Ethiopia glossary








market trader


Filaqit, Woina Dega (midlands)


March 1997



The narrator responded to my questions readily and frankly. Her amazement at the contrasts between life now and life in the old days could be read on her face. She expressed her frustration at the changes by standing up and sitting down at the time of the interview, opening and closing her eyes, and shaking her head. She was also worried about the life of the future generation.

Section 1
What are the changes around here?
In the old days the rich used to get the benefits. Now the poor have got land and that is fair enough. This is the change.

What brought the change?
The poor did not get anything, they gave whatever they had to the rich. My big brother would unfairly take away from the smaller one. Now equality has reigned.

What was the cause of the change?
To bring about equality! To give land to the poor! In the old days we used to sow 15 laden (sheepskin bags) of seeds and harvest 15 aqmada (large sheepskin bags). Now the land has been completely eroded by floods. So we have not benefited. In the old days, a small boy or a shepherd would dig a small plot of land and harvest nine or 10 aqmada of crop. Today you donít get anything from the land. The land redistribution is fair, but the land has become barren. Also in the old days, the land was covered by forests. There were no eucalyptus trees as they are now. There was only kitkita (candlewood) or agam (thorny bush with edible fruit) then. Eucalyptus came after we grew up. There were also apes and monkeys then.

When was the eucalyptus grown here?
Eucalyptus was grown when we were born, but not in such large numbers then.

Does it mean that all that was cut down?
Yes, it was cut down. You wonít find a single agam or kitkit now, even for hanging yourself from.

What is the reason?
Because there are too many people around. The trees were cut down for construction of houses and to reclaim land for farming.
Section 2
Were there no people here before that time?
No, there werenít as many people as there are now. The town attracted people.

What is the main reason for the population growth?
Poverty. People flocked to the town to get employment, to make a living by washing clothes, making bread, and the like.

Did the change bring an improvement in your life?
I may tell you for the sake of saying it that our life has improved, but it hasnít really improved much. I have no land at all. Nothing has improved for me. In the old days you could buy a lot of things with a few cents; you could buy a laden of teff (staple crop) with just 50 cents or two laden of barley with fifty cents. Now you canít get that for two birr (unit of currency). With 50 cents you could buy a whole glass of well-pressed butter then. It would have been better if I had died then.

Has the market condition improved?
With two birr you can only buy one small tin of teff. In the old days, you could get your land to be tilled by someone who had the oxen. During harvest, you would be called to take your equal share from the threshing ground. When you were married you also did the farm work, tilling the ground, weeding, walking in the mud, removing the dry grassroots from the field.

What kind of animals did you raise?
I had cows and two oxen. Before I fell ill, I was married then and had a farm. We had hay for our animals which we piled up and saved for the rainy season. The animals fed on that and on grass growing on the edges of the farms. We had plants in our backyard. There was no doctor, even for human beings, let alone for animals then. When the animals fell ill, people used to tell you to dilute some compound or even soap and make them drink it. Modern veterinary care was unknown then.

What kind of disease was it?
One is called wotetie. It is called gitchit (literally, knocking against one another) when it is transmitted from one animal to another. At this time we tell the shepherds not to mix the sick ones with the healthy ones. The disease makes their hair fall out. They suffer from dysentery and they become skinny. We burn plants called qebericho and tinjut and make them inhale the smoke. The animals will be covered with cloth. Still some of them die.

What about the farming methods?
Nowadays they are building terraces and bunds (embankments) and applying chemicals.
Section 3
How do they apply the chemicals?
It is to increase the fertility of the soil and produce more. Government agents are showing the farmers how to do it. Such practice was not seen in the old days.

What did the community feel about the land redistribution?
I have not received any land. I sell goods such as areki (alcoholic spirit), salt, onions. When I have nothing to sell I just sit idle. In fact I am very disappointed. Those of us in the town have received no land. In the old days I had equal share of the produce from my land. Now the PA chairmen have taken it and given it to their relatives. If I go there, they will tell me to get lost.

What kind of development activities are there around here?
Last year and the year before they used to tell us to participate in development work and gave us assistance in return.

What kind of development work was that?
We carried rocks. At the time of the Derg (military regime 1974-89), we used to organise under a womenís association for ginning cotton. We made gabi (white cotton cloak) and used to sell it. The money was transferred to the association.

What happened to the association?
I donít know what happened to the association, but we never got the money.

What about the current development work?
We carried rocks. They were digging for water and they were telling us to contribute one birr each for the water. We have a problem of water.

What about infrastructures?
†In the old days we were married off at the age of seven or eight years. Now they canít afford to marry off their children. So they send both the girls and boys to school. That is why there are so many schools in the countryside. Now small children, less than one year old babies are vaccinated at Doqit. Pregnant women are also given medical attention. There was no such medical service in the old days. You just give birth or suffer your illness. There were also no schools like this in the rural areas then.

Did many people die of diseases then?
Was there death in those days? You eat butter and meat. It was so cheap you could buy a fat sheep for two silver thalers (old currency). Today it is the hunger and poverty that kills the pregnant women. You could buy a good-sized glass of butter for 50 cents then. Butter makes their bodies soft.

Is there a lot of maternity problem here now?
Now? Very much so! The doctor diagnoses them well and the offspring is well positioned in the womb thanks to the doctorís care. He will tell her about her problems in time.
Section 4
What do you think this place will be like twenty years from now?
I think it will improve very much. Our children will be educated. Farmers will have extra houses. They will improve their farms. There will be more health service. If God grants us the age we will see more improvements.

What kind of useful social institutions were there around here? What about now?
Males used to be baptised when they were 40 days old. There were also weddings. There were lavish feasts, with tella (locally brewed beer), areki and honey wine for all these. For the Mahber one slaughters a sheep for the feast if he is well off or prepares just bread. For the Senbetie you prepare a large pot of tella and roasted cereals or bread and this is consumed at church when it is Aboís day. Some rich men commemorate their patron saintís day every month by preparing a lavish feast which would be eaten for two days. For the wedding of your brother or your brother-in-law, you carry your goat and bread to the wedding place and stay there for a week, entertaining the guests. The host would slaughter five or six goats for the guests.
Now you wonít stay even for three days, let alone for a week. On the third day of the wedding, the bride and bridegroom would be invited again. The ram would be covered with cloak and 12 best men would pull it into the house and it would be slaughtered and eaten for two or three days. That was how it used to be in the past. Nowadays, everyone leaves on the third day. Nobody would invite me now. Nobody thinks of me now. You can see what I am wearing and where I am sleeping. So nobody would remember me. Do you call this existence? It would have been better to end it by drinking poison, had it not been for what would await me in the hereafter. I live such a miserable life on earth and then I would be facing eternal punishment in the hereafter if I took my life.

What are the customs which had already died out and are in the process of dying out?
The Senbetie and Mahber are still practised although not on the scale the feasts used to be prepared. They donít call neighbours for the Senbetie. Those of us who have been impoverished have abandoned it a long time ago.

What are the changes in marriage and divorce?
In the old days they used to enquire first whether the girl was from a wealthy family. After the marriage, if you do not want to live with him you can take away your land and money and divorce him. Now you canít share the land or leave without it. You are stuck with your man despite your difficulties.

What happens when the man has a concubine?
Such a practice was not common in the past. One paid five silver thalers and wood for five or six days or two months to win a lover and even then it is kept as a very serious secret. Now they have no shame. Even when elderly women advise the wives not to indulge in such adulterous relations, the latter donít heed them. In fact they become angry.
Section 5
What about the relationship between children and parents? Are they told about their familyís history?
Yes, I used to tell my daughter about the past. I used to comply with my fatherís and motherís orders. Now, however, they donít listen to you or obey you no matter what you tell them about your past. It is the same with my daughter. I used to clean the dung from the barn on my own initiative, grind the grain, fetch water and do the housework. Nowadays, the children do not accept advice. They just wash their bodies and go out.

How did people relate to each other in the old days? What was their social life like?
Muslims and Christians? Muslims were not looked upon then. Now, however, they eat and drink and work together, and everything has been equalised. The only difference is that they donít eat the same meat. In the old days the Muslims did not have land, they had to till somebodyís land on the basis of equal share. Now they have received land equally with the others. That is the change now.

Is there any change in terms of crime?
There was no theft in the old days because there was no poverty then. Now you find them burgling somebodyís home and the owner will hit him on the head when he catches him in the act. The thieves too have become tougher now. That is why death has become so common.

Is there any other crime that you know of?
If you are talking about love, I know someone who eloped with somebodyís wife and stayed in a cave called Qunitcha Washa without anything to eat for seven days.

What happened to him for committing this offence?
He went to a place called Belesa and she came back to her home. When her husband asked her where she had been, she told him that she ran away. So he just let her back to her home.

What is the attitude of the local community towards the physically weak?
The weak? They move around from one home to another home. We carry them to our homes and feed them for the day and the next day they will be taken to another home and it continues like this.

Are they relatives?
No! Anyone who has nowhere to go and no one to support him lives like that.

What about now?
Not now. No one will give you even your supper for one night nowadays. I only told you about the good old days, during the time of Haile Selassie. If I could not carry the person, I would make my child to carry her and bring her to my place. Now even your own children or brothers do not carry you to their place let alone carry people unrelated to them. When I was ill and confined to bed no kinsmen of mine came closer to me and showed real interest in my health. People hate even their own relatives these days. No one really cares for you. Now the government has orphanages for the children with no relatives. The year before and last year, half a quintal of wheat was shared out to seven or eight vulnerable people.
Section 6
How are the people of Meket distinguished from others?
By the tattoos on our necks, by our dialect, by our religion since we swear in the name of St. George and St. Mary. These are our distinguishing traits.

Are these the only traits?
There is Imamuz, Our Lady. She was there since the time of the creation of the world, but her place is really worn out. There are many monasteries in our area. There is Imamuz. There is also Goregor Mariam. On this side there is Bayzuy Maryam. That is all, these are the monasteries which make Meket different from other places. They say that ours is the land of the Amharas. They praise our dress style and our tattoos.

If you had the choice, would you live in another place?
Yes, I would. However, I am old and weak. That is why I want to die here. Otherwise I would have gone to Raya and earned a living in the land where I would eat to my fill.

Why would you choose to live in another place?
Here you work and gain nothing. It is better to go to where you can earn something, but I am too old for this.

Which of your customs do you attach more value to?
To my religion. I love my religion too much!

How did you acquire your present knowledge?
I am not educated. If I had been educated, I would have benefited a lot like other people. Unfortunately, I am 45 years old now.

Is there anyone with modern education in your village?
Yes, there are many. I do see that they are benefiting from their education - they are earning a salary. They were born after us, but they are getting a lot of opportunities and improving themselves.

So, modern education is good?
Very much so. The land has become civilised, both the towns and rural parts. It is just we who are left without knowledge.
Section 7
Between a girl and a boy, which one would you be more willing to send to school?
A boy! The scoundrels would hover over the girl and she would give birth to a bastard in no time. So I donít like it. My daughter would like to get educated, but I am anxious that one of them might take her to the bushes and impregnate her. So I would prefer if the boy is educated and the girl stays at home. That would be my choice.

How are messages transmitted in the old days and now?
When the famine came people were taken for resettlement. Some fell ill and died. This was because the land did not give any yield. When the Derg came our brothers went to Digir Metrebya and shed their blood. They went there in a campaign. There was a man called Major Belay here. He took our men in a campaign to Digir Metrebya, near Lalibela. He fell there. Many a hero fell there. After that they said that things had became stable, but houses were burnt in the highland here. The sheep were driven to Flaqit, about a hundred of them. One bought a sheep for 50 cents and slaughtered it. Cows and goats were also brought here.

How did you get the news?
We saw it with our own eyes. There was no radio at that time. It was terror in those days and everyone was fleeing. They went and fell in Digir Metrebya near Lalibela. When there was a wedding, they summoned you to come and see off your child. In those days you took a sheep with you to the wedding place. You fed the guests and then left for your home.

How do you communicate the message?
In the old days they invited you by word of mouth to come and bless your son or daughter. Letters were not used then.

Have you ever travelled outside your village?
I used to carry my goods and travel on foot to Agrit Market. Men and women carried their goods on their backs to go the market if they didnít have pack animals. You also carried your food with you then. Now the Chinese have built us a road. You can go by car to Agrit Market for a fare of just one birr.

How did the other people travel?
In the old days there were no cars. So when you have a court case in Lalibela, you carried your food with you and travelled through the wilderness on foot. Today, you can go by car and return on the same days likewise.

What are the changes in community health?
There used to be venereal diseases such as syphilis. There were not many health officers then. When you felt the inflammation, you went and sat in the water. That cools you down. Then you went and sat down by the fireside and back into the water again. There was a medicine man by the name of Siltun in Lalibela then. People used to go to him for treatment. There was also a traditional lotion used for curing syphilis.
Section 8
Were there many sexually transmitted diseases then?
Yes, quite many. There was banbulie; also gonorrhoea, which cuts your womb into pieces and makes you barren. The cure was to slaughter a chicken, boil the crushed bones to make soup without putting in too much red pepper. Then you ate that and drank tella on top of it. They say there is a traditional medicine for syphilis, but I donít know it. My elder sister used to be maddened by the inflammation. At this time she dipped her vagina in the water and washed it to cool it off. She also applied a lotion made from plants. You see, it was her vagina! There was no doctor then. You could beat the disease with food - honey, meat, chicken soup, and these would destroy it. It is poverty that has strengthened the disease these days. You canít easily even get linseed now!

Is there a change in the size of families?
There werenít so many people then. There were no prostitutes. The head of the family is just begetting too many children nowadays. May be it is because he consumes too much salt when he becomes hungry. There are too many women as well. Even the small children are getting pregnant and giving birth. You see very small children carrying babies on their backs in the market place. It is now that the population has boomed.

Why is that?
May be it because of the salt. It is an age of baby-making. I gave birth to my first child at the age of 24.

At what age do the women give birth nowadays?
At the age of 15. No, not 15! Even before she reaches 15. If my daughter Fantaye hadnít restrained herself, wouldnít she have twice given birth by now? Yes she would. It is me that has restrained her.

When did famine or drought occur here first?
I came to feel it after the Derg. My life has not improved. I did not get land when they carried out the land redistribution. I sell goods, I distill areki. But now I am tired and I am going to abandon even that. We just share what little this daughter of mine has been able to scratch out. I really felt the hunger after the time of the Derg.

Is there anything you can tell me about migration?
Yes, why not? Men used to come here from Raya with their five or six children and their wives to do the weeding for us, to fetch water, to grind the food grain and to embroider our dresses. This was in the old days, but now it is us, grown-ups and small children, who are migrating to Raya. Time has reversed everything. There was plenty of food in Meket in those days, now it has been drained. You can still find here the people who migrated from Raya and resettled in Meket. Now it is our turn to migrate. It is all futile! Everything is futile!