And then it was impossible to do anything except follow along upstream, gradually pushing our way to the edge of the crowd. Forget personal space. Once we reached the safety of the museum, I convinced the boys that we actually hadn’t seen enough and should take a back way up to Sidist Kilo to see more of the parade. They agreed, and we did, and encountered a different parade. Then, it was time to head home, where there was yet another parade, which we watched from the Green Valley balcony.

instruments boys with sticksamist kilo timkat

Multiple parades converge at Sidist Kilo
Multiple parades converge at Sidist Kilo

Since apparently that still wasn’t enough for me, I took Rahel and Konjit up on their offer to go to the St. Michael’s day festivities on Sunday. Konjit loaned me a nitella, the lightweight shawl that women wear, and I was so grateful for the sun protection it provided, as we spent the best part of the day out in full sun. Similar processions to Timkat, but there are only four St. Michael’s churches in Addis, so the entire city pours out to just those locations. What a crowd! I have never, ever been surrounded by so many people and so pushed and prodded. Getting through the gate to St. Michael’s grounds was particularly terrifying. The crowd compressed, I had people pushing me from every direction, and I was convinced that if I lost my balance, there would be no getting up again… I do want to add, though, that it was also a very excited and respectful crowd, and I felt far less stared at than I do on a normal day walking around Addis.

St. Michael's Church on the east side of Addis
St. Michael’s Church on the east side of Addis

Before I sign off, one other fun note: We took a break from the sun and the crowd to have lunch with Rahel’s family. Her uncle is a huge sports fan and had lived in Chicago, so we discussed Chicago Bears teams past. I very rarely get culture shock anymore, but going from the giant parade to talking about the greatness of Gale Sayers was nearly too much for me.

Christmas, Round Two, Addis Ababa Style

It’s nearly Timkat – Epiphany – and I’m just now sitting down to write about Christmas. At this rate, I am going to be one of those bloggers who set up the blog, write a couple entries at the beginning, and then leave it to wither for months on end. Peer pressure requested to make sure this doesn’t happen!

Santa Although the date is different, January 7 vs December 25, Ethiopian Christmas traditions are very similar to American traditions. The morning is spent at church, and the afternoon and evening eating and drinking copious amounts with family and friends. Houses, restaurants, and other businesses have colorfully decorated trees, generally fake (although see picture) since Eucalyptus quite frankly doesn’t say Christmas to anyone. Until Christmas day, brightly wrapped presents await under the tree. Santa Claus decorations abound. Incidentally, I now live next to the SantaClaus school – wonder how many days it will take until I run out of bad Jay Cutler jokes as I walk by…

In my part-Italian family, we do the (almost) seven seafood dinner. This involves calling around to local groceries to find the cheapest yet freshest lobster. In Ethiopia, the days before Christmas and Timkat are marked by an influx of live chickens and sheep, plus a few cows and goats, into the city. For several years now, our colleague Mulugeta has bought his family’s sheep at our field site and carried it back to Addis either in the back or on the roof of one of the vehicles. Those who are not lucky enough to buy fresh sheep in the countryside and do not own cars carry their sheep on the local taxis (what Ethiopians call the minivans that are the staple of public transportation; equivalent to the Tanzania dalla dalla or the Kenyan matatu). One year, Aaron and I got a full Christmas Eve afternoon’s worth of enjoyment siting in an outdoor café watching the people and sheep pour out of the local taxis.

The chickens and their eggs become doro wat, literally chicken sauce, the most traditional of Ethiopian foods. The sheep becomes tibs (delicious roasted meat chunks), kitfo (very fresh, predominantly raw, spiced ground meat), and a cooked, spiced, ground meat dish for which I don’t know the name but am quite fond. We were invited to Christmas dinner with Tekie, Bonnie’s PhD student, and his family and got to sample all of these dishes, and more! Below are pictures of the full spread, and my delicious plate. Beverages, from bottom are pineapple araki (liquor), tej (Ethiopian honey wine), and tella, and you can see the preparation for the coffee ceremony in the background. The coffee ceremony will get its own post, at some point. On my plate, you can see the food up close: injera underneath everything, the egg and chicken of the doro wat, a pile of kitfo, some cheese, the yummy spinach dish, and Christmas bread. While Ethiopian restaurant food will never be my favorite, home cooked meals are fast becoming so! And, I admit it, I genuinely like kitfo. Hopefully, this will not be my downfall.

Christmas dinner 2 Christmas dinner 1

So, after a delicious meal, lots of araki, and 3 cups of coffee, it was time for Tekie’s nieces to sing and dance for us. They are 6 and 3, and as you can see in the group picture (taken by Jordan Noret), absolutely adorable! Plus, terrific dancers already – as I’ve hypothesized for years, Ethiopians are born knowing how to dance.

Christmas group shot

Then, it was on to the next party, at our friend Mesfin’s, for dessert, Scotch, and more dancing. Americans dance far too little, in my opinion. From now on, I hope all my parties will turn into dance parties by their close!

Phew, done just in time for Timkat!

Ringing in 2013 Debre Birhan style

Ellen’s Rule to Live by #1: Always include some easily accomplished items on your list of life goals. And make them as silly as possible.

First ride in the Bajej "clown car"

It takes a lot of time, dedication, sacrifice, and pain to get your work in National Geographic (check), complete a Tough Mudder (check – thanks, Harmony), climb Kilimanjaro (later this year?!?), or get those other big, important items off the bucket list. But the feeling of accomplishmentafter knocking off some of those small, silly items provides a temporary, yet not to be underestimated, high. Especially if you’re an adrenaline junkie like me. That’s why I aspire to be a mascot (check – U of C’s Phoenix) and ride a camel (one day, one day…). After several trips to rural parts of Ethiopia, I decided that I need to ride in a Bajej (pictured above, courtesy of Jordan Noret) before I die. I do not want to forever regret not taking advantage of the abundance of Bajejes (is that how you make it plural? Am I even spelling it right?) and lack of anything else to do during my Gambela “vacation.” Luckily, though, the Bajej industry has taken off in Debre Birhan, the town ~150 km northeast of Addis where we based for our fieldwork this year. My nickname for the Bajej is a clown car, for obvious reasons (on our way to the araki bar, we had four people plus the driver). Ethiopians call them “Al Qaeda” because of their tendency to blow up.

New Year’s Day afternoon, Jordan and I found ourselves with no work to do, so we hit the streets of Debre Birhan for adventure. First off, we visited the local prison for a little shopping. In the US, inmates make license plates; in Ethiopia, they make cloth, beaded goods, and other handicrafts. Then, we meandered the main street, stopping in every store to look for cheese (fail), and caught a bit of a soccer game. After traversing the length of town, we obviously had to catch a clown car back to our hotel. I easily talked the driver down to half price, and excitedly climbed in. To my surprise, although in retrospect it makes perfect sense, the Bajej is a converted motorcycle.

So 1st dayof the 2013 and one item off the bucket list. Full success! Next life goal: learn how to drive a Bajej! Next post: Ethiopian Christmas, which is tomorrow, and we have two invitations!