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Ethiopia’s amazing cultural diversity

The word Ethiopia is taken from two Greek words, ethio, meaning “burned” and pia which means “face” thereby called the land of the “burned face” inhabitants or the land of the black people.

Boy in traditional outfit

A small boy dressed in traditional Ethiopian or Habeshan shirt and probably some nylon trousers produced in Asia. Of course the Ethiopians are being exposed to globalism but they take great pride in their traditions and culture

Ethiopia is Africa’s tenth largest nation and home to approximately 80 million people and about eighty identified ethnic groups. The prevailing ethnic group in Ethiopia is the Amhara. The Amhara, along with the Tigre, a minority group in Ethiopia, is believed to constitute about one-third of the overall population in Ethiopia.

Woman in Harar

Woman in Harar

There are over 80 recognized indigenous languages in Ethiopia and most people speak Amharic. However, English is still widely used as a medium for communication among people in this land. English is also the mostly used foreign language for instruction in secondary schools, colleges and universities.

Harar Old Town

People and colors mingle in the last rays from the setting sun in Harar's old town near the city gate. Harar is the fourth most important city in Islam. Photo by Mikkel Grabowski

Culture in Ethiopia
In general, Ethiopians are well known for their warm and courteous greetings when dealing with others. Greetings need to be well specified, sincere and must not be rushed. One should take the time to inquire about the person’s important concerns like family, job, business and health. When greeting a group of people, one should acknowledge the elderly or speak to the eldest person first, and so on. Most Ethiopian greetings are somewhat formal in nature such as handshaking with friends, business associates, and with new acquaintances.

Ethiopian culture

Ethiopian culture

It is also traditional to bow the head when introduced to somebody who is older or has a higher position than you. Often, children are the ones who do this form of salutation in meeting older generations. They also consider direct eye contact as essential to show respect to other people. Ethiopian culture also suggests that it is tolerable to kiss a person of the same sex three times on his/her cheeks after close comradeship has been established. Unlike other cultures, people in Ethiopia are also called by their first names or by the honorific title given to them. “Woizero”, “Ato”, and “Woizrity” are the terms used accorded to a man or a married woman.

A married couple receives ovation

A young newly wed couple stands on a tribune receiving cheering ovations as the music plays

Ethiopian cuisine
Ethiopians love to eat and their food is somewhat unique. Injera, which is a sponge-like pancake is seen in nearly all tables of Ethiopian families. It is made from teff, which is a grain that is indigenous to most areas in Ethiopia and it takes 2-3 days for the dow to be ready for cooking on a pan. Some people also use Injera as an edible utensil to scoop other foods. There is Wat, a meat dish that is a size of a small cube, often made from chicken meat, lamb, goat and beef.

Waitress at a restaurant in Harar

Waitress at a restaurant in Harar

The Ethiopians also have various vegetables dishes utilizing some herbs and local spices. Most Ethiopians are used to eat with their bare hands; however it is traditional to use the right hand only when eating, as the use of the left is believed to be unclean. Tej, a honey wine and tella, a home-brewed beer are the two most commonly served beverages in the households of Ethiopia and even in beer houses.

Woman in Harar selling Khat

Habeshan hospitality
Ethiopians are known for their hospitable and accommodating approach towards others. They like to invite people and entertain their friends and guests at home. In fact, receiving an invitation from close friends or even distant acquaintances should be considered an honor and must not be rejected.

coffee ceremony in a shopping mall

Tables, chairs, cups and grass - all the other important ingredients for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony arranged to welcome the costumers in a shopping mall in Addis Ababa

Coffee, which is claimed to be legitimately originated in Ethiopia, is equally important in Ethiopian culture as well as in the economy. They are often served with blended sugar and salt in other Ethiopian areas. Coffee is also considered a part of Ethiopian snacks along with popcorn and barley. Ethiopians are used to offering their visitors coffee, which is a national drink in Ethiopia, and it would be rude to refuse the offer. Though punctuality is not regarded as a really big issue, tardiness in business meetings, class discussions and even family occasions is seen improper and undesirable and must not be tolerated.

All the ingredients and tools to perform a traditional coffee ceremony serving some of the best coffee in the world

Similar to other Western and Asian cultures, gift giving is a form of extending warm gratitude to the recipient of the present. It is also seen on most special events like birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries and religious occasions. Though gifts are special to Ethiopians expensive and lavish forms of gift giving are not necessary since most of the country’s inhabitants are known to be particularly poor. Indeed, giving gifts that are too pricey is viewed negatively as this may be humiliating to someone who cannot match the person’s present to him/her. Others will view it as garnering influence or attempting to control a person’s decision on something.

Spices in a market in Harar

Spices in a market in Harar

Small and simple presents are more appreciated especially when intended for children and the underprivileged. Interestingly, gifts should be given with both or the right hand alone, but never with the left hand. It is also the norm to use only the right hand when eating. When a person is invited to come to a festivity or simple get-together, he/she can bring fruits, pastries and sometimes flowers to give to the host.

Market in Harar, Ethiopia

Young merchant in Harar near the city gate. Photo © Mikkel Alexander Grabowski

Unique music and theater traditions
Since Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country, it also has a diverse number of unique sounds or music, and there are dances, songs and praise that belong to every ethnicity. Generally, Ethiopian music is well known for its pentatonic style, or having five notes in each octave, with typically long pauses between notes. People often use instruments like the “masenko”, a single string device to accompany the songs of minstrels who sing free verses and canto on the spot.

Street in Harar

Street in Harar

They also have the “krar”, which sounds like a lyre, having five to six strings on it, and the “begenna” also known as the portable harp. Ethiopians like singing their folk songs and dancing their folk dances. Many Ethiopian songs originated from the classical jazz music, which is still listened to by most of them. They also engage in unique forms of dancing to express their feelings. Characteristic for the Ethiopian dance style is rigorous movement of the shoulders, the chest and the head. Such traditional music and dancing can be experienced well in the traditional restaurants in Addis Ababa as well as in the countryside.

Theater, face, happy, sad

Happy, smiling face and sad, crying face - the Ethiopians have used the classical symbols for theater during more than 400 years. Photo © Mikkel Alexander Grabowski

Also the Ethiopians have a more than 400 year tradition of making theater performances though recently many of the theaters in Addis Ababa now have become cinema showing ethiopian movies. The young generation in the bigger cities and towns in Ethiopia is also being influenced from what they see in movies from Hollywood and from global trends they can see on the internet and people like to take great pride in their appearances.

Old town of Harar

Film production in Ethiopia
The film industry in Ethiopia has developed from non-existant to an industry to be taken serious in only 10 years. And the promises of making good money seems to be there; “You invest 1 million (Birr) in a film and you make 1 million”.

Movie poster

Young people looking at a poster for an Ethiopian movie. Photo © Mikkel Alexander Grabowski

If we can call them film-makers, there are about 500 film-makers in Ethiopia. There is being produced quite alot of films, most of them comedies (because such seem to give better Box Office), most of them low quality and almost all inspired by Hollywood stories (Haile, Abraham, 2012). There are being fiction films produced like Sisit , FBI , Sibrat and Atletu. Also TEFI are supporting environmental films as well as socially responsible films. All of these are being supported by the Etiopian Film Initiative.

mannequin, Ethiopia

Mannequins at christmas outside a clothing store in Addis Ababa. Photo © Mikkel Alexander Grabowski

But as painter and video artist Mulugeta Gebrekidan explains, now the audiences are looking for something new and exciting. Contrary to in Nigeria or the DRC, In Addis Ababa there seems to be a trend of watching films in the cinema. There is a more than 300 years of theater tradition in Ethiopia, which the film industry can use as a foundation in some ways, but actually now the film business threatens the tradition of theater because owners of cinemas get more income from showing a film many times a day than from a theater play shown once every evening. Haile Gerima, the director of Tesa – an amazingly detailed historical Ethiopian film and a highly acclaimed director and a professor at Howard University, says he finds it difficult to call the current video productions in Ethiopia ‘cinema’. He hasn’t come a cross anything that can be called cinema and has a sense of Ethiopian history and culture. He sees the productions as sit-com that revolves around single events and leaves much to be desired. (

Mobile phones are being widely used in Africa. Photo © Mikkel Alexander Grabowski

Young men spending the afternoon by lake Awasa, busy communicating with their cell phones

Haile Gerima thinks some of the earliest Ethiopian films, are exceptions to the rule and argues the reason why our (The Ethiopian ed.) culture remain as a ‘dream’ is that it is because we don’t have a cinema culture , though there is the technology, amazing culture, theatre tradition. This is food for thought and it seems the visual media in Africa has an important role to play in order to enrich African culture rather than to deprive it.

Film schools and social media
The Blue Nile Film and Television School is the only (privately owned) film school in Ethiopia. ”There is a number of videography schools/courses where one can learn the technical sides of things, how to handle a camera etc., making videos for weddings etc. but nobody dares to teach you how to think, how to make a film, what to consider, what to do and what not to do, except at the Blue Nile”. (Assefa, Dirbidl, 2012). As such film schools like The Blue Nile has a tremendous task to perform in educating the Ethiopians to tell their stories in a qualified way, that may lead to their films participating at the international festivals. Also it seems that the market conditions in Addis Ababa to a high degree prevents other genres than happy-end comedies to be shown which obviously limits both the variety of stories and their psychological depth of impact.

girl with hat

Hip young Ethiopian woman playing table tennis by lake Awasa. Photo © Mikkel Alexander Grabowski

As in most of Africa there are new winds and western fashion and mobile phones have become one of the most important accessories for everyone. Communication by voice or sms or adding new updates on social media like Facebook and Twitter as well as searching Youtube for the newest videos have all become possible from a mobile phone and the Ethiopians love these new ways of communicating.

A woman at the market in jinka watches as the vendors pass by. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski 2012

A woman at the market in jinka watches as the vendors pass by. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski 2012

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