Ethical Issues in the Abyssinian Customary Practices and Attitudes towards Persons with Mental or Physical Challenges

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper is a result of research from literature review, interviews conducted among Abyssinians (Eritreans and Ethiopians) living in the US, personal observations and review of a video cassette entitled "mistir nay' ta kofo" (the secret in the granary).

The contents of the paper may not be generalizable to every Abyssinian person with a disability. However, it presents what could be considered as the dominant customary attitudes and practices in the society. In this paper, the term "disability" refers to disadvantaged members of the society, whose learning or functioning is constrained by social factors, physical or mental limitations or family circumstances. It is a deficiency or a condition, which prevents a person from functioning normally and participating fully in the society (Black and Hanley, 1995).

The theoretical framework of this paper is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, resolution 217 A (III) of December 10, 1948. Among these rights are that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights, have the right to opportunities without any form of discrimination, have the right to education, employment and other public services, and have responsibilities to develop themselves and fellow members of community (Omole and Omole, 2008).

Basic remarks on Abyssinia and its People with Disabilities

The term "Abyssinia" refers to the people of both Eritrea and Ethiopia. As Piolet (1999) explains, "Abyssinia" implies the idea of "a crowd" or "heap of sweepings", because the Abyssinians are a formation of diverse ethnic groups. Manna (1996) also explained that around 1000 BC, some Semitic peoples are thought to have migrated from Southern Arabia and settled in present day Eritrea and Ethiopia. The immigrants intermarried with the native people and were referred to as "Habesha" or "Abyssinia", which means "people of mixed blood". With time went on the term "Abyssinia" came to refer to both the people and the land of both countries.

The Abyssinian population is estimated to be 90 million of which 150,000 are people with disabilities in Eritrea (UN Humanitarian Agency, 2007) and over a million in Ethiopia (US Department of State, March, 1996). Abyssinia has over 80 ethnic groups, each with its own language and cultural set-ups. 80-90% of the population lives in rural areas; which makes health and welfare services for people with disabilities difficult to access since such services are located in the major cities.

Economically, majority of the Abyssinians are peasant farmers and nomads, whose annual income is greatly determined by insufficient rainfall. Ownership of land for cultivation and tending animals are basic economic assets. The average annual per capita income is US $100 to $160 (Buerk, 2004). Hence Abyssinia is one of the poorest countries in the world. People with normal learning and working abilities find it hard to meet their basic needs. We can imagine then how tougher it can be for the mentally or physically challenged.

The low economic status also affects the provision of medical and healthcare services. For instance, in 1996 it was reported that Eritrean hospitals lacked adequate medical supplies and equipment. There were only six X-ray machines and seven operating rooms in the entire country. Resources for amputees are scarce as there are only three orthopedic workshops located in Asmara, Keren and Asab (Landmine Survivors Network, 2003).

Looking at the Abyssinian belief systems, the two main religions that dominate Abyssinia are Islam and Christianity. Most of the Christians belong to the Orthodox (Tewahdo) denomination. According to Manna (1996), in Abyssinia has known Christianity since the Apostolic Era and it has a big influence on the region's culture. Just as most African societies, traditional Abyssinian education focused on the male and those who could afford it. …