Ethiopia glossary










Doba Giorgis (highlands)


January 1997



Section 1
How did your area change?
The land used to produce plenty of crops because it was left fallow so it could regain its fertility and it was not eroded by flood. At that time one could get 130-200 aqmada (large sheepskin bags). In fact I used to harvest more. Now the growth of the population has led to the land being cultivated non-stop and this has resulted in a reduction of its productivity. Besides, the soil was eroded by flood. Consequently those who used to reap 120-200 aqmadas now could not even get six to seven aqmadas of crop from the land.

What was the cause of this change?
The cause of the change is the non-stop cultivation of the land which has exhausted its fertility. In the past there used to be farmers who had 14 or 15 cows that were being milked. This was made possible because the land that was left fallow was used for grazing and there was also a lot of grass for feeding the cattle. So livestock production was very conducive and the cows gave birth every year. The young bulls were used for farming within two years of their birth. Now there is nothing to graze. For example, I don’t have a good fraction of the livestock and grain which I possessed then.

How did this change affect the market situation?
As there is nothing to be produced, everything that used to be sold cheaply has become very expensive. There is little or no food crop. Honey has become very expensive because just as for the livestock, there are no plants for the bees to collect nectar from and produce honey. The land has formed gullies because the soil was washed away by the flood. There used to be forests which provided the livestock with something to feed on. So there were farmers who had as many as 15-20 fattened goats. Now the forests have been cleared for cultivation and the goats have nothing to feed on. So it is rare to find a person with two or three fattened goats.

What about your own livestock in the old days?
My goat barn was not enough to hold all my goats and sheep and some had to pass the night outside the shade. Now that all the land has been converted into farms and there is nothing to graze I have only two sheep.

What kind of livestock did you have in the past?
I had at least 45 or 46 sheep, perhaps more goats, one mule, two pairs of oxen and donkeys. I also had sharecroppers who tilled the land for me and hence I had plenty of crops. Now we produce nothing though everybody cultivates the land.
Section 2
What about your present livestock?
Now I have some seven or eight goats, a sheep with its lamb, two cows, and three oxen. I used to have five donkeys, but now I have only one donkey. I have already sold my mule.

Can you tell me about the management of grazing land in the past and at present?
There used to be white grass, which was left to grow up on the fallow land. That dried up and served as animal feed in June. Now, however, a farmer who doesn’t cut the grass growing between the borders of the cultivation and save it or who doesn’t collect the hay from the threshing ground will have nothing to feed his livestock. The livestock can no longer graze in the wilderness.

How did this change come about?
All the land has been used for cultivation and the soil has been washed away forming gullies. So it is not producing anything. You see this small plot of land. It has grass now because it was not cultivated. May be the holder left it like this because he was lazy. If it were farmed the water would claim it like the other land and it wouldn’t produce even grass. So you can take this piece of land as an example of what had happened to the grazing land.

What about changes in livestock diseases?
I don’t know the extent of the diseases, but goats and sheep suffer from dysentery and they shiver and die. I think this disease came with the starvation. When a person suffers from starvation, he has dysentery and he dies. So there is livestock disease here.

What are the changes in the method of farming?
The change came because the land is cultivated without rest. For example, there are Muslims and Christians in our area. When there was a holiday during the cropping season, we prepared our drinks and food and enjoyed that together. We passed the whole day and night singing and celebrating the holiday together. It was the same thing when there was a wedding. Now, however, there is hardship and shortage of food, so we do not invite each other.

What about the use of irrigation and the condition of pests? Tell me in general terms.
There is a lit bit of irrigation in some places for growing coffee, hops, lemon and banana. Including myself, we apply a little irrigation in rocky places and some parts of our holdings.

What is the change in land-use and/or tenure?
We grow coffee, hops and bananas. Some people say that there is a good yield of this new crop called finger millets, so it is being cultivated widely.
Section 3
What is the change in land use and/or tenure?
After the EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front) came to power, it has redistributed land to the farmers in their respective kebeles (smallest unit of local administration). However, the children did not get land. Regardless of the number of their children, husbands and wives have been given land enough for cultivation by five or seven pairs of oxen. Although the government has given us land, the latter has refused to give yield and is hence left unused.

What is the impact on you?
I am worried that my children did not get land. I have five or six children, but they are dependent on my land. I consider this as a discrimination.

How did the market condition change?
When there was sufficient crop being produced, an ox used to be sold for 1,000 birr (unit of currency) and a cow for 1,100 birr. As there is no food crop now, a person who starves decides to sell his animal for five or six hundred birr. A fattened goat or sheep used to sell for 300 birr, but rather than slaughtering it, the farmer prefers to sell it for 180-190 birr and buy food with the money to feed his starving children.

What kind of useful development activities are being carried out in your area?
[The answer is very vague and incomprehensible, but he seems to say that rain water was being harvested; also SOS Sahel has developed springs and diverted the river Deremo to make it more accessible to the villagers.]

What about other services such as health care?
The government has provided medicine such as tablets and the doctors come and save many lives. There are no health clinics here, but the physicians come with their medicines and treat the sick in each village. The government has also opened a school and many people have been enlightened since they have acquired reading and writing skills. There is a new school established in Arebal and many youths have joined it. I myself have learned how to read and write. The students have completed grade six, but they have not got any other benefit from their education since they are idle now. Still many people are grateful to the government for enlightening them through the school.

How do you expect your area to change within the coming twenty years?
Now they are opening new schools in each locality and I think everyone, young and old, will be enlightened in this way. If the flood is controlled and the land gives sufficient yield, there will be a change. If a health clinic is built and sufficient medicine is made available, people will be healthier and there will be change.

What kind of useful social institutions are found in your area?
Firstly we have Senbetie, a social institution through which we meet monthly. Secondly we have Idir or Qire, in which each household brings four injeras (thin pancake of fermented teff) and sauce so as to share the burden when a person is deceased. We have Iqub for saving five birr monthly and then buying the things we need with the collection of savings.
Section 4
What do you want to do with your savings?
If the land refuses to produce, we will use the savings for engaging in black smith works and carpentry and producing implements as well as wood works such as beds and boxes.

What is your own participation in these activities?
If what I do goes well, I think I can benefit from my participation in these activities.

What changes did these cultural institutions show in the past years?
We partake in Senbetie each month for the redemption of our soul. Again when a person is deceased, each household brings four injeras and sauce to the house of the bereaved to feed the mourners and the most destitute ones. We do that in the hope that when the mourners give their blessing by saying “May his soul be redeemed!” the deceased person will get eternal salvation.

Which of these social institutions are in the process of dying out?
Things like Mahber are getting weaker and weaker because of the hardship, but they have not completely disappeared.

How is it getting weaker?
It is getting weaker due to shortage of food crops and famine.

What kind of changes have marriage and divorce shown?
Constantly marrying and divorcing have brought about AIDS. When there is a divorce and there are three or four children, these stay with their father for a while and then they go to their mother and then back to their father. So the shuttling between their parents and their longing for the separated parent makes them suffer and weep all the time.

What do you think is the cause of the change?
I think the best thing for the children is for their parents to live together in peace and harmony.

What is the change in the relationship between parents and children?
When the children grow up, and if I fall ill, for instance, they will obey my orders and do things until I get well. Even if they are males, it is the same thing for their mother, too. They fetch water in the morning and collect firewood during the day. So this is the change.
Section 5
What is the attitude of people toward each other? How do different people treat each other?
Farmers come to me, for instance, because I am also a blacksmith. So I ask him what he can do for me [by way of payment for my service]. He says he will either pay me in cash or till my land for me. Then I provide him with my service. Some people are satisfied with it. There are also a few bad persons who have wrong notions about my profession. They say some people eat others (meaning artisans are evil-eyed). They should realise that one doesn’t eat another person. They should have known that the metal doesn’t become an implement by itself or that you can’t do your farming without implements. So they should have refrained from such talks. But this is what persons with long tongues say, otherwise any enlightened person knows that [there is no such thing as evil eye].
Also there are Muslims around here. They call us to assist them during the threshing. We too invite them when we have a Mahber or a wedding. They bring us gifts including goats. Then they themselves slaughter the animal and prepare their food. They eat and drink their injera and tella (locally brewed beer) and enjoy the festivities together with us. So we have such relations with them. When a person dies from among them, we don’t go about our business. When someone passes away from amongst us they don’t do their farm work or any other business. We contribute food grain and they cook that for feeding the mourners. They do the same thing in our case just as in the Qire. So we support each other. If we have family members or friends living in the towns, they entertain us when we visit them. We too bring them the ripe crops [such as corn, or peas or beans]. When they come to our places, we invite them boiled milk, fresh honey or slaughter a goat for them. Only, now there is little of these because there is no grass for the livestock.

Is crime or conflict a serious problem in the community? Have you observed any changes with respect to these?
[The narrator sometimes seems to understand the word “lewutt” (change) to mean benefit or advantage or the best solution to a problem. That is why his answers are sometimes not directly related to the issue raised.]
If a person is arrested and taken to prison, he will starve and suffer. So the best thing is for the local elders to reconcile the persons concerned by making the guilty person pay compensation to the other one in the form of grain or money and then harmonise their relations just like that of brothers or in-laws. So there is no better solution than reconciliation.

Was there any change in the roles of men and women in the past years? How?
In the past when the wife suggests selling an ox or a goat or mule/horse to overcome their hardship, the husband used to disagree. The woman had to grind grain with the grindstone in the evening. When her husband returned from a trip, he ordered her to wash his feet. He also wanted her to stand and serve him water for washing his hands. Now that there is equality, if she suggests something, he accepts it with appreciation. He also is considerate now and doesn’t want to burden her further by asking her to wash his feet - he washes his own feet. The setting up of flourmills has also made it unnecessary for the women to grind grain in the evenings.
Section 6
How did this change come about?
The old practice was part of the culture and it was customary for the head of the family to order about the woman. Now education has brought about the changes in their relationship.

What is the attitude of the community toward the disabled or the weak?
When the government provides assistance we give priority to them. When they request us to help them with the farming, we take turns to help them. So they are not abandoned.

How do the people of Meket differentiate themselves from others?
We differ in our poverty and ignorance. We are not as enlightened as other people; hence we are poor. We wear rags and tattered trousers. Our complexion has become ashen because we are starving. These are what make us different.

If you had an option would you live somewhere else?
Since we have four or five children, how can we move around? If they were one or two it may be possible, but with so many children it is not possible to leave this place and move to somewhere else.

Why not?
It is difficult to change one’s domicile with so many children.

Which custom do you give more respect to?
I have a very high regard for Epiphany, because the Lord suffered too much to bring us Epiphany. We follow His example and are baptised to redeem our soul. Secondly I have a high respect for Easter because the Lord was resurrected after suffering death for our sake.

What do you consider as a major cultural change in your lifetime?
I don’t know the old culture since I was a child then. After I became an adolescent, I consider dressing well for a holiday something positive; respecting the elderly and addressing them as “mother” or “father”; and thirdly discerning right from wrong. When you are old you become an elder and you reconcile those who have quarrelled or those who have shed blood with kinsmen of the victim. These are the changes.

Which dying cultural element do you give more importance to?
When we were threshing our harvest we used to do it together and for this we prepared feasts for three or four days. Now because of the food shortage, we prepare a small amount of tella and injera and part soon after the short feast. The land used to give fifty or sixty aqmadas of yield; now you don’t get more than two or three aqmadas. So though the tradition has not completely disappeared, it is almost dying out.
Section 7
How did you acquire your present knowledge?
I studied at the church school for six days. In the evenings I learned how to read and write. I also do farm work although the return is very small. I am also a blacksmith and it is benefiting me well. Even though some people despise it, it is a good profession. SOS Sahel once took us to Addis Ababa and showed us that the profession is useful and hard. I thank the organisation for this. When SOS Sahel asked me whether I can read and write, I said that I could do a bit of that as I had also served as Deputy Chairman of my Peasant Association (PA) and Secretary of the Fird Shengo (PA-level judicial panel). Then they said that they would make me a foreman and give me training. Therefore, I give more importance to these three skills.

So, how did you acquire these skills?
I learnt the art of the black smith from my father. My father also had his own farms and thus I learned how to do farm work. As to reading and writing, they wanted me to sign with my thumb and then someone showed me which words were my name. I told myself that it was so simple and joined a church school where I learned how to read and write. My father was illiterate. It was my decision to join school. As I know the benefit of education, two of my children are receiving religious education while another two are attending a modern school. I intend to make them pursue their studies further.

Which skill gives you the greatest pride?
I am proud of my skills in farming and black smith work as well as my ability to read and write. I like them all.

Is there anyone in your village who has received a good modern education?
I know a man by the name of Yilma Kibret, who has completed the twelfth grade. Although he later discontinued it I have helped my younger brother to study up to the sixth grade, but it has not enabled him to get employment.

Do you think modern education is good?
I made my brother attend school because I thought it was very useful and I didn’t want him to be left without getting the exposure, but he discontinued it despite my urging when he reached the sixth grade. I myself attended school for only six days.

What do you think of educating your children?
In the old days the women were oppressed due to lack of education. Now men and women have become equal because they were enlightened. So if God blesses me with age, I want to see my children become educated and apply their skills in practice.

How do you learn of events outside your village?
When somebody dies, messages are sent to the villagers. Then they go out and bury the deceased. If there is no food in our house and someone can spare some, then we send the children to fetch it and explain the matter in letters and request for assistance.
Section 8
What kind of message is most useful to you?
When I receive a message in writing it could be useful to me. If I need something I dispatch a letter to someone requesting assistance. So when I get the help I needed it is very useful for me. If a brother or a very dear friend of mine dies and I receive a message to that effect, it would be very useful for me.

Does anyone have a radio in your village?
No one has a radio in our village, but my brothers sometimes bring a radio to my home. Then I buy dry cell batteries for the radio and listen to it.

How many times have you travelled outside your village?
I walk to my farm outside the village for an hour and twenty-five minutes. I live in Arebal, but I have a farm in Gurankoba. I carry farm implements and seeds and drive my oxen to a distant market in Geregera. It takes four hours and twenty minutes to reach there on foot. We also walk for eight and a half hours to Lalibela for Christmas. We also travel on foot for nine to ten hours to Bilbala to pray at the church there.

What impact did the construction of the Chinese road have on your life?
In the past I had not seen the towns of Gonder, Bahir Dar, Gayint and even Addis Ababa. Following the construction of the Chinese road, I travelled to all these places by vehicle and saw them all. I am very happy for being able to do so. I used to pay a lot of money for my fare, but when SOS Sahel took us to Addis Ababa to give us training and for a visit of some organisations, we travelled freely by its vehicle. Hence I am grateful for this.

What is the change in community health in comparison with the past years?
In the old days everyone was healthy. Nowadays, however, there is AIDS in the towns; there is amoebae and malaria in the rural areas. I am wondering why all this is happening.

Hence, what is the change from the past?
Everyone is ill now and could not even go to the market.

What is the cause of this?
I don’t know whether it is the time or something else. My parents used to tell me that it was like this when I was a child. To combat the epidemic the government sprayed DDT (for malaria) in every house and pasted a paper on the door. May be the medicine has become ineffective through time and the insects are now coming out of their hiding in the wilderness and attacking people.

What do you do when you fall ill?
When I am attacked by malaria, I dispatch people to bring me malaria tablets from wherever it is available. Or else I ask my children to take me by mule/horse to the clinic in Geregera or Dibko. When I take the pill, I feel better.
Section 9
So is the step you take any different from the past method?
The difference is the distance of the clinic. If one cannot walk, somebody has to request for him a horse or a mule to carry him to the clinic. Some persons die before getting to the clinic or taking the pills. If there were one clinic in Arebal, for instance, the weak and the blind would get treatment and be cured.

Have venereal diseases increased or decreased?
In the days of our fathers, the sexually transmitted diseases were gonorrhoea and syphilis, but all these disappeared and people were having a healthy sexual relationship. Now, however, there are body rashes, AIDS and others. If someone abstains himself from sexual intercourse he will be healthy, but if he becomes crazy, beats his wife and divorces her, and commits adultery by sleeping with other women, he will catch the new disease AIDS and die. When we ask whether this AIDS has any medicine, they tell us that the medicine is not to have [extramarital] sex. So we are all bowing our heads in sadness.

What is your view of the AIDS disease occurring in your village?
Since I have not seen the AIDS victim getting cured, the best solution is to abstain from sex. The government says that AIDS is not transmitted except through women and blades. So I am afraid of catching the disease and avoid it because it is incurable.

Has household size shown any change?
Even if there was a large household, there were good harvests in the past and you felt as if there were no children. As the crop production decreased, we hear and see people regret begetting so many children.

Why did the size of the family grow so much?
I think it is better now to beget two rather than five children or five rather than ten children.

What is your view regarding a smaller family size?
To reduce the family size it is good to give some money to your son and marry him off. Likewise it is also necessary to give a bit to your daughter when she marries. Also it is better to provide your children with education so that they can get employment and support themselves. I used to hear that in the past there was a medicine which was drunk in order to avoid giving birth to children. Now the government says that there is a medicine for birth control. So it is good to take it and control births.

When did famine or drought occur in your village?
Famine and drought started occurring in our village in 1984 and people migrated at that time. From 1985-88, they said that the land was producing food and they returned to their villages. However, in 1995 and 1996, the famine returned.
Section 10
What features distinguish famine from food shortage?
In famine one has nothing to eat whereas when there is a food shortage the person will eat one injera if he has two, and half an injera if he has one. He may become skinnier and paler, but he won’t die. So the person will suffer from food shortage. In famine, however, the person will die within three days.

How did you and your family cope during the days of the famine?
We coped with the famine by selling our goats and sheep and by petty trading; also by borrowing and asking our slightly better off brothers for their support. That is how we are still coping with the problem.

What are the changes in your food consumption habits?
We ground and used chickpeas and sunflower for making sauce. We also consumed fruits such as tangerine, lemon, oranges, and papaya.

What about the preparation of food?
Of course there are good food items such as meat and butter, but when you lack the means you resort to using sauce made from shiro (roast and ground peas/chickpeas). So you eat that with injera and go to your work. In the old days, when you consumed honey, butter, and meat, your body looked attractive and healthier. You became sturdier. Now you eat only shiro with injera and even that is decreasing in quantity. So you become skinnier. This is the case not only with children, but also with 44 or 45 years old grown-ups. So there is a reduction in the variety of the food being consumed and consequently a shrinking of the body.