Academic journal article Africa

Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Academic journal article Africa

Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Article excerpt


If you believe the media reports, Ethiopia is a depressed nation of recurring famine, drought and conflict. Although this is the daily reality for many, where 85% of people live on the land, and many survive on less than $1 a day, Ethiopia amounts to far more than this. It is a land of unique natural beauty, a land of 13 months of sunshine. When the rest of the world adopted the Julian calendar, Ethiopia kept the Gregorian calendar with 12 months of 30 days and a 13th month of 6 days, or 7 days if it is a leap year. It is seven years behind so in 2003, it was 1996. Ethiopians work in twelve hour time cycles from sunrise to sunset. Ethiopia has its own unique writing and its own language. Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, one of 80 indigenous languages. There are eight ethnic groups, of which the Oromo who number 54% is the largest. New year is 11 September, Christmas is 6 January.

A profoundly religious country, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all contributed to shape Ethiopia's culture and society. A plethora of churches and monasteries, alongside religion itself, with its church music and poetry give Ethiopia its unique defining culture. Orthodox Christianity and Islam are the predominant religions, while Catholicism, Protestantism and other minority religions are also represented. The last Emperor, Haile Selassie I, was the 225th monarch in the Solominic line descended from Menelik (said to be the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon). Judaism plays a key role in present-day Ethiopia combining the rituals of circumcision, fasting and Saturday's sabbath. Ethiopia still has a few of its own Falasha Jews.

Ethiopia escaped the European Scramble for Africa in the 19th century, while Eritrea, part of Ethiopia at the time, became an Italian colony. The only attempt at colonisation amounted to 5 years of Italian occupation from 1936-1941. The Communist government, the Dergue, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie I and ruled from 1974-1991. While implementing much-needed social and land reforms, the Dergue did not brook any form of dissent. Rule was by fear, with assassination and execution being the norm as shocking human rights abuses were perpetrated to root out all members of the former imperial elite and opponents of the regime. In 1991 the Tigrayan-dominated government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi took over and is still in power today. The new government's principal aims are to address food security and reform the private sector. Domestic politics has been dominated since 1998 by a border war with Eritrea. Despite a ceasefire in 2000, peace is far from established. The UN is now mediating over the demarcation of the border.

Ethiopian people are proud, peace-loving and resilient, armed with a spirit and endurance to face the gruelling poverty and despair of many of their lives. Today they also live under the more serious threat of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Literacy rates are rising and a positive development is the increasing numbers of women in education. Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) work with international agencies to improve people's lives in the areas of health, water and sanitation, education and literacy, agriculture and irrigation technologies, food security and the environment.

As the tourist industry germinates, tourists venture to northern Ethiopia to the rock-hewn churches of Tigray, the 11th century churches in Lalibela, and the former ancient capital city of Axum, said to be the home of the Queen of Sheba. Lake Tana, the second largest lake in Africa and the source of the Blue Nile, has 30 islands which house ancient monasteries dating back to the 13th century, some of which are closed to women, and one is reputed to preserve the oldest library in Ethiopia. There is Harar, ancient Muslim walled city to the east, while in the south, Wolaita is an area of 'green famine', where people barely have enough food to survive, but the luscious countryside belies a land of plenty. …

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