Ethiopia is truly a Land of discovery –
- brilliant and beautiful,
- and extraordinary.
Above all things, it is a country of great antiquity, with a culture and traditions dating back more than 3,000 years. The traveler in Ethiopia makes a journey through time. The beautiful monuments and the ruins of edifices built long centuries ago transported you into the past.
Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state. Many distinctions have been blurred by intermarriage over the years but many also remain. The differences may be observed in the number of languages spoken – an astonishing 83. There are 200 different dialects. The Semitic languages of Ethiopia are related to both Hebrew and Arabic, and derive from Ge’ez, the ecclesiastical language.The principle Semitic language spoken in the north-western and central part of the country is Amharic. That is also the official language of the modern state. Other main languages are Tigrigna, Guraginya, Adarinya, Afan Oromo, Somalinya.
The Tigrigna and Amharic speaking people of the North and centre of the country are mainly agriculturalists. They are tilling the soil with ox-drawn ploughs and growing teff, wheat, barley, maize and sorghum. The most southerly of the Semitic speakers – Gurage. They are also farmers and herders, but many are also craftsmen. The Gurage grow enset, ‘false banana’, whose root, stem and leaf stalks provide a carbohydrate. After lengthy preparation that can be made into porridge or unleavened bread.
The Somali people living in hot and arid bush country. While the Afar (semi-nomadic pastoralists and fishermen) are the only people who can survive in the hostile environment of the Danakil Depression.
Living near the Omo River are the Mursi, well-known for the large clay lips discs. What the women wear inserted in a slit in their lower lips.
The people of Ethiopia wear many different types of clothing. The traditional dress of the Christian highland peasantry has traditionally been of white cotton cloth. Men have wear long, jodhpur-like trousers, a tight-fitting shirt and a shamma .
The Muslims of Harar, by contrast, wear very colourful dress. The men in shortish trousers and a coloured wrap. And the women in fine dresses of red, purple and black. The lowland Somali and Afar wear long, brightly coloured cotton wraps. But the Oromo and Bale people are to be seen in the bead-decorated leather garments. That reflect their economy, which is based on livestock.
Costumes to some extent reflect the climates where the different groups live. Highlanders, for instance, -use heavy cloth capes and wrap around blankets to combat the night chill. In the heat of the lowland plains, light cotton cloths are all that is required by men and women alike.
National dress is usually worn for festivals. Then streets and meeting-places are transformed into a sea of white as finely woven cotton dresses, wraps decorated with coloured woven borders, and suits are donned.
The most obvious identification of the different groups is in the jewellery. And also the hair styles and the embroidery of the dresses. The women of Amhara and Tigray wear dozens of plaits (sheruba). They are tightly braided to the head and billowing out at the shoulders. The women of Harar part their hair in the middle and make a bun behind each ear. Hamer, Geleb, Bume and Karo men form a ridge of plaited hair and clay to hold their feathered headwear in place. Arsi women have fringes and short, bobbed hair. Bale girls have the same, but cover it with a black headcloth, while young children often have their heads shaved.
Jewellery in silver and gold is worn by both Muslims and Christians. People often use it with amber or glass beads incorporated. Heavy brass, copper and ivory bracelets and anklets are also worn.
Ethiopia also has a rich tradition of both secular and religious music, singing and dancing. These together constitute an important part of Ethiopian cultural life. Singing accompanies many agricultural activities, as well as religious festivals and ceremonies. Surrounding life’s milestones – birth, marriage and death.
- Avoid passing objects with the left hand. This is customary in some parts of the country. It is advisable to always use the right hand or both hands together in case.
- It is often considered polite to stand up when someone who is highly respected or of higher status enters the room.
- Refer to people by their titles until they have indicated that is appropriate for you to move on to a first name basis.
- People show greater respect to elders and superiors by kissing their hands in some rural areas, although this may not be expected in cities.
- When offering something, Ethiopians generally extend an invitation multiple times. It is expected that you politely decline the gesture initially before accepting on the second or third offer. This exchange is polite as the insistence to extend the invitation shows hospitality and the initial refusal to accept shows humbleness and that one is not greedy.
- Consider that Ethiopians may refuse your offer initially out of politeness. Therefore, try and offer gestures more than once to give them the opportunity to accept something on the second or third attempt.
- Strict punctuality is not expected in casual settings, but considerable lateness is also unacceptable.
- It is considered inappropriate to ask to split a bill. The person who invites others to a meal or organises it is expected to pay at the restaurant. If it is not clear who invited one another, there may be bickering as each person tries to pay out of politeness. Consider that even if you say you will pay upfront, people may still resist and try to pay out of politeness.
- It is best not to compliment something (particularly children) more than once or continue to admire it once you have acknowledged it. This may cause an Ethiopian to be wary that the evil eye will be jealous of it.
- If you have a young child that does not like to be touched by strangers, explain this to an Ethiopian. It is the cultural norm in Ethiopia to pick up and kiss children out of admiration.
- Do not walk past someone you know without acknowledging them.
Visits are important to building relationships in Ethiopia. You can expect people to be extremely welcoming and hospitable.
In Ethiopia, it is normal for friends and family to visit each other’s houses without giving prior notice, although people in urban areas may pre-arrange visits.
It is common to receive an invitation to socialise over the evening.
Be mindful that an Ethiopian person’s home is also their private place for prayer. Therefore, it is important to be clean and respectful.
Remove your shoes before entering someone’s home, any church or mosques.
If a person arrives to a home while a family is eating, they are invited to join the meal.
It is best to bring a gift when visiting someone’s home for the first time.
Guests are always served something to drink upon arrival, usually coffee or occasionally tea.
Coffee drinking is a very social and familial activity. It often allows hosts to introduce their guests to neighbours and family.
Men and women usually socialise freely together. However, in some Muslim homes, the two genders may separate and have different discussions.
Expect any visit to last at least an hour, if not multiple hours. It takes an hour at minimum just to serve coffee in the traditional manner.
You are almost always expected to eat when you visit someone’s house. It is considered rude to decline an offer to eat. If you cannot accept food for a legitimate reason, decline it politely with a bow to show gratitude.
It is rude to eat in front of people without offering them any food, especially guests.
It is important to wash your hands before a meal is served. Sometimes a bowl will be brought to guests so they can wash their hands at the table.
Women should offer to help the female host prepare and clean up after the meal.
People are served in order of their age or status, with the eldest or esteemed guests served first.
Hosts may not sit down until their guests have been seated.
Wait for people to bless the food with a prayer before you start eating.
All guests usually help themselves to food from a shared platter, eating directly from the dish instead of from separate plates.
Ethiopian food generally does not require utensils to eat. Everyone normally uses their right hand to serve themselves from a dish, scooping with the fingers.
Never pass or eat food with the left hand alone.
People often use injera as a scoop. This is a sponge-like pancake that is often used to soak up the remains of food, like a tortilla. It is eaten with almost everything.
If given utensils, it is important to hold them towards the end so your fingers do not touch the food.
Guests may be hand-fed the tastiest parts of meals. This process is called ‘Gursha’ and is done out of respect. The host or another person seated at the meal will place the food in the guest’s mouth with their hands. It is polite to smile and accept the offering.
It is rude to rush a meal and leave immediately after.
In Northern Ethiopia, it is polite to leave a little bit of food on your plate to indicate that the host has provided adequately. However, this custom may differ in other regions.
It is common for people to eat similar ingredients for breakfast (kuris), lunch (mesa) and dinner (erat).
Common foods include spicy meat stew (wat), bread mixed with sauce (firfir), spaghetti or roasted bread (kita). Lamb, goat and fowl are commonly eaten. However, turkey, pork and ham are not as common.
Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians do not consume any meat or animal products during days of fasting, which includes every Wednesday and Friday.
If you are unclear about whether a guest at your meal is fasting or not, it is a good idea to provide a vegan-based option for them to eat. Fish is not prohibited.
Ethiopian Muslims do not consume pork or alcohol.
Some Pentecostal Christians refrain from drinking alcohol.
Coffee (keffa) –
buna is the national drink and symbol of Ethiopia. It is served on a daily basis to facilitate conversation among relatives and neighbours. Many people drink it up to three times a day. Coffee is served in an elaborate way, whereby each step to serving it has to be performed in a specific order. The ceremony is typically performed by the woman of the household and is considered an honor. The ritualised process takes at least an hour. Formal coffee ceremonies (buna maflat) often follow the following steps:
1. You are likely to be seated on the floor, sitting on pillows or another soft surface, with traditional incense burning in the background.
2. The woman of the household performs all the main steps and actions. This is considered a prestigious role.
3. First the coffee beans are washed and roasted in front of the guests. They are then hand-ground, added to boiling water and strained.
4. The grounds are brewed and served three separate times. The first round is called ‘abol’ in Tigrinya, the second is called ‘tonna’ and the third is called ‘baraka’ (meaning ‘to be blessed’).
5. Each time the same coffee pot (jebena) is refilled, meaning the coffee grounds becomes weaker with each serving.
6. Each round of coffee is poured with the eldest person first.
7. When you are served, hold the cup up to your lips and inhale the aroma before tasting it. Sip the coffee slowly and patiently.
8. It is inappropriate to leave after the first round of coffee.
Pass and receive gifts with two hands, or the right hand only. It is rude to use the left hand alone.
Gifts are not opened at the time they are received.
It is a nice gesture to bring food when visiting an Ethiopian home.
If you are returning or visiting from a different place, it is a good idea to bring a gift from your country of origin or the places you have travelled.
Gifts are often given whenever something bad or good happens to a family (e.g. a birth, a family member’s death or someone falling ill). A ‘firag’ is a gift given when someone is in mourning.
It is considered very rude not to return a gift. For example, if someone gives you a birthday present, you are expected to give them a present on their birthday of a similar standard.
Think about the other person’s expectations when giving gifts. A gift is also seen as a debt that one will have to repay to a friend. Therefore, avoid giving very lavish or expensive gifts. This may embarrass the recipient if they cannot afford to give you the same standard of gift.
It is best not to give alcohol as a gift to Muslim or Protestant Ethiopians.
There may be an expectation upon the wealthy to offer money as a gift instead of another material item.