Millennium Festivities Expose Deep Rifts

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Taye Wogederes has booked traditional singers and dancers. He has hung a commemorative banner outside Lalibela, his Logan Circle Ethiopian eatery. All that remained, he said, was consent from authorities to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. this week -- to permit unfettered partying suitable for ushering in the third Ethiopian millennium.

"It's once in a lifetime," Wogederes said of the dawn of the year 2000, which, according to Ethiopia's ancient Coptic calendar, arrives Wednesday and is spawning bashes across the region starting this weekend. But inside the restaurant, customer Menlik Zewdu said he would skip them all, except perhaps a march protesting Ethiopia's government, whose human rights record has come under international fire.

"The people are still suffering from disease and dictatorship, there are still people in prison," said Zewdu, 32, a taxi driver. "Having that in mind, I wouldn't think of going and having a party."

The Washington region, the U.S. hub for Ethiopian immigrants, will attract thousands of Ethiopians from across the country for the nation's biggest millennium events. On deck is an explosion of concerts, lectures and celebrations that are meant to show off Ethiopia -- but that also lay bare the community's deep political cleavages.

There are events put on by supporters of Ethiopian opposition parties, who say big bashes in Washington will serve as a referendum on the Ethiopian government, which encouraged emigrants to return for the holiday. There are events whose organizers say they want only to celebrate, and they welcome Ethiopian Embassy officials. It's politics as usual, some say: a fragile unity rooted in disagreement.

"The Ethiopian diaspora is extremely, extremely divided. It's a highly politicized diaspora," said Solomon Addis Getahun, an assistant professor of African history and African diaspora history at Central Michigan University. "Completely opposite views must have converged to create this millennium festival in Washington."

Ethiopians of all political stripes say the holiday is a coming-out party of sorts, a chance to emphasize that Ethiopia is more than the images of swollen-bellied children that came to symbolize the country during the 1980s. They say they want to highlight the uniqueness of their nation -- land of some of the earliest human settlements, a place with its own language and a history free from colonization.

Where better, they say, than Washington? According to census data, about 22,000 Ethiopian immigrants -- one-fifth of those in the United States -- live in the region, although community leaders say the local figure tops 100,000.

Before 1980, most Ethiopians who came to the United States were students or other privileged "sojourners," Getahun said. In 1974, Ethiopia's monarchy was toppled by a military junta whose brutal tactics caused thousands to flee. Over the next two decades, Getahun said, the United States took in almost 30,000 Ethiopian refugees -- a group that was economically and ethnically diverse but essentially unified in opposition to Ethiopia's military regime, he said.

That solidarity collapsed with the late-1980s fall of the military government, and emigrants split on which of myriad opposition groups should rule next, Getahun said. Those divisions have remained through the current government, which critics accuse of persecuting dissenters and favoring members of its leaders' minority ethnic group, the Tigrayans.

More recent immigrants include those granted political asylum and those on "diversity visas" -- a younger generation that is often less concerned with politics than the "old guard," Getahun said.

Today, the Washington region is home to a diverse group of Ethiopians that includes working-class merchants, scholars and several celebrities. Among them is actress and lyricist Alemtsehay Wedajo, leader of a group sponsoring the area's main millennium events, including a musical gala tonight at the D.C. Armory and a Howard University symposium featuring talks by dozens of exiled Ethiopian scholars from around the globe.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company