Ethiopia and its people
Ethiopia is truly a Land of diversity – brilliant and beautiful, secretive, mysterious and extraordinary. Above all things, it is a country of great antiquity, with a culture and traditions dating back more than 3,000 years. The traveler in Ethiopia makes a journey through time, transported by beautiful monuments and the ruins of edifices built long centuries ago.
Ethiopia, like many other African countries, is a multi-ethnic state. Many distinctions have been blurred by intermarriage over the years but many also remain. The differences may be observed in the number of languages spoken – an astonishing 83, falling into four main language groups: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. There are 200 different dialects.
The Semitic languages of Ethiopia are related to both Hebrew and Arabic, and derive from Ge’ez, the ecclesiastical language.
The principle Semitic language spoken in the north-western and central part of the country is Amharic, which is also the official language of the modern state. Other main languages are Tigrigna, Guraginya, Adarinya, Afan Oromo, Somalinya, Sidaminya, Afarinya, Gumuz, Berta and Anuak.
The Tigrigna- and Amharic-speaking people of the north and centre of the country are mainly agriculturalists, tilling the soil with ox-drawn ploughs and growing Teff local millet), wheat, barley, maize and sorghum. The most southerly of the Semitic speakers, the Gurage, are also farmers and herders, but many are also craftsmen. The Gurage grow Enset, ‘false banana’, whose root, stem and leaf stalks provide a carbohydrate which, after lengthy preparation, can be made into porridge or unleavened bread.
The Cushitic Oromo, formerly nomadic pastoralists, are now mainly engaged in agriculture and, in the more arid areas, cattle-breeding. The Somali, also pastoral nomads, forge a living in hot and arid bush country, while the Afar, semi-nomadic pastoralists and fishermen, are the only people who can survive in the hostile environment of the Danakil Depression. Living near the Omo River are the Mursi, well-known for the large clay discs that the women wear inserted in a slit in their lower lips.
Traditional dress styles
The people of Ethiopia wear many different types of clothing. The traditional dress of the Christian highland peasantry has traditionally been of white cotton cloth. Since the time of Emperor Tewodros II (mid-1800s), men have worn long, jodhpur-like trousers, a tight-fitting shirt and a shamma (loose wrap).
The Muslims of Harar, by contrast, wear very colorful dress, the men in short trousers and a colored wrap and the women in fine dresses of red, purple and black. The lowland Somali and Afar wear long, brightly colored cotton wraps, and the Oromo and Bale people are to be seen in the bead-decorated leather garments that reflect their economy, which is based on livestock. Costumes to some extent reflect the climates where the different groups live – highlanders, for instance, use heavy cloth capes and wraparound blankets to combat the night chill. In the heat of the lowland plains, light cotton cloths are all that is required by men and women alike.
Traditional dress, though often now supplanted by Western attire, may still be seen throughout much of the countryside. National dress is usually worn for festivals, when streets and meeting-places are transformed into a sea of white as finely woven cotton dresses, wraps decorated with colored woven borders, and suits are donned. A distinctive style of dress is found among the Oromo horsemen of the central highlands, who, on ceremonial days such as Meskel, attire themselves in lions’ manes or baboon-skin headdresses and, carrying hippo-hide spears and shields, ride down to the main city squares to participate in the parades.
Ethiopians are justifiably proud of the range of their traditional costumes. The most obvious identification of the different groups is in the jewelry, the hair styles and the embroidery of the dresses. The women of Amhara and Tigray wear dozens of plaits (sheruba), tightly braided to the head and billowing out at the shoulders. The women of Harar part their hair in the middle and make a bun behind each ear. Hamer, Galeb, Bume and Karo men form a ridge of plaited hair and clay to hold their feathered headwear in place. Arsi women have fringes and short, bobbed hair. Bale girls have the same, but cover it with a black head cloth, while young children often have their heads shaved.
Jewelry in silver and gold is worn by both Muslims and Christians, often with amber or glass beads incorporated. Heavy brass, copper and ivory bracelets and anklets are also worn.
Ethiopia also has a rich tradition of both secular and religious music, singing and dancing, and these together constitute an important part of Ethiopian cultural life. Singing accompanies many agricultural activities, as well as religious festivals and ceremonies surrounding life’s milestones – birth, marriage and death.
Traditional Musical Instruments
Traditional musical instruments in widespread use include the Massinko, a one-stringed violin played with a bow; the Krar, a six-stringed lyre, played with the fingers or a plectrum; the Washint, a simple flute; and three types of drum – the Negarit (kettledrum), played with sticks, the Kebero, played with the hands, and the Atamo, tapped with the fingers or palm. Other instruments include the Begena, a huge, multi-stringed lyre often referred to as the Harp of David; the Tsinatseil, or Sistrum, which is used in church music; the Meleket, a long trumpet without finger holes, and the Embilta, a large, simple, one-note flute used on ceremonial occasions.
Though often simply made, the Massinko can, in the hands of an expert musician, produces a wide variety of melodies. It is often played by wandering minstrels, particularly near eating houses, where the musicians entertain the diners. The rousing rhythms of the Negarit were used in times gone by to accompany important proclamations, and chiefs on the march would be preceded by as many as 30 men, each beating a Negarit carried on a donkey. The tiny Atamo is most frequently played at weddings and festivals, setting the rhythmic beat of folk songs and dances.Modern-style bands have come into existence in recent decades, and there are noted Ethiopian jazz musicians.
Injera is made from a cereal grain that is unique known as Tef. Though t’efs is unique to Ethiopia it is diverse in color and habitat. Tef is a member of the grass genus Eragrostis or lovegrass. T’ef will grow in many areas it is not an easy crop to farm. One problem in particular is that the weight of the grain bends the stem to the ground.
Fortunately for the Ethiopian Jews (and all Ethiopians) depends on Tef Injera, as a staple of their diet. Tef is nutritional miracle food. It contains two to three times the iron of wheat or barley. The calcium, potassium and other essential minerals are also many times what would be found in an equal amount of other grains. Tef has 14% protein, 3% fat and 81% complex carbohydrate.
Tef is the only grain to have symbiotic yeast. Like grapes, the yeast is on the grain so no yeast is added in the preparation of injera.
Tef is milled to flour and made into batter. The batter is allowed to sit so the yeast can become active. When the batter is ready it is poured on a large flat oven and allowed to cook. This process is much harder than it sounds and it is recommended buying from an Ethiopian Market or Restaurant in your area.