"HAILE": A DISCUSSION OF GRIEF IN ETHIOPIA

Teri Bladen

 


ETHIOPIA

Location: East Africa

Population: 58,390,351

Ethnicity: Oromo 40%, Amhara/Tigrean 32%, Sidamo 9%, Shankella 6%, Somali 6%, Afar 3%, Gurage 2%

Languages: Amharic (official), Tigrinya, Orominga, Guraginga, Somali, Arabic, English

Religion: Approximately 45% adherents of Islam. About 35% of population Ethiopian Orthodox; Orthodoxy identified mainly with Amhara and Tigray peoples but accepted by other groups as well. About 2% Protestant and Roman Catholic combined. Remainder of population practice various indigenous religions.

 

BACKGROUND

"Haile" is a 40 year old, middle class, U.S. university administrator, who left his native Ethiopia at 20 years of age to pursue academics in the U.S. He is of the Amhara ethnic group, which "Haile" describes as a Christian culture. Although his family is Ethiopian Orthodox, he admits he has been somewhat "americanized" by his 20 years in the U.S. "Haile" grew up in town of around 200,000 in the eastern province of Harar.

 

TRADITIONS AND RITUALS

DAY 1: Upon the death of a family member, "Haile’s" family would express their grief openly by crying loudly and beating their chests. "Haile" suggests the pounding was "to hurt the heart"; to cause physical pain showing their grief at the loss. He mentioned that some tribes in northern Ethiopia go so far as to scrape a thorny fruit across their faces and foreheads, although that wasn’t customary with his ethnic group. Relatives and close friends would visit the home of the deceased and share in the outward display of grief. They would bring food and drink, as the grieving family was not expected to cook or do household chores. The burial was conducted right away, with the burial site usually on a church compound. People would meet at the church where a priest would say a few words. As the group proceeded to the burial site, the crying and beating of the chest would intensify incredibly, with the most intense displays happening as the casket was covered with earth. Women and the elderly usually showed the greatest amount of sadness, although the men were also very open with their crying and pain. "Haile" suggests the men were probably more occupied with preparation of the burial site and carrying the casket, a source of great sense of pride for them to be able to help the deceased in this manner. Both women and men would usually shaved their heads and wore black clothing. Family members were so sad, they usually wouldn’t eat for at least 24 hours.

DAY 3: Family and friends once again visit the home of the deceased, bringing food and drink. This is usually when people stop coming to the home to memorialize the deceased.

DAYS 40, 80, 180: On each of these days after the death, family and friends will bring food and drink and gather at the church or grave site to memorialize the deceased. The food would include a container of injera (a very thin type of pita bread), a container of wot (a type of stew) and homemade bread. The priests would cut the bread and pass out to beggars and others at the church (deacons, other priests, etc.). It was considered a good thing to give food to the poor and "forgotten" in honor of the deceased.

ANNUALLY: On the annual date of the death, a memorial service such as the ones mentioned above took place, with food being brought to the church, shared with beggars, etc. If the family was affluent, they might have the ceremony at their home instead of at the church. After the first anniversary of the death, people usually stopped wearing black and allowed their hair to grow back.

THE SEVENTH YEAR: At the seventh anniversary of the death, a feast would be held at the church or, if affluent, at the home. A goat or other livestock would usually be butchered and homemade ale would be brought. The ceremony was like the others, but on a larger scale. This point seems to be the maximum for mourning; after this, the annual ceremonies cease.

"Haile" is not certain why these days were chosen to memorialize the deceased. They are standard, and even people who can’t read or write follow this standard.

 

PRIVATE GRIEF AND PUBLIC MOURNING

There is little difference in private and public mourning. People are openly and intensely emotional in both cases. Both women and men are expressive, but "women more so really lose it".

 

HEALTHY AND UNHEALTHY GRIEF

"Haile" states, "I think the fact that you have to hurt yourself or abuse yourself or hit yourself is maybe a little too much, particularly if you have young ones there who don’t understand. I was frightened as a child seeing these displays of emotion. I understood that someone had passed away, but didn’t understand why so much fuss; why were they so sad? Why not able to eat? Why so self-punishing? I suspect that the fact in my culture we have an open-oriented grieving culture, I think it helps people cope with it. I think it’s more from the heart, it’s open, it’s displayed."

 

BELIEFS ABOUT LIFE AFTER DEATH

"Haile" believes there is life after death, and he follows the Bible. However, his family’s culture is different in that they are Orthodox: he’s not certain that they know about the Bible because they are uneducated, like many people in his culture. They talk about how much they miss the deceased person and that they are sad, but there is not a lot of discussion or belief as to whether the deceased is going to a better place or Heaven or Hell. People believe in their religion, but people won’t say the deceased are going to Heaven or that they will be better off.

 

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

"Haile’s" mother passed away in 1985, while he was in the United States. He says that he was "very extremely sad" when he received the phone call. He was unable to go back to Ethiopia due to the political situation at the time. "That was very hard. It was just something I had to live with. To this day I feel I should have …knowing how I grew up and how I was raised and what culture I came from…I feel as if I should have been there to bury my mother." He did have three brothers and other relatives in the States at the time, and he said that helped a lot. Although "Haile" didn’t shave his hair, he wore a black outfit for approximately two weeks. "I felt that’s something I could do for my mother. I took time off from work so I don’t…you know…my boss don’t see me wearing black all the time to work. So I said I need to leave so please give me time off. And he did." "Haile" says he has resolved his grief with the exception that sometimes he feels he should have been there. "I have accepted the fact that I cannot have my mother again. That was hard [especially] for the first two weeks".

 

COMFORT AND GROUP SUPPORT

"Haile" says his people feel grief so intensely, there really can be no comfort. However, he admits that people may find comfort in the tremendous outward display of emotion. Immediate family and neighbors serve as a support system. He also says group support is particularly helpful for people, like himself, in a country other than their native country. "The fact that I had my brother in town [when his mother died], that helped. If somebody from my family dies while I am here I think there is quite a bit of people from my country here who will give me support." "Haile" spoke of a recent death in one of the Ethiopian families he knew in town. All the different Ethiopian families that lived in the town at the time gathered at that family’s home and "we did some of the things we normally do back home". He stated that, although he was certain the family openly grieved in private, there was not the open expression of grief at this gathering that one might expect from a similar event in Ethiopia. "They may have felt pressured due to americanization to not express….BUT the person that died wasn’t a close relative AND they passed away somewhere in Europe".

 

CONCLUSION

"Haile" notes that whereas Americans tend to "mourn in their hearts", people in his Ethiopian culture tend to "cry very hard with tremendous amounts of sadness shown". The women and elderly particularly tend to cause themselves physical pain in order to show their grief and pain at the loss. Death and weddings are the most celebrated events, with weddings being upbeat, and deaths being tragic. "Haile" says, "I may be wrong here because there are so many cultures in the world, but I’m suspicious that there might not be any other culture that takes death as seriously as my culture, as far as really taking death…..almost personally."


Return to Cultural Interviews
Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Summer, 1999.
(C) 1999, Teri Bladen. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.