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Glimpse at Ethiopian Culture

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Ethiopia is a diverse mix of cultures that have co-existed for hundreds of years inside the country's border. The population is largely divided along ethno-linguistic lines, with more than 80 different ethnic groups resided within her borders, and close to 80 different dialects spoken as well. Within this diversity, there are some aspects of daily life that tend to pervade the majority of the population. 

Language and Ethnic Groups

Those with an Afro-Asiatic descent speak Oromiffa (the Oromo people) and Somali which includes the Amhara people with the Amharic language and the Tigrinya, which is spoken by the Tigray-Tigrinya people. Altogether these account for 75% of the population. These largely following customs and traditions more closely associated with external nations who have influenced them throughout history, such as NE Africa, the Arabian peninsula, India, and Italy. The Nilotic ethnic groups account for about 2% of the population and tend to be more closely tied to South Sudan and the Africa Great Lakes regions in terms of traditions and customs.  

While various reports differ, it is estimated that at least 77 different languages are spoken inside Ethiopia's borders. The most commonly spoken language is Amharic, which is the official 'working' language of the federal government and was at one time the chosen language for primary and secondary schools. After the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, the new constitution has allowed ethnic groups the right to develop their languages and establish mother tongues at the primary school level, leaving Amharic to continue to be the medium of instruction in secondary school. English is the most commonly spoken foreign language and is taught in schools at the secondary and university levels.


In general the country ascribes to Christianity. The country is proud of its heritage and that it embraced Christianity in the 4th century, long before most of Europe. While the majority ascribe to Christianity (50% to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and 10% Protestant), 32% ascribe to Islam, and about 5% to other traditional religions. Muslims exist largely peaceably alongside Christians. Religion is a generally accepted everyday part of life here, and while it does infiltrate so many aspects of life, it is not imposed and Harar, a largely Muslim city, is also the fourth Most Holy City according to Islam. Many of the Ethiopian Festivals celebrated here surround Christian holidays and commemorations. 


Family is the focal point of the Ethiopian social system. Relatives on both sides of the family and close friends are held close. Parents often live with their children when advanced in their years and they can no longer care for themselves. Individuals bring honor to their entire family unit with their successes, and family needs are typically put before all others matters.


Ethiopians rely on a staple food grown in their highlands called teff. A large pancake like cake is made with the teff flour, called injera, that typically is placed directly on the table and accompanies every meal. Other dishes are then placed on the injera and it is rolled up to eat. Thick stews, called wats, are oftentimes hot and spicy and accompany the meal and are made from chicken, pork, lamb, vegetables, lentils, and split peas. Ethiopians also make their own barely beer, tella. 

Music, Dance, and Art

Music and dance play a great role in Ethiopian life and festivals. Instruments used most often are the following: kebaro drums, single-stringed masenko (fiddle-like), washint (flute-like), the krar (lyre-like), begenna (harp-like). Ethiopian people love to sing, and they don't hold back. Special occasions rarely occur without the accompaniment of singing and dancing.

Ethiopians have a long history of religious painting and this intricate work can be seen in almost every church in the country. The two dimensional figures often tell a story and serve a dual purpose of being both uplifting and educational in teaching religious truths and stories.

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