Ethiopia glossary








farmer/ nun


Woina Dega (midlands)


May 1997



When I went to interview this lady I found her feeding her grandchild. Her face brightened up with happiness when she saw me. She stood up and welcomed me. I ate with her the lunch she invited me. She said that it was our custom to be hospitable to the guest that arrives when food is being served. Then she asked me the purpose of my visit. I explained to her the reason for my visit and how the tape recorder operated. She stood up and kissed my hand and blessed me many times. She said that nowadays nobody is interested in enquiring about the history of our forefathers. These days the youth do not even obey orders or show respect to their elders, let alone try to learn about the past. Then she assured me of her readiness to answer my questions. Following this she entrusted her one year old grandchild to a neighbour and ordered the noisy women to keep quiet. She pointed out to them that she was not available to anyone who wanted to see her. Then she asked me to record her voice and play it to her. I complied with her wish. She was very happy. After that we started our interview.

How has your area changed?
Section 2
What is the impact of the change in the land either on you or on the environment?
In the old days the livestock used to graze anywhere on the hills or in the forests. Now part of this has been claimed as government forest land and cannot be used for grazing. So the livestock could not even go from one boundary to another for lack of grazing land. The owner has to cut the grass from the borders of his farm to feed his animals.
Land has become scarce because of the population growth. In the old days animal diseases came once in every four or five years. Today the animals are dying because of hunger, for lack of grazing land. The scarcity of land has brought about the distribution of land by measuring the area with ropes. So there is not sufficient space even for setting oneís foot on, let alone for livestock production. Even when someone falls into the old habit and raises a small number of livestock and they stray into somebodyís territory, quarrels erupt and people kill each other nowadays.

What about crop diseases?
There are too many pests these days. There is degeza (bush cricket), and also diri (army worm), which eats the young plant. Fenttera (grasshopper) destroys the crop when the rain stops. Now your governmentís Agricultural Bureau comes and sprays pesticides in the highlands and lowlands. In the old days there was no degeza, only the locusts flying in the sky and which come once in four or five years. We tried to save our crops then by waving our cloaks to keep off the locusts. There was no pest on the ground then. There were many woods which contained leopards, antelopes, lions and hyenas. Now there is only this small enclosure that you call forest; otherwise there is no bush or tree.

Are there infrastructures in your area?
In the old days we ate butter and cheese and we had no health problem. Now teachers have been brought from outside and schools are expanding. But we suffer from stomach aches and headaches and thanks to the government we get tablets which are brought from abroad. Health stations are being built because there are many government soldiers. But we are not feeding well; so we are losing immunity and the disease is increasing.

How do you think this area will develop 20 or 10 years from now?
We hope that the number of the educated would increase and our area would develop.

What kind of useful social relations are there around here?
In the old days we used to roast two or three laden of cereals for the Senbetie (community association responsible for preparing church feasts) and feed this to the poor at church to get salvation for our soul. We also commemorated St. Maryís day by preparing feasts at our homes. Nowadays the food shortage has forced us to reduce the scale of the feast, but we have not abandoned making bread and feeding the poor at home. Although the Mahber (community association for those who share the same patron saint) has decreased, young students have now organised into spiritual groups to serve the church. They also fast. This was not a common practice in the old days.
Section 3
Which of the social organisations have disappeared or become weak?
None. In the old days it was the grown ups who went to the church, took communion, or commemorated the saintsí days and prepared feasts for the Mahbers. Now the youth, whether married or single, go to church for prayer and commemorate the saintsí days. Now there is no Christian who does not take part in a Mahber or Zikir (celebration when the Holy Tablet is taken out of the church). The young members of the spiritual groups go to church and attend the sermons at four in the afternoons. Such practices have become common since the last seven or eight years.

What about marriage and divorce?
Marriage was a respectable institution then. One asked the parents for their daughterís hand in marriage, but the daughter was not told about it. The wedding feast was lavish, with rams and bullocks being slaughtered and four or five aqmada of grain used for preparing the feast. In those days lovers had to keep their secrets tightly. If the brother or mother or aunt or uncle hears of such illicit relations they threatened to butcher the man or beat the woman. Premarital or extramarital sex was a taboo. Even the divorced woman has to hide her relations. Now the girl is married not only with her parentsí consent, but with her consent too. Besides the couples choose their would-be spouses mostly at school. The population has increased because there are too many extramarital births. The boys and girls have gone beyond the control of their parents.

What about divorce?
In the old days, if she doesnít like to live with her husband she told him so and divorced him; he too did the same. Now they have to go to the government to get a divorce, and spend a lot of time of bickering with each other. She refuses to leave the house when the husband asks her to. She argues that she wonít divorce him unless the government says so. When the woman wants the divorce the man says the same thing. However, there is no harmony in the family. When the man is hardworking and earns money by trading, she becomes lazy and does not support him. When she is hardworking, he spends his money on prostitutes. In addition to their poverty, they beget children one after the other and you canít even tell which one is the elder and which one the younger. As a result there is a population boom. Once the doctors came to church and called on the people to get injections in order to control the population growth.

How do parents transmit their history to their children?
In the old days our fathers went on a campaign to Tigray or Asmara carrying their food and their swords and shields or guns depending on their means. If they are victorious, they come to their villages and sing traditional war songs in which they narrate their victory. So the villagers say that so and so is the child of such and such a patriot and the fatherís heroism is recounted to the young generation. Todayís youth do not want to hear this. Only the older ones in the family recount the history, but I doubt if the youth accept it.
Section 4
Can you tell me about hospitality?
When we had a wedding in the old days, Muslims and Christians were entertained separately. First we build a shade of 40 cubits wide. We invite our Muslim friends and give them money for buying coffee and whatever they liked for slaughtering. Then their women prepare their feast and they dine and chew their chat (plant chewed as a stimulant). When they finish they bless the host and leave. Then the shade is pulled down. Next we feed the poor of the village. When they leave, the bride and bride groom with their friends and relatives come singing wedding songs. Some 40 of their escorts bring various gifts with them for the feast of the wedding. The menfolk among the hosts take charge of the entertainment of the guests. Nowadays the woman is also in charge and so you canít tell who is the head of the household. Also the Muslims and Christians are treated alike. Some donít fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. In those days there were handicapped elderly people and helpless people who had no children. These were carried on mules or donkeys or wooden rafts from house to house and looked after. We also took turns and looked after those who took refuge in the church. Today no one can help these people unless it is the government.

What are the distinctive features of the people of Meket?
The people of Meket are strongly religious. There are many monasteries, and churches, and monks and nuns here. In Imamuz you find some thirty or forty monks. There was a holy woman called Kristos Semra. She stood on the sea and prayed to the Lord. In Lalibela there are 12 churches. There is also a church called Yimriha, where the body of the dead remains intact without decomposing. You beg Yimriha for mercy and you are absolved from your sin. Today our sins have multiplied and therefore we are getting a lesser absolution. There are other monasteries such as Goregor. There is also Debre Awneíanor, where there is a Holy Tablet without a roof over it at the top, and yet the rain does not fall on it. The place is well fenced and women are denied access. There are too many churches for me to count them. Perhaps there are over a hundred monasteries with monks in them. There are hermits living in the wilderness and feeding on leaves and wearing caps and sleeveless garments made from palm tree leaves. There is St. Michael near our area. Some hermits live in caves not far from here.

What about education?
In the old days they become deacons and go to Gonder to be trained as traditional scholars. We used to sell our cows and oxen to send our children to Nefas Mewtcha, Debre Tabor and Dessie, where there were modern schools. There were no schools up to grade seven or eight here then. The schools here were only up to grade six. So we began sending them to Dessie, Lalibela and Addis Ababa to let them get more modern education. Nowadays a modern road for vehicles was built and the school was upgraded up to grade eight. So we educate our children here.
Before the Chinese road was built, we had to travel long distances, climbing up and down difficult terrain, to take our children to schools. Then they had to walk back to collect their food supplies. After the Derg (military regime 1974-89) came to power the Chinese road was built for us up to Gondar and Tigray. When the children donít feel comfortable with one place they move to another area and attend school. They get employment and earn a salary. Some even get employment before completing high school, when they finish the seventh or eighth grade, and the lucky ones help their fathers and mothers. In the old days one had to finish the 12th grade to get a job and the parents had to sell their animals to provide for their education. Now the government has helped us by building schools and giving them employment opportunities from even from grade seven and eight. May God give strength to the government, it has now stopped the firing of guns on holidays such as Epiphany and at funerals. The guns used to misfire and kill people.
Section 5
What about the health condition?
I donít know whether it is because of the population growth, or the road or the movement of people; there are diseases such as gonorrhoea. Some diseases are transmitted by breath. There are diseases for which you swallow medicine. There is a disease called AIDS. Due to the increase in diseases there are many teachers and a lot of medicine. Now that the Chinese have built us the road the government can easily follow up the situation.
In the old days when we fell ill suddenly, we took traditional medicine prepared from leaves. We sold our ox and cow and travelled on foot for a fortnight and reached Qobo, Tigray or Gonder. Now we climb in the car and go and get the medicine. In the old days we used to die on the road out of hunger and thirst. Deaths were not frequent then as they are now. Now people are tired of attending funerals. In the old days the funeral dirges were saddening. One of them goes:
Oh! Oh! May God give strength to my sisters
May God give strength to my brothers
Now the hyena of daylight will devour my children
And the elders would intervene and say:
We have mourned well
Let it suffice now, for
Eyes have no bones
Lest they melt into water
and become drained
Now professional funeral dirge singers have to be hired for 40 or 50 birr (unit of currency), but they are not skilled enough. In the old days the relatives spontaneously composed the dirges and money was not paid. Now people get skinnier and skinnier and become walking skeletons before they finally die. There are too many deaths now and the dirges have disappeared.