Africa Guide

Amhara People


The Amhara are the politically and culturally dominant ethnic group of Ethiopia. They are located primarily in the central highland plateau of Ethiopia and comprise the major population element in the provinces of Begemder and Gojjam and in parts of Shoa and Wallo. In terms of the total Ethiopian population, however, the Amhara are a numerical minority. The national population has usually been placed at between 14 and 22 million.

It is generally estimated that the Amhara, together with the closely related Tigre, constitute about one-third of this total population. One of the most recent estimates gives the number of native speakers of Amharic, the language of the Amhara, as approximately 7,800,000. (cf. Bender 1971:217)

Their national clothes are basically white, whether the shawls and light blankets worn over the shoulders by the men or the white dresses and wraps worn by the ladies

Life in the Amhara farming society is hard. Many Amhara live in the harsh and stark mountains, easy to defend, but making it difficult to travel and gain provisions. The men in the fields, the women around the house and the children at home and watching the sheep--all work very hard. The fields are plowed with oxen, seeds are sown and harvested by hand, and the harvest is threshed by the feet of animals. In the home, the primary cooking fuel is the dried dung of the farm animals. Nothing is wasted.

The staple food of the Amhara is injera bo wot. Injera is made from a tiny indigenous grain called teff (tyeff in Amharic), which is endemic to Ethiopia. Wot is a peppersauce that can be made from beans or meat. The whole process of making these foods is difficult and time-consuming. Impure drinking water and deforestation are significant issues in Amhara life. These, plus other factors, cause most Amhara to live in yearly risk of famine. These famines ravaged the country in 1974 and 1984.

The children from the age of five or six spend their days watching the family animals, mainly sheep. Increasingly, children are able to attend public schools, though this is mainly for only half a day since the schools are very crowded. Only a little over 10 per cent of the population has access to an all-weather road.

Though their life is hard, the Amhara are proud people, proud of their ethnicity, their religion, their special place in the world. Their culture is strong, developed over many centuries, and it has withstood the incursions of outside governments and religions.

Settlements are typically built on or near hilltops, as protection against flooding. Farms are terraced on the hillsides to prevent erosion and hold water for crops. The "hamlet" is usually patrilineal, with sons building their homes in the father's location. Girls normally marry at age 14, and the groom is three to five years older.

Most marriages are negotiated by the two families, with a civil ceremony sealing the contract. A priest may be present. Divorce is allowed and must also be negotiated. There is also a "temporary marriage," by oral contract before witnesses. The woman is paid housekeeper's wages, and is not eligible for inheritance, but children of the marriage are legally recognized and qualify for inheritance. Priests may marry but not eligible for divorce or remarriage.

Children are breastfed for about two years. Children receive little discipline until about age five to seven, but thereafter are socialized with authoritarian discipline. Boys herd cows and sheep and girls assist their mothers in watching babies and gathering wood.

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