by Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Hamer evangadi The southern part of Ethiopia does not belong among the historical lands of the Ethiopian Empire.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Menelik – the ruler of the Shewa province and the future Emperor of Ethiopia – decided to conquer the lands neighbouring Ethiopia to the south, to the east, and a relatively narrow area located to the west.

The lands conquered at that time constitute more than half of contemporary Ethiopia. They are mostly inhabited by Muslims (in the eastern part) and even today the largest number of followers of traditional African religions inhabits the south and the west of the country.

The religious situation and the different ethnic mixture in this area were among the features which for many decades distinguished them from the rest of the Empire.

For the last ten years, the southern part of Ethiopia (officially known as the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region) has attracted the attention of a growing number of tourists, who regularly come to visit this area.

This part of Ethiopia offers what is advertised as a “cultural tour” in comparison to the “historical tour” in the case of visiting the north of the country. One may say that those who decide to go for a “cultural tour” hope to experience the last remaining fragments of “authentic” Africa; they search for African “wilderness” as well as for something “real”.

It is a search for an Africa which they expect will be different from anything else they can see in other parts of the world, a search for cultures which have not been influenced by the West and for people who live in territories not easily accessible.

The image they encounter corresponds to the colonial imaginary, presenting societies living according to old values, leading lives which are not subject to change or development.

Such a vision of the continent has already been severely ridiculed and criticized on many occasions and the absurdity of such an attitude is obvious for those who are aware of global processes and with even a basic knowledge of world history.

However, it does not stop crowds of tourists travelling to the south of Ethiopia and spending five to ten days taking photographs of the beautiful and almost naked Hamer ladies, the deformed Mursis’ lips and Karo’s painted bodies.

Quite unfortunately, tourists tend to remain unaware of the beauty and cultural richness of this part of Ethiopia during their search for the “authentic old Africa” advertised in tourist agencies’ folders.

The ethnic and cultural diversity in the lands south of Addis Ababa and in the regions close to Kenya’s border is immense. The difference between Ethiopia’s northern territories and its south is reflected by the changing landscape. Addis Ababa, the capital located almost in the centre of the country’s territory, is situated in the south of the Abyssinian plateau, and thus in the southern limits of the land which was governed by the Ethiopian emperors towards the end of the 19th century.

Heading south, we leave behind spectacular mountains divided by huge abysses; however, the landscape continues to amaze. The views are gentler; the green and yellow hills are pleasant to look upon. The biggest ethnic group living in this area is the Gurage.

The symbol of the Gurage culture is inset, also known as the “false banana”. This plant, which is the dominant crop cultivated here, is used as a source of food as well as a building material.

In opposition to the actual banana tree, which it closely resembles, inset does not produce edible fruit. Inset’s leaves, roots and its stem is used for different purposes, including the production of food, clothes, furniture and utensils.

The Gurage build their houses using the same plant as material, while food for animals is also produced from inset. Cultivation of this plant determines the group’s whole life, even specifying social roles. This is the reason why the Gurage’s culture is often described as the “culture of inset”.

Another ethnic group inhabiting this area, until recently perceived as a sub-group of the Gurage and now described as independent, are the Silte. They live in quite a large area west and south-west of Lake Zway  and they are the Gurage’s neighbours, as well as being strict Muslims.

Silte attract traveller’s attention as, contrary to other Muslim Ethiopians, they emphasize their orthodox attitude towards religion. Silte woman wear outfits which cover them completely, often to the extent of covering their faces, which is extremely rare in Ethiopia.

Also men’s outfits and the huge number of mosques in the area leave no doubt as to which faith the Silte follow. This religious manifestation differentiates the Silte from their neighbours, who are a mixture of the followers of Islam and Christianity: both Orthodox and Protestant.

The Gurage and Silte are the most southern located Semitic ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Further south, the ethnic differentiation, as well as the diversity of languages, cultures and the way people look, increases.

The flora and fauna is also very diverse. Leaving the Gurage and Silte behind, one enters territories inhabited by the Hadiya, Gamo, Wolayta and Konso. As in any other place in the world, the culture of each of these individual groups can charm to the extent that it is easy to be tempted to spend some more time in the area and become familiar with the local culture.

This article will continue on next post

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska has traveled extensively throughout Ethiopia and is a regular contributor to this blog.

She has specialized in modern history of Ethiopia and currently lectures at Warsaw University, Department of African Languages and Cultures.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska (Ph.D.)

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