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Ethiopia: a brief history

debre-birhan-selassie-church15A little less than a thousand years before Christ, Ethiopians say, the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon of the Jews. That much is in the Bible. But they go on to say that she had a son by him, named Menelik, who became king of Ethiopia, ruling from the city of Axum. He brought the Ark of the Covenant with him.

However much of that is true, we do know that it was just then that people crossed the Red Sea from Sheba in Arabia and founded what we know as Ethiopia. And Axum did become the seat of an empire, one that grew rich from  trade going through the Red Sea between India and the Mediterranean. As for the Ark, they say it is still there in Axum.

Axum reached the height of its power between the years 300 and 600. In 330 King Ezana became an Orthodox Christian and made it the religion of Axum. In the 600s Axum held out against the Arab Empire and the spread of Islam. But right after that Ethiopia sank into a dark age for 500 years.

In 1137 the Zagwe kings came to power. One of them, Lalibela, built 11 churches cut right into the rock at his capital.

In 1270 Yekuno Amlak overthrew the Zagwe kings and made himself king. He said his family goes back to King Solomon, so his line of kings is called the Solomonid. It ruled Ethiopia till 1975.

In the 1500s the Portuguese tried to bring Ethiopia over to Roman Catholicism. In 1622 the emperor himself, Susenyos, became Catholic. That led to a civil war between Catholics and the Orthodox. When his son Fasilidas took over he shut the country off from Westerners. He moved the capital to Gondar. There he built his palace and a beautiful church.

In the late 1800s Menelik II brought in Western inventions and took over neighbouring countries to bring Ethiopia to its present size. In 1896 he defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adowa. It saved Ethiopia from becoming a European colony during the Scramble for Africa.

The Italians came back and won in 1936, with the help of poison gas, but were thrown out in 1941.

In 1975 Marxists called the Derg overthrew Haile Sellasie, the last emperor. They killed thousands in the Red Terror soon after. The country sank into civil war and famine. Over a million died. The Derg hung on to power with help from the Russians and Cubans. They were overthrown at last in 1991 by the freedom fighters of Tigray, who still rule the country.

Eritrea broke away at that time, but without agreeing on its border with Ethiopia. That led to war in 1998 in which 80,000 died. Peace was made in 2000 but still without a clear border.

In 2006 Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia to overthrow the Islamists there who threatend a holy war. In 2009 they completed pulling out their troops,  but now they seem to be back there again.

– Abagond, 2009.

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Oromia

et-oromoOromia is one of the largest countries in Africa and yet few have heard of it – because it is inside another country, Ethiopia. Ethiopia was created as the empire of the Amhara. It is made up out of five or so other countries. The largest of these is the land of the Oromo, Oromia. It lies at the centre of Ethiopia and extends to the south and to the west. It is bigger than France but has only half as many people, about 30 million. In our own time it has become the scene of genocide.

OromiaRegionMapThe Oromo are much like the Somalis in language, custom and race. They speak Oromo, one of the top ten of the thousand languages of Africa. While the Somalis live in the eastern end of the Horn of Africa, the Oromo live just to the west of them in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. But while nearly all Somalis are Muslim, only half of the Oromo are: the other half are Christians, though some do still practise the native Oromo religion.

Most were herdsmen raising cows until the 1800s. Many still are, but now most are small-time farmers, a change that began in the 1800s. Trade also increased then. That gave great power and wealth to those who could control it, so in the early 1800s Oromia was ruled by warlords. Then in the late 1800s the Amhara took over and made Oromia a part of their country, Abyssinia, now called Ethiopia.

OromoWomanIt was not enough for the Amhara simply to rule, collect taxes and keep the peace. They went beyond that. They saw the Oromo as savages, as backwards and violent. They tried to make them into good Amharas, speaking the Amharic tongue and worshipping in Orthodox Christian churches. Amharic became the language that school was taught in (till 1995). Some Oromo were ordered to become Christians or lose their land. The Amhara outlawed the practice of the old Oromo religion. They also outlawed the Oromo flag of black, red and white (pictured above).

The Amhara broke down Oromo society to weaken it – although it had already been weakening under the warlords. They sent settlers to live on Oromo land and wrote in their history books that it was the Oromo, not they, who were the newcomers to the region.

Losing one’s Oromo ways and taking on Amhara ways became the way to get ahead. Most of those who did not remained poor – probably proof to some that Oromo ways are backward.

A third of Christians in Oromia are not Orthodox but Protestant. That is high for Ethiopia, but part of the appeal of Protestant Christianity is that it is not the Amhara sort of Christianity.

People like to point out how Ethiopia largely avoided becoming a colony of the European empires – it was ruled by Italy for only five years. But to the Oromo the black man merely took the place of the white man. And he is still there.

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Life in Ethiopia

OromoGirl

Warning: This post is based on Western sources circa 1998.

If you were an ordinary person in Ethiopia, what would life be like? Ethiopia has towns and even big cities, but most live in the country – and most are also Christian – so I take that point of view in what follows:

Work: Men farm, women cook, keep their children clean and looking nice, pound grain into flour and look for cow dung and wood for the family fire. Older girls look after children, older boys look after sheep. Most families  have about a hectare of land (less than three acres). All water has to be carried back from the nearby well, something that falls to women or children.

Work hours: Men work 80 hours a week, women 126 hours. You are supposed to take Saturdays and Sundays off, but how many do?

Pay: $123 a year (in 1998. That comes to 3 crowns a month, which is just what shepherds made in Shakespeare’s time). Most Ethiopians grow their own food, build their own houses and so on. Their wealth is in their animals: cows, chickens, sheep, etc. Like Jack in the Beanstalk, they sell one when they need money – for things like salt, coffee, oil, pots and clothing.

Housing: A small, two-room house. One room to store food, the other room for everything else. There is a fire that is always going. No electricity or running water.

Transport: Walking. The nearest market is one to three hours away on foot.

Dress: You have one change of clothing, maybe even ill-fitting, second-hand clothing at that.  If you go to school, you get a second change.

Food: Bread, maybe with egg and vegetables. Meat on special occasions. Everyone eats from the same dish with their fingers.

Family life: Families are big. Ethiopian women have about seven children. As a child you grow up near your cousins, aunts and uncles.

Holidays: Christmas, the Baptism of Jesus, Good Friday, Easter and the Feast of the Cross.

Education: Only a fourth of all children regularly go to school. School is free, but schoolbooks, school supplies and school clothes are not!  Early schooling is in your own language, but to go further you need to know Amharic or even English because that is what the books are written in!

Entertainment: Mainly visiting and storytelling. Most people cannot read and have no electricity. Men like to sit, drink coffee and talk.

It could be worse and sometimes it is:

  • Famine: Having little money and growing all your own food means that when the rains do not come it gets very bad: you can water only so much of your land by hand and sell only so many of your animals to buy food. A million people died this way in the 1980s.
  • Genocide and civil war: Ethiopia is in effect an empire, so for most people their land is ruled by foreigners, and evil ones at that who are not above wiping out your kind. A quarter million have died this way in the last 60 years.

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Ethiopia (ኢትዮጵያ)

etEthiopia (980 BC- ), or ኢትዮጵያ (ʾĪtyōṗṗyā), is one of the oldest countries in the world, and one of the few in Africa that fought off a long period of European rule. The Italians ruled it but only briefly, from 1936 to 1941. It is also one of the oldest Christian countries, becoming Christian in the 300s.

It is somewhat bigger than Egypt in land and people. It is very poor, a land broken and torn by war, genocide, famine and disease. It has only one television station and fewer than 1% get the Internet. Most people are herdsmen or small-time farmers with about a hectare of land (less than 3 acres). Most cannot read.

Many depend on food coming from the West, partly because of the lack of rain, partly because of failed government policies in the past. The government is trying to move two million to better land.

Over a million people are HIV-positive and at least 120,000 have died of Aids.

The government is a democracy, they say, but the same party always wins at election time. The press is not free and the leaders of other parties often get thrown into prison. Judges are not independent. Ethiopia has had the same prime minister, Meles Zenawi, for over 13 years.

Ethiopia was an empire created by the Amhara, the Abyssinians. It is made up of five main countries: Amhara itself, Tigray, Oromia, Afar and Ogaden (called Somali on some maps).

Amhara is in the north and Tigray in the far north. Both are Christian (Orthodox) and both speak Semitic languages that come from Ge’ez, the ancient tongue of Ethiopia, a cousin of Arabic.

Afar is in the east, Oromia in the south and Ogaden in the south-east. They speak Cushitic languages, like most people in the Horn of Africa. The people in Ogaden are Somali. In fact in 1978 Somalia sent its army into Ogaden, but was fought off with the help of Russian arms and Cuban troops. Afar and Ogaden are Muslim while Oromia is half Muslim and half Christian.

In the south-west are the tribes of the Omo valley. Some women there wear lip plates.

About 250,000 have died in genocides since the 1940s, particularly the Oromo.

Religion: Overall a third of Ethiopians are Muslim, a few follow native religions while most are Christians (60%). Most Christians are Orthodox, but some in the west are Protestants. There were about 200,000 Ethiopian Jews, but most left for Israel in 1984 and 1991.

Marxists called the Derg overthrew the emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1974. The Red Terror followed where Mengistu killed thousands of his enemies. His lack of wisdom along with a lack of rain meant that a million died for want of food in the 1980s. Both Eritrea and Tigray fought against him. In 1991 Eritrea broke away and Tigray overthrew the government.

In the late 1990s Ethiopia fought a war  it could ill afford against Eritrea over a land dispute, which still is not settled. In 2006 it sent troops into Somalia to overthrow Islamists who promised a holy war against Ethiopia. It did not completely pull out its troops till 2009.

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