Journey Through Northern Ethiopia: Part One

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Jan 17th, 2013

- I am used to writing the hectic life in the capital Addis Ababa. In fact, as a person born and raised in Addis Ababa, I have mostly thought Ethiopia is pretty much its capital. I thought Addis has all kind of people from every part of the country and if a person wishes to understand Ethiopia, all he/she has to do is wander around Addis. This is not because I did not have an experience traveling around the country. I have been to all cities that are known to most Ethiopians and observed that more or less, the residents are similar to the Addis Ababa.

I couldn’t be more wrong. My experience in the weeks past has changed the entire angle I have viewed my country. My travel to the north and deep and remote rural areas has exposed me to the majority of the society who experience life a lot differently than the city residents.

Let me introduce you to Dabat, Koladeba, Weken, Dembia, and small rural villages around North Gonder in the Amhara region. All these places are close to the historical Gonder city found 738 kilometres from the capital Addis Ababa. Most of these areas have several farmers’ villages and rural Kebele’s where people consider farming as the only way to live in.

Some of them are areas with no radio, newspaper or television. Computers and internet is not only a foreign language but also absolutely unknown concepts. Though some of the households have a small radio inside, the people say they do not have time to listen to it. ‘We work the whole day and who has time to listen to the radio. Only people from the towns like to listen because they have less burden of work,’ they would say. The only device for communication with a limited number of people is a mobile phone which is found in small town near to the farmers’ village. Farmers who own a mobile phone use it to communicate with some of their relatives and find out about the prices of cereals in the market.

In these villages people live a lot similar to their ancestors’ centuries ago. If their great grandfather comes to the village now, the only thing new they might probably see will be the roof of the houses which is corrugated iron. Previously, they built their houses entirely from grass roof and the size of their house was relatively smaller. Now, they have bigger space with the metal roof. There are still grass roof huts, but the majority have changed their roofs. It is a sign of wealth in the area to have this kind of a roof.

The inside however is for the most part the same. They build their chairs with mud, stone and dung. In some cases they also build their bed with the same materials. Otherwise, their bed is house made with animal leather and wood. Almost everything in the house is done by the women. Men built some wooden chairs and mothers use their incredible talent and patience to do all the materials in the house from colourful grass, soil, and cow dung and wood. In fact the only thing they buy from the market is some glasses and some plastic materials.

The women, as restless as they are, have the time to make all their materials. It’s amazing how they find the time with all the cooking, helping their husbands on the farm and always being pregnant and having a baby. Their life, for someone like me who is extremely used to the urbanized life seems almost unbearable. However, they are not as tired as we might think. They believe in god and that he is always giving them power to do what they need to do. They have faith on the spirits of their ancestors who defined life for them.

For everything they do, their justification is ‘this is how our ancestors did it’. Women consider themselves inferior and believe that they deserve to be treated badly by their husbands. ‘This is how it should be. Our mothers lived the same way. Who are we to question their life style’? They would say. For me, who grow up with parents who thought me to come up with my own reasons for whatever I do, their mindset is hard to understand. However, they appreciate their culture, their status in the society and their lives. The fact that they are certain that their life is exactly how it should be, makes anyone think who am I to question it?

They fetch water from the nearest river for washing their cloth and cooking. For drinking, they get water from the pumps near to their village. They buy some clothes from the market. However, still, the majority of the women wear handmade cotton traditional cloths. The cloths are not only beautiful but also proper for the weather in their area. They prepare it with their bare hands, and the finishing will be done by the weavers in the neighbourhood. Each village has a weaver, pottery and small traders who provide sugar, salt and oil. The children also get some sweets from these mini shops. The rest of the community is made of farmers.

For anyone who loves nature, the villages are breathtaking. It’s green with unbelievable mountainous landscape. The cattle’s, the rivers and the wide fields that serve as a playground for both the children and the cattle’s is a sight that refreshes the mind. On the mountains, Ethiopians live their quiet life with their heavy workloads on everyday basis. You don’t see them sitting around and laughing, spending quality times with friends and family unless it’s an occasion. Their life revolves around their farm and their one room house. Their children and the cattle’s are the priority.

Their values for life all come from their ancestors and they do not dare to question why. Everyone’s place is defined and people are expected to act accordingly. Women, children and elders all have their routine lives. They wake up early in the morning and go to bed late at night. During the day, women cook, fetch water, take care of the new-borns, and look after the cattle’s if they are around the house. They go to the market if it is market day and sell grain, house-made butter, and buy oil and salt in exchange.

The husbands go to the farm and spend their whole day there. During the nights, fathers might visit the local bars that serve Areke or Tela. However, mothers are limited to their house, the farm and the market. These are the three places they spend almost all their time. Unless they went to another village to visit a relative, they have no reason to be other than the three places.

Nowadays, the children go to school but parents do not like it. In fact, school is not something their great grandfathers approved of and they think it’s all forced on them. They need their children around the house because there is a lot of work to do. Children look after the cattle, the girls help their mothers in the household and fetch water. The boys are very much helpful in bringing woods for the fire. All this is a help especially mothers are in need of. As a result they see school as an enemy and for a long time they refused to send their kids to school, especially their daughters. Now the government is very serious about sending every child to school and they are having trouble resisting. This is because the punishment for not sending a child to school is in terms of money, which they are very much afraid of.

They seem to be honest and sincere in every sense of the term and welcoming with all their hearts. They would give anything in their house to any stranger and, for me, it was a testimony that we Ethiopians are truly welcoming. Growing up in a city confuses people thinking all the stories of Ethiopians culture about welcoming people are just a fairy-tale. However, the original culture, as seen in the mountainous Ethiopia says eat my food, sleep on my bed, let me wash your leg and give you my clothes for your comfort. In all the houses, it was amazing how the people are just giving; happy that they have strangers in their house and think what they gave is just not enough. After inviting you to eat their food, drink their milk and amazing traditional drinks, when you leave they will apologize saying they didn’t have much in the house and they wish you would come tomorrow so that they will be better prepared. Though their work consumes most of their time, when they have guests they abandon it all and start their welcome treatment.

Their smile, sadness, and talk are all honest and anyone can see that in their eyes. Fortunately, this year, the rain was good which means they have produced enough food. They are extremely happy about it and amazingly they feel that it is their responsibility to feed the people in the cities and they are thankful to be able to do that. ‘Your god is helping us’ they will tell you.

Only some of them who I met have been to Addis Ababa. In fact they have little information about what is going on in the capital except life is painfully expensive.

My visit to these small villages thought me Ethiopia is a lot different than it is assumed to be in the cities. It showed me that there is still so much to do and so much to preserve.

The journey continues…


 Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for

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