Ethiopian Culture

By: Madison Tramel, 6th Period

Author Biography

Maaza Mengiste is an Ethiopian-American writer. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in Brooklyn, New York. She writes fiction and nonfiction dealing with migration, the Ethiopian revolution, and the plight of sub-Saharan immigrants arriving in Europe. She is very familiar with the Ethiopian culture, including the Norms, Values, Symbols, and Languages because she and her family members grew up there. The Ethiopian culture is a big part of her life. Her debut novel is Beneath The Lion's Gaze. She wrote this because when she came to the US at age 4, she knew it was because of the revolution. Mengiste was a kid, so she didn’t fully understand what was going on. She was trying to figure out what brought her here, how to make sense of some things she remembered, and what she was supposed to think of the transition. This is why Maaza Mengiste wrote Beneath The Lion's Gaze.


More than 70 languages and up to 200 different dialects are spoken in Ethiopia. The national language is Amharic, a relative of Arabic and Hebrew. Amharic's alphabet comes from the ancient Ge’ez language, which is still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in prayers and worship. Oromifaa and Tigrinya are two other common languages. However, English, Arabic, Italian and French are widely spoken by many Ethiopians.

"Did you hear the new name they have for themselves?"

"I forgot. It's not an Amharic word, is it? It's much older," Kifle said.

"Derg," Hailu said. "They're calling themselves the Derg. It means committee in Ge'ez." (Mengiste 45)

This shows that the languages in Ethiopia are mentioned in the novel and that Amharic isn't a very old language because Kifle says "It's not an Amharic word' is it? It's much older."


  • Elders should be greeted first.
  • It is customary to bow when introduced to someone who is obviously older or has a more senior position. Children will often be seen doing this.
  • Across genders, men should wait to see if a woman extends her hand before shaking it.
  • Giving a gift that is too expensive may be viewed negatively. It may be seen as an attempt to influence or it may embarrass the receiver of the gift as they will not be able to repay them.
  • Gifts are given with two hands or the right hand only; never the left hand.
  • Only use the right hand for eating.
  • You will always be offered a cup of coffee. It is considered impolite to refuse.
  • Inhale the aroma of the coffee before sipping.

"Hailu strode towards Mickey to envelope the young man in a tight embrace. "Thank you for coming, he said kissing both cheeks." (Mengiste 146)

This text from the book taught me that the customary greeting of 2 people of the same gender is kissing both cheeks.


  • Coffee is a national drink and its drinking is a ritualized process that generally takes at least an hour.
  • A woman or young boy enters the room to wash and roast the beans over charcoal. The roasted beans are then hand-ground and added to boiling water. Sugar is put into small cups without handles and the water/coffee mixture is added .The first round (called "awol") is served, starting with the eldest. When the first cup is finished, the "jebena" (coffee pot) is refilled with water. The second round (called "tona") is then served. It is weaker than the first since the same ground beans are used. The third round (called "baraka") is served after boiling water is again added to the jebena.


• Ethiopians place so much importance on marriage that many encourage their young daughters to marry early, with parents thoughtfully arranging weddings for girls as young as seven.

• Ethiopians put a strong emphasis on treating others equally. They don't treat others differently based on the amount of money they have or their lifestyle.

•Although attitudes vary widely among Ethiopia's many ethnic groups, one common trait is friendliness. Ethiopians generally appreciate those who are humble, honorable, and pleasant. Aggressive, loud, or demanding behavior demonstrates poor character.

• Ethiopians are often reluctant to show emotion, a characteristic attributed to the nation's years of hardship.

• Tradition is highly valued in Ethiopian society, and Ethiopians are dedicated to preserving their culture in the face of globalization.

"Hailu raised his prayer beads close to his chest and prayed to his God." (Mengiste 13)

• It is very common in Ethiopia that religion is strongly valued. About 44 percent of the population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Muslims account for 34 percent of the population.

Over two-thirds of the world's population employ prayer beads as part of their religious practices. Prayer beads have a variety of forms and meanings, but the basic purpose is the same: to assist the worshiper in reciting and counting specific prayers. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are the major religions that use prayer beads in important ritualistic roles.


  • Animal: Lion
  • Coat of Arms: The emblem of Ethiopia is composed of a golden pentagram (symbolizing the unity of the people) with radiating rays of light within a blue circle.
  • Flag of Ethiopia: The flag of Ethiopia was officially adopted on February 6, 1996. It features the Pan-African colors; green is symbolic of Ethiopia's land, yellow is the color of peace and love, and red the color of strength. The centered gold star on a blue shield is said to represent unity
  • Flower: Calla Lily
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"Mother of the valiant lad, tighten your belt. Your son is destined for the vultures. Not for burial by kin." -Ethiopian War Song (Mengiste 111)

This quote is a symbol of Ethiopia because it is a reminder of all the lives lost in the revolution, and it is a symbol of strength and unity.


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Mengiste, Maaza. Beneath the Lion's Gaze: A Novel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.

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