Cushitic Language Groups
The Oromo, called Galla by the Amhara, constitute the
largest and most ubiquitous of the East Cushitic-speaking
peoples. Oromo live in many regions as a result of expansion
from their homeland in the central southern highlands
beginning in the sixteenth century. Although they share a
common origin and a dialectically varied language, Oromo
groups changed in a variety of ways with respect to economic
base, social and political organization, and religion as
they adapted to different physical and sociopolitical
environments and economic opportunities.
Even more uncertain than estimates of the Amhara population
are estimates for the Oromo. The problem stems largely from
the imperial government's attempts to downplay the country's
ethnic diversity. Government estimates put the number of
Oromo speakers at about 7 million in 1970--about 28 percent
of the total population of Ethiopia. By contrast, the OLF
claimed there were 18 million Oromo in 1978, well over half
of a total population roughly estimated that year at 31
million. Anthropologist P.T.W. Baxter, taking into account
the lack of a census (until 1984) and the political biases
affecting estimates, asserted that the Oromo were almost
certainly the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, making up
somewhere between a third and just over half its population.
A widely accepted estimate in the late 1980s was 40 percent.
The Oromo provide an example of the difficulties of
specifying the boundaries and nature of an ethnic group.
Some Oromo groups, such as the Borana, remain pastoralists.
But others, the great majority of the people, have become
plow cultivators or are engaged in mixed farming. A few
groups, particularly the pastoralists, retain significant
features of the traditional mode of social and political
organization marked by generation and
Glossary) and the absence of a centralized political
structure; others, such as those who established kingdoms
along the Gibé River, developed hierarchial systems. Cutting
across the range of economic and political patterns are
variations in religious belief and practice. Again, the
pastoralists usually adhere to the indigenous system. Other
groups, particularly those in Shewa and Welega, have been
influenced by Orthodox Christianity, and still others have
been converted to Islam. Here and there, missionary
Protestantism has had minor successes. Moreover, the Oromo
sections and subsections have a long history of conflict.
Sometimes this conflict has been the outcome of competition
for land; sometimes it has resulted from strife between
those allied with Amhara and those resisting the expansion
of the empire. Some Oromo adapted to Amhara dominance, the
growth of towns, and other changes by learning Amharic and
achieving a place in the empire's political and economic
order. But they had not thereby become Amhara or lost their
sense of being Oromo.
In the far south live several groups speaking languages of
the Oromic branch of Lowland East Cushitic and in many cases
sharing features of Oromo culture. Most have been
cultivators or mixed farmers, and some have developed
peculiar features, such as the highlands-dwelling Konso, who
live in walled communities of roughly 1,500 persons. All
these groups are small and are often subdivided. With an
estimated population of 60,000 in 1970, the Konso are the
largest of these groups.
Three other Lowland East Cushitic groups--the Somali, Afar,
and Saho--share a pastoral tradition (although some sections
of each group have been cultivators for some time),
commitments of varying intensity to Islam, and social
structures composed of autonomous units defined as
groups (see Glossary). In addition, all have a history of
adverse relations with the empire's dominant Orthodox
Christian groups and with Ethiopian governments in general.
The largest of the three groups are the Somali, estimated
to number nearly 900,000 in 1970. Many Somali clans and
lineages living predominantly in Ethiopia have close links
with or are members of such groups in Somalia. The number of
Somali in Ethiopia in the late 1980s--given the Ogaden War
and the movement of refugees--was uncertain.
Somali society is divided into groups of varying
genealogical depth based on putative or traceable common
patrilineal descent. The largest of these groups is the
(see Glossary), which is in turn divided into
clans, which are further divided into
(see Glossary). The clan-family
has no concrete political, economic, or social functions.
The other groups do, however, and these functions often
entail political and economic competition and sometimes
conflict between parallel social units.
The government estimated that the Afar (called Denakil or
Adal by their neighbors) numbered no more than 363,000 in
1970. Despite their relatively small numbers, they were of
some importance because of their location between the
highlands and the Red Sea, their antipathy to Ethiopian
rule, and the quasi-autonomy of a part of the Afar under the
sultan of Aussa before the 1974 revolution.
Except for several petty centralized states under sultans
or shaykhs, the Afar are fragmented among tribes, subtribes,
and still smaller divisions and are characterized by a
distinction between noble and commoner groups, about which
little is known. Most Afar are pastoralists but are
restricted in their nomadism by the need to stay close to
permanent wells in extremely arid country. A number of them
in the former sultan of Aussa's territory have long been
settled cultivators in the lower Awash River valley,
although the imperial government initiated a program to
settle others along the middle Awash.
Saho is a linguistic rather than an ethnic category. The
groups speaking the language include elements from the Afar,
the Tigray, Tigre speakers, and others, including some
Arabs. Almost all are pastoralists. Most are Muslims, but
several groups--those heavily influenced by the Tigray--are
Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.
Little is known about the political and social systems of
the ten or so groups making up the total estimated Saho-
speaking population of 120,000, but each group seems to be
divided into segments. None was ever marked by the noble-
serf distinction characteristic of Tigre speakers to their
north, and all were said to elect their chiefs.
The speakers of the Highland East Cushitic languages
(sometimes called the Sidamo languages after a version of
the name of their largest component) numbered more than 2
million in 1970. The two largest groups were the Sidama
(857,000) and the Hadya-Libido speakers (700,000). Kembata-
Timbaro-Alaba speakers and the Deresa made up the rest. Each
of these two groups numbered about 250,000 in 1970. As the
hyphenated names suggest, two or more autonomous groups
speaking dialects of the same language have been grouped
together. In fact, most Sidama, although calling themselves
by a single name in some contexts, traditionally are divided
into a number of localized and formerly politically
autonomous patrilineal clans, each under a chief.
The Sidama and other Highland East Cushitic speakers are
cultivators of ensete and of coffee as a cash crop. In areas
below 1,500 meters in elevation, however, the Sidama keep
The Sidama and other groups have retained their traditional
religious systems, although some have been responsive to
Protestant missionaries. Others, such as the Alaba, the
Hadya, and the Timbaro, have accepted Islam. Only the
Kembata are converts to Orthodox Christianity.
There are six groups of Central Cushitic (Agew) speakers,
five of which live in the central highlands surrounded by
Amhara. The Bilen in the extreme northern highlands form an
enclave between the Tigray and the Tigre speakers. Agew-
speaking groups total between 100,000 and 125,000 persons.
They are the remnants of a population thought to have been
the inhabitants of much of the central and northern
highlands when Semitic-speaking migrants arrived millennia
ago to begin the process that led to the formation of such
groups as the Tigray and the Amhara. It is likely that Agew
speakers provided much of the basic stock from which the
Amhara and Tigray were drawn.
The largest of the Agew-speaking groups are the Awi (whose
language is Awngi), estimated to number 50,000 in 1970. The
linguistically related but geographically separate Kunfel
numbered no more than 2,000. The Awi and the Qimant,
numbering about 17,000, retain their traditional religious
system; but the Kunfel and the Xamtanga, totaling about
5,000, are apparently Orthodox Christians. The Bilen have
been much influenced by Islam, and many have begun to speak
the Tigre of their Islamic neighbors as a second tongue.
A special case is the Beta Israel (their own name; others
call them Falasha or Kayla), who numbered about 20,000 in
1989, most of whom emigrated to Israel in late 1984 and in
May 1991. Perhaps preceding the arrival of Christianity in
the fourth century A.D., a group of Agew speakers adopted a
form of Judaism, although their organization and many of
their religious practices resemble those of their Orthodox
Christian neighbors. The precise origins and nature of the
Judaic influence are matters of dispute. Most Beta Israel
speak Amharic as a first language. Agew occurs in their
liturgy, but the words are not understood.
Except for the Beta Israel, all Agew-speaking groups are
plow agriculturists (the Kunfel augment their livelihood by
hunting). The Beta Israel had been cultivators until
deprived of their right to hold land after a major conflict
with the Amhara and their refusal to convert to Christianity
in the fifteenth century. They then became craftsmen,
although many later returned to the land as tenants.
The sole group speaking a Northern Cushitic tongue is the
Beja, a Muslim pastoral group that numbered about 20,000 in
1970. (Many more live in neighboring Sudan.) Their language
is influenced by Arabic, and the Beja have come to claim
Arab descent since their conversion to Islam. Like many of
the other nomadic pastoralists in the area, they
traditionally were segmented into tribes and smaller units,
based on actual or putative descent from a common male
ancestor and characterized by considerable autonomy,
although federated under a paramount chief.
Data as of 1991