Ethiopia glossary












May 1997



Section 1
This woman responded to my questions enthusiastically. Her disappointment with her life was visible in her facial expressions. When I explained to her the purpose of the interview and started my questions by asking her about the differences between the past and the present, she rose and kissed my hands. Then we chose a quiet place and sat on a rock. She plucked out a root called gettin and quietly gazed at it before saying, “You see, even this root which saves one’s life has now dried up, but this is what our people have been feeding on.” Then she urged me to proceed with my work quickly so that she could go and sleep as she said she was not feeling well.

What is your environment like? How has it changed?
The environment has completely changed. There is no rain. Land is distributed by measuring it with a rope. In the old days our fathers and grandfathers had large plots of land. The land was productive. There were forests and enough rain. Now, however, a nine or ten year old girl is married with just a goat or a chicken slaughtered for the feast and before she even reaches 15 years she becomes a mother of two or three children. The land is not giving yield because of the drought. The forests have been cut down and caused the drought.
In the days of our fathers, a small plot of land produces a lot of yield. Now the seeds are wasted in the ground. In the old days you could buy from the market one qunna (large grass basket holding about 10 kg) of grain for 50 cents. Today, you cannot buy one qunna of grain for one birr (unit of currency). The population has grown, but it is a time of barbarians. In-laws fight each other; mothers and children lack a harmonious relationship between them. Jesus Christ has deserted us, together with the land. The crop is destroyed by the fierce sun and the frost. In the days of our fathers, someone with one furrow of land could get one aqmada (sheepskin bag or weight equivalent of 50-60kg) of grain. Now you won’t get even one qunna. Now it is May. The sun dries up the new cropping. What remains will be destroyed when October comes (with the frost?). At this time there is very little to feed on both for man and animals. Livestock are dying everywhere. There isn’t even gettin (edible root) for men to eat, since the sun has destroyed it. Our time has become “eat and eat each other”. The whole population knows that the country has changed.
Why I said that the population has grown is that when a girl fails to marry when she comes of age, she builds her own hut and begins to live there. Then some well-to-do man comes and makes her his concubine. He begets three or four children without his wife hearing about it. When his wife learns about his unfaithfulness he warns his concubine not to even mention his name and he abandons her. These children have nothing to eat. Then another man comes by and he too begets another child by her. The children then become domestic servants without even getting anything like a mother’s or a father’s love and they become slaves in a rich man’s home. Their father may migrate and die somewhere. The children become separated from each other and may live in poverty or die without being reunited with their mother.
In the days of our fathers, when you became a servant in a rich man’s house, you could save your salary and buy sheep or cows and improve your life. Our mothers and fathers never sold butter or honey. Today let alone butter, one even sells milk. The woman may desire to drink the milk, but there is nothing to eat at home; so she has to sell it. Someone has composed a verse about this situation:
What will there ever come
That is sweeter than honey
Yet you have to sell it
Though your stomach may churn with hunger.
The forest has disappeared. The farmers cut it down to get land for cultivation. As a result the soil was eroded. The wild animals disappeared. Nowadays it is a time of hardship. The population is just too large.
Section 2
What kind of useful development activities are there in your area?
SOS Sahel is mobilising people for development. It gives training, credit with a small interest charge, and plant seeds. However, though we regularly water the plants, the sun during the day and the frost during the night are destroying the plants. The government is also cooperating with us, but the land has refused to give any yield. SOS Sahel also gives us a variety of potato seeds. We are also getting training in weaving carpets. Thanks to the organisation, we have now a flourmill. It is no longer necessary for a woman to kneel for a long time before the grinding stone for grinding a small amount of grain. It could now be done in no time if you get the grain. SOS Sahel is also giving us assistance in the form of sheep, chicken, and cows.

What about schools?
Yes, we are also getting a school. We have no health service, but they are training traditional midwives. We too are learning from them. There used to be pests such as degeza (bush cricket), deyiri (army worm), and locusts. Degeza never disappeared unless it rained. It would wipe out the stems in no time. Today the Agricultural Bureau is spraying pesticides and destroying the pests.

How do you expect your area to change in the coming twenty years?
May be those who are educated will come here and our children will also be educated and when the number of the educated increases, they may change it.
Section 3
What kind of useful social institutions are found here?
There are Qire, Senbetie, Mahber and Iqub. Senbetie is for the salvation of our soul, but Mahber could be for making acquaintances. Iqub is useful for saving money and when your turn comes round and you collect the saved money, you can use it for buying what you need. Qire is useful for helping each other when a member of your family or your close relative dies. The Qire members take care of the funeral. Mahber is a custom inherited from our fathers. One prepared a feast for three or four days and sang and drank day and night in those days.
Today you can only prepare two or three small pots of tella (locally brewed beer) and a loaf of bread. If you gather at nine o’clock in the morning, the ceremony will be over before noon. All this is because the land has become unproductive. When it was a wedding, you used to prepare your tella 15 days in advance. Children went to the house of the bride or bridegroom and sang during the night until the wedding day. They drank and ate there. Now, you can’t take your children for fear of exhausting the host’s resources. You take five or so birr as a gift for the host and come back. The host can only prepare the feast and entertain his guests if seven or eight people bring him gifts or else he won’t be able to prepare the feast.
In the old days, when a rich man’s daughter was being wedded, she would be treated as a bride for 20 days. A bride chamber would be built for her and she would stay there for 20 days. Bullocks, castrated sheep or goats, and chicken would be slaughtered for the feast and the bride and bridegroom would be fed. There would be assignments for friends and relatives: as head of tella, sauce, bread or for washing the bride and bridegroom. Today the bride and bridegroom do not even stay for three days. After three days, you will find her in the field. Now there are too many people and less food crops. In the old days, one sang for the bride:
Be proud, be proud our bride
Speak to them in English
Our bride’s departure time has come
Her shoes are squeaking.
Today, they say “Grab her hand and bring her, Grab her hand and bring her”. We don’t understand it any longer. In the old days, the bridegroom boasted in his song by saying he is the son-in-law of so and so. If he didn’t say so, he wouldn’t be given a castrated sheep or any other award. Nowadays, the bridegroom covers himself with his cloak and arrogantly sits in front of his father-in-law. He doesn’t obey his in-laws. In the old days, they say, “what the mother spoils, the father-in-law punishes”. Today one is not even afraid of one’s husband, who is the breadwinner. Equality is good. In the old days you were restricted to the kitchen. Today the wife will defiantly answer back her in-law by telling him to his face that he is not her husband and that it is none of his business. Today we have been liberated from the grinding stone. We have learnt how to read and write. We have begun sending our children to school. Today education is better than farming.
In the old days, the man is told to till this land, to bring straw for the cattle. The son of the poor became the servant of the rich and trotted after his mule and then looked after the livestock. When he comes home he has to stand in waiting while his master is eating. Today there is equality, but the land is not producing food. If a woman insulted her father or mother-in-law, it used to lead to a divorce. Then she would leave her children to her husband and take her share of the property. She can marry again if she wants to. Today there is no property to share except your children. No grain or livestock to share. In the old days, one gave gifts of silver thalers (old currency) and had to use go-betweens to woo a lover. It was all kept secret and they could have an innocent love without sex for up to a year.
Today, they rush to kiss and soon she has becomes a mother of a bastard. That is why the population has increased so much. When you looked for a wife in the past, you inquired if her family were productive, whether she had children, because people ate plenty of honey and butter and did not give birth. Honey and butter made them barren. Now the women deliver a baby and are up on their feet within 10 days. They do not rest and are not fed well to make them strong. So she puts on her pants and walks as a skeleton. She cannot rest for 40 days as in the old days. And then she conceives again within 40 days. So unlike in the old days, men do not want a wife that is productive. When they are married the husband tries to abstain from sex in order to avoid begetting a child. If she gives birth to too many children it could even lead to a divorce nowadays. So women are oppressed now.
Section 4
What kind of relationship is there between parents and children? How do they learn their history?
My father used to tell me that he travelled to Adwa and fought with just a shield and spears. He also served as a militiaman and enforced the law in the Gala land. The people were afraid of committing a crime then. Today’s children commit offences such us robbery and stealing. For this service he was given land which he would pass on to his children. Money was also got by bribery and was used for buying sheep and more land. When he died he made a will and left each of his children some property - land, cows, mule, etc. It was the same thing when our mother died, but women did not inherit the same type of property equally with her brothers. She received just one-third of the land while the men received two-thirds. Our fathers therefore left us property including even his [horn-made] cup, which is inherited by the favourite son that accompanies him when he travelled on mule back. Today, let alone passing property on to the children, one doesn’t even have enough food for daily consumption. Fathers and children quarrel and deny each other. The father denies that the son is his. The son denies that the man who raised him is his real father.

What kind of support does the community give to the disabled?
Our fathers used to take turns to feed, clothe and support those who were disabled or were old and without any relatives to help them. So the poor and old or disabled spent eight days or even a month in one house, then another month in another house and so on until they died. Then money is contributed or a rich person buys the sheet of cloth for covering the dead body for burial. Hence the childless and the disabled were not abandoned in their old age. Now, let alone one who has no relatives, even those who have relatives have nobody to look after them.
Section 5
How do the people of Meket differentiate themselves from others?
What makes them different is their dialect, the sheepskins worn by highlanders because of the cold and the loincloth worn by the lowlanders because of the heat, and the numerous churches around here. The lowlanders and the highlanders have different religions and dialects. The lowlanders are mostly Muslims while the highlanders are Christians. There are many hermits who feed on leaves and live in the frost. There are churches such as St. Michael, St. Mary and St. George. People make vows to bring gifts of sheep or cow on the commemoration day of their patron saint. The Muslims have mosques. When it is Epiphany, the Muslims enjoy the holiday together with the Christians and it is the same thing when the Muslims celebrate their holidays. So Muslims and Christians live together in harmony and with respect. Meket is a land of very religious people.

If you had the choice would you live somewhere else? Why?
But I am the mother of children! How can I leave this place when I am tied up here? I have no opportunity to work and make a living. I must die here with my children from hunger. I have no money to pay for the fare of my children. Those who have no children can travel anywhere on the Chinese road and make a living. In the old days it was not possible to transport the sick by car to a place where they could get medical attention. One died of hunger or was devoured by the wild beast in the forest. Now, the bushes have been cleared and the precipice levelled for the building the Chinese road and they have made it easy for one to travel by car.

How did you acquire your present knowledge? Which skill gives you the greatest satisfaction?
If I had any knowledge, it has become a light in the pot. How can I use my skills when I am tied up by my children? Who can I give them to? I have some skills.

Which skill do you prefer?
I prefer working and supporting myself. I have learned how to weave sisal fibres and how to make carpets. I know how to read and write. I can also perform domestic duties such as cleaning [the house] and preparing tea.

Which one would you send to school first: your daughter or your son?
I would send both of them to school.

How do you communicate messages in your area?
When a person dies someone will announce aloud that so and so has died and that people should attend his funeral. Concerning the condition of prices, since traders go from one market to another we hear from them what has become cheap and what has become expensive. At the government level, we get news from the radio. Those who have radios tell the news to others and then it spreads in the village. I follow such news in the hope that there are jobs for the poor so that I might work and support my children.
Section 6
Have you ever travelled outside your village?
I have hardly travelled. Only once did I go to a place called Dessie to get medical treatment. I used to hear before that time that the road was thorny and full of obstacles and precipices. The Chinese then built a smooth road which makes one feel like travelling on it on foot. However, it took me only half a day to travel by car from Dessie to my home.

In comparison with the past, what are the changes in the health condition of the community here?
There are differences. The diseases were not so severe then. When someone died, prayers were conducted for the dead man on the way to the funeral. The funeral dirges were like wedding songs and professionals were hired to do it for 20 or 30 birr. The deceased man’s oxen and bullocks were mentioned in the verses of the funeral dirges. Now they tell us there is a new disease which the doctors could not fight. It is an ugly illness and death. The afflicted person becomes emaciated. There is also a disease that strikes both children and grown-ups. It makes the throat sore and the ears swollen. Children call it qurfa. The recent one is called ijil. The illness makes the person vomit and suffer from dysentery.
Those who look after the sick get fed up and even pray for the death of the diseased person. There is no wailing when the person dies. Besides, when someone catches the disease, all the seven to 10 members of the family fall ill and die. There is also another one called AIDS. It comes from a sexual relation between men and women. Many persons have died from it. In the old days, people were not in a hurry to enter into adulterous relations. The diseases then were syphilis and banbulie. People were afraid of catching syphilis and used to sing:
Had there not been syphilis,
Had there not been banbulie,
Shoa was the best place to live.

So people were restrained from adultery. Today, despite this killer disease, both the young and the grown-ups are not restraining themselves from committing adultery. The doctors could not cure the disease. The population has increased and famine coupled with dysentery are killing lots of people. They have no money to get medical treatment. If a doctor comes to our village and makes a survey, he won’t find a household in which there are no people who haven’t become bedridden due to hunger and disease. In some households there is no one even to give water to the sick members of the family.
Section 7
When did drought occur in your village?
This year too there is drought. Both man and animals are suffering from famine. The crops have dried up on the ground. In 1984, the government was aware of the famine and food assistance was dispatched by vehicle to the settlements where the affected people were sent and many lives were saved then. Today, however, there is a famine which is unknown by the government. Except those who are traders and have money and are energetic, the others are suffering from another 1984 famine.

How did you and your family manage during the 1984 famine?
We got assistance from the government. We got clothes, blankets, milk, biscuits, edible oil, butter, wheat and wheat flour, soap, medicine for the children. Every month the children were put on the scale and their weights measured. There was also cholera in those days and though many people died the government provided medical assistance and saved many lives. Now, maybe the government has not heard about the famine, but 1984 is occurring again. Dysentery and vomiting are taking their toll. The crop on the ground is not sufficient enough to be taken to the granary or to be harvested. It has dried up while young and the frost is destroying what remains. What you see as green now will dry up tomorrow. Since the people are dying the government must do what is necessary. Last time when we received assistance and then the crops were grown up, a song was composed:
How come you forgot 1984 so soon?
You sold your sorghum and bought gushritt (like henna, used to decorate palms).
The major disease now is hunger. Big and small have all fallen to the bed.