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Would Ethiopians eat a human flesh or the leopard changes its spots?

February 20, 2014

Whilst you read about Ethiopian cuisines — especially those works wrote by foreigners — I bet you never folded to finish without noticing a mention of a traveler-adventurer called James Bruce. I mean Bruce’s new ‘discovery’ of Ethiopians as ‘raw meat eaters’ and his exaggerated adventuring of being part of the Ethiopian ritual of raw meat feasting. This raw beef eating culture — as reported by Bruce — shocked Europe. In the words of Jules Verne Bruce’s account “stirred a wholesale opposition” of disbelief so that he was named as ‘The Abyssinian Liar’.  Dear Europe, you want to hear the truth? Bruce was right. Yes, Ethiopians EAT raw meat. How do you feel now?

Many wrote about this ‘weird’ Ethiopian cuisine and the legend behind it. Referring a chef, an Ethiopian-born-Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson, in his cookbook The Soul of a New Cuisine points out a popular legend re: the story of Kitfo — one of the many popular types of raw meat dishes in Ethiopia — as:

Legend has it that kitfo […] came about during one of the many wars between the Christian Gurage and the Muslims, when the Gurages were hiding out in the mountains and needed to develop quick-cooking meals they could prepare without attracting attention from big, smoking fires.

Many writers reiterate this story and the legend behind it as a wartime tactic of deluding the enemy by drawing self as a cannibalistic monstrous creature — so that the enemy will get scared and surrender.

However, raw meat is not the only ‘creepy’ type of Ethiopian food. Eating animal testicle may surprise — if not shocked — many, but I’m a living witness growing eating sheep testicle. Even drinking animals blood appeared to be strange for many cultures, yet it’s also one more addition to our cuisine.

But, wait. What about eating a human flesh? Mindful of the conservative Ethiopian culture and high religiosity, one may ask would Ethiopians eat a human flesh or the leopard changes his spots? I am not sure about the latter, but in the former case, even if it was/is seldom, but, there’re some historical instances testified that human flesh as part of the Ethiopian dish, particularly, part of a famine time dish.

Scholars of different disciplines noted the major reasons behind cannibalism in various forms. Some claimed our morbid affection to our beloved one may make us cannibal and that triggers eating his/her flesh upon death. Others record killing enemies in a battle/brawl and eating its flesh as a sign of absolute dominance. Still others assert cannibalism as part of traditional rituals and magical tricks. Among the many recorded — especially modern time — cannibalistic behaviors, most of them proved to be last breath cannibalism otherwise known as survival cannibalism.

In many famines ridden places — all over the world — a fellow human was served as an edible food as a coping mechanism. Timothy Snyder’s in his book The Bloodlands referring to an unknown Doctor from the 1930s aptly pointed the pros of this survival cannibalism:

Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did.

In such dire situations, the lone survivors are those who dare to eat the salty fellow next to them — the cannibals.

In his article to the Slate, David Plotz asks why not eating a human corpse? Justifying his affirmative answer, David refers a one-time famine in Ethiopia:

A decade ago, I visited an Ethiopian village destroyed by famine, and I saw what is still the most horrifying thing I have ever seen: a 6-year-old boy named Saoudi—stick legs and arms, distended belly—whose lips and tongue were brown from eating dirt. It’s very likely that Saoudi didn’t survive the year, and if he did, he probably has permanent health and brain damage from the lack of nutrition. There were no corpses to eat in Dire Kiltu, but had there been, would it have been wrong—or even disgusting—for those villagers to have eaten them? To have fed their famished children protein and fat, rather than indigestible dirt and grass and shoe-leather, which is what starving people often eat?

David raised an important moral question, only he was wrong about the fact. David missed some testimonies from survival cannibals in Ethiopia — in different ages:

Recently, Discovery Channel in one of its reports mentions Ethiopia along with Russia as a famine time cannibal society. The following three accounts of survival cannibalism in Ethiopia are the glaring proofs of this fact.

The first story — Amharic — goes to the 17th century Harar:

በከብት ማለቅ የተነሳ (በሐረር ሕዝብ ላይ) ችጋር ጠናባቸው፡፡ ከዚህ በኋላ ገራድ እስላም ተሸመ፡፡ ኖሌ ላይ ብዙ ሰው በችጋር አለቀበት፡፡ ውሃም ቀጅ አልቀረ፡፡ ስለ ረሃቡ ፅናት አንድ ሴት ሰው አርዳ በላች፡፡ አንድ ሰው ነበረ በሐረር በየቀኑ ድሀ ይፈልግ ነበረ እያረደ ሊበላው፡፡ ረሃብ ስለመጥናቱ በአንድ ቀን ከሶስት ሰዎች ጋር ተቀምጠን የሰው ስጋ እያረደ የሚበላው ሰውየ መጥቶ ከደጃፍ ላይ ስጋውን በሸማው ቋጥሮ ቆመ፡፡ ›ስጋ ግዙ የፍየል ስጋ ነው› አለ፡፡ ከኛ ማህል አንዱ ሰው ›ይህ ነገር የሰው ስጋ መሰለኝ; ብሎ ጠረጠረ፤ ጠየቀውም፡፡ ቢጠይቀው ›አዎን› አለ፡፡ ከዚህ በኋላ ብዙ ሰው አለቀሰ፡፡››

‘YeHarer Tarik’ By: Unknown writer as Quoted by Getachew Haile

The second account is from the late 19th century Shewa, at the trying time of the four years ‘Great Famine’, from 1888 – 1892:

በዚያን ዘመን ደግሞ በሸዋ እንሳሮ ከሚባል አገር አንዲት ሴት ሰባት ልጆች በልታ ተይዛ ከአፄ ምኒልክ አደባባይ መጣች ንጉሱም እንጦጦ ከእልፍኙ ደጃፍ ተቀምጦ መረመራት እርሷም ‹አዎን ቢርበኝ በላኋቸው› አለች፡፡ እርሷ ግን እንኳን ሰባት ሰው የበላች ቅናሽ ስጋ የቀመሰች አትመስልም ነበር፡፡ አንጀቱዋ ከጀርባዋ ተለጥቆ እጇን እግሯን ማዳት ወርሷት ትንሽ ደኮ ለትባ ታሳዝን ነበር፡፡ ንጉሱም ‹እንዴት አገሬ ጠፋ፣ ደኸየ፤ ዘመዴ አለቀ› ብሎ አዘነ፡፡ እንያም ይዘው ያመጡት ባላጋሮቹ ‹የርሷን ልጅ ትታ የኛን ልጅ ለይታ ከበላች ፍርድ በቃ ይስጡን፤ መሞት ይገባታል› አሉ፡፡ አፄ ምኒልክም ‹ለኔ ስትሉ ተውልኝ፤ ቢጨንቃት ቢርባት ነው፤ ደግሞ ሌላ ልጅ ካላጣኹ ብላ ነው እንጅ ከባሰባት ልጆቿንም ቢሆን አትተውም ማሩልኝ› ብሎ አሰማራት፡፡ ወዲያው ልብሱን ቀለቤዋን ዳርጎ እርሷን ማድ ቤት፤ ልጇን ተማሪ ቤት አገባቸው፡፡

‘YeGojam Tarik’ By: Alqa Tekleyesus Wakijira

From the same period another eyewitness’ testimony goes:

‹አንዲት ልጅ ወዛ ብላለች ጋይንቲ ደስታ የሚባል ሰው ነበርና እሱ እየረዳት ተነስታ ፍል ውሃ ወረደች፡፡ ብዙ ሰው የተቀመጠው እዚያ ነው፡፡ ይህ ስደተኛው ሁሉ ተቀበለና እዚያ አረደና በላት፡፡ ልጆቻቸውን ጥቃቅኖቹን እያረዱ የበሉ ብዙ ናቸው፡፡››

Metshafe Tizita ze Aleqa Lema Hailu‘ By: Mengistu Lema

These are only the recorded accounts. We can imagine the many untold similar incidents. The one thing that such incidents testified is that there’s nothing as trying times — on the long spectrum of morality — that defines vice and virtue.

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One Comment
  1. wondering how much ”don’t eat these animals” & “Don’t even touch its dead body” list of food is wasted before the famine turned into devastating

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