Every summer, for seven days, thousands of members of Ethiopia’s diaspora community in the US and Canada meet for the largest Ethiopian sports and cultural festival hosted outside of Ethiopia.
This year, the 2015 Ethiopian Sport Federation in North America Festival is being held at College Park Byrd Stadium in Maryland and Echostage in Washington DC.
Festival organizers say they have attracted their largest crowd in 30 years. Scores of Ethiopian Americans are attending their soccer and golf tournaments, concerts, trade fairs, awareness campaigns, and religious sermons.
The festival dates back to 1984 and provides a fascinating insight into Ethiopia and Ethiopian American politics, culture, and history.
With the exception of Ethiopian government representatives or pro-government diaspora groups – who are largely absent from the festival – participants include Ethiopians from all walks of life including exiled journalists, politicians, and activists. Ethiopian religious groups, business people, and art exhibiters also participate in the festival with an entrenched need to stay afloat with the affairs of their home country.
According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), Ethiopia-born immigrants constitute the second largest African immigrant group in the US after Nigeria. The institute estimates about 251,000 Ethiopian immigrants and their children live in the United States today. According to a former policy analyst at MPI Aaron Matteo Terrazas, “if the descendants of Ethiopian-born migrants are included, the estimates range upwards of 460,000 in the United States.”
The annual soccer cup
The central component of the festival is the annual soccer cup competition in which 31 amateur teams across the US and Canada play a total of 46 soccer games over six days. There are two teams from Canada, teams from across the US, including multiple teams from LA, Dallas, DC, Maryland and Seattle, where large concentrations of Ethiopians live.
ESTA, an Ethiopian diaspora focused satellite television reports that the event will be attended by a majority of Ethiopian Americans wearing Ethiopian colors – red, yellow and green:
The parade of the soccer teams, the opening prayers, the book fairs, clothes and dance shows, the food sells and the display of the souvenirs made the event elaborately Ethiopian. The 60th anniversary of Ethiopia’s famed National Theatre will also be commemorated as a part of this year’s event. This festival serves not only as a reunion event but it also provides opportunity for parents to teach their second generation kids their Ethiopian heritage.
The Ethiopian government's dismal human rights record
The apparent absence of Ethiopia’s government or pro-government diaspora groups at this major event is a reminder of the country’s dark political situation.
While the festival is taking place in the DC metro area, a large crowd – waving Ethiopian flags and playing Ethiopian music – has been protesting outside the White House imploring President Obama to cancel his upcoming visit to Ethiopia, because of the country's rampant human rights abuses.
Ethiopian is an autocratic country that has been run by the same political party for the last 24 years. Opposition is often silenced, Ethiopia is rife with political corruption, and the state-run media is utterly dominant. More than 30 Ethiopian journalists were forced into exile last year. Since 2010, Human Rights Watch reports that 60 Ethiopian journalists have “fled into exile, including 30 in 2014 alone. Another 19 or more journalists languish in prison. Government harassment and intimidation caused at least six independent publications to close in 2014.”
Highlighting the hold of Ethiopia's government on political and cultural discourse outside the country, Teshome Debalke writes on the ECADF forum:
I looked over 10 [Ethiopian] online media [sites] and found [that] except two, none of them even mentioned the festival. One wonders why media [outlets] that consider themselves Ethiopian don’t want Ethiopians to come together celebrating their people. Does [Ethiopia's ruling regime] Woyane have something to do with it?
A comment in Ahmaric on Facebook by Tamrat Negera, an exiled journalist based in DC area also shows some insight into the distrust and resentment within Ethiopia’s diaspora community:
Welcome, all of you who have come from across the United States to the DC area for the sake of the soccer game! How exciting is it to see so many of you like this?! You are warming our houses and brightening the streets. We are loving it, please come again. But, some of you are showing off, [claiming to be better than us], as if we are a bumpkin from Chelenko [an underdeveloped province in Ethiopia], your bragging is embarrassing, please play fair. Now, I understand why Ethiopians back home are sick of the diaspora, it is because they see the likes of you. It is not good if we look down on each other, because we all know each other, play fair. I would have regretted it if I had not mentioned it to you that when you enjoy in one of the many Ethiopian bars in the area please treat your waitress sister with respect and dignity. You have no right to violate their rights [look down on them or insult them] no matter how much tip you give.