Dispatch from Ethiopia V: Culture is the Spice of Life

For those of us who are wanderlusters at heart, there is a persistent internal voice that whispers promises of something more: more than the cubicle in which we dwell, more than the paycheck we receive for it, more than the grind most of us resign ourselves to as a means to an end. But what do you do when the means come up woefully short of the end you truly desire?

Meet Paul Voigt, a midwest native and communications professional who began scaling the corporate ladder, and realized it was time to take the path less traveled instead. Paul has graciously agreed to guest blog periodically, sharing his experiences with us from his new home, in Ethiopia. This is the fifth installment of his story, sent from Ethiopia. This post is the first in a series of three this month about Ethiopian culture.


“What about your American culture?”

That’s a question many Ethiopians have asked me – at school, on the street, on a bus. Customs, languages, attitudes and beliefs, and arts give a country its personality and character. Culture is the spice of human existence in the world.

Ethiopia has many definitive cultural aspects. When someone asks me to describe U.S. culture, it’s more difficult. We have a pop culture that’s known throughout the world, but what about American food or American cultural clothing? We can claim jeans and jazz, but many of our favorite foods get foreign credit. American culture is mixture of so many others.

Because of its diversity, I can only scratch the surface of Ethiopian culture. When I was assigned to teach English here, like many Americans, I knew very little about Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia, greetings are usually elaborate and heartfelt compared to the United States. You don’t pass a friend or family member on the street without stopping to inquire about their health, their families‘ health, and their work. The greeting also includes a characteristic hand grasp plus one or more shoulder bumps or a hand grasp plus right-cheek left-cheek right-cheek touch or variations of these two. I’ve had a 15 minute walk to the post office turn into 90 minutes of meeting people along the way and greeting them, followed by invitations to have tea or coffee and more chatting.

I think the reasons that greetings are so important have to do with relationships being very closely knit and people having lots of free time. In the U.S., we’re usually in a hurry. I’ve had to slow my walking pace considerably to keep from blazing ahead of my Ethiopian friends. One day as we walked back to the college after lunch, one of the teachers said to me, “Regulate your speed.” A polite way of saying “slow down.” In Ethiopia, stopping to chat with a friend is a good use of plentiful time.

Many of the kids in my town like to practice their English by shouting out some of the phrases they’ve learned in school as they pass by. “How are you?” (I’m fine thanks.) “What is your name?” (Paul.) “Where were you born?” (America.) “How old are you?” (21!) The other day one kid came up to me and said, “Who am I?” While these impromptu practice sessions aren’t as graceful as a typical greeting, it’s great to hear the kids testing out their knowledge on me.

People on the street take the time to greet each other with a handshake and some form shoulder bump or cheek-to-cheek contact.
People on the street take the time to greet each other with a handshake and some form shoulder bump or cheek-to-cheek contact. Photo contributed by Paul Voigt.


People speak more than 80 languages in Ethiopia, but Amharic is the official language. This Semitic language, the second most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic, is difficult to learn because of masculine/feminine/plural conjugations and an alphabet of 231 characters called fidel (33 basic characters, each with 7 forms). Each character represents a one consonant plus one vowel sound combination. Because of this, it’s difficult for Ethiopians to pronounce some English words that have three consonants in a row. For example, an Ethiopian would begin by pronouncing “world” as “wor-led” or “thanks” as “thank-ess” with two syllables instead of one.

The Oromo language is spoken in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region. It’s the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia with more than 25 million speakers. This is the language I’ve been learning since my assignment is in the town of Shambu in the Oromia region. Oromiffa shares our Latin alphabet which makes it an easier language to learn than Amharic. It also follows a strict set of pronunciation rules similar to Spanish.

Other common languages are Somali which is spoken in the eastern Somali region and Tigrigna which is spoken in the northern region of Tigray.

English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is the medium of instruction in secondary schools and universities.

This “house for rent” sign is written in Oromiffa and Amharic. The Amharic alphabet is made up of characters called fidel.
This “house for rent” sign is written in Oromiffa and Amharic. The Amharic alphabet is made up of characters called fidel. Photo contributed by Paul Voigt.

Some people are surprised to learn that Christianity is the most common religion in Ethiopia, which shows a western cultural bias since Ethiopia (then known as the Kingdom of Axum) was one of the first nations in the world to officially adopt Christianity as the state religion. Around 63% of Ethiopians are Christian (a majority being Ethiopian Orthodox, followed by Protestants and a very small number of Catholics), 34% are Muslim (some estimates are as high as 40%), and about 3% follow traditional religions.

The Ethiopian Orthodox church in my town of Shambu. It’s the most distinctive landmark in town.
The Ethiopian Orthodox church in my town of Shambu. It’s the most distinctive landmark in town. Photo contributed by Paul Voigt.

Ethiopia appears many times in the Bible and in some translations is referred to as Cush, Sheba, and Ophir. This includes areas south of Egypt or what is now neighboring Eritrea and Sudan.

The most famous Ethiopian mentioned in the Bible is the Queen of Sheba (named Makeda in Ethiopian tradition). According to the story, she traveled to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem. He fell in love with her, and when she returned to Ethiopia after her visit she gave birth to their son Menelik. Menelik eventually returned to meet his father King Solomon and returned to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant which held the original ten commandments. Ethiopians believe the Ark rests in St. Mary of Zion church in the northern city of Axum. The descendants of Solomon and Menelik ruled Ethiopia with few interruptions until the emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974.

The ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Axum, a town in northern Ethiopia. Photo contributed by Paul Voigt.
The ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Axum, a town in northern Ethiopia. Photo contributed by Paul Voigt.

The Bible also says that Moses married an Ethiopian woman, much to the dismay of his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, although God didn’t seem to mind. Legend has it that one of the magi at Jesus’ birth was Balthazar from Ethiopia who brought myrrh, but some scholars consider this a legend only. The apostle St. Matthew is said to have died in Ethiopia.

When Menelik returned to Ethiopia after visiting his father, King Solomon is believed to have sent 12,000 of his people (1,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel) as a gift. For generations, the people of Ethiopia practiced Judaism. The kingdom of Axum (Ethiopia) became a Christian nation in 341 A.D., but Ethiopian Jews known as Falashas continued to practice their Jewish faith.

As new religions were introduced to Ethiopia, the Falashas were driven from their homes and into the mountains. They became poor and oppressed. In 1985, the Israeli government with U.S. assistance airlifted 8,000 Falashas to Israel over the course of a few weeks in a secret mission called Operation Moses. Then in 1991, 14,000 more Falashas were airlifted to Israel in one day during Operation Solomon. Today almost all Ethiopian Jews live in Israel and are recognized as the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Some Israeli and Jewish scholars consider them the historical lost tribe of Israel.

Islam in Ethiopia dates back to the founding of the religion in 615 A.D. The prophet Muhammad sent a group of Muslims including his wife to Ethiopia to escape persecution. The Christian king of Axum welcomed them, respected their religion, and offered them protection. This was the beginning of Muslim settlement in Ethiopia and Islam spread to the east and south in the country. Today the capital city of Addis Ababa is home to about 1 million Muslims.


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Paul Voigt was a corporate communications writer and freelance copywriter in a former life. He gave up pop culture, Midwest winters and softball to serve for two years as an English teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Shambu, Ethiopia. 

Look for additional updates from Paul Voigt in the near future. You can also send him your well wishes by leaving a comment here. 



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Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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