Monks of Northern Ethiopia

Ethiopia, an old country beyond all imaginations, has culture and traditions dating back over 3000 years, with over 80 different Ethnic groups with their own language, culture and traditions. The strong religious setting, celebrations and festivals play an important part in every ones daily life.

Church ceremonies are a major feature of Ethiopian life. The events are impressive and unique. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has its own head, follows its own customs, and is extremely proud of its fourth century origins.

Ethiopia's Islamic tradition is also strong and offers colorful contrast, particularly in the eastern and south-eastern parts of the country. In fact, there were Ethiopian Muslims during the lifetime of Prophet Mohammed. This rich religious history is brought to life in the romantic walled city of Harar, considered by many Muslims to be the fourth "Holy City" following Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

Debre Damo is second to none in terms of monastic life in Ethiopia. On the top of the Imba, there are hundreds of resident monks. These monks have greatly contributed toward the development of church education and literature in Ethiopia. With this regard, Debre Damo has won unparalleled fame and reputation. This monastery has also served as a safe haven for Ethiopian kings that were pursued by enemies. The prominent example is that of Atse Lebne Dengle of the 16th century, who sought refuge during the fight of Ahmed Gragn's army.

The thirty-seven islands of Lake Tana shelter twenty monasteries - surviving remnants of an old, contemplative tradition. Because of their isolation they were used to store art treasures and religious relics from all parts of the country. Tradition says the Ark of the Covenant was kept on one of these islands when Axum was endangered, and the remains of five Emperors - including Fasilidas - are to be found at Daga Istafanos. Monks at Ura Kidane Mehret say that more than forty tabots from churches destroyed by Ahmed Gragn were hidden in their monastery during the sixteenth century.

Tribes of Southern Ethiopia


The Dorze number about 4500 and occupy a small territory of about 30 square kms in the North Omo region in Chencha, around the mountainous areas of Lakes Abaya and Chamo. Although this is their region of origin, there is an important community of Dorze in the City of Addis Ababa, where they have their own district in which they live and work in the community.

The Afro-Asiatic language of the Dorze is quite close to the languages of the Gamo, Gofa, Wolaytta and Kullo.

Due to population pressure and a shortage of land, long ago the Dorze forzandos were starting to abandon their traditional economic activities. Due to its success they have now made the manufacture of tissue their core business. The shama, a coat of colours with geometric designs, are made by the Dorze and throughout the country.

The Dorze house, built with bamboo, is one of the characteristics that distinguishes their towns from neighboring towns. They will live there for about forty years and leave after that time to build another home.

Another feature of the Dorze people is the polyphonic music, which experts consider to be close to that of some Central African Pygmies and the Khoisan Kalahari. Dorze polyphonic singing is performed as a community and there are no individual specialists or professionals. The more detailed polyphonic songs, called edho, are usually sung in the festival of Epiphany, known as Maskal, or during Halak'aceremonies, the feast of initiation where adult men acquire the status of older or persons, responsible for community.

Hamar or Hamer

The 46,000 Hamar people live in the South Omo region, near the Omo River and north of Lake Turkana, in the extreme southwest, near the Delas borders with Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. They share their language, Hamer-Banna, with several Afro-Asian ethnic groups.

Hamar mythology and oral traditions say they are the result of the union of populations of different ethnic origins, from the north, east and west of their current territory of residence (Banna, Kara, Bume, Ari, Me'en, Tsamai, Konso). In the mid-nineteenth century they occupied the mountains north of Lake Turkana, and at that time made a living from agriculture (sorghum, beans, pumpkins, vegetables), livestock (cows, sheep, goats, donkeys), beekeeping, hunting and foraging.

There are three key moments in the development and survival of the Hamar people; the three invasions since the eighteenth century that they had to resist.

At some point in the eighteenth century, Borana intruders invaded the area from the East. According to Hamar tradition, this ended when the spiritual leader Hamar, the bitter, sent an army of bees and other stinging insects that made the Borana intruders flee in horror and disarray and desist from their expansionist ambitions.

In the nineteenth century, but this time from the south, Samburu groups called Hamar Korr arrived, together with the Arbore and the Hamar had to face these invaders and defend their traditional grazing lands. While these clashes continued, a few years later in the middle of the nineteenth century, Turkana arrived from the southern end of Lake Turkana, looting, stealing livestock and killing any people opposed to their progress. These Turkana eventually weakened the position of the Samburu, who had to retreat to their homelands. The campaign reminds Turkana between Hamar, to this day as a blessing, and the oral tradition has been given a kind of mystical dimension. Then, in the late nineteenth century, the first Europeans (hunters and explorers) came to the region. Although they were not in a spirit of conquest, they brought with them diseases like smallpox, unknown in Africa, ending the lives of many of the human and animal populations of Southern Ethiopia.

The third invasion came from the North and would have a devastating and lasting effect. In the late nineteenth century, the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II entered the race that the European powers carried out to capture as much territory as possible in Africa. To stop British advance from Kenya, Menelik sent troops south to conquer all the territories, hitherto independent, that separated him from the European presence in Northern Kenya. It appears that this struggle for individual survival forged the powerful personality and individualism of contemporary Hamar society.


The 1,000 Karo people live in the South Omo Region, near Daasanech and in coastal settlements around Hamer-Banna, its main towns and in Korch Dous.

Karo people speak Nyangatom which some linguists consider it a dialect of Hamer. Some Karo use it as a second language.

According to tradition the Karo come from the mountainous region residence of the Hamer-Banna, when they came down at a time of great drought, in search of pasture for their cattle which were dying of hunger. They initially settled on the banks of the Omo River, but later, the abundance of tsetse fly in the region ended with their herds dying and they were forced to engage in agriculture for subsistence.

The Karo carry out subsistence agriculture, primarily based on sorghum, beans and corn. They also do some fishing and collect honey. Gobierbo controls on hunting ended what had been one of the Karo peoples’ prime economic activities. Their main trade is with the Hamer and the Dassanech, who often trade their cattle grazing in exchange for local products. The voracity of termites which are abundant in the region is such that the Karo are often forced to rebuild their homes, even several times a year.


The Konso people (c.153,000) live in the South Lake area, on the banks of the River Sagan. Its capital is the town of Konso, also known as Bakuele. Their language is Komsa Afro-Asiatic and Cushitic.

There is no known origin or known time of arrival of the Konso in the region, but family and cultural traditions suggests that the Konso people are the result of a continued mixing of people from the neighbouring Cushitic peoples.

The cultivated slopes have been exploited to create terraces where men and women, mainly grow sunflower, fruit trees, sorghum, cotton and corn. Their traditional activity of producing acacia honey is appreciated internationally, with Europe being one of its principal customers. Each family tends to raise some cattle.

The Konso are also well-known artisans. They are imaginative carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers (using the Borana, Calicos are usually produced by the Konso), potters and are skilled in stonework. An important reason for their craft production is that it is intended for trading with the cattle towns of the region with who they exchange these products for meat, salt, milk and skins.

Their history is marked by attacks from neighbouring towns and they have developed a style of building their villages which is characterized by defensive fortifications 3 or 4 metres in height. A single gate is the only entrance to the villages, behind which you find a maze of narrow streets, where every house tends to maintain its small flower garden.

Their social structure is based on membership of one of the nine clans, gada. These gada are exogamous, meaning that the marriages are between people of different clans and kinship and inheritance are based upon the patrilineal model.

From adolescence, young males become part of a "cohort" that aims at preparing them for adult life. When teenagers begin their learning in a "cohort", they leave the family home during the night to live with colleagues of the same "cohort" in a kind of gazebo that stands in the center the village, which is open to the four winds. Each step to a "cohort" superior or marriage is accompanied by rituals and ceremonies where the party is important. These are parties where the dances, songs and music have large participation from the entire community. The songs and dances are always accompanied by musicians playing the krar (lira species widespread in many parts of Ethiopia), dita(five-string.


The 8,000 Mursi live in the central Omo region, occupying the lower ARTH Jinka. Linguistically, they are closely related to the Surma of Sudan, who live about 100 kms north of the border with Ethiopia and Kenya.

It seems that they came from the west, the current eastern Sudan, where once they would have formed part of the Durman people. Their existence, based on the development of their herds of cows and meagre subsistence crops, has been marked by constant surveillance of its territory against attacks from other cattle towns, especially the Bodi and Nyangatom.

Cattle are the main Mursi possession. Livestock is also the prime source of livelihood for sectors of the population (mainly children and young people) at certain times of year. These groups, in times of scarcity of grain, base their food on a mixture made from cow’s blood and milk.

Agriculture is the second financial source of their livelihood. Although in a good-weather year they can get up to two cereal crops (sorghum and maize), the regular cycle of droughts mean that the land becomes, for long periods, arid lands of low agricultural productivity. In addition, these droughts cause periodic eruption of insect epidemics (especially tsetse fly) that affect livestock. They usually supplement their diet with honey gathering.

Their social organization is based on the membership of each person to a patrilineal clan. The highest authority of the community is the Council, consisting of married men but having a higher level of Council membership of older men.

The men spend endless hours talking in meetings in which each participant is entitled to speak without any other being allowed to disrupt their presentations. The last ones to speak are older and are presumed to have more knowledge and experience.

Each year, young single men are often involved in violent Mursi tournaments, where, armed with long sticks called donga, they test their strength, their courage and their skill. The reward is the admiration of girls eligible for marriage and the prestige within the community.

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