A Horse-drawn carriage festooned with balloons and Ethiopian flags stops in front of a crowd at a ramshackle football stadium.
Two women in traditional white dresses pluck a gold trophy from the cart and place it on a stage inside a garland of red and white roses. Beneath is a computer-generated image of the $3.8 billion dam Ethiopia is building across the main tributary of the Nile River.
The trophy celebrating what will be the world’s seventh- biggest hydropower plant, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, has arrived at Debre Birhan town.
It’s the latest stop in the African nation of almost 100 million people in an Olympic torch-style promotional tour.
The rally featuring circus performers in Ethiopia’s red, yellow and green colours is part of a four-year drive to raise funds for the GERD project that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, said Ethiopia had to pay for on its own.
An engraving on the trophy’s base dedicates it to the dam’s owners, the Ethiopian people. Public events maintain momentum for a unifying project that offers hope, said Zadig Abraha, deputy head of the dam’s fund-raising council, on May 5
“We have starved and experienced famine for so long while having this immense resource,” he said about the Blue Nile. “When the government decided to build the dam the people have enormously welcomed it as they know they will benefit.”
In tents outside the festivities 130 kilometers (81 miles) northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, dam bonds denominated as low as 25 Ethiopian birr ($1.22) are sold.
Assefa Yeshitla, a farmer at the pageant, bought a 500-birr bond with an interest rate below inflation. “I really want to contribute with what I have,” he said.
A text-message lottery featuring prizes of cars and houses is regularly held to help pay for works scheduled for completion in 2017.
Ethiopia’s government says the project will end poverty and make it a regional electricity hub. GERD is designed to produce 6,000 megawatts, almost triple the country’s current generating capacity.
Downstream, Egypt worries the dam may leave its citizens short of the water they get from the Nile for crops and industry. Analysts including Harry Verhoeven, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, caution a lot needs to be done before the benefits of the dam are realised.
At the pageant, cardboard placards scrawled with slogans handed out to school kids, farmers and civil servants proclaim a determination to harness the river that begins in Ethiopia’s highlands. Seven weeks before parliamentary elections, the ruling coalition’s worker-bee logo is prominent. Concerts, sports days and a bond-buying week in April mark the project’s fourth anniversary.
“Meles, we will fulfill your word,” says a sign that Assefa, wearing a green wooly hat, is holding. “The Nile dam will become reality with the help of our people.”