Ethiopia glossary










Ganchire Gebriel


September 1997



Section 1
Were you born around here?
No, I came here to attend school. When I was returning from Lalibela, I lost 600 birr (unit of currency) and I started begging here.

What was this area like during your days?
It was very good especially for the students, but now, let alone to offer to others, people here do not have enough food even for themselves.

What about the natural environment?
It was ďbe fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth....Ē
[The narrator misunderstood the word tefetro (nature) to mean the Biblical commandment in Genesis, 2:28.]

Could you tell me about the crop production in the old days and now?
In the past whatever you cultivated, be it food grain or peas grew up. Now it doesnít grow. There is too much hardship and the poor have grown in number.

Was there a forest in this locality in the past?
No, it was an open space. It was only a rural settlement then. Now it has become a town.

What about water?
Water was fetched from elsewhere.

Were you using the same water source or are there springs which have dried up because of the drought or the sunís heat?
The springs are drying up because the population has grown.

When did you have shortage of water, in the past or now?
There was drought since the time of the white man (Italian occupiers?) and the Derg (military regime 1974-89). It is improving now though.

Why didnít you have any problem in the past?
Previously, the cows were milked, the oxen were used for tilling the farmland, and you could mount your mule and go wherever you wished and come back. Now people are gripped by hardship.
Section 2
Regarding household income in terms of crops and livestock, which one was better - in the past or now?
It has decreased now.

Why has it decreased?
Due to the failure of the rains. Now you cultivate only barley, but in the past you cultivated wheat, oats, horse beans, peas, fenugreek, every type of food crop both in the highlands and the lowlands.

Did you have a lot of income in the past?
Yes, during the meher (main growing season, rainy season) harvest when there is a good yield. Now, however, the population has increased and land has become scarce. You have seen that they give land by measuring it with their feet. On top of this it is not productive.

Why has your income decreased now?
Because of the hardship, what else?

What was your land holding like during your time?
Even when I grew up one could get a harvest of nine (?) during the meher season, nine during the belg (short farming season, little rains), nine from irrigated land, and up to ten grass. Now it is all measured by feet. Both humans and livestock are dying.

How many livestock did you have in the past? When did you have the highest number of livestock?
Since the time of the Emperor, I used to have two pairs of [oxen] and three milked cows. My relatives had eight milked cows. Today we have none.

What about now?
I have none. It is because of the hardship that I have to scrounge alms. You can see that I have to rely on other peopleís hands. I begged God to take me (kill me), but He hated me.

What caused all this hardship?
The failure of the rains has made it difficult to grow crops. If there is no water you canít drink the soil.

Is there any change in livestock diseases?
There is no change. If a disease breaks out, it will sweep away everything. Now they talk about taking the sick to the medical doctors.

Do you cultivate the same crops now or are there any crops which are abandoned because of the difficulties?
Barley and oats are disappearing now. Only a little bit of barley for malt is produced now. Wheat is produced in small quantities with the help of fertilisers.

Is there a change in the size of the farmland held by each household?
In the old days, the size of the farmland cultivated by a household was very large. I had plenty of land. If one part is left fallow, the other part was cultivated.
Section 3
Were you using irrigation?
Yes, but all that is abandoned now because the water has dried up.

How did you control pests around here in the old days? What about now?
There used to be fleas and bedbugs and there was nothing to spray in those days. So we just scratched our bodies.

I mean the pests attacking crops.
There are monkeys. They eat up crops if there is no one watching.

Is there a pest which existed in the past but has disappeared now?
There is no other pest; however, rural people and monkeys are increasing in number.

I heard that there used to be degeza (bush cricket) in the lowlands.
Yes, but because my eyes are getting weaker it is a long time since I went to the lowlands. So I havenít seen any.

How did you control the pests?
We beat them to the ground.

The land was confiscated soon after Emperor Haile Selassie was removed from power. What impact did this have on you?
There was no problem. The sheep were slaughtered [for feasts] and the cows milked or sold. So there was no problem.

In the old days you could cultivate a lot of land or exchange or sell it. Now it is said that land belongs to the State. Has this caused any problem?
None, in fact we used to rent part of it on a sharecrop basis.

Do you still hold the land that was distributed to you following Haile Selassieís removal or has it changed now after the EPRDFís (Ethiopian Peopleís Revolutionary Democratic Front) coming to power?
No, it has not changed because I am a servant of the Church, but the size is smaller. You cannot change the truth for falsehood.

Do you have market places?
Yes, they are called Mugedit, Yehaja, and Tekulesh.

In terms of prices, what are the changes in the market condition?
Due to the problem with my sight, I havenít gone to the markets for the last 48 years.

What was grain measured with for sale in the past?
Qunna (large grass basket holding about 10kg) and laden (sheepskin bag or weight equivalent of 30kg). Now they do it with that tin.

Are there any new goods coming to the market now?
I donít know of any such good.
Section 4
Regardless of whether it was done by the government or a foreign NGO, which of the development activities carried out here to help you did you find most useful to you?
The Derg gave us assistance and these too are giving us assistance. They are both equally good. We collect the food and consume it.

Was it food aid?
Yes, it was wheat and beans, nothing else.

What about medical care in relation to the past? What did you do when you fell ill?
I only went to the holy spring and nowhere else. I donít understand the present practice.

You know what has happened during your time. What changes do you think will occur here in the coming 20 years?
We will say: ďLord, give us food crops. We are already familiar with deathĒ.

If conditions continue as they are now, what do you think this will lead to?
What is there to think except see to see day and night come one after the other?

Among the Christian community here, what are the social institutions or associations through which you gather for certain occasions?
They regarded me as a man of the church since the time of the Derg and I have not taken part in any meeting.

Didnít you have any social institution in the old days?
I only went to the church. I ordered the children to pay my contribution to the Senbetie (community association responsible for preparing church feasts).

Are there institutions which used to exist in the days of your fathers but have disappeared now?
In the old days we used to come together and commemorate St. Mary, St. Gabriel, St. Michael. All that has been abandoned now.

What are the uses of associations such as the Senbetie?
They have no use now. In the old days, plenty of tella (locally brewed beer) was served and the priests prayed for the dead well. We used to be treated well then. Now the priests are migrating due to the hardship.

Could you tell me about marriage during your time and now?
The old marriage was called ďlemon into twoĒ, i.e., when the spouses divorced, they divided into two and each took away their share of whatever property they were given by their respective parents when they were first married. Now she gets nothing from her parents but each has his/her share of land.
Section 5
Could you describe to me in detail how marriages were arranged in the old days?
In the old days, parents gave presents of an embroidered cotton cloak, a coat, and trousers to the bridegroom and a scarf to the bride. Now, I think they give her a pair of shoes.

At what age was a girl married off in the old days?
I think she got married in her childhood. Now she gets married when she is a grown up.

Could you tell me the age?
I donít know it.

Is there no difference in the marriages in the old days and now?

What about divorce? When was it more frequent?
There was more divorce in the old days. The length of time she stayed with her husband would be calculated and then she would receive her share of food grain or livestock.

Is divorce frequent nowadays?
The woman abandons her husband and leaves him whenever there is hardship and the man also does the same. You donít know what the cause of the divorce was or what each of them got for a share.

When was there more single women?
There are more of them now. Nowadays, half of the women are unattached. There are more women in the towns, too.

What are the common causes of divorce?
They quarrel frequently. He gives her money and she disappears with that.

They say the men kept concubines in your day. Could you tell me about it?
Not in my day. Now they do it here.

In the old days the children used to try to learn about their family history. Todayís children may also do the same. Which ones wanted to learn such history more?
In the old days our fathers, something like a goat, four-legged, something like this [unclear in transcript]. I donít know the present one. I am stuck in the church. I donít know the current one.

What were children in the past doing to learn about their kinsmen?
When the grown-ups baked buhe (small wheat loaves) and visited them, the children knew then that they were their relatives.
Section 6
Around here, there are lowlanders and highlanders, Christians and Muslims, townfolks and rural communities. What kind of relationship do they have? For instance, what kind of relationship existed between Muslims and Christians in the past and now?
There are no Muslims where I live. They may live in the towns and lowlands.

What was the relationship between Muslims and Christians?
The weavers come from the lowlands and then they stay at oneís home and make the clothes for the household and earn their income. We have no relationship with them.

How were conflicts between Christians and Muslims created?
I donít know about this. Why would they quarrel?

What is the relationship between the highlanders and the lowlanders?
The highlanders go to the lowland and the lowlanders come to the highland for the market. I donít know why they would quarrel.

What about your relationship with the people in Filaqit?
We have no relationship. If we have relatives there we will visit them. Otherwise it is too far away from us.

What kind of relationship do you have with the townfolks?
We have no contact with them except through the offices.

What is the relationship between the farmers and artisans?
They come and make for us knives and farm implements and go back. Otherwise we donít mix with them.

Why donít you mix with them?
Their market place is at Dibiko and ours is at Hajeya. That is why we donít mix with them.

They say that they eat people. Can you tell me about it?
I donít believe that human beings eat other human beings. It is empty talk.

Was this view held in the old days too?
Yes, but I have never seen humans eating humans.

What was the relationship like between men and women? In the old days the women were said to have held the upper hand. When did male supremacy exist? What was their life like?
They lived together as husband and wife. She ground the grain, baked it and served him his meal. He worked the land, prepared holes (underground stores especially for sorghum) and stored the harvest. When the food at home was consumed she told him to fetch some more and he did that. That is how they lived.

Didnít one give the orders and the other obey them in the household?
That is impossible. Let us do this. Okay. Let us do that. Okay. No one was superior or subordinate. It was not possible for the woman to act as the superior and the man as the subordinate. It is now that the women are riding us.
Section 7
Who had a say over the household property, say the food grain or the livestock?
They consulted each other and decided which one to sell.

Is this the case now as well?
I am talking about the past. You know about the current one, why ask me? Forget the present one. It is better to keep silent.

What happened when someone quarrelled with another person?
We say so and so have quarrelled, let us reconcile them. That is all.

How did you reconcile them?
Up to seven community elders gathered from different places and they reconciled them.

When they quarrelled, did the men go to the bushes and become bandits?
Not due to banditry. He accuses the other of letting his livestock graze in his land or in his crop cultivation or of encroaching into his farmland during the cultivation. I spent my time at school, so I was not involved in such affairs.

When was there more crime?
In the old days, they quarrelled today and they greeted each other the next morning. I canít tell you about the present. You canít expect peace when people have nothing to eat.

Is there any change or shift in the roles and activities of men and women?
What change? Currently the men are being oppressed. There are more women now and the men are suffering.

What have women been doing since the old times?
She used to grind the grain, but now she is just loafing about.

What about the men?
Men cultivated the land, they brought salt and red pepper from Woldiya on donkey- and mule-back, and they were the administrators. If he wove clothes and sold them, he bought coffee and the like for his household.

There are some disabled people like blind persons who cannot work. What was the difference between now and the past in the kind of support you gave them?
In the old days, the disabled used to go round and eat their lunch at one home and their dinner at another home. Now there is no such thing. The disabled have migrated to the towns. You see me making my living by bothering others, including you, here.

Was the practice common in the old days?
In the old days the poor used to gather and scrounge round the land to feed themselves. Now, however, the people say they are unable to support themselves let alone to feed the disabled. Donít you see me begging in the name of St. Mary to survive? If it were in the town, the government might look after me and I might even get a pension.
Section 8
You now live in Meket Woreda. On this side it is Bugna Woreda, on that one it is Gidan Woreda, over there it is called Wadla and you are all different. What makes you different from the other people?
Filaqit Woreda is in Lasta Awraja [county] and Dawunt Woreda is in Wadla Awraja. Our administration is [based] in Woldiya. I think they also say it is in Bahir Dar (the capital of the Amhara Regional State).

What about being strict adherents of the faith?
There are only Christians here. They slaughtered a sheep for the Senbetie, but the priests have migrated now.

Do you have any cultural distinction from people in other woredas (administrative districts)?
I donít know the distinction. They say there is a difference between the parishes, but I donít know that.

If you were to get the option for leading a better life elsewhere, would you leave this place?
If I were to go to Addis Ababa I would lead a better life. Here it is a life of misery. Sometimes I beg and get something to eat; other times I just pass the night without eating anything.

What do you give the greatest respect to in your culture?
We hold mass, we abide by the Christian doctrine.

Most churches in this area are built on top of hills. What is the relationship between your belief and hills?
I donít know why they build them on hills, but our church is on the plain land.

You are a priest. Why donít you tell me why churches are built on top of hills?
There is no belief attached to hills. It is just because the location is central for everyone here.

Why do highlanders live on top of hills?
I donít know why. They just say it is for coming closer together, for christening, but I donít know.

In our culture, we have a number of holidays such as Epiphany, Mesqel (finding of the true cross), St. John (i.e., Ethiopian New Year). What was the celebration of these holidays like?
A large pot of tella was brewed and relatives were invited to a feast prepared in a meadow. We come together and consume that and then disperse. That was how it was.
Section 9
What about your costumes?
We wrapped our cotton cloak round our shoulder and waist and we bowed to our elders. We poured water for our fathers to wash their hands and then we stood with our back turned to them when we attended on them during the meal. Now we are equal and we sit together with our masters and you.

What about now?
Now? Pooh! They just say Tena Yisttilign (a greeting literally meaning ďgood health to youĒ) and shake hands. I have never said like this.

How did you acquire your present skills?
My skills are cultivating crops, storing the harvest in the granary and consuming what I have produced. That is my knowledge.

Do you know of any persons around here who have received modern education?
I donít know them as I didnít receive modern education.

How harmful is being uneducated?
An uneducated person is like a deaf man or a disabled person. He is no good. Isnít it because you are educated that you are asking me all this? Now the two of us are chatting here and the others are insisting on listening to us and have refused to go away. This is improper. Do you see that one over there, the one you told him to go away. He said he wanted to listen to us and is now leaving after insulting us. Fortunately you asked me good questions about the past. It is proper that you looked for an elderly man to ask these questions. An educated man makes inquiries and learns new things and becomes an intellectual.

Do you have any intention to provide modern education to your children?
I would have liked to, but I have none with me now. I have daughters and one of these lives in Shedeho, up hill. She has five children, but I donít know whether she is sending them to school or not. I quarrelled with her and she drove me out of her house. So I have no contact with her now. The uneducated are now abandoned.
You see, after my wife died, I began making my living by begging. According to the Book (Holy Bible), when a priestís wife dies, he can marry a virgin and conduct mass, but the scholars said that he would be desecrating the sacrament and forbade it. Had it not been for this, I would have married and led a better life. It is sinful to act like a monk, carry prayer beads and lie. It brings on you the wrath of the Lord. As you see, therefore, it dawns and gets dusk. It is the Lord that has kept me alive. See how it makes you angry when you talk and are betrayed. That is how life is.

How many children do you have?
I have two daughters and no son.

Are both of them married?

What do you think is the use of modern education?
You get appointment from the government, it makes you travel to Addis Ababa, and it enables you to administer people. If you are educated you can help others.
Section 10
How do you hear of the events occurring outside your village?
Since I am stuck to the church I donít know what they talk about.

When the traders go to the towns and return, what news do they bring with them?
I never go away from the church, so I donít know what they say.

If you people wanted to communicate something to the government or to other places, how did you do it in the past?
We sent messages.

If you had a radio, what kind of news would be most important for you to listen to?
Listening to the radio is like going on a tour of the world. Therefore it would be good to listen to the radio.

Is there anyone in your village who has a radio?
They have no radio. They are all poor farmers.

Have you ever travelled outside your village?
After I came from Lailibela, I never left this place.

How have the newly built roads benefited you?
They say that flourmills were set up and electric power supplied.

What about the condition of health care in the past and currently?
The diseases in the past easily killed the sick persons, but in the towns they say the injection prevents their transmission to other persons.

Were there more diseases in the past?
Yes. In those days, the sick were not visited by other persons; they were left alone. There is more health today.

Now you get medicine, but how did you get cured in the past?
There was nothing to swallow in the old days; you either got cured or you died. Now I hear that they take injections and are cured. As for me, I just pray to St. Gabriel and St. Michael and I get well, but I have never gone for an injection. One day I saw someone getting an injection. Then I told the health officer that I had a stomach ache and asked him to give me an injection. He stared at me intently and then burst into laughter. When I asked him why he was laughing at me, he replied that my sickness was hunger and nothing else. He was telling the truth.

Did you try to get medical treatment in the past when you fell ill?
We went to the witch-doctors and they brushed us with white and red chickens. All that is gone now.
Section 11
What were the sexually transmitted diseases around here in the past?
There were syphilis, gonorrhoea, and bambulie, but now there is what you call AIDS. I heard that it emaciated the victims for a whole year and then killed them. I donít know of other diseases.

Do these diseases exist now?
Except AIDS, the others have disappeared. In the old days they considered syphilis as simple rashes and not as a serious disease.

What do you think of the new disease?
May God have mercy on us! We should restrain ourselves and be careful instead of saying whose daughter is that and whose daughter is this and falling for the girls we see. In the old days one was embarrassed when he approached and talked to a girl. Now the women just laugh when they talk to them. They just put the girls on horseback and carry them off and fall on top of them.

What about the number of children in the past and at present?
Now we have multiplied like eucalyptus trees without worrying about what to feed them.

Were there more children in the past?
No, but now you find eight or nine children in one household.

Why are there more children now?
There is a saying that children and hardship are always there. The women have no worry; they eat and throw away their leftovers.

In your opinion, what should be done to control birth?
What can you do except give up marriage? Have you ever seen before women become chairpersons?

When did drought occur in this area?
It occurred at some intervals. There was one at the time of the white man (Italian occupiers?) and two or three during the time of the Emperor. He, too, distributed aid. There was also food aid during the time of the Derg. The current [rulers] also give assistance. Come to think of it, the drought did not ever stop.

When was the most severe drought here?
From August to October, but I donít remember the year.

What makes drought different from other times of food shortages?
When the crops refuse to grow, we call it drought.

How did you and your family cope with the drought in 1985?
There was just my wife and one child. So we reduced our food consumption and we also spent the time in the town. Even though there was a problem then, we could buy beans in 1984 and milk cows and slaughter our sheep in 1985. Donít forget that now is the most trying time, for there is nothing to wear or eat.
Section 12
Didnít you migrate because of the hardship?
Not at all.

What about other persons?
Yes, they are still in Begemder (old name of Gonder province). They are called Mulla Wabe and Neguse Wabe and they left together with their children and wives. They said that they couldnít prepare the feasts for the Senbetie as they lacked the means and so they went to Gebriel. They used to be landlords. It is better for them where they are now.

Have you ever received food aid?
I used to receive it during the Derg days, but now I donít know whether the children receive any.

In 1985, did you get the aid in the form of free food handouts or through food-for-work?
No, just free food for the poor; there was no work then.

What was the distribution like at the time?
They gave us one sack of grain for two persons.

Is there any difference between the food aid in the past and now?
It is no longer humanitarian aid now. The distributors reduce [ie extract?] from the food donated and give it to their relatives. Let us just forget it.

Are people migrating now?
No, not now. I think they have got used to the hunger. Down there, in the Haji village, I have seen people going away during the belg (short farming season, the little rains) season.

Were they migrating?
They were going to work as seasonal labourers, for harvesting crops, and return with their earnings.

Is there a difference in your food consumption habits in the past and at present?
In the old days, the injera (thin pancake of fermented teff) was left over in the mesob (large basket on a stand for serving injera) for the next day. Now it is emptied right away. Let alone me - who is used to eating injera and qollo (roasted cereals) when I was a student - do you yourself eat to your fill nowadays?

Did you hunt wild animals in the old days?
In the lowlands, we wove a rope called ashkella into a snare and caught with it antelopes.
Section 13
What about now?
Not now. The animals have migrated now.

How did these animals disappear?
Because there are no leaves and grasses for them to feed on due to the failure of the rains.

Is there any change in the way you cooked your meals?
We cooked it with firewood. Rural people are not skilled cooks. You find delicious food in the towns.

What did you get your fat [oil?] from in the old days?
Butter, sunflower, noug (niger seed) were used to give flavour to the food.

What about now?
We just eat the plain injera.

In your opinion, what should be done to make this locality as fertile as before and to enable people to lead a happy life?
If the crops could be cultivated and produced as well as before, everything would have improved and become normal.