Ethiopia Celebrates, Without Bob Geldof

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Chris Jackson / Getty

Sir Bob Geldof performs on stage at "Live 8 London."

Think of Ethiopia and you probably think of famine. And Live Aid. And Bob Geldof. And that's been bugging Ethiopians for 20 years. Ethiopia is a proud nation, the only place in Africa never to be colonized and a place with a civilization that dates back as far as ancient Egypt. Christianity flourished in Ethiopia before it took hold in Europe, and it was a Christian king of Ethiopia who gave shelter to the first Muslims in 615 A.D. after they were thrown out of Saudi Arabia as heretics — as a result, in the Koran, Mohammed tells all Muslims that they must respect and protect Ethiopia. The mountainous north African nation is also a fount of humanity. This month the fossilized remains of Lucy, one of our earliest ancestors, left Ethiopia after 3.18 million years for a six-year tour of the U.S., while in July in the Middle Awash River valley, archaeologists discovered another fossil of an even earlier man, which they dated at between 5.2 million and 5.8 million years old.

On Sept. 11 this year, Ethiopia hopes a very different kind of concert will turn the established image of the country on its head. The date may sound inauspicious to some, but in keeping with its ancient roots, Ethiopia runs by an antiquated calendar, a modified version of the Julian calendar which the heads of the Orthodox Ethiopian church claim is the true count of time since Christ was born. By its reckoning, the 3rd millennium arrives on Sept. 12, 2007 — making Sept. 11 this year New Year's Eve, 1999.

Celebrations are meant to reflect a nation in renaissance. And accordingly, rather than let pop show it to the world, Ethiopia is bringing the world of pop to it. On New Year's Eve, the Black Eyed Peas, that very urban, very American group, are headlining a seven-hour concert at the newly built Millennium Hall in the capital, Addis Ababa. And there are plans for a second concert in October featuring R&B superstar Beyonce, rapper 50 Cent and Janet Jackson, although at this stage the stars are so far "unconfirmed."

One Western musician definitely not invited is Sir Bob Geldof. Partly this is a matter of musical preference. "We never really knew who this guy was anyway," says Sammy, a journalist for the Sub Saharan weekly newspaper as he sips Arabica in one of Addis' smart streetside cafés. "We never knew any of his tunes. And then suddenly he was here to save us."

But Geldof's absence is also about pride. The Irish singer raised $100 million through Band Aid, a supergroup of British pop stars that set the mold for charity records to come, and Live Aid, which did the same for worldwide charity concerts. The money was to help alleviate the devastating Ethiopian famine of 1984-5, in which more than a million people are thought to have died. But Ethiopia, a nation of nearly 80 million people, now boasts consistent economic growth of 10%, and in that context the famine, and Geldof, are remembered with more than a tinge of humiliation. Two years ago, Geldof stirred the pot more when, in a television interview, he told Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to "grow up" and "behave" when Ethiopian police shot dead 36 dead opposition protesters.

It was the cue for the release of long pent-up anger among Ethiopian patriots. Men such as Mulugeta Aserate Kassa. "People like me are still absolutely furious about what he said," says Mulugeta over breakfast. "What right has he got to be so paternalistic as to tell African leaders how to behave? My God, if he wants to ever come back here, he'll have to apologize." Mulugeta is a distinguished looking 56-year-old, with an exemplary Oxford English accent to match his pinstripe suit. He is also one of the organizers of the millennium celebrations. When he says of Geldof, "I don't think we'll be seeing him," that's more policy than wish.

Mulugeta says it's not that he's a stranger to suffering himself. He is a distant relation of the former emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 — with a five-year break from 1936 to 1941 when Italy occupied the country. When the Derg military regime deposed Selassie, Mulugeta's father was executed and Mulugeta himself spent nine years in jail before being released to 20 years of exile in London. But he is convinced the new millennium will restore Ethiopia and the day will soon arrive when Ethiopians no longer need outside assistance. "Nobody denies we have had famines and drought," he says. "We have been through that. We feel it in our bones. But we have picked up the pieces. The third millennium will be a re-birth for Ethiopia." And something to achieve without Bob.