You might have read that our son was born in Ethiopia. Because we want Ricky to have a connection to his heritage, as a family we try to learn as much as we can about Ethiopia: the food, traditions, history, language, music, religion, and more. Ricky loves to learn about and talk about his birthplace! There are many ways to incorporate culture into our children’s lives, and the easiest way to start is by locating it on a map. All of the pictures are © Becky Morales unless otherwise stated.
When you look at a map of Africa, Ethiopia is near the east coast of the continent, in what is called the “Horn of Africa.” My kids find it easily because they think it looks like a rhino’s horn. Ethiopia does not have any coastline, and is surrounded by Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sudan.
Learning the geography of the country is another way to learn about the country. Ethiopia is very mountainous, and several types of endemic animals are found in the mountains, such as the Gelada Baboon, the Walia Ibex, and the Ethiopian Wolf. There are many types of monkeys and birds, and also in certain areas there are endangered black rhinos, cheetahs, gazelles, zebras, lions, and even a few elephants. Besides the mountains, the country is divided by the Great Rift Valley, where there chains of lakes with abundant wildlife. In these lakes, in the south of Ethiopia, you will find hippos and crocodiles.
Flags are symbols of identity, and a source of pride. We learned that the current Ethiopian flag has 3 horizontal stripes: red is for strength, yellow symbolizes peace and hope for all of the many ethnicities and religions in Ethiopia, and green stands for the land. You might have noticed similar colors in other African flags; Newly-independent countries in Africa, as well as the Pan-African movement admire Ethiopia because it was not colonized by any European nation during the colonial era, except for a brief occupation by the Italians.
Religion is a very important part of Ethiopian culture, and yet the religious groups live peacefully as neighbors throughout the country. About 60% of Ethiopians are either Orthodox Christian or Protestant, and a third are Muslim. Ethiopia has a rich religious history, with Christianity arriving in the 1st century, and Islam in the 600′s. Some of the most popular tourist sites in Ethiopia are the amazing churches carved out of rock in the 12th century, such as Lalibela (in the north). Here is a picture of the historical Lalibela church, and the largest Orthodox Church in Africa: Bole Medhane Alem Church in Addis Ababa.
In order to expand their knowledge, avoid stereotypes, and assure that we are not showing only a single story (i.e. rural countryside), it’s important to show kids the large, modern cities in other countries. Addis Ababa, population of over 3 million, is the capital of Ethiopia, and has a bustling downtown with many monuments and shopping areas. Addis is the home to many museums, the National Palace (of the president), numerous cathedrals and churches, and a great university. In addition to the many supermarkets and malls, Addis also has the “Mercato:” the largest open air market in Africa. It is several MILES wide, and sells everything from mattress to spices to coffee to fabric, etc. Unfortunately when we went, I didn’t bring my camera! But I promise it is amazing:). Here are some pictures on-line of the Mercato.
Outside of the city, agriculture is the main source of income. Shepherds and their livestock roam the fields, and while driving on the highway you are likely to encounter herds of cows, skittish goats, and slow-moving donkeys.
Most farmers use traditional methods for harvesting and planting, and sell some of their produce and grains in local markets, while saving the rest for their families. There is a large variety of the types of homes found in the countryside: they could be made of mud blocks, or different types of straw and grass structures. Here are some pictures of the countryside:
While many people speak the official language, “Amharic,” Ethiopia is a very, very diverse country, with over 80 distinct and unique ethnic groups. Each of the different tribes of people have their own customs, language, and dress. While many people have left their traditional lifestyles in order to move to bigger cities, the government is trying to encourage young people to maintain the cultural traditions and languages of their ancestors. With increased transportation (such as the highway running south to Nairobi that is almost completed) as well as increased tourism, some anthropologists say that many of the tribal cultures are endangered.
Food is a wonderful way to explore another culture from home. The most typical food from Ethiopia is a type of bread called “injera,” made from the grain “teff.” Teff is a super-grain, high in calcium, protein, iron, and fiber that has grown in Ethiopia for thousands of years. It is mixed with water, left to ferment (like sourdough) and made into a large, thin, spongey bread. Piling on different stews of vegetables, lentils, meats, and sauces, Ethiopians then use their fingers to tear off a bit of the injera and scoop up the delicious meals on top. For breakfast, many kids enjoy kinche, what many call “Ethiopian oatmeal.”
Although kids don’t usually partake, the most famous drink from Ethiopia is coffee. One legend says that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia when a shepherd wondered why his goats were extra-hyper and wouldn’t sleep after eating a particular berry (the coffee bean!). No can say for sure which version of the story is true, but everyone agrees that Ethiopia has delicious coffee! The coffee ceremony is an integral part of Ethiopians lives, and is a part of all holidays, visits from friends, in restaurants… or just for fun.
For little kids, the drinks of choice are cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or fresh fruit juices. Here’s a layered drink with mango and avocado juice you can make at home by just pureeing the fruits in a blender one at a time with a tad of sugar and lime juice.
Children’s literature is a wonderful way to learn more about Ethiopian culture. In addition to the books I review here and here that introduce Ethiopian culture, I also recommend any books by Jane Kurtz, the daughter of missionaries who spent decades in Ethiopia where they raised their five daughters and one son in a remote village. She has written several books about Ethiopia and Eritrea such as Fire on the Mountain, Pulling the Lion’s Tail, Trouble, and Only a Pigeon.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey through Ethiopia! As I find more bits of culture, I will continue to post them here. It is a fascinating country with an ancient history and warm people who love little kids. Maybe one day you’ll be able to visit?