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"Unity in Diversity": The People of Ethiopia
No where in the world is there a country as rice in culture as Ethiopia. With over 80 languages, a countless number of indigenous tribes and a boastful history of never having been colonized, Ethiopia stands apart from other African Nations.
The Ethiopian culture begins and ends with its people. The diversity of the country can be seen in the people's wide variation of cultural dance, song, food and dress. In the past these differences fueled brutal wars and xenophobic behaviors but today these disparities are being embraced and an era of "unity in diversity" has begun.
The nine administrative regions which people mostly use to identify themselves in the country were officially drawn out in 1994 when Ethiopia became a Federal Republic. The regions were established based on ethno-linguistic lines and created regions which were culturally distinct from each other while still being Ethiopian at heart.
This region, located in the Northern Rift Valley, is home to the Danakil Depression as well as some of the most famous excavation sites on Earth including where 'Lucy' was found in 1974. It is officially listed as the hottest place on Earth with daily reports of 45º C being common.
The Afar people consider themselves to be the oldest ethnic group in Ethiopia having lived east of the Highlands for at least two thousand years. Traditionally they are nomadic, carrying their homes made of palm fronds and matting on camelback from place to place. Today the area is becoming urbanized, especially around the capital city of Assaita. Only rural farmers still maintain a nomadic lifestyle. The landscape of the region is very barren with areas of active volcanoes and vast salt planes. Those who don't earn a living as pastoralists, herding livestock, work as miners and salt traders.
Compared to Ethiopians located just nearby in the Highlands, Afar peoples are generally very tall and dark in color. Due to the heat, the men dress primarily in light cotton togas, whereas the women still remain covered in long skirts and conservative tops. Their hairstyles also differ greatly with more of an "Afro" style rather than tight braids or a shaved head. The majority of the population is Muslim however their practices are considered more unorthodox when compared to other Muslim regions such as Somali.
The Amhara region, located just south of Tigray, is a very much more fertile region and boasts the best teff (a grain used to make injera) in Ethiopia. The people are believed to be descendents of Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, whose lineage ruled Ethiopia until Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
The western Amhara people are predominately Ethiopian Orthodox and are very proud of the monasteries which exist on the islands of Lake Tana, one of which was said to be built for the Queen of Sheba herself. In recent times, Protestant and Muslim churches have moved into the region, but as a whole, the area still remains strongly Orthodox. Eastern Amhara is a mixture of Muslim, Orthodox and Protestant. Due to the closeness of the Eastern Amhara main road to Afar, visitors may find towns here that are Muslim in majority.
Amhara has three well known cities (Gondar, Lalibela and Bahir Dar), which are heavily visited by tourists and Ethiopians due to their historical and religious importance. Amhara is also home to the Simien Mountains, which are located in the northwestern area and are made famous by the highest mountain peak, Ras Dashen, as well as the gelada baboons that roam the park. A high level of tourism does provide the area with a good influx of money, unfortunately though this wealth is typically isolated to the tourist sites and does not allow the region as a whole to profit.
Due to Amhara's large size, the style of dress, music, and dance vary greatly, as do the cultural foods. For formal occasions, women typically wear traditional clothes made of white cotton, while men wear formal suits or dress clothes. The language of Amhara is Amharic. It is linked to the ancient language Ge'ez, which is one of oldest written African language and is still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia and is used in most of the big cities for conducting business and trade.
Located to the west of Amhara and north of Oromia, this region is mostly unknown to people aside from its capital, Asosa. It is a fairly undeveloped region with a hot and humid climate. Due to its fertile soil and potential for growing fruit, the current government has an eye on this region for future agriculture and development growth. Historically, the homes in this region were built amidst rocky outcrops in the mountainous areas to protect the people from Sudan slave raids. This made farming and livestock rearing very difficult. Now that dangers have been reduced, the people have moved into the valleys where the land is more fertile and manageable.
Most of the people of this region are Muslim due to several centuries of Arab-Sudanese influences. Ritual specialists called 'neris' have also been adopted from their Sudanese neighbors and are believed to have healing, exorcist, and divination powers.
This region is located in Western Ethiopia. The two major ethnic groups of the region, Anuwak and Nuer, are generally very tall and dark-skinned. The Nuer people can also be distinguished by their unique cultural scarring located on their faces and sometimes arms. Scarring, similar to cultural tattooing in other regions, can serve as a means of social identification and/or a sign of beauty. The area has a long history of tension between the Anwak and Nuer people, and in the early to mid 2000s, this tension was fueled by its relative closeness to Southern Sudan and the SPLA influences.
Harari, officially called Harari People's National Regional State, is placed within the region of Oromia and is the smallest of the nine regions in Ethiopia. The region is comprised mainly of the Harari people residing in the capital walled city, Harar. The Harari's religion is historically Islam which makes Harar a predominantly Muslim city and a popular place for pilgrimages in Ethiopia. The people of this region are generally merchants, conducting business within the city rather than farming outside the town.
The style of dress in this region reflects that of Muslim tradition. Men wear galabias (long tunic shirts) and khoffias (small hats). Women can be seen in head scarves and full length dresses which are very vibrant in color and patterns; this is a distinguishing trait ofthe Harar region.
Oromia is Ethiopia's largest region, covering approximately a third of the country, and is home to approximately one fourth of the country's population. The regional language is Oromiffa, and despite having slight dialect differences across the region, the language is essentially the same making it the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia.
Oromia for the most part is rich in fertile soil and as such is considered the bread basketof Ethiopia, producing more than half of the nation's agricultural crops and almost half of its large livestock. The landscape however varies greatly, being very lush and green in the west and somewhat dry and barren in the east, especially where the Rift Valley lies.
Oromia is home to one of the birth places of coffee Jimma, located in southwestern Oromia. (Kaffa, located in SNNPR, is also thought to be a birth place of coffee). Jimma is still a large producer of coffee today and is also home to the Palace of Abba Jifar, a surviving cultural site from the Jimma Kingdom. Oromia also has an interesting cultural history which includes its own ancient traditional religion, Waqaa Faata, and a tribal practice of democracy, Gada, that stems back to the beginning of their known history.
The cultural dress for the Oromo people differs throughout the region but an easily identifiable style that of the Borana, Wellega or Shewa people which is a thicker cotton/burlap material that the women and men wear for special occasions. The cloth is typically white and may have a few bands of color. Men may also wear a sash of Oromo colors (red, white and black) across their chest.
A major source of pride for this region also includes its runners. Nearly all Ethiopian Olympic and professional runners including: Haile Gebre Selassie, Deratu Tulu ,Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele, hail from Oromia. Due to its high altitude, most train in or around the city of Assela, this is located just south of Addis Ababa.
Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples' state, or SNNPR, is easily the most diverse of all the regions with 45 different languages being spoken in the area and a number of surviving traditional nationalities. It has a dense, lush, jungle-like landscape and receives quite a bit of rain during both the short and long rainy seasons. The region stretches not only to the south reaching the Kenya border but also all the way to the west spanning the southern Sudan border.
A large source of pride for this region is its now-booming coffee business. Most of the coffee exported from Ethiopia is grown in SNNPR, including that for the US coffee tycoon, Starbucks. The region is also a big grower of khat, a green leaf that acts as a stimulant when chewed.
Nationalities located in the South Omo valley of SNNPR, such as the Mursi and Hamer people, are some of the most famous tribes still in existence in Africa. This area exists almost independently from the rest of SNNPR which is generally much more urban.
Aside from its rich cultural environment, SNNPR also boasts some delicious cultural food such as cocho, which is made from false banana root and is sometimes used in a meal as a substitute for injera and kitfo, minced raw meat mixed with local butter. Despite the great differences in nationalities in the south, all have a similarity in dress and dance; the dress is bright and the 'hip' dances are thought of as very sexual by their northern neighbors as most of the movement happens below the waist instead of in the shoulders like the majority of Ethiopian dances.
This is the second largest region in Ethiopia, but is scarcely populated due to its mostly desert or semi-desert landscape. The region is heavily Muslim and shares many traits with its neighboring country, Somalia; the most shocking being the substitution of rice for injera as a staple food in meals. The name Somali is derived from the phrase so maal which literally means 'go and milk the animal for yourself!' and is meant to convey (somewhat roughly) an expression of hospitality.
Today Somalis are nearly 100% Muslim, but in the past they had associations with the Oromia traditional religion, Waqaa Faata. As a result, a few rituals still exist as a subset of their Muslim faith such as rainmaking rituals, animal sacrifices, and belief in spirit possession.
Aside from the area along the Wabe Shebelle River, which runs through this region, the land doesn't lend itself to cultivation which contributes to the sparse population of this area.
Tigray, located in the northernmost part of Ethiopia, holds a great deal of historical, religious, and political importance for the country. The Tigrayan people are said to be descendents from the ancient Kingdom of Abyssinia and were closely linked to the Amhara people up until the late Middle Ages. The ancient city of Axum, head of the former Axumite Empire, is located in Tigray. It is home to many historical and religious sites such as Ethiopia's oldest church, Tsion Maryam. The church is said to house the Ark of the Covenant, a belief which makes Axum one of the most important cities for Ethiopian Christianity. It is also said to be the spiritual home of the Ethiopian Orthodox religion. It is not surprising, then, that Ethiopian Orthodox is the predominant religion in this area with very little Protestant or Muslim influence. Also located in Axum are the ancient Stelae, which stand up to 24 meters tall and are built of solid granite. They have been dated back to 300-500 AD and are a source of wonder for historians and engineers alike.
Tigray suffered greatly during the 1985 famine when it received almost no aid from the then-ruling government, the Derg, which even worked to keep aid workers out of the region. A select few spoke out against this and formed the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front, TPLF, which overthrew the Derg in 1991. This event, the "Downfall of the Derg," is recognized nationally on May 28th and is heavily celebrated in the Tigray region. In the capital city, Mekele, parades, public speeches, songs, and dancing can be seen on this day. Tigray was also instrumental in the defeat of the Italians in 1896 at Adwa in which even women joined the battle, another major source of pride for the region still today.
Tigray has a harsh, dry, and rocky landscape due to the minimal rainfall it receives each year. This makes farming very difficult, so most people can only grow enough to sustain their families. If the rains are late or small, the results can be disastrous with the potential for massive food shortage throughout the region.
The jewelry and hairstyles for Tigray women are very unique to the region. The hair is typically braided in three large sections then a thin braid is worn as a type of crown which is sometimes decorated with gold or silver jewelry. The jewelry, often large and bulbous in shape, is traditionally worn for special occasions such as holidays and weddings, although lately it has become a mainstreamed fashion accessory.
Our founder spent over 2 years living in a small Ethiopian community and our head guide has been leading groups for 10+ years.
We partner with our clients and are actively involved in real community projects in small towns in Ethiopia - check out our Dried Mango Project benefiting students and Bliss Internet Cafe which benefits orphans.
Explore the diversity of Ethiopian People from every region of Ethiopia including Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Tigray, Somali, and more.
Learn about Ethiopian Religion like Orthodox Christianity and Islam.
Prepare for an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony and learn the history of one of the most enjoyable aspects of Ethiopian culture.
Watch some awesome videos of Ethiopians Dancing.
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