Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Life in Sidamo

In the 1980s, the Ethiopian Tourism Commission published several books. The text that follows is from one of those books, titled Ethiopians and The Houses They Live In, written and illustrated by Jill Last. The book is broken up into various regions of Ethiopia. I've copied the section on Sidamo, as that is where most children from Sele Enat are from.

Sidamo Region, stretching from Lake Abaya to Lake Awassa, is the deep south and the name instantly conjures up a picture of green coffee-growing country. The huge shady forest trees dense on the mountain slopes, and the brighter green of the ubiquitous ensete plant which surrounds every smallholding, fades gradually to the brown and sand of the semi-desert near the Kenya border.

Ensete actually exists as a wild plant throughout tropical Africa but the sixty-eight cultivated varieties grow exclusively in Ethiopia. Ensete is a root tuber, the same sort of thing as a yam, and gives a higher and more dependable yield than any other crop, in additional to the edible root from which the bread is made, the leaf, fibre and bark each has it uses. The people who cultivate it have developed a character for meticulousness, hard work and cooperation with each other.

The Sidama are divided into six groups and countless subgroups with sufficient confusion among the various names to baffle even the most erudite of scholars. However, the need for cooperation in achieving a goal is well-understood, and most of them inherit an intuition of the survival value of working together (even if they do not go as far as the Borena, who never fight or argue among themselves.) The men build the huts and grow vegetables with the wives' help, and the women market and clean and cook.

The Sidama provide a perfect example of the transition from tribal and semi-peasant systems to the more inclusive national and economic ones. It was, in fact, coffee which changed things. After Menilik's conquest in 1893, he divided the land between his officers and soldiers, virtually reducing the people to serfs. They suffered from corrupt local administrators and the worst kind of absentee landlordism.

But, as wild coffee gradually became a cash crop, the Sidama moved out of their traditional isolation in the marketing system which is part of the national infrastructure. They formed their now well-known associations -- the very first one formed was actually for building their beautiful bamboo woven houses, and the system was only later used for eliminating the profit-making middlemen from the coffee trade. The Sidama organized themselves, each member investing the share of capital needed to buy trucks, etc. They learned marketing, borrowing and book-keeping, and cooperation with the central government. Through their own efforts they now play a major role in Ethiopia's coffee export trade.

A fascinating people, they are nominally Christan, but some of the old pagan practices linger on; a belief in the Eye and Sacred Trees. Pythons are supposed to be a reincarnation and are kept in the houses and fed on meat. Their reputation as house guards is quite considerable.

The people wear cotton these days, only boys and the very poor still wear skins, and the charming Sidamo brimmed fur hat which can also be used to drink from. Women complete their ensemble with copper bracelets and earrings, the man a copper collar.

As for their houses -- the beehive-shaped tukul is known as the 'Ethiopian house' in many parts of the world, having been constructed by Sidama workmen on site at the Canada Expo, the IATA Conference in Athens and the Japan Expo, where it was admired by visitors from all parts of the world.

Bamboo is the material used for the framework ad is covered with grass and ensete leaves as the rainy season approaches. A small front porch shades the entrance. Inside, the family have the right side and the calves the left. Furniture is simple wooden bedsteads and stools. Near the main hut, a fence of woven bamboo or euphorbia surrounds the vegetable plot.
Extra line breaks have been added from the original text to make reading in blog format easier.

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