Gurage people

Total population
(6,867,377 (2007 census)[1])
Regions with significant populations
Gurage Zone
Islam, Christianity, traditional faith[2][3]
Related ethnic groups

The Gurage people are a Semitic-speaking ethnic group inhabiting Ethiopia.[2] According to the 2007 national census, its population is 6,867,377 people, of whom 792,659 are urban dwellers. This is 5.53% of the total population of Ethiopia, or 9.52% of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR).[1] The Gurage people traditionally inhabit a fertile, semi-mountainous region in southwest Ethiopia, about 125 kilometers southwest of Addis Ababa, bordering the Awash River in the north, the Gibe River (a tributary of the Omo River) to the southwest, and Lake Zway in the east. In addition, according to the 2007 Ethiopian national census the Gurage can also be found in large numbers in Addis Ababa, Oromia Region, Dire Dawa, Harari Region, Somali Region, Amhara Region, Gambela Region, Benishangul-Gumuz Region, and Tigray Region.[4]

The languages spoken by the Gurage are known as the Gurage languages. The variations among these languages are used to group the Gurage people into three dialectically varied subgroups: Northern, Eastern and Western. However, the largest group within the Eastern subgroup, known as the Silt'e, identify foremost as Muslims.[5] In 2000, the Silt'e, refusing to identify as Gurage, voted overwhelmingly for the establishment of a separate special administrative unit within SNNPR by the EPRDF government.[5]


Gurage artist Mahmoud Ahmed

According to the historian Paul B. Henze, their origins are explained by traditions of a military expedition to the south during the last years of the Kingdom of Aksum, which left military colonies that eventually became isolated from both northern Ethiopia and each other.[6] However other historians have disputed this, according to Ulrich Braukhamper, the Gurage people may have been an extension of the ancient Harla people.[7]

The majority of the inhabitants of the Gurage Zone were reported as Muslim, with 51.02% of the population reporting that belief, while 41.91% practiced Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, 5.79% were Protestants, and 1.12% Catholic.[8] According to the 1994 Ethiopian census, self-identifying Gurage comprise about 4.3% of Ethiopia's population, or about 3 million people.[9]

The Gurage live a sedentary life based on agriculture, involving a complex system of crop rotation and transplanting. Ensete is the main staple food, but other cash crops are grown, which include coffee and khat, both traditional stimulants. Animal husbandry is practiced, but mainly for milk supply and dung. Other foods consumed include green cabbage, cheese, butter, and roasted grains, with meat consumption being very limited (also used in rituals or ceremonies).

The Gurage, the writer Nega Mezlekia notes, "have earned a reputation as skilled traders".[10] One example of an enterprising Gurage is Tekke, who Nathaniel T. Kenney described as "an Ethiopian Horatio Alger, Jr.": "He began his career selling old bottles and tin cans; the Emperor [Haile Selassie] recently rewarded his achievement in creating his plantation by calling him to Addis Ababa and decorating him."[11]

Agriculture and ensete

The principal crop of the Gurage is ensete (also enset, ensete edulis, äsät or "false banana plant"). This has a massive stem that grows underground and is involved in every aspect of Gurage life. It has a place in everyday interactions among community members as well as specific roles in rituals. For example: the ritual uses of Ensete include wrapping a corpse after death with the fronds and tying off the umbilical cord after birth with an ensete fiber; the practical uses include wrapping goods and fireproofing thatch.[12] Ensete is also exchanged as part of a variety of social interactions, and used as a recompense for services rendered.[13]

Ensete is totally involved in every aspect of the daily social and ritual life of the Gurage, who, with several others tribes in Southwest Ethiopia, form what has been termed the Ensete Culture Complex area... the life of the Gurage is enmeshed with various uses of ensete, not the least of which is nutritional.[12]

Ensete can be prepared in a variety of ways. A normal Gurage diet consists primarily of kocho, a thick bread made from ensete, and is supplemented by cabbage, cheese, butter and grains. Meat is not consumed on a regular basis, but usually eaten when an animal is sacrificed during a ritual or ceremonial event.[12] The Gurage pound the root of the Ensete to extract the edible substance, then place it in deep pits between the rows of ensete plants in the field. It ferments in the pit, which makes it more palatable. It can be stored for up to several years in this fashion, and the Gurage typically retain large surpluses of ensete as a protection against famine.[13] The resulting paste is used to make porridge and bread. The only way to eat ensete is to make into a paste.

In addition to ensete, a few cash crops are maintained (notably coffee and khat) and livestock is raised (mainly for milk and fertilizer). Some Gurage also plant teff and eat injera (which the Gurage also call injera).[14]

The Gurage raise zebu. These cattle are primarily kept for their butter, and a typical Gurage household has a large quantity of spiced butter aging in clay pots hung from the walls of their huts. Butter is believed to be medicinal, and the Gurage often take it internally or use it a lotion or poultice. A Gurage proverb states that "A sickness that has the upperhand over butter is destined for death." Different species of ensete are also eaten to alleviate illness.[15]

The Gurage regard overeating as coarse and vulgar, and regard it as poor etiquette to eat all of the ensete that a host passes around to guests. It is considered polite to leave at least some ensete bread even after a very small portion is passed around.[16]

It is typically expected that a Gurage will extend hospitality to their neighbors and kinfolk in dispensing ensete freely to them. However, Gurage often hoard extra food and eat it secretly to avoid having to share it.[16]


The Gurage in rural highland areas centre their lives on the cultivation of their staple crop Ensete. Kocho is made by shaping the ensete paste to a thick circle and wrapping it in a thin layer of ensete leaves. Its baked in a small pit with coals. Sometimes the paste is just cooked over a griddle. Kitfo a minced raw beef mixed with butter and spicy pepper is commonly attributed to the Gurage.

Spirit possession

The Gurage sometimes experience spirit possession. William A. Shack postulated that spirit possession is caused by Gurage cultural attitudes about food and hunger, because while they have a plentiful food supply, cultural pressures that force them to either share it to meet social obligations, or hoard it and eat it secretly cause them anxiety. Distinctions are drawn between spirits that only possess men, spirits that only possess women, and spirits that possess victims of either sex. A ritual illness that only affects men is believed to be caused by a spirit called Awre. This affliction presents itself by loss of appetite, nausea, and attacks from severe stomach pains. If it persists the victim may enter a trancelike stupor, in which he sometimes regains consciousness long enough to take food and water. Breathing is often labored. Seizures and trembling overcome the patient, and in extreme cases, even partial paralysis of the extremities.[15]

If the victim does not recover naturally, a traditional healer, or Sagwara, is summoned. Once the Sagwara has determined the spirit's name through the use of divination, he prescribes a routine formula to exorcise the spirit. This is not a permanent cure, however, it is believed to allow the victim to form a relationship with the spirit. Nevertheless, the victim is subject to chronic repossession, which is treated by repeating the formula. This formula involves the preparation and consumption of a dish of ensete, butter, and red pepper. During this ritual, the victim's head is covered with a drape, and he eats the ensente ravenously while other ritual participants chant. The ritual ends when the possessing spirit announces that it is satisfied. Shack notes that the victims are overwhelmingly poor men, and that women are not as food-deprived as men, due to ritual activities that involve food redistribution and consumption. Shack postulates that the Awre serves to bring the possessed man to the center of social attention, and to relieve his anxieties over his inability to gain prestige from redistributing food, which is the primary way in which Gurage men gain status in their society.[15]

Notable Gurage

See also


  1. 1 2 "Census 2007", first draft, Table 5.
  2. 1 2 G. W. E. Huntingford, "William A. Shack: The Gurage: a people of the ensete culture"
  3. Lebel, Phillip. 1974. "Oral Traditional and Chronicles on Guragé Immigration".
  4. Table 3.1 on 2007 Ethiopian Regional States Census Data
  5. 1 2 Vaughan, Sarah (2003). "7". Ethnicity and Power in Ethiopia (PDF) (Ph.D. thesis). University of Edinburgh.
  6. Henze, Layers of Time (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 112.
  7. Braukamper, Ulrich. Islamic History and Culture in South Ethiopia. LITverlag. p. 18. Retrieved 25 June 2016.
  8. 2007 CSA Statistical Report Check |url= value (help) (Report). CSA. November 2007. Retrieved 2 March 2013.
  9. Ethiopia: A Model Nation of Minorities (accessed 6 April 2006)
  10. Nega Mezlekia, Notes from the Hyena's Belly (New York: Picador, 2000), p. 227.
  11. Kenney, "Ethiopian Adventure", National Geographic, 127 (1965), p. 582.
  12. 1 2 3 Shack, Dorothy. "Nutritional Processes and Personality Development among the Gurage of Ethiopia" in Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik. (New York: Routledge, 1997). p117.
  13. 1 2 Shack, Dorothy. "Nutritional Processes and Personality Development among the Gurage of Ethiopia" in Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik. (New York: Routledge, 1997). p121.
  14. Girma A. Demeke and Ronny Meyer (14 June 2011). "Contact-induced language change in selected Ethiopian Semitic Languages" (PDF). Centre français des études éthiopiennes. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
  15. 1 2 3 Hunger, Anxiety, and Ritual: Deprivation and Spirit Possession Among the Gurage of Ethiopia Author(s): William A. Shack Source: Man, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Mar., 1971), pp. 30-43
  16. 1 2 Hunger, Anxiety, and Ritual: Deprivation and Spirit Possession Among the Gurage of Ethiopia Author(s): William A. ShackSource: Man, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Mar., 1971), pp. 30-43
  17. Hailemariam, Gabreyesus (1991). The Guragué and Their Culture. New York: Vintage Press.
  18. Shack, William A. (1966). The Guragué: A People of the Enset Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  19. François Markos
  20. Ato Assegid Negash. "François Markos". Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Retrieved 2010-01-06.
  21. Eyre, Banning. "Mahmoud Ahmed". National Geographic World Music. Afropop Worldwide. Archived from the original on 2008-06-10. Retrieved 2013-02-22.


External links

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