Ethiopia – the country and its people

The country of the Horn of Africa looks back at thousands of years of history. It is not without reason that it is considered the cradle of humanity; and the country where coffee originates. Get to know this fascinating country and its welcoming people…


The country


Geographic location

Ethiopia is located on the Horn of Africa in the north east of the continent. In the east and south east it borders on Somalia, in the south on Kenia, in the west on Sudan and in the north on Eritrea and Djibouti. Since the separation from Eritrea in 1993 Ethiopia has no access to the sea. It is about 13 times as big as Austria. Besides Lesotho, Ethiopia is the highest-located country of the continent, which is why it is referred to as the “roof of Africa”; about half its surface is higher than 12000 m, about one fourth is higher than 1800m, individual elevations even exceed 4000 m (Talo, Guma, Terara, Guge). Whereas the lowest point of the country is located 116 m below sea level. The Great Rift Valley cuts right across the country. Hence Ethiopia features spectacular landscape diversity, ranging from highlands with rugged mountainsides, where grain is cultivated on terraced fields, to salt deserts (Danakil Desert) and savannah, from table mountains to lakes of volcanic origin, canyons cut into the rock by large rivers (Omo, Blue and White Nile) and green strips of land used  to grow coffee. The capital Addis Ababa is located in the extensive Ethiopian Highlands.



The climate is as diverse as the geographical differences – hot in the lowlands, cooler on the high plateaus. This results in three climate zones; namely, the tropical zone in the plains, the temperate zone in the central mountain zone between 1800 and 2500 m, and the cooler zone above. In the tropical area annual rainfall is below 500 mm, in the temperate zone between 500-1500 mm, and in the highland about 1600 mm. The rainy seasons are in June and September (main rainy season), and February and March (small rainy season) respectively. Rainfall is often heavily concentrated, leading to steady erosion of natural vegetation.  ueber-aethiopien-land-und-leute-14499rkD146But since Ethiopia is located in the Sahel region, local droughts occur again and again, resulting in famines. In the course of global warming, extreme climatic situations that intensify floods and the, already considerable, soil erosion, are likely to be exacerbated. Therewith comes the threat of further loss of biodiversity. Drinking water, agriculture and the population’s health are most affected by climate change. These are important reasons making reforestation and erosion control a priority of the work of Menschen für Menschen.



Political Annotations

Ethiopia is a democratic federal republic made up of 12 federal states structured according to ethnicities, and has a population of about 97 million people. The capital Addis Ababa has around 3 million inhabitants. Head of state is the President elected by Parliament. Government affairs reside with the Prime Minister, normally a representative of the strongest party, and his Council of Ministers. Parliament is made up of two chambers: the House of Federation and the House of Peoples’ Representatives. Since the founding of the Republic of Ethiopia in the 1990s, the governing coalition of the Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian Peoples (EPRDF) has been the political force in the country.

Current situation in Ethiopia:

Since the end of 2015 there have been repeated demonstrations, protests, street blockades and riots in Ethiopia. On 8 October 2016 a state of emergency was proclaimed for the next six months. We are saddened and deeply moved by the events, and are observing them with great concern. Our sympathy goes in particular to the people and their relatives who have suffered over the past few months. At present we are still able to continue our work in Ethiopia. In certain regions, however, we are encountering limitations and delays, e.g. due to the imposition of curfews. Our employees in the field are closely monitoring the situation. In the event of imminent danger we will lose no time in taking the appropriate measures to protect our employees. However, we hope that the situation will calm down again in the foreseeable future.

Please see the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the latest information on the local security situation:
>> Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs


Flora and fauna

Hardly any other country in the world offers such diverse vegetation and wildlife as Ethiopia, which is due to the country’s typical impressive landscapes. Many of Africa’s wild animals can be found here, such as giraffes, buffalo, zebras, leopards, lions, antelopes, Walia ibex, rhinoceroses, elephants, lynx, jackals and hyenas. In the lakes and river regions also hippos and crocodiles. Particular mention should be made of the indigenous bleeding-heart baboons and the rarely observed, indigenous Simien fox. ueber-aethiopien-land-und-leute-P1040484The population of wild animals decreases despite the establishment of several national parks. Often encountered birds include eagles, hawks, bearded vultures and herons, but also parrots, flamingos, pelicans and marabous. Around 4% of the national territory is covered with trees. Typical types of trees are the umbrella thorn acacia, baobab, juniper and sycamore. But at the start of the 20th century deforestation had already seriously depleted stock of these types of trees. Starting in 1905, fast growing eucalyptus was introduced in an attempt at reforestation. Today it makes up the largest part of Ethiopia’s stock of trees. Desert shrubs, thorn bushes and savannah grass grow in the tropical lowlands. In the temperate zone lavish grassland prevails; in the highlands only small areas are covered with trees. The high mountain region is a rock desert. This is where the preparation of coffee, the consumption of which is essential to social life around the world, has its origin. To this day coffee in Ethiopia is prepared as ceremoniously as when it was discovered in the 9th century.


The people



Ethiopia is referred to as the “cradle of humanity“ for good reason: evidence in form of a skeleton discovery suggests that it had already been populated 3.2 million years before our time. “Lucy” was found in the Afar Triangle in 1974, and classified as Australopithecus afarensis. It was then taken to the USA for scientific examination, and only returned to Ethiopia in 2013; today Lucy is kept in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. The first historic settlers were Semitic immigrants who arrived around the year 400 B.C. from southern Arabia. Ethiopian tradition holds that Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, founded the Kingdom of Aksum that established intense trading relations with the Mediterranean countries, Arabia and India. But in the 10th century the Axumite Empire collapsed. From the 13th century onwards the Solomonic dynasty that claimed direct descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, took power and founded the Amhara Empire. Amharic became – and still is today – the official language. Following a temporary split of the empire into the principalities of Amhara, Tigray and Shewa, Emperor Tewodros II managed to recreate a great empire in the 19th century that withstood all attempts at colonisation. The endeavour by Italian troops to occupy the entire country from Eritrea resulted in war with Italy. The conflict ended with the invaders’ defeat at the Battle of Adowa in March 1896. However, Eritrea remained an Italian colony. In 1930 Haile Selassie became Emperor of Ethiopia. He abolished slavery and reformed the law and educational system. The country received its first constitution. Except for a brief period of Italian occupation, Ethiopia remained the only African country that had not been entirely colonised. It did not, however, escape a civil war that had ignited over the provinces of Eritrea and Tigray, and that brought the country (already weakened by severe droughts and oil crisis) to its knees. In 1974 the emperor was overthrown and, with Soviet support, a military dictatorship (Derg) was established. A resistance movement formed against the communist government of this Socialist People’s Republic lead by Mengistu Haile Mariam. It peaked in a bloody civil war that only ended in 1991.






The official language of Ethiopia is Amharic, English is used as a language for education. Approximately 80 languages are spoken in Ethiopia; they can be divided into two large language families: Afroasiatic and Nilo-Saharan languages. 99% of Ethiopian languages belong to the Afroasiatic language group and its Semitic (mainly in the northern part of the country), Omotic (in the south west) and Cushitic (in the south, west and east) branches. Nilotic, Surmic and Koman are among the Nilo-Saharan languages.



The Ethiopian population is usually very religious. But religious affiliation is as diverse as ethnic affiliation. The two largest religious communities are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians (43%, mainly Amhara and Tigre) and Sunni Muslims (34%, mainly Oromo). In addition, there are Catholics, members of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and followers of natural religions. The community of Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel), who see themselves as descendants of the lost Tribe of Dan, play a special role.


Art and Traditions

Due to its Early Christian myths and traditions Ethiopia developed a unique culture. The country has four recognised UNESCO world heritage sites: the imperial city of Aksum with its royal tombs (according to tradition the Biblical Ark of Covenant with Moses’ Tablets of Law is kept here), Lalibela with its sublime rock churches, the residence of the Ethiopian rulers in Gondar as well as the city of Harar. Painting and artistic craftwork have a long tradition. This is evident in the mural and ceiling paintings in the island churches of Lake Tana or in the Debre Berhan Selassie monastery, but also in the procession crosses made out of embossed silver and colourful weaving and basket-work. The hustle and bustle of the weekly and monthly markets excites the eye and offers the opportunity to absorb many unknown fragrances.


Calendar and Celebrations

The Ethiopian calendar follows the Julian calendar. The Ethiopian year is made up of 13 months, out of which 12 months have 30 days each. One month has 5 or 6 days, depending on whether it is a leap year or not. It is hence related to the Coptic calendar. The year starts on 11 September (in a leap year on the 12th). The gap between the Ethiopian and the Gregorian calendar used in Europe is 7 years and 8 months. Due to this Christian holidays shift. Christmas – Genna – is celebrated on 7 January and ends a 43-days fasting period. The Christmas Eve midnight Mass is an overwhelming experience due to the burning candles in the hands of many believers. In a procession and along with a lot of singing, silver crosses are carried three times around the church. Another important holiday is 19 January – Timkat. This celebrates the baptism of Jesus (Epiphany). On this day baptismal water is blessed in Ethiopia, and believers are sprinkled with it as a renewal of the grace of Baptism. Also on occasion of this celebration valuable procession crosses are carried to the baptistery, a central square. Another holiday, not religious but with historical roots, is 2 March – the Battle of Adwa. In this battle, fought in 1896 under Emperor Menelik II, Italy’s conquest ambitions could be stopped for some time, and the recognition of Ethiopia as an independent state could be imposed. In addition to this, Italy had to commit to reparation payments; an important victory that is still celebrated today.

ueber-aethiopien-land-und-leute-feiernde Frauen


Food and Drink

A characteristic of Ethiopia is the traditional coffee ceremony. To Europeans it appears as exotic as Ethiopian food (which can be quite spicy). This includes Doro Wot, a type of chicken stew with tomatoes, bell pepper, ginger and specific spices such as Berbere, which is widely-used in Ethiopia. Injera, a flatbread made of millet, flour, yeast and water, is eaten on a daily basis. Ambasha, an Ethiopian bread, is made of wheat flour, oil, cumin and yeast; Kocho, on the other hand, is made from the pulp of the Ensete plant.