Carrying the Weight

Carrying the Weight of COVID-19 into the Ethiopian New Year

It has been nearly six months since the Coronavirus made its landmark in Ethiopia. As has been the case around the entire world, businesses have crumbled under the immense pressure the pandemic has exerted upon economic and social life. With the Ethiopian new year up on us, the pressure seems to have persisted as the sectors hit hard by the realities of a world under pandemic have not recovered enough or recovered at all. Kiya Ali looks into the business side of the social celebrations associated with the new year.

A song called ‘Abebayehosh’ that is performed by a group of Ethiopian girls is a harbinger of Ethiopian new year. Many people associate new year with hope, new beginnings, new plans and correcting past mistakes. With the dawn of a new year up on them, students  prepare to start class after the winter (summer for most of the rest of the world) break; event organizers become busy preparing various concerts and exhibitions; beer companies scale up their production; the occupancy rate of hotels goes up as tourists pour in to visit new year and Meskel celebrations and artists rehearse day and night to adorn the celebrations with concerts.

The 2013 Ethiopian new year celebrations, however, would not feature these social events because these are simply not normal times. The number of people contracting the Coronavirus has shown a steep increase in recent weeks with over 1,500 people testing positive each day.

Hager Fikir Theatre, widely described as the oldest indigenous threatre in Africa established in 1935, is among the artistic platforms that have fallen silent because of the pandemic. The theatre house hosted numerous plays and music concerts since its inception. Especially during public holidays like the Ethiopian new year, musicians along with modern and traditional dancers used to start rehearsing for new year’s live performance at least a month ago.

“Regular rehearsals are going on as they would any casual day; however, there will be no live performance for the new year,” remarked Memehiru Chamo, planning and budgeting head of Hager Fikir theater. “Unlike the past 85 years, it has become impossible this year to present theatrical, musical and dance (both traditional and modern) performances to our audience because of COVID-19. However, we have plans to record the art work under rehearsal and release a VCD in the coming year. This will help artists reach out to a wider audience. There is also plan to release some of the work done via YouTube,” he added.

Before the advent of COVID-19 in Ethiopia, Hager Fikir Theater used to hire temporary employees to make public holidays like the new year more colorful. During such holidays, more than 80 artists presented their work for more than a thousand people. In addition to generating income, the platform presented these employees with a chance to introduce themselves to a wider audience. “When I think of the past and compare it with the current situation, I feel so sick,” Memehiru said with great disappointment.

Currently, Hager Fikir employs more than 141 people. The regular threatre shows from Tuesday to Sunday and the musical performance on public holidays have been disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic. The plays have been halted since the government declared state of emergency and forbid assembly.

Sprawled on a 6,856 square meter of land, Hager Fikir Theatre has two theatre halls. The smaller hall, which has 400 seats, is used for rehearsals and other events. The larger hall, which opened during the reign of Haile Selassie, has been used to present various events and performances to close to 800 people. The pandemic has kept the larger hall out of use; however, the small hall is being used for rehearsals with social distancing principles followed strictly.

Hager Fikir Theater requested an annual budget of ETB31 million for the Ethiopian fiscal year that kicked off in July 2020 and got close to ETB20 million, according to Memehiru. The budget allocated by the city administration to Hager Fikir for the previous fiscal year was ETB13 million.

The name ‘Enkutatash’ given for the Ethiopian new year is arguably associated with King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. “The Ethiopian new year Enkutatash means the ‘gift of jewels’. Legend has it that King Solomon of Jerusalem gave the Queen of Sheba jewels during her famous visit to Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago. Her return to Ethiopia after receiving the gift coincided with the New Year celebration in September, and hence the name Enkutatash came to be,” Serkalem Tafesse states in her article “How to celebrate the Ethiopian New Year”. Enkutatash is one of the biggest holidays in Ethiopia celebrated colorfully as it marks the transfer from the Ethiopian winter to spring.

As customary all across the world, people tend to feast with drinks, holiday cuisine and the impending dance a full belly and a tipsy mind recommend to the body during holidays. There is generally a heightened sense of consumption during the holidays and service providers such as hotels and beer companies get their profitable spells at times like these. Although things have gone considerably loose over the past five months as people realize that they have to live with the reality of the Coronavirus, the cautionary approaches are still going to be around for quite some time before things get back to normal once again.

In fact, an industry insider stated on condition of anonymity, things have not been ideal for beer companies since the amendment of excise tax during the previous fiscal year. “When the amended excise tax came into effect, it increased production cost and in thus the cost of the final product. This has adversely affected business. On top this, bars and restaurants have been ordered since March to close very early at night following the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic in Ethiopia. People also avoided bars for fear of contracting the virus. These factors stacked up to bring down the demand for beer,” he explained.

Moreover, the resultant economic slowdown put many people out of work or at risk of unemployment. The industry insider pointed out that “this leads people to give priority for other things than drinking beer. The situation hasn’t changed radically; so, there will be reduced demand for beer. I don’t think the market will automatically improve the coming year. It will take time to get back to its previous status.”

The hospitality sector in general has been one of the sectors hit hard by the sudden halt of international interactions following the rise of COVID-19 to the status of pandemic. The Addis Ababa Hotel Owners’ Association reported in April that the occupancy rate of hotels in Addis Ababa went down to 2% at some point.

Although the international situation is steadily improving with countries opening up their borders and allowing people to move in and out, the Association Chairman, Beniam Bisrat argues that it would take a lot more measures before the occupancy rate bounces back. He stated that the travel conditions that allow business travelers move around are still not there in the international system. He noted that some days of quarantine or a minimum of 5 to 7 days of staying in a country apply to business travelers depending on whether they have COVID-19 test results when they arrive here. For a business traveler who wants to have a quick stop and sort something within a day or two, staying all those days without business engagements would be highly discouraging.

Beniam also explained that Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism has also not recovered as the major international conference halls, such as that of the ECA, are still closed. He further stated that leisure travelers, another important section of the tourism sector, are yet to make moves towards reassuming their former roles as the harsh economic realities of the pandemic, the risks involved in travel and the additional conditions introduced both at home and in destination countries prove to be significant hurdles.

The combined effect of all these contributing factors has made it difficult for hotels in Addis Ababa to bounce back just yet, stated Beniam. Considering the fact that the absence of leisure travelers, for instance, also bears negatively on tour operators, it is easy to understand that the whole hospitality industry is still under immense pressure from the pandemic.

Melaku Berihun, owner of Melak Ethiopia tour company, affirms these claims. Melaku started his own tour company two years ago with four cars and he has created job opportunities for 3 drivers. The company uses freelance tour guides; therefore, there are additional employees all the time. Melaku remarked that they have not served a single tourist since March. “At the beginning of the current Ethiopian year, the company received booking from different international tourists. For instance, we had received a booking from 11 tourists who were planning to come to Ethiopia from Germany in September 2020. But they have cancelled their booking,” explained Melaku. The company is still struggling to survive and continue paying the drivers half of their salary, ETB1,250. Considering the changes both nationally and internationally, Melaku expects business to revive between six months and a year after September. “I hope the coming year will be better than the current one,” he remarked.

Businesses that primarily rely on foreigners coming to Ethiopia seem to be having a harsh time while the situation seems to have improved a bit for those that rely on local consumers. An employee of Jupiter hotel stated that the number of local customers has improved recently although that is not enough to alter the financial woes of the company. Michael Bayu is an electronics shop owner at Merkato, the biggest market in the country. He says that business almost came to a grinding halt during the first months of the advent of the Coronavirus in Ethiopia. However, he stated, things have gone back to their previous state recently. He pointed out that it is not just the electronics business but others such as construction material and carpet shops that have bounced back.

With the pandemic yet to rich its peak in Ethiopia, its negative impacts are still felt in most sectors. With businesses struggling and others only coming out of the harshest spells they have known for a long time, the Ethiopian New Year would certainly not be at its former warmth. However, the situation would most probably be better than the Easter celebrations over three months ago.

9th Year  August 30 – September 30 2020  No. 90


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