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Geography, ethnicity, and culture

Ethiopia is a land-locked country located in East Africa. It shares boundaries with Sudan in the west, Kenya in the south, Eritrea in the north, and Somalia in the east. It is the third largest country in the continent, covering a total of 1,127 square kilometres. Ethiopia is endowed with diverse topography ranging from the highland mountains (the highest being Ras Dejen at 4,620 m above sea level) to the Dankil Depression, the lowest point in the world (125 m below sea level). The highland massif, which begins in northern Eritrea, runs all the way to southern Ethiopia, with an eastern extension forming the Arsi, Bale and Harar Plateaus. The lowlands, which also begin in the northeastern part of the country, extend southwards to include the Dankil Depression, the lower Awash valley up to the Ogaden and the lower parts of Harar in the East as well as Bale and Sidamo in the south. The Great Rift Valley roughly bisects the country and has led to the formation of a number of crater lakes. Lakes and rivers are widespread throughout the country. There are twelve major lakes, Lake Tana being the longest (70 km), widest (60 km), and largest, covering a vast area of 3,600 square kilometres ( Statistical Abstract 2002 ). Lake Tana is also known as the source of the Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile originating in Uganda and flows all the way up to Egypt. The eastern and southeastern parts of the country are characterized by a semi-arid climate and are home to the Ethiopian pastoralist and semi-pastoralists. The climate in the country is mostly characterized as tropical monsoon with wide variation in accordance with the diverse topography.

With a population of 69,127,000 ( Statistical Abstract 2002 ), Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia represents a range of diverse people who live together, speaking a multitude of different tongues, practicing different religions and customs. There are more than 78 ethnic groups in Ethiopia, with 69 per cent of them found in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) region. According to the 1994 census, ethnic representation in the country can be roughly categorized as 32 per cent Oromo, 30 per cent Amhara, 6 per cent Tigray, 6 per cent Somali, 4 per cent Guragie, 3 per cent Sidama, 2 per cent Wolaita, 2 per cent Afar, 2 per cent Hadiya, and 1 per cent Gamo. The remainder are from one of the countries other ethnic groups.

There are over 80 languages in Ethiopia, with more than 200 dialects spoken throughout the country. The official language is Amharic. Other widely spoken languages include Afarigna, Oromiffa, Tigrigna, Somaligna, Sidamgna, Wolaitigna, and Hadiyigna. The many languages can be broken down into four main groups: Semitic, Hamitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan. The Semitic languages are related to both Hebrew and Arabic. They are mostly spoken in the northern and central parts of the country. The principal Semitic language is Amharic. The Hamitic languages are found mainly in the east, west, and south. Of this group, Oromiffa is the predominant language. The Omotic group of languages is spoken in the south-west and has been given that name in recent years because it is spoken in the general area of the Omo River. The Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken in a wide area along the Sudan frontier. Some of the written languages use the Ge'ez alphabet, the language of the of the ancient Axumite kingdom. Ge'ez is the only indigenous written language in all of Africa. Other written languages in Ethiopia mainly use the Latin alphabet. English is the predominant foreign language, though French and Italian are also spoken, especially in business and academic circles.

The predominant religions of Ethiopia are Ethiopian Orthodox (Monophysite) Christianity and Islam. Christianity was introduced in the fourth century AD during the reign of King Ezana and is more common in the northern and central parts of Ethiopia, where Judaism and Islam are also found. Islam is more dominant in the eastern and southern parts of the country. Other religions that are practiced include Animism and other denominations of Christianity (Catholic, Pentecostal, etc.). Animism is found mainly in southern regions of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia uses the Julian Solar calendar, which is made up of twelve equal months of thirty days each and a thirteenth month consisting of five or six days, depending on the year. Following this unique calendar, holidays in Ethiopia fall on different dates than normally celebrated in the Western world.

Historical background

As stated in many historical records and reflected in ancient architecture such as the rock-hewn churches at Lalibella, the stone obelisks at Axum, and the former imperial palace of Fasiledes in Gondar, Ethiopia has a rich history that dates back 3,000 years. As such it is said to be a cradle of primeval civilization.

Apart from its five-year occupation by the Italians (1936–41), Ethiopia is known as the only country in Africa that was never colonized and is referred to by many as the ‘Pride of Africa’. Until late 1974 when the Derg government took power in a coup d’etat, Ethiopia was administered through a succession of emperors, the last one being Emperor Haile Selassie (also commonly referred to by the Jamaican Rastafarian community as Ras Teferi).

Ethiopia is also known as one of the world’s richest sources of fossils, providing data on the course and timing of human evolution over the past 4 million years of geological time. There are large areas containing deposits, which range from approximately 1 million to 4 million years old. It is the place where ‘Lucy’, the hominid skeleton dating back 3.18 million years, was found. In June 2003, archeologists found Homo Sapiens skulls in the Herto village of the Afar Region that is estimated to be between 154,000 to 160,000 years old. The remains have been named ‘Edaltu’, meaning ‘grandfather’ in the Afar language.


The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), which came into existence in May 1991, has a parliamentarian form of government and comprises nine regional states (Afar, Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Harar, Oromiya, Somali, Tigray, and SNNP) and two administrative cities (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa). The federal government resides in the capital city of Addis Ababa, administratively known as Region 14. Addis Ababa is also the economic center of the country and hosts a number of headquarters of international organizations (see Major organizations in Ethiopia ).

The federal and regional government has legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The House of People's Representatives is the highest authority of the federal government and is answerable to the people nationally. The State Council is the highest organ of state authority and is responsible to the people of in that particular state. There are two houses in the government - the House of People's Representatives and House of the Federation. Members of the House of People's Representatives are elected by the people for a term of five years. The political party or coalition of political parties that have the greatest number of seats in the House of People's Representatives form and lead the Executive. The House of the Federation is composed of representatives of nations, nationalities, and peoples. Members of the House of the Federation are elected by the State Council. The State Council either elects representatives to the House of the Federation, or holds elections to have them elected directly by the people.

The president of the FDRE is the head of state, and is nominated by the House of People’s Representatives. Election is, however, decided jointly by the House of People's Representatives and the House of the Federation. The term of office of the president is six years; no person can be elected president for more than two terms. The current president is Ato Girma Wolde Giorgis. The highest executive powers of the federal government are vested in the Prime Minister and in the Council of Ministers. The Prime Minister is the chief executive, the chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the commander-in-chief of the national armed forces. The current Prime Minister is Ato Meles Zenawi.


According to the Second Annual Report on the Ethiopian Economy ( 2000/2001 ), it is estimated that close to 30 million Ethiopians live in absolute poverty, failing to satisfy their basic needs on a day-to-day basis. Ethiopia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is US$100, with an average GDP growth per capita of 2.8 per cent. Looking at sectoral contributions to the overall GDP, 52 per cent is derived from the agricultural sector, 11.1 per cent from the industrial sector, 7 per cent from the manufacturing sector, and 36.5 per cent from the service sector.

Agriculture is the dominant sector, with over 85 per cent of the population depending on it. The export market is highly dependent on the sale of coffee, Chat ( Catha edulis, a stimulant leaf), and animal hides. Fluctuations in international prices, as well as changes in weather patterns, thus easily equate to economic depression. Other problems in the country include high reliance on subsistence rain-fed agriculture, increased population pressure, increasing degradation of natural resources, lack of foreign investment, and increased debt. Consecutive droughts coupled with underlying structural problems in the country have resulted in massive starvation.

The majority of the country’s income is derived from loans from the World Bank as well as bilateral loans. Ethiopia was the twenty-fourth country to reach the Decision Point for debt relief (in November 2001) under the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Total debt service relief is estimated to be around US$1.9 billion over time (US$1.3 million on Net Present Value terms). The full amount of debt relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Development Association (IDA), and other creditors will be delivered to Ethiopia following the completion of a number of measures in key areas recommended by the boards of the World Bank and IMF.


According to the 2000 Central Statistical Authority’s (CSA) Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), Ethiopia has one of the highest mortality rates in the world. It is estimated that one in every six Ethiopian children will die before reaching the age of five, with 58 per cent of these deaths occurring during the first year of life. There is also a very high level of malnutrition in the country. One in two Ethiopian children under five years of age is stunted (short for their age), 11 per cent wasted (thin for their age), and 47 per cent underweight.

The government owns and operates most hospitals in the country. However, the number of private hospitals, higher clinics, and other health facilities is increasing. Lack of doctors, medical equipment, and medicine are major drawbacks in the country’s health system. According to the Ministry of Health’s data (in 2001), the doctor-to-patient ratio in Ethiopia stands at 1 to 36,000, with only 51.6 per cent of the population having access to health care.

HIV/AIDS has now become a major threat in the country. Ethiopia has the third largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world. As per the Ministry of Health (in 2002), an estimated 2.2 million people live with HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, including 200,000 children. This has contributed to falling life expectancy over the past decade (in 2001, life expectancy was 42 years, compared to 45 years in 1990).

Lack of access to clean water is another major contributing factor to Ethiopia’s health problems. According to the CSA DHS survey, only 10 per cent of the households in Ethiopia have access to clean water.


A century has passed since modern education began in Ethiopia. Under the imperial regime, literacy rate was reported at a mere 10 per cent. This figure then increased to about 63 per cent in 1984, and was reported at 61 per cent in 1990–91. The increase was mainly due to a national literacy campaign adopted by the Derg regime which mobilized more than 60,000 students and teachers to teach all over the country for a two-year term; however, the rate quickly dropped as soon as the campaign was phased out ( Second Annual Report on the Ethiopian Economy 2000/2001 ). Looking at enrollment ratios at various levels of education, there is great disparity between the relatively developed and undeveloped regions.

Enrolment of girls at every level of education is lower than that of boys. Enrolment of girls in elementary, secondary, and higher-education level is 41, 38, and 31 per cent respectively ( Statistical Abstract 2002 ). Adult literacy rate in the country is estimated at 28.9 per cent while female and male literacy rates stand at 18.5 per cent and 39.6 per cent respectively. Many regions are now providing primary education in their local/native languages. English is the medium of instruction in secondary and higher institutions as it is taught as a subject beginning from grade one.

According to the Education Sector Development Strategy, a new educational structure has been laid out wherein primary education would include grades one to eight and secondary education would include grades nine to twelve. However, secondary education has been divided into two cycles. The first cycle, representing grades nine and ten, involves general secondary education while the second cycle, representing grades ten to twelve, involves special training preparing students for higher education (diploma or degree programs). For those who may not continue formal education, technical and vocational training opportunities in agriculture, industrial arts, construction, commerce, and home science are available after primary education. Public schools are mainly free, charging only nominal fees to cover costs of services such as the provision of books and registration ( Second Annual Report on the Ethiopian Economy 2000/2001 ).

Currently there are nineteen public higher education institutions in Ethiopia including six universities (Addis Ababa, Alemaya, Jimma, Bahir Dar, Mekelle, and Debub) and thirteen colleges of medicine, agriculture, commerce, technical, engineering, forestry, and teacher education ( Second Annual Report on the Ethiopian Economy 2000/2001 ). There are also a number of privately owned and accredited colleges that offer diploma- and degree-level education. As per the new strategy, higher education, which used to be free, will start having tuition fees as well as accommodation costs on a credit basis (differed cost recovery), the payment of which will begin following a one year grace period after graduation.

Last updated Aug 17, 2011