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. 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.

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.

Like many other African countries, Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state and very rich culturally. Ethiopia is a truly extraordinary place to visit with colorful and varied culture. Over 80 languages are spoken by the many different ethnic groups. The Amhara and Tigrayan, making up nearly a quarter of the population, are Orthodox Christian, while the largest ethnic group, the Oromo, reflects the country’s spiritual diversity, with some communities Christian, others Muslim, and many following at least a partial form of traditional animism.

A woman from the Mursi tribe wearing the traditional lip plate - photo © Mikkel Grabowski 2012
A woman from the Mursi tribe wearing the traditional lip plate - photo © Mikkel Grabowski 2012
Woman in Harar Ethiopia
Woman in Harar with a huge basket she is carrying on her head - traditional african style

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.

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.

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.

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.

Spices in a market in Harar
Spices in a market in Harar

Habeshan hospitality

All the ingredients and tools to perform a traditional coffee ceremony

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.

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.

Ethiopian 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.

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.

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.

Theater entrance in Addis Abeba
Ethiopians has a more than four hundred years old tradition for theater. Nowadays film and cinema seem to be a strong competitor for attention from the younger generations

Film production in Ethiopia

Movie poster
Young people looking at a poster for an Ethiopian movie

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”. 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.

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.

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 in Ethiopia

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.

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.

Mobile phones are being widely used in Africa
Young men spends the afternoon by lake Awasa, busy communicating with their cell phones

Family and housing

girl and rondavel
A young girl in front of her home - a traditional rondavel which is the most common building technique outside the bigger cities

The extended family arrangement is frequently found among Ethiopian families since children, male or female, who have married continue to live with their family. In some cases, unmarried aunts, uncles, cousins and even close family friends continue to dwell with the nuclear family. This form of family arrangement has therefore been responsible for enlarging the membership of the extended family.

Most people in Ethiopia earn recognition through their extended family structure. The family’s honor is achieved through acceptable deeds and behaviors of the family members. The family is given emphasis in that family priorities should be met first before anyone else’s needs. An important part of many families in Ethiopia is animal stock, because all over the country it is essential to have either some cattle, horses, donkeys or even camels one cannot survive.

Not only the livestock is descriptive for the culture and the social and economic status, also the houses tell alot about the culture and the nature. As can be seen, a traditional rondavel constructed from made of finely attached branches and small trees, then clad with mud and fitted with a roof made of grass.

In the towns and cities houses are usually walled constructions fitted with a fixed metal or mud roof as is known from other cities around the world. Even tall skyscrapers are to be found in Addis Ababa. In such ways Ethiopia reunites ancient historical traditions like the Dorze traditional building style. In Addis the newest trends in architecture ads in to this and creates a very fascinating mix that gives Ethiopia yet another dimension of “uniqueness”. The architecture in Ethiopia thus reflects its cultural diversity.