the amhara…

…(of ethiopia) have/had a weird relationship with food. [*insert famine joke here*]

the following passages are from “Socialization and social control in Ethiopia” written by a guy who spent a total of fourteen years in ethiopia starting in 1965 up to, i think, the 1990s. he’s talking here about traditional, countryside amhara. there have been changes (as a result of things like modernization, urbanization, war, famine, etc.) to a lot of this in modern times.

pgs. 40-1:

“Restraint is (or was in the not so distant past) as strictly enforced or enjoined with respect to food and drink as to premarital sex. As a warning example, people are reminded that Adam and Eve were ‘defeated’ by food when they ate of the forbidden fruit. As the devil tempted Christ to convert stones into bread, so he comes also today, tempting people to eat to excess (‘much’). Heavy eating and drinking is ‘sinful’. Children are taught that they should eat and drink in moderation, and not enjoy their food ‘too much’. Food ought not to be ‘too’ attractive or appetizing, because food builds up the body (‘the flesh’ – with its biblical connotation as the seat of sin and lust, etc.) but damages or destroys the soul. Love of food and drink is ‘bad’. Frugality is valued. However hungry they are, children are taught to leave some food on the plate — it is ill-mannered to eat all one’s food, either because the leftovers are fed to servants and other poor people, or — in some households — it is left (symbolically) for a protecting house-spirit called away.

“Those who keep all the fasts prescribed or recommended by the Ethiopian Orthodox church will fast most days of the year**; but even those who honour only the ‘compulsory’ fasts*** will observe quite a great number of fasting days each year. Fasting food can be healthy — most of the vegetables the Amhara eat they consume during fasting seasons — although it is (purposely) prepared rather unattractively during these times….**** The church recommends (but does not insist) that fasting should start at the age of seven.

“** Fasting consists of abstaining from animal products and sex, and to eat nothing till the afternoon. One is expected to combine this with more intensive praying and church attendance.
“*** Many non-religious people also observe these fasts as an expression of Ethiopian or Amhara ‘nationalism’. It is as much a cultural as a religious act or phenomenon to many people.
“**** There is for example no butter or animal fat/oil in the food, and no milk is used in bread, etc.”

is all this fasting and hyper-respect for food some reaction to centuries of famines? don’t eat too much ’cause you don’t want to waste too much food?

you’d think not eating enough/properly wouldn’t be too good for you — and the author thinks it hasn’t been good for the amhara:

pg. 57:

“The ‘delay’ of marriage and child-bearing is, ironically, coinciding with earlier maturing. Food has by the traditional Amhara not been highly regarded as a ‘good’ (however tasty their food is) — it has rather been seen as a necessity, and it has been widely considered as an inducement to worldliness and sin. Nutrition has (perhaps partly therefore) been poor (which does not mean that Amhara women are poor cooks — quite the contrary). In spite of much fertile land, food production is at a low level, and many eat too little or survive on an unhealthy diet (however tasty it may be). This may explain why Amhara rarely develop good body proportions and why ‘ageing’ sets in early. Poor diets have also had noticeably detrimental effects on the mental and intellectual development of many.”

here’s some more curious food-related behaviors:

pg. 93:

“When a boy or a man and a girl or a woman marry, they eat together and continue to do so throughout life. But the children do not eat with the parents till they are (nearly) ready for marriage, although in towns it is now becoming usual that the whole family eat together, and slowly this is becoming customary also in the countryside. The typical situation used, however, to be (and partly still is) that the children took turns to hold a burning torch or light for the parents to see by when they ate at night, while they (the children) kept their eyes on the wall: they were not allowed to watch their parents eating.** Otherwise, during daytime or when not holding a light for their parents, they were not present when adults were eating, although they could occasionally be called and fed mouthfuls from the hands of their parents or other adults. After the parents had eaten — and also taken the best and most nourishing parts of the food — the children would eat the leftovers after them (and servants or poor people would be given the leftovers after them). Some children normally ate (and some still eat) their food with the servants. Meals were usually taken in silence: it was counted as irreverent to talk (let alone chatter or ‘keep the conversation going’) during a meal.

“** In earlier times, rulers and high nobles would never be observed eating. Even at banquets they would be screened off from the common view while eating.”

pg. 95:

“At around 12 or 13 years of age, boys in the countryside wander about more widely than before, and they start to eat what they can find in nature: fruits, roots, tubers, plants of various kinds growing wild, and they may be so sated with this that they start skipping meals at home. They are ‘in the field’ in this way both for play and as shepherds.”

(note: comments do not require an email. ethiopian food.)

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3 Comments

  1. This is really odd. I knew about the fasting, but I’ve read quite a lot about Ethiopia, and this is the first I’ve heard of this “food is sinful” business. I’ve read accounts of banquets in Ethiopia in the 1700’s, and they were quite jolly, even ribald, occasions. I wonder if there was a backlash later on?

    Reply

  2. @tschafer – “I wonder if there was a backlash later on?”

    perhaps the more modern amhara ideas surrounding food are some sort of backlash to past extravagances like you say. dunno. -?- this guy is writing about fairly modern/recent times — he’s certainly not talking about the past at all.

    he’s also talking specifically about the amhara — and the rural amhara at that. i don’t have any idea about what other groups in ethiopia might think about food.

    Reply

  3. Saint Augustine couldn’t do it, but can someone else, believer or nonbeliever, explain what kind of fruit Adam and Eve ate in the story? After 6000+ years I think we are all due an intelligent explanation. No guesses, opinions, or beliefs, please–just the facts that we know from the story. But first, do an Internet search: First Scandal.

    Reply

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