Sunday, June 22, 2014


Growing up in the 1980s, Ethiopia was synonymous to extreme drought, famine, and poverty.  I can remember seeing this on the news as an elementary student and was really stunned by it. Nearly eight million people were affected by this, and some estimates say around one million people didn’t survive. 

The ancient Greek name for the area, Aithiops, appeared several times in Iliad and Odyssey, as well as the Bible and the Koran (but also mentioned by its other names).  It’s thought that the word is derived from the words for “I burn” and “face.” This place is also known by many of its ancient names: Kush, Nubia, Aksum (also spelled as Axom), Habesha, and Abyssinia.  (There’s an Ethiopian restaurant in Indianapolis called Abyssinia. I haven’t been there yet, but I definitely want to go after I’m done to see how close to –or how far from– authentic that I got.)

Ethiopia lies in the Horn of Africa, surrounded by Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea.  The land is highly diverse.  The Great Rift Valley runs through Ethiopia (and is visible from space), surrounded by lowlands, steppes, semi-desert areas, the highlands and mountains, as well as tropical forests.  Lake Tana is the source for the Blue Nile, which runs north and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.  Several species of animals are listed on the endangered and vulnerable animals list, such as the Ethiopian wolf, the African wild dog, African elephant, cheetah, and the spotted hyena.

Ethiopian wolf
Ethiopia is the cradle of human civilization.  The earliest known modern human remains have been found in the southwestern part of the country, now called the Omo remains (most famously, the remains named Lucy). Originally it was part of the D’mt lands mentioned in Ancient Egyptian times.  Sometime during the first century AD, the Aksumite Empire emerged in Ethiopia and Eritrea; some historians consider this one of the greatest empires of the world. Ethiopia was second only to Armenia in adapting Christianity as its official religion. 

Ethiopia went through a period between 1755-1855 called the “Age of Princes,” which isolated them from other countries. The emperors were merely puppets for the war lords. They later overtook the ruling party and changed the established language of Amharic to Afaan Oromo. It didn’t end until the British got involved and established Emperor Tewodros II in power; Ethiopia began to sit at the world table once again. Under the reign of Menelik II, Ethiopia made great strides to modernize the country. In fact, he was the first African to drive a car. He entered an agreement with Italy to recognize them as a sovereignty if they would be able to control an area in the north (now Eritrea). However, Italy expanded its border areas just prior to signing the papers, which led to fighting where the Ethiopians defeated the Italians. Haile Selassie I became emperor in 1930. They quickly entered the Italo-Abyssinian War, and although they defeated them again, they were still placed under Italian occupation. Although the Italians briefly occupied the country, Ethiopia remains one of two countries in the world who were never invaded and conquered (the other is Russia). The British stepped in again and recognized their full sovereignty.  Slavery was abolished in 1942, and they annexed Eritrea twenty years later.  From 1974-1991, Ethiopia quickly joined the Communist bloc of countries.  In May 1998 (the month and year I graduated from high school), they entered into a two-year-long war with Eritrea, severely crippling their economy.  And just in the past couple of years, Ethiopia has once again been hit with another extremely detrimental drought.

Haile Selassie I -- recipient of TIME magazine's "Person of the Year" 1935. 
The capital city of Addis Ababa (meaning “new flower” in Amharic) is the largest city in Ethiopia and is actually a chartered city (a city and a state).  The African Union is also based here.  Because of the city’s proximity to the equator, the temperatures remain fairly consistent. However, the strange thing is that the highest recorded temperature was 90ºF in 1996. (I think we hit that mark a couple days last week.) It’s also Africa’s highest city; most people are surprises at how cool and cold Addis Ababa can be.  The diverse, multilingual city has roughly 2.7 million people. Home to several universities and private colleges, it is also the site for the main government offices, several museums, a large public market, sports stadiums and racetracks.  Addis Ababa has the honor of housing the world’s largest pre-fab building, Shengo Hall (used for conventions and large meetings). There are several options for public transportation: taxis, buses, air, and train for getting to and around the city.

Even though years of drought has negatively impacted Ethiopia’s agricultural industry, their economy is still listed as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Ethiopia produces more coffee than any other country in Africa.  It’s believed that the coffee plant also originated in Ethiopia (the story goes that a shepherd watched his goats eat a coffee plant and became increasingly restless).  Starbucks is a huge partner with Ethiopian coffee producers. They’re also one of the largest producers of livestock, also exporting khat (a plant legal in the Horn of Africa, but considered a controlled substance in the US, Canada, and other countries), gold, leather, sesame seeds and is gearing up be a leading exporter of flowers and plants.

There may be nearly ninety languages spoken in Ethiopia.  The mostly widely spoken one is Oromo, followed by Amharic.  Because there are so many ethnic languages spoken across the country, the 1995 Constitution of Ethiopia established Amharic as the official working language of federal government and was the language of primary school education.  Many of the out-lying areas utilize other regional languages in their schools and businesses.  The Ge’ez script (sometimes called Ethiopic) is used in writing, the only country to have its own unique script (besides Eritrea who also uses it as well, but their cultures have similar ties). English is the most common foreign language taught in schools.

Ethiopia still has many Christian followers to this day, and it also has the oldest Muslim community in Africa as well.  And actually, there was a sizable Jewish population in Ethiopia as well up until the 1980s when most moved to Israel.  (It’s thought by some that these might be part of the Lost Tribes of Israel.)  The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is by far the largest Christian denomination.   While Rastafarianism got its start in Jamaica during the 1930s, Ethiopia remains its spiritual homeland. They basically worship Haile Selassie I as Jah (short for Jahweh). 

Ethiopia is famous for producing some of the world’s greatest marathon runners. It might have something to do with the fact that 70% of Africa’s mountains touch the lands here. Because of their proximity to the equator, there is very little change in when the sun rises and sets throughout the year.  In Ethiopia, they traditionally measure time by when the sun rises. So, instead of it being 7:00, they’ll call it 1:00.  I think that’s more confusing than when I had to convert military time into normal people’s time at Japanese train stations.  Both of those fall into the category of “Please Don’t Make Me Do Math.”  And because of their calendar differences, they are the only country on a 13-month calendar. (Again, with the math.) But luckily, what’s not super complicated are the recipes I found for next week that have me so hungry already – with the notable exception of trying to find teff flour.  It’ll be an adventure for sure. 

Up next: holidays and celebrations

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