Ethiopia glossary










Jirile (midlands)


January 1997



Section 1
Could you tell me the changes that have taken place here, for instance, regarding life style, farming methods, and market conditions?
In the old days, our fathers gave the orders, not the youth. People then had much larger plots of farmland and part of this was left aside for grazing. So there was more than enough fodder from this fallow land for the livestock to feed on. In those days there were also a lot of trees such as wanza, agam, qega.

One used to pay land tax in honey and salt bars, but later this was changed to one tenth of oneís produce. At the time of Haile Sellassie one even paid about ten cents for a piece of land in taxation. Therefore, the tax burden was very light, hut now the land tax is high. There was plenty of food around in those days for both the animals and the people. They could fill their stomach with what they got from the fields and needed very little from home.
The soil was not washed away by the floods in those days. The land was not reduced by the erosion, for the roots of the trees kept the soil intact. Nor were the roots so exposed then. Hence the crops we produced in one season used to feed us for at least two years. Now, however, what we produced this year could not even feed us until June or July. The regime is all right. In the name of equality both the young and the old are well dressed. There are plenty of clothes around, but there is very little to eat. In the days of Haile Sellassie, people knew their station in society and wore accordingly, with the clothes of the big and the small reflecting their social status.

In comparison with the past, what were the changes with respect to land use and ownership as well as market conditions?
In the days of Haile Sellassie, one used to buy about 5-6 aqmada (sheepskin bag or weight equivalent of 50-60kg) for one birr. For 3 thaler (old currency) one could buy a heifer. This heifer could then supply all the milk that a family needed because there was plenty of grass for grazing. The soil was not washed away by the water and the land therefore grew of a lot grass. After the fall of Haile Sellassie, the Derg (military regime 1974-89) redistributed the land held by our fathers. The young and the elderly received equal share of land. Now again the EPRDF (Ethiopian Peopleís Revolutionary Democratic Front) redistributed the land. All soil bonds on the boundaries of the farmland were removed and the trees and other plants on the land were redistributed. This led to erosion of the topsoil and the disappearance of the trees. As you can see now let alone crops, you donít see any trees on the land. That is what we have come to these days.
Section 2
How do you expect this area to change in the coming twenty years? What do you think it would look like?
If the present trend of soil erosion continues, farmers can produce nothing from the land. So the soil has to be protected against erosion. Then people can grow crops and feed their family, many off their children, and support the old.

How do you form your social organisations? What are your cultural relations like?
When there was a wedding you invited your relatives and friends. The land was large and only a third of it was enough for cultivation. The rest was used for grazing the cattle. In those days there were not more than a couple of households living in a neighbourhood. These people loved each other like fathers and children, like brothers and sisters.
Nowadays, a woman bears at least four to five children. The size of the population has increased and there are people every where. So people do not invite each other any longer. A man has eight to ten children and his land is divided among these. As a result the land is fragmented and there isnít enough food for inviting outsiders.

What is the relationship between Christians and Muslims? What are the differences between people in the lowlands and the highlands?
Well, at the time of Menelik and Haile Sellassie those who regarded themselves as noblemen married their own kind. Muslims married Muslims. Artisans looked for other artisans wherever they were and married their own kind. So there was and still is no intermarriage between people from other categories. Nevertheless, the artisans still provide their services to other sectors of the society. They make pots and clay pans for the women and axes, sickles and other farm implements for the men. They are paid for their services and when the job is done well it strengthens the bond between the clients and the artisans. They also form other ties with members of the Christian community through becoming the Christian fathers or mothers of each otherís children. This is like becoming a true father or mother. The minstrels (musicians) escorted the noblemen and entertained their guests at weddings. They too did not many from other sectors. Now, however, they have land and make their living by cultivating it.

Could you tell me if there is anything that makes the people of Meket any different in their custom from other people?
No, there is no difference. The custom regarding minstrels, artisans or noblemen was identical within Meket and Shedaho Woreda. In fact there are no differences from the cultural practices in Gondar.

What do you give more value to in your custom?
Tezkar (feast to commemorate oneís dead) gives pride to the living members of that family. The Mahber (community association for those who share the same patron saint) is practised to earn salvation for oneís soul. People do not like intermarriage between, minstrels, artisans, Muslims and Christians. Our fathers did not approve of such intermarriages and this is now causing some problems.
Section 3
Is modern education provided in this area? If so what do you think of it? Would you, for instance, like your children to attend such a school?
Had I not been poor, I wouldnít have kept my children at home. You see, you are interviewing me now because you are educated. Otherwise you would have been as ignorant as I am and you wouldnít have known what to ask me. So, it is good to give education to oneís children. It is like getting salvation through the Tezkar. If my children were educated they would take good care of the land and support me. The country would be better off when people are educated. An educated person protects the soil from erosion and the land from usurpers. An uneducated person doesnít even look after the clothes covering his back let alone protect the soil against being washed away by the floods. It is the educated that can protect Ethiopia.

What is your link with the outside world or other parts of the country? Do you, for instance, have a radio?
I have no radio. It is through the educated people that we hear about the modern life m other countries such as France, Germany, and India. If foreign governmentsí money is brought here and we become beneficiaries we would appreciate it. Only we donít want intermarriage with their people. If they help Ethiopia financially, provide clothes and education to our children, this will please us.

Do you mean to say that no one in this village has a radio?
There area few people who have radios, but we are farmers and we do not go to their places to listen to the radio. We do not make it our business to listen to the radio news, we only hear hearsay. Of course it would be good to follow up developments in other areas if we could get access to the radios. At least we could then take precautions against that which is harmful.

Have you ever travelled to other areas? How useful is this road built by the Chinese?
I have not yet travelled on that road, as I am a sick man and have never travelled outside my kebele (smallest unit of administration). So I do not know whether the road is useful or not.

What is the current health condition of the people like in comparison with the past?
During the reign of Haile Sellassie, there were diseases and these were well known. There main diseases were then small pox, pneumonia, and malaria. The diseases could appear in October and June. When a farmer fell ill in June, his land was left uncultivated. When he fell ill in October, the harvest was left uncollected. For instance, people used to give advice to those returning from thrashing their tee harvest not to pass the night at areas where malaria was active, particularly on cloudy days. Since that disease was well known one was given medicine which cured him from his illness. Nowadays, however, you know very little about the diseases that afflict you. You go on a journey and if you happen to fall ill, you are likely to die. What little solution you can get is available at the hospitals only, not here.
Section 4
What about infectious venereal diseases? Could you also tell me about the increase and decrease in the size of the households?
Nowadays your son travels outside the kebele even when his parents have never done so. He contracts an unknown disease and then passes it on to others. As a result many people are now dying of unknown diseases. It is now a time when you donít get a cure by taking an injection and you donít rise again once you lie down. What is killing people is a disease that was unknown at the time of our fathers. Even if our fathers were unfaithful, they did not have sexual relations with people in the towns. When they went to towns for land-based litigations, they always came back without taking off their trousers. When the youth today migrate to the towns, they are infected by this disease which they say has been brought from abroad. Now it is infecting the whole country. It came through the town people who travelled abroad to places such as Germany and India. It is now killing many people in the towns, though it has not spread in the rural parts of the country.

What about the household size now? Is it decreasing or increasing?
It is increasing. Nowadays, when a woman is 15 years old, she will have had two children.

What do you think is the reason?
I think the learned people know that this is the warning (about the coming of the Day of Judgement?) as predicted in the Fl/wee Yeses (traditional religious book). I donít know the reason. They just have a relation and then they beget children. They breed every day and there are now more people than the soil.

Are these girls married early?
Since coming to power the Derg and the EPRDF have been telling us that women must not marry before the age of 15 and men before the age of 20. Our fathers used to say that a man expects to live for up to 80 years and a woman takes the sacrament at the age of 60 and then becomes a nun. Now, however, when a young man reaches the age of 20, he migrates to earn a living, but he becomes weak from hardship and cannot support his parents. So, we argued that the age of marriage should be lowered to 12 years for women and 18 years for men. If she marries at the age of 12, she will be a mother of two by the age of 15.
In the old days women were married when they were 15 years old and bodily strong because they were well fed. They also did not lose their virginity before the age of 15. Now this has changed. The girls lose their innocence even before they reach the age of 12. When we consider the growth of the population, however, we now realise that what we were told about the age of marriage is correct. We are therefore beginning to accept that girls should marry at the age of 15 and men at the age of 20.

Do you think food deficiency contributes to the power of oneís mind?
Yes. When a girl feeds regularly on milk, meat and well-buttered injera (thin pancake of fermented teff), she is not easily seduced or overcome by men. Nowadays, they get no more than a quarter of injera and sometimes only cereals. So they are physically weak
Section 5
When did famine start occurring in this area? During which period was it the worst?
Famine started during the reign of Emperor Yohannes. At first the drought killed a lot of cattle. People slaughtered them and hang their hides. Later people were forced by hunger to boil the hide and eat it. Eventually they turned to eating a sugar cane like plant such as wushish and grass such as muja. This famine lasted for five years. During the rule of Menilek and Zewditn, virgin land was cultivated and people got plenty of yields. During the Italian occupation, there was again a food shortage for about five years. A laden (sheepskin bag or weight equivalent of 30kg) of grain used to cost one birr. After Haile Sellassie returned from exile, all the land left fallow and more virgin land was cultivated. As a result, more than enough food was produced. As you yourself can see, things have now gone bad again. People have no food to eat. The land held by a farmer is too small and that itself has been redistributed among his children. So it doesnít produce enough food to feed the family even for a whole season. The trees have been cut right down to the roots. The soil has been washed away and the rocks have been exposed. With such land you cannot feed even a family of two. That is why the market has died. Because there is little produce, there is little food on the markets.
Gojam is far better in this respect. Food grain is brought from Gojam and used to feed the people. Since 1987 (in Ethiopian Calendar ie 1995), farmers have stopped cultivating crops and feeding themselves. They have become dependent on food handouts brought from abroad.

Is there any change in the food consumption pattern? Can you also tell me about the wild animals?
Our fathers used to hunt giraffes, water-bucks and antelopes and eat their meet. Goats were therefore not slaughtered often and they were left to breed. As a result a household used to own as many as 30-40 goats. Children fed on wild berries and rarely ate snacks at home. So the food was saved and lasted longer. The tree called qega, whose berry is eaten even by adults, used to grow abundantly along the banks of streams or rivers and sometimes even from one bank to the other and served as a bridge for crossing rivers such as Tekeze and Lenqei But all these trees are gone now. Children have very little to eat. They spend their days empty bellied and covered with a swarm of flies.