Every time a new year comes around, what brings the feel of the holiday spirits is the smell. Especially on the eve, from households comes the smell of baking bread and the berbere laced scent of cooking onions and the mouth watering whiff of barbecuing meat, simmering seasoned butter in doro wot or the raw, spicy aroma of kitfo feeling like you could just stick out your tongue and taste it. If you’ve recently eaten, you’ll catch the throat scratching smell of the bonfires too.
For me, the bonfires hold a whole sentimental value because as a kid, it was something my peers and I looked forward to. Meskel is my favorite holiday. On Demera celebrations, I feel I might relate to a certain animal facet that the kids in Lord of the Flies experience when I am looking into the flames of the large bonfire with smoke bellowing up, opaque like thin smoke colored scarfs of nylon…I don’t go out and kill afterwards but that feeling is certainly larger than life.
This new year’s eve, I spent with my uncle and my cousins. On the ride to their house, I was looking out the car window and the air was this strange shade of grey. It was late afternoon and I wanted to think it was just the keremt air with mist when seen against darkening sky but it obviously wasn’t. What I was looking at was thick smog.
Smog is a type of air pollutant, which gets its nomenclature by combining the words smoke and fog. It contains air polluting smoke, with the various emissions of burning fuel and fog, crystalline water droplets.
As I observed this, my tree-hugger instinct ticked a little but it was the holidays so I just decided to think it was something cool to experience outside. I kept thinking about how insane it would be to get lost in that.
I got to my uncle’s house where the festivities were going on. There was food, there was barbecuing meat, there was wine and beer and there were happy people. The holiday vibe was full on. I noticed however at some point that nobody was laying out the chebo. Instead, my uncle put forward a pile of wax tapers. (What we know in Amharic as tuaf.)
I’d heard many people around the city complaining about how they’ve had to buy a skinny bundle of twigs for 7-10 birr and then recalling nostalgically how fat and thick the ones on the market used to be before.
My uncle explained that in a certain part of Adigrat, the people have actually managed to use up all the trees that were used to make chebo to a point where there aren’t any left. If that’s the case for one part of Tigray, we’re led to believe that it could be a similar case for others too as the chebo prices keep going up.
“I have been around to see the difference that cutting the plants has made although for younger people, it may not be as obvious. There used to be bees living in those trees that have now all disappeared.” he said. And for this reason, he’s done a cut back on the chebo burning and uses tuafs instead. He said that when using tuafs, we are supporting the honey market that will have to be around for there to be wax to make the candles.
As I am writing this article, I’ve tried to come up with the statistics on how much carbon is emitted from the bonfires in Ethiopia but I couldn’t find any on the internet and I guess I’m too uninterested in statistics to get off my chair and ask. But the thick hovering layer of smog that appears on Buhe, Hidar Michael, New Years and Demera should be evident enough I guess.
In 2015, Ethiopia was appreciated and celebrated as being a leading example for submitting an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) goal promising to lower what would be 400 Megatons of Green House Gas emissions per year by 2030 to 145 megatons per year, decreasing by 64%. Many articles call it a little too ambitious as the country is not a very wealthy one. At the moment, controlling climate change and emissions happens to be an expensive endeavor. But Ethiopia is also celebrated for being one of the first to build its policies around Climate Resilient Green Economy and with most industries just beginning to grow, it would be easier to make them grow having put climate change in mind than breaking what was already built and rebuilding to adapt like many countries are being force to do today.
As I celebrated New Year’s eve burning tuafs instead of chebo, I found that it wasn’t any less fun. I was brought under the impression that people have to know about this. It’s too much to ask the world to change at once and I doubt it will over night. I know that some of you who would read this are sensible people who’d understand. I’m not asking that we ditch our traditions but I feel like with what needs to be done, our traditions will have to change to adapt.