WEEKender and ACHA (African Caribbean Heritage Alliance) are teaming up to offer a series of in-depth looks at the continent of Africa. The fabric of St. Maarten is woven from threads of many colours and textures. Both strong and soft, the pattern is uniquely our own. Each person, each cultural group, brings its influence and contributes to the weave. But where does your thread come from? For many St. Maarteners their threads are tied to Africa.
AFRICA LOOMS large in our imaginations, and rightly so. It is the second largest continent on our planet, both by area and by population. It has the most countries of any other continent as well. Africa is home to 53 independent countries, representing more than a quarter of all the countries of the world. Not only that, but Africa is considered by anthropologists and geneticists to be the birthplace of humanity; so by rights, we are all Africans - if you go back far enough. But for the Caribbean, the journey back to Africa is not all that ancient.
We start off this series with a three-part look at the country of Ethiopia. Part 1 will present the history and geography of this important and unique land. Part 2 will share the spiritual journey to the Ethiopian roots of Rastafarianism, taken by our own Ras Bushman and his wife Raisa, last month. We will then consider the tourism aspect of the country, as experienced by two St. Maarteners this past summer.
Ethiopia: An overview
Ethiopia is the third most populated country in Africa, after Nigeria and Egypt. Rich in history, this land has more UNESCO heritage sites than any other country in Africa. And it is also the only African country to never have been colonized by European forces. The Italians tried, but the Ethiopians held their ground, literally. This fierce resistance has placed Ethiopia as the ideal of independence for black people around the world.
The economy of Ethiopia is based largely on agriculture: it makes up 60 per cent of exports, and 80 per cent of total employment comes from this sector. Some people still equate Ethiopia with famine, because of the worldwide effort to send aid to the country when it was so threatened in the mid-80s. The heart-wrenching images and calls for help went hand-in-hand with fundraising, culminated by the Live Aid concert, the first concert televised live around the world (via the new technology of cable TV). But in fact the drought conditions are only part of the story. It seems from 1973 to1985 policies were enacted that exacerbated periodic climatic challenges, such as droughts. Ethiopia today is far removed from those images, though poverty remains an ever-present worry.
The landscape of the country varies from the eastern regions, which tend to be hot and dry, to the western regions, which are higher and cooler. An exception to this is the Northeast corner of the western half, called the Danakil Depression. Here lies a desolate and cruel, yet hauntingly beautiful area of geysers and hot springs, where pools of acid boil up from the ground and the edges are encrusted with thick deposits of salt crystals. The mostly abandoned mining village of Dallol is considered to be the hottest place on earth that is inhabited by humans.
This sharp contrast is due to plate tectonics. A triple junction of the east African rift zone cuts right through the country of Ethiopia. The Danakil Depression sits quite near that three-way crack in the earth’s crust. Farther south, the western highlands offer greenery and extensive farming. The agriculture there is known for its spices and herbs and for teff, an ancient grain rich in protein and free of gluten, which is becoming popular in health food stores globally. Historically the Ethiopian highlands have teemed with produce. More crop species are grown here than in any other part on the continent. Frankincense grows wild here, and it has been traded to Europe for more than 2000 years.
Western Ethiopia is where you can see the longest continuous mountain range in Africa, stretching from north to south and comprising a great diversity of terrain styles. The farther south one travels, the more lush it becomes. Animals abound on this landscape: gazelles, kudos, antelope, ibex, baboons, cheetahs and over 500 species of birds. The national animal is the lion, which was featured as the “Lion of Judah” on the flag of Ethiopia until 1974, and is still found on the 100-Ethiopian-dollar (or bir) banknote.
The country is known as the source of the Blue Nile River, which flows from Lake Tana in the western highlands, around in a loop and joins with the White Nile in Khartum, Sudan. The river flows through a series of virtually impenetrable gorges, cut in the Ethiopian Highlands to a depth of some 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) - a depth comparable to that of Grand Canyon in the United States.
Ethiopia not only has an ancient history but even pre-history. It has been labelled one of the origin regions of human emergence. Some of the oldest examples of modern humans have been found in Ethiopia. Remember Lucy? The famous skeleton dated at more than three million years old? She was uncovered in 1974 in the Afar region of Ethiopia, a site where many of the most significant early hominid fossils have been unearthed.
The lineages of those early humans show that Ethiopians have deep roots in the land, and kingdoms and empires have ruled through its history. The horn of Africa has been a crossroads of trade and cultural exchange since the dawn of civilization, and yet in the western highlands communities were isolated and developed their own architecture, engineering and art. Archaeologists have discovered signs of human habitation as far back as 4 million years ago. They were farming with oxen-drawn plows before any other place in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Tigray province farmers work terraces that have been actively farmed for over 3000 years.
Ethiopia has over 80 different ethnic groups and tribes, but the majorities are of Oromo stock (33 per cent) and Amharic (30 per cent). The Oromo people have inhabited the area known as the horn of Africa since antiquity. They have their own religion and language, and despite being the most populace ethnic group in Ethiopia, they feel they are oppressed and have been throughout history. The Amharic belong to a larger group, called Habesha or Abyssinian people. Habesha people live in Ethiopia, but also in the neighbouring country of Eritrea. Habesha people have long claimed to have descended from Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and Makeda, a.k.a. the Queen of Sheba. And recent DNA tests on this population have supported this oral history, as the genetic markers are indeed indicative of Jewish ancestry.
The country today has ties to all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In addition there are other faiths indigenous to the tribes of the land. Ethiopia has one of the only black Jewish communities – another one possibly is the Lemba of South Africa. Since the establishment of Israel, many Ethiopian Jews have relocated there and now more Ethiopian Jews live in Israel than in Ethiopia. Most Ethiopians identify as some form of Christianity (63 per cent). Legends say that Jesus’ disciple Matthew travelled to this land to share the gospel when it was known as the country of Axum. The eastern region of Harari is considered the fourth holiest site of Islam, with 82 mosques and over 100 shrines. The interfaith relations have traditionally been relatively cordial over the recent decades.Early in the 7th century a group of Arab followers of Islam, in danger of persecution by local authorities in Arabia, took refuge in Axum, a kingdom of the Ethiopian highlands. As a result of this gesture of friendship, these lands have enjoyed a mutual state of support (source: intpolicydigest.org).
Interestingly the Ethiopian calendar is about seven years and three months behind the standard calendar. Twelve months, with 30 days each, plus a thirteenth month of only five or six days, depending on the year. The Ethiopian New Year generally falls on September 11. Next week we consider the roots of the Rastafarian
religion and Ethiopia’s last emperor Haile Selasie.