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Peoples of Ethiopia



All the languages spoken by the Ethiopian people fall into four main language groups: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan.
Most Semitic languages speakers live in the highlands of the center and north. Speakers of East Cushitic languages are found in the highlands and lowlands of the center and south, and other Cushitic speakers in the center and north; Omotic speakers live in the south; and Nilo-Saharan speakers in the southwest and west along the border with Sudan. Of the four main ethno-linguistic groups of Ethiopia, three--the Amhara, Tigray, and Oromo--generally live in the highlands; the fourth--the Somali--live in the lowlands to the southeast
The Semitic languages of Ethiopia are related to both Hebrew and Arabic, and derive from Ge’ez, the ecclesiastical language.
The principal Semitic language spoken in the north-western and central part of the country is Amharic, which is also the official language of the modern state. Other main languages are Tigrigna, Guraginya, Adarinya, Afan Oromo, Somalinya, Sidaminya, Afarinya, Gumuz, Berta and Anuak.


The Tigrigna and Amharic speaking people of the north are mainly agriculturalists, tilling the soil with ox-drawn plows and growing teff (a local millet). The most southerly of the Semitic speakers, the Gurage, are also formers and herders, but many are also crafts men. The Gurage grows, “false banana” whose root, stem and leaf stocks provide a carbohydrate, which after length preparation, can be made into porridge of unleavened bread. The Cushitic Oromo formerly nomadic pastoralists are now mainly engaged in agriculture and in the more arid areas, cattle breeding. The Somali, also pastoral nomads, forced to live in hot and arid bush country, while the Afar, semi-nomadic pastoralists & fishermen, are the only people who can survive in the hostile environment of the Danakil Depression. The people of the Omo are mainly nomads.

Hamer, Mursi, Karo, Geleb, Bume, Bena, Dasenech and others are nomadic pastoralists. They wander through their surrounding lands with knowing eyes and hands, carrying their few possessions spear, knives, and three-legged stool and driving their livestock before them, always forward to fresh pastures.

Clothing Styles

The people of Ethiopia wear many different types of clothing. Highlanders use heavy cloth capes and wraparound blankets to combat the night chill. In the heart of the lowland plains, light cotton clothes are all that is required by men and women alike. The traditional cloth of Christian highland peasantry has traditionally been of white cotton cloth; men have worn long, Jodhpur like trousers, a tight – fitting shirt and a Shamma (loose wrap).
The Muslims of Harar, by contrast, wear very colorful dress, the men in shortish trousers and a colored wrap and the women in fine dresses of red, purple and black. The lowland Somali and Afar wear long, brightly colored cotton warps and the Oromo and Bale people are to be seen in the bead decorated leather garments. National dress is usually worm on festivals, when streets and meeting places are transformed into a sea of white, as finely woven cotton dresses, wraps decorated with colored woven borders, and suits are donned.
A distinctive style of dress is found among the Oromo horsemen of the central highlands, who on ceremonial days such as Meskel attire themselves in lions’, manes or baboon-skin headdresses, and carrying hippo-hide spears and shields ride down to the main city squares to participate in the parades.
The most obvious identification of the different groups is in the jewelry, their hairstyles & the embroidery of the dresses. Both Muslims and Christians wear jewelry in silver and gold, often with amber or glass beds incorporated. Heavy brass, copper and ivory bracelets and anklets are also worn.
The women of Amhara and Tigray wear dozens of plaits (Sherubal), tightly braided to the head and billowing out of the shoulders. The women of Harar part their hair in the middle and make a bun behind each ear. Arsi women have fringes and short, bobbed hair. Bale girls have the same, but cover it with a black head cloth, while young children often have their heads shaved.
Clothing of the Omo people is simple and effective a short wraparound toga, enhanced with iron rings and other craft jewelry. Hairstyles, however, more elaborate in the extreme shaped and fashioned with razor sharp knives and adorned with a skull – cap of red mud. Many of the men are further decorated with tribal cicatrice scars, which denote their standing in the community as young warrior or wise elders. The women walk bare breasted, wearing a simple short skirt of lather, the hems elaborately decorated with metal works.
Hamer, Geleb, Bume and Karo men form a ridge of plaited hair and clay to hold their feathered headwear in place. Hamer women wear a distinctive headdress of beaten tin plates. Body paintings using clay and locally available vegetable pigments on face, chest, arms, legs, etc are also common. The Mursi and Surma’s women are well known for the large clay or wooden discs-terra-cota that they wear inserted in silt in their ears and lower lips.

Indigenous Cultures

The marriage ceremony of the Hamer people, with women’s slashing and men’s jumping of the bull and the Surma people game of Donga (a ritual stick fighting) are the unique ceremonies amongst the different colorful ceremonies practiced by the Omo people.

The dominant impression that the visitor will take away from the Omo people is that of their individualism and resourcefulness amidst a harsh environment. Many of the men carry old carbine rifles to ward off predators threatening their cattle or goats. The image of one of these, tall, motionless guards standing water as the sun sinks below the horizon while herds of wild game move in slow motion a cross the skyline will remain vividly in the memory of a visitor long after he has returned home.

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