Ethiopia glossary








farmer/female head of household


Gala Dejen (highlands)


December 1996



Section 1
What was your locality like in the past? Was it like the present one?
There were plenty of plants such as agam (thorny bush with edible fruit) and arable land in the old days. Now there is little of everything except the people - little grass, little crops, and no fallowing of land. Our fathers had plenty of land and they gave some of this to their children. If there were twelve plots of land owned by a family, six of this would be left fallow for a year. Since the crop from the remaining six plots was adequate for the needs of the family. Now we cultivate the same land over and over again and the yield decreases every year. The population is also growing. The only change therefore is that we produce less. However, if I have livestock and I sell one of them I can buy fertiliser now and increase my yield. But if you are poor and have no money or livestock to sell, then you have to cultivate the land without fertiliser, and may be the land will not even give you any yield or will not produce enough crops to last you for the year. So unless he is employed as a manual labourer the farmer cannot feed his family until the next cropping season.

What about soil erosion in your area?
Since the land is cultivated every year, the soil is washed away whenever it rains. Furthermore some of us plant eucalyptus trees on part of the land and that is not used for production of food. So there is wastage of land in this manner.

What is the cause of the soil erosion?
Let us say I harvest the crop now from the land which was cultivated last year. In June I plough the land again. When it rains, the water washes away the soil because the land is furrowed too much. When I cultivate it again the next year the same thing happens, but if I leave it fallow for one year, it becomes like virgin land and wonít be easily eroded. The yield also increases.

What about the availability of water here?
The river is the same old one which our fathers were using, but now the ferenjis (foreigners) came and built here a water pumping motor for us. They laid down water pipes and now we get clean drinking water. That is the improvement regarding water.

Can you tell me about your sources of income?
In the old days, you could increase your wealth easily. There was sufficient grass; so you could raise livestock. Now, since the farmers produce less crops they have to sell their livestock to buy food for consumption. Hence the size of the livestock is reduced. Besides the scarcity of grass makes it difficult to raise livestock. In the days of our fathers and mothers, there used to be many households which had five or six oxen and three cows. Now their size of cattle has fallen to three or even just one ox or cow.
Section 2
What about the changes in firewood?
If we have cows or oxen, we collect their dung and make pancake-like pieces which we dry in the sun, and then we pile up these at home for use as fuel. If one has a tree he cuts it down and uses it for firewood. If he can spare some of the pieces of wood he sells them. If you have none of these means you either buy firewood or collect what you can get from the barren land.

Did you have large grazing land in the past?
In the old days you take your livestock and let them loose in the uncultivated land. There were no restrictions on grazing land except in one or two places. Now if I have one or six or ten cows or oxen, I am allowed to cut only a limited amount of grass according to the size of my livestock. However, even that is too small to feed them well. If I have no livestock, then I am not given any grass. In the days of our fathers, each household was entitled to cut grass regardless of the size of their livestock.

Did livestock die of diseases in the old days?
Our fathers used to say that there were diseases such as anqettqitt, which makes them shiver and prevents urination and kills them, and gufta, which killed livestock. I myself have seen them die from these diseases.

What kind of medicine did you use to cure these diseases in the old days?
If we heard that there were traditional medicine men somewhere we went and fetched them to treat our livestock which suffered from gufta. Sometimes the animal died and there was nothing we could do about it. There was also a medicine which we made the sick livestock drink to cure them from kurtim (ďkillerĒ). So we did not refrain from applying any medicine that we heard of to cure our animals.

Are the animals attacked by these diseases now?
Yes, they suffer from ibett, which makes them swell up, gufta, anqettqitt.

Where do you take them now when they are attacked by these diseases?
We take them for injection. Last time I heard that the animals in the village near the church fell ill and they took them to Filaqit for injection. So that is what we do now.

What are the changes in crop production? How much did you produce in the past? What about now?
In the past we cultivated beans, wheat, peas, lentils, netcheta (?) and others. Now wheat, peas, beans, lentils and linseed are cultivated in our area.
Section 3
Does the land give sufficient yield?
You can cultivate what you want. For example, I could partition one plot of land and cultivate lentil on one piece, peas, beans, barley or temej (emmer wheat) on the others. Now a wheat variety called sud or sudae (improved variety) has become popular and is widely cultivated. Still there is less food crop produced nowadays.

Is irrigation used in your locality?
There is no irrigation in our area. A little distance away from here, they use a bit of irrigation when it rains in the belg season (short farming season, the little rains). If it rains well they can produce more than in the principal cropping season. However, when there is drought they do not practice irrigation.

How do you control pests?
If my crop in the backyard is eaten by rats, we use a trap for catching and getting rid of them or we tell a friends or neighbours about the rats and we kill them with stones or we borrow rat poison from them to kill the rats. If the locusts or degeza (bush cricket) attack our crop we get pesticides from the government or we ask from friends for help and spray the pesticides. Otherwise there is little you can do and your crop will be destroyed.

What kind of problems have you encountered because of the change in the condition of the land?
The change is that the land does not give enough yield, but we have not stopped cultivating the land because of that. We supplement our food stock by selling our livestock and buying food grain. So this is what our problem is - the landís refusal to produce crops. Now fertiliser has been introduced and we apply that depending on our means.

What are the changes in the market condition?
I can sell whatever I want now. If I have an ox I can sell that and buy a cow or I can sell my cow and buy sheep or goats and I can raise these. Then I can benefit from these. In the past you could not sell butter, livestock or crops and buy whatever you wanted. Now things are improving since you can sell eggs or chicken unlike in the past. A lump of butter in a small crook-neck container used to cost fifty cents; now a cup-full costs ten birr. Selling eggs or chicken is not frowned upon now. So there is a market for everything now and you can sell what little thing you have and buy something else.

What are the things you consider useful for your development?
If we establish a market here it would be useful. We started one in the past, but then people abandoned coming here. If a market is opened here and one starts selling tella (locally brewed beer), she will have customers. One can also sell oneís goods here. Our area will develop into a town.
Section 4
Would you like to have a school opened here?
If the government sets up a school which will serve for two or three hours a day, everyone will want to attend it by sparing so much time from his work. If the young and adults attend it, they can learn how to read and write and might get employment. If they are not educated they will remain farmers.

How do you expect your area to change in the coming 20 years?
It was since last year that houses have been built around here and it is now turning into a town. I too built a house with a roof of corrugated iron sheets. If the town grows, I can open a shop and there could be a market. I can then become a trader. If the government doesnít change and you get a piece of land you could use it for something when the town grows. One can sell tella in the house. And we want the town to grow and the market to expand. Previously this was just a grazing land.

What are the rural institutions here?
When a relative of mine passes away, this will be announced to my villagers and they will accompany me to the funeral. And on their way, the mourners talk about various matters. On Sundays we come together and drink tella [for the Senbetie] and on this occasion we also discuss about who has come and who has not, and whose turn it is for the next time. Our Sunday gathering is for our redemption. In the Mahber there may be twenty, fifty or a hundred members who join it according to their locality. We talk about our turns for preparing the drink and feast, which may come once a year or in a year and a half depending on the size of the membership of the Mahber. I myself am a member of a Senbetie, but I am not taking part in the Mahber because I do not have the means for preparing the feast. One doesnít join a Mahber if one doesnít have the means. However, the priests tell us that Senbetie, which takes place at the church, is essential.

Why do they say that?
We take part in the Senbetie for the redemption of our soul. If I have to prepare a wedding, those who have relations with me do not passively watch me. They bring gifts of ten injera (thin pancake of fermented teff) or a big pot-full of tella. If my brother Aqat has to marry off his child he will send a message to me saying come and bless your child. So either alone or in conjunction with someone else, I have to take a share of my gifts and stay there for a week or five days or four days and then return home. So everyone invites only his kinsmen for weddings, and inviting everyone in the village would be beyond his means. Therefore I cannot afford to invite for a wedding everyone in Gala Dejen. Twelve of those who are close to each other also join and form Iqub and save money for collection when our turn comes.
Section 5
You have told me about Iqub, Senbetie and Mahber. What are their benefits to you?
If I have a wedding, we have to share the burden by helping each other or else I wonít afford to prepare the feast. When we meet we chat and enjoy the occasion together. When we have Iqub (traditional rotary-type savings group) we save our contributions and later we can use it for trading when we collect our savings.

Have any of the institutions disappeared over the years?
Weddings and Senbeties were inherited from our fathers and mothers; nothing has disappeared. One doesnít sell oneís livestock for these.

What are the changes regarding marriage and divorce?
In the old days, when someone is engaged to a woman, her parents used to buy him clothes for the wedding. Now there is equality between women and men. So, just as her parents buy clothes for the bridegroom, so his parents will also buy new clothes for the bride on the occasion of the wedding. As far as divorce is concerned, there is no difference between the past and the present. If I no longer love my husband or if I believe he is not faithful to me, I can divorce him. Nobody can force me to stay together. If I also love my husband, nobody can oblige me to divorce him. It is the same situation for the husband, too. If you divorce him of your own free will and you have not paid him any dowry when you married him, then you have no money to share when you divorce him.

What do you think of husbands that keep concubines?
Now for example there is the house of Ayichesh and let us my husband visits her. If he doesnít take my money and give it to her, he wonít get anything from her. If I think that he is spending my money on her, I will tell him to leave my house. If I decide that he can do whatever he likes to do, then I will stay in my house and I donít have to divorce him.

Would you like to see the practice of keeping concubines to be abolished?
I tell him to either stick to his concubine or to his home. If he loves her more he will move out and join her. If he loves me more he will stick to his wife. Thus I advise him to choose between his lover and his wife. I tell him that if he doesnít abandon his lover, I will divorce him and marry someone who doesnít keep a concubine. So he has to choose or he may loose even both.

When you are divorced what happens to the children or your money?
The child that chooses his father goes with him and the one that chooses the mother will stay with her. If the children decide to stay with me for a while and then want to stay for some time with their father I will not prevent them from doing so. And the father does not prevent them from passing the day with me and the night with him. However, I will discuss the matter with their father regarding what to do about sharing the burden of feeding them. If we decide to share the children when we divorce, then we will also equally share what property we have.
Section 6
What kind of relationship is there between children and their parents?
We tell them how things were in our days. Now for example there is a popular dress called Shibsheba Manie. Our mothers were used to wearing cotton cloaks and dresses with embroidered borders. We too prefer that kind of costume, but that fashion is dying out. So we tell our children about the past. When there are better modes of dresses we buy that for them depending on our means.

Are people considerate towards each other, for example, the highlanders to the lowlanders?
Yes, definitely. For example if I face hardship, I inform my relatives about it and they help me. If someone is needy and let us say blind or a leper the community will him. He can stay for a day in my house, another day in her house, and another day in your house and son and so forth. If I become needy and go to the lowland, people will talk about it. But if I have the energy I can go to the lowland and work and earn an income. And both the highlanders and lowlanders know about my hardship and are sympathetic.

What about Christians and Muslims?
If a Muslim has hardship he comes and tells me about it. Then I tell him to come to such a place and weave clothes. Someone gives him shelter and he brings over his weaverís tools. Then people tell each other that there is a weaver at such and such a place and they give him their orders for clothes to be woven by him. We pay him his price and thus he starts earning an income and solving his problems.

What about the people from the towns and the rural areas?
Yes, we show concern for each other. We discuss our problems whenever we meet.

What about men and women?
Our mothers used to say that if the woman faced hardship and she was not married, she became a maidservant. The man would be hired as a labourer to harvest the crop. Now that there are cars she can take her friendís grain for getting it ground at the flourmill when she goes to town for medical treatment. The men also help the single women with the harvest.

Is there a problem of crime in your area?
We used to hear from our fathers that when someone killed another person, he had to leave the area. His kinsmen, too, have to leave the place since the kinsmen of the deceased want to avenge the blood of the dead person by attacking them. So brothers, aunts, uncles, in-laws of the killer have to migrate so as not to kill each other in vengeance. And they may never return to their homes and villages. And the relatives of the deceased wait for years for a chance to avenge the blood of their kinsman. Now, too, when someone quarrels and kills another person he cannot live here, he has to leave the place. So it is the same as in the past.

What about robbery and arson?
There were arson and robbery in the old days and they called the afersata (gathering of people to identify a thief). Now if I see someone take away my ripe crop, he can be imprisoned. Now they say, thieves should be eliminated. In the old days, you needed powerful allies and kinsmen to find out the thief and eliminate him. If you had no such helpers, you would be constantly vulnerable to robbery.
Section 7
What is the attitude of the community towards helpless and disabled women?
If the disabled person has a relative or children they will take care of her. Otherwise the government will give her a plot of land she will get it cultivated on a sharecrop basis. Then she will rotate among the villagersí homes for taking care of her and they will look after her for a fixed number of days turn by turn.

What do you do if they have no land?
We take turns to look after them on a voluntary basis. Nobody forces you to take care of them.

What makes the people of Meket different from others?
It is just the name. Meket, Delanta, Dawunt are just names given to them by the government. If I go to Shoa, Addis Ababa, they will say she is a woman from Wollo. It is a name given to us originally and everyone identifies himself by the name given to his locality.

How does one tell someone is from Meket?
When I call out by asking for people from Meket or Meqerqeriat, the person who comes from these places will answer me. Then I ask him his name and he may be someone from my village. If you go to the town you may not ground the grain or do manual labour. So you may look handsome and fatter. If I am from the village the labour and sun and dust make me look darker and you can tell that I am from the village. It is just like the difference between you and me.

If you get the option, would you like to live elsewhere?
It depends on the kind of life you have. If I lead a good life here, I do not want to leave my village. But if your life is full of hardship and there is a chance for leading a better life elsewhere, you may want to take that chance.

To which cultural aspect do you give more value?
We say Sebere Attimu and Timket (Epiphany), which coincide once in twenty years. Everyone from nearby areas comes here and celebrates these holidays. We also commemorate with festivities the days of the local patron saint.

Which of these do you celebrate most?
Apart from the above two, we also celebrate Easter. Everyone has to fast for two months for Easter (Lent). On the last Thursday before Easter, we boil whole wheat grain and eat it. Nobody works on that day, for it is a time of penitence and prayer. However, when it is the day of St Michael, we do not prepare any feasts because we do not belong to the parish of St Michael. Our parish is that of St George. So we prepare feasts when St Georgeís day is commemorated. If you come when Epiphany and Sebere Attimu are celebrated, no matter where you come from, you will be invited to a feast and entertained by the local people. That is the culture we attach more value to.
Section 8
What do you use for worship in Meket?
If someone falls ill, we go and consult a knowledgeable religious person. She might advise us to go and drink or bathe in a particular holy water (usually a spring of mineral water consecrated to a local patron saint). The sick person will do that and he may either die or get cured. Some people go to Wollo to be blessed by a witch-doctor. They may or may not be cured. Otherwise, most of us supplicate our patron saint, St George, and rub our body with the cross and the soil consecrated in his name. That is how we worship.

What is the major cultural change in your life? Tattooing, dress style?
The songs, the dress style, the hairstyle, the tattoo on the tooth gum and neck, all these have changed.

Are you tattooed nowadays?
Yes, but it is not as in the past, just little spots. Now the girls wear shoes and trousers. In the old days it was only the well-to-do women who wore trousers and shoes, not members of the lower class. People insult you as an upstart if you were dressed like the well to do. Now, if you have money, you can buy a car or wear anything you like and nobody will deride you.

What do you feel about the dying out or contamination of your customs?
Well, that would be like the merger of the sky and the earth! We now participate in the Senbetie and Mahber and respect the holy ark consecrated to our patron saints. If these customs die or are abandoned, then we have forsaken our religion and it would be the end of everything. These are customs which we have inherited from our fathers. They were there at the time of Emperor Haile Sellassie and the Derg (military regime 1974-89). If these customs disappear then we are going to face the unknown. When my son grows up a bit, I will take him to the Senbetie so that he will inherit the custom and do the same when he becomes an adult. Then he will say this cup [for the Senbetie drink] was my mothers and he will do the same for his children.

Is there any change in the manner of celebration of your holidays?
Now everyone changes his clothes and wears shoes and looks more attractive. The present generation is better in singing songs.

How did you acquire your present knowledge?
I know how to brew tella, gin cotton, grind grain. I would apply that skill which is most useful to sustain my life and not all the skills I have.

Is there any educated person around here that you know very well?
There is no one I know of who has studied at a modern school, but there are many around here who have attended traditional church schools. These debteras and priests have different types of education and provide various services.
Section 9
What is your view of illiteracy?
Illiteracy is the same as ignorance. At the time of the Derg we were urged to attend the literacy schools, but we didnít like the idea of going to school then because we felt it would interfere with our work. Those of us who attended school then know how to write our names. I used to do so, but now I am forgetting how to write it well. If a school is to be opened here we would attend it and also send our children to class. If adult education is given here everyone will learn and there will be no one who wonít know how to read and write. As long as we are not forced to attend school, nobody will hate the idea of learning again.

In future, would you like your son and daughter to attend a modern school?
If I have property, I canít abandon that and send my children to school, for I have to make them look after it. If I think that education is better I might send them both to school and if the girl decides to complete her study, I might allow her to do so. But if I feel that she could be raped or conceive before getting married, I will withdraw her from school.

Why do you withdraw your daughter in particular from school?
Now, for example, there are some rude things going on there. So I ask my daughter if she wants to stay on or drop out of school. If she wants to continue her studies or drop out of school, she can make her decision and I will abide by it.

How do you communicate messages around here?
When a baby is to be baptised, we say so and so has delivered a baby and you should come and bless your child. When someone dies, a person climbs the hill and calls out another person and says so and so has an accident or passed away and that you should announce this to the people over there. The other person does the same. When it is a wedding, we send a messenger a week or a fortnight or a month in advance to friends and relatives and when he reaches there he will tell them in private that they should come on such and such a day and bless their son or daughter. When a woman is going to deliver a baby, they call out to the person and tell him or her that so and so is in labour, and then the other one rushes to her house.

What kind of message or news do you consider as most useful to you and is received with eagerness?
If it is a meeting we say to each other let us go and see what kind of official would come or what he has to say. The meeting may be about land distribution or work or election. When the participants return from the meeting we ask them what the discussion was about or what they were told at the meeting. It could be about the replacement of the local officials.

Is there anyone in your area who has a radio?
No one has a radio here. When someone gets money and goes to the market he may buy a radio, but he sells it when he is broke.
Section 10
How far have you travelled away from here?
I have travelled for ten or eleven hours for a funeral or a happy occasion, but never a distance longer than that.

How far has the Chinese-built road changed your life?
Our fathers used to travel through the Keskes desert to attend court hearings in Addis Ababa or Dessie and they used to stay away for a fortnight or a month or even two months. Now the Chinese road has made it possible to travel by car to Dessie or Addis Ababa and return within a short time.

Which government made it possible for this road to be built?
I donít know whether it was Haile Sellassie or others [the road was built by the Dergís initiation].

Did this road exist at the time of Haile Sellassie?
No, it was built during the time of the Derg. There was no road for vehicles from Dessie to here during the time of Haile Sellassie.
[Actually there was an all weather road from Dessie to Gonder and Bahir Dar during the period of Emperor Haile Sellassie.]