Ethiopia's Ethnic Groups

The country has more than 80 different languages and great cultural diversity.  It is not without reason that the great historian, Conti-Rossini, characterized Ethiopia as a rich cultural mosaic.Three thousand years before the birth of Christ the ancient Egyptians sent expeditions down the Red sea in quest of gold, ivory, incense, and slaves, they called this territory ‘The Land of Punt’.  Although this term was used for both sides of the Red Sea, most of the goods seem to have come from the Ethiopian area. Today Ethiopia is a rich cultural mosaic due to its eighty different languages and dialects and as many, if not more, cultural variations.  Semitic languages are spoken in the North and much of the centre of the country, including Tigrinya, Guraginya and Ethiopia’s official language, Amharic.  All are derived from the ancient Ge’ez which today only survives in church liturgy and literature.


The Tigray

The Tigray people who inhabit this region speak a Semitic language called Tigrinya, a descendant of Ge'ez, the ancient tongue of Ethiopia. Though they have experienced frequent and severe famine conditions, they remain hardy and resilient farmers ­wherever soil conditions permit. Teff, wheat, and barley (where teff won't grow) are the main crops, together with beans, lentils, onions, and potatoes. Irrigation and terrace farming are used on the steep slopes, but because firewood is scarce dung is burned for cooking rather than put on their fields. Large numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats are also kept, their hides and wool going into leather products and warm blankets and cloaks. Livestock, which is kept safe at night in a separate courtyard with a high stone wall, grazes the pasturelands by day - causing serious overgrazing in an almost barren land.


The Tigray houses are usually square and stone built, though some are round, with flat roofs of wood covered with sod and wide overhanging eaves. Outside, stone steps lead to the roof where the family goats are kept at night. Sometimes there are added towers and grain stores. The interior is simply a large single room with a central post and a fireplace hollowed from the earth floor - the smoke escapes from a broken water pot that serves as a chimney. More 'modern' homes have tin roofs with gable ends.


The Amhara

The people of this area are the Amhara, speaking Ethiopia's official tongue, Am­haric. Most belong to the Ethiopian Ortho­dox Church, but several Muslim settle­ments were established in the Simien in the sixteenth century, so the region today con­tains members of both religious groups.


Most people in thus area are farmers, with the Muslims sometimes supple­menting their income by trading. Barley and oats are the crops grown in the higher altitudes, with teff a little lower down. Life is hard and their inefficient farming meth­ods have caused them to move higher and higher up the mountain slopes into areas less suited for cultivation. But still they re­tain a distinct pride and independence. They are suspicious of strangers, especially those who dispense largesse and conde­scension. Yet they will respond to over­tures of genuine friendliness and respect with a hospitality that knows no bounds.


The staple item in the Simien Amhara diet is barley, from which they make injera, the flat, spongy, sourdough pancake that is the basis of most Ethiopian meals. They also make an unleavened bread (dabbo) from barley, they eat roasted barley (kolo) for snacks, and the Christians even drink barley in the form of tella and korefi, mildly alcoholic beverages. Meat is generally eaten only on holidays, of which there are many throughout the year, but pork is forbidden to both Christians and Muslims. Sheep, goats, eggs, and chickens are the usual sources of animal protein.


The Amhara house consists of a circular wall of thin poles stuck into the ground, with cross withies laced to them that are then plastered with a mixture of mud, dung, and teff straw, which is applied in layers. When it hardens, it provides a weatherproof barrier, which lasts for many years. However, many houses, especially in the mountains, are stone built. The conical thatched roof is supported by one central pole. There are small storage areas for cooking utensils, and the main area serves as sleeping and living quarters. There are no windows or chimneys - the smoke escapes through the thatch. Although it is quite small, the Amhara house still manages to accommodate the farmer, his wife, and unmarried children - and for a short time even married children, until they have their own house. As the farmer becomes wealthier, this sar bet, as it is called, gives way to a rectangular korkoro bet with tin roof.


There is no marketplace in the Simiens, but items like sheep, chickens and eggs, local bread, and various grains are available for sale. The price is negotiable and you are expected to bargain. You can also buy hats, baskets,' and items of jewellery typical of the area. Shammas and gabbis, the homespun cotton shawls worn by both men and women, are usually available only on special order.


The Oromo

 As you pass through the small Arsi area and into Bale, which is largely bordered by the winding Wabi Shebele River, you'll no doubt meet members of the predominant ethnic group in this area: the Arsi Oromo.


The Oromo are divided into six main groups and about 200 subgroups, in each of which you may find slight variations on the dominant cultural structure. The gada sys­tem - or government by age-groups - is universal throughout the groups.


The people vary considerably in physical type but on the whole tend to be tall and handsome. The men wear the typical Ethiopian white toga, called a waya, and, in addition to clothing made of cotton, the women often still wear leather, decorating the skins with embroidered beadwork, and wear lavish bead, copper, and heavy brass jewellery.


The Arsi Oromo are true herdsmen. Their beasts have ritual status and are surrounded by all manner of beliefs and superstitions.


On the more practical side, cow dung is used for fuel, milk pots, floors, and walls; diet consists of meat, milk, blood, butter, and cheese as well as barley bread. Ownership of cattle is a status symbol: a man who owns more than a thousand is entitled to wear a crown.


Oromo houses are built by the men, al­though the women help with the thatching. There are three main types of dwelling (mana); the first two are the more usual, cir­cular structure. Their main difference is in the shape of the roof, one being steeply domed, the other much flatter with an over­hang.


The third type is also domed, but the rafters are planted in the ground and form both the walls and the roof. Other Oromo ridicule this type of hut, saying that the Arsi live in 'birds' nests'; most houses are finished with an ostrich egg or pot at the apex.


The Arsi Oromo are one of the most southern of the Oromo groups, extending east into Harerge and south into Bale on both sides of the Wabi Shebele River.


The Afar

Hostile and fierce, proud and individ­ualistic, the Afar use the camel as their beast of burden but also keep sheep, goats, and cattle on the edge of the Afar (Danakil) region or in the vicinity of the Awash River, where coarse grass grows. This grass is not only for grazing - it is used for making the woven mats that cover the small round huts in which the women and children sleep.


The Afar women dress in long brown skirts and adorn themselves with gaily beaded necklaces and brass anklets, while the tall, dark, and bearded men wear a cotton cloth like a toga across the shoulder and usually carry a huge forty-centimetre (16-inch) knife - their universal weapon and tool. Men also carry rifles and belts full of bullets.


In the few fertile areas near the A wash River, the Afar are able to grow maize, tobacco, dates, and cotton, as well as support vast herds of livestock. Most of them live on a diet of meat and milk, sharing their food with each other as they share everything else they possess within their clan. However, interclan competition and rivalry is often fierce.


The nomadic hut in which they live is made of an armature of boughs bound with palm fibre and covered with mats, and is owned by the women. This is the only piece of property not held in common. The huts are placed in groups, usually surrounded by a hedge or wall to protect their animals from rival clans and other ethnic groups. When on the move, the hut is loaded on camels by women, who will erect it in a new location later. The women also collect the wood and water, prepare the food, grind the grain (when there is any), weave the mats and milk containers, and look after the herds.


Occasionally one will see a more perma­nent type of Afar dwelling, called a dabou, in areas of sandstone or pumice. Two-and-­a-half metres (eight feet) high with thick walls and thorn and rubble roofs, these houses are inhabited by clan elders and others not involved in herding.


The Sidama

The Sidama people who inhabit these boats playa major role in Ethiopia's coffee export trade but are especially known for their beautiful beehive-shaped woven houses. Bamboo is used for the framework, which is then covered with grass and enset leaves as the rainy season approaches. A small front porch shades the entrance. Inside, the families have the right side of the house and the calves the left. Furniture is simple, usually just wooden bedsteads and stools. Near the main hut, a fence of woven bamboo or euphorbia surrounds the vegetable plot. The men build the huts and grow vegetables with their wives help, and the women go to market, clean, and cook.


The Wolayta

In this part of Ethiopia east of the Omo River, hundreds of stone monoliths bear viitness to the long-time habitation of this area by early humans, and the people who live here today are very likely from fairly early stock. Light-complexioned with regular features and short stature, the Wolayta belong to the vast Orne to language group.


These people belong to either the Muslim or the Christian religion, although traces of the old pagan religions still survive in places, together with ancient near-forgotten Christian traditions difficult to distinguish, celebrated in temples hewn from the rock, similar to those found in Tigray.


The Wolayta cultivate most of the cereal crops as well as cotton, en set, and tobacco. Their huts are large and beehive-shaped, built in the midst of gardens, with one or more ostrich eggs perched atop the roof as fertility symbols. Viewed from inside, the plaited structure and concentric rings of the roof framework appear wonderfully intricate and neat. These astonishingly roomy houses are divided into several compartments by screens of bamboo. The cattle, sheep, and goats who share the house are not only safe from predators but provide a form of 'central heating' on chillier nights.


The Dorze

 The inhabitants of this village are known as the Dorze, one of the many small segments of the great Orne to language group of southern Ethiopia. Once warriors, they have now turned to farming and weaving to earn a living. Their success in the field of weaving has been phenomenal and the Dorze name is synonymous with the best in woven cotton cloth. Chencha, in fact, is famous for the fine cotton gabbis or shawls that can be bought there.


Each amazing Dorze bamboo house has its own small garden surrounded by enset, beds of spices and cabbage, and tobacco (the Dorze are passionate smokers). The main house is a tall - up to twelve metres (39 feet) - bee-hived shaped building with an aristocratic 'nose', which forms a reception room for guests and is usually furnished with two benches. The vaulted ceiling and walls of the spacious and airy houses are covered with an elegant thatch of enset to form a smooth and steep unbroken dome.


When a Dorze house starts to rot or gets eaten by termites, the house is dug up. Bamboo is sewn round it to keep it in shape, and everyone rushes to help carry it. With poles poked horizontally through the building, men, women, and children all join in the effort - with a fine complement of singing - to move it to its new site. A house lasts for about forty years and is then abandoned.


The Konso

To the south of Konso and Yabello the area is inhabited by the Konso people. Except for trading with the neighbouring Borena for salt or cowrie shells, outside influence had, until recently, virtually passed by the Konso. A pagan society, they erect eerie wooden totems replete with phallic symbols over the graves of the dead and have numerous cults based around the breeding and veneration of serpents. The Konso have adopted a complex age­grading system similar to that of the Oromo. (See 'The People: Proud of Their Ancient Heritage', Part One.) Sacred drums, symbolizing peace and harmony, are circulated from village to village according to a fixed cycle and are beaten in rituals that mark the transition from one age-grade to the next.


The cornerstone of Konso culture, how­ever, is a highly specialized and successful agricultural economy that, through terrac­ing buttressed with stone, enables these people to extract a productive living from the none-too-fertile hills and valleys that surround them. The stone shoring em­ployed in these extensive and intricate ter­races is echoed in the dry-stone walls that surround most Konso villages and that protect low-lying fields from flash floods and marauding cattle. Stone is also used for grinding grain, sharpening knives and spears, making anvils and constructing dams. It is as much a part of Konso life as soil.


The material is just as evident in the beautiful small stone and wood houses, tightly packed with roofs touching and overlapping in their crowded compounds. The Konso are experts on wood of all kinds and know the durability of the massive timbers that keep a house standing for eighty years or more. Inside each house there is a short wooden entrance tunnel, causing the visitor to enter on hands and knees - and permitting the occupant to decide whether it is friend or foe.


The Konso men build the houses, spin and weave, and carve wood and ivory. The women do the gardening and, sur­prisingly, stone walling.


Konso industriousness finds its vehicle in a cooperative ethic that enables farmers to enlist the support of communal work parties from their own and surrounding villages to build walls and terraces, and to sow and harvest the principal crops - sor­ghum, potatoes, and cotton. Konso weav­ing, also a communal activity is highly productive and the thick cotton blankets (called bulukos) for which this region is fa­mous are much prized throughout Ethio­pia.


Not all of Konso life is dominated by hard work. Evening is a particulaI9time of relaxation, when young men and women sing and dance to a hypnotic stamping rhythm, forming fluid circles and squares punctuated with warlike leaps and bounds and much provocative shaking of the hips and breasts.


With the all-weather road - and various missions passing through Konso, tile people are no longer so isolated. One sign of assimilation occa­sionally -seen is Konso ploughing their fields with oxen, as is done in other parts of Ethiopia. The Konso also meet up with the neighbouring Borena to trade for salt or cowrie shells.


The Borena

The Borena, probably the most traditional of all Ethiopia's Oromo groups, are semi nomadic pastoralists whose lives revolve exclusively around the million or so head of cattle they own. They live to the east of the Konso on the low hot plains of the southern savannah. They work all day and every day in the long dry season just to keep their vast herds watered every three days, calculating precisely the number of men needed to haul the water and the number of cattle a well will support, which may be as many as 2,500.


The famous wells are an extraordinary feature of the culture. Approached by a long cutting, slanting down to ten metres below the surface of the earth, just wide enough for two columns of beasts to pass each other is the top of the well and the drinking troughs. Every two metres down there is a stage where the men and women toss the water in giraffe-hide buckets to the person above them. The deepest well recorded has eighteen stages.


The Borena people have semi-permanent villages or family groups of huts that are attached to the same well. The houses they live in, more permanent than the true nomadic hut, are made of grass over a wooden framework, often with the lower part of the walls reinforced with a screen of branches. They remain sur­prisingly cool in the heat of the day. Around the houses are the cattle enclosures, built as protection against lions.


Tall, thin-lipped, and graceful with el­egant manners, the Borena are essentially peaceful people who believe that angry words are dangerous and violence un­thinkable.


The Borena and the Konso are just two of the fascinating peoples who live in the wildernesses of southern Ethiopia. For an even more kaleidoscopic sampling of the colourful cultures and people of this area, you must travel back to Konso and head west, into the remote Omo Valley.


The Anuak

The indigenous Anuak people are mainly fisherfolk in this region, and the crops they do grow - such as sorghum - do not reach their full potential because of the extremely basic methods of cultivation employed.


There are few large villages, as people prefer instead to group together around a mango grove in an extended family compound of no more than five or six huts. These buildings, used solely as sleeping quarters, have floors of polished, compact mud, extremely low doorways let into walls decorated with engraved patterns depicting animals and magical symbols, and thatched roofs - often of many tiers for better protection against tropical downpours and blazing sun - that sometimes extend down almost to ground level.


During daylight hours the majority of family members stay in the open air, fishing, attending to the chores in the fields, or simply lounging in the shade of the leafy mango trees and smoking long pipes of heady aromatic tobacco.


The women, naked to the waist, wear elaborate bead necklaces and heavy ivory and bone bangles above the elbow, and have their hair closely cropped, sometimes shaven.


Both men and women indulge in a further decorative fancy, common among all the Nilotic peoples of Ethiopia and Sudan, of having the front six teeth of the lower jaw removed at about the age of twelve. This is said to have been originally a precaution against the effects of tetanus, or 'lockjaw'.


As the track meanders along the course of the Baro further and further to the west of Gambella, the town's modernizing influence fades and you'll find yourself among people who have rarely seen foreigners and whose contacts with the influences of the industrial era are remote in the extreme.


Only since the late 1970s have govern­ment-established schools begun to reach the children of this area and, for the major­ity of the population, the twentieth century still remains just a distant rumour.


The Baro, at this point, is a beautiful river, rich in bird life - geese, egrets, ibises, kingfishers, and pelicans - and decorated with the greens and purples of floating water-hyacinth. Fish stocks are plentiful, both in the river itself and in the pools and lakes that flooding creates in the near reaches of the surrounding country­side.


The Nuer

Past the sizeable settlement of Hang, the Anuak give way to their cousins, the Nuer, who are primarily cattle herders, though they also fish.


Nuer are more social in their habits than the Anuak and live together in villages of several hundred at widely spaced intervals along the river banks.


They are comely people, with long, handsome faces and extremely dark, satiny complexions. Both men and women favour a style of decorative cicatricing, which raises the skin of chest, stomach, and face in remarkable patterns of bumps and cica­trices.


Other forms of personal ornamentation include heavy bone bangles, bright bead necklaces, and spikes of ivory or brass thrust through a hole pierced in the lower lip and protruding down over the chin.


Bright-eyed, intelligent, and endlessly curious, the Nuer are very far from merit­ing that ill-judged epithet 'primitive', but theirs, undoubtedly, is a simple culture, un­complicated by the need to adapt to rapid changes and uncluttered by the pressures, phobias, and anxieties of the modern world.


In the evenings, these gentle, charming people bring in their scattered herds from grazing grounds on the surrounding plains to camps established on the banks of the Baro River. Nuer love of cattle is legendary, often expressed in poems and songs of great beauty extolling the virtues of favour­ite beasts.



The Bench

Another interesting group in the region is the Bench (formerly known as the Gimirra), who lived in semi-isolation in the heavily forested rainy Kaffa highlands. They were once a large kingdom of indus­trious cultivators, also known to the an­cient world as 'great warriors and more esteemed than any of the black nations'. Tragically, their culture was virtually wiped out from the fifteenth to the mid­twentieth centuries, when they were perse­cuted, sold into slavery by the thousands, tortured, mutilated, and hunted down like animals in the forests - many groups suf­fering extinction in consequence.


Gimirra means 'honey collector' or 'tree climber', and they once inhabited a land rich in wildlife, cultivated fields and an abundance of honey. They appear to have provided a vital source of slaves for the great neighbouring kingdom of Kaffa, whose people sold them to Europe and Arabia. Other than that, little is known of them, as those who survived have seemingly forgotten their heritage.


Today, as they climb back to life, they are gradually losing the marks of distrust branded on them by decades of brutality. They are quite musical, and playing a set of pan pipes is one of their more cheerful pastimes.


The great forests have been much depleted by farmers and coffee merchants, but enset, tef barley, and millet are grown in their place as agriculture is once again widely practised. Bees still have a special significance to the Bench, who remain great honey gatherers as well as hunters.


Their villages are strikingly picturesque, with each homestead having its charac­teristic elevated field-watching huts. The tree Euphorbia amphiphylla, used as a hedge, lines the pathways, and the same wood is used for the rafters of the houses, which are quite small with very low entrances. The thatched roofs are steeper than most and have a distinctly oriental look. Most interesting is the mural decoration used in the homes, a unique remnant of their lost culture. Walls are covered with mortar, which is modeled in light relief in simple designs with a triangle motif and co loured in orange or vermilion, charcoal, and cinders.


The peoples of the region often con­verge in the regional capital of Jimma, forty-four kilometres (27 miles) south-east of Agaro. One of the most important settle­ments in the west of the country and Ethio­pia's most important coffee-collecting centre, it is a large urban town with many modern institutions. These include an air­port, well-frequented shops and hotels, a cinema, a college of agriculture, an insti­tute of health sciences, and an agricul­tural research station.



The Gurage

The area east of the Gibe River for hun­dreds of years has been the homeland of one of Ethiopia's most remarkable and in­dustrious peoples - the Gurage. Of mixed Semitic and Hamitic stock, they probably migrated here from further north in the long-forgotten past. They have made them­selves at home in the southern highlands and have evolved a uniquely vigorous and self-reliant economy.


The basis of this economy is the 'false ba­nana' tree, known throughout Ethiopia as enset. Its cycle of growth determines the rhythm and special nature of the Gurage lifestyle, providing both their staple food­stuff and the materials from which their homes are constructed. Each house, tall and spacious with a high thatched roof, stands in its own garden of up to ten hectares (25 acres).


Around the house are rows of enset trees, the youngest plants further away followed by increasingly older and taller layers radi­ating inwards. Specific holes are reserved for trees of a specific age and the plants are rotated from hole to hole as they mature until, at the age of eight to ten years, they are ready to be cut down.


The bark and fibres of the felled tree are taken away to be used for building and rope-making, and the massive vegetative bulb is dug up, shredded, and then reburied, wrapped in leaves in a new line of holes close to the house. Here it ferments into a thick cheesy paste, which the Gurage use in unleavened form to bake into the grey, sour-flavored waffle bread that con­stitutes the basis of their diet.


Beyond the enset plantation most Gurage farmers grow cash crops including coffee, chat (a mild stimulant popular in much of the Horn of Africa), tobacco, and eucalyptus trees (for firewood). These crops produce substantial revenues for the Gurage who, rendered self-sufficient for their staple food by the wonderful properties of enset, often become very prosperous.


This prosperity is reflected in their well-­furnished circular houses, which are sup­ported by an imposing central mainstay and are divided within into sleeping, living, and cooking areas, with a large section to one side where the family's cattle and goats are kept. Mats and carpets cover the earth floor of the main living quarters, colourful bas­kets hang in precise rows along the walls, and beautifully fashioned pottery is ar­ranged around the hearth.


Mixed communities of Muslims and Christians, the Gurage live in what must surely be one of the most pleasant parts of Ethiopia. Their villages stand surrounded by grassy commons and meadows where horses graze beside thatched dwellings and where carpenters skilfully prepare the wicker frames of new homes.


The Omo Peoples

The lower Omo is home to a remarkable mix of small, contrasting ethnic groups ­not only the Burne and the Karo, but also the Geleb, the Bodi, the Mursi, the Surma, the Arbore, and the Hamer, to name but a few. Lifestyles are as various as the tribes themselves. The Burne and Karo mingle with the pastoral Geleb and the . transhumant Hamer. The Mursi and the Surma, meanwhile, mix basic subsistence cultivation with small-scale cattle-herding - lives of harsh simplicity uncluttered by the pressures of the modern world.


Lacking any material culture and arte­facts common to more 'civilized' peoples, these tribes find unique ways in which to express their artistic impulses. Both the Surma and the Karo, for example, are ex­perts at body painting, using clays and lo­cally available vegetable pigments to trace fantastic patterns on each other's faces, chests, arms, and legs. These designs have no special symbolic significance but are cre­ated purely for fun and aesthetic effect, each artist vying to outdo his fellows.


Cicatricing, on the other hand, which is also popular amongst most of the peoples of the lower Omo, does contain a number of specific symbolic messages. For example, Mursi warriors carve deep crescent incisions on their arms to represent each enemy that they have killed in battle.


Elaborate hairstyles are another form of personal adornment. Hamer women wear their hair in dense ringlets smeared with mud and clarified butter and topped off with a head-dress featuring oblongs of gleaming aluminium; Geleb and Karo men sculpt and shave their hair into extrava­gant shapes, with special ochre 'caps' of hair usually containing several ostrich feathers.


Jewellery tends to be simple but striking colourful necklaces, chunky metal wristlets and armlets, shiny nails app­ended to skirts, multiple earrings, and so on.



The insertion of wooden and terracotta discs into the ear lobes is a widespread custom, and Mursi and Surma women also progressively split and stretch their lower lips to make room for similar discs there, too. Though these 'lip plates' may appear bizarre to outsiders, the Mursi and Surma regard them as signs of beauty - generally speaking, the larger the lip plate the more desirable the wearer.


At certain seasons, a visitor may be lucky to chance on colourful and dramatic traditional ceremonies. Periodically young men of both the Mursi and the Surma tribes engage in ritual stick fighting. These duels are conducted with the utmost vigour since the winners, and those judged to have shown the greatest bravery, are much admired by nubile girls.


Another important event, seen by few tourists, is the Hamer 'jumping of the bull' ceremony. In this rite of passage, youths are required to jump onto the backs of a line of thirty or forty cattle, run the whole length of this formidable obstacle, jump down onto the other side and then repeat the entire procedure three more times without falling. Finally they walk out of the arena through a special gateway, after which they are judged to have passed from boyhood to manhood.


A trip along the wild and wonderful Omo River offers many opportunities to meet the colourful local people, as well as experience 'getting away from it all' such as you've never known before.