How Ethiopian Traditions Work


Ethiopia is the oldest independent African country and is credited with establishing the green, yellow and red colors that have come to symbolize African independence and unity.
Ethiopia is the oldest independent African country and is credited with establishing the green, yellow and red colors that have come to symbolize African independence and unity.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Ethiopia is an ancient African country that was home to some of the earliest known humans. Nicknamed "Land of 13 Months of Sunshine" (the Ethiopian calendar has an extra five-day month called Pagume), this landlocked country in the Horn of Africa on the continent's eastern end enjoys diversity in not only its geography, terrain and climate, but also its more than 90 million people [sources: CIA, Nature News, University of Pennsylvania].

A majority of the country's inhabitants are Christians, most of whom are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was affiliated with the Coptic Church until 1959, and as a result, much of Ethiopia's culture and tradition is shaped by the Coptic faith, a sect of Christianity based in Egypt known for its intricate cross and whose members fast for more than 210 days a year [source: Encyclopedia Coptica].

Ethiopia's rich and diverse history and culture is on display every day in the food Ethiopians eat, the clothes they wear, and the music that they play, sing and dance to. Keep reading for a window into this vibrant country's traditions.

Traditional Ethiopian Food

An Ethiopian woman is making injera bread over a eucalyptus wood fire.
An Ethiopian woman is making injera bread over a eucalyptus wood fire.
Brian Seed/Getty Images

They may fast regularly, but Ethiopians are serious about their food when it's time to eat. In this country where empires and dynasties once ruled, the meal is king.

The country's staple grain is called tef, which although rarely seen outside of Ethiopia, many Ethiopians eat at least once a day. From its flour is fashioned injerja, which is a flat disc of sour bread that resembles a large pancake. Inerja is placed directly on the dining table, like a tablecloth, and diners tear it off in pieces and use the bread (rather than utensils) to scoop up a spicy stew known as wat that often makes up the main meal [source: Lost Crops of Africa].

The wat can be made from meat, vegetables or beans. Traditional Ethiopian dishes do not include pork or shellfish since the Orthodox Christian and Islamic faiths forbid the consumption of these animals. Spicy ber-beri, a native red pepper that's not for the faint of heart, and mitin shiro, a flavorful combination of ground beans, spices and chilies, are frequently used to liven up the stews.

In a typical Ethiopian meal, various courses -- consisting of several wats or alechi (the vegetarian stew served on fast days, during which chicken, meat, and dairy products are not allowed) -- are placed on the inerja at the same time. Dishes are commonly placed in the center of the table to be shared. Meals often also incorporate citrus fruits, bananas, grapes, pomegranates, figs, custard apples and vegetables such as red onion and gommen, a kalelike plant used in alechi. The last course of a meal is often kitfo, freshly ground raw beef marinated in a chili pepper mixture, and coffee is served at the end of the meal [source: University of Pennsylvania].

A meal usually begins with a hand-washing ceremony (sen'na bert) in which a woman of the house pours warm water over the fingers of each person's right hand, while holding a basin to catch the excess and with a towel hanging over her arm for drying. The ritual is repeated after the meal is over [source: University of Pennsylvania].

Next up, insights into the country's fashion sense.

Traditional Ethiopian Clothes

The country's varied climate clearly influences Ethiopians' style of dress. Cool temperatures in Ethiopia's highlands dictate heavier clothing such as wraparound blankets, while the country's lowlands residents combat the heat with light cotton outfits. Yet while the clothing worn in Ethiopia reflects the traditions of the different ethnic groups in various regions of the country, there are certain similarities.

Traditional clothing, which can be regularly seen in many rural areas, consists almost entirely of woven cotton. Since the 19th century, both men and women have worn a shamma, the long cotton robe that doubles as a body and head cover. Men traditionally wear white cotton pants underneath the shamma, while women wear colorful dresses that reach to their ankles [source: Selamta].

Read on to see how each of these groups celebrates holidays and other cultural events.

Traditional Ethiopian Family and Cultural Celebrations

The bride-to-be in the center is dancing during her wedding celebration in the Hamar tribe village of Unga Bayno in Turmi, Ethiopia. The dancing takes place in conjunction with a Bull Jumping Ceremony in which the groom must leap over the animal to prove he's worthy of marriage.
The bride-to-be in the center is dancing during her wedding celebration in the Hamar tribe village of Unga Bayno in Turmi, Ethiopia. The dancing takes place in conjunction with a Bull Jumping Ceremony in which the groom must leap over the animal to prove he's worthy of marriage.
Dean Krakel/Getty Images

The country's notable annual celebrations are religious holidays, particularly those celebrated by the majority Orthodox Christians. Ganna, the Ethiopian Christmas, is celebrated on Jan. 7. People fast the day before, and on the following morning they awaken at dawn for early mass, which they attend clad in white shammas.

The choir assembles in the outer circle of the church, and each person who enters is given a candle. The congregation walks around the church three times in a solemn procession, holding the candles. They then gather in the second circle to stand throughout the long mass, with the men and boys separated from the women and girls. The center circle is the holiest space in the church, where the priest serves Holy Communion.

On Jan. 19, Ethiopians begin Timkat, the three-day celebration commemorating Christ's baptism. Wearing crowns and robes designating different youth groups, children walk to church services in a procession. Adults dust of their shammas,while the priests wear red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas [source: TLC].

For Ethiopia's many Muslim inhabitants, the holy month of Ramadan is marked with fasting and prayer. This, of course, creates quite the appetite. The greatest Muslim feast of the year is Id Al Fatr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. Another important Muslim feast is the Id al Adha, during which followers sacrifice animals and distribute part of the meat to the poor [source: Selamta].

Ethiopian weddings are also dictated by religious traditions, but certain aspects are generally uniform throughout the country. For example, weddings are often large, all-day events, preparations for which begin months in advance. On the wedding day, relatives and guests assemble at the bride and groom's homes. After the groom dresses for the wedding and is blessed by his relatives, he goes to the bride's home to accompany her to the ceremony [source: 2020 Ethiopian Tours].

No celebration is complete without music. Take a look at the next page for some of the tunes that provide the soundtrack to life in Ethiopia.

Traditional Ethiopian Music

Like its people's fashion sense, the music of each of Ethiopia reflects the distinct personality of the country's various ethnic groups. Traditional music incorporates African folk sounds, but generally is less rhythmic and more string- and reed-based than that of other African countries. Ethiopian music, similar to that in neighboring countries Eritrea and the Sudan, incorporates a number of traditional instruments, the most common of which are:

  • Krar: a six-stringed lyre, played with the fingers or a plectrum, which is used to pluck or strum the strings
  • Washint: a simple flute
  • Negarit: a kettle drum played with sticks
  • Atamo: a drum tapped with the fingers or palm

Popular music trickled into the national consciousness in the 1930s when then-emperor Haile Selassie I developed Western-style military brass bands. Three decades later, the roots of American jazz, pop and soul music began to take hold as artists combined these styles with hints of traditional tunes. Dictatorial rule following Selassie's deposition led popular artists like female vocalist Aster Aweke to flee the country, but pop music has once again enjoyed mass appeal in the country since the dictatorship's collapse in 1991. Popular contemporary artists include Gigi, a female singer who fuses traditional and modern music; jazz sax player Abatte Barihun; and BBC World Music Award winner Mahmoud Ahmed [source: Pryor].

This, of course, is only a brief glimpse into Ethiopia's thriving traditions and culture. Check out the links on the following page for more information.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • 2020 Ethiopian Tours. "Ethiopian Weddings." (Aug. 11, 2011) http://www.2020ethiopiantours.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=86&Itemid=75
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "The World Factbook." July 7, 2011 (Aug. 11, 2011) https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/et.html
  • Chang, Kevin O'Brien. "Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music." Temple University Press, 1998.
  • Encyclopedia Coptica. "The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt." (Aug. 11, 2011) http://www.coptic.net/EncyclopediaCoptica/
  • Kobel, Paul S. "Ethiopian Americans." Every Culture. (Aug. 11, 2011) http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Du-Ha/Ethiopian-Americans.html
  • Pryor, Tom. "Ethiopian Pop Music." National Geographic. (Aug. 11, 2011) http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/view/page.basic/genre/content.genre/ethiopian_pop_715/en_US
  • Nature News. "Ethiopia is Top Choice for Cradle of Homo sapiens." Feb. 16, 2005. (Aug. 11, 2011) http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050214/full/news050214-10.html
  • Selamta. "Ethiopian Culture." (Aug. 11, 2011) http://www.selamta.net/culture.htm
  • TLC. "Christmas Traditions in Ethiopia." (Aug. 11, 2011) https://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/christmas-traditions-around-the-world-ga4.htm
  • "Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I: Grains." National Research Council. National Academies Press, 1996. (Aug. 11, 2011) http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=2305&page=215
  • The University of Pennsylvania. "Africa Cookbook." (Aug. 11, 2011) http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Cookbook/Ethiopia.html
  • World Flags 101. "National Flag of Ethiopia." (Aug. 16, 2011) http://www.worldflags101.com/e/ethiopia-flag.aspx