7:04 pm - Sunday October 22, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Amhara Psychology’ (Hewan Z simeon)

Recently, a piece was posted online written by Befeqadu, a blogger, an activist, interested in and usually posting findings, thoughts and ‘feelings’ on issues that strike the average cyber-Ethiopians’ attention. I have a few things to say, and I present some findings that may add some depth to the author’s writing, if in fact he continues to research and engage with the topic. It is only because I genuinely believe he wants to expand his knowledge about this. The last few paragraphs of his piece are convoluted and funky, I am sure not only to me, but also to him, the author. In my last paragraphs, I lay out some things I’ve been noticing, in relation to his piece, but in general to what I feel is happening on social media as well.



Befeqadu’s piece was titled ‘The Amhara Psychology’. He starts off with trying to identify and define what contemporary Amhara is in comparison with what it historically represented. Then he highlights how tracing the language might help us pin down the evolution of the people who speak Amharic, an OK approach, but which thereby subtly declares that those who speak it would be those who are called Amhara. He also claims, without citation, that “ [l]egend has it that it was in Shoa, in the 13th century, that the language was first born” and further, that “the language is younger than Cushitic languages that include Afaan Oromo and Somali”. Primarily, it is with respect that I say, one should not make such a bold heading for a piece that isn’t even three pages long and for one which more than factual and evidence based research only presents exhausted theories about the Amhara. How does one understand the psychology of a group of diverse people? (Didn’t we tackle this in anthropology 101)

In the book, Church and State (1270 – 1527) by Taddesse Tamrat, Taddesse uses ‘Amhara’ to represent not the Amharic speaking group, but a Christian ‘advance guards’ that expanded to the south, facing conflicts with the Shewans (64). They are represented differently from the Tigre. He writes “It is apparent that all the Semitic linguistic groups south of the Tigre region had a similar origin. The Amhara tribal group is the most northerly of these communities and was probably the earliest to be established as such”. Taddesse here is explaining the southward expansion of Christians prior to the 9th century, further proving that Amhara did in fact exist before the 9th century. In fact, he continues to write, “the earliest recorded tradition of Christian settlement in the region indicates that there was already a distinct Amhara population…” (37-38). Further, Taddesse writes Yikunno Amlak’s dynasty was comprised of “Amhara and the Christian communities of Shawa” (67). I use this to present a theory, that perhaps the Amhara were not entirely Christian, and could have been pagan, and or Muslim if they had to be identified as their own group here. Or perhaps, the Amhara were their own distinct group, just like the Shewa.

Befeqadu has ignored Church documents in his writing, and I would like to guide his attention to one Gedl, Gedle Teklehaymanot, of the king not the saint. This also mentions the Amhara. It is to be noted that the Gedl was written in the 800s. The roots, Biher, languages and descriptions of the people of Ethiopia are stated in the volumes of Gedle Teklehaymanot.

Other books include: The Ethiopians by Edward Ullendorff states that Amharic has been the “Lesanne Negus” (language of the kings) officially from Yikunno Amlak’s period reign in 1270, although Amharic has been used by the Zagwe Monarchs, Lalibela et al. He presents evidence that Ge’ez and Amharic have co-existed side by side for centuries. “…the evolution of Amharic and the other modern languages can best be envisaged in this way: classical Ethiopic, in the course of time, spread over a fairly large area and, when political and other circumstances were propitious […], eventually became differentiated to such an extent that the varying speech forms were mutually unintelligible” (119). Further, the language may have been made the official national language in the past 100 years, it has been the court language for centuries (124) and its grammar studied by indigenous and foreign scholars since the middle ages. And, to Befeqadu’s list of sources that declare the Amharic language has Cushitic influences, there is solid evidence that its “Semitic stock remains appreciable” in Ullendorf’s book (125).

In Titov’s Modern Amharic Language script of 1976, he writes that there is evidence that the first known Amharic writings were from the 13th century. It should also be noted that even among the EthioSemitic languages, Amharic is classified as among the ‘Southern Semetic languages of Ethiopia, along with Guragigna, Harari, Argoba etc.. The northern Semetic languages are the Tigre, Tigrigna, the old Ethiopic  and Ge’ez’.

In Gedle Qewustos written in the 14th century, there are words such as ስርጓይ which are followed by similar descriptions by church scholars which state «በአገራችን ቋንቋ ይህ እምቧይ ይባላል» referring to Amharic.

For further research, please also refer to Girma Awgichew’s book on Ethiosemetic languages and his thorough discussion of the arguments about the evolution of Amarigna. You can also refer to Kidane Wold Kifle, Nibure-ed Ermias’s ኢትዮጵያ የአለም መፋረጃ and Mesfin Woldemariam’s book which came out 7 years ago, in 2003 E.C (sorry, I forgot the title)

Questions and points of reflection:

To his claim, “people -whatever their ethnic background is – have to be [Orthodox Christians] and speak Amharic to have the maximum chance of taking over leadership”, I say this is partially fabricated. The Solomonic Dynasty has never been based on whether or not one speaks Amharic, and not after Tewodros as well. It mattered most whether one can trace their lineage to the House of David (Asfa-Wossen Assrate 2015; Kebra Nagast) regardless of what language you spoke. [Zagwe was based on ethnicity, Solomonic dynasty was known for intermarriages (consider this as checks and balances).]

Befeqadu’s piece is also filled with chronological confusion. He seems to contradict himself by stating that Oromiffa was used in the Zemene Mesafint time-period, even though he stated that he was discussing post-Tewodross II Ethiopia. This confusion could be emblematic of a deeper confusion of understanding what exactly he is claiming, but that is to be excused.

He then states that Gondar royalties had adopted Catholic Christianity, even though it was only Atse Suseneyos of the 17th century who officially converted and even that after deep chaos in the empire, followed by revolts from all sorts of groups, including the re-known Wellete Petros. Rumour has it that Atse ZeDengil and Atse Ya’ekob had converted but this could have been spread by royalty to simply get rid of them as power rivals. Abune Gorgorious የኢትዮጵያ ቤተክርስትያን ታሪክ and Tsehafee Tezaz Gebreselassie, the first Ethiopian Tsefihet Minister’s books are references. This is also present in the reknown Ethopian historian’s TekleTsadik Mekuria’s volumes, especially ከይኩኖአምላክ እስከ ቴዎድሮስ. Further, he mentions that in Ethiopia’s entire history, it was only Aba Jifar who was able to keep his faith while ruling a province of Ethiopia. What are the sources? Atse Zeria Yakob and Atse Amde Tsion, have gone to the extremes of Adal to expand their country – had accepted Harrar’s and Adals rulers to rule as Muslim Sultans as long as they pay tribute to the central government. Menelik’s is only exceptional because of Aba Jiffar’s proximity to the central government. Orthodox Christianity was the basis on which one could claim the throne. This was, in fact, only changed upon the reign of Haile Selassie, who was the single ruler in Ethiopia’s history to have forced direct familial lineage to legitimize one’s quest for power, to this Teklehawariat, Ras Assrate and several are evidences.

But once again, I repeat, language or ethnicity has never been a factor to rule Ethiopia. The author makes speculations as to why the Tigre could have ruled over Ethiopia. It is interesting that a Church scholar mentioned to me today that this is written in several manuscripts that the Amhara of current Shoa have lineages that go back 4 or 5 generations to the Tigre.

Then again, the author’s chronology is off and one is not quite sure which century he is talking about when he says “Amhara people speak of their birth place (saying I’m Gojjamé, Gondarré, Showayé or Wolloyé)”. Up-to about four decades ago, Amhara had taken to mean ‘Orthodox Christian’ instead of much more (Mesfin Woldemariam). His assumption that one has to ‘amharanize’ oneself then becomes even more confusing. Is he saying that all who speak Amharic will become Amhara? How about his claim that the Amhara themselves don’t necessarily call themselves that. If he is speaking of the language becoming that of a working language in contemporary Ethiopia, then would he say the same for English as it is becoming the global language? Are we Englisizing ourselves, or do we consider that simply a uniting tool for humanity? But this for another discussion.

I believe Befeqadu’s piece took a turn for the worse upon his insulting claim that ‘the common psychological make-up of the Amhara today is pride’.

“The source of this pride is the long standing narration of heroism and leadership opportunity they had. They do have strong sense of ownership to the state. They make proud of the fact that they had central role in forming the Ethiopian state. And, therefore, they don’t like critics of the way Ethiopia is formed. They hate anyone who hates the Imperial rulers and dislike who doesn’t like the state.”

This particular paragraph above is what led me to conclude that Befeqadu’s piece is not educational, nor is it meant to be taken as such. It is his assumptions of what he believes; and the piece a reflection of Befeqadu’s true opinions. No one can be challenged for what they simply assume. He refers to a group he fails to recognize through his “research” as ‘they’. He tells us, the readers, disrespectfully, that the Amhara’s pride is ‘their’ fibre of identity. He repeats that ‘they’ had a central role in forming the Ethiopian state, even-though he himself has been arguing that it could have been true that the ancestors to the Amhara group were not necessarily Amhara. He concludes with what he cannot justify. Should we count the lineage of the rulers of Ethiopia to prove that most of them were not Amhara? Is this what we have come down to?

After this, the author has two to three paragraphs, which frankly I couldn’t clearly understand. Thus, I apologize for the conclusion I am about to draw, considering they may not necessarily be in line with what Befeqadu intended to say. How is it that a group that the author claims as extremely diverse and is collectedly given one name, meant to be individualistic? In fact, how is it then possible for an activist, a reader, to criticize a group where he has done little research on/about/– for being individualistic? Now, where the Amhara came from and what role they had in the state formation needs exhaustive research, but so does the fact that EPRDF’s rule has consolidated the Amhara to mean more than what it meant a hundred years ago. People should not assume the psyche of a vast group of people based on ‘ethno-nationalists’ they meet online. I say this, because I do not believe Befeqadu understands any group of people, especially not the people of Wello, or Gojjam, or Gondar, or Shewa entirely to have warranted him to write that they are proud and have a growingly ‘Amhara nationalism’.

Finally, my 2, 3, 4, +… cents.

I do not see much difference in forced narrations of history and Bef’s extremely bold 2 page writing on the Amhara Psychology. They both enforce things that are not necessarily factual, with unclear methodology and basically non-existent research. Doesn’t this counter what Befeqadu claims to stand for?

Also consider this: why has there been a growing trend to automatically disregard or insult Befeqadu’s or his friends’ writings recently? If a large group of people on social media are constantly revoking what you write, whether or not you are on point, then it could be people do not feel represented by what you present. If people state, over and over again, that their activists do not represent them, then there is clearly something off.

This is simply a post by someone who wanted to comment on things he views and hears and reads. Levine and other anthropological scholars are not enough to write about Ethiopia. Truthfully, I was more shocked by the amount of people he reached on social media than by the contents of his writings. If, I for one, know that I have so many followers, I would do further research and present my audience a respectful and thought-out piece. As a point of departure, if ever Befeqadu gets around to responding to this, I would like to ask, what exactly is the motif for this piece? Will you go on further to write about the Tigre Psyche? Or the Oromo Psychology? And won’t it be divisive to try to discuss such narrow definitions of ourselves?

I also suggest we come back to our own sources as well. The Orthodox Church has documents that we can use to analyze and discuss our past and which are accessible; we cannot only read Leslau and Levine and claim to know Ethiopia. Diversify your sources, dear Befeqadu, time and time again, there seems to be a debilitating Eurocentric approach you use in your writings. Ethiopia’s history is reconstructed from Ge’ez books.

Also, as a final question: why wasn’t this written in Amharic? Is there a reason for using English? I’m using English because my background forces me to be comfortable with English than Amharic. This I ask because your one comment to a friend’s latest book was that ‘to reach majority readers, he should have written in Amharic’.

Regardless, we appreciate the effort and I personally thank you for providing me with evidence that if I am ever to write about Ethiopians, I have to be simply careful with my research.



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