Ethiopian Culture

Core Concepts

Primary Author
Nina Evason,

Ethiopia is located in the Horn of Africa, bordering Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti. The country has the second biggest population in Africa, with over 50% of people being under 25 years of age.1 Due to the vast size of the population, it is important to recognise that descriptions of Ethiopian cultural customs can vary significantly. There are many distinct cultural practices that are specific to people’s region, or religion. Despite this diversity, Ethiopians are generally united by their patriotism and pride in the country’s overarching cultural identity.

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa, once ruled as a dynasty by a series of monarchs. It is distinct from most other African nations as it is one of the only countries that successfully resisted European . It also has a historical connection to Christianity, with the region adopting the religion before many Western nations were exposed to it. This legacy of the country’s independence and the Ethiopian ‘Tewahedo’ Church are very important to Ethiopians’ sense of national pride. Their sense of morality and cultural refinement are shaped by centuries of practice, and continue to inform how they see themselves in the contemporary setting. Generally speaking, Ethiopians are renowned for being welcoming, considerate, cooperative and non-confrontational people.

Habesha Culture and Identity

Ethiopians and Eritreans both generally identify as ‘habesha’. This term is used to describe the unique culture and people of the Ethiopian/Eritrean region, regardless of . Historically, “habesha” exclusively referred to the Semitic tribes and in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia (such as the Amhara, Tigray and Tigrinya people). Today, however, habesha is commonly used as a unifying word to describe all people in the region, regardless of or tribe. The habesha identity and culture is a very important source of pride for many Ethiopians as it encapsulates the way their culture differs from the rest of Africa. The word is also used in Omotic and other languages, and by some in other countries.

Having never been colonised, the Ethiopian region differs from other African countries in many ways. The customs of Ethiopia continue to be deeply rooted in centuries of practice, and many aspects of daily life are ritualised. For example, there is a correct and traditional way to serve coffee, fold a dress, cut chicken and greet people. The country also has its own ancient alphabet and calendar that are still in use. Moreover, the country is home to one of the earliest Christian organisations, the Ethiopian ‘Tewahedo’ Church, which remains the most popular religion. Ultimately, Ethiopian culture is often unable to be neatly categorised. It shares similarities with some Arab or Mediterranean cultures, although these descriptors also do not fit. Rather, “Habesha” epitomizes the culture that is unique to the region.

Ethnicity and Language

While there are certain cultural traditions that represent a national or ‘habesha’ culture, practices differ between regions, religions and . Ethiopia contains over 80 different groups. Their ancestries vary, with some tracing back to Bantu or Nilotic tribes of sub-Saharan Africa whilst others have closer heritage to the Cushitic tribes of the Middle East. According to the 2007 census, the largest groups are the Oromo (43.4% of the population), Amhara (26.9%), Somali (6.2%), Tigray (6.1%) and Sidama (4%). Other significant populations include the Gurage, Welaita, Hadiya and Afar people. Historically, each group has been divided into tribes and sub-tribes on the basis of people’s descent from common ancestors. This is still the case for many living in rural areas, particularly among pastoralists in less developed regions. However, tribal organisational structures have been dismantled in many areas, particularly urban spaces.

Each group has distinct cultural practices and speaks a language specific to their (e.g. Oromos speak Oromiffa and Tigrayans speak Tigrinya). In total, there are 87 native languages spoken in Ethiopia.2 Amharic is the only language that has official status throughout the entire country. Meanwhile, Somali, Oromiffo, Afar and Tigrinya have official status in the regional states relating the majority . English is also the most widely understood foreign language. Most urban Ethiopians speak Amharic, their local/ language and English.

Ethnic Relations

Ethiopia has been organised as an ‘ federation’ since 1995. This means that the country’s states are divided on an basis, with most people living in the region or zone where their is the majority. For example, most Oromos live in the Oromia region, Amharas live in the Amhara region, Tigrayans live in the Tigray region, and so forth. The idea behind this state system was to allow groups more political autonomy. However, it is widely believed that this government structure has overly politicised identity and created more tension. Moreover, many people have ethnically mixed heritage and may not feel a close affiliation with one homogeneous identity. Most people living in central Ethiopia (e.g. the capital city, Addis Ababa) prefer to identify as simply “Ethiopian” but are required to associate with an identity.

It is generally believed that those belonging to an group with political power have better access to services and face fewer barriers. Therefore, there are some concerns that Tigrayans dominate positions of power in the intelligence services, the military and business, despite making up only around 6% of the Ethiopian population.3 There is also widespread opinion that the Ethiopian national identity is more (or overly) reflective of the Amharas. This is exacerbated by the fact that Amharic is the official national language and Amharic speakers often have more access to opportunity. Some may feel that their group has been excluded from the ruling class. For example, there continues to be underlying tension over the fact that Oromos have not had the most political influence despite being the largest group. 

tension usually occurs between the government and a tribe or group in a specific region. Generally, anyone who openly protests against the government may face a high risk of official violence, particularly if they oppose the government on issues relevant to their region or .4 Oromos, Somalis, Anuak, Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin report being at particular risk of official discrimination on the basis of their . Nevertheless, it is important to note that while tension exists, open hostility is not noticeable among the general public on a day-to-day basis. Most people find common ground under a strong national identity, as well as the unique ‘habesha’ identity (see Habesha Culture and Identity above).

National Identity and Pride

It is common to encounter quite patriotic views among Ethiopians. Many feel their country has great cultural depth and wealth in comparison to others. For example, there is a general expectation that an Ethiopian living overseas will eventually want to return or stay connected to their country (regardless of improved living circumstances elsewhere) as their culture is incomparable. Ethiopians also share a deep pride in the country’s legacy and what it symbolises as an historically independent African nation. The Ethiopian Empire (also known as Abyssinia) was one of the last active empires in the world. Its strong statehood was a key to Ethiopia’s successful resistance of .5 The fact that the culture was untouched by and continues to be taught in its original form by its own people is a massive source of pride for Ethiopians.  

Ethiopians are also often keen to point out that they are one of the only African nations that were not introduced to Christianity by Europeans. Rather, Ethiopia was one of the first countries to declare Christianity as the official state religion in 333 CE. As such, the Ethiopian Church is a strong national symbol and continues to be practised in reflection of its historic roots. While it is often understated, one may find that Ethiopians are very confident in the righteousness of their faith. Indeed, many have a quiet sense of conviction in their cultural refinement and morals, seeing themselves as sophisticated and progressive people. 

It is important to appreciate the legacy and depth of Ethiopian culture in order to understand how Ethiopians see themselves in the contemporary setting. People generally do not view events of recent history (such as the political regimes, wars with neighbouring countries or famines) as things that define the country or its people. Rather, most Ethiopians see the hardship and political turmoil of the past few decades as a recent devastating chapter in a much longer history of independence and achievement. In this way, it is common for Ethiopians to express disappointment or dismay at the fact that most Western perceptions of their country have been formulated around these humanitarian crises. Nevertheless, it is also important to understand the political history of the last century, as these hardships have influenced Ethiopian society and shaped the living overseas. 

Political History

Ethiopia’s final emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown by a coup in 1974. A military government, known as “the Derg”, was established in his place and Ethiopia was declared a socialist state. The Derg became known as a ruthless regime that carried out extrajudicial killings, limited political freedoms and repressed opponents in order to maintain its power. During the Derg era, many ongoing internal conflicts erupted as multiple rebel groups fought against the power of government, and different groups fought for independence (e.g. the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front). There was also a war with neighbouring Somalia that came at a high human cost. Multiple conflicts and government-sanctioned violence resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and large displacement as people fled the country. It is estimated over 30,000 people were killed between 1977 and 1987 alone on suspicion of anti-government activity during a period known as the Red Terror, or ‘Qey Shibir’. Ethiopia was also plagued by severe droughts that caused widespread famine over the 20th century. Ultimately, all these factors led to widespread displacement, poverty, political instability and the stagnation of development.

In 1991, a coalition of rebel groups succeeded in overthrowing the Derg. In the same year, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia after almost 30 years of fighting for secession. Political tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea were not resolved, and in 1998 a war erupted as the two countries contested the demarcations of the border. The fighting had devastating humanitarian costs, ending with Ethiopia declaring a military victory and occupying most of the disputed territory in 2000. However, hostilities continued and the two governments continued to operate under a “state of war”, effectively cutting off the populations from one another.

The two-decade-long political, economic and social divide between the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia has posed many challenges. War created rigid borders where fluid boundaries between the nations had previously existed.6 Some see the divide as a result of politics (rather than people and culture) as Eritreans and Ethiopians are historically and culturally interconnected in many ways. Indeed, it is common for Eritrean and Ethiopian communities to converge under a broader habesha identity (see Habesha Identity and Culture above). Nevertheless, thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin were deported from Ethiopia, and vice versa.7 This created a humanitarian crisis and also an identity crisis for many people who previously felt a national belonging to both countries in some way.

Current Situation

Ethiopia’s political history may still be a sensitive issue, particularly for those who were displaced. Every Ethiopian family is likely to have their own personal experiences of the era of the Derg or the effects of the war with Eritrea. However, there tends to be a generational divide in attitudes. For example, those among the younger generation of Ethiopians tend to harbour less hostility against Eritrea than those who were directly affected by violence. Today, many people are more concerned with present-day matters, such as internal conflict and tension. There continue to be localised regional conflicts between the government and certain tribes or in specified regions. More broadly, political freedoms are restricted throughout Ethiopia, especially since the introduction of a State of Emergency in October 2016. Surveillance, harassment, arrest and detainment of political opposition is common.

However, this political situation is changing rapidly. In April 2018, the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed began implementing major reforms as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia. At the time of writing, Ahmed has released thousands of political prisoners and lifted the State of Emergency. He has also re-established diplomatic relations with Eritrea for the first time in 20 years. Much hope has been ignited for Ethiopia, with some hailing the new Prime Minister as a prophet.8 Nevertheless, people remain mostly concerned with challenges relating to matters of employment, inflation and the rising cost of living.

Social Structure and Interactions

The majority of the Ethiopian population belongs to the lower class, living in small villages or sprawling urban settlements surrounding cities. Roughly 80% of Ethiopians live rurally; the capital city is the only urban area with over a million people. A sizable ‘middle class’ exists in cities. These people are not necessarily part of the elite or the lower class. For example, they might be families that have international contacts or support from relatives living overseas. Differences in wealth may be noticeable in people’s homes or by the size of their plots of land.

A person’s wealth tends to be the biggest determinant of their status within their community. Ethiopians generally respect those with money, regardless of other social indicators. Education is valued, but does not necessarily earn public respect in the same way. Rather, it is often seen as the skill that can improve livelihoods and social mobility between generations. Parents aspire for their children to be educated as a route out of poverty and as a way of being supported in their old age. However, it is not always possible for children to remain in school as they have to support their families by working. Children are often required to help with domestic tasks or work from a young age. A 2016 study on a group of children found that 98% were doing some types of work by the age of 12 (e.g. working on the family farm or business).10 People are moving to the city for higher wages and better educational opportunities at increasing rates.11 Emigration overseas is also generally viewed positively as it is understood that such individuals contribute to Ethiopia by supporting households and communities back home.12 Indeed, many Ethiopians living overseas may have whole families or communities depending on them through .

Collective Life and Community Belonging

There is a very strong community focus embedded in Ethiopian culture. People are often mutually reliant on their relatives and neighbours. This aspect of the culture is described as ‘mahiberawi nuro’ (literally meaning ‘collective life’). As the government cannot be relied on to provide social support, one’s welfare is usually dependent on the generosity of their family and friends. For example, it is common for a family to send their daughter to a different city to care for a relative if they fall sick.13 Individuals may also receive social, emotional and financial support from the broader community and public when going through particular hardship. Local churches and mosques often play a key role in mobilising community support. However, this community-minded generosity must be reciprocated for it to be received. Individuals are expected to put others before themselves in order to be a meaningful member of society. Those people who are not similarly kind and helpful may not receive support during times of need.

The community focus of Ethiopia also gives the culture a strong social dimension. It is common for people to meet friends, play with children or socialise in public places without having to organise to do so. For example, Ethiopians may be able to maintain a healthy social life simply by drinking coffee on popular streets, watching locals and waiting to be spoken to by those passing. People often get to know many of the locals in their village or town, reinforcing a sense of community belonging. 

Many Ethiopians report that they miss this aspect of their culture whilst living overseas in English-speaking Western countries. They often describe how strangers in Ethiopia are met with a very welcoming and playful attitude, an approach that they have not necessarily experienced living overseas. Some Ethiopians also report that they feel spontaneous generosity is more common in Ethiopia. For example, a stranger may pay for someone’s food without telling them. This selflessness is related to the concept of ‘Yilugnta’ below.  

Yilugnta (Selflessness or Public Self-Consciousness)

The generosity and selflessness of Ethiopians is commonly attributed to the concept of ‘yilugnta’. Many Ethiopians would describe ‘having yilugnta’ as possessing a selfless concern for others, regardless of one’s own situation. While this word does not have a English translation, yilugnta generally describes being considerate of others’ feelings, or having an awareness of how one’s actions are seen through other’s eyes.14 Some associate it with questions such as “What would the neighbours think?” or “How would others judge my behaviour?”. This sense of public self-consciousness generally motivates Ethiopians to be appeasing, cooperative and considerate of others.15

Yilugnta sees people be more hospitable, inclusive, community-minded and cooperative, as these are all important virtues in Ethiopian society. It reinforces important cultural values and rules of interaction/social graces (sene magber) in almost every aspect of people’s lives. For example, it encourages children to be very obedient and respectful towards their parents. In general, yilugnta shapes Ethiopian culture to have an emphasis on personal representation; how people behave, present themselves and treat others is seen to reflect their honour. 

Tolerance, Patience and Stoicism

Ethiopians are often perceived to be considerate, modest, mild-mannered or non-confrontational people. This is often noticed in the way people can be very tolerant of inconvenience. For example, Ethiopians are likely go out of their way to accommodate a guest even if they do not have adequate means to support them or the person arrived at an inappropriate time. Some relate this self- and accommodating attitude to yilugnta (see Yilugnta above). Indeed, Ethiopians may be reluctant to show negative emotion, such as aggression or boisterousness, in order to prevent offence (see Communication for more information). Generally, people tend to be quite patient and passive, unless a situation escalates to a point that they have no choice but to react.

However, patience and stoicism can also be related to the highly religious aspect of the culture. There is quite a side to Ethiopian culture; both Christians and Muslims may believe that life events are predetermined or altered by God. Therefore, people may not complain as much, and instead turn to prayer to resolve certain issues (e.g. illness). See the Religion section for more information on this.


1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2018
2 Lewis, Simons & Fennig, 2016
3 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017
4 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017
5 The exception being a short-lived Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941.
6 Riggan, 2011
7 Riggan, 2011
8 Marsh, 2018
9 Kuschminder & Siegel, 2014
10 Crivello & van der Gaag, 2016
11 Kuschminder & Siegel, 2014
12 Kuschminder & Siegel, 2014
13 Abebe, 2008
14 Hassen, 2016
15 Wole, 2018

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