People & Culture
There exist around 80 individual languages in Ethiopia. Most of these languages belong to the Afro-Asiatic family. Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken by the nation’s Nilotic ethnic minorities. English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is the medium of instruction in secondary schools and universities. Amharic was the language of primary school instruction, but has been replaced in many areas by local languages such as Oromo and Tigrinya.
After the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, the new constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia granted all ethnic groups the right to develop their languages and to establish mother tongue primary education systems, as the people have done it for example in Amhara, Oromo, Tigray, Somali, Afar, Sidama and Gurage.
The lower Omo Valley is a relatively small area that is home to many different peoples. Historians believe that this area was a migration hub of cultural crossroads for Cushitic, Nilotic, Omotic and Semitic peoples. Described are here a few of the most notable peoples:
The Ari people inhabit the northern part of the Mago National Park in Ethiopia and have the largest territory of all tribes in that area. They have fertile lands allowing them to have several types of plantations. Their crops consist of grains, coffee, fruits and honey. It’s also common for them to have large herds of livestock. Ari women are known for selling pottery and wearing skirts made from false banana trees. Tribe members wear a lot of jewellery and have many piercing in their ears. They wrap beads and bracelets around their arms and waist for decoration. The Ari are known to paint and scar their bodies as part of their culture. You can find some of the Ari people visiting the market in Key Afer. The Ari consist of around 120,000 people.
Arbore tribe is a small tribe that lives in the southwest region of the Omo Valley. They have ancestral and cultural links to the Konso people and perform many ritual dances while all of them are singing. Arbore people are livestock farmers and believe that their singing and dancing eliminates negative energy and that the tribe will prosper from it. The women of the tribe cover their heads with a black cloth and are known to wear very colorful necklaces and earrings. Young children will wear a shell type hat that protects their heads from the sun. They have a creative body painting tradition and use therefore natural colors made from soil and stones. Wealth is in this tribe measured by the number of cattle a tribesman owns.
The Banna people or sometimes also called Benna people are neighbors with the Hamer tribe and it is believed that the Banna actually originated from them centuries ago. The markets in Key Afer and Jinka are often visited by them. Just like most of the indigenous tribes in the lower Omo Valley, the Banna practice ritual dancing and singing. The men often have their hair dressed up with a colorful clay cap that is decorated with feathers. Both men and women wear long garments and paint their bodies with white chalk. Women wear beads in their hair that is held together with butter. The Banna look very similar to the Hamer and are often called the Hamer- Banna and there are around 45,000 in total. Common rituals and traditions of other tribes are shared by them as well. The boys in the tribe participate in bull jumping. When it is time for the boy to become a man, he must jump over a number of bulls naked without falling. If he is able to complete this task, he will become a man and be able to marry a woman.
The Bodi or Me’en people live close to the Omo River in southern Ethiopia. They are pastoralists and agriculturalists. Along the banks of the river, they will grow sorghum, maize and coffee. They live with their cattle herds and livestock plays a large role in the tribe. Men of the Bodi are typically overweight because they consume large amounts of honey. The men wear a strip of cotton around their waist or walk around naked. Between June and August, the Bodi celebrate Ka’el. This is a tradition that measures the body fat of a contestant. Each family or clan is allowed to enter an unmarried contestant. The winner of this contest is awarded great fame by the tribe. Men also wear a headband with a feather attached to it during rituals. The women in the tribe wear goatskin skirts and have a plug inserted into their chin.
The Bumi or Bume people are also known as Nyangatom. They only amount to around 8,000 people and live south of the Omo National Park, but occasionally move to the lower regions if food or water is scarce. Known to be fierce fighters, they are often at war with Hamer and Karo tribes. Different from other tribes, the Bumi tribesmen hunt crocodiles using harpoons and a canoe. Scarification is practiced by both men and women in the tribe. The women do it to beautify themselves and the men to signify a kill. Both genders wear a lot of multi colored necklaces and may also have a lower lip plug. The tribe practices both agriculture and cattle herding. Flood waters must recede along the river’s banks before they will plant their crops. Beehives are smoked out by the Bumi and they gorge themselves with the honey.
Also known as the Galeb or Geleb, this tribe lives just north of Kenya’s Lake Turkana. Their neighbouring tribe is the Turkana people. The Dasanech are pastoralists (cattle herders), but due to the harsh territory, they have moved south to grow crops and fish. Cattle are used by the tribesmen for meat, milk and clothing. Often their cattle die from diseases and drought. Of all the tribes in the Omo Valley, the Dasanech are the poorest. Because they come from multiple ethnic groups, both men and women must agree to be circumcised. There are eight clans that make up the Dasanech tribe, each having its own name. They are the Elele, Inkabelo, Inkoria, Koro, Naritch, Oro, Randal and the Ri’ele. Each clan is defined by its territory with the Inkabelo being the wealthiest. During a ceremony, the Dasanech men dance with large sticks and the women hold wooden batons. A Dasanech man blesses his daughter’s fertility and future marriage by celebrating the Dimi. During the Dimi 10 to 30 cattle are slaughtered. Both men and women wear fur capes while they feast and dance. A Dimi ceremony will most likely take place in the dry season.
Also well known as the Hamar or Hammer, they are one of the most known tribes in Southern Ethiopia and amount to about 40.000 people. They inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages around Turmi and Dimeka. Tourists visit the Hamer hoping to see a traditional leaping ceremony, which is the jumping over bulls, an initiation ceremony for young men. The Hamer are cattle herders and practice agriculture. Very colorful bracelets and beads are worn in their hair and around their waists and arms. The practice of body modification is used by cutting themselves and packing the wound with ash and charcoal. Some of the women wear circular wedge necklaces indicating that they are married. Men paint themselves with white chalk to prepare for a ceremony. Hair ornaments worn by the men indicate a previous kill of an enemy or animal. The traditional bull jumping is a rite of passage for men coming of age. The event last three days and involves only castrated cattle. The man must jump over a line of usually seven bulls four times completely nude without falling. If this task is complete, the man joins the ranks of the Maza. Maza are men that have successfully completed the bull jumping event. During this ceremony, the women of the tribe provoke the maza to whip them on their bare backs. This is extremely painful and causes severe scaring on the women. The scars are a symbol of devotion to the men and are encouraged by the tribe. Night dancing called evangadi is also a hamer tradition and very worth experiencing.
The Karo or Kara is a small tribe with an estimated population between 1,000 and 3,000. They are closely related to the Kwegu tribe. They live along the east banks of the Omo River in southern Ethiopia and practice flood retreat cultivation. The crops that are grown by them are sorghum, maize and beans. Only small cattle are kept because of the tsetse flies. These flies are large and consume the blood of vertebrate animals. Like many of the tribes in the Omo, they paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for a ceremony. The chalk is mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore and charcoal to make its color. Face masks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns with feathers in them. Red clay mixed with butter is put into their hair and clothing is made from animal skin. The women scar their chest believing it makes them beautiful. The men’s scars represent an enemy or dangerous animal killed. A man in the tribe can have as many wives as he wants, but must be able to afford them. Most men will only marry two or three.
The 8,000 Mursi people are next to the Hamer the most popular in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. They are well known for their unique lip plates. They are settled around the Omo River and in the Mago National Park. Due to the climate, they move twice a year between the winter and summer months. They herd cattle and grow crops along the banks of the Omo River. The Mursi women paint their bodies and face in white. They also are the ones who wear the lip plates. Women of the Mursi tribe may have their lips cut at the age of 15 or 16. A small clay plate is then inserted into the lip. Through the years, larger plates are inserted into the lip causing it to stretch. The larger the clay plate, the more the woman is worth before she gets married. It is said that the clay plates were originally used to prevent capture by slave traders. Although very unique and part of their tradition, the Mursi women only wear the plates for a short time because they are so heavy and uncomfortable. Men of the Mursi use white paint for their bodies and faces. Just like any other ethnic tribe in the lower valley, the men must pass a test before they can get married. A Mursi man is given a stick called a Donga and must face an opponent. The men then battle it out, beating each other with the sticks. The first fighter to submit loses and the winner is taken by a group of women to determine who he will marry. Men of the tribe also practice scarification. Like other tribes, this is the marking of an enemy killed by him. Although they are known to be aggressive and combative, the Mursi are more than happy to allow you to take pictures of them. However, they keep count of every picture taken and will charge you for each one.
Suri, also known as the Surma people live in the south western plains of Ethiopia and have a population of around 45,000 people. They raise cattle and farm when the land is fertile. Cattle are important to the Surma, giving them status. The more cattle a tribesman has, the wealthier they are. In order for a man to marry a woman in the Surma tribe, he must own at least 60 cattle. Cattle are given to the family of the woman in exchange for marriage. Like the other tribes, the Surma will drink the milk and blood from the cow. During the dry season, people will drink blood instead of milk. Blood can be drained from a cow once a month. This is done by making a small incision in its neck. The Surma are very much like the Mursi tribe and practice the same traditions. The women wear lip plates that are made out of clay. The men in the tribe fight with sticks called Dongas. Both men and women scar their bodies. If you see a Surma man with a scar, it usually means that he has killed a member of a rival tribe.
Arts in Ethiopia
There is a long lasting tradition of religious arts in Ethiopia. This mostly Christian art comes in forms of paintings, crosses, icons, illuminated manuscripts, and other metalwork such as crowns. Ethiopian painting – on walls, in books, and in icons – is highly distinctive, though the style and iconography are closely related to the simplified Coptic version of Late Antique and Byzantine Christian art. It is typified by almost cartoon like figures with large, almond-shaped, eyes. Colors are usually bright and vivid. The majority of paintings are religious in nature, often decorating church walls and bibles. One of the best known examples of this type of painting is at Debre Berhan Selassie Church in Gondar, famed for its angel covered roof (angels in Ethiopian art are often represented as winged heads) as well as its other murals dating from the late 17th century.
Another important form of Ethiopian art, also related to Coptic styles, are crosses made from wood and metal, usually copper alloy or brass, plated (at least originally) with gold or silver. Many incorporate curved motifs rising from the base, which are called the “arms of Adam”. Except in recent Western-influenced examples, they usually have no corpus or figure of Christ, and the design often incorporates numerous smaller crosses. There are also popular arts and crafts such as textiles, basketry and jewelry. Colorful basketry with a coiled construction is common in rural Ethiopia. The products have many uses, such as storing grains, seeds and food and are being used as tables and bowls. Some regions are famous for weaving and local craftsmen produce beautiful scarves that can be a nice present for your loved ones at home.
Music and Dances in Ethiopia
The music of Ethiopia is extremely diverse, with each of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups being associated with unique sounds. Some forms of traditional music are strongly influenced by folk music from elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia. In the Ethiopian Highlands, traditional secular music is played by itinerant musicians called azmaris, who are regarded with both suspicion and respect in Ethiopian society. Music in the Ethiopian highlands is generally monophonic or heterophonic. In certain southern areas, some music is polyphonic like it is known from Dorze.Some traditional instruments are the Chordophones, a one-string bowed lute; the krar (also known as kirar), a six-string lyre; and the begena, a large ten-string lyre. The dita, a five-string lyre and musical bows including an unusual three-string variant, are among the chordophones found in the south. The washint is a bamboo flute that is common in the highlands. The Konso and other people in the south play fanta, or pan flutes. The toom, a lamellophone, is used among the Nuer, Anuak, Majangir, Surma, and other Nilotic groups. Metal leg rattles are common throughout the south. The Kebero is a large hand drum used in the Orthodox Christian liturgy. The Gurage and other southern peoples commonly play the Atamo, a small hand drum sometimes made of clay.
The variety in music reflects also into the traditional dances. Whereas people from the North dance more with their shoulders, people from the South focus on their legs. A visit at one of the cultural restaurants in Addis Ababa as well as in the regions is highly recommended. These places are popular with locals and tourists alike and give an introduction into traditional food, music and dances.
Ethiopia has also a big scene for Ethio-Jazz. It is very easy to listen to one of the local bands live in the various Jazz clubs around Addis Ababa.
Currently the most prominent Ethiopian singer internationally is Gigi, who has brought Ethiopian music to popular attention, especially in the United States, where she is living now. Other popular musicians from Ethiopia are Teddy Afro and Aster Aweke.