Why Ethiopia Parties Like It's 1999

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Jose Cendon / AFP / Getty

An Ethiopian woman celebrates in the streets of Mekele during the International Woman's Day March 8, 2007 in Ethiopia.

September 11 will be a momentous day in Ethiopia this year. But while the rest of the world will solemnly mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in America, Ethiopians will be partying like it's 1999. That's because in Ethiopia, it really is 1999 — unlike most nations today that use the Gregorian calendar, the East African nation of more than 70 million has stuck to a Julian-inspired one. And according to that calendar, September 11 just happens to be the last day of the 20th century.

With the 21st century only months away, millennium fever has struck Ethiopia with a vengeance. Across the capital, Addis Ababa, electronic signboards count down the days until the big event. Lavish events have been organized, ranging from a $2 million "musical extravaganza" to a soccer tournament that may include teams from Yemen, Spain and Germany. (The Ethiopian Tourism Ministry notes that teams from these countries have been invited to attend the millennium match-up, but their participation, sadly, has not yet been confirmed.) Best of all, as befits a country that has produced some of the world's best long-distance runners, the day will also be marked a series of races. What better way to ring in the new millennium than running 10,000 meters on a high-altitude plain?

So far, at least $35 million has been allocated by the Ethiopian government for millennium festivities and various prestige-building projects such as a coffee museum to celebrate the world-conquering bean that originated in this ancient civilization. But in a country where half the population lives under the poverty line, some citizens are questioning whether spending an extravagant amount on a blowout party is the best use of government funds — particularly since the country is already funneling millions of dollars into a costly military campaign to prop up a shaky government against Islamist militias in neighboring Somalia.

Nevertheless, the always hospitable Ethiopians are counting on foreigners to join their millennium party. My Ethiopian guide in the town of Bahir Dar, near the source of the Blue Nile, told me that several new hotels are being built in anticipation of a (local) year 2000 tourist influx. "I have heard that 50,000 people will come here for the millennium," he confided. But given that the best hotel currently in Bahir Dar (sister city: Cleveland, Ohio) is a state-run guesthouse whose moldy rooms and surly plumbing aspire to one-star status, it's doubtful that the new concrete-block hotels will attract even a fraction of the hoped-for crowds.

Indeed, Ethiopia's much-touted tourism campaign hasn't borne much fruit over the past few years. That's too bad: The country, like Kenya to the south, boasts remarkable wildlife and photo-friendly tribes. Ethiopian Orthodox Churches in the arid north — some of the oldest Christian churches in the world — are hewn straight out of rock, with wild Biblical murals that make a Pink Floyd album cover look staid. Yet, for most people around the world, Ethiopia is still associated primarily with famine and despair. And who wants to holiday in other people's misery? My guide in Bahir Dar was insistent: "Please tell your friends that this is a special, wonderful country." Certainly, traveling here feels like a step back in time — much more than just the seven years separating the Ethiopian calendar from the Western one.