Academic journal article Ethnology

The Thief-Searching (Leba Shay) Institution in Aariland, Southwest Ethiopia, 1890s-1930s

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Thief-Searching (Leba Shay) Institution in Aariland, Southwest Ethiopia, 1890s-1930s

Article excerpt

The military encounter between the Aari people and the imperial Abyssinian army during the late nineteenth century resulted in the defeat of the Aari and the introduction of hitherto unknown forms of socioeconomic and political relations between the agents of the Abyssinian state and the conquered population. With the conquest, an institution of serfdom (gebbar sirat) was introduced in Aariland whereby local families had to pay an annual tribute (in cash and in kind) to the soldier-settlers (neft' ennya). In addition, members of households had to perform labor services for the soldier-settlers. Failure to pay tribute and to perform labor service resulted in slavery. Many Aari (mostly women and children) were taken away as domestic slaves because Aari families could not afford to pay the tribute or to perform the labor services.

A considerable number of Aari women and children were also taken as slaves through a practice known as the leba shay. The impact of this institution on the local populations in southern Ethiopia has not yet been researched in modern Ethiopian studies. This article describes the workings of the leba shay among the Aari people of southwest Ethiopia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.(1) More specifically, it examines the origin, impact, and disintegration of the leba shay institution by corroborating Aari oral history with written sources.

The Aari people are sedentary agriculturalists who live in the South Omo and North Omo regions in the former Gamo-Gofa Province. Before their conquest and incorporation into the Abyssinian Empire, the Aari existed as a politically independent entity. They were organized into chiefdoms which were headed by ritual kings known as baabi. Prior to the conquest, the Aari were traditional believers, but with the conquest, some Aari adopted Orthodox Christianity, the Ethiopian state religion. The conquest and subsequent exploitation and oppression of the Aari people under serfdom were justified by a discourse of a civilizing mission which included the concept of law and order. This rationale emanated from the belief that local populations lacked law and order before their conquest by the Abyssinian state. Implied in such a conception is the notion that the conquest brought about peace and security (pax Abyssinica) among the conquered people. The leba shay institution was one component of this broader spectrum of the civilizing mission. It exemplifies the ambiguity of the ideology of the introduction of law and order since it resulted in the disruption of local societies.

FEATURES OF THE LEBA SHAY INSTITUTION

The phrase leba shay or leba sha is Amharic and literally means looking for a thief.(2) It was a technique of thief-searching that was practiced by the soldier-settlers in Aariland and among other societies in southern Ethiopia. Leba shay was a hereditary practice inherited by a son from his father. An individual whose property was stolen (or allegedly stolen) reported to the person who was in charge of the leba shay, known as leba shay at'ech'i, (the one who administers the leba shay drug).(3) Strictly speaking, the leba shay was an adolescent boy who drank a drug and looked for the thief. Only boys could be leba shay; according to informants the drug was too strong to be administered to girls. The boy had to be a virgin, otherwise the drug would not be effective. Scholars have suggested different ages for the leba shay boy, but the approximate age was between ten and fifteen (Messing 1957:322). Merab (1929:255) however, reported that the approximate age could range from twelve to eighteen years. Only boys from certain ethnic groups could be a leba shay: generally, he came from Wolayta, Gimirra, or Oromo ethnic groups and rarely from the Shank'illa or Amhara (Merab 1929:255).(4) Walker (1933:159) reported that the leba shay boy was a slave or a son of a poor person. According to informants in Aariland and in Addis Ababa, the drug he drank was a mixture of tobacco and an herb, although they could not identify the latter. …

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