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Northeast African Studies 7.3 (2000) 15-20

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Cultural Variation in Southern Ethiopia:

An Introduction

Cambridge University

Why Look at Cultural Variation in Southern Ethiopia?

There are many similarities and patterns of variation between the cultures of southern Ethiopia, and yet traditional forms of fieldwork and ethnography tend to restrict researchers to one particular people, society, or village. Differences in language can further hinder the curious researcher from exploring other cultures in the area, and differences in ethnographic style and focus can make it difficult to carry out detailed comparative research from the literature. The end result is that researchers tend to stay focused on one particular locale, and there is little exploration of regional linkages and interconnections. Thus we felt it was important to get people together to "talk across cultures."

Moreover, we believed that viewing cultural phenomena through a wider lens would allow for more insight into any one society. Phenomena such as "divine kings," rain chiefs, and initiations are found throughout the whole of southern Ethiopia, among agriculturalists and pastoralists, highlanders and lowlanders, Omotic-speakers and Cushitic-speakers. It seemed to us that the structure, function, and meaning of these institutions in any one society would be better understood when seen as one version of a regional set. Looking at their workings in other societies would suggest new connections and open up new lines of thought.

This much would be true of any area, but we felt that southern Ethiopia was a particularly appropriate area to look at for cultural [End Page 15] variation because of the tradition of scholarship in this region that seeks to combine anthropological and historical perspectives (e.g., Donham and James 1986). Synchronic structural variation is often the result of temporal transformation, and thus trying to explain patterns of variation necessarily requires bringing together anthropology and history and focusing on processes of change. This is a theoretical issue at the heart of contemporary anthropology, and the diverse cultures of southern Ethiopia provide an excellent set of ethnographic examples with which to tackle this issue.

Last, but by no means least, we felt that the current political situation in Ethiopia made it particularly timely to look at cultural variation. The "politics of ethnicity" that is currently driving much government policy has led to an emphasis on difference and discontinuity between different peoples in the region, and in the country more generally. Ethnic groups are assumed to be clearly defined entities with rigid boundaries, and a homogeneous culture inside that is quite different from that found "outside," amongst neighboring peoples. This focus on difference ignores the manifest continuities, both historical and cultural, between many of the peoples in the area. In the papers in this volume, we hope to address this balance by focusing on similarity and continuity.1 It is this type of approach, we believe, that is more likely to lead to cross-cultural understanding and interethnic peace.

The Main Themes

Four main themes emerged from the papers and discussions at the workshop, and are found in the re-written papers presented in this volume. In short, they are: fertility and power, dynamic historical processes, interethnic relations, and local understandings of variation.

Fertility and Power

Fertility and power emerged as key themes from many papers (Freeman; Tadesse; Abbink's workshop paper) and seems to be of central importance to many of the peoples in the region. The idiom of fertility is used throughout the region to elaborate hierarchies both within societies and between them. The very common idea that "the first begat the second" legitimated inequality between societies, villages, and moieties in [End Page 16] the same way that it legitimated inequality between fathers and sons. To have "given birth" to something is to have power over it. Hence the ideology of fertility and reproduction was a shared cultural idiom between and within different societies.

The notion of fertility also embraces control of the environment, and particularly of rain, for to control rain is to control agricultural fertility. Thus "rain chiefs" in different societies would be known as more or less powerful...


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