ESFNA Festival in Maryland: Some Observations Fekade Shewakena
Ethiopians from all over the United States and other parts of the world including from Ethiopia descended on Washington DC by the thousands during the past July 4 week to be part of the annual weeklong soccer and cultural festival organized by ESFNA (Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America). It was a flood of Ethiopians everywhere that a friend of mine who watched the crowed in downtown Silver Spring said that this is the only instance he knows in history that people from a far away land can invade a place in such huge numbers without an army. Downtown Silver Spring, located some 15 minutes drive from Byrd Stadium of the University of Maryland, where the event was held, was so crowded that, at times, you may even think you are somewhere in Addis Ababa.
The scene at the stadium was simply a colorful celebration of Ethiopia and a show of its culture in all its forms. According to ESFNA officials there were more than one hundred eighty vendors selling all kind of goods and food around the stadium. Seeing many people eating from the same plate, the smell of Ethiopian food and coffee and the loud Marakato-like music coming from every vendor’s tent at the same time, nearly blowing your head, gives you the impression that you are somewhere in Ethiopia. The adorable Ethiopian tricolor was splashed everywhere in different forms that it seems the only thing you see all around you is it. Even my little 6 year old, Liya, that I was walking with through the crowed on “Ethiopia Day”, demanded that she gets Ethiopia painted on her face and stood me in line for nearly half an hour until her turn comes up. She calls everything green-yellow-red “Ethiopia”. She was more beautiful with the tricolor on her face but she also said she needs more “Ethiopia” and made me buy her the Ethiopian soccer team’s shirt of her size and a small Ethiopian flag to wave. She was at her happiest when she owned the colors that watching her happy and excited nearly drove me to tears. You know, she is an all American child that has not seen and experienced Ethiopia. She only heard about it and still thinks she belongs to a distant land named Ethiopia and loves it anyway.
Soccer is only the excuse. More people come here for numerous other purposes and be part of the celebration of their culture and their country. There were more people walking the vending area than watch the interstate soccer tournaments in the field. Many people have experiences of finding long lost friends and acquaintances during this ritual. I found mine both this year and in the past. Some, I heard, have found their wives and husbands here. But whether you find anybody or not, struggling to push your way around through the crowed also gives you a special feel. Outside of the stadium and all over the Washington DC metro area, there were probably hundreds of meetings during the week. Political organizations, civic groups, professional associations, alumni associations, ‘edirs’, charity organizations etc., held their meetings. ESAT has the largest and most crowded fund raising gathering. It probably needs a stadium in the future.
ESFNA that hosted the gathering lived up to its motto of “bringing Ethiopians together”. That is all it did. It brought us together and left us to do what we want to do. Its dedication of this year’s event to celebrating Ethiopian women and appreciating their plight was a great idea. The Center for the Rights of Ethiopian Women (CREW) was made to stand at the center of the celebration this year representing Ethiopian women. They did a wonderful job of bringing up the plight of our sisters in the Middle East.
The Ups and the Downs:
As the saying goes, no good did go unpunished. Like many things Ethiopian, this beautiful event has not passed without seeing something mind boggling. There was a failed attempt to divide the community and destroy such a beautiful institution built over thirty years of toil, perhaps one of the best Ethiopians ever built in our countries of exile. This was exactly what a splinter group that gave some weird name to itself “AESA one” or as Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, in one of his addresses to its members calls it, “Essawa”, were trying to do.
With the help of billionaire Sheik Mohamed al Amludi’s millions of dollars, the group was trying to organize the same thing at a huge stadium in Washington with identical programs like ESFNA. Some anonymous sick crooks were also writing emails to local government officials, the University of Maryland and the managements of hotels reserved by ESFNA in attempts to sabotage and crash the event. The crooks who wrote the emails under pseudonyms wrote ESFNA is a cheat organization that has no money to fulfill its side of the obligation and advised these organizations to cancel the contracts and any help they may be giving. I have seen these emails with my own eyes as received by these agencies. I hope ESFNA will publish this emails on its website or even find this individuals and expose them to the public. ESFNA organizers were made to climb an unnecessary uphill battle to fight the possible effects of these evil campaigns.
But, thanks to the community, the net result was the opposite of what these dividers intended to do. In fact, the unexpected huge turnout this year is in part explained by the anger this splinter group and the Sheik’s efforts have produced in our community. This group deservedly had an empty stadium for a week and a well deserved egg all over their faces at the end of the day. What they did is simply sad. Even if they have a problem within ESFNA, they could have tried to change it from within rather than go out and do this satanic thing.
Why the Sheik got involved in this sham exercise with his millions of dollars is hard to understand. For all I know, he was a supporter of ESFNA for many years in the past and a onetime guest of honor of ESFNA. I can’t for the life of me understand why he spends so much money for attempting to destroy this wonderful organization. I don’t think he is basically a bad person himself. Perhaps he is fed bad information from bad people. I know many people accuse him of queasiness with regime officials in Addis Ababa which they perceive as a corrupting influence. But I think that is his right. He can believe in any politics of his choice. But trying to destroy our institution in a land where we live as a free people is a different thing all together. In one of their radio advertisements the splinter group even insulted themselves and the entire Ethiopian community by promising to give us free lunch, paid by the Sheik, if we go and attend their event. This is despicable. Come ‘on, in America, where food is one of the cheapest things? I almost puked when I heard it. If you are his friend and happen to read this, please tell the honorable Sheik to do a favor for himself and for all of us by stopping this destructive agenda as he promised to continue doing on one of their events. He can get more respect by trying to reconcile divided groups rather than joining in the fray. He should also be told that there are a few things money cannot and should not buy. Just watch the reaction of the crowed on “Ethiopia Day” in this video (see video ) as the singer in the lyrics says something about the meaning of “money without love”. It was no doubt the public’s reaction to the Sheik’s attempts.
The event was a success but there are a few things to be said about everybody to make it better for the future.
There were numerous glitches in the event including people returning from the gates of the stadium for lack of space. There were problems following the daily schedules and meeting obligations as advertised. The public understands that ESFNA officials are doing a hard and difficult job. This year they have to spend quite a lot of time and energy in defending the organization from the splinter group. That obviously takes their attention and time. But they could have added manpower by asking for volunteers and overcome some problems. For the future, they should do a huge reorganization and restructuring of the management and outsource some of their functions to businesses and professionals. They should consult Ethiopians with management expertise for helpful advice on reorganization. We have all kinds of professionals around us that can help voluntarily. Adding the negatives and positives together, ESFNA has done a wonderful job under difficult circumstances. We all should be grateful to all the leaders and Ato Getachew Tesfaye, the president of ESFNA, who had to juggle this monumental task with his tough work schedule. Ato Getachew is a nuclear scientist who has lots of responsibilities at work and travels between Europe and the United States frequently even while he was working on the festival. All the leaders of ESFNA deserve a huge thank you and our respect for what they have done for us and Ethiopia.
The DC Area Businesses:
Most Ethiopian businesses, particularly the restaurants were prepared for the crowed and provided a lot of entertainment. We have heard of some who charged exorbitant prices for their services, obscene in some cases, like selling a bottle of beer for twelve dollars and a single lunch for thirty dollars. We all know that there are additional costs these businesses incur during these times and some price hikes are understandable. Many restaurants employ additional labor, police and security during the week. But thirty dollars for a single lunch? This boarders on the criminal and should never happen again. Such greedy get-rich- quick individuals should know that the community can punish them by boycotting their businesses if they frequent it. Fortunately these are only a handful. There were also many who charged everything at their regular prices and treated their gusts professionally and as though they were doing it in their own homes.
The crowed was magnificent in every respect. We are all prouder of the dignified way we handled ourselves. There wasn’t a single case of violence. There wasn’t a single incident of misbehavior or drunk driving or anything of that sort. Not even accidents. The hotels have already started asking when this crowed is going to come back again so that they can prepare for better services. Even the police are wondering how a large crowed of people stay one week together and leave without creating a single incident. Those of us who live in Maryland are grateful for the crowed for positively affecting our lives and giving us a good image in addition to contributing millions of dollars in income to the state. More importantly, we all need to be happy by the unanimity in our rejection of division in any form. Ethiopia was a little more proud of us during the week.
The Ethiopian Government:
No government agency or embassy official of the Ethiopian government was around the stadium. I am told embassy officials chose to go to the empty stadium organized by the splinters ignoring the 99.9% of us who were celebrating Ethiopia at the ESFNA event. That of course is unfortunate and a shame. This event was not a political event as anybody who has been there can attest. ESFNA is a demonstrably non political organization. We also want it to keep out of divisive politics. ESFNA’s job should remain bringing us together. All political groups did their events outside the stadium. Of course, they had their tents at the stadium like any other agency would. If we were a lucky country, we would have seen a tent among the nearly 200 tents in the stadium to encourage people to buy bonds for the Abbay dam or demonstrate the project. It is a proof that all this patronizing the Diaspora by the government is about love of our money and not us. I only pray for the day we have a loved government official sitting among us at ESFNA events and celebrating Ethiopia with us.
ESFNA has proven itself that it has become a big institution owned by the community. It is so obvious that ESFNA has outgrown its capacity and the way it is being led. ESFNSA officials could be making a huge mistake if they think the large turnout this year was due to their exclusive efforts. I hope they understand this more than anyone. I am also sure they will be responsive to the public and be a transparent organization especially when it comes to financial matters. There are huge expenses that the public doesn’t know. Some think the Organization is amassing money only by looking at the turnout. Make the details public so that we have more trust, respect and love for ESFNA. In as much as possible ESFNA should avoid big money from individuals in the future. We are better of poorer than involving people who want to pull strings though the money they help us with. I am told ESFNA makes better money when it holds the event in Washington DC. If that is the case, I suggest that the 2014 celebration be also held in the DC area. This is just a suggestion to help its financial strength. I also suggest that it open an office with at least one full time employee. It is also good to start preparation for the next event in advance than rush though it during the last one or two months before the occasion.
What a week!! The 30 year anniversary of ESFNA was a blast. Thanks to our brothers who started it thirty years ago and the many who still keep it going.