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Ancient Ethiopian Culture Crosses Millennium

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Ancient Ethiopian Culture Crosses Millennium

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Ancient Ethiopian Culture Crosses Millennium

Ancient Ethiopian Culture Crosses Millennium

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An ancient culture leaps into the new millennium. Ethiopia follows a calendar from ancient Roman times. And according to that calendar, it is just New Year's Day, in the year 2000.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as we said a moment ago, this debate is over a country where it's Y2K all over again. Ethiopia follows an old calendar from Roman times, which is just one of the ways that an ancient nation stands apart.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins has this report.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Don't even try to be funny. The Ethiopians have already heard the jokes. Aren't you all seven years late? Does this mean we're all seven years younger?

Well, hardy har-har. For Ethiopians, time is a serious matter.

Mr. GETA MEKONNEN (Business Owner): The whole country oppressed with two calendars at the moment. Often I think people - when people make an appointment, they say Ethiopian time or Ferengi time - like foreigners, Ethiopians, Ferengi.

THOMPKINS: Geta Mekonnen owns a graphic art company in Addis Ababa. He says Ethiopians know full well what month and year it is in the rest of the world. But Orthodox Christians in particular here conduct their lives and their businesses by their own count.

To know what year it is often depends on which language they're speaking, Amharic or English.

Mr. MEKONNEN: The (unintelligible) calendar. They're my dates. And if I'm writing in English I use the European calendar. So (unintelligible) every single day, we (unintelligible) in both languages and both calendars.

THOMPKINS: Ethiopians also count daylight hours differently. There are 12 hours for when the sun is shining and there are 12 hours for when the sun has gone to bed. So 6:00 a.m. in Paris or Milwaukee or Los Angeles would be midnight in Ethiopia. And midnight in Paris or Milwaukee or Los Angeles, well, here they call that hour 6:00 p.m. Understand? It has nothing to do with changes in time zones. It's more about a change of perspective. And speaking of a change of perspective...

Mr. ZERIHUN MULATU (Ethiopian Orthodox Church Millennium Celebration): One thousand years in human calculation is considered one day by God. Two thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ, it means, in the eyes of God, you know, two days.

THOMPKINS: That's Zerihun Mulatu. He's organizing a year-long millennium celebration for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Mulatu takes the long view, way past the Julian calendar and back to creation.

Mr. MULATU: You know, we are living in a calculation or a calendar of God. Some people can think this is given by the government - the millennium - but it's not. It's given by God.

THOMPKINS: New Year's Eve in Addis Ababa looked pretty much like any other day in this rambling city more than a mile above sea level. It's the beginning of spring here, and children and their parents carried yellow daisies and sweet grass along the wide-open boulevards of the city. Men held hands walking down the street, as they often do in this part of the world, but the sheep looked nervous.

That's because most people here slaughter a sheep on holidays or a chicken, but more often than not, a sheep. At this roadside market, about 200 sheep stood around looking at each other, and there's been nary a peep out of them for some time now. Listen. Lucky for them, business is down. The shepherds here say that belts are tight this millennium.

(Soundbite of crowd)

THOMPKINS: At sunset, the national arena filled for one of the free concerts scheduled around the city. Many of the event organizers had hoped for big-named American acts to dominate the celebrations. They had wanted the likes of Beyonce and Janet Jackson. The Black Eyed Peas were playing across town, where the tickets were about $170 U.S. apiece, more than two months pay for many here. But the stadium crowd seemed crazy about their own native-born musicians, and one in particular called Teddy Afro.

(Soundbite of singing)

THOMPKINS: Little do the crowd know that somewhere stage right, perhaps the most beautiful girl in all of Ethiopia sat waiting to make her debut. She is Senaid Mulugetta(ph), 18 years old and voted millennium speaker by her youth league. She sat in the stands practicing her speech in a white spun-cotton gown and a silk gardenia in her hair.

Ms. SENAID MULUGETTA (Ethiopian Millennium Speaker): (Ethiopian spoken) I wish to have a happy and hopeful millennium for our Ethiopian people and for our African people too. That's because this is not Ethiopian millennium only, only. This is African millennium also.

THOMPKINS: Mulugetta did not know exactly when she was scheduled to speak but seemed to be enjoying herself all the same. To be bright and gifted and 18 years old - on New Year's Eve, no less - time was on her side.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Addis Ababa.

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