Ethiopian Journey III: Some Cultural Observations

It would be wrong to describe Ethiopia only in terms of its history or topography as my last two posts did; rather its people and its culture are what make it one of the most unique countries in the world. My two week tour did its best to introduce us to these aspects in this fascinating country.


Estimates of Ethiopia’s population generally settle around the 100 million mark, but no one is really sure as no census has been done, ever. Everyone belongs to a tribe; there are about 80 in total, each with their own language, customs and territory. Our guide claimed she could identify some of the tribes by their physical features, flatter lips, higher cheekbones, height, etc. The Amhara are the largest and Amharic is the lingua franca of Ethiopia, with all government administration done in it, along with it being the second language learned in school. English is also studied at a young age and many youngsters joined me on the street, eager to practice English with a native speaker.

It is also very poor, usually ranking in the poorest 20 countries in the world. Signs of poverty were evident everywhere: beggars, lack of indoor plumbing, constant power outages, bumpy, unpaved roads and rampant petty crime in Addis Ababa.  Shanty towns are visible from the air flying into Addis Ababa and in the countryside, shops are mostly made from corrugated metal roofs and plastics siding. Houses are constructed the traditional way with mud and straw walls and thatched roofs. But every child attends daily free public school proudly wearing uniforms, no one went barefoot and little evidence of the drought or famine that plagued Ethiopian in the 1970’s was apparent.


Mostly unreliable figures exist for the breakdown between Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims, but the best guess is 62% of the populace belong to the mainstream church, 35% Muslim and 3% others, including a dwindling Jewish population. Until recently, Muslims and Christians lived side by side, intermarried and displayed a heartening absence of enmity towards each other. Unfortunately, this has changed in the last few years, but I’ll expand later when I discuss politics.

Ethiopians are very conservative and their church is often the most important aspect of their lives. It was the first country to adopt Christianity in Africa. On our tour, we visited numerous churches dating from the 12th century, including a circular one, one of 20  churches/monasteries on Lake Tana. It contains the 3 elements common to all Ethiopian Orthodox churches – the outer chamber, an interior one where communion is done and the inner chamber or holy of holies, where a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.

12th Century Ethiopian Church

Ethiopian Orthodoxy still uses the Gregorian calendar (Ethiopia does in general, thus it is 2012 there) so X-Mas is on January 7. It is preceded by 55 days of Lent, which includes fasting (no meat or fish), no alcohol, no sex and lots of praying. Annoyingly to me, much of the praying is done at strange hours over loud speakers, so I was awoken more than once at 3:30AM to monotone chanting that went on for hours. In the morning, thousands of adherents, the women always dressed in white, would return to their home from church, making the roads impassable.


Ladies leaving Church


Ethiopia is the most mountainous country in Africa and much of the north is above 2500 meters, causing minor symptoms of altitude sickness and shortness of breath doing anything strenuous. The most beautiful chain is the Semien Mountains, which some people trek in up to 10 days. Being far less ambitious, I enjoyed an hour and a half hike, especially the entertainment provided by hundreds of Gelada monkeys, who climb to the streams at the top every morning and retreat to the caves down below at nightfall:

Traditionally, the source of the Blue Nile had been placed in Ethiopia, near Lake Tana, until the well known TV personality, Joanna Lumley, did a program in the UK about it and placed the source in Uganda. Fortunately, she didn’t move the Blue Nile Waterfalls, which were still a splendid sight even in the dry season:


Equally impressive was Lake Tana, the third largest lake in Africa and home to island monasteries, pretty sunrises (except when the clouds are about as on my cruise), birds galore and hippopotamus. We saw sleeping hippos and were entertained by a large flock of pelicans jockeying for fish thrown out by a boatman sailing a traditional papyrus boat:



Few would suggest Ethiopia is a food lover’s paradise, especially during the fasting season when vegetarian menus are the norm and chickens and cows are unavailable, being fattened up for the post-fasting feast, and thus leaving limited options for carnivores like me. Near Lake Tana, there was excellent fresh fish. Luckily, my favourite Ethiopian dish is injera, a thin pancake-like sour grain served cold with a variety of dishes atop like a spicy stew, a chickpea broth or vegetables. Made from teff which is grown only in Ethiopia, it is considered a superfood. However, the export of it is banned as the government is fearful of creating a shortage of local food if export prices increase.

Injera, with various toppings

One thing Ethiopia is famous for is coffee; it claims to have been the first place to cultivate and brew coffee. All over the country, in even the tiniest of villages, coffee shops/stalls exist where women perform the coffee ceremony designed to get the tastiest cup of coffee. We attended a few ceremonies. After the beans are ground, the woman (always a woman in Ethiopia) spend at least an hour transferring the beans from water pot to water pot to ensure maximum potency. I watched and revelled in the scent of fresh ground roasted coffee beans, but as a non-coffee drinker, cannot tell what the taste is like:


I should mention the wine. Wine growing is in its infancy in Ethiopia, but a few home grown labels are available, including the Rift Valley Chardonnay and Syrah, both of which I found to be perfectly acceptable.

The towns and villages:

Addis Ababa, a city of 10 million, is big, crowded and polluted. Yes, it is the capital, but as a metropolis, it is hardly representative of this country in which 85% of the population are subsistence farmers. Unlike in North America, they don’t live on their farms, but instead live in small villages and walk to their farms every day.

We drove through many small villages; the road options are limited and highways seem to have been built to connect villages, not move traffic along quickly. Life happens along the roads, where people live, work and walk. Animals have the right of way, so highly valued are the livestock, and we frequently waited while cows, goats, donkeys or camels crossed the highway. Tractors or other mechanized farm machines were never seen, but plenty of donkeys pulling carts and camels carrying large loads were visible. Everywhere seemed to have electricity and internet, however unreliable, and most towns had sewers and running water, at least those we stayed in.

The tour company I used, Explore, always tries to incorporate “a small, local town” experience and the tour in Ethiopia was no different. Our “town” was Debark, gateway to the Semien Mountains and a newish university. Its large market encompassed 4 “streets”, but 3 were of the dirt variety and nothing tempted me. Stalls sold fruits and vegetables, spices, clothes, footwear, and jerry cans used for carrying water. The goods were basic to say the least, but all the essentials were on offer.



I’ll end on a bit of a sad note. For centuries, the tribes and religions in Ethiopia had co-existed peacefully. In a nutshell, the emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the Communists in 1974 who ruled until 1991 when they were overthrown by a Tigray tribe party. It subsequently entered a coalition, the EPRDF, with parties representing the Oromo and Amhara tribes, which ruled, more of less, until 2018. During this period, the EPRDF always managed to win the elections by a landslide, causing allegations of widespread vote rigging etc. Until 2018, the government could be described as a somewhat benign dictatorship, although disappearances, censorship and imprisonment of journalists and political opponents was not uncommon.

Problems became more prominent in the last decade. Muslim rebels from Somalia and Eritrea had been launching frequent incursions into the country and encouraging religious intolerance. Long festering disputes between tribes also blew up in 2015 with the perceived better-off Tigray people of the north being the subject of violent protests in the south.

In April, 2018, Abiy Ahmed, from both the Amhara and Oromo tribes, became prime-minister, vowing to clean up Ethiopian politics. He freed thousands of political prisoners, flirted with a completely free press and generally relaxed the grip the government held on its people. The trouble is everyone took advantage of their new found freedoms to rally against the government. Militant factions, be they tribal or religious based, are stoking ancient or imaginary hatreds in an effort to gain power. The night before I left Ethiopia, 3 Muslim mosques were burned by Christian mobs, angry after a church caught fire.

Much hope accompanied Abiy’s victory. He was the first non-Tigray to hold power. But aside from entering into the peace treaty with Eritrea (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), he has done nothing to quell the protests and vehement expressions of hatred that have been gripping Ethiopia for the last few years. People are fearful the violence will continue, or escalate, while the prime-minister dithers as to what to do. Already, our tour was rerouted away from the Muslim city of Harar, where Muslims were marking the houses of Christians, and Tigray are fleeing the south for friendlier territories in the north.

Even to my foreign eyes, it was easy to see that Ethiopia has all the trappings of a powder keg, waiting to explode, another Rwanda or Somalia. I hope I am wrong and this wonderful country finds away to stop the unrest and live, like it has done for thousands of years, in peace.


Next: Oman