Buying a chibo takes time. You have to visit at least three different chibo dealers before you find a good value and decide that this bundle of branches will burn best when the equatorial sun suddenly disappears. Some chibo dealers make very scanty chibos, while other dealers -the very sneaky ones- try to sell you recently trimmed branches with leaves and twigs still hanging from the branch. Even the children themselves know that green does not burn, thanks to so many years of chibo blazing.
The chibo is an integral part of the Ethiopian tradition called Buhe, which involves setting small fires in front of houses, on the roadside, in front of coffee shops and my personal favorite, in front of bars. The burning chibos then attract children, of which there are many in Addis Ababa, who gather, pound heavy sticks against the ground and sing small verses while their back-up singers chant “hoye hoye”.
When a group of young chibo seekers shows up to your small fire, and they assume you are the lord of the fire, you become the object of their little ditties. Some of these songs are impromptu, and some songs are learned from year to year from many a visits to the chibo bonfires around the neighborhood. Flattered, it is then your job to reward the budding vocalists with mulmul, an Ethiopian bread or a tear drop-shaped roll.
Living in a neighborhood with too many compounds and not enough chibo dealers, I decided to take a minibus out to my friend Tamerat’s place. I knew that there would probably be more chibo action to be had along the outskirts of Addis Ababa. On the way, I noticed higher than usual traffic flow, people fighting for spaces on the blue minibuses used for public transportation, and many of them with chibos slung over their shoulder.
When I arrived, Tamerat and I immediately went to hunt for our chibo, one for each of us and three more for his 9 year old brother, Birakat, and his two friends. It was, after all, the little kids who would end up entertaining us and other neighbors gathered around the chibo flames.
Buhe is a holiday celebrated on August 13th, if you’re using the Ethiopian calendar, that commemorates the transfiguration of Christ, or the day that God called little Jesus “son”. It also reminds people that New Year’s is around the corner, as well the end of the rainy season.
As with most holidays, the religious significance has fallen a few rungs while children singing and fires ablaze have taken precedence. It’s unfortunate that this all happens in the rainy season, because a damp chibo means most people end up dousing their fires with gasoline, making the chibo night a particularly dangerous holiday.
Once we got our chibos lit, thanks in part to gasoline, the “hoye hoye” chanting began. Being the only foreigner, the children sang me many a praise. Here are some of the typical songs, translated from the original Amharic, in which the verses rhyme:
(I’ve left the words that rhyme in capital letters for your Amharic reading pleasure)
“On that foot he’s got a CALCI [sock]– hoye hoye
And on the other foot, he’s got another CALCI– hoye hoye
He’s the owner of a TAXI – hoye hoye”
“In his pocket he has a BIRR [Ethiopian currency]– hoye hoye
And in his other pocket, he’s got another BIRR– hoye hoye
He’s the owner of a BABIRR [train] – hoye hoye”
Obviously, coating the landlord with praise has a lot to do with telling him how rich he is, and yes, owning a taxi in Ethiopia means you are rich man, maybe not extraordinarily rich, but marginally rich nonetheless. In return for the gleeful praise, a reward is expected. Nowadays, few “owners of trains” actually have the traditional mulmul on hand, so giving the children money for their praise is a well-paid alternative.
When I asked Tamerat´s little brother and friends what they were going to buy with the 6 birr (50 cents), they all agreed that the money would go towards a big pile of dates. Instead of a Halloween sack full of individually wrapped chocolate bars of hydrogenated soy beans and cornstarch, Ethiopian children are perfectly content with a nice bag of honeyed dates. When was the last time you gave trick-or-treaters a date to suck on?
In order to better understand Buhe, I started to compare the mayhem with other holidays I have seen, both home and abroad. I decided Buhe is where the original Halloween (when a trick was actually worth something) meets Catalonia’s Caga Tío (the latter being Christmas Eve in the Spanish region when children beat a four-legged, smiley-faced log with a stick screaming “Caga-Tio”, which translates to “poo it out, uncle!” in order to get gifts from the piece of wood).
Buhe has another purpose besides just singing and promoting the general cheerfulness of neighborhood children. The holiday gears the population up for the big New Year’s celebration, just a few weeks away. September is by and large the month with the most holidays, since two weeks after New Years, Ethiopians celebrate Meskel, another holiday experience with vintage Christian significance, bonfires and the cleansing of sins.