Slavery, Exclusion and Integration in South Western Ethiopia

TERRAINS / FIELDWORKS

Slavery, Exclusion and Integration in South Western Ethiopia

Par / by Bosha Bombe

Bosha Bombe, chercheur en anthropologie associé à l’Université d’Arba Minch (Éthiopie) et collaborateur régulier du CFEE, évoque son enquête sur l’esclavage et le statut social des anciens esclaves dans le Sud-Ouest éthiopien – un terrain effectué entre 2012 et 2014. Les travaux de Bosha Bombe contribuent significativement à une thématique encore peu discutée dans la littérature sur les sociétés éthiopiennes. Bosha Bombe a participé, avec l’appui du CFEE, à la conférence Slafco2014 : Esclavage en Afrique : histoire, héritages organisée à Nairobi entre les 26 et 28 octobre 2014.

Bosha Bombe, an associate researcher at Arba Minch University (Ethiopia) and a regular collaborator of CFEE, discusses about his investigations about slavery and the social status of former slaves in South Western Ethiopia – a fieldwork he had lead between 2012 and 2014. Bosha Bombe’s works represents a significative contribution to a topic which is still poorly discussed in the literature on Ethiopian societies. With the support of CFEE, Bosha Bombe has participated to the international conference Slafco2014: Slavery in Africa: past, legacies and present, organised in Nairobi in October 26 – 28, 2014.

(English version only)

Slavery, Exclusion and Integration in South Western Ethiopia

The purpose of this study was to understand the contemporary perspectives and practices of slavery in three communities (Gamo, Gofa and Wolayta) of South Western Ethiopia. The study centered in Gamo highlands, and other regions are included to see whether there is variation in perspectives and practices.

Fieldwork is central in modern anthropological research. For anthropologists it is the “laboratory” through which data regarding mythical, historical, socio-cultural and indigenous explanation of a given cultural context can be understood. Hence, this study mainly depended on fieldwork and focused on qualitative research method. The qualitative methods are important to uncover data regarding people’s feelings, opinions, experiences, personal accounts and also observations of everyday behavior which help understand people’s
motivation to uphold their views and practices. Such kind of data cannot be obtained through quantitative design.

The author on fieldwork (Credit: Bosha Bombe)
The author on fieldwork (Credit: Bosha Bombe)

Data was collected by different instruments during six months of field work (from January  2012 to January 2014 at different phases). I used in-depth interview as main instrument because it was important to uncover various explanations: historical, cultural and mythical reasons for exclusion of slave descendants. It was also vital to deeply understand the situation of slave descendants: their personal experiences, feelings and opinions of their relationship with the rest community members. Cases on individuals’ life stories were also collected to comprehend the intensity of exclusion of slave descendants during mourning and funerals and child delivery. Further, I used genealogical technique mainly to understand the persistent nature of unmixed marriage (marriage between slave descendants and the free born). I collected the genealogies of marriage of slave descendants since the origin of slavery in the study community and it enabled me to analyze the strict endogamous marriage practices between slaves and nonslaves.

The Gamo, Gofa and Wolayta are located about 400-500 KM South West of Addis Ababa. The people in the regions are hierarchically differentiated by ‘caste’ like strata though there is slight difference on the level of hierarchy in each community. The free born, also called malla/dogalla in Gofa and Gamo, and the clan, qomo, in Wolayta are at the top of the social hierarchy. They are dominant strata and enjoy political and economic advantages of the communities. The craftworkers such as tanners, smiths and potters collectively called (mana/degela) held the middle strata in Gamo, but in Wolayta and Gofa they occupy the bottom layer. The last social
hierarchy in Gamo held by the so called slaves, ayle; however, in Wolyata and Gofa they held the middle strata.

Although mana/degela and ayle are to some extent discriminated from the mainstream society, however, the exclusion of the later is more extreme. While eating and drinking with all two groups is perceived as polluting, the pollution of the ayle is considered as infectious, especially in Gamo. Contemporary view of slavery  Historically the origin of slavery in the study communities related with various factors such as frequent famine, inter-ethnic or/and intra-ethnic conflict, the slave trade, the Abyssinian invasion and, later intermarriage with people of slave descent. Regardless of the factors enslaved people were degraded and dehumanized, they were considered as property of people owned them.

Today in the perspective of Ganta (Gamo) community slavery is broadly defined as gale- “debt bondage.” It implies an innate debt (money or goods) that ancestors of slave descendants borrowed during famine or in time of social insecurity (sickness, mourning, and funeral). The gale also denotes an inherent debt, i.e. the money or good that was given in exchange for slave ancestors, the amount for which they were bought (during 19th C slave trade). The definition of slavery seen broadly in the context of gale is connected to the role of slave redemption during which all slaves/slave descendants are required to pay huge amounts of money to descendants of former slave masters and ritual experts in order to retrieve their lost identity.

Gale is understood as impure and consequently slave descendants are perceived as pollutants that transmit impurity to non-slaves. They are considered as a kind of inferior creature when compared to non-slave descendants. This inferiority serves as a culturally  frowned-upon link that travels back to their ancestors’  dehumanization in the moment they became slaves. Also slavery, gale, is both heritable and socially contagion. With the heritability of slavery (although the Ganta, Gamo, are patrilineal), slavery is believed to be heritable through both parents line. Slavery is also believed to be transferable through eating in the events of mourning and child birth in a ayle home. In the perspective of Gofa and Wolayta communities slaves/ slave descendants are perceived as ‘sub-humans’, people who at any rate are unequal to the non-slaves because of their descent line. I,  nonetheless, fail to get commonly understood definition of slavery like in Gamo in these communities.

Because of the above noted perception of slavery and slave identity, today slave descendants, ayle, are severely excluded in all study communities. Areas of exclusion include marriage, mourning and funeral and child birth. While exclusion of ayle in marriage is common in all three communities, exclusion during mourning, funeral and child birth is typical in Gamo. The main criterion for marriage contract in all three communities is descent cleanness i.e. the partner should be descendants of free born. Parents usually engage in genealogical counting, going as far as to seven generations, to be sure that the prospective spouse of their child is not of slave descent. In such investigations when they detect slave origin in either paternal or maternal ancestral roots, they avoid all contracts. In any case when intermarriages occur (between free
born and slave descent), the couples are severely scorned and discriminated. In Gamo two free born women married slave descendants and as the result they were completely cut off from
their parents and lineages. I was informed that the families of such women argued that, “Tsegarara durora alawa bu’asi!” ‘Goat and sheep cannot mix’, meaning that slave descendants cannot mix with freeborn. Exclusion of slave descendants during funeral and child birth is typical custom in Gamo community. According to Ganta, Gamo, tradition eating and drinking at funeral of a ayle or at a
ayle’s home when a woman gives birth automatically turn participants into the status of slave. Thus, when death occurs at a ayle’s home or when a ayle woman gives birth the mainstream
people do not share food and drink with them until the end of the first seven days, after the occurrence of such event, the seventh day is called la’a, meaning the end of the period of impurity. In the field stay I identified eleven men, who including their family turned into the status of slave by eating at funeral of a slave descendant, they faced severe exclusion by kin groups and community members. As a way out from exclusion the ayle have been integrating into the mainstream community through ritual purification called wozzo. However, the wozzo is exploitative method that creates opportunity for slave redeemers, descendants of former slave masters, and ritual
experts to build their economy and leave the redeemed slave  descendants economically damaged.

Recently the zonal government together with a Church based NGO worked out in the situation of slave descendants. They convinced ritual experts to publicly renounce the practice of slavery in October 2011. This study proved that although the intervention has brought some positive changes; however, many assignments still are there to be done.

Email: bombebosha@gmail.com Cell 251+ 0923106264


Une réflexion au sujet de « Slavery, Exclusion and Integration in South Western Ethiopia »

  1. I acknowledge Mr. Bosha for bringing such a hart-touching issue in to light. The issue he has dealt with recieved little/no attention among Ethiopian ethnographic researches. I therefore hope that many stalk holders will quichly cooperate in order to authomatically put his recommendations into practice.

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