Semien Mountain People
No description of the Simyen would be complete without a mention of its people. They are Amharas; their language is Ethiopia's official tongue, Amharic (Amharigna).Most Amharas belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
But when Ethiopia was invaded by the Muslim forces of Ahmed Gragn in the sixteenth century, several Muslim settlements were established in the Simyen. These settlements have remained there, culturally distinct from, but intermingled: with, the Christian majority. Thus the region today contains members of both religious groups.
With very few exceptions, the people of the region are farmers. The Muslims, but not the Christians, may supplement their farming activities by weaving.
Life is hard for these people; their farming methods are inefficient and destructive to the land, and this has caused them to move higher and higher. Into the mountains, into virgin ground, as the soil becomes exhausted or eroded away. As they move higher, they enter areas progressively less suited for cultivation, thus improving their lot very little.
Yet despite the hardships they face, they retain their pride and independence. They are suspicious of strangers, especially those who dispense largesse and condescension. Yet they will respond to overtures of genuine friendliness and respect, and when they extend hospitality there is no length to which they will not go to please a guest.
As medical facilities are difficult to get in remote areas such as these, the visitor may be approached by villagers seeking help for ailments. There is a health center in Dabat (25 kilometers from Debareq), but the visitor with a knowledge of first aid and a well-equipped medical kit can render a needed service.
The staple item of diet is barley, from which they make "injera", the flat, spongy, sourdough pancake which is the basis of most Ethiopian meals. They also make bread (dabbo) from barley; they eat rasted barley (q'olo) for snacks, and the Christians, but not the Muslims, even drink barley-in the form of korefi, a mildly alcoholic beverage with the appearance of thick mud.
Meat is generally eaten only on holidays, of which there are many throughout the year. Sheep, goats, eggs, and chickens are the usual sources of animal protein. Oxen are kept to plough the fields. A good ox is more expensive than a horse, and nearly as costly as a mule, the riding animal of the rich. Pork is forbidden to both Christians and Muslims. During the numerous fasting days, further dietary restrictions are observed.
There is no marketplace, but the visitor who wishes to buy something need only mention what he wants and villagers eager to make a sale will bring their produce to him. Sheep, chickens and eggs, local bread, and various grains are available-price negotiable. One can also buy hats, baskets, and items of jewelry typical of the area. Shammas, or gabbis, the homespun cotton shawls which are worn by both men and women, are usually available only on special order. Again, the price is negotiable. One is expected to bargain, and agree on a price in advance.
For those who enjoy being frightened, the tales of shiftas-bandits of the sort that might have ridden across the moorlands of Lorna Doone-will provide an evening's spine-tingling entertainment. In the recent past the shiftas may, indeed, have made occasional raids on travellers. Today the likelihood of being attacked by shiftas is remote, though the con templation of it may add a bit of excitement to one's trip.