There are almost as many languages as there are peoples in Ethiopia, about 80 in all. The languages come from a variety of families – Semitic, Hamitic, Nilotic and Omotic. Amharic, spoken in the country’s heartland, is Ethiopia’s official language, but Tigrinya, spoken in the north, and Orominya, spoken in the south, have semi-official status. The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in the country, and are made up of a muddle of Christians, Muslims and traditional animists. Amharic and Tigrinya use the Ge’ez script, with an understated 231 letters – keep an eye out for fabulously complex Amharic typewriters. Kids are taught English from junior high onward, and many people can speak a smattering or more.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has dominated religious life in the country since the fourth century, when two brothers from Tyre began evangelizing with the blessing of the king. Ethiopian Orthodoxy has a strong monastic tradition, and until the Marxist revolution, there were Orthodox clergy in almost every town in the country. Orthodoxy combines more standard Christian beliefs in God, Catholic saints and Jesus (although there is more emphasis on the Old Testament than in many western churches) with traditional African beliefs about spirits and devils – church services often include dancing, astrology and fortune telling. Believers fast every Wednesday and Friday, avoiding meat, dairy and sometimes fish.
Ethiopian literature is traditionally Christian, with the earliest writings in Ge’ez being translations of Greek Christian works. Ge’ez literary production really took off in the 13th century, when a stack of Coptic, Syriac and Greek religious works were translated from Arabic. About 200 years later, Ge’ez writers branched out into original works, beginning with the lives of saints and moving onto apocalyptic books such as the Elucidation of Jesus and the Mystery of Heaven and Earth. Amharic took over from Ge’ez around the 16th century, and again, writers concentrated mainly on translations of religious works. It wasn’t until the end of WWII that Amharic writers really began writing about other issues – Makonnen Endalkaches, Kebede Mikael and Tekle Tsodeq Makuria are notable postwar writers who addressed moral and patriotic themes.
Injera is the mainstay of the Ethiopian diet. This phenomenally bouncy bread is made from the peculiarly Ethiopian tef cereal. The other ubiquitous food is wat, the sauce in which meat and vegetables are cooked – wat comes in a fiery, kai format, or as the milder alicha. The southern region of Kafa claims to be the original home of coffee, and the bean has been grown in Ethiopia since 1000AD – you can certainly find decent cappuccinos and even macchiatos in Addis Ababa. Tella is the local home brew, a beer made from barley or maize – it’s supplemented with tej, made from honey, and arakie, a killer grain spirit.