Ethiopia glossary








head of household


Gala Dejen (highlands)


December 1996



Section 1
When I interviewed Mrs Ayichesh Akele Lemlem, I first introduced myself to her by telling her in detail where I came from, my place of work, and the aim of the interview. She was pleased with this and told me her name and the fact that she was the mother of two children. This woman is young. At one time she had gone to Sidamo, but come back because she loved her birthplace. At the time of the interview she was carrying her baby and picking out the impurities from the wheat grain on a flat basketwork because she had no one to look after her child. At the same time, she was constantly being interrupted by other people and her baby which was calling out her name and sometimes holding her mouth tightly. Nevertheless this woman has properly responded in the interview.

What caused the changes in the general condition of your area? What is the food production  like?
Food production? What food production? There is nothing! In the old days, they harvested  large amounts of wasera (cereal crop grown in highlands) and we had plenty of food. Nowadays, we sustain our lives with a small tin of dagusa (finger millet) and barley brought from other places. What produce can one find in our locality now?

What was it like in the old days? What caused the food deficiency?
There was plenty of food in the old days. The land is now eroded. [Someone called her and she  interrupted her speech.] In the old days land was held due to one’s father. There was plenty of  land. The land was productive and there was sufficient rain. Now there is no rain. Even when it rains on time and the crop grows, the rain comes again and destroys it. The yield decreases and  the food also becomes tasteless.

What do you mean when you say “land was held due to one’s father”?
In the old days, that is before there were too many people, our grandfathers and forefathers went and cultivated any [unoccupied] land. When my grandfathers died, I claimed the land in  their names and cultivated it. When I died, my children inherited it and cultivated it. Thus the  land was called so-and-so’s land and passed on from one generation to another. The land was  large and the population was much smaller. When the Derg (military regime 1974-89) came, it said that the land belonged  to the people and redistributed it. The population increased and the land became smaller in size.
Section 2
Was it the Derg that redistributed the land? How far was the Derg’s land policy acceptable to  the people?
Yes it was the Derg that redistributed the land. The people were forced to accept it. The Derg rejected any claim of land in the name of one’s father. It said that man did not create the land.  That is how we came to this situation. The present government, too, follows the same policy.  Land is scarce and even when its size is adequate, it does not give enough yield.

Why is that? What caused this situation?
The land has become unproductive. The water eroded it. Doesn’t a person die when his blood is sucked out? It is the same thing with the land. It is only the people who applied fertilisers that  got a little yield, the rest didn’t.

If the fertiliser can make a difference, why doesn’t everyone use it?
What about the [financial] capacity? For instance, I have two tind of land. If they tell me to  take a 400 birr credit, where can I get the money to repay it? If you have crops you can sell that  and repay the debt. If you have sheep, a horse, or a mule or a cow, you can sell these and repay  the credit. But now one doesn’t even have enough food to eat let alone to repay one’s debt. So how can he repay the fertiliser credit?

You have said that the land is now eroded. Why was it not eroded in the past and why is it eroded now? [A beggar came and interrupted our interview again.]
My father told me that when he was a shepherd, he and his friends used to pass the day here. It was a thick forest in those days. Only the monk from St. George’s Church used to pass this way.  Other people did not dare to come this way because there were wild animals such as leopards.  The forest protected the land. For instance if a person is emaciated and you push him, he falls down; it is the same thing with the land. It has now been weakened and does not produce food.

How was the forest destroyed? What happened to the leopards?
The trees were cut down for cultivation and the wild animals such as leopards, elephants and even serpents disappeared. There used to be monkeys and an animal called natcha, too, around here.

Where did the animals go to?
They migrated to places where there are forests. If a natcha comes here now who will let it free?  Let alone in this highland, you can’t find them even in the lowlands. They have all migrated.

Who cut down the trees?
People cut them for firewood and for construction of houses. When there is a large population, where can you get the wood from? Now you have no alternative source except eucalyptus trees.  You see no other tree around here. So you have to plant eucalyptus for firewood. I came here a  year ago, but a eucalyptus tree takes three or five years to grow up. Unless I had money and  bought some, I will only cut down the forest trees.
Section 3
Is there anything you could tell me about water consumption around here?
We fetch from water far away. The ferenjis (foreigners), together with the local people, developed the spring. Except for the distance, we now get clean water. The water for human and  animal consumption is separate. There is plenty of water in this locality.

What is your source of income like?
Our sources of income are farming and trading. In the old days we used to carry our food and  travel to distant places on foot. It used to take about a week to go to Woldiya on foot. Now  thanks to the Chinese road, you don’t need to carry food. You can go by car, dine at a hotel and come back. Apart from farming and trading, they also breed animals - goats, sheep, donkeys,  horses and mules. If you breed mules, you can sell one of them for a thousand birr within six  months of its birth. You can use that money for buying food for your annual consumption. If you  have no animal of your own, you breed other people’s animals on a contract. The highland is  good for breeding sheep.

How many animals did one breed in the old days? What about now?
Let alone before our time, even at the time of the Derg our uncle brought here 120 sheep, which he was trying to save from confiscation by the Derg. One used to have seven to eight cows which gave birth at one time. The grazing land came from your father. There used to be 40 or 50  newborns at a given time. Now not many people have even one cow for milking. Besides,  nowadays three cows do not give as much milk as one cow used to give in the old days for there was enough grass then. At that time, one consumed the butter for himself, offered yoghurt to his guests. Now if you have one cow and milk it, the next day you run to the market with the little lump of butter you produced to sell it for 50 cents or a birr, you do not want to consume it.  In the old days everyone had his butter at home and did not sell it. He had his granary filled  with teff (staple crop), barley, lentils and did not need to sell butter.

What was the cause of the change?
The people say it is because of the rain. The rain doesn’t come at the right time, in June. Last year for instance, it rained the whole year and the grass grew, but it was not good for the animals  and the crops. For example, it is now cloudy, but if it rains the crop will be destroyed. Now this thing called Global (National farmer extension programme funded by Japan) made us pay 400 birr [for inclusion in its extension programme]. However, there was a hailstorm which destroyed the crop and the people were left empty-handed.

You said that the grazing land came from one’s father. What is the situation like nowadays?
It was redistributed just like the other land. In the past your father used to give you a plot of land for cultivation and for grazing. Now I have no animals; so I have no claim to the grass. It is only  those who have animals who can use it.
Section 4
What about animal diseases?
The animals are all right nowadays, but in the old days, especially at the time of the “pestilence”, both humans and animals died in large numbers at the same time.
[By “pestilence”, the narrator may be referring to the 1972/73 famine which is estimated to have killed over a quarter of a million people in Tigray and Wollo.]

When was this pestilence?
During our childhood. I did not know my mother, for she passed away at the time of the pestilence. Both humans and animals died at that time. It is not like that now.

Was there medical care at that time?
I am telling you that both humans and animals died then. I only heard of their death. How would I know about what care was available then? I was told that my mother hanged herself when 31 of her animals died then. My father was not at home at the time. You see, my child likes tea and  bread; he was brought up with that. Now if I could not afford to give him that do you think he would understand my problem? It was for the same reason that my mother committed suicide.

Did the pestilence occur repeatedly?
They say it came every four or five years in those days.

So during which one did your mother die?
During the pestilence that killed human beings. But then how would I know? I was only a baby  then and I am telling you what I heard from my father.

Is there a change now with respect to animal diseases?
It is better now. If two or three animals die in one village, the other owners take their animals to the veterinarian or bring some drugs and treat their animals. In those days such drugs were not  easily available. So even if people fell ill they did not go to the doctor. That is why they died.

Can you tell me about the cultivation?
The time of cultivation depends on whether it is in the highland or lowland. If it is in the  lowland, they sow sorghum in March and May. In the highlands, they sow linseed and barley in  May and June. Next they sow peas and beans. After that they sow wasera, which grows only  here, wheat, and barley. If the rains are good, lentils can be harvested in October and  November. The rest are ready, depending on the month and the sowing. The decisive factor is the rainy season. If the rain doesn’t come on time you cannot sow any of these crops until January.  If everything goes well the crops begin to get ready for harvest after September depending when  you had sown each of them. Then you collect your harvest one after the other.
Section 5
Is there any change therefore?
There is no change; it was the same crops which were sown in those days too.

What about the productivity of the land now and in the old days?
What can you produce now? You can see for yourself! You need to apply a bit of fertiliser.  Otherwise, if you have a backyard, you need to apply animal dung or spray some ash and then  till the land two or three times. You may get a small yield from that. If you apply fertiliser to this  land you can get plenty of crops next year. Otherwise you have to leave the land fallow. The   highland consumes too much seed. It is difficult to get back even the equivalent of what you  have planted. For example, if I don’t have another plot of land for cultivating wasera and if this  is the only farmland I have, I cannot cultivate anything on it next year. It means I will have  nothing to eat next year. That is why our people become vulnerable. However, if I have two or  three plots of land, I can leave them fallow by rotation.

What about using irrigation?
Irrigation is not widely practised in our area, but there is enough water here for irrigation.

What about pest control?
There is no problem of pests in the highlands. The only crop destroyer here is hailstorm. In the  lowlands, however, you find pests such as locusts and degeza (bush cricket).

How do people control pests in the lowlands?
By using pesticides when these are available or by beating the locusts on the ground. There is another pest called jibo which eats your chickpeas. If you have a large family you dig and force  it out of its hole and destroy it.

What is the impact of the changes in land tenure on each person here?
The equality has enabled some poor people to get land. Those of us whose fathers left us large plots of land now have only tiny plots of land. The farmland I was given for instance is not  enough to sustain even an ape for a whole day. So with this plot of land I cannot sustain my  family for even three months let alone for a year. The population was small in those days and the  farmland was large in those days. Now the population has increased and even if you have a large  plot of land, it is barren and produces very little food.

Can you tell me about the market here?
What change is there in the market? Those who have no farmland become traders and sell coffee, sugar, eggs, kerosene, and butter. Thanks to the new road, they can go to Woldiya and bring their articles by car. If they can find any they also sell wood. In the old days who would sell eggs and wood? It was shameful to do so then.
Section 6
Why was it a shame?
Because of ignorance! For example if I had not travelled and come back I wouldn’t have known even how to dress up well. Rather than go hungry one would become a domestic servant or sell  wood now. [Someone who wanted to drink tella (locally brewed beer) interrupted her.] If I have a cow, I will sell the butter now, but in the old days I would have eaten it.

What do you buy with the money?
Dagussa or barley or anything that I need.

What do you think should be done to improve life here?
Now for instance we have established this place as a village. If a factory or a flour mill were set up here, it would improve the life of many poor folks here.

What else is needed for development?
If you have grain to sell or possess some money you can buy fertiliser and apply it on your  farmland. If you sowed two or three aqmadas (large sheepskin bags) of seeds, you will be able to get 15 aqmadas of yield. Also if you raise sheep or horses or mules and if the mule gives birth, a  year or two later you can sell it for a 1000 birr or 1500 birr. So you can improve your area in this  way.

What about infrastructure for education and health?
Well, if we can get them, these are also necessary. Those who have two children will teach one of them and he in turn will teach the other one. If a health clinic is built here, those who bring  their sick here for medical treatment will buy bread and tea from us. If everyone becomes a  farmer, medical care is necessary. For instance this house was initially built for a flourmill. If the mill had been installed, I would have got a lot of income.

You told me that there were three of you who established this settlement. How did you do it?
Hardship drove us to do it. First the man who came a moment ago built a house here. He had quarrelled with his relatives and wanted to move away from them. Then when I returned here, my brother brought wood from the lowland and built me a house. Then other people followed our example and built houses. Now there are seven or eight households here.

How do you expect your locality to change in the coming 20 years?
If God blesses us with age it will be like Geregera or Fendiqa. If the land is peaceful, it can  change. We are building terraces to control soil erosion. If God is reconciled to us and it rains  properly, the land will grow crops and the animals will have grass for grazing. So that is it.
Section 7
What are the social institutions here?
They are Mahber, Senbetie, Iqub, and Qire. When somebody died in the past everyone, whether from Gala Dejen or Meqerqeriat, would attend the funeral. This practice of saying that a member of such and such a Qire has died, and attending his funeral only if the deceased or his relative is a  member of your Qire, is a recent one.

Since when was the Qire divided?
Recently, after the Derg came to power. Before that time, when someone died from Gala Dejen,  people from Gala Dejen and Meqerqeriat would prepare their stew and bread and bring  the stew in a pot and the bread in a basket to feed the mourners. Nobody would say the deceased is not  from my Qire and abstain from such cooperation in time of bereavement. This is a very recent  practice.

To what extent do people participate in these social occasions now?
Now if someone dies in Gala Dejen, it is only the members of the Qire of Gala Dejen who cooperate in looking after the mourners. If I have to prepare a wedding feast to prepare and you  assist me by bringing me gifts of sheep or bread or tella, I will do the same thing when your turn  comes. So it is tit for tat now. The Mahber is an old tradition inherited from our forefathers.  There are 12 or 13 members in the association and these will take turns to prepare feasts for their  members once in a year. The guests will feast for three days at the member’s home and when  they leave he invites and feeds his neighbours too. The Senbetie is held at the church on Sundays.  Members will gather there and the one whose turn it is will invite them to take tella and bread. Then the turn of the next member will be announced and he will be blessed. Then he will prepare his feast  for the next time.

How far have these social institutions changed?
The scale of the feasts have changed, but the tradition is still intact. If someone lacks the means  to prepare a feast, he can drop out of the Senbetie. In the old days, one prepared the feast by  slaughtering a sheep, preparing four or five types of stew, and brewing tella in large pots. Then  the members were entertained at his home for three or four days. Now, however, you can  entertain them, depending on your means, with just a pot of tella and a loaf of bread. So that is  the difference.

What is its benefit to the people?
Both the Mahber and the Senbetie are practised for the salvation of your soul. If I have wealth  and I prepare a big feast for the Senbetie or Mahber, I will feed the poor and that is good for  the soul.

How are these activities coordinated?
The Mahber feast is prepared and eaten at the home of the member. Twelve persons who have  the same patron saint such as St. Michael or St. Gabriel or the Trinity will form a Mahber and  celebrate the day once a year by taking turns and preparing the feast for three or four days. The members are likely to be peers that grew up together, they love each other like best men or  women. The Senbetie can have 20-100 members who may be spouses, neighbours, and they eat the feast at church every month or year depending on your turn.
Section 8
Are there no members who withdraw from the associations every year?
There are some individuals who withdraw for lack of the foodstuff for preparing the feast. Otherwise the tradition will continue for it is a part of our culture and religion.

What are the changes regarding marriage and divorce?
In the old days the girls used to be given in marriage at the age of four or five. After that she will  be brought up at the home of her parents or she will be raised together with her would-be  husband at her in-laws home. They will be like brothers and sisters until they come of age. Now  they become pregnant quickly although early marriage is discouraged. They can stay unmarried  up to the age of 10 or 15.

When did this change occur?
Since 12 years ago. They discourage marriage before the breasts show on the chest of the girl. In the old days they did not give birth quickly even when they were married. It is now that they  give birth in childhood. No one knows the reason. After a year of marriage she delivers a baby  and she does not grow up after that.

What about divorce?
The only change is that now there is poverty as an additional cause. Otherwise if there is no  harmony in the family they divorced each other, both in the past and now. If the woman quarrels  with her husband, she will take her share of the land and leave the home.

What if they have children?
They divide them among themselves, depending on the children’s preferences and take them away.

What about concubines?
This is not a common practice here. The husband may stay away for a night or two.

What does his wife say when he comes back?
If she finds out why he stayed away, she will be jealous and may demand for a divorce. If he realises his mistake, he will heed the elders’ advice and compensate her by giving her one of his  cows or sheep or by buying her a new dress. If he loves the other woman too much, he may  accept the divorce and that is the end of the marriage.

What is the attitude of the community towards concubines?
Keeping a concubine has no use except to break up marriages. [Her child fell down and  interrupted her.] A man who cannot support his family is no good for a second wife.
Section 9
So what does his wife advise him?
She will advise him not to waste their scarce resources on two households, to stick to her and  support his family, to bring up their children well so that they in turn can build their own  families. But if he refuses to heed her advice and if he wants to have an illegitimate child, she has no other choice except to divorce him.

What is the change in the relationship between parents and their children?
In the old days one had plenty of butter and other food. That is how my father brought me up. If  a sheep was slaughtered, he left the good parts to us. He would say that he had eaten well during  his days and give priority to us. Likewise I too would like to take good care of my child. If he is educated he can support me too.

Do the community members support each other?
Yes, why not? The Muslims for instance do not go to church, but they will go to the house of the deceased and mourn his death. If someone becomes unfortunate and needs help and I happen to  have only one eucalyptus tree, I will sell that and assist him. Since we are fellow countrymen we support each other.

Is there any change in this respect?
In the old days there were no public meetings as there are now. Communications were made through the local official. Now, however, people hold meetings and discuss their problems. They also hold discussions when they meet for mourning.

What about the problem of crime in this area?
It is better here than in other places. Of course there are occasional thefts. There is the afersata in which people gather and try to identify the thief. When the culprit has been discovered he is expelled from his Qire and ostracised from the community. If you are ostracised, nobody will let you take fire from his hearth, nor will any one carry your coffin and bury you when you die. So such deterrents will force you to avoid engaging in criminal acts.

Was there such a thing in the past?
There were acts of theft, arson and drunkenness. All that is decreasing now.

Are there changes in the roles and responsibilities of men and women?
There was greater affection and love then. People did not hide their feelings and their bonds were stronger. Now it is a matter of eking out a living together.

What caused the change?
In the old days, a woman would help her husband in the field and when she goes home earlier she will prepare the tella and food and wait for him. Now this thing called equality has come and if he tells her to do something, she will tell him that she won’t take orders from him. They  must both share the burden of the farm work equally. 
Section 10
What is the attitude of the community towards the physically weak?
If the woman has a plot of farmland but cannot cultivate it, the men will till the land and the women  will do the weeding. If the woman has no land and cannot prepare her food, the local community  will take turns and support her. If she is a sick woman you have to take turns and carry her to  your home and look after her. Then it will be somebody’s turn the next day and this will go on  until she dies. When she passes away you have to bury her just like any other person. That is our culture.

How do the people of Meket differentiate themselves from people of other areas?
They can be differentiated by their custom, their costume, their tattoos, their religion and churches. I have been to other places and I have not seen any other people who hold the church  in such reverence as the people of Meket. We have a lot of heritage.

What do you mean by heritage?
There are many churches like St. George of Gala Dejen, Debre Tsibah, Holy Saviour, which have a lot of history.

Would you like to live elsewhere if you had an alternative?
If I had an alternative, why not? Since this is my birthplace I love it very much and I would visit  it very often.

Would you not be better off elsewhere?
Even if I get more comfort elsewhere, I can’t forget my birthplace. It is like your mother.

Which custom do you attach more value to?
First to my religion; secondly, our children are married off before they become too big, whereas in other places they even give birth before marriage or are married off after they have become  too big. Our children grow up looking up to their husbands as their brothers. I think our custom is better for these reasons.

Are there places of worship in Meket?
We worship at our churches. We believe in one God and do not worship other deities. Of course, we have no access to the Holy Tablet, but we do kiss the objects consecrated in its name, for example, a juniper tree dedicated to St. George. For me that is like worshipping God. Our tradition of worship is inherited from the past and there is nothing new in it. When the Holy Tablet is carried out of the church, we escort it dressed in our best clothes and celebrate the occasion with horse races. Nowadays people have abandoned tattooing their faces. Decorating dresses with colourful knitting is a practice that came from the cities. Men are also wearing proper trousers now when they are farming or attending meetings. In the old days they were only wearing shorts made from cotton. There is no other change in our custom.

What do you feel when a cultural change occurs?
I regret it. When the Holy Tablet comes out, there are traditional war songs [sung] even by elderly men. Guns are fired to herald the event and also at the funeral of a man to honour him as a hero. But now the authorities punish or detain people for firing their guns when the Holy Tablet is carried out of the Church. People fire their guns also because they have made vows to do so if  they reach the next celebration in good health. Now all that fanfare and jubilation has been reduced by these restrictions.
Section 11
Where did you acquire your knowledge from?
From my elders and from life itself.

Which one is the skill or knowledge which gives you the most pride?
If my skills or knowledge serves me to make a living out of it, then I will be proud of it. The most decisive factors are the source of income and the environment. For example, I sell bread, tea and tella. If I get more income by selling bread, then that is the skill that is most useful to me. Also if I have a skill which brings little income in the area where I live, then it is no good to  me. In the old days craftsmanship such as weaving clothes and pottery were looked down upon by the society. Now people have become more civilised and do not regard potters as evil-eyed. So if I can get income from such crafts, I will not hesitate to apply them for a living.

Do you know anyone in this village who has received modern education?
There is no government school here. What you find is a traditional church school. People do not  often send their children to school because of poverty; if one has two children he makes one tend the sheep and the other one look after the cattle.

Is there no modern school nearby?
No, it is too far away. You can’t send a five or six year old child there. That will mean spending the whole day on the road.

What is your view of illiteracy?
Illiteracy is no good to anyone and if I had the means I would educate my child.

How do you want illiteracy to be eradicated?
It is good if they build us schools and enable us to attend school. You see I didn’t know how to write my name until the Derg came and told us to attend literacy classes. Now there are very few  people who do not know how to read and write. So if the government builds a school for us and  tells us to attend classes everyone will want to do so.

Do you think education is equally good for both men and women?
Of course! But very often parents do not want to send their daughter to school because she has to help her mother with house chores. Once she gets married she will also discontinue her education.

How do you transmit your messages in this area?
When someone dies, relatives will be selected from each village and they will be instructed to  communicate the news to their respective villagers. These will in turn climb a hill and announce  in a loud voice that so and so has passed away and thus summon them to the funeral. If it is a  wedding, it will be communicated in the same manner at least 20 days in advance and also  by sending letters to the relatives. If it is a Mahber, you send a boy to invite your relatives and  neighbours or you do it yourself at the market place or at the church.
Section 12
What if they can’t read?
There will be priests at least and one of them will read the letter for them. You can’t have a  religion without a priest, and church education is an ancient tradition that has continued to this date.

What kind of local news do you consider as very pleasing?
I get news at the market place or at the church. If I am a trader I would like to hear about the  price of the goods such as grain or butter. If I hear the price of something is soaring in one market I will go to another market where it is cheap, buy from there and sell it at the marketplace where it is expensive.

Is there anyone who has a radio here?
The town has not yet developed. No one has a radio. I told you that we get news at the church or  the market place or at the place of mourning.

Have you ever travelled far away from here?
When I was a child I have travelled on foot to Kaskes in Delanta. There was no road then. People carried food for themselves and for their animals and travelled for a week or a month  through the forest and the desert in those days. Some even died on the road. Now that the Chinese built this road for us, anybody, whether rich or poor, can travel by car to a distant place and come back the next day after doing his business.

Does it mean the road has made a change in your life?
Yes, very much. Because there is a road, they brought barley from Addis Ababa and dagusa from Gojam by vehicles here and saved our lives when the land refused to produce food. It was  the traders who brought the food grain. The old type of barley has disappeared with the old  regime. There were many types of barley then: for example, gered, abir, which have all  disappeared now. People used dagusa for tella only, not for making bread as is done now. The old types of barley disappeared at the time of [Emperor] Haile Sellassie.