Ethiopia glossary








traditional midwife


Gebeya Meda (highlands)


August 1997



Section 1
This woman welcomed me warmly and was happy to answer my questions. However, her attention was diverted because the dough she had prepared for baking buhe (small wheat loaves) overflowed and she had to clean it up. So I had to pause the cassette recorder frequently when there were interruptions. Nevertheless, the woman always resumed from where we stopped and responded to the questions. I was amazed by the womanís wisdom and her ability to recall things.

How did your locality change and what brought the changes?
In the old days, one used to harvest 30 to 80 donkey-loads of yield from one farm. Our parents used all that for consumption and we were brought up lavishly. They prepared feasts for Mahber and Senbetie and weddings. Now all that has been exhausted and the land has become barren and less productive.

What caused the changes?
The land was not giving enough yield. So the government told us to use fertiliser, but the people have become impoverished. When you plant the seeds, they donít grow up. I myself used to milk three cows. My neighbours can tell you that. Now I have just one. The livestock have nothing to graze. The starvation is driving people into migration. There used to be forests around here and the sheep, goats and cattle used to be let loose to graze in the wilderness, but the later generation cut down the trees and destroyed the forests. People used to share land and property from their relatives in the old days, now there is nothing to share. Now the land is distributed by measuring with ropes. In the old days, one farmer used to cultivate 7-10 plots of land. And the children used to be married off in a lavish wedding, but all that is over.

What effect did it have on you when land was distributed by measuring it with ropes?
The share of land you got became very small. The children are not getting any land because they were regarded as under-aged. So my plot of land is not enough to feed my seven children. So hunger forced them to serve others as housemaids and shepherds and I am grieved by this. Only three out of my 10 children got land. I had to be separated from them before my love for them was satisfied.

What is the market condition like?
I myself had seen in the past a qunna (large grass basket holding about 10kg) of cereal being bought for just 50 cents. What you bought for just a birr used to feed the whole family then. Now one small tin of grain costs 3 birr. In the old days we cultivated and consumed barley, wheat, horse beans, peas and oats. Now we consume dagusa (finger millet), maize, and maize flour called semsem - we never knew these before.
Section 2
What kind of useful activities are being carried out in your locality?
They tell us to protect the forest, to form credit associations, and to feed grass to the livestock by buying it. However, this rope-measured land is not giving any yield. They tell us to plant potato seeds, to borrow money on credit and trade coffee, to buy oxen and cultivate the land. Some have started doing that. My potatoes have grown leaves and I am just waiting for the seeds.

If these development activities continue, how do you expect your locality to change in the coming 20 years?
I expect to see my children use the seeds given by the government and grow fruits and protect the forest and support themselves instead of working for others. I want to see them throw away these rags and wear better clothes, and live in houses with roofs of corrugated iron sheets.

How is the interaction among members of the community and relatives here?
We are members of the Senbetie. We go to Church on Sundays because we commemorate St. Mary, St. Michael, St. John, through our Senbetie. At this time we greet each other and chat. When we baptise our daughters on the 80th day and our sons on the 40th day, we invite our friends and relatives. They come and bless our children. When we marry off our sons at the age of 38 or 25, we prepare feasts for the wedding and we invite our friends and kinsmen. They help us with the work and we entertain each other. The Mahber is an association for commemorating our patron saints such as St. Michael and St. George once a month. We brew tella (locally brewed beer) and drink and eat together with our members and relatives. All this was when we had plenty of crops and the yield was good then. Now we are left with only plain maize. The priests tell us just to believe in the saints and mark the occasion with the simplest food and drink.

Are these social practices abandoned now?

What were marriage and divorce like in the past?
In the old days a couple can have two children. If she divorced him she takes away at least an ox and three cows, a donkey and goats. Now she leaves two children with her husband and goes away with three other children. She shares nothing else, for they are all poor. If a man has a concubine he used to give her ten birr and a donkey load of cereal as a gift when he visited her. Now he only gives her a child and she cries cursing her fate. If a woman married in the old days, she begot children but she also had wealth and led a conformable life. Now if a girl doesnít have at least a sheep or an old ox or a donkey, she wonít get a husband. May be she will beget someoneís bastard. It is all hopeless nowadays.

How do parents communicate their family history to their children? What are the changes in this respect?
I tell my children that I used to live with my parents in the lowlands where oat, wheat, and horse beans were grown. My father had a lot of land and we used to ride horses. I married and came here to the highland where children live hanging on precipices like monkeys. It is a hard life here. That is what I tell them. If I donít tell my son about his great-grandfathers, grandfathers and father, someone could easily attack and victimise him, but if he knows who his kinsmen are, he can get their support.
Section 3
What kind of attitude do people have towards each other?
Muslims and Christians do not have a close relationship; we live quite apart. Today men do not dare to order women about. She answers him back by telling him that she is his equal and that he can do nothing to her. In the old days, we used to grind the grain, gin cotton, and when the husband came home we were worried about what to serve him for a meal. Now he cannot beat his wife let alone kill her. One no longer takes another personís wife. There is no such crime now. When there was someone who was disabled we were ordered by the government to help them and we took them into our homes by turns to feed them.

How are the people of Meket differentiated from other people?
The people are Christians, they are both highlanders and lowlanders, and their clothes and dialects are different. The Christians have Senbetie and Mahber, and when the Ark of the Covenant is carried out of the church for a celebration the people bring injera (thin pancake of fermented teff) and stew as ordered by the priests for the festival.

Which one do you give more respect to in your culture?
We believe in St. Michael and St. John. We mark their days through our Senbetie and Mahber. We celebrate Epiphany with songs and dances and we buy new clothes for our children for the holiday.

How did you acquire your present skills?
The government chose me to be a midwife and to teach women how to control birth using the methods of day counts, loops and the application of condoms, the benefits of family planning and having a lesser number of children. I also advise the men to use condoms, but they are reluctant to do so.

Which of your skills are you most proud of?
Giving birth between long intervals. During our days, most of us gave birth at intervals of two years. I gave birth at intervals of three years. When some women gave birth at intervals of just one year, the children were often given to relatives for upbringing.

Do you know of anyone in your village who has received modern education?
There is a new school built over here by the Qire (traditional funeral association) and our children are learning there. We too go there and learn how to weave carpets, and make baskets. The people like it. We used to sign with our thumbs, now we are given pens, pencils and exercise books for writing the lessons and we now know how to write and sign our names.

What do you think about giving your children modern education?
My daughter has learnt how to give birth at long intervals. One of my sons could have benefited by learning how to read and write, but the scarcity of land has forced me to put him in the service of another household. One is attending a secular school.
Section 4
How do you exchange messages now and does it differ from the past?
Nowadays we use letters to announce funerals or the baptism of a baby, but in the old days one had to call out and announce the message by shouting it aloud. The difference therefore is that we now use written messages.

Have you ever travelled outside your village?
Yes, I had travelled on horse back in the past. Those who did not have this option travelled on foot and some caught diseases during the journey. All you did then was take him some food when you visit him, for there was no injection then. If he is lucky you would be cured. Now the government has built roads everywhere and you can travel by car to wherever medical treatment is available and with Godís will, you can be cured. In those days, if you suffered from syphilis or gonorrhoea, you just washed it with water. There was no AIDS then. Now the Chinese have built this road and you can travel by car and get treatment or an injection in a government health centre. The children can also be vaccinated. Mothers are also benefiting now.

Has there been famine or drought in your area?
Yes, there was drought (famine) in 1984/85. Many people died on the streets and in the towns at that time. We survived because we had livestock which we sold one by one, my husband bought a small amount of food grain, and I prepared nettles and cabbages for food. Some people were taken for resettlement and just a few of them were able to save their lives. Now we buy and consume finger millets.

What is your view of birth control and family planning?
I support the practice because it is more useful to give birth at longer intervals. Now the people are demanding that a health centre be built in our village for child and mother health care. They ask me what medical instrument I have brought from the town instead a rag of cloth for cleaning the vagina and a blade for cutting the umbilical cord of a newborn baby. What we have learnt now is how to cultivate potatoes and how to give birth at longer intervals.