The Tigray are an ethnolinguistic group indigenous to the highlands of Eritrea and the Tigray Region of Ethiopia.
In Eritrea they make up about 55% of the population, and in Ethiopia there are about 4.5 million Tigrayans, according to the 2007 census, most of them in the Tigray Region.
Over 90% of Tigrayans are Christians. The great majority are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and Eritrean Orthodox Christian, but there are minorities of Muslims, Beta Israel, and since the 19th century, Protestants in Eritrea and Catholics mainly in Akele Guzay and Agame.
The Tigray (Tigre, Tigrai, or Tigrinya) have a history that goes back before the time of Jesus Christ. Over the past two thousand years, all the Ethiopian emperors have been either Tigray or Amharas (the ethnic group in Ethiopia most closely identified with the Tigray). According to Tigrayan, as well as Amharan, history, the Axumite empire, which later became the Ethiopian empire, was founded by Menilik, the son of King Solomon of Israel, and Queen Sheba (or Saba). According to this history, it was Menilik's men who captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and brought it to Axum (also spelled Aksum) in what is now the Tigray region in Ethiopia, where it remains to this day.
The seat of the Ethiopian empire has moved over the centuries. It has been located in a Tigriñña-speaking area (also spelled Tigrinya); in other times it has been in an Amharic-speaking area. In the 4th century, a Syrian named Fromentius was brought to Axum as a scribe in the royal court because he was literate in Greek. The court at Axum, like other courts of the ancient world, maintained an orientation toward Greek culture. Fromentius's influence went far beyond that of a scribe. He was a Christian, and his conversion of the court spread this religion to most of the Tigriñña, and later to the Amhara-speaking areas. After the collapse of the Mediterranean worlds of the Greeks and the Romans, the Ethiopian empire had less contact with outside centers of culture. During the Middle Ages in Europe, the Ethiopian empire was known as the home of legendary Christian ruler, Prester John of the Indies.
Between 1884 and 1891, Italy attempted to conquer Ethiopia, in an effort to become a colonial power but lost at the battle of Aduwa (a town near Axum). Emperor Yohannes did, however, cede the region that is now the heart of Eritrea to Italy as part of a strategy of solidifying Christian power in the south. In 1936, Italy added the remainder of Ethiopia to its holdings. With the expulsion of Italy in 1941, Eritrea was officially made a province of Ethiopia. A struggle for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia began in the 1960s and finally succeeded in 1991. Today Tigriñña is the dominant language of the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Tigriñña and Arabic dominate in neighboring Eritrea.
The Tigray and the Amhara (as co-inheritors of the Ethiopian empire) have represented the political elite of the country, except during a brief period of Italian colonial rule (1936– 1942). Until the Empire ended with the Marxist revolution and Haile Selassie's death in 1974, all emperors were either Amharas or Tigrays. In the post-empire period, many Tigray became part of the Eritrean Liberation Front and Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which for a time became the most powerful antigovernment force. Since the ouster of the socialist government of Mengistu Haile Mariyam in 1991, Tigray have dominated the Ethiopian government.
Today, Tigriñña speakers number about 6.6 million and are concentrated in Tigray state (Ethiopia) and in Eritrea. The regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea where most Tigriñña speakers live are high plateau, separated from the Red Sea by an escarpment (cliff-like ridge) and a desert. In good years, rainfall on the plateau is adequate for the plow agriculture engaged in by the majority of Tigray. However, when rainfall is low, the region is subject to disastrous droughts. Approximately 80 per cent of the Tigray live in a rural setting. It is these Tigray who are discussed here.
A significant number of Tigray still live in the Sudan, where they moved as refugees from the Ethiopian civil war and the Ertirean war of independence. Tigriñña speakers live in many urban centers of the United States and Europe, notably Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis.
Tigriñña, the language spoken in Tigray, is from the Semitic family of languages, and is related to Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus Christ). To the north of the Tigriñña speakers live people who speak the closely related language known as Tigre. Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is so closely related to Tigriñña that most Tigray have little difficulty communicating in Amharic. Tigriñña, Amharic, and the liturgical language Gi-iz are written with the same script. Many of the letters used in writing these languages derive from ancient Greek. Many young men learn to read and write while studying to become deacons and priests. Between World War II and 1991, public schools taught Amharic and English. After 1991 public schools put an emphasis on local languages. Only a minority of rural Tigray attend school.
Most Tigray names have specific meanings. Some examples appear in the accompanying table. Generally, people refer to one another by their first names. If one wished to distinguish between several people with that name, one would add the person's father's name. Abraha, for example, becomes Abraha Gebre Giyorgis, meaning, Abraha is the child of Gebre Giyorgis. If a further distinction must be made, the grandfather's name could be added, for example, Abraha-Gebre Giyorgis-Welede Mariyam. Men's and women's names follow the same rules, with the exception that wives are often given new names by their mothers-in-law when they first come to live with the husband's family. This applies only to the first name; distinguishing names (father's, father's father's, etc.) remain the same.
Most Tigray place a high value on verbal skills. Poetry, folk-tales, riddles, and puns are central to entertainment. A person who has returned from studying at a monastery and can display a facility with qene, the art of “poetic combat,” is much sought after for public gatherings. One indicator of the value placed on verbal skills is that the heroic figures of folklore are often known for the cleverness of the poetic couplets they composed. At a wedding, a qene expert might give a greeting that on the surface complemented the guests, but by a small change in pronunciation state that they are sitting on a royal dunghill. Riddles are an endless source of pleasure. This value on verbal cleverness is also seen in royal figures and saints. The Ethiopian saint Tekle Haymanot (“sower of the faith”) is depicted as having verbally outwitted the devil. Another Ethiopian saint represents a contrasting heroic quality. Gebre Memfis Qudus (“granted by the holy spirit”) gained sainthood by showing extraordinary compassion. The future saint was a monk who wandered among the wild animals. During one of Ethiopia's droughts he came upon a bird that was dying of thirst. The monk was so moved by the bird's plight that a tear formed under his eye. He allowed the bird to drink the tear. This bird was actually the Holy Spirit. These two heroic figures, Tekle Haymanot and Gebre Menfis Qudus, express two virtues—one of the mind, the other of the heart—highly prized by the Tigray.
Many people think of Christianity in Africa as a European import that arrived with colonialism, but this is not the case with the Tigray (or with the Amhara). The empire centered in Axum and Adowa was part of the Mediterranean world in which Christianity grew. Fromentius's 4th-century arrival in Axum was roughly contemporary with St. Patrick's arrival in Ireland and predated the arrival of Christianity in most of Europe by hundreds of years. Many Tigrayan churches were cut into cliffs or from single blocks of stone, as they were in houses of religion in Turkey and in parts of Greece, where Christianity had existed from its earliest years.
The church is a central feature of communities and of each family's daily life. Each community has a church with a patron saint. There is a close relationship between the community of worship and the community of citizenship. Until recent years, a town meeting was held just beyond the walls of the churchyard after Sunday mass. Members of the community moved from worship directly to the discussion of such topics of community governance as when to repair a village road or how to collect the taxes. Today's administrative structure retains the sense of community participation, but separates administrative and legislative meetings from the church.
Tigray, like members of other culture groups, often justify action on the basis of long-standing practice of belief. An example of a traditional Tigray explanation of an individual's symptoms of illness would be that he or she was possessed by a zar spirit. Another traditional belief is that some people—Budda and Tebib— have the capacity to unknowingly cause another person to have misfortune when they feel envy toward that person. Such beliefs are comparable to the “evil eye” in many Mediterranean cultures.
As in much of the rest of Ethiopia, most Tigray holidays are associated with the church calendar (Easter, Epiphany, etc.). The secular holidays include Ethiopian or Eritrean national holidays. The Ethiopian calendar runs on a different cycle from that originating in Europe. New Years entails a major holiday but comes on what in our calendar is September 11. There is also a difference in the calendar year and the clock. The Ethiopian millennium celebration fell in the European calendar year 2007. The sun rises at about 12 o'clock.
Births are attended by female friends and neighbors, and are private affairs. The infant is recognized as a member of the community in a naming ceremony held 40 days after birth for boys, and 80 days after birth for girls. Should a baby die after the naming ceremony, a funeral is required in recognition that a person has died; death in early infancy prior to the naming is not marked with a funeral.
Mothers have primary responsibility for children under age seven, who stay close to home. Boys older than seven begin accompanying their fathers to the fields. About the age of 12, children reach the “age of reason” and take on more responsibility, such as helping care for younger brothers and sisters and for herding farm animals. Also at about this age, children are baptized and enter the community of religion.
Adolescence is a time when boys begin to prepare for a career. For most rural Tigray, this career will be secondary to farming. Boys often begin studying with a biblical master, known as diakonin or deftera (deacons), who have been ordained by the Bishop (Abuna). Many of these young men hope to become priests (qashi) or deacons themselves. Orthodox deacons and priests are not prohibited from marriage, so a priest is often also a husband and farmer.
Studying the Bible is not simply part of religious training; it is also a stepping stone to other forms of career advancement. Students learn to read and write Ethiopian script, traditionally a necessity for most political offices. The path through religious study toward literacy is becoming less important with the increased availability of government schools. Boys who are serious about becoming priests often become mendicants (religious beggars), and go door-to-door asking for food. Because religious roles are not available to women until late in life, religious study is not an avenue to literacy for girls. For boys, studying, begging, and becoming a deacon are also steps toward careers such as medicine. Most diagnosis of illness and prescription of cures is done by deftera (deacons or diviners) who have left formal religious work. Whether Bible students or not, adolescence is a time for young people to develop a reputation for competence, and to show that they are prepared to become good heads of households (for women, ba-altigeza, and men, ba-algeza). Young women demonstrate culinary skills and take care of their younger brothers and sisters. Young men are expected to accumulate a sum of money.
With adulthood come new responsibilities. One of the signs of adulthood is community citizenship, that is, attendance at village meetings after church on Sunday mornings. Other signs are marriage or becoming a deacon.
The death of a person requires a funeral. Funerals, with ceremonies in both the village and the church, normally take place before the sun sets on the day following death.
Tigriñña uses an elaborate system of greetings to indicate honor, the closeness of the relationship, and gender. There are ten personal pronouns people use to address one another. The choice of greeting is important in establishing and maintaining good relations. When meeting a stranger whom one judges may deserve some special respect, one might decide to address him with khamihaduru (“How are you, my honored equal?”). After learning that a stranger is due a great deal of respect, one might address him with khamihadirom (“How are you, my honored superior?”).
The body language employed by Tigray is even more elaborate than the terms they use to address one another. Between any two people, there is always relative rank, referred to as a azazi-tazazi (“servant-master”) relationship. Every person is azazi (servant) in some relationships, but tazazi (master) in others. This relative rank is expressed in both greetings and body language. One may express deference by lowering the eyes when meeting a superior's gaze. Both men and women move to lower seats, stand back to allow others to pass at doorways, or bow to show respect to others. Draping of the toga is an important part of social interaction. The socially successful person is adept at switching the arrangement of the cloth rapidly to go from indifference to respect when moving from one person to another in a social gathering. Used European clothing has replaced the toga for many rural Tigray, requiring a corresponding replacement of clothing's communication with other body language.
When a Tigray man or woman arrives at someone's house, he or she does not knock on the door to signify he or she has arrived at someone's house; rather, he clears his throat. On hearing this signal, the occupants of the house will come out to greet the arriving guest and invite him in. Guests are usually offered coffee. The way the coffee, buna, is served also expresses the relative status of relationships. If the host wishes to be polite, he or she will offer the first cup of coffee to the guest with the greatest khibri (honor). The guest is likely to refuse the offer, expressing humility, and the sentiment that the host is even more worthy, and should therefore drink the first cup. Similar interactions take place between the next most important guest and the host, and so forth, until all have been offered coffee. Finally, the most honored person will give in and accept the cup of coffee, signally that all guests can be served, in order, giving a clear picture of the honor each is accorded.
When sewwa (beer) is served, quite a diffierent social dimension is expressed—for the moment, all present are equal members of a community, and the host makes sure that all glasses are always full. While coffee is used to reinforce the differences among people, beer is used to emphasize commonality.
For rural Tigray, there is no dating in the Western sense. Expressions of romantic interest between two people are not indicated by the couple going out together. Instead, parents of both create an agreement for a union between the two households, and a marriage takes place. Parents generally take the interests of their child into account. If a person becomes divorced, he or she may date prior to entering into a second marriage.
There are still few Western-trained physicians and life expectancy is low in Tigray. An increase in government clinics has not eliminated this problem. Chronic, parasitic diseases, such as malaria and schistosomiasis, are a problem in some regions. Many children die from communicable diseases such as measles and chicken pox. However, heart disease and lung cancer are rare, and people in their 50s are at the peak of their careers. By age 70 most people have retired from active farming.
In rural areas the main prestige items purchased are mules, often as status symbols for display to people outside the community. Generally speaking, status symbols have little importance. Within a community, people know one another well, and only deeds can add to a person's reputation.
A Tigray house provides shelter and contributes to the occupant's reputation in the community. A young couple's first house is usually a gujji, a practical, unimpressive house that the couple builds for itself. A gujji is a hut of wattle and daub—rods interwoven with twigs or branches—with a thatched roof. If the couple is successful, their next house will be more elaborate, with masonry walls and domed roofs supported by heavy wooden beams. Increasingly houses are roofed with sheetmetal. A very powerful family may later add stone walls around the yard.
Guests often bring stones with them as gifts of respect, to be added to the walls. One may view the walls as a concrete demonstration of one's friends' esteem.
Even the most elaborate rural houses have neither electricity nor running water. Candles or oil lamps provide light in the evening. The masonry walls and domed roofs provide good insulation and are comfortable in both cold and hot seasons. Fires for cooking and heating are fueled by wood or dried cow dung.
An average household in a farming community produces and consumes goods valued in hundreds of dollars per year; even small purchases by Western standards, such as soft drinks, represent substantial expenditures for rural Tigray.
Trucks and buses provide nearly all the road transportation, but many places people wish to go are not accessible by roads. Thus, many people travel by foot and carry loads on donkeys, mules, and camels. (Camels and mules also carry salt tablets from salt beds below sea-level in the Danakil depression up to the 8,000 ft plateaus of Tigray, where they are loaded onto trucks for transport to other parts of Ethiopia.)
The people living in a Tigrayan household are a family. They are generally related to each other and have a moral responsibility for one another. A rural Tigray household can also be seen as an agricultural firm, consuming directly most of what it produces, but selling some to get cash to buy items like spices and needles. To function efficiently, each family farm needs all jobs to be filled, and relies on every member to perform her or his job effectively. If a family is large, a son or daughter may go to live with an aunt or an uncle to help operate that household's farm.
Tigray women and men both bring property into the marriage; should there be a divorce each takes out what she or he brought in, and either party may call for the divorce. Typically, domestic goods, pots and pans, etc., are claimed by the wife. Farming tools, plows, etc., are claimed by the husband. In the case of divorce, younger children tend to stay with their mother. Older children stay with their same sex parent. When a household has both a wife and a husband, the husband is expected to represent the household's views to the outside world. The wife will speak for the household if her husband is not available. When a household is headed by a single woman, she is the spokeswoman. Though women occasionally hold political office, most offices are held by men.
Women are responsible for food preparation and the care of small children. The husband is responsible for plowing, planting, and the care of animals. Older girls work beside their mothers, older boys beside their fathers. Men may help around the house, and woman may help in farming, especially in weeding and at the harvest. In the case of divorce or death of a spouse, the surviving spouse will hire the help he or she needs to keep the farm and household in operation.
Households vary widely in size, from one member (widow or widower) to twenty (extended over two or three generations). The average family has a husband, wife, and four children.
For most couples, the first marriage is arranged by a contract between the parents of the bride and the groom. After a divorce, second marriages involve contracts between the new husband and new wife. Except for priests and deacons, couples typically do not go through a church marriage until later in life.
Tigray households go through changes as the occupants mature. A household is usually established by a new couple, with children added soon afterward. When young adults are old enough to marry, they may bring a spouse to live within the parental household. Whether the new couple joins the wife's or the husband's family's household is a matter of choice. In this manner, powerful families often add several subfamilies—the families of their married children. Most young couples leave their parents' household as soon as they can afford to farm on their own.
Families often keep dogs and occasionally keep a cat. However, these animals are generally regarded as working animals—watchdogs and mousers—and not companions.
Traditional Tigray clothing is white, which is regarded as Christian, with little adornment. For dressy occasions and church, women express piety—reverence for religious obligations—by wearing ankle-length dresses with long sleeves made of fine material. Men wear a form of jodhpur—ankle-length pants that are tight from the knee to the ankle and baggy in the upper legs and hips. A fitted, long-sleeved shirt covers the upper body. The shirt extends to just above the knee for laymen and to just below the knee for priests and deacons. Both men and women wear a gabbi or kutta (toga) draped around the shoulders; it can be draped in a complex set of patterns to express a person's relationship to others.
Until recently, everyday clothing was similar to dress clothes. Men wore a variety of shirts and pants under their togas. For women, everyday clothing was simply less fancy than church clothes. For many Tigrays, used clothing imported from Europe has replaced traditional clothing for day-to-day wear.
Probably the most important fact about food in Tigray is that there is not enough of it. Households must make up for food deficits with government subsidies. In Tigray, bread is one of the main foods. Two of the more common varieties are a thin, pancake-like bread preferred by most people, and a dense, disk-shaped loaf of baked whole wheat bread known as khambasha. Pancakes are 30 to 45 cm (12 to 18 in) in diameter, and are made from many kinds of cereal grains (wheat, barley, etc.). The favorite pancake is made from a grain called taff that does not grow in all regions. Where taff cannot be grown, khambasha is the everyday food. A variety of tsebhi (spicy stew) is eaten with the bread. Families and guests normally eat from a messob (shared food basket), with each person breaking off pieces of bread from the side nearest them and dipping it into tsebhi (stew) in the center of the basket.
Special occasion foods are similar to those eaten everyday, but use higher-quality ingredients. Festive breads are made of whiter flour, and stews are more likely to include meat. Mies, a honey wine or mead may replace sewwa (barley beer).
Eating utensils, such as silverware, are not used at most meals. One uses the right hand to tear off a piece of injera (pancake) or bread and dips it into the stew (or sauce), much like eating “dip.” On festive occasions like weddings, where a large piece of meat (sometimes uncooked) is served to each guest, a knife is provided. Cups have a variety of shapes and meaning. One of the first investments a new couple makes is a set of finjal, small coffee cups resembling those used to serve tea in Chinese restaurants. Beer glasses come in three basic varieties: cow horn, unglazed pottery, and glass or plastic. The mies (honey wine) should be served in a berile (special glass flask) with a long narrow neck. A Tigray saying is “Mies served without a berile is just beer.”
In Tigray, using the left hand to touch food that others will have contact with is regarded as very bad manners. The same relationship between left and right can be seen in many settings. For example, sitting on the right side of someone important is better than having to sit on the left. The right side of the church, as viewed from the altar, is holier than the left.
Some foods—pork, shellfish, and rabbit—are believed to be unfit for Christian Tigray to eat. (Most are also considered non-kosher or prohibited foods by Jews.) The justification for these food prohibitions is found in the Christian Old Testament book of Leviticus. During the 40 days of Lent, plus a 14 day cleansing period before it, observant Tigray Christians do not eat animal products, including meat, milk, cheese, butter, or eggs.
The first meal of the day is eaten shortly after rising and usually consists of leftovers from the night before. On most days, both the midday meal and afternoon dinner consist of pancakes or bread and stew (or a sauce). When people are in the fields plowing, herding, winnowing, or weeding, they bring lunch in an agelgil (leather covered lunch basket). Snacks generally consist of toasted grains, and are eaten as one eats popcorn.
Traditionally, boys learn to read Tigriñña, Gi-iz, and Amharic as Bible students. Today, some rural boys, and a few girls, attend public schools, with a percentage of them completing high school. Children living in town are much more likely to go to school than their rural counterparts. In larger towns, such as Makelle, Aduwa, or Aksum, public education is available through high school. There are universities in Addis Ababa and Makelle in Ethiopia and in Asmara in Eritrea.
Many rural parents encourage Bible study for literacy and the career opportunities it provides. Rural parents see advantages (in terms of a non-farming career) and some disadvantages to sending their children to school in town: although the student receives an education, he or she may not return to the family farm, and thus may not support their parents in old age.
There are two main categories of music: church music and praise songs. Deacons sing and accompany the song with drums and a tsinatsil (sistrum, a rattle-like instrument) as part of the mass. Praise singers form a kind of caste—families of praise singers intermarry with other families of praise singers. Singers accompany themselves with a one-stringed instrument that is a little like a violin. Hosts often hire singers to entertain at parties, such as weddings. Guests give tips to the singers to sing, often humorously, about their friends.
Deacons dance as part of some church holidays. Women dance as entertainment on a few secular occasions. Rural men and women do not dance together in public.
Passages from the “Book of Psalms” are frequently brought into discussions of people's behavior. Many priests and deacons carry the psalms called a dawit (for King David) in a leather pouch.
Qene is an admired form of poetry known for its use of double meanings, beautiful language, and cleverness. A couplet should have a surface meaning and a deeper one. Qene is described as being like “wax and gold,” an analogy that refers to the process of casting gold objects in wax molds pressed into sand. In qene, the listener “hears the wax” and must use thought to find the gold inside. Tigray kings and princes are often remembered for their qene compositions.
Until recently, most rural Tigray considered farming to be the most honorable work. Today's food shortages have made many parents rethink this proposition. Trade and government employment are seen as providing better opportunities. Th ose who make their living as blacksmiths, weavers, potters, or musicians are looked upon with some disfavor and suspicion. Most families farm, including those of priests and deacons. Farmers need plow animals in the Tigray region. The plow used is similar to those of Egypt further north, with a main shaft made from olive wood for strength. The plow shear is tipped with steel provided by blacksmiths. Because all farmers need plow animals, most are considered herders as well. People who can't afford animals must form partnerships with wealth-ier households. Since the 1974 revolution, Tigray farming has gone through several land redistributions, aimed at equalizing wealth. Nevertheless, shortages of oxen for plowing means that some households must form alliances with others who are better off than themselves.
The calculations that go into food production in the Tigray environment are complex and daunting. Nearly all parts of Ti-gray are subject to drought. Rainfall varies in timing and intensity. Different soil types perform differently. Tigray select from 17 varieties of cereal crops. Each household must choose the right seeds to maximize the amount of food and to minimize the chances of having too little food in years when rain is too heavy, too light, too early, or too late for any given field. An aggressive a choice of mixes of seed might lead to wealth for the household or starvation if the rains and the seeds are a bad match that year. A conservative set of choices may lead to the household not getting ahead. The calculations are comparable to what is required to manage a stock portfolio and is taken at least as serious by Tigrayan farmers.
Men are responsible for crops and women for the house and young children. Both help in the other's domain, and household decisions are made by mutual discussion. Teenage boys do much of the herding and help with plowing. Teenage girls work alongside their mothers.
A sport that seems to be unique to the Tigray and Amhara is a kind of cross-country field hockey. Those who are serious about the game grow their own hockey sticks, by training saplings to grow with the proper curve. When the sapling reaches the right stage of growth, they cut the tree and shape it into a hockey stick. The game is played running across the countryside, over cattle-yard fences, and through creeks. Hockey is associated with Easter.
The game played most by the Tigray is Timkhats, sometimes described as chess. In the center of neighborhoods, men play it all year round, and boys play it while watching the herds. Timkhats is played on a grid usually scratched in the ground. Two players take turns placing markers on intersections of the grid in what might be thought of as a three-dimensional tick-tack-toe game. The rules are similar to those of the German game, die müller. Spectators offer advice on, and criticism of, the players' moves.
While Timkhats is the most common spectator sport when measured in hours spent by the most people, soccer is the sport that captures people's passions as they cheer for their favorite school teams and town teams.
Some of the most spectacular Tigray art is associated with the church. Tigray churches are famous for their architecture, with many cut into solid stone. The churches that are built of masonry are large and incorporate design features of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Icon painting—the creation of images of sacred people—is another art form associated with the church. Some deacons who have studied at debri (monasteries) return as icon painters. Icons are purchased by individuals and used to reinforce a relationship with a particular saint.
The major non-religious art forms are architecture and basketry. Masonry houses are meant to reflect the personality of the owner, and include details such as decorative borders below the roof line. Basketry, including the beautiful messob (shared-food baskets) that are the centerpieces of entertaining, are produced by women after their children have left home. Families specializing in weaving produce embroidered dresses. Some artisans and craftspeople—such as weavers, musicians, blacksmiths, and leather workers—are expected to marry within their group.
Since the 1970s, Tigray and Eritrea have experienced powerful social upheaval. In these two areas of greatest Tigray concentration, people have experienced a civil war, a struggle for independence, and a number of famines. Many observers believe that the human rights situation, after improving, has taken a downturn. Many challenges remain for the governments and people of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Probably the most important social problems are associated with Tigray's food deficit and un- and underemployment. The government's attempt to combat these problems has taken two forms—relief efforts and public works—much of it in the form of terracing to improve the region's agricultural output.
Each government interprets civil rights in its own way, and government policy has gone through much transformation as it evolved from the imperial rule of Haile Selassie (1936–74), the Marxist-oriented government of Mengistu (1974–91), to the current, more democratic government. In 2008, Melles Zenawi, a Tigray, is the president
HIV-AIDS has become a significant public health issue, particularly in road towns.
Alcoholism is not widespread among rural Tigray. The sewwa (beer) brewed by each household is very low in alcohol content. Mies (honey wine) is somewhat higher in alcohol content, but is reserved for special occasions, such as weddings or entertaining political figures. Araqi (anise flavored brandy) is occasionally drunk to symbolize the finalizing of agreements, such as wedding contracts.
Under both traditional law and current law, men and women have equal rights. Under the pre-Mengistu land tenure systems rights to land were counted equally through male and female ancestral claims. On a mother's death, all of her children (male and female) had equal claim on shares of her land. The same was true in the event of a father's death. In other words, each household's holding were a mix of claims through combinations of male and female ancestors. Similarly, after a divorce each spouse kept his or her own land. Movable community property was divided equally. Nevertheless, in practice divorce often created more of a problem for women than for men. For practical reasons of sharing herding duties new households were often set up near the husband's parents. Thus a woman was more likely to have to move after a divorce.
In public life, men are usually the spokesmen for their households. As a matter of etiquette, a man will act as host. In the husband's absence, the wife will act as host. A woman and her husband are equally “owners” of the household. A woman will represent her household, before an adult son will. Ownership counts more than gender in representing the household.
There are two major settings in which men and women are seated separately. In church, men sit on the right half of the church and women on the left, from the perspective of the altar. In a community meeting people sit in three groupings. Married men, representing their households sit as a group. Female household heads sit in another. Adult men who have not yet established a household sit in yet another.
Male and female roles are quite separate. As mentioned in the Section 15, above, men have responsibility for agricultural production and women have responsibility for food preparation and childcare. While each may help in the other's domain, the responsibilities are defined.
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