USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Ethiopia’
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ethiopian Food Etiquette

The informant is a good friend from one of my clubs. We had met up for lunch and she shared many of her Ethiopian traditions and customs with me, as well as some superstitions of her people.

In Ethiopia, no one uses utensils to eat, they just use their hands. While there are forks people can use, most choose not to. However, because cleanliness and hygiene were a problem in the past, only one hand that is designated for eating touches the food on the plate, while the other can be used for any other task, such as using the bathroom. The informant said that even though cleanliness is no longer a problem, the custom still remains. In fact, there is even a hand-washing ceremony before every meal, where the host will bring around a special tea pot and a bowl, and the guests will wash just their eating hand. Traditionally it is the right hand, but nowadays, if you are left-handed and prefer to eat with the left, it is acceptable.

I also asked whether people eat by taking turns, and the informant said that they all can eat at the same time, just not before everyone has been seated. She also explained to me the tradition of “gursha”, where you would feed a family member or a lover to show the close relationship you both share.

Background & Analysis

The informant is a student here at USC as well, and although her mother is from Ethiopia, she was born and raised here in California. However, she often goes back to Ethiopia with her mom to visit friends and family.

I think the one-hand eating rule is super clever, especially since soap used to be an issue in Ethiopia. The tradition of gursha is also very similar how people in east Asian cultures will, for example, cut a piece of meat and feed it to a friend, family, or lover as a way to acknowledge the close relationship and comfort towards the other.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Ethiopian Food Serving

The informant is a good friend from one of my clubs. We had met up for lunch and she shared many of her Ethiopian traditions and customs with me, as well as some superstitions of her people.

In Ethiopia, everyone at the dinner table eats the food from one dish, and no one has their own individual plate. The communal plate is very large, and an assortment of foods are served on it for everyone to share. Large pots of each type of food are made separately, and small portions are added to the communal plate at a time, since it’s not good to save leftovers that have been on the plate and touched. The saying is “it tastes like hands.” Therefore, leftovers are foods still in the pot that have yet to be touched, while the food on the communal plate is expected to be finished in that sitting.


The lesson is not overload the plate with food, since it can’t be eaten the next day because it will taste like the hands that touched it. Ethiopians eat their food with their hands instead of utensils, so the saying comes from this custom.

Background & Analysis

The informant is a student here at USC as well, and although her mother is from Ethiopia, she was born and raised here in California. However, she often goes back to Ethiopia with her mom to visit friends and family.

The meal serving tradition in Ethiopia is so different from what I’m used to here in America. We are accustomed to getting our own dish with a serving size of our own choice. Eating without utensils is also often seen as  mannerless behavior, unless the food is something such as chicken or corn on the cob. The Ethiopian dinner style is similar to the traditional Hawaiian way of eating, especially the eating with your hands part. The foods are in their own bowls, and the bowls are passed around to everyone present, who each in turn take one bite and pass the food along to the next person. This will continue until everyone is full or the food is gone. The sharing of food in such intimate ways in both cultures, definitely brings people together.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ethiopian Greeting Customs

The informant is a good friend from one of my clubs. We had met up for lunch and she shared many of her Ethiopian traditions and customs with me, as well as some superstitions of her people.

Original Script

Informant: “When you say hi to people… It’s a mess! You have to do it in a line, right? Okay so what happens is… If I was meeting another family and I showed up with just me and my mom, she would meet the most important person in that group first. Like,  she would say hi to them, I’m standing behind my mom.”

Me: “Like the head of the family?”

Informant: “She says hi to the head of the other family first, then to the second person, then to the third person. And then when she’s done, I go do it. So like if… Say we came to someone else’s house, so if we’re the visitors, she would say hi to the most important person, and I can’t say hi to people. I say to people after she has done it, because she outranks me.” (laughs)

Me: “So you just stand back and just watch?”

Informant: “Yeah, I stand behind her while she greets the most important person, then when she moves on to the second most important person, I can go on to the first important person. And then my little brother is still waiting, and then when I’ve moved on to the second person, he can talk to that first person.”

Me: “Oh, so you don’t have to wait to go through the whole family?”

Informant: “Yeah, but you got to go through the thing in that order.”

Me: “And what’s like the type of greeting?”

Informant: “Well what we do is, we do the… um… it’s either a handshake and a hug, and then it’s three kisses on the cheek.”

Me: “Is there a specific cheek?”

Informant: “It’s um… Well from my perspective it’s that cheek, then that cheek, then that cheek (She points to my right, then left, then right cheek).”

Me: “Oh, so switching back and forth.”

Informant: “Yeah. And then you say the stuff.”

Me: “Wait, wait. If you’re the visitor, you have to kiss the person? Or they… it’s kind of mutual?”

Informant: “If you’re the visitor, you walk up to the person who’s just let you into their house. It’s very rare where you’re both randomly meeting each other. It’s usually because you are going to someone’s house, or to an event, like there will be a hostess or, like, a person to go say hi to.”

Me: “Is there a different custom when you;re both strangers? Like, your not in someone’s home?”

Informant: “If you’re both strangers, you don’t actually kiss. You kind of just… touch cheeks!”

Me: “Or if you’re like friends, meeting up in a  neutral place? Where no one’s, you know..,”

Informant: “Unless, they’re not really… I mean you can kind of tell when you’re looking at people, if they are traditional. Like, if I was meeting another seventeen year-old, I would say ‘Sup.”

Me: (laughs)

Informant: “I’m not, you know, going to go through the whole thing. But if I was meeting, like, a stranger who was maybe like thrity-five, I would say the greeting in Amharic, but I wouldn’t necessarily, like, kiss them, but I would definitely go for the hug, because the hug is like the first step. But if I was meeting some who was like older, who was like really traditional, who was like dressed the way, I know for sure that I have to be nice, and I have to do it. It ‘s usually, the older the person is, the more you kinda have to bow when you go in for it. When you say hi you kind of nod tot the person. So if it’s like someone your age, you might just go like that, (head nod). But if it’s someone who’s maybe seventy, you give a little more effort because you’re sort of recognizing that they’re older than you.”

Me: “So what’s the order again?”

The informant shows me the Ethiopian greeting, starting with the bow, then the hug, and lastly the kisses.

Me: “I thought it was very more like, BOW. (laugh)

Informant: (laugh) “Yes your majesty! No, it’s kind of more organic than that, ’cause you’re both doing it at the same time to each other, so it’s more… relaxed. It’s really relaxed, and it’s not nearly as formal. Even if it is a formal event, it’s just saying hi. That’s how we say hi, so it’s very… ’cause it happens so often, it’s not something that is really ceremonious every single time, ’cause it’s just like… Over the quantity it gets really relaxed, because you just do it so much.”

Me: “Would you do this with family members too?”

Informant: “Yeah, but not if I said hi to my mom in the morning, I’d just giver her a hug. But if I was seeing like my uncle for like a really long time, that’s how I would say hi to him.”

Me: “That’s awesome!”

Informant: “But not to my littler brother. If he came home from college, he would be like, ‘Sup.” You know, it’s kind of… and age thing.”

Background & Analysis

The informant is a student here at USC as well, and although her mother is from Ethiopia, she was born and raised here in California. However, she often goes back to Ethiopia with her mom to visit friends and family.

The greeting customs in Ethiopia are much more complex than I thought! It appears to be a combination of greetings from other areas around the world, like the bowing from asian cultures, the the hug from most latin cultures, and the cheek kisses from Europe. Whereas in America, a simple handshake will suffice, Ethiopans make a clear destinction between hierarchies just through a short gesture such as a greeting.

Folk speech

“The goat doesn’t get to keep the grass when he dies.”

My informant is from Washington, D.C. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. This her explanation of a saying she has heard her father use:

“So since my dad is from like, the rural area of Ethiopia, he knows a lot of Ethiopian sayings. Some of them are based on like, stories. Um, I don’t know most of those. But my dad will just kind of throw them in random situations and they don’t really make sense to me. So one time was when this guy was like, doing something that my dad thought was selfish. We were at Costco and this guy didn’t put his shopping cart away after he used it. He just left it in the middle of the parking lot. So my dad looked off into the distance and said, ‘Well, you know what they say.’ Then he recited a saying in Amharic and then he translated it for us. And basically the meaning was, um, ‘The goat doesn’t get to keep the grass when he dies.’ It didn’t make any sense to me, but apparently it means, “Don’t be selfish about things just because you’re not using them anymore.” Sort of. At least, that was my understanding of it. It’s not a phrase I’m going to be using, but my dad thought it was important to share.”

My informant is someone who has somewhat of a language barrier between her and her parents. Her mother and father are fluent in Amharic, the language most commonly spoken in Ethiopia, but my informant does not speak or understand this language. Therefore, some things get lost in translation. This particular saying is one example of those miscommunications. My informant’s father is trying to relate to her, but she has a hard time understanding exactly what reference she is making. She’s had an urban American upbringing, whereas her father grew up on a farm on Ethiopia. She is not used to interacting with goats or observing goats’ interactions with grass. Sometimes, the places she and her father grew up seem worlds away. Despite the many cultural differences, my informant is ultimately able to understand the gist of what her father is trying to tell her. The literal meaning of her father’s saying may be confusing to her without the context that her father learned it in, but the important part—the message he is trying to convey—remains. In this way, this folk saying helps my informant’s father communicate with her, even if it is in a somewhat indirect way.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ethiopian wedding traditions

My informant’s parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. My informant grew up in Washington, D.C., where she says there is a large Ethiopian community. This her explanation of Ethiopian wedding customs:

“I go to a lot of Ethiopian weddings every summer, and they’re all pretty similar. The only ones that are like, really different are when people try to Americanize them. That’s always really awkward because half the people there don’t approve. So yeah, I usually go to around twelve every summer, and they’re all pretty repetitive. The one main thing that would make a wedding different is if it’s held in the orthodox church. Those ceremonies are pretty much exactly the same. Um, they are using Amharic, which is like the main Ethiopian language. It’s the one that’s spoken by the most people. But they’re kind of using the old form of it, so it’s words that aren’t really used outside of a religious setting. And there’s three priests that preside over that ceremony. And it’s really long, and they burn incense, and it’s like… it just goes on forever. When you go in the orthodox church, you have to take off your shoes. It’s a sign of respect. Um… Oh, and the people who are getting married are wearing, like, robes. They’re really heavy and they’re kind of made of like, velvet or suede, I think. The stitching and the designs are usually flowers and crosses—crosses are always a big theme—and they’re stitched with very heavy gold fabric, and they’re very detailed and rigid. They’re not very comfortable. And the people getting married are also wearing crowns that are made out of the same fabric. Um… And… In preparation for the wedding, the bride is like… It’s done at like a close family member’s house, it can’t be done at your own house. But like, the bride is kind of like, prepared and dressed, and there’s singing and dancing and talking. And it’s mostly women. Like, men can there, but they’re usually not. They’re usually with the groom. It’s like the Ethiopian version of bachelorette party, sort of, but it’s like, right before the wedding. So all the family is there, and so are all the bride’s close female friends. So I mean, I guess they’re less lively when it’s an orthodox wedding, because if the wedding is orthodox, it’s likely to be really early in the morning. So it can be at like 6 AM. I’ve been to a few that are at like, ten or eleven, but that’s not normal. And the ones that are still in churches but are not orthodox are usually at ten or eleven. The reception isn’t until much later, so in between, there’s usually like, a big break where people just go home or do whatever they want. Or at least in Washington, D.C., everyone always goes to the same park and takes pictures for hours. And there’s food there—Ethiopian food—like injera and types of sauces that are very similar to curry. So everyone eats and socializes.”

My informant had a lot to say on wedding traditions because weddings are so ritualized. They commemorate a liminal period in a person’s life—the time between being completely single and being married—so there are multitudes of traditions in every culture that surround weddings. Some aspects of Ethiopian weddings are similar to common Americanized wedding traditions, such as the separation of the actual ceremony from the reception and the “bachelorette party”. Yet there are a number of obvious differences, such as the clothing that is worn and the time of day that the ceremony takes place. My informant alluded to the fact that many elements of Ethiopian weddings are considered traditional, and according to a portion of the Ethiopian community in Washington, D.C., they should not be altered. However, as cultures continue to blend in America, the mixing of “traditional” elements is becoming more and more common.

Folk Dance
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ethiopian wedding receptions

My informant’s parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. My informant grew up in Washington, D.C., where she says there is a large Ethiopian community. She had so much to say about Ethiopian wedding ceremonies that I decided to include her description of the wedding receptions as a separate entry. This is her account:

“Ethiopian wedding receptions are always the same. They’re always really late. They’re scheduled at like, six or seven, but most people I know call it APT: Abidjan People Time. Abidjan refers to people from like, Ethiopia or Eritrea, which used to be part of Ethiopia. Um… But yeah, way more people always go to the reception than the actual ceremony. Like, two to three times as many people, because of the food. And the food is being prepared all day. So a lot of people who actually don’t go to the ceremony are like, in the kitchen all day preparing food because it can take a long tie. Like, I don’t have any family here, but my mom usually involved in that process. That’s a very social aspect of it. People usually wear… It depends on the family-friend circle that it is, but people can be wearing anything from very generalized Americanized dresses to people who do a hybrid. So it’ll be a dress made out of the same fabric, so it’s all like, cotton with the cross design. But they make it in American silhouettes, kind of, if that makes sense. Or they just wear their traditional habesha-quemis, so I have worn many of those. Usually if you’re at the age of like, fourteen, your mom is usually making you wear that. Guys don’t wear traditional clothing as much as girls do, not even in Ethiopia, because it’s just… I don’t know why. They just don’t. But my brothers definitely did when they were younger, when they were eight and under. So there’s a lot of dancing at the reception. And that’s when the bride gets up. And you’re not supposed to start eating at the reception until the bride gets there, which is really annoying especially when the bride is three hours late, which has happened before. So then… there’s a lot of dancing. It gets really loud and people get really drunk. And there’s just more socializing, and it’ll go to like, two or three in the morning. There’s loud Ethiopian music, which is very fast. I’ve never really heard a slow Ethiopian song unless it’s like, at church, but that’s not what they’re playing at a wedding. There will usually be someone there with a drum that’s basically the size of their body, and it’s strapped on to them, and when they hit the drum they’re completely turning and spinning. They throw their entire body into it. So it’s kind of like a dance ceremony. There’s one part when first all the women go out and dance with the bride, and then all the men go out and dance with the groom, and then everyone dances together. That usually happens a couple hours after the ceremony has been going on.”

Wedding receptions tend to be the time when people can let loose and truly celebrate the wedding ceremony that has just occurred. They have more relaxed environments, and people can freely express the joy of the new marriage. Ethiopian wedding receptions are no exception; they are very celebratory. My informant values and appreciates actual wedding ceremonies, but she admits that the receptions are more fun. As she said, many more people attend the reception than the ceremony for that reason—and for the food. This is another celebration in which food plays an important role, as people spend the entire day preparing food, which is later enjoyed by all of the guests. At Ethiopian wedding receptions, they serve food that the guests all recognize as being traditionally Ethiopian. For the Ethiopians who attend the weddings my informant described, this food is a comforting reminder of their country of origin. Along with the music, the special clothing, and the other Ethiopian elements, the food ties these reception attendees to their home country and to each other.


Ethiopian naming customs

My informant is from Washington, D.C. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. This her explanation of the customs surrounding the naming of newborn children in Ethiopian families:

“A lot of times, it’s a sign of respect—not necessarily for your first child, but for your second child—you will like, allow your parents to name them. But actually naming someone after someone else in your family is definitely a Westernized thing, at least in comparison to Ethiopian culture. Um… but there’s not really any repetition of names in Ethiopian families. So your dad’s… either your dad’s first name is your last name, or that’s your middle name and your paternal grandfather’s name is your last name. Um, the way my parents did it was that my dad’s name is my last name. I don’t have a middle name, um because it was like, easier, and the insurance companies wouldn’t let them do otherwise. So, yeah. And women don’t take their husband’s last name. So it’s like really hard to trace your family lineage.”

Although my informant says that Ethiopian families do not usually name their children after family members and that there is not any repetition of names within families, they do pass on the father or paternal grandfather’s name, so in a sense, those names are repeated. The tradition of keeping the father’s name in the family by using it as the child’s last name is indicative that Ethiopia is a patriarchal society: the father’s name is given to the next generation, whereas the mother’s name is not. However, Ethiopian women do keep their own last names when they marry, so in that sense, they have a certain independence from their husbands that Western women typically do not.

Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Blason Populaire Joke

The informant heard the following joke from one of her classmates in high school.

“Okay, so this one is horrible. I ask someone, ‘Do you know what Ethiopian food tastes like?’ Say, ‘No.’ And then I say, ‘Well, neither do Ethiopians.’ The joke is, because, Ethiopians don’t know what Ethiopian food tastes like because they are starved.”

The informant claims that she herself is not usually an active bearer of the joke: “You never tell it. Except right now [laughter].”

She finds the joke amusing precisely because it is so terrible: “Yeah, I think it’s a pretty bad joke . . . It’s one of those jokes where you think it’s really funny but you also know that it’s just an awful joke.”

Part of the humor value of this blason populaire joke is that it is taboo. You know that it’s awful that people are starving to death in Ethiopia, but at the same time it’s easier to laugh about it than to do anything about it. And it feels better to be amused than to be guilty for not helping.