Coptic millennium celebrations fall flat for some Ethiopians

The Associated Press / September 7, 2007

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: As Ethiopia approaches its third millennium, the most popular joke in the capital city goes like this: How do you say "millennium" in Amharic?

The pun of an answer "menem yellum," which means "there is nothing" sums up how many in Ethiopia's largest city feel about the festivities for Ethiopia's 2,000th year, which begins Tuesday on Ethiopia's Coptic calendar.

With the calendar of events changing and security concerns in the capital reaching fever pitch, many ordinary Ethiopians feel the remaining celebrations which include a concert with tickets that cost an average Ethiopian nearly two months' salary at 1,500 birr (nearly US$170) are beyond their reach.

The Black Eyed Peas, a hip-hop act from Los Angeles, will perform Tuesday night at a brand new, US$20 million temporary exhibition hall built by Ethiopia's richest man, and the Hilton hotel will host a US$100-and-up gala.

"The millennium, it's nothing for me," said Mulugeta Demssie, 23, a taxi driver, who said he thought the concert should be free, or at least cheaper.

"Because I don't have money, I can't enjoy it."

Organizers at the Millennium Secretariat point out that some celebrating will be free, notably several cultural events at a stadium in central Addis Ababa and at a field just northeast of the city center. The concert, secretariat spokesman Mulugeta Aserate said, will be broadcast live on television and on a big screen at the stadium, which holds upward of 15,000 people.

As late as July, millennium organizers were touting a 10-hour, US$1.2 million free-to-the-public concert in Meskel Square, the city's central landmark. That has instead been shifted to the exhibition hall, where Ethiopian acts will join the Black Eyed Peas.

"This has been the talk of the town for the last 10 days, that everything has been canceled, everyone is saying 'menem yellum,'" Mulugeta said. "If you start listening to speculators and gossipmongers, you'll go out of your mind.

"No event of the millennium council has been canceled. Full stop," Mulugeta said. "Name me one event that has been canceled."

The concert in Meskel Square, he said, wasn't canceled, but ruled out while still just a suggestion. Another event scheduled for Meskel Square, a four-week culinary exposition, also never got off the ground.

"Meskel Square is an open space," Mulugeta said. "To stage a 10-hour musical extravaganza in Meskel Square will cause nightmares for the security men."

Security concerns have been cited for a plan to kill tens of thousands of stray dogs in the Ethiopian capital, with authorities saying they want to eradicate rabies before the millennium festivities.

That followed an announcement by a government-backed private organization that it would move thousands of homeless people from the capital to the countryside ahead of the celebration, promising to help them with food, shelter and medicine.

The Great Ethiopia Run, a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) race organized by distance legend Haile Gebrselassie that has drawn 30,000 runners, has been postponed because of unspecified security concerns ahead of the celebrations. The race, originally scheduled for Sunday, was moved to November.

As to the high-priced tickets for the main millennium event?

"We have costs to cover. Those who are not able to pay 1,500 birr will be able to watch it from the comfort of their home or in a festive environment," Mulugeta said.

Many Ethiopians say they're planning to celebrate at home with their families. Tigist Assefa, 29, a saleswoman, said she'd don traditional dress and prepare a traditional meal for her affordable fete at home.

"The cost of living is very annoying these days," she said.