When looking at the culture of Ethiopia, two very large factors come into play. One is our knowledge of Ethiopia and the other is our understanding of the concept of culture as a whole.
Webster defines culture as the collective Ideals, Customs, and social behaviors of a particular society as well as the human intellectual achievements regarded collectively. Here the word collective is seen repeatedly as if to emphasize the significance of the presence of a social group for the existence of a culture.
Culture is a social habit, which flourishes through intellectual incubation and then becomes seasonally exercised by a significant number of a collective group of people, who are then defined by that very culture. Thus, without a question culture differs from place to place, from peoples to peoples.
Tradition is, in some cases synonymous with religious or doctrinal beliefs. It is a heritage or lore of beliefs that continue to be passed down between generations. It differs from a culture in that culture doesn’t necessarily have to be age-old. Culture can be a trending characteristic that defines a particular generation of people and that generation only. Popular culture or pop-culture is a crystal-clear illustration of this.
Culture is bridged to tradition in that it can become a tradition, all it needs is to be passed down between generations. In the case of what the culture of Ethiopia is, we will have to consider the different varieties and subcultures within Ethiopia, in the context that is characterized by all the indigenous peoples with all their respective characteristics. Not to mention that present trends have to be taken into consideration, given that they are a characteristic representation of society and often come into play when assessing the reflective natures and expressive mannerisms.
There are various language groups within Ethiopia. The most predominant language groups being either Cushitic or Semitic in their language families. Under Cushitic, there are the Oromo and Somali people. And under Semitic, there are the Amhara and Tigrean people. The above-mentioned people comprise 75% of the total language groups inside Ethiopia. Each people with their own respective culture.
The remaining 25% is comprised of Southern and Western peoples who speak languages with roots both in Afro Asiatic and Osmotic linguistic families. Two alphabets are mainly used, one being the Ge’ez and the other being the Latin Alphabets. English is the most dominant foreign language and speaking in terms of pop culture American movies are seen almost as frequently as locally filmed movies within Ethiopia.
Listing all the respective cultures of each and every regional group would be time-consuming and the scope of this report would be inadequate to have such an in-depth and detailed analysis. However, to simplify the task, classification based on religious tradition would unite a vast array of peoples and would be a methodical approach to understanding how these different cultures operate within their respective traditions.
Religion and The Culture of Ethiopia
There are two major religions within Ethiopia. That of the Christian and those of the Muslim. Christianity within Ethiopia is mainly Orthodox, with a slight presence of variations of Protestantism and in part a portion that follows Catholicism. Islam is a very wide and vastly practiced religion in Ethiopia. Religion also make culture of Ethiopia.
- Religion and The Culture of Ethiopia
Culture of Ethiopia – Holidays
There are two types of holidays, religious and public. Of the public holidays, the major ones are New Year “Enqutatash” and Adwa Victory day, which is now an inter-continental holiday to commemorate the victory of Africans over a colonial force.
Amongst the Christian religious the definitive ones that are most expressive of the culture of Ethiopia are “Meskel” and “Timket”/Epiphany. During Meskel the Guraghe people of Ethiopia head back home, from wherever they may be in the country to the native town of their families and celebrate the holidays together during a time of extensive feasting. Meskel, in Guraghe culture of Ethiopia, is a time for reuniting families.
In the case of the Muslim Guraghe, Eid-Al-Adha or Arefa would be the equivalent holiday that reunites the Muslim Guraghe families. It is a time for the young Guraghe to return to his hometown and show his family how successful he has been in his line of work, how much wealth he has accumulated and what kind of social standing or reputation he has earned for himself, be it trade or another line of work.
The Meskel holiday is not only culturally unique for the Guraghe people, but throughout Christian Ethiopia it is a large festivity celebrated to honor the efforts of Queen Eleni to find the true cross of Christ. It is celebrated by lighting a large fire to commemorate the process by which the queen mystically used to locate the cross. Christians throughout the country light this fire to celebrate this.
Another special holiday particularly unique within the Ethiopian context and essential to the culture of Ethiopia is Timket/Epiphany. This is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, it is particularly endemic and essential to Ethiopia in that it is celebrated in such a unique manner. ‘Tabot’s or replicas of the Ark of the Covenant are serenaded around the city, with a congregation following up as all the ‘Tabot’s are led to a field called Jan Meda or the King’s Field.
Then there is dancing and singing, with a ceremonial sprinkling of holy water, customarily followed by a practice called “Lomi Wurwera” or a throwing of Limes. A man who has a certain attraction towards a particular female lets her know or symbolically confesses his feelings by means of throwing a Lime at the woman. Then it would commence as she favors.
In Gondar, Timket has a very special celebration where people travel from wherever they may be to Gondar and then go to the Bathtub of Fasiladas. It is not a classic bathtub, but rather a fairly large compound with a swimming pool embedded into the landscape, and a castle built inside the pool itself. Here the pool is filled with water, every Timket, then blessed by the prayers of a member of the clergy, then the celebrations commence where people dive into the pools one by one.
A non-religious holiday that is worthy of mention perhaps, is the coming of age of the Omotic Hamer boy. The day the boy becomes a man. In order for the boy to prove that he is a man, he must jump over the backs of seven bulls paced side to side one after another. If he fails to walk/jump over the back of each bull without slipping and falling then he will have to try the following year. Otherwise, the man won’t be able to win over a wife, and will not be legitimately allowed to marry by the tribe.
- Culture of Ethiopia – Holidays
Culture of Ethiopia – Gender Roles
Gender roles in the culture of Ethiopia are typical in regards to the fact that Males dominate the household and in turn the social aspects, the economy, the politics, the education, and every major aspect in the face of human civilization. Women are traditionally, especially in rural Ethiopia, reserved for household management, cooking, cleaning, fetching water, and conforming to the classic image of becoming a housewife. Since birth, a girl’s life is geared towards growing up, becoming a wife, and becoming a mother.
This is fading away nowadays, with women being provided a better platform to engage in the socio-economic and political aspects of the state, they’re being involved in leadership and political roles. As the first female president of Ethiopia, Sahlework Zewde once said, “There is nothing a woman or a girl ‘cannot’ do”, in reference to all the things girls are told they CANNOT do whilst growing up. A better platform is provided in education nowadays, making it more suitable for female faces to pop up in the scene of science and technology.
There is still, however, a major schism when it comes to what is happening in the urban scene versus what is happening in the rural scene. Since, on the rural side, men are involved in agriculture, and naturally, their spouses would resort to roles that feed into or support the ‘man of the house’. Here the relevance of education might not be as boldly visible as it is in the urban scene, where social roles and standings are highly rooted in the level of education one has.
With the exception of trade and commerce which is dependent on one’s natural talents, communication skills, knacks, and capability of finding a way around things. Even in this field, women are still not present as much as the dominating men. But the way things are headed provided the new hopeful faces that arise every day it is possible that the future holds much more for women than they have been traditionally resorted to.
- Culture of Ethiopia – Gender Roles
Culture of Ethiopia – Cusine
Ethiopian Cuisine is unique in that it is spicy and dominated by meat. This is a unifying character amongst the majority of subcultures within Ethiopia. This, however, does not mean that consumption resorts to meat and meat only. In the fasting season, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church, an array of vegetables and ‘Wot’ which is basically sauce or stew is the dominant dish on the table. The Wot is put on a plate with some of the internationally popular ‘Injera’, the sourdough flatbread, made from the even more infamous Teff flour.
Customarily, almost every food is eaten with the hands. And it’s imperative to the grace of the culture that it must be done so. It is a culture of Ethiopia that is rigorously practiced to this day, and it is considered dishonoring the Injera if it is being eaten with a fork or spoon. It is shameful, and in some cases treated as a taboo even. Also, now that the word taboo is mentioned, Injera must always be eaten with the right hand. Even by left-handers.
Some endemic and cultural drinks of Ethiopia are “Tej” which is essentially like mead made from fermented honey, ‘Tella’ which is another fermented alcoholic drink, ‘Borde’ which is an alcoholic drink made from cereals and ‘Keneto’ which is like a pre-fermented ‘Tella’ Each and every subculture within Ethiopia, has their own characteristic and unique dishes, and once more the scope of this paper does not delve into that depth. However, those that are mentioned are just highlights of the characteristics of the culture of Ethiopia dominantly practiced by the large portion of the population or are so unique and endemic to the country that they just have to be mentioned.
- Culture of Ethiopia – Cusine
Culture of Ethiopia – Clothing
Clothing in Ethiopia is characteristically depicted by a white cotton weaving. This weave can be expressed in a variety of styles, varying from culture to culture, but the essential underlying concept is the same. The process of weaving is known as “Shimena” and it is widely practiced by the Dorze peoples who are infamous for their weaving skills. Characteristically, the Dorze people don’t wear white clothing for themselves. Nor do any of the Southern peoples. They wear colorful clothes that are decoratively lined, and this is a character most boldly seen in the case of the Wolayita people.
White is the color used mostly to the north of Ethiopia, with the exception of the Afar people. White, in the Ethiopian context, symbolizes hope, purity, cleanliness, and good. Whereas black is symbolically representative of death, despair, and doom. In the case of Ethiopia, this is conventionally the case, there is no sample of a culture that likes to use black as their representative cultural color.
Coming back to the North, there is an obvious difference in the way men and women wear this cultural cloth. The process of making the cloth, ‘Shimena’, is called Shimena because of the fabric that is being used. The fabric is called ‘Shema’. Shema is roughly comparable to cotton.
When women wear this clothing, it is woven into a dress or ‘kemis’ and a ‘Netela’ which roughly translates to shawls. The rim of the shawl as well as right above the hem of the Habesha dress or Kemis there is a colorful lining of decorative pattern design. Which can be customized based on the client’s preference. Contemporarily, these dresses are worn either on holidays or to church, if worn elsewhere with no particular special event being held, it might raise eyebrows as to why they dressed so well.
When men wear clothing there are three major articles, the trousers, the shirt, and the top. Everything is white.
The trousers are sometimes called ‘Tenefanef’, due to the swishing sound they make during walking. This sound is caused due to the nature or shape of the trousers, which are really tight below the knees and really wide above the knees. The shirt is a long shirt, which goes all the way down to the knees, it is, of course, white, and has collars without a fold. The top can either be a ‘Netela’ or a white sweater.
Nowadays, it is more common or frequent to see women in traditional clothing than men. The men of the generation hardly ever dress in a full-fledged composition of traditional clothing articles. Even in the case of holidays.
- Culture of Ethiopia – Clothing
Culture of Ethiopia – Music
Music has a very distinctive and special character in Ethiopia. Ethiopian music is unlike any other kind of music heard elsewhere in the world. The name synonymous with Ethiopian music is St. Yared, who was just a student of the doctrine and had failed seven times before the successful composition of the infamous Ge’ez, Ezil, and Araray melodies.
Which would then later serve as the basis for the infamous pentatonic scale to be derived. Of the many artists that have succeeded with the use of this melody, we can mention Aster Aweke, Ejigayehu Shibaba, and Teddy Afro. Of some pioneers who have brought foreign styles back to their homeland and translated them to the pentatonic scale.
Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethio-jazz and Rophnan Nuri the pioneer of electronic dance music in Ethiopia is known for it. To name the instruments used in Ethiopian music, we can mention ‘Mesenqo’ from the chordophones, ‘Washint’ from the aerophones, ‘Tsenatsel’ from the idiophones, and ‘Kebero’ from the membranophones.
Several artists with Ethiopian roots have even made it to the international scene, Such as Meron Addis from England and Abel Tesfaye from Canada. Abel in particular, or as he is more commonly known ‘The Weeknd’ has cited and sampled the Ethiopian Pentatonic scale in a variety of his works. Even sampling the voice of Aster Aweke at the end of one of his songs.
- Culture of Ethiopia – Music
Culture of Ethiopia – What is trending?
Contemporary Ethiopia is characterized by a fusion of foreign styles, in particular western styles with the traditional roots inherited from the previous generation. The influence of Hollywood films from Los Angeles is loudly visible, and the mass has easy access to this thanks to the ubiquitous satellite dishes that receive the continuous streaming of western films by the channels of Arab Sat. In addition to that people dig up additional forms of entertainment of all natures. Rastafarian and Jamaican styles are honored by a particular local group, which resonates with their sense of national pride, autonomy, and sacred nature.
Entertainment is also channeled through social media and YouTube which can all be attributed to the internet. All this plays a role as a factor in the contemporary culture of Ethiopia, and what kind of culture can flourish in the future. Whether it is distinctively visible or clearly perceptible is a matter of debate. However, it would be more farfetched to assume the media has no effect on popular contemporary culture than it is to deduce that there is an influence by media on our culture of Ethiopia.
Finally, on the Culture of Ethiopia
As it was mentioned at the start of this paper, culture is a definitive characteristic that is representative of a particular generation as opposed to tradition, which is the inherited sacred characteristics of a particular society or a group of people. Without a question, it is crystal clear that the behaviors of the previous generations of Ethiopians are completely different from those that live today.
We can attribute this to the different environments and social settings that have brought about our different behaviors, and an essential part of that is contemporary popular culture or simply, what’s trending. Trends come and go, and thus they are only a temporary means of expression and the characterization of a society.
No matter what, though, one thing remains unchanged. That is the nature of the Ethiopian people. No matter where from, the Ethiopian people are generous, kind-hearted, welcoming, and humble. They would go to unmentionable lengths to comfort someone and place them in their comfort zones. They play the role of the overwhelming guests and generally put forth their best face, their best attitudes, and their best gestures to communicate and interact with others. Humble as may be, however, when it comes to national pride no games are played. And in an instant, the most kind and meek individual can burst into a raging fury that roars upon any threat.
Inferring from the past, and making present recordings, one can easily see that tradition is held very sacredly within Ethiopia, and even though it may not necessarily be as flaunted as it once was, it still holds deep meaning and is cherished by a mass that still has very heated emotions on the subject.
Ethiopia is a historic nation, with a record of over three thousand years, and different cultures that have come and passed and different traditions that carry on to this day. It is only fitting, that the weight of the traditions and the impositions that drive the natures of present cultures are only as massive as the large span of years held in the shackles of history as we know them today. The culture of Ethiopia is truly unique and worth the visit.
- Culture of Ethiopia – trending