Sri Lankans in Ethiopia

If golden beaches, rising waves, misty mountains, mighty elephants, stealthy leopards, giant whales, a majestic past, lovely tea and warm smiles could sum up a country, that would be Sri Lanka. With many sites and scenes bottled up in to a small island, a traveller could be riding the waves in the dawn and admiring the green-carpeted mountains by dusk. The smiles and hospitality of Sri Lanka is world famous and so are its spicy food, fruits and array of sweetmeats found nowhere in the world. However, most Ethiopians do not know much about the pearl of the orient thought there are more than one hundred live here in Ethiopia, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

British hip-hop artiste Mathangi 'Maya' Arulpragasam a.k.a. MIA stunned the whole world at the 2009 Grammy Awards by performing on her baby’s due date. The singer exposed her baby bump outfitted in a traditional empire line dress. She performed with TI, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne on “Swagga Like Us”, which samples her hit “Paper Planes” and was in contention for record of the year—and won Rap Performance by a duo or group.
Though her fans remember her with her unique pregnancy performance MIA is labeled as a terrorist in her own country—Sri Lanka.

The Sir Lankan/Tamil singer was banned from entering Sri Lanka in 2001 but that did not stop her from voicing her concern including during the 2015 elections. On the eve of her Oscar and Grammy nominations the Sri Lankan/Tamil singer’s concern was the civil war in Sri Lanka, which she labeled as a “systematic genocide” against the Tamil people.

The bitter and bloody three-decade-long Sri Lankan civil war was fought between the government and the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam a.k.a. Tamil Tigers to create an independent Tamil. Though the civil war ended in 2009, the memories are fresh for Sri Lankans. It is one of the nightmares Sri Lankans including Camillus N. Perera, duty operations manager of Addis International Catering, want to forget.

“Sri Lankans like to enjoy life and they do not want to see war at all,” Perera told The Reporter.

Though war is in the middle of the conversations of many Sri Lankans, a little over a month ago, the dominant topic was New Year festivities.

So what year is it? It all depends on whom you ask. For Ethiopians it is 2008 and according to the Chinese calendar it is 4714. For Sri Lankans, who follow the Sinhalese calendar, the year is 2560 BE (Buddhist Era). This is one of the prominent holidays for Sri Lankans and they celebrate the holiday with so much festivity, pomp and fanfare. For Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka, it is not just a mere transition to a New Year but also the commencement of a new way of thinking. Though this calendar is phasing out, the rituals are still alive in many parts of the world.

This New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South Asia and Southeast Asia. The festival has close semblance to the Tamil New year, Thai New year, Bengali New Year, Cambodian New Year, Lao New Year, Thingyan in Myanmar and Odia New Year festival in India. It is a public holiday in Sri Lanka and is generally celebrated on April 13 or 14.

According to Sinhalese astrology, New Year begins when the sun moves from Meena Rashiya (the house of Pisces) to Mesha Rashiya (the house of Aries). It also marks the end of the harvest and spring.

Since ancient times, it is considered to be the best time to venture into a new business, start new relationships and be married. Rituals associated with the celebrations begin with bathing on the last day of the old year and viewing the moon on the same night. The pealing of the bell accompanied with the beating of drums in the village temple announces the times to perform the different rituals.

It was not only in Sri Lanka that the holiday vibe was resonating. Though they are thousands of kilometers away from their homeland, Sir Lankans, who are based in Ethiopia, celebrated the New Year colorfully. Sunday April 22 was a chilly morning but that did not stop some one hundred Sri Lankans to drive to Yaya Africa Athletics Village, off the highway to Debrezeit, to celebrate the holiday.

The spacious center was decorated with the flags of Sri Lanka and Ethiopia side by side and Sri Lankans from different walks of life gathered inside the tent. Many of them were blissful when they saw their fellow Sri Lankans entered the gate. They started greeting one another, talked about life, and wished one another happy holiday.

The celebrations began with the national anthem of Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, which was followed by the candle lighting ceremony that featured people from each generation to mark new beginnings.

The aroma of the sweetmeat and other food types was appetizing. Giving priority to children, women and other guests from other countries, breakfast was served.

Most of the dishes were vegan which happened to be a good coincidence for Ethiopians, who were at the occasion, since they were fasting.

On the table, dishes such as Kiribath (rice with coconut milk), Kavum (a deep-fried sweet Sri Lankan pastry made from rice flour, Kithul (sugar-palm) treacle and a number of additional ingredients), Kokis (a deep fried, crispy sweet made from rice flour and coconut milk) and banana were served.

While having breakfast, Madhavi Hettiarachchi, a Sri Lankan woman, who has lived in Ethiopia for the past 22 years and speaks Amharic fluently, explained how the dishes are delicacies and centerpieces of the holidays.

In addition to that, Madhavi said that moon is the most important thing in Buddhism. To Buddhists, there is a special religious significance especially on full moon day because certain important and outstanding events connected with the life of Lord Buddha took place on full moon days. Buddha was born on a full moon day. His renunciation took place on a full moon day. His enlightenment, the delivery of his first sermon, his passing away into Nibbana and many other important events associated with his life-span of eighty years, occurred on full moon days.

Another Sri Lankan was talking about Ethiopian holiday Hosanna (Palm Sunday). Amazed with his fluency in Amharic people were staring at him and he showed a tattoo on his arm that reads Etse Genet; the name of his wife.

The conversation jumped from topic to topic sometimes switching to Sinhala (one of the main languages in Sri Lanka). After the breakfast it was game time, which is an essential part of the New Year celebrations.

These games are not reserved for children rather everyone is invited play. So everyone flocked around to participate in the games without hesitation. One entertaining game was placing the eye on the elephant. This is a game where participants are blindfolded and have to spot the elephant’s eye.

To make the participants more confused—after they are blindfolded—they are turned around once or twice. The elephant’s picture was hanged on a tree 10 meters away from where the participants are standing. The audience was laughing when the participants head to a completely opposite direction. In some instances, members of the audience participated by handing out their palms so that the participants can go to the right direction. When they take off the blindfold their confusion became a source of laughter. Madhavi says that these games allow people to come together, enjoy themselves and appreciate life.

For outsiders some of the games seem almost impossible. For instance, one of the games was throwing eggs. An Ethiopian man was saying how it is possible to see “flying eggs”. More than 20 competitors in teams of two align on the grass to try to throw and catch eggs without breaking the shell. Many cheering spectators also circled them to witness the game. An Ethiopian man was saying that their talent and balance all came from their long history and culture of Cricket; however, egg throwing is one of the ancient traditional games in Sri Lanka.

The game started and players were some 15 meters apart; the “tosser” throws an egg to a teammate, the “catcher”. Then the catcher will become the tosser and after each successful catch they spread further apart.

The winning team is the one that completes a catch without breaking the egg while moving further in distance. Since there were many winners the distance was growing to up to 30 meters. Persistent players and determined winners were seen falling on the ground or jumping a pile of stones to catch the flying eggs. To identify the winners, the self-proclaimed judges had to decide on a line that should not be passed.

Eventually, one team, whose eggs did not break and were strictly following the rules, was declared the winner. Interestingly, egg throwing is a sport which is regulated by the World Egg Throwing Federation, headquartered in England.

The World Egg Throwing Federation was set up in 2004 in order to regulate egg throwing as a number of variations of the sport have come into existence, including nefarious use of eggs in political demonstrations. According to information posted in the federation’s website, the game is thought to date back to some 700 years. Back then the newly appointed Abbot took possession of the Parish of Swaton by royal decree. It is said that he was the only person to own chickens and ensured the attendance at church of his peasant by providing them alms of one egg for each attendee. However, when the River Eau flooded, preventing people getting to church, the monks would hurl the eggs over to the waiting peasants. It is also said that when the flood was even wider that they used small trebuchets to get that extra distance required. It is from these beginnings that the sport of egg throwing started and has been played ever since in the village, the website reads.

Some of the games were purposely chosen because they were enjoyable and one of the games was circling a stick ten times around and then run fast. Many were falling while others lost their balance. Finding a coin dipped inside a bowl of flour using their face and arbitrarily crying and laughing were some of the competitions that were part of the festivities. In the meantime, lunch was served but many were not enthusiastic about lunch and continued the games one of which was rope pulling.

Perera was the one who organized the get-together. He used to work for Sri Lankan Airlines but when he got the chance to work for Addis International catering he welcomed the opportunity and signed-up for a two-year contract.

Extending his visit, it has now been eight years since he settled here. Before he came here, he did not have much information about Ethiopia except that it is an African country that follows Orthodox Christianity. He also knew about Ethiopian Airlines and that it is a profitable company.

Addis Ababa became his second home. He moves around and enjoys the nightlife. He says that he feels comfortable and safe. “Ethiopians greet people from their heart. They love people so it is a place where love is served. That’s why I stayed for longer,” Perera says.

Though he enjoyed making new Ethiopian friends he also looked for other Sri Lankans in the city. “Sometimes, when I’m on a plane traveling back home, I look for other Sri Lankans,” he says.

Perera eventually connected with other Sri Lankans, who work in construction, engineering, and teaching in Addis Ababa and outside of Addis. So, with New Year approaching, he came up with the idea of reuniting all Sri Lankans and around 100 people gathered at Yaya Village to celebrate the New Year.

According to Perera, some 150 Sri Lankans currently live in Ethiopia but he says that the number will increase since the Embassy of Sri Lanka will be opened in Addis Ababa in the near future. That is good news for Perera who wants to see a thriving relationship between Sri Lanka and Ethiopia. According to Perera, many factories—especially garment factories—are seeing Ethiopia as their next destination following the footsteps of Chinese, Indian and Turkish companies.

Many Sri Lankan investors are interested in Ethiopia in various fields with some already here. “There are Sri Lankans in the management team of Anchor Milk. In the Bole Lemi Industrial Zone there are 50 Sri Lankans. The number will increase since there is growing interest,” Perera says.

Leaving one’s homeland is not easy but Perera says that he enjoys Ethiopia. However, he brings in spices and ingredients when he travels back home. When the community grows he believes there will be more shops and restaurants that cater to the Sri Lankan community.

For Madhavi, who lived in Ethiopia for almost 22 years, this New Year brought back childhood memories and brought her together with the community she left more than two decades ago. Meeting her Ethiopian husband in Russia, they decided to move to Ethiopia. She started celebrating the New Year two years ago after visiting Sri Lanka. She says that during the holiday celebration back in Sri Lanka, she was part of most of the activities and the games; especially the beauty pageant where the most beautiful girl is chosen. She says that she vividly remembers the celebrations. She is content with her life in Ethiopia but says that she misses the ocean. Traveling to a foreign place might be difficult on many levels. Finding the right food and place of worship, the language barrier and other aspects make it somewhat hard to get used to.

Raised as a Buddhist, Madhavi is not a Buddhist anymore. She says that she is on a journey in search of love and truth. Therefore, not having a Buddhist temple does not bother her. In addition, she does not integrate with other Ethiopians. So she stays at home, meditates and spends time with her family. Previously, she worked at Amanuel Hospital and now she is a clinical consultant for the United Nations.

Being part of the New Year celebrations gave her what she calls the most essential thing in life: “Enjoying life and not taking things seriously.”

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