They arrived by foot and taxi, Metro and minivan, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Americans gathering beneath the Washington Monument, some waving their country’s flag, others dressed in the traditional gauzy-white clothing of their homeland. Tourists wandered by and wondered what was happening. World Cup? Political demonstration?
Not this time.
In what organizers called one of the region’s largest gatherings of Ethiopians, thousands of people came from Virginia, Maryland, the District and several other East Coast areas Sunday evening to celebrate a holiday that falls on Sept. 11: the Ethiopian New Year.
“Happy 2005!” Asratie Asfaw Teferra, 49, said proudly — the ancient African calendar still used in Ethiopia being seven to eight years behind the Gregorian calendar. In addition to the new year, the festival commemorates the end of the country’s long rainy season, when the sun comes out and the fields fill with yellow daisies.
In the United States, there is neither a rainy season nor flower-filled fields — and Tuesday’s date has inauspicious connotations. But that hasn’t quelled the desire of Ethiopian Americans to be embraced by their adopted land. They want to be an ethnic group that matters. They want to belong. And that means they want a holiday.
“We envision it like Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day and the Chinese New Year,” said Teferra as he helped unload a station wagon filled with injera, the staple bread of Ethiopia. “Maybe in the past we were an insular culture. But now we run businesses and restaurants, we vote, we’re citizens. We’re part of the cultural tapestry of America.”
The new-year celebration is the latest and most prominent event in an effort to raise the political and economic profile of Ethiopian Americans in the D.C. area.The organizers hope to stage an annual Ethiopian New Year celebration at the Monument along with events like Saturday’s Ethiopian Expo at the Capital Hilton, which is designed to promote Ethiopian businesses in the country.
Having an Ethiopian New Year in the United States could boost Ethiopian businesses in the same way that St. Patrick’s Day does for Irish American businesses and could help raise funds for development projects in Ethiopia, some say.
On Sunday, American and Ethiopian flags were unfurled. Traditional Ethiopian music filled the cool evening air on the Mall. Vendors sold “I Love Ethiopia” baseball hats and English-language children’s books explaining Ethiopian holidays; one computer company demonstrated “the world’s first Amharic computer keyboard,” referring to the country’s official language. And beneath the Monument, thousands waved yellow, green and red glow sticks — the colors of the Ethiopian flag.
There was a prayer service for peace in their home country after the death last month of longtime ruler Meles Zenawi.
Teferra, dressed in a T-shirt made for the Ethiopian New Year, raced around the site talking to U.S. Park Police personnel and ensuring that the speaker systems worked. He works in international trade and lives in Hyattsville with his wife and their five children, all adopted from Ethiopia. He also runs the nonprofit Books for Africa, which seeks to end “the book famine on the continent.” His friends call him “Washington’s busiest Ethiopian American.”