culture & traditions
Ethiopia is a diverse mix of cultures that have co-existed for hundreds of years inside the country’s border.
The population is largely divided along ethno-linguistic lines, with more than 80 different ethnic groups resided within her borders, and close to 80 different dialects spoken as well. Within this diversity, there are some aspects of daily life that tend to pervade the majority of the population. A traveller visiting Ethiopia cannot fail to be impressed by the colour and individuality of its cultures and traditions. Whether in the bustle of the town or the tranquillity of the countryside, there is a strong sense of identity and pride that is visible in all aspects of life.
Family is a central aspect of Ethiopian culture, with extended families often living together in close-knit communities. Family is the focal point of the Ethiopian social system. Relatives on both sides of the family and close friends are held close. Parents often live with their children when advanced in their years and they can no longer care for themselves. Individuals bring honor to their entire family unit with their successes, and family needs are typically put before all others matters
music, dance & art
Music and dance play a great role in Ethiopian life and festivals. Instruments used most often are the following: kebaro drums, single-stringed masenko (fiddle-like), washint (flute-like), the krar (lyre-like), begenna (harp-like). Ethiopian people love to sing, and they don’t hold back. Special occasions rarely occur without the accompaniment of singing and dancing.
Ethiopians have a long history of religious painting and this intricate work can be seen in almost every church in the country. The two dimensional figures often tell a story and serve a dual purpose of being both uplifting and educational in teaching religious truths and stories.
In every church, music serves to give atmosphere to the ritual and to heighten personal experience. Every church has its drums, covered with decorated material, and its sistra, metal rattles that date back hundreds of years. These accompany the chanting of the priests, along with the beating of the prayer sticks and the clapping of hands.
Out in the community, musical instruments play a social and entertaining role. The single-stringed masenko is played by minstrels who sing of life around them and invent, calypso-like, topical verses on the spot. The krar is a lyre-like plucked instrument with 5 or 6 strings while the begenna is the portable harp.
Ethiopian people know and love their folk songs. Singing is high pitched and shrill and frequently accompanied by excited ululation, especially at weddings and other joyful occasions. In addition to more traditional styles, Ethiopians also listen to popular music where the country boasts a whole host of contemporary artists, some of whom are internationally recognised such as Gigi. Mainstream music from the West has also infiltrated Ethiopian culture where you can hear Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber alongside Ethiopia’s man of the moment Teddy Afro (see link below) on the radio!
Ethiopians rely on a staple food grown in their highlands called teff. A large pancake like cake is made with the teff flour, called injera, that typically is placed directly on the table and accompanies every meal. Other dishes are then placed on the injera and it is rolled up to eat. Thick stews, called wats, are oftentimes hot and spicy and accompany the meal and are made from chicken, pork, lamb, vegetables, lentils, and split peas. Ethiopians also make their own barely beer, tella. The chief mainstay served at every turn is injera, a large sourdough-risen flatbread with a slightly spongy texture that’s accompanied with grilled meat or stew (beef, sheep, goat). There are various religious customs surrounding food in Ethiopia – Orthodox Christians and Muslims don’t eat pork, while every Wednesday and Friday, Orthodox Christians fast from all animal products.
Coffee (or bouna) is undoubtedly the Ethiopian national drink, after all it’s the birthplace of coffee – an elaborate ceremony is often performed to produce a cup. Coffee is a national drink and there may be a ceremony/ritual that may be practised when drinking coffee. It is considered impolite to refuse coffee when offered to you.
The national drink is coffee, originating in Ethiopia and providing one of the major exports of the country. Every meal will, where possible, conclude or commence with the coffee ceremony, when green coffee beans are washed, roasted, ground and boiled in water; all this taking place on a bed of fresh grass and in front of the family or guests.
Many people say that coffee served in an Ethiopian home is the best they have experienced. Shai (tea) is also popular in Ethiopia, and is usually served in small glasses with no milk and plenty of sugar.
Bottled water, Pepsi and Mirinda (fizzy orange) are found everywhere and are sometimes consumed in the home. T’eller is a ubiquitous and inexpensive local brown beer with a unique flavour found in the many t’eller bets in every village. T’eller bets are usually someone’s home (they are marked by an upturned tin can on a pole outside the home) and, given most Ethiopian homes have only one or two rooms, you will often find children interspersed with beer drinking men! T’ej is more often reserved for special occasions and is a potent and cloudy honey-wine.
Ethiopians love to invite visitors into their home for coffee ceremonies, injera and sometimes t’eller because they see hospitality as an important part of everyday life. If you are invited you can expect to be well fed, and encouraged to eat more!
Ethiopia is a deeply conservative and religious country and almost all men and women dress modestly – this means covering the shoulders and knees. While Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is slightly more liberal in its approach to dress, it’s advisable to exercise caution and be led by local guides. Eat with your right hand and avoid reaching for food with your left, which is considered unclean. Greetings are important to Ethiopians – many shake hands and it’s polite to swap pleasantries before launching into your reason of business. Ethiopians have the utmost respect for their elders and it’s advisable for tourists to follow suit. Remove shoes before entering a church, mosque or someone’s home.
Ethiopians follow the Julian calendar which consists of 12 months with 30 days and the 13th month of 5 days. Following this calendar, Ethiopians celebrate New Year on 11th or 12th September where locals are said to burn dry wood in front of their houses as they sing and dance. Once the fire dies down, another tradition that locals follow includes jumping into the ash to mark the shift of going into the New Year.
Apart from their New Year celebration, Ethiopians are also known to hold several other religious festivals, most of which are linked to Christianity like Meskel and Christmas. Christmas, also known as Genna is celebrated on 7th January instead of 25th December, unlike the majority. The children also play the traditional sport of the day, called “Kile”, which is similar to hockey, but unlike hockey, the ball has to be dug for before the game begins.
On the other hand, Meskel also known as the Finding of the True Cross, is one of the biggest religious festivals in the country and has been registered in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Greetings are considered to be of high importance in Ethiopia. People are expected to acknowledge each other, even if they do not share the same language. It is also respectful to greet the eldest person first and when shaking hands, to use either only the right hand or both hands.
Close friends, on the other hand, would often greet each other with a kiss on the cheek three times, but if it has been a long time since they have met, they may kiss four or five times.
Considering the various tribes and ethnic groups present in the country, traditional costumes can vary accordingly. However, a similarity between most of these traditional wear is that it is made from woven cotton. Women tend to wear ankle-length dresses with embroidered patterns, known as the Habesha Kemis, the national costume of the country. While men are usually seen in cotton pants and a collared, knee-length white shirt.