Monday, March 29, 2010

People of Ethiopia

In the 1980s, the Ethiopian Tourism Commission published several books. The text that follows is the introduction from one of those books, titled Ethiopians and The Houses They Live In, written and illustrated by Jill Last.

Ethiopia is not only a large area , about the size of France, Germany and Spain combined, its altitudinal range is from a hundred metres below sea level -- one of the hottest spots on earth -- to over four and a half thousand, the summit of Africa's fourth highest mountain. This altitude range is divided into three zones: daga, woina daga and kolla, corresponding to highlands, middlelands and lowlands.

The highlands are mainly inhabited by Christian people who, with teams of oxen, plough the stony hillsides in the north and the richer arable valleys and plateaulands in the northwest. The population is not dense and the settlements tend to be scattered all over the landscape. Vast, deep gorges separate one plateau area from another, causing considerable social isolation to the Tigray and Amhara people who live here. Here is where t'eff is grown -- the cereal most favored by the highlanders. The keeping of cattle is secondary to these farmers.

Dropping from the 2,500-3,500 metre daga, we find very different cultural modes. at 1,500-2,500 metres lie the 'horticultural' areas, where the language base is often Cushitic as opposed to the northern Semitic (Gurage is the exception). This is the ensete area -- one of the few plant cultures in East Africa -- rolling green country with bamboo and acacia stands, homesteads clustering together, and the well-tended and manicured smallholdings. Here the land is extremely fertile and the population density is very high. Ancient methods of land allocation. This is the country of the Dorze, the Guarge and the Sidama.

Lower still, is the areal of pastoralists -- the true cattle people. This is the grass savanna and desert, and about twenty percent of the people who live here are nomadic or semi-nomadic. Vast areas of otherwise unproductive wastelands are ranged by the herding cultures; people like the Arsi, the Borena, the Afar, the Somali or the Nuer, to whom cattle are the source of power, prestige and security. These people are mainly Moslem and have been for several centuries, and their political structure has of necessity been based on bond friendship ties. The so-called 'pure' pastoralists who inhabit the inhospitable desert country of the Afar Triangle herd mainly camels and goats and subsist almost exclusively on a diet of milk, butter and meat. In a slightly less harsh environment you find the mixed cultivators, herding cattle and camels but also growing sugar and cotton crops. These are the Konso, the Harer Kottu, and the Anuak of Gambela, etc.

These broad sweeping categories, intended only to give a general picture of the extraordinary diversity of the land and its peoples. There are in fact an astonishing eighty-three languages and two hundred dialects spoken by Ethiopians. Each group tends to have some slight cultural difference even from its nearest neighbors. Their customs, and indeed their whole manner of living, their homes, and their diet have evolved over the generations, using local materials to advantage and trading to acquire occasional 'imported' goods. The people have prevailed, in spite of periodic famine, war and disease, and are now preparing to take a massive step forward in the time scale and adapt to 20th century technology.

It is vital to remember and understand the past, to take into consideration present cultural modes in order to transfer traditional goals and methods to modern concepts without destroying useful values, confidence and individuality. "Tribalism" per se must constitute a threat to development, but tolerance for ethnic differences, and the respect of one group for another with different customs, helps people to adapt to necessary changes and accept the idea that a part of their autonomy must be sacrificed to the building of the nation as a whole. Aware and proud of their differences, Ethiopia's people can work together towards a better life in the future.

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