By Laura Hautala, OaklandNorth: Labor Day might mark the end of summer for some, but in Ethiopia, September means the springtime celebration of a new year. Called Enkutatash, the holiday enticed a crowd of African ex-pats and other curious locals to an outdoor festival at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park this Sunday.
Organized by Oakland’s own Ethiopian Community and Cultural Center (ECCC), the event showcased crafts and clothing, a variety of ethnic foods, and Africa-conscious charitable organizations from around northern California.
Down Center Street, vendors sold an array of Jamaican, Ghanaian and Ethiopian foods. Along with sunny weather and live Reggae music, the wafting blend of cumin and chili peppers helped create a festive mood. People in T-shirts and jeans mingled with traditionally dressed Ethiopian and Sudanese men and women to get a look at the African-themed wares on display.
“This is a non-political, non-religious event – a festival celebrating the new year,” said Ermias Getachew, president of the ECCC. Sunday marked the party’s seventh anniversary.
According to the ECCC event program, Enkutatash commemorates the Queen of Sheba’s return from her visit to King Solomon, when her chiefs replenished her treasuries with gifts of jewels. It also marks the end of the Ethiopian rainy season, when the country is green and fertile.
Enkutatash is also a time to formally greet friends and neighbors. When meeting a group on the new year, Amharic speakers give the greeting, “Enquan laddis amet aderesachuh,” or, “wishing you all a happy new year.” Groups of women in long white dresses with trimmed white headscarves (also known as a habesha kamet accessorized with a netela) met at the civic center with embraces and extended greetings as they milled through the crowd.
The East Bay is home to a strongly connected Ethiopian community. The Contra Costa Times has reported that half of Africans living in the nine Bay Area counties live in the East Bay. Of all Bay Area African immigrants, 7,500 – or nearly 20% – hail from Ethiopia, according to figures derived from the US Census American Community Survey for 2005-2007.
Food drew many visitors to the park, and members of Oakland’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church were on hand to serve a vast menu of traditional cuisine.
Claiming a plate of food was difficult but rewarding. Chaos reigned as the church members scrambled to get the operation going two hours after the festivities began. Next, visitors tried to order, and learned they needed to buy coupons at a separate location before receiving their food. However, plates of flat injera bread loaded with spicy goodness soon came flying out of each stall.
Dejere Demerat sold meal coupons and explained the menu. “The cooked meat is the tibs,” he said. “You can call it beef tibs, lamb tibs.”
Raw beef, or kitfo, pleased the palate of many a habesha kamet-clad woman dining in the park. The dish came with foamy, sour injera bread, which doubles as a spoon. The church members also prepared vegetarian options, including lentils and collard greens cooked into a thick stew, or wat.
“We are all volunteers,” Demerat said of his crew of about 15 cooks.
Dave Dwelley, 42, and his two children, Eyosiyas and Beza, both about 18 months old, explored craft stalls and listened to live music at the festival. Dwelley said he adopted his children from Ethiopia in November 2009, and he brought them to the event to keep their heritage alive. “We have a real interest in helping them stay connected with the culture of their birth,” he said.
Some organizations came in hopes of calling attention to difficulties faced by people in Ethiopia. Standing by a table full of children’s books, Tracy resident Frew Tibebu explained the need for libraries in his native country. Frew is on the board of the Denver-based Ethiopia Reads, an organization that promotes literacy by connecting Americans with communities in Ethiopia that need libraries.
Tibebu said he came to the East Bay because, even if he only interests “one or two people, those people will make a huge difference” in helping Ethiopians escape poverty.