Tag Archives: Ethiopia

Ethiopian Tale – Wardit the Mule

Main Piece 

My informant told me the story of a beautiful mule named Wardit. Wardit was on her way to drink water from the river, when she met an admirer, a horse, on the way. The horse confesses his love for Wardit, and asks about her parentage. Wardit looked confused, and asked the horse why her parentage is important. The horse explains that it is tradition to marry someone from a good familial parentage. Wardit explains that her mother is the governor’s horse. The horse was delighted, and asked of Wardit’s father. Wardit then said proudly that her sister is the priest’s horse. The horse looked puzzled and asked once more of Wardit’s father. Wardit then said that her aunt is the village governor’s horse. The horse grew impatient and once again asked of Wardit’s father. Just then, Wardit’s father appears. He is an old, wrinkled donkey. He asks Wardit what she is doing talking to the horse. Wardit ignores him. Again, the father asks Wardit, and again, Wardit ignores him. The horse angrily asks Wardit who the horse is and why he disturbs the conversation. Wardit insists that she does not know the old, shrivelled donkey. The horse begins to kick the donkey to death. With his final breath, the donkey asks God, “Oh God, look at what has happened to me.” God speaks to Wardit and declares her barren and unable to have children. He says, “you have disrespected your father, so you shall bear no child.”

Context 

This tale is told to young children to teach them to respect their elders, as this is a very important manner to instill in children in Ethiopia.

Background

My informant was born and raised in Ethiopia. He explains that in Ethiopian culture, disrespecting one’s parents is considered a very heinous offense. He informed me that this also applies to any elders in or outside of the family. He explained that Ethiopians are very family oriented, thus many tales in Ethiopian culture aim to teach children to be obedient and prioritize their family. My informant learned this tale from his parents at a young age, which further reaffirms that this tale was told for educational purposes.

My Thoughts

I had never heard of this tale before, but it did resonate with me. We have the same family values in Armenian culture. I found it interesting that Wardit was punished by God, which suggests that disrespecting one’s parents is not only a social offense, but a religious one. According to my informant, religion is a non-negotiable aspect of society in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. This tale also communicates the importance of family values. Wardit was punished for not defending or claiming her father. According to my informant, disrespecting an elder, regardless of your relationship with them, is disrespectful and shameful. For more information on Ethiopian family dynamics, see the cited article from Cultural Atlas under the subheadings titled “Family” and “Household Dynamics.” 

Source:

Evason, Nina. “Ethiopian Culture.” Cultural Atlas, 2018, culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/ethiopian-culture/ethiopian-culture-family. Accessed 1 Apr. 2021.

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.

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.

ethiopian-food-1

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.

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.

“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.