Author Archives: Amelia Getahun

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

The informant is my mother, who was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I asked her what proverbs she knew, and she shared with me this proverb her grandmother taught her.

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TEXT:

  • ORIGINAL: የጠላቴ ጠላት ወዳጄ ነው
  • ROMANIZED: yet’elate t’elati, wodaje newi
  • Translation: the enemy of my enemy is my friend

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“Yet’elate t’elati, wodaje newi. it means that the enemy of my enemy is actually that we have. That’s a proverb that we have. It means…so, you are my daughter, I love you. But just because you hate someone, I don’t hate that person. In fact, they can be my friend. That kind of shows you how open-minded the society is … just because you hate someone, I don’t hate them until I experience them myself.”

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This proverb was fascinating to me, because the exact same expression exists in English, but has a completely different meaning. In English, this proverb is used to express that hating a common enemy can make two people friends, and that their friendship exists so they can both conspire against their common enemy. However, the Ethiopian interpretation of the proverb is much kinder; it reflects a community that is much more intolerant of hatred. This is possibly because while the English-speaking countries from which this proverb arose are much more cosmopolitan, Ethiopia is very community-minded, as its citizens live in more rural areas where they and their neighbors must help each other, share resources, and get along for the well-being of their towns.

 

Squirelly Tag

The informant is the sixteen-year-old sister of a friend of mine who lives in Rye, New York. She reminded me of a game we invented as kids and used to play whenever we were at each other’s houses.

Note: The initials OF denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

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OF: So. basically, it’s hide-and-seek, but also freeze tag, but it’s in the dark. With flashlights. So basically someone is it…well, first, you turn the lights out, and everyone has flashlights. And someone is it, and everyone else hides. And you can switch around hiding locations, as long as whoever’s it doesn’t catch you. So the person who is it has their flashlight on, and goes around looking for everyone else. And if they find you, you have to run. If they can tag you, you have to freeze, but if someone else who hasn’t been frozen yet comes and tags you, you’re allowed to unfreeze. And basically the game ends when whoever is it manages to freeze everyone else.”

A: Why does it have to be in the dark? What do you think that means?

OF: Nothing, I don’t think. It was more exciting. It’s, like, a thrill to be running around in the dark, which is stupid, I guess, because it was so much easier to trip over stuff. But we didn’t care.

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I think it’s funny that kids “invent” games, but these games are almost always variants of other games they already know. It relates back to the idea that every text is a variation of another text that we discussed in class; because almost everything has already been created, we can only “create” versions of things that already exist. I also think children’s games that kids themselves create, and children’s lore itself, are interesting, because they have only really become as widespread as they are after the first child-labor laws. These laws effectively “invented” childhood, because before they were put in place, children didn’t have the time to sit around creating weird new games, nor could they socialize with the other kids with whom they would create such games.

Ethiopian bogeyman

The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about a character called Soyo, which is an Ethiopian bogeyman character used to scare children.

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“So, Soyo is basically this character, like a scary kidnapper character, that parents use to scare their kids. It’s basically like the Ethiopian version of Slenderman…and kind of, also, like, “stranger danger” So, like, if you’re being bad, or misbehaving–like, when I was little, my mom used to make me come inside at night by being like, “oh, if you keep playing outside after it gets dark, Soyo is going to come get you.”

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This bogeyman figure is an example of the concept of “ficts” as introduced by Von Sydow: these characters are fictional creatures that adults make up to scare children, or to teach them how to behave (examples include Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, but also bogeyman characters like this one). I thought that Soyo was an interesting example of children’s folklore in that it does not exist in the world of adult belief, but it is almost exclusively told by adults to their children rather than told between children; children would not have these characters if adults did not use them as lessons for their kids. The purpose that this particular character serves is to teach children not to trust strangers, but is also a convenient way for parents to scare their kids into obeying them. I also thought it was a cool reaffirmation of Dundes’s idea of “multiplicity and variation,” because every culture seems to have a bogeyman character (La Llorona in Mexico, for example, or, as my cousin mentioned, the more recent example of Slenderman).

Enkoye Totit–Ethiopian bedtime story

The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about Enkoye Totit, bedtime story her mother and aunts told her when she was little.

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“So, Enkoye Totit is this little monkey character who keeps getting in trouble. It’s a bedtime story that parents tell their kids. It’s like, there’s not really one specific story I can think of about Enkoye Totit, but she’s a character that you can insert in any story. Totit means, like, little monkey. It’s like a diminutive of “tota,” which means monkey. That’s what parents call their kids. Like, it’s a nickname for kids when they’re being silly or misbehaving but not actually doing something that bad. Like if you keep annoying your mom, she’ll call you Tota.”

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The fact that “monkey” is both a word referring to the animal and an term of affection for young children in Amharic is interesting, because it allows these stories to become self-insert stories for the children they are told to. Because Enkoye Totit is a stock character and not one from a specific story, it allows parents to plug this character, as an extension of their own children, into many different plots that will be vehicles for lessons they want to teach their kids. This is also reinforced by the characteristics of a monkey–small, mischievous, intelligent, inquisitive–most of which are also applicable to children. At the same time, because there are actual monkeys in Ethiopia, this fact might be less obvious to Ethiopian children, since the stories are based on a monkey that they could actually encounter, but because both my cousin and I were raised in the United States where monkeys do not live in nature, the metaphorical nature of these stories becomes more apparent.

Garlic and milk to cure a cold

The informant is my mother, who is originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she grew up with her eight sisters. When she was visiting from Washington, D.C. where we currently live, I asked her and my aunts how they used to cure colds when they lived in Ethiopia. She shared this interesting anecdote with me.

Note: The initials NG denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

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NG: When I was younger, some people used netch shinkourt ena whetet [garlic and milk].

A: woah, really? why? isn’t milk bad for you when you have a cold?

NG: I don’t know. Maybe, actually.

A: Did it ever actually work?

NG: [laughs] I don’t think so.

A: So why do you think people do it?

NG: I don’t know! It’s, you know, it’s nice to feel like you’re doing something to help. [laughs]

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I thought this was a funny example of the fact that some beliefs are unfounded, but are performed simply because they are tradition, or because the belief that the remedy will work is enough for those who perform it. Science has actually proven that there is no actual way to cure a cold, which means that in this way, every cold remedy will work, because the cold will go away by itself in a few days and you can attribute this to whatever remedy you used. I also thought it related to the fact that we like to feel some amount of control when we’re in a situation in which nothing can be done, because although we know there is no way to cure a cold, we all have cold remedies and things we do to try and “cure” ourselves.