A New York Times reporter once asked Emperor Haile Selassie: “What is Ethiopianness?” “Ethiopianness is pride and humility,” said the Emperor boldly.
The journalist raised the question. “Excuse me, Your Highness. Don’t you think this humbleness and proudness are contradictory?”
The Emperor said: “You see a very ordinary farmer’s house. Wash your feet, kiss your washed feet; he leaves the bed for you, but he lies down on the floor. At the same time, if you come against him, and his land, he will shoot you in the forehead; So it does not conflict; But to understand this, you have to be Ethiopian yourself. Understanding Ethiopianness requires being Ethiopian; Ethiopianness is abstract!”
Who are the Ethiopians?
Ethiopia is a mysterious place. Without knowing, those who call themselves Ethiopians never want to give up on the holy, mysterious land. The culture is quite contradictory, the people uniting fiercely, ready to destroy any outside “enemy” but hesitant to confront the enemy within. They are a people proud of their history but tied up by its essence to move forward. An Ethiopian abroad always, always dreams of coming back home. From the Diaspora community within the African nations, Ethiopians are the second-highest returnees. A mystery indeed, if Ethiopians are not comfortable in their own skin, they definitely don’t envy others. They are mighty proud for who they are but unity within seems to allude them. But one thing certain is they all knowingly or unknowingly embrace their mystic experience in the land they call home without question or questioning, trusting the invisible cord to the higher power.
The name “Ethiopia” derives from the Greek ethio, meaning “burned” and pia, meaning “face”: the land of burned-faced people. Ethiopians are the native inhabitants of the country Ethiopia. They often refer to themselves as “Habesha.” It is a term used to refer to Ethiopians regardless of ethnicity. They are people with diverse backgrounds and religion. The beauty of the Ethiopian people lies in their diversity. They are people who consider their country as the land of origins and pride in being an independent black nation that has achieved victories over foreign forces. They are people with a long history and an ancient civilization in the northern part of the country. They take pride in being from the country where coffee was discovered.
What are they like?
Ethiopians are proud, cultural, welcoming, and full of energy. Ethiopians take pride in having a longstanding and independent nation with its own calendar and alphabetical system. It is pretty common to find people who are patriotic and keen to point out that Ethiopia is the only African country to never be colonized. The proud feeling has contributed to making Ethiopians stubborn and inflexible. They are skeptical about modern technologies and inflexible to changes. But this is starting to change. Ethiopians have had diverse cultures practiced for centuries. They have customs that are deep-rooted in their identity. Habeshas consider these customs to be the source of unity and closeness. Each ethnic group has distinct cultural practices and speaks a language specific to their ethnicity. Ethiopians are considered to be kind and welcoming. This behavior is mostly shown by how they treat their guests. One of the things that make Ethiopia attractive to tourists is the people’s kindness and welcoming spirit. Ethiopians are welcoming to and go out of their way to serve their guests. But this welcoming behavior is not reflected in their customer service.
People have lived in Ethiopia for thousands of years. However, the first well-known kingdom in Ethiopia rose in the first century AD. By 100 AD a kingdom called Axum existed in Ethiopia. Axum traded with Rome, Arabia, and India. Axum became Christian in the 4th century AD. The Arabs being Muslims, soon the whole coast of North Africa converted to Islam. Ethiopia remained Christian but it was cut off from Europe by the Muslims.
In the middle ages, Ethiopia flourished. The famous church of St. George was built about 1200. However, in the 16th century, Ethiopia declined in power and importance. Still, the nation survived.
In the modern ages, in 1848 the emperor of Ethiopia imprisoned British subjects and the British sent an expedition to rescue them. The British then withdrew. In the late 19th century the Europeans divided Africa up between them: Scramble for Africa. Soon all of Africa was in European hands except Liberia and Ethiopia. The Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1896 but they were defeated by the Ethiopians at the Battle of Adwa.
In 1923 Ethiopia joined the League of Nations. Then in 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. The Italians behaved with great brutality using weapons like poison gas. They soon overran Ethiopia. However, in 1941, the succeeded with assistance from the British. Emperor Haile Selassie was restored to his throne. Communists seized power in 1974 led by Mengistu Haile Mariam; the Communists introduced a tyrannical regime. Ethiopia also suffered terrible famines during the Communist era, and the regime was overthrown in 1991. In 1993, the northern state of Eritrea became independent. In Ethiopia, a new constitution was introduced in 1994, and elections were held in 1995.
Relevance of History for Ethiopians
For Ethiopians, history plays a massive role in their lives; it is one of the major sources of their pride. Within every activity, you will find an Ethiopian talking about their history one way or the other. From early on, Ethiopia has managed to be the only country not to be colonized by Africa, they won the battle of Adwa against Italians, which has very much contributed to the high values they give to themselves. Some say this pride has caused them to be more arrogant than the rest of Africans. It is common for an Ethiopian not to feel like he/she is African especially due to their skin color and their independent nation essence.
Even though Ethiopia has a long eventful history, little effort has been made to preserve it— especially in the southern part of Ethiopia. This is because many of the Ethiopian rulers were stationed in the highlands and the northern part over time. In most literature, it’s unlikely to find the history of the south. Aside from this, Christianity—specifically Orthodox—has taken almost full control throughout history as the rulers were followers of this religion and mostly claiming that they have been sent by God to lead their country, which has led the Ethiopians not to question their acts and decisions. For both followers of Christianity and Islamic religion, Ethiopia is among the holiest countries having a direct connection with the existence of the religion itself. And so for them, Ethiopia has been a blessed country in the hands of God since the beginning of time.
Even Ethiopians who have lived abroad for decades will speak of the country’s history with pride, often setting aside the negative aspects of it. But history cannot be ignored easily as it creates the basis for personalities. This is to mean it is detrimental to interactions as the collective ego may be out of control, and at the same time it adds strength and power to their personalities, making them trust their potential when they join hands when necessary time comes.
Painting by Amlaku Aschalew
Culture and Lifestyle
Ethiopians, being people with diverse backgrounds, have various unique cultures that are specific to each ethnicity. Without heavy European influence, cultures remained lightly affected by the Western culture. Religion is considered to be important in Ethiopians’ daily lives. Religious celebrations represent most of Habeshas’ cultures. There are colorful, religious celebrations with practices spanning centuries.
Ethiopians lead a collective life (“Mahberawi Nuro”). There is a very strong community focus embedded in Ethiopian culture. They have a close relationship with their neighbors. The community-based lifestyle holds an important place, and people are often reliant on their neighbors as well as their relatives. Ethiopians receive emotional, physical, financial, and social support; they give back to the community as well. There are special, traditional, social arrangements where the community saves money called “Equib” and “Edir.” Equib is a traditional way of saving money where funds are collected from the members and every member gets a turn to receive the collected money; this goes on until the last member gets his or her share. Edir is a social arrangement where members contribute money monthly or bi-weekly to be used in case a member’s family member passes away; the money is used to cover funeral arrangements. The community focus of Ethiopia gives the culture a strong social dimension. It is common for people to meet friends, play with children or socialize in public places without organizing it. With importance placed on coffee in the role of community, Ethiopians have a unique and indigenous way of indulging in the international brew. It is common to see neighbors gather for a coffee ceremony with three “rounds,” a daily ritual in Ethiopia.
Paintings in churches have a deep root and are admirable. Select individuals are taught the specific colors used for certain portrayals, and the color mixtures themselves are a mystery to most, lasting thousands of years. However, the evolution of art has not infiltrated the society yet. Ethiopians have not developed the culture of art appreciation in different forms as with most knowledge of any kind has been controlled by the church. In the different religions, praising the Creator has a melodious outlet. Music is certainly one of the highest forms of expression for Ethiopians. Romantic love and country or politics are often the themes. Another artistic interest of the people is photography, but this is specific to Ethiopians’ love of photos of themselves.
Ethiopians visit their relatives or friends without prior notice. Nowadays, it is more common to be notified that you will be visiting. When going to visit someone’s home, Ethiopians may buy fruits as a gift, but showing up with an offering is the norm. Buying flowers is considered uncommon. The guest is expected to stay over for a meal and coffee, and it is considered rude not to serve guests food and drinks—at least bread and tea or coffee. Welcoming to guests, Ethiopians want to make them feel as well-rested, satisfied, and full as possible. With a high priority of taking care of a guest and looking good, the host will often go beyond his/her means.
Most Ethiopians are public-conscious; this in Amharic is known as “Yilugnta.” They describe this as being selfless and generous. It is associated with questions such as “What would the neighbors think?” or “How would others judge my behavior?” Being self-restraint and accommodative to the concept of Yilugnta generally motivates Ethiopians to be extremely appeasing, cooperative, and considerate of others. This may include not being considerate of one’s own true feelings, wants, and needs, possibly causing confusion and resentfulness.
The symbol of social stratification differs in the rural and urban areas of Ethiopia. In the rural area, the symbol of social stratification includes the arable land, amount of cattle, and amount of grain a person possesses. In the urban area, the criterion for social stratification is based on a person’s house, car, and job. Education used to be important, but with the disintegration of the social fabric during the Derg, it is not so anymore. The quality of education was compromised immensely, which contributed to the importance of money. This has driven the society to unbearable corruption.
Ethiopia has a special status from a religious perspective. Christianity arrived here in the fourth century. The first Muslims arrived in the country in 615 as refugees and were taken in and protected by the Christian king; the party of converts to Islam in Arabia had fled persecution, traveling across the Red Sea seeking and receiving refuge in Ethiopia. The village of Negash is considered the first Islamic settlement, and its mosque is a popular tourist destination. The history of Judaism in Ethiopia also goes back thousands of years. Ethiopia is indeed the only country in Africa where citizens of different religions live together in relative peace, a solid example of tolerance! Still, this is not to say there haven’t been disagreements.
The Christians of Ethiopia initially had good relations with the converts to the new religion of Islam. Jesus is a revered figure in Islam, having the status of a Prophet. The Koran mandates tolerance for the People of the Book; i.e., Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. So initially there was no friction between the Muslims and the Christians. But later, political rivalries manifested themselves as religious conflicts.
One of the sources for Ethiopians giving their existence a slightly higher standard is due to their strong religious background. Under the Christine-Orthodox Bible, Ethiopia has been mentioned numerous times: Acts 8:27-39, 8:27, Jeremiah 13:23, Psalms 68:31, 2 Chronicles 14:9-15, 16:8, Isaiah 43:3, Amos 9:7, Isaiah 18:1-6, 18:1, Nahum 3:9, Ezekiel 38:1-23, etc.
The very origin of Ethiopia as a nation is found under the basis of religion—mainly Christianity. It has been an integral part of Ethiopians’ day-to-day lives in all age groups. The kids are expected to serve in the church at an early age while the elders are often in church daily attending celebrations and rituals. Religion also greatly impacts the working sector. There are holidays (Saint Mariam, Gabriel, George, etc.) almost every single day of the month, and holidays as such demand that one should not work during these days. This brings about zero results in the workplace, encouraging one to rest and feed on the income earned during those few non-holidays.
Religion has also impacted the medical aspect of Ethiopians. When an individual is ill, it is common for people to fight the illness through natural remedies, prayers, and holy water or soil. Holy water and soil are deemed to heal one from illness and take out any bad spirit one has possessed. Where at times, there is a grave illness that would need immediate help from medical professionals.
However, traditional healing or medicine such as herbs has been common practice. Even though the practice has somewhat died, it is reviving because of a few traditional medicine practitioner’s efforts. For instance, during Covid-19, a significant number of people—rural and urban—turned to traditional medicine with moderate success.
Overall, religion has an immense impact on the workplace, family, community, and daily lives of Ethiopian people.
Since the beginning, as any other archaic politics, all led to the throne initially came to serve their country, but often ended up abusing their power and wanting to be “leaders” for as long as they desired. This is common behavior in the politics of almost all African nations.
Politics is one of the most sensitive topics to Ethiopians, and people discuss politics sometimes in frustration and arguments. They check the news several times a day. They are usually inclined to believe news from untrusted sources, so rechecking if the information they gathered is true is rare. Ethiopians are mostly found to have a mob mentality in regards to political issues, where it often leads to extreme acts.
Ethiopians give a high value for money. Ethiopians consider money as a measure of status. The Ethiopian society gives priority to people with money rather than educated people, thus it is easier for people with money to earn Ethiopians’ respect.
Ethiopians are greedy and shortsighted when it comes to money. Inconspicuous consumption is common especially among the rich. Asked his opinion on the matter, an Ethiopian man in his twenties living in Addis recently said, “We, Ethiopians, are greedy. We only give money to others during religious holidays for us to feel good and feel as if we are kind. …We, Ethiopians, (also) have the misconception that to be rich we need to take shortcuts. Working hard for money is thought to be a waste and we tend to try to take a shortcut to earn money. It can easily control us and we make it our master.”
Most Ethiopians are known to be extravagant. This is true especially during holidays and other occasions such as weddings. It is common to see people spending more than they can afford to organize holidays and weddings. The extravagant practice is not only for festivities; it also includes funerals and memorials. This behavior is common because Ethiopians are often not planning for the future, and the momentary satisfaction from festivities is considered more important than future events. It is also because Ethiopians like to impress those around them.
Ethiopians tend to see education as an obligation and a means to success, and children grow up with that mindset. Due to these beliefs, this importance is emphasized in every Ethiopian family. Up until recently, there was a huge gap between boys’ and girls’ admission to schools. This was due to Ethiopians having a belief that girls were only good for marriage and belonged in the kitchen. But this reality has now changed. Girls have a better admission rate to educational institutions, and the gap has lessened greatly.
The education system in Ethiopia is more theory-focused than practical, and it is more focused on quantity than quality. It is a system where students memorize the capital cities of other countries before they learn about their own country. There is high competition to get into higher education, and a standardized test is required for admission to public universities. Throughout Ethiopia’s history, higher education has been a place where big political, social, and economic revolutions have taken place. These revolutions have brought dramatic changes in the nation. For example, the 1974 revolution against the last Solomonic Dynasty Emperor Haile Selassie started at Addis Ababa University (previously Haile Selassie I University).
Ethiopians are proud of their identity. What makes this different from other humans is that it is to a higher degree. They give a big place for their religion, and it is considered rude to criticize or question a religion. This is also true for the values one holds; they are considered an untouchable territory.
Ethiopians do not value time as most people do. Much value is given to social life with time at their disposal. A person might arrive to an appointment late and expects to be understood. The one who arrives on time will often not be offended by waiting as this has become part of the culture. Even a term called “Habeshas appointment” was coined to refer to delays. This has nothing to do with disrespect but a culture of not giving too much emphasis to the concept of time. This is gradually changing.
When it is said Ethiopians are proud of their country’s uniqueness and history, this behavior is also manifested in their personalities. It has made them inflexible and stubborn. Ethiopians are people who feel shy about making mistakes and would like to avoid them as much as possible. At all costs, most will avoid admitting their wrongdoings. They fear that people would consider them weak if they admit to their mistakes. They also try to refrain from asking for help for the same reason. Ethiopians, unlike others who do not care about what others think of them, have the need to appear as kind and strong as possible. There are times where Habeshas hold themselves back from doing something new because of fear—mostly from what others may think of them. Ethiopian parents are also conscious of the public eye. They often hold back their children from trying many things by thinking and saying, What would others say about my kid? A judgment toward the parents is of concern, not what would be reflected on the child or the outcome in general.
Ethiopians greet each other with a handshake and a kiss to the cheeks—traditionally three kisses total alternating from cheek to cheek. During the greetings, it is common for people to ask the other person about their family, health, and work. The greeting may last several minutes until they have exhausted all the common questions. It is considered rude to pass by without the usual greetings no matter how urgent the situation you are in. The older ladies take longer to finish their greetings; they might even start gossiping and making plans for drinking coffee together later.
Ethiopians are friendly people, and well-known for their hospitable character. There are a certain topics considered rude to ask about such as one’s ethnicity, questioning one’s values, and religion. Ethiopians are not wary of the stranger, unlike the French who consider strangers as “danger.”
Urinating in public is a common phenomenon in Ethiopia. Despite several warning signs (“Do not pee here”), one will still see people relieving themselves right under or next to these pleas for a clean community. It is also possible to see a mother encouraging her children to pee in public. Children from a young age are used to this practice and often participate while cars and pedestrians pass by even as adults. There are several public bathrooms but they are rarely cleaned, pushing people easily to use the outdoors. Ironically, eating on the street is not customary and frowned upon.
Driving in the capital city is quite a challenge. It has congested, low-quality roads as well as careless drivers. Most Ethiopian drivers are aggressive and traffic rules are not respected unless traffic police are present. The traffic police are also regarded to be corrupt and are usually easily bribed. Traffic jams are an everyday occurrence. This makes drivers impatient, and they usually try to take shortcut paths, cut in front of other cars without any consideration and are often not thoughtful of pedestrians. The careless behavior is not only experienced with motorists. Pedestrians are impatient as well, usually crossing roads even when cars approach at high speed. They use roads meant for vehicles, contributing to traffic jams.
Humility, Speaking Out, and Trust
A typical Ethiopian trait is humility. Or, it can be said humility is one of the characteristics of a person that is most valued in the Ethiopian culture. Lack of humility is considered to be rude. For this reason, people speaking to others about themselves tend to underrate their achievements.
The one trait of a confident person, which is not well-received in the Ethiopian culture, is when the person expresses his or her assurance of their qualities to others. There is this mentality that one should not openly speak out in general and about his or her qualities in particular to others. Rather, others should be the ones to confirm one’s qualities. So, many Ethiopians refrain from selling their abilities to others, which might open doors and put action to dreams. They wait for others to discover them and appreciate them. They constantly seek approval from others because it is taboo to speak highly of oneself.
Kindness is one of the core aspects of Ethiopians. One should share what s/he has with others, and helping neighbors is common. Much of it is related to their religious backgrounds and past hardships.
Ethiopians are very generous with their uncensored opinions, which can be misconstrued as honesty. They will tell you straight away what they had in mind, mostly disregarding the moral effect it might have on you. But this is not usually seen as a bad trait since it is very common to share a harsh truth. And still, hiding the truth is all too common, and talking openly about most personal situations in life where people can learn from each other is not common practice.
Earning trust is very difficult in Ethiopia; it takes effort and time to get one’s trust. This has to do with the high level of kindness they give in return. They are very cautious and do not trust any type of action right away; it is after much thinking that they decide to open up. Once they trust a person, they will embrace him or her fully. These days, trusting others has gotten even more difficult since numerous people are taking advantage of others, which has caused the majority to be more cautious than ever.
The common taboos in Ethiopia mostly appear from the religious perspective. The restrictions are more geared to women and require more energy and effort from them to hold back from doing what’s taboo in the community.
It is taboo to eat and drink alone. It is considered rude if you’re eating alone without inviting others to join you, and “inibla,” meaning “Let’s eat,” is the invitation. It is also considered rude to rush a meal and leave immediately after.
Publicly displaying affection is considered a very serious, wrongful act. One should only be affectionate towards their partner only when they are alone. Even more, discussing sexual-related topics is almost non-existent; it is seen as a very degrading and shameful act to talk about it. Because of this, sexual education is not typically given to the youth by either family or educational institutions.
Any topic related to religion which questions and confronts the very existence of God and related topics are considered disrespectful. At times, Ethiopians consider such a person to be possessed by an evil spirit.
Dressing in a way that displays skin, particularly wearing clothes above the knee, low cut around the chest area—for women—is seen as a taboo as well. She will be degraded, and at times portrayed as a lady of the night.
You are almost always expected to eat when you visit someone’s house. It is considered rude to decline an offer to eat. If you cannot accept food for a legitimate reason, decline it politely with a bow to show gratitude.
We have mentioned that Ethiopians are very welcoming and accommodating to guests. But this is not the case when we come to the professional world. Sayings such as the “customer is king” are rarely applied. There are cases where customers are treated badly by the service provider for no reason, and it is common to see arguments between the two. Service providers rarely show professionalism, and complaints from customers are not addressed by management. Often, to receive decent service one may need to establish a personal relationship with the provider. This is also helpful in public offices; the system usually requires you to know someone from the office for the process to be faster. Otherwise, it takes much of one’s time. Ethiopians, like any other human beings, give priority to those who are pleasant and close to them. As they are generally friendly people, achieving a personal relationship is more or less easy.
While shopping for anything and everything, it is common to see Ethiopians bargaining prices with the salesperson. People who can’t bargain prices are considered weak. When bargaining takes place, both sides are not aggressive; instead, they become friendly. Negotiators ask for each other’s understanding and eventually reach a middle ground. A recent trend is setting a fixed price and notifying customers. But Ethiopians prefer places where they could have bargaining power. It gives them a sense of accomplishment.
Bureaucracy and the System in Ethiopia
Anyone who has lived in Ethiopia for even a few years knows how much bureaucracy has taken control over the country’s system. From the lower level of government offices to the highest level, including educational institutions, establishments are filled with bureaucracy.
The majority of the work environment is filled with bureaucratic acts. It is very rare for a person to accomplish a task in a government office unless one knows someone on the inside or hand some “bakshish.” For employment in a government office, one must know at least one person working there or the chances of getting employed are slim. Once in office, the employees are usually uninterested and sometimes unwilling to assist visitors. Often carrying out tasks unethically, employees spend hours unavailable or without any work accomplished, which in turn wastes the time of customers and hinders progress.
Tips: If you have to go to a government office, do not wait long. Get your papers and show up a week prior as you are often sent away to bring what may be missing.
Call around to your friends and relatives and check if there is someone who knows anyone that works at that office. Best of luck!
In Ethiopians’ lives, family is regarded as the most important aspect. It forms the basis of people’s support networks, with relatives often being mutually reliant on one another to meet everyday challenges. The household structure is traditionally large with close ties. This is usually the case in rural areas. The father is expected to provide money for the family, and the mother is expected to support the family through household chores. Ethiopian children grow up in a strict environment. Family rules are expected to be kept. Parents and elders are highly respected; therefore, a child is expected to never talk back to their parents. Corporal punishment is common to any kind of misbehavior. Household dynamics can vary significantly between the different ethnicities, regions, and religions of Ethiopia. Furthermore, ideas of adulthood and/or the coming of age for children can vary between ethnicities and genders. Because of the close-knit culture of families, most decisions a child makes are influenced by their family. Many individuals’ decisions—especially women— continue to be influenced by their families in adulthood. In rural areas, parents have more authority. Elder family members expect to be cared for by their children and grandchildren in their old age.
Ethiopians have a very closely tied community life; this is also manifested in how a kid grows up. The child isn’t just his parents’; instead, the whole community takes responsibility to raise them. The community treats their neighbor’s offspring as their own, helping discipline them. It is usual for Ethiopian children to be raised in a relative’s household. Generally, Ethiopians love children.
Among Ethiopians, bearing a child is seen as an obligation for a married woman. If a married woman does not have a child, it is seen as a disgrace. The woman will face stigma even if she is infertile. She may face unpleasant comments and rude behavior from the immediate family of her husband. Considering other options such as adoption is not acceptable. Ethiopians are not used to adoption and other methods to have a child. The Oromo tribe has a culture called “Gudi Fecha,” a practice where they adopt a child from their own or another tribe. But this practice is not as common in other tribes.
While skin colors range from the lightest to the darkest in this nation, Ethiopian men and women are known for their general lighter complexion, which differs from the rest of the African countries. This is rooted in and a result of ancient history—trade with Arab countries to the east and India, where relations naturally must have flourished. Ethiopian women are frequently categorized as the most beautiful in the world. Using natural/organic supplements and skin care products also contribute to the glow. Women in Ethiopia have a lot of pressure when it comes to physical upkeep.
Women are insecure for the most part; the body image of a woman often disregarded by the entire community, which always comments on how women should look. For instance, girls who walk hunched over are considered to be disregarded by men and not capable of marriage. It is also said to never marry a woman with big feet. You will often hear people commenting on one’s body regardless of her being thin, fat, or average size, especially once the girl has turned to her adolescence.
A woman is expected to get married to a man once she turns 18-24. There is much more pressure on the side of women than men to find herself a man who can take care of her and to bear children. If a woman so happens to be in her mid- to late-20s, the pressure increases extremely especially from her immediate family, but the community as well. This affects her view of the relationship, rushing it just for the sake of marriage and not considering whether the man is right for her or not. If not married, she will be considered as left standing “ቁማ ቀረች/Kuma kerech.” In the views of family, relatives, and the community in general, the ultimate goal for women to achieve is to get married early and have children. On the contrary, Ethiopians do not support relationships; it is customary to marry a man immediately after the man sends elders to the woman’s parents’ home and other related pre-marriage rituals (Shimagle yemelak serat). This, of course, may take different forms depending on the community. It is a known trait for women to care for all like a mother, be it her children or husband.
In regard to relationships, any sexual activity before marriage is considered a very dangerous sin in any of the religions in Ethiopia. This is especially more serious on the side of the woman. As virginity is given a high value and sex should only be after marriage, any sexual act made by the woman is considered to be an embarrassment for her family—a double-standard indeed.
Men and Women
ወንድ ልጅ እንዴት አደርክ እንጂ የት አደርክ አይባልም!
You ask a man how he has been, not where he has been!
It is an understatement to say men and women are given different values in the Ethiopian community. Men are given high values and standards in Ethiopian society, family, as well as the workplace. Little is expected from them when it comes to adjusting their behaviors and overall characters. In a household, men—specifically husbands—are seen as the breadwinners and heads of households while the wives are expected to stay home and manage it. While this is currently changing, it is still practiced in the majority of the households in Ethiopia.
Sexism affects every single part of the Ethiopians’ daily lives. It is very common to encounter sexism in the day-to-day life of a woman. Very little education and awareness are given in regard to gender equality in the community.
The traditional Ethiopian songs including children’s songs, stories, folktales, proverbs, and sayings praise men and undermine women. Even more, having a son is given more value and respect than having a daughter in the family. This, in turn, indirectly affects girls from early childhood, making them feel less value for themselves and more for their brothers and men in general.
Most women seem to have accepted the limited roles that society has given them as well as the lower self-value. A woman’s dressing style, her work area, her way of upbringing children, her role in society, her looks, and her manners are all in a demeaning way overruled by men. And most men embrace the higher value society has placed on them, disregarding women’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions possibly until they have young girls of their own.
‘አህያና ሴት፣ ሲረግጧት አይከፋትም‘
‘A donkey and a woman won’t mind if stepped on’
‘ሴት በማጀት፣ ወንድ በችሎት‘
Woman in kitchen, men in court’
‘ሴትና ዶሮ ዱር ሲሄዱ፣ ቤታቸውን ይከዱ‘
‘If a Woman and Hen goes to the forest, have betrayed their house’
Food, Style, and Protocol
In daily life Injera, made from the grain Teff, is the staple of every meal. All food is eaten with the hands, and pieces of injera are ripped into bite-sized pieces used to dip and grab stews made of vegetables such as carrots and cabbage, spinach, potatoes, chick-pea and lentils; lamb, beef, or chicken dishes are also common. Ethiopians take mealtimes seriously. Doing other things during a meal is considered misbehavior. It is considered bad to not finish your portion of the food. It is a common practice to eat together from a bigger plate called “Tiri” in Amharic. Ethiopians enjoy ”Gursha,” where they serve bites to each other, a sign of affection.
Ethiopians’ traditional dressing style is unique to their ethnicity. Ethiopia has a rich history of traditional hand-woven textiles which are unique and beautifully delicate. There is a variety of Ethiopian clothing that differs in design, color, and fabric heaviness. Hairstyles, jewelry, and embroidery patterns are also unique to each tribe and some differ among regions of a tribe. The women of Amhara and Tigray tend to use lots of braids when doing their hair, while Harari women use buns behind their ears.
Ethiopians give importance to looking good in any occasion. This is the case especially during weddings and religious holidays. Traditional clothes are worn on special occasions such as weddings and holidays. Ethiopians usually wear a very thin and delicate, large scarf made from cotton on top of their traditional clothes. It is called ”Netela.” Normally, the “Netela” covers the back and shoulders, with the embroidered end folded over the right shoulder. The way it is worn differs according to the occasion and place. For example, for church it is worn covering one’s head and the embroidered end is wrapped around the shoulder. In mourning, an embroidered end is wrapped around the face.
“Funerals in Ethiopia are misunderstood by the outside world. It is not merely grieving for loved ones but rather countenancing all the grief of the human condition and all the pent-up sorrows of humankind” – Addis Fortune
Ethiopia holds a very unique funeral tradition. Ethiopians have a specific, complex ritual around dying, death, and mourning. For Ethiopians, funeral rituals are more than paying respect to the deceased; it is considered to be a way of life. Ethiopians are punctual when it comes to funerals. It is common for families to grieve together and openly. As soon as a death is announced in a community, relatives, friends, and neighbors flock to the family’s home to offer support. Ethiopians have three mourning days. During this mourning period, the deceased’s family is not expected to work or do their routine daily tasks. Friends, family, and neighbors gather to take care of the family. It is largely a communal effort to assist with cooking, cleaning, and any other work. The family is typically not left alone, even at night, over this entire period. Individuals hired to help mourn, “Aslekashoch,” cry aloud to assist in unleashing emotions and to “properly” mourn, but this practice is not as common as in the past. This act is also a carried out in the Judaism community, one of multiple distinct similarities. In Ethiopia, funeral rituals and customs vary across religions. But prayers are offered for the dead in every religion.
During a funeral service, it’s normal to see men and women wailing loudly and beating their chests in distress. After the burial, the mourning period is not over; it lasts at least several weeks and sometimes up to multiple months. Women often choose not to wear any fancy clothing, jewelry, or makeup during this time. Men usually refrain from shaving, growing beards. Black is worn by most. Orthodox people have a special celebration on the 40th day of the mourning period.
The Amharic language
Ethiopia has over 83 languages spoken by different ethnicities. Various regional languages coexist with the Amharic language, the national language. Widely spoken throughout Ethiopia, Amharic is used as a first language for many communities and as a lingua franca by others. It also serves as the official Ethiopian language for business and administrative duties in all cities and towns. Amharic is a language with 33 main characters, each containing 7 sub-characters incorporating vowels. The beauty of Amharic lies in the Amharic sentences that have more than one meaning. There are read-between-the-lines meanings in these sentences (Read more: http://awib.org.et/newsite/amharics-beauty/). Amharic gained its national importance mostly due to a single language policy during the imperial period of its history. Nowadays, it is common to see young people using a mix of Amharic and English languages (commonly known as Guramayle). Ethiopians pay less attention to grammar when using the Amharic language. The other striking aspect of Amharic lies in the complexity of the language. It has beautiful scripts and significance in the history of the Ethiopians.
Ethiopia is recognized as a nation with rich cultural heritage and geographic diversity. The people have preserved their traditions throughout generations. The unique traditions and cultures are generally structured along various categories: clothing, cuisine, and religious holidays. We cannot separate these unique features from Ethiopians as they are what make them Ethiopians. When aiming to understand the very essence of the Ethiopians, one aspect is clear: the mysticism of the land and people is intangible.
“Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, and origin of real culture unearthing the roots of what made me an African.”
– Nelson Mandela
Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God. – Psalms 68:31
Written by AWiB interns Abigiya Sem & Bethlehem Solomon; Edited by Nahu S. Girma & Yodit Gidey
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