An Ethiopian Journal

"Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters"

Ethiopic Bible

with 3 comments


Ethiopic Bible Selections – Introduction

This lavishly illustrated 17th-century manuscript contains the first eight books of the Old Testament (the Octateuch), the four Gospels, and several canons of church councils. It is written in a small elegant script with decorative borders and devices and has many lively illustrations in bold colours.

The Ethiopian church was one of five Oriental Orthodox churches which rejected the council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., thus forming a separate tradition from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. At the time this manuscript was produced, Ethiopia was undergoing a religious and artistic revival. The volume is a faithful copy of a 15th-century manuscript, and was probably commissioned by Emperor Iyasu (ruled 1682-1706). Historical notes in the manuscript suggest it was copied for the church of Debra Berhan Selassie, which remains one of Ethiopia’s most well-known churches.

The manuscript is part of the Magdala Collection, which was given to the British Museum library [now the British Library] by the Secretary of State for India in 1868. The collection had been assembled by the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros [King Theodore] in the fortress of Magdala, which fell into British hands following a battle against Theodore in 1867.

The volume retains its original binding of stamped leather-covered wood, lined with silk cloth.

The inside cover is lined with silk cloth. The manuscript begins with a colophon or statement, which contains a letter from John, Patriarch of Alexandria, to King Iyasu I written by a later hand, dated 1743. The volume contains copies of many deeds of grants and donations made to churches and monasteries in Ethiopia by three rulers: Iyasu I (ruled 1682-1706); Iyasu II (ruled 1739-1740) and Sahla Dengel (ruled 1832-1840).

The manuscript is written in classical Ethiopian, known as Ge’ez, which survives today only as a church language. Ethiopian is a Semitic language, in the same group of languages as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. The ancient Ethiopians borrowed the basic parts of their letters from Arabic. These 26 basic letters only expressed consonants so a system of short lines and circles were added to the letters to mark vowels. The consonant forms were also modified. In modern Ethiopian, Amharic, there are seven forms of each letter, each expressing a consonant and vowel, for example he, hu, hi, ha, he, ho or ke, ku, ki, ka, ke, ko. Uniquely among Semitic languages, Ethiopian is written from left to right. Punctuation marks in the text are as follows – words are divided by :, sentences are divided by ::, and paragraphs by ::=::.

The pigments used in the painting were limited and consisted mainly of red cinnabar (red mercury sulphide), yellow orpiment (arsenious trisulphide), charcoal, white chalk and indigo blue, a plant extract. All were local to Ethiopia, except the indigo, which was imported from India. The pigments were mixed with an animal protein, forming a tempera, which was applied directly to the prepared sheet.

The main text is written in black ink made of gum, water, gallnuts, and strong acid, while the titles and necessary rubrics are written in red ink. An ancient recipe for making ink is set out in an Ethiopian manuscript of the ninth century. It instructs: “Take 2/3 oz of gall-nut, pound it, and put it in a new pot. Pour on it a quart and a half of water and boil it till one third evaporates, then strain it through a coarse cloth, and put it back in a pot on the fire. Take 1/3 oz of gum Arabic and pound it till it becomes like dust. Let the water cool; then take the gum Arabic and throw it in little by little. Take an ounce of copper and pound it very fine and throw it in. Then put it (the pot) on the fire again until it boils. Then take it off, put it in a bottle, and let it stand forthree days.”

The structure of an Ethiopian manuscript

The thick parchment of this volume is made of either goatskin or sheepskin. A manuscript of this length would require the skins of 120 goats – one goat provides enough skin to make only two leaves. The cost of the parchment was the most expensive aspect of sponsoring such a manuscript. After the skin had been prepared, small holes were pricked along the edges of the parchment using a template to mark the position of each line and column of text. A blunt instrument, such as the back of a knife, was used to score faint lines joining the holes to guide the scribe. The pens are made of a type of tall reed. The width of the pen nib dictated the size of the script used. Different pens were used for red and black inks. A book of this size would take a scribe about eight months to complete.

When the writing and painting was completed, the individual sections (between six to sixteen) were sewn together between wooden boards. This volume is almost square in format, which was typical of 17th-century books. The sewing thread is made of animal tendons. The key feature is the use of independent pairs of link-stitch sewing to join the section together and attach them directly to the outer wooden boards.

Olive wood was used for the covers. Occasionally the boards were covered in cowhide and dyed red or reddish brown before being pasted over the wood. Decorative patterns were often stamped on the leather using heated iron finishing tools. The inside covers were then lined with woven multi-coloured fabrics. The design of the fabric in this manuscript is made up of horizontal bands against a white background.

Moses and the Book of Genesis

The manuscript begins with the first eight books of the Hebrew Old Testament, known as the Octateuch. This opening contains the title page of the first book, Genesis. Christianity developed out of Judaism, and is a religion firmly based in history. It has its origin in the Old Covenant that God made with the Israelites described in the Old Testament, and develops into the New Covenant with the birth of Jesus as the Son of God as related in the four Gospels. The Old Testament Law, like the Qu’ran, was a series of revelations made to the prophets, but the heart of Christianity is not the Bible as a book, but the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Aksumite kingdom of Ethiopia converted to Christianity in around 340 A.D. The town of Aksum is in Tegray, and is called the Holy City by the Ethiopians for its church of Maryam Seyon or Aksum Seyon, in which the Tablets of Moses or the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Early chroniclers attribute the founding of the kingdom to Menilek I, the legendary son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ezana, Aksum’s fourth-century king, decreed Christianity as the state religion. He built the huge stone stelae whose inscriptions give the history of his reign. One of these stelae was taken to Rome by the Italians as booty from their 1936 invasion. This stela was returned to Aksum in 2005. Traditionally, the Christianisation of Ethiopia is attributed to Frumentius (later known as Abuna Salama Kasate Berhan), who was ordained and consecrated as the first bishop of Ethiopia by Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria. Frumentius served as bishop from 328 to his death in 373.

The Bible was translated into Ge’ez, the classical language of the Ethiopian church, in the fifth century. The original translations of the Bible from the Greek were later revised on the basis of Arabic or Syro-Arabic texts to produce a spoken language version known as the “modern recension”.

Facing the title page is an illustration of the Old Testament prophet Moses receiving the Tablet of Laws from God. Moses has a special place in the Ethiopian church. He is seen as a figure of primary importance in linking the two covenants, the Old and the New, and has special authority as the receiver of the Law.

At the top of the page is a particular type of illumination called a harag, which in Ge’ez means the tendril of a climbing plant. A harag is made of bands of coloured lines interlaced in a geometrical pattern and is used to frame a page in an Ethiopian manuscript. The characteristic feature of a harag is that each is noticeably different from any other, even within the same manuscript. These differences distinguish the characteristic features of different regions or periods. For example, one clear distinction between the harag of the 14th and 15th centuries can be made on the basis of whether black or red is used for the outline. The harag of the 14th century are richly coloured with yellows, red, greens, blues, and greys, the enclosed black outlines acting as background to enhance the chromatic effect. In the 15th century, only yellow, grey, and red are used, along with the neutral colour of the parchment as a background.



Written by Tseday

September 12, 2008 at 10:01 pm

Ethiopic Gospels

with 3 comments

This striking manuscript comes from the oldest independent country in Africa. It was commissioned in the late 1600s by the emperor for use in his royal city of Gondar. Generously illuminated with distinctive miniature paintings and highly decorative coloured borders, this is one of the most beautiful of the Library’s Ethiopian manuscripts. Its many illustrations include Moses, Aaron, Ruth, Eusebius, John and Carpanius, scenes from the life of Christ, and portraits of the Evangelists.
Ethiopic Gospels: Annunciation to Zacharias – The Gospel of St Luke begins with a description of the events surrounding the birth of St. John the Baptist. According to his account Zacharias, a priest, was burning incense in the Temple of the Lord when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told Zacharias that he would have a son, who would ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ (Luke 1: 17). This event is shown here: Zacharias is on the right, holding a censer. The Temple in Jerusalem is shown as if it were a circular, Ethiopian church. Inside, both the angel and Zacharias hold staves with crosses, similar to the processional crosses that are used in Ethiopian services. Ostriches on either side of the roof recall pairs of peacocks in images representing the Fountain of Life, often represented in Canon tables.

What is a gospel?

A gospel recounts the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, which form the foundations of the Christian faith. Jesus lived in Israel during the Roman occupation of the country. His claim that he was the Messiah caused the conflict with led to his crucifixion by the Roman authorities.

After his death by crucifixion and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ – meaning ‘the anointed one’ – developed his teachings into a new faith, independent of Judaism but keeping much of its scriptures. Several gospels had been written by disciples of Jesus during the centuries following his death, but only four were authorised by the Council of Nicaea in 325 for inclusion in the Christian Bible. These four were attributed to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, who are known as the Four Evangelists.

Christianity took root slowly in Ethiopia from the third decade of the 4th century. Some 150 years later, missionaries from Syria translated the Bible into Ethiopic. The Islamic conquest of neighbouring Egypt in 640-641 isolated Ethiopia from other Christian countries for the best part of a millennium. The Ethiopic Church was able to maintain only tenuous links with the rest of Christianity through the Coptic Church in Egypt, which managed to survive under its country’s Islamic rulers.

Why are the Ethiopic Gospels important?

Besides the Four Gospels, this manuscript also contains the first eight books of the Old Testament – scriptures inherited from Judaism – and other religious texts. The Bible of the Ethiopic Church preserved some writings that were rejected or lost by other Churches, such as the ‘Book of Jubilees’, the ‘Third Book of Ezra’ and the ‘Apocalypse of St Peter’. The Ethiopic Bible has a total of 84 books, compared to the 66 books of the King James, or Authorised, Version of the Bible. Some of these are translations from Greek, Syriac and Coptic texts no longer known in their original languages.

Who made this manuscript?

Neither the scribe who copied the text nor the artist who painted the miniatures is named. However, historical notes added to the manuscript suggest it was made for a church of the Emperor Iyasu I Yohannes. Art Christian art and learning flourished in the city of Gondar during his reign from 1682 to 1706. This manuscript was probably intended for its most beautiful church, Dabra Birham Selasse, meaning ‘Mount of the Light of the Trinity’. It was dedicated in 1694 and stands on high ground just outside the city, enclosed by tall walls. The interior is spectacularly painted with biblical subjects in distinctive Gondaran style.

This copy of the Ethiopic Gospels is a replica of a precious illuminated manuscript from the early 15th century. It was written and decorated in Gondar, or perhaps at the mountain monastery of Ambra Geshen. The text is in Classical Ethiopic, or Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian Church. Together with Assyrian and Babylonian, it differs from all other Semitic languages in being written from left to right, rather than right to left as in Arabic and Hebrew. The scribe’s small elegant script is typical of the late 17th century.

Written by Tseday

September 12, 2008 at 7:05 pm

9/11 Ethiopian New Year

leave a comment »

Wishing all Ethiopians a Happy New Year 
May 2001 bring us Peace

Enkutatash is the word for the Ethiopian new year in the official language of Ethiopia: Amharic. It represents the first day of the New Year in Ethiopia. It occurs on Meskerem 1 on the Ethiopian calendar, which is September 11 (or, during a leap year, September 12) according to the Gregorian calendar.

Literally, Enkutatash means ‘Gift of Jewels’. The date traditionally marks the end of the season of heavy rains and is more recently or historically set by the return of the Queen of Sheba to Ethiopia after her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem.

We are in 2008 on the Gregorian calendar, it is now 2001 on the Ethiopian calendar.

New Year Wish in Amharic

New Year Wish in Amharic


Written by Tseday

September 11, 2008 at 6:21 pm

Posted in Ethiopia

Tagged with

Haiti – The politics of rice – 04 Jul 08

with one comment

Inside USA travels to Haiti to look at how the stories of politics, rice and the US are deeply interwoven.

Written by Tseday

September 10, 2008 at 4:31 am

Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity, faces up to family planning

leave a comment »

Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity, faces up to family planning
By Paul Rauber | Photography by Ian Berry/Magnum
July/August 2008


BEFORE GETTING OFF THE PLANE in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I’d dismissed as weird romanticism the notion that one’s first visit to Africa can stir oddly powerful emotions. But here I am, tearing up on the tarmac at the thought of being back where our human experiment began. After all, it was nearby in the Awash valley that Lucy, the 3.2 million–year–old mother of us all, was unearthed. Scientists no longer call her our oldest ancestor, but most agree these dry African plains are where we became human.

Not that Ethiopia feels like home; it is more like an alternate universe. Signs along the road from the airport welcome the new millennium, which didn’t arrive here until last summer. (The rest of the world had switched to the standard Gregorian calendar by the 18th century, but Ethiopia has stuck with the Julian system, which runs about eight years behind.) Even the clocks are different, with the numbers starting at the bottom rather than the top, so Ethiopian one o’clock is our seven.

The dominant language is Amharic, with its own space-alien alphabet. Such iconoclasm is partly a result of the fact that, alone among African nations, Ethiopia was never colonized. The Italians tried and failed, but when Ethiopia finally kicked them out, it kept their spluttering, wheezing espresso machines. The birthplace of humanity, it turns out, is also the birthplace of coffee and appreciates a good macchiato.

Without even the benefits of caffeine, Lucy’s children went forth from the Awash valley and multiplied, populating the earth and not neglecting their native land. (Ethiopians, a very handsome people, have better cause than many to procreate.) The country’s population has quintupled in the past 70 years to 77 million, and demographers expect it to more than double again by 2050. Its fertility rate is one of the highest in the world, with an average of 5.4 children per woman. The consequences are predictably severe, both for the country’s natural environment and the health of all those kids, half of whom are undernourished. (The starving children of Ethiopia our parents invoked to get us to clean our plates are still hungry.)

Even so, the previous Marxist dictatorship forbade even talk of family planning. The current regime readily acknowledges its necessity but lacks the means to pay for it. The enormous need, coupled with Ethiopia’s relative lack of corruption, has made the country a laboratory for innovative family-planning efforts financed by foreign organizations including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). That’s why I’m here with a delegation of population activists from the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society: to see how Mother Africa is providing for her many offspring.

The prickly euphorbia in the foreground surround and protect a young fruit tree. Along with contraceptives, education, and healthcare, selling fruit gives local women the opportunity to better provide for their children.

MY FIRST MISSION IS TO OBTAIN an Ethiopian press credential–something “strongly urged” by U.S. officials, who pointed out that the country’s still-authoritarian government has a lamentable record of press freedom. After much haggling, I secure a cab to the Ministry of Information and plunge into the vehicular chaos of Addis Ababa’s rush hour. My shuddering Russian Lada taxi jostles along with heavily laden jitneys, trucks piled high with firewood to feed millions of home fires, and young men driving cattle and goats down the central thoroughfare. The air is thick with diesel exhaust. Even though the average American produces 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and the average Ethiopian only a tenth of a ton, I’m thinking that next to my taxi driver I’m looking pretty good.

When I emerge several hours later from the crumbling Soviet-style highrise of the Ministry of Information, my driver is still waiting. (Apparently I hadn’t driven as hard a bargain with him as I’d imagined.) Figuring that since I was now credentialed I might as well do some journalism, I inquire about my driver’s sex life. Yes, he is married and has one boy. His wife uses contraceptives from a local clinic. What does he think of Addis? “Too big.” The government says 3 million people; this guy says at least 6 million. And it’s too expensive: He pays $100 a month for a lousy one-room apartment. Any more kids on the way? “Maybe in two, three years. Maybe one more. But that’s all.” What with food, clothes, and school, he says, it just costs too much. Call it free-market family planning.

WHILE ADDIS ABABA IS A HUGE, sprawling slum with barely existent sanitation, a spotty water supply, and rampant unemployment, crime, and disease, it has a lot going for it compared with the countryside. In the city, the government provides family-planning services and education, which is a type of family planning itself: Here as elsewhere, uneducated women have three times as many children as women who get at least some secondary schooling. Morning and afternoon streets swirl with drifting and eddying streams of students in their bright school sweaters: yellow, maroon, baby blue.

Unlike many developing countries, however, Ethiopia explicitly discourages migration into its capital, with the result that 85 percent of its people still live in the countryside, spread everywhere humans might possibly live. Fields are planted on the steep slopes of hills, in the turmoil of freshly cleared forests, or terraced in precipitous canyons. The universal use of wood for fuel has reduced the country’s forest cover to less than 3 percent, and most of that is eucalyptus plantations. Native woods survive only in odd, protected corners–one of the oddest being the huge grounds of the British embassy in Addis, the largest embassy in the world outside the U.S. behemoth in Baghdad.

Through the arcane fellowship that links birders all over the world, one of our colleagues from Audubon–which, like the Sierra Club, has many members devoted to population issues–wangles us an invitation to tour the embassy grounds, guided by the wife of a U.K. diplomat. It is (for the nonbirder) a blur of speckled mousebirds, white-cheeked turacos, tacazze sunbirds, and blue-breasted bee-eaters as we wander among the comfortable stone residences, well supplied with lawn bowling and croquet pitches, not to mention lovely verandas and arbors for one’s afternoon gin and tonic. Farther up the hill, however, the trimmed lawns give way to thick forest, and our host begins to look concerned. “We’re encroaching on leopard territory now,” she says, peering intently into the underbrush. Apparently a number of leopards have managed to slip past the double row of razor-wire-tipped fence surrounding the embassy and have thus far eaten all but two of the compound’s domestic cats. At night, she says, they prowl around the perimeter watchtowers, while guards huddle above and hyenas gather on the far side of the fence. Even now the sky is full of white-backed vultures and other carrion eaters. If we really want to see scavenger birds, our host recommends a visit to the local abattoir, or slaughterhouse, provided we can stand the smell. A night visit might even yield a hyena sighting. Darn the luck, we have to leave early the next morning.

WE TRAVEL SOUTH ON A FINE NEW ROAD, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China (which is currying favor through roadbuilding and infrastructure projects all over East Africa). Vibrant images swirl past: rainbow-hued fruit stands; mountains of charcoal; hundreds of white-veiled worshippers and mendicants crowding around an Ethiopian Orthodox church, listening to the prayers via loudspeaker; and lines of unrefrigerated meat markets with fresh carcasses on hooks and butchers with big knives at the ready. Despite its extreme poverty, Ethiopia is a very carnivorous country. In the countryside, livestock is wealth, and everywhere child shepherds brandishing sticks watch over goats, sheep, cattle, and donkeys. While the poor subsist on chickpeas and spongy injera bread, anyone who can afford to dines on meat. The result is that nearly all land not given to cultivation is pasture, and most of that is severely overgrazed. The elephants and rhinos that used to roam here are, for the most part, long gone, crowded out by domesticated biomass.

Once past the Sino-Ethiopian Friendship Society industrial parks that crowd the outskirts of Addis, we descend toward the Rift Valley, and the landscape turns to classic East Africa savanna: rolling grasslands dotted with trees and family compounds ringed with thornbushes (a safe corral for the livestock at night). The houses are circular mud huts roofed with thatch or occasionally corrugated tin–the only feature distinguishing this millennium from any other. The birders point out a flock of white storks–the archetypal northern European chimney nester and baby deliverer–settling in a field. (Europe’s populations of both storks and humans are in decline, but baby deliveries are still going strong in Ethiopia.)

At a tired resort by a mud brown lake, we break for lunch. An African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) prowls the resort’s perimeter, the mitochondrial mama of every domestic puss on the planet. Except for a slightly leonine cast of the head, the cat is indistinguishable from Scabby, the feral tabby who hangs out in my Berkeley, California, backyard. If Lucy had a cat, this would be it.

I walk back toward the main road along a dusty dirt track, children crowding around begging for a scripto (pen) or proffering crude soapstone carvings of the cars and trucks they see passing them by on the way to another century. Outside a dusty shack, a tiny boy with a distended belly wanders aimlessly, alone. Luckily for him, the predator population in this part of the world is much reduced.

As we descend from the high Abyssinian plain, the vegetation becomes more lush and the population denser. Outside the Rastafarian community of Shashemene (Emperor Haile Selassie gave a nearby valley to his Jamaican fans), we find a few remnant patches of native forests–and thus colobus and vervet monkeys and a wild profusion of birds. In a bustling village called Wondo Genet, a stream doubles as a laundry and car wash. Folks are beautified in open shops, peddlers sell mildly narcotic khat leaves, and lively Ping-Pong battles rage at three tables. (More tokens of Sino-Ethiopian friendship?)

Access to water, rural people throughout our trip tell us, is their single largest problem, with women and children often obliged to walk miles in search of a potable supply. Here it’s not so bad: Kids queue up at a hose connected to a well in the forested area above the village. In its streets, horse-drawn buggies carry sugarcane, firewood, and passengers. One poor beast is trying to pull a cart overloaded with six people; in lieu of a ticket, a policeman lets the air out of one tire.

Most Ethiopians live like this or next door to it. Eight in ten get by on less than $2 a day. This means that, in practice, many live almost entirely outside the cash economy. An old man labors behind a single plow drawn by two oxen; a slim young woman hews wood in the doorway of her hut with a handmade ax; young men look up from reaping, sickles in hand; a child drives cattle in a circle, threshing grain; and old women run down the road, bent double under heavy fardels of firewood. Later, Adey Abebe, my translator, asks me if I am shocked by what I’ve seen. Not really, I say. It feels very familiar, like the fairy tales of my childhood or the many books I’ve read about ancient times.

“Really?” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Even Ethiopian people coming from Addis, which you can see is very poor itself, even they are shocked when they come here. You must have read very many books.”

Growing Need, Declining Resources

In the past decade, U.S. funding for international family-planning programs like those in Ethiopia has declined by almost 40 percent. During those years, 275 million more women in the developing world came of childbearing age.
The Sierra Club’s Global Population and the Environment program is working to get the United States to invest $1 billion in 2009 in international family planning. You can help by contacting your members of Congress and asking them to respond to the unmet need.

To read more about the Club’s population efforts, visit, where you can find details of the Club’s legislative proposals and other stories from the Ethiopia study tour in the program’s 2008 population report. —Paul Rauber

HAND IN HAND with a preindustrial lifestyle goes a preindustrial death style. Life expectancy in Ethiopia is 48 years. One in 13 babies dies in infancy, and one in 8 never sees age five.

In much of the country, there is only one doctor for every 55,000 people. Soils utterly exhausted by 5,000 years of cultivation are giving out, and drought plays havoc with agriculture in a country with almost no irrigation. When the rains fail, famine follows, and suddenly a fifth of the population depends on food aid from abroad.

The present size of Ethiopia’s population–and the likelihood of its doubling by mid-century–exacerbates all problems and frustrates easy solutions. Two out of three women who would like to use family planning can’t get it, and in the countryside only one woman in ten uses contraception at all.

Into this gap rush scores of nongovernmental organizations, the largest of which is my translator’s employer, Pathfinder International, whose Ethiopian operations are largely supported by USAID and the Packard Foundation. One of its many Ethiopian programs seeks to boost family planning, healthcare access, and environmental-restoration efforts through improving the lot of women and girls. When we step out of our van to visit a Pathfinder project in the hills west of the large provincial city of Awasa, we hear women singing.

Waiting for us in a clearing at the top of the hill are a hundred women, ululating, clapping, and dancing in a traditional welcome ceremony. They have good reason to celebrate: Many are being taught to read and write for the first time, have access to contraceptives and basic healthcare, and have been given two fruit trees per family, along with seeds and support in growing marketable vegetables.

“Because we didn’t have education before, we lived in extreme poverty,” says Martha Petros, a 37-year-old mother of nine who sports, in the local fashion, three delicate scars on each cheek. “I had so many children because I didn’t know any better. Now my children will go to school, and learn even more, and definitely have fewer children of their own.”

Elsabeth Zergaw, the stately president of the Southern Women’s Association (the local group working with Pathfinder to administer the program), recites the statistics: 881 women in literacy classes, 72 going on to formal education; 456 women tested for HIV; 450 mango and avocado trees planted; 30 kilograms of vegetable seeds distributed; and zero female genital mutilations.

When your goal is to improve the lot of women, pretty near the top of the list comes ending the practice of cutting off all of a woman’s external genitalia three days before her wedding. To prove that the practice had indeed ended in this village, Zergaw introduces four grim, cold-eyed ex-genital mutilators in white robes who have agreed to “put down the knife.” (These women now have no means of livelihood, they say, and reasonably wonder who will support them in their late career change.) Next up are six very, very happy uncircumcised brides in their mid-teens, who stand basking in the applause of the gathering. Bucking centuries of tradition clearly took bravery, since it was apparently not clear in advance whether the husbands would accept uncircumcised brides. “This information empowered not only us but our husbands,” says one young woman who interrupted her honeymoon to speak to us. “Even though we’re married, we have not lost anything. We have been saved, and we want to save others.”

This is the women’s show. Around the edges of the crowd loiter the men, some observing the spectacle from the branches of trees. I corner one, Solom Jaro, 30, father of three boys and a girl, and ask what he thinks of family planning. “I now have a better understanding of reproductive health,” he says diplomatically. Meaning what? “Now I know I have too many children.”

TRAVELING WITH BIRDERS can be its own diplomatic endeavor, as nonbirders strain to remain sociable despite their ornithological ignorance. On one birding jaunt between site visits, an Audubon guy ID’s a “speckled pigeon,” whereupon the birders put down their binoculars, jot in their notebooks, and move on.

“A special pigeon?” exclaims an innocent Sierra Club staffer. “Why is it so special?” The birders ignore her, and she falls in behind them, crestfallen. (In the future, I advise her, it’s safest to stick to neutral queries like “Who’s that little guy over there?”)

My own avian stamina is put to the test some days later when three of the Auduboners hire a guide and head north of Addis to the Suluta Plain, kindly consenting to let me tag along. As they rack up scores of new species, I am content with spotting an ortolan bunting, the small songbird that, when it makes the mistake of migrating to France, risks being roasted and eaten whole. In the canyon country around the monastery of Debre Libanos, we see a lammergeier soaring above us–an enormous vulture famous for dropping bones from a great height onto rocks, then swooping down to eat the marrow. According to Pliny, Aeschylus was killed by a lammergeier that dropped a turtle on his bald pate, mistaking it for a rock. (Happily, I’m wearing a hat.) But my newfound birdwatching zeal fails when, by the grounds of the old baboon-patrolled monastery, our Ethiopian guide cheerfully points out a Rüppell’s robin-chat in a bush just above the head of a decrepit old woman begging for help.

Some birds, in their rarity, can be salvation to humans in their profusion. The pastoral community of Berga, in a broad, grassy valley west of Addis, has been raised above its neighbors solely by virtue of being located adjacent to the core breeding ground of the endangered white-winged flufftail. Traditionally, local people picked up a little money by harvesting the tall grass that sheltered the birds’ nests, a practice that was leading to their rapid extinction. Then the tiny Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society persuaded birding organizations in South Africa and Europe to pay local people to protect the nests, improve their community, and reduce the average number of children per woman from the current seven.

Guided by battalions of kids and flanked by young men racing through the fenceless communal fields on horses, we troop down to the small Berga wetland to view the miraculous eucalypt beneath which nest the blessed birds. (The birds are on vacation in South Africa, so there’s no danger of inadvertent flufftail omelets.) Next comes a tour of the new facilities: two mud-and-wattle schoolrooms serving 400 students up to fourth grade; a small dairy where local women make cheese; and a tiny health post where Gete Dida, 26, and Shitaye Tura, 22, dispense first aid, sanitation education, and contraceptives. (Most of the 840 women who come here, they say, prefer injectable Depo-Provera, which they only need to think about every three months.) For planned births, there is a tiny room next door furnished with nothing but a dusty delivery table. The sight would put most U.S. women I know off childbirth altogether.

Ato Bekele, a Berga community leader, boasts of the success of its public-health campaign, which has, among other things, raised the average marriage age for girls from 12 to 15.

“Life has improved,” he says, “but we still have a long way to go.”

Most marriages in the area are arranged, Bekele says, which gives the group leverage with the arrangers. “But sometimes,” he adds smiling, “they are lovebirds.”

AFTER TEN DAYS IN THIS heartbreaking country, all of us miss our families. Those who don’t have children miss their pets, which, as a whole, are better provided for than most Ethiopians. (Yearly income in Ethiopia: $104. Amount spent annually on a U.S. dog: $1,571.) One member of our party tells of a friend who keeps her elderly cat’s large-cell carcinoma in check via blood work performed after weekly consultations with a team of experts in Australia. The amount of money mentioned could give 25 young Ethiopian women a college education.

Love is crazy that way, though. What wouldn’t we do for those closest to us? I finally stop asking the participants in the programs we visit what they hope to get out of family planning, because everyone says the same thing: “We want a better life for our children.”

In Ethiopia, names are full of meaning. A child born after another has died might be named Mitke, “substitute,” or Kassa, “compensation.” More poetically, Abebe means “blooming like a flower.” If allowed to blossom, the family-planning programs we visited here just may deliver that better life everyone wishes for their kids, including, perhaps, a generation of Fitisams, a traditional name for the last child planned, literally “the end.”

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra whose family has a total fertility rate of two.

ON THE WEB To watch a slide show of more photos from Ian Berry’s trip to Ethiopia, visit

Written by Tseday

September 9, 2008 at 6:36 pm

Posted in Ethiopia

Tagged with


with 2 comments

UN Special – N# 665 – September 2007

By David Winch

Things are looking up… a bit. During the turbulent times of military rule in the 1970s and 1980s, bad news from Ethiopia was endemic. Its economy fell about as low as it could go. For many observers and the world media, the country sometimes looked beyond redemption.

Now finally there is some movement – starting with the much more open political environment of the 2000s. Since the return to civilian rule in 1991, there has been a steady opening of markets, lowered barriers to investment, and renewed confidence, as shown in return of some Ethiopian expatriates.

The World Bank reports that “real non-agriculture GDP increased by a solid 6.4 per cent per year… during 1993-2003, with rapid expansion of the services and industrial sectors” of Ethiopia.

This trend has continued. While some statistics are imprecise, most analysts accept that Ethiopia’s economy has jumped ahead in recent years, with growth between 8 and 10 per cent a year. The capital city Addis Ababa, already far ahead of rest of country in most areas, boasts a highly visible construction boom, with new highways, commercial and government buildings springing up. This boom includes a new $150 million headquarters for the African Union financed largely by China. New export industries have emerged, especially for horticultural flowers and food. Tourism is still hobbled by the lack of hotels and infrastructure in some regions, but plans are being hatched to “re-brand” the country to attract more cultural tourists to Ethiopia’s millennial sites and monuments.
Still, the basic indicators of Ethiopia’s economy are low, in no way above African sub-Saharan development levels. Even in the 1990s, following the overthrow of the military, GDP per capita in Ethiopia shrank by 43 per cent, from $188 down to $84 per capita. Today in Addis there is severe unemployment among young people. And instability, never good for the economy, continues to bubble up with border disputes and regional strife.

Problems remain

The national economy of Ethiopia is largely based on subsistence agriculture, which accounts for half of gross domestic product, making up 60 per cent of exports, and 80 per cent of total employment. Parts of the north and east of the country are subject to recurrent food problems, and various international programmes try to establish a “floor” or “safety net” to avoid any recurrence of past shortages.
Coffee exports remain crucial to the Ethiopian economy, providing about 65 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings. More than 15 million people (25 per cent of the population) derive their livelihood from the coffee sector, and it contributes 10 per cent of Ethiopia’s GDP. Its biggest coffee customers are Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France and Belgium. Other top exports continue to be live animals, hides, gold, seeds and oilseeds, and the narcotic khat (or qat).

Visible progress

While much of its economy remains deeply traditional, Ethiopia also enjoys the “leapfrog” effect of new technologies, for example in telecommunications, which makes some old hardware and infrastructure unnecessary, i.e. telephone poles and cables (see text “Wiring Ethiopia”). Wireless technology couldn’t arrive at a better time!
There is a thriving new horticulture industry, visible in massive greenhouses stretching over dozens of hectares. These exports fuel rapidly expanding cargo operations, shipping freshcut flowers to Holland, vegetables including green beans to Germany, and passion fruit to the Gulf countries. Started with Dutch and Israeli expertise, other investors have moved in and greenhouse installations have expanded in the ideal climate and altitude of the Ethiopian plains.
A wave of expatriates returning home, always a good sign for a country on the rebound, is very visible in Ethiopia. Wars, famine and political repression prompted thousands to flee in the 1980s. The large communities of Ethiopian Americans, particularly in Washington, Dallas and Chicago, prompted the International Organization for Migration to note that there were probably “more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago” than in Ethiopia itself. While some technicians, entrepreneurs and professionals are returning to live permanently, many others are now supporting their country with remittances or charitable gifts. Perhaps symbolically, a new hospital in Addis Ababa is being built largely with the financial support of expatriates.
The lack of basic infrastructure – water and sanitation, irrigation, paved national highways, telecommunications – has been a mark of Ethiopia’s underdevelopment. But there is a new determination of national authorities, prompted in part by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, to progressively provide the entire country, for example, with water and sanitation, from less than half the population supplied to 100 per cent supply in seven years. There are also plans to rapidly expand the telecommunications network to smaller centres and villages across the country.

Foreign assistance

While the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) notes that “Ethiopia’s successful economic policies had made it a favourite of donors”, national missions in Addis gave UN Special widely differing assessments of the country’s progress.

The UNS team visited several national missions in Addis, focusing on the economic assistance and cooperation programmes of the United States, Egypt, Israel, Canada and Switzerland. USAID is involved in several projects in Ethiopia, including on economic policy, livestock, agriculture and food security projects. The agency also supports small farmers to become exporters through improved irrigation systems and higher-quality products. Often small-scale producers link to an international buyer, but do not meet the production demands due to lack of technology, skilled labour and or transportation. USAID helps cooperatives overcome these obstacles. USAID is working in to improve hide skin and leather products. Short-term loans, which do not require collateral, are provided to industry associations. In the area of coffee, USAID is also supporting Ethiopia’s international competitiveness.

Bilateral Trade

The deputy head of mission of Egypt, Maher El-Adawy, emphasized the wide cooperation on water issues, as Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile, and also the centre of many African development agencies. Bilateral trade between Egypt and Ethiopia reached close to $82 million in 2006, an amount that more than doubled in the last four years. Egypt exports cement, medicines, building and petroleum products while at the same time importing seeds (sesame), agricultural and meat products. The ambassador of Israel, Yaacov Amitai, emphasized the historical ties and the “immediate affinity” between the two countries, as the Old Testament shaped their respective historical and religious consciousness. Technical programmes focused on specific areas, such as dry-climate agriculture and water management, honey-making and camel husbandry, and health care, areas in which Israel had distinct expertise. Individual investors also come from Israel to invest in, for example, horticulture projects, and as a result there are now several flights weekly between Tel Aviv and Addis.
Without empty boosterism, then, one can safely say there is real economic movement in Ethiopia. To some, this may sound like the blues singer’s ironic lament, “I’ve been down so long, this looks like up to me”. But if its current progress continues, the country may start singing a different tune entirely.

Written by Tseday

September 8, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Ethiopia

Tagged with

Constellation Cassiopeia

with 4 comments


Cassiopeia is a northern constellation which Greek mythology considered to represent the vain queen Cassiopeia who boasted about her unrivaled beauty. It is one of the 88 modern constellations, and was also one of the 48 listed by Ptolemy.

Cassiopeia contains two stars visible to the naked eye that rank among the most luminous in the galaxy


Cassiopeia, the mother of Andromeda and wife of King Cepheus of Ethiopia, thought she and her daughter were the two fairest that ever lived. In fact, she foolishly claimed that Andromeda was so beautiful that even the sea nymphs (Nereids) could not surpass her beauty. Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, and the Nereids themselves, overheard this. Furious at Cassiopeia’s boasting, they visited Poseidon (the sea god) and demanded an immediate punishment.

Poseidon sent the sea monster Tiamat (represented by Cetus) to attack King Cepheus’ realm. With his kingdom in the gravest danger, Cepheus consulted an oracle for advice. He learned the only way to save Ethiopia involved the sacrifice of Andromeda to the raging sea monster. Heavy hearted and bitter over his wife’s vanity, the king was forced by his people to comply. Poor Andromeda was dragged to a ragged part of the coast and was told of her fate.

She was stripped naked and chained to a large rock to await her grisly fate. The monster soon arrived. Tiamat was about to eat her, when the monster felt a sharp pain in his back. He turned and found Perseus flying with winged sandals and attacking him. The monster grew stronger as they fought. Then Perseus remembered that he was carrying Medusa’s head. All who looked at it would turn to stone. He dropped his sword and took out the creepy object. The sea monster stared at it and turned immediately into stone. Andromeda watched the whole incident (except Medusa’s head), and smiled with a sigh of relief.

Perseus fell in love with the beautiful Andromeda and carried her home to marry her. The gods made constellations for each of them, but felt Cassiopeia had gotten off too easy. They punished her by condemning her to circle Polaris forever in her throne. So even now, she alternately sits right side up and hangs upside down in the heavens.

Written by Tseday

September 8, 2008 at 3:27 pm