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  Ethnic Groups

There are more than 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia, some with as few as 10,000 members.  The six largest ethnic groups are the Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, Somali, Gurage and Sidama.

The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, at around 32.1 percent of the population.  Their native language is Oromo (locally known as 'Oromigna'), which belongs to the Cushite family of languages.  The Oromo are divided into 16 subgroups.  Historically, they used the gadaa system of government, where laws and rulers were re-established every eight years.  The gadaa system is no longer practiced, but remains influential in Oromo thinking.  Oromos practice a variety of religions, including Sunni Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism and some traditional beliefs.

The Amhara are Ethiopia 's second-largest ethnic group.  They inhabit the highlands of central Ethiopia, and speak Amharic (Amharigna).  Amharic is the working language of the federal authorities in Ethiopia, and the Amhara are influential in the country's economic and political life.  Around 90 percent of Amhara are rural and make their living by farming.  Marriages are often arranged, with girls often marrying as young as 18 (the minimum age was raised from 14 in the 20th century).  Christianity predominates among the Amhara, with most belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  There are small percentages of Muslim and Protestant Amharas.

The Tigray are the third-largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.  They live in Eritrea and in the Tigray province of Ethiopia.  Their language is called Tigrinya.  Many Tigray belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which plays a large part in daily life.  There are also Tigray who follow Islam or Judaism.  Many Tigray lead a rural lifestyle, ploughing fields with oxen and keeping camels, sheep and donkeys.  Most Tigray families are self-sufficient, providing all their own food.  Marriage is monogamous and is often arranged.

Around 5.9 percent of Ethiopia 's population is comprised of ethnic Somalis.  Their language is known as Somali (Somaligna) and is a member of the Cushitic language family.  Somalis are split into numerous clans and sub-clans and clan loyalty often runs strong.  The majority of Somalis are Sunni Muslims.

The Gurage comprise 4.3 percent of Ethiopia 's population.  Their homeland is the semi-mountainous region of south-western Ethiopia, around 150 miles from Addis Ababa.  The Gurage people speak a number of languages, all belonging to the Ethiopian Semitic language family.  Collectively, Ethiopians often refer to these languages as Guraginya.  Around half of the Gurage belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and 40 percent are adherents of Islam.  The Gurage are mainly agriculturalists; their main crop is enset, a plant in the banana family whose large roots are edible.

Around 3.5 percent of Ethiopians belong to the Sidama tribe.  They live in southern Ethiopia, in the Sidama Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region.  Their language is known as Sidaamu-afoo.  Many Sidama still follow their traditional religion, although a small number have converted to Christianity or Islam.  Most Sidama are agriculturalists; like the Gurage, their main staple crop is enset.  They also grow coffee, an important cash crop.



Most Ethiopian Christians are Ethiopian Orthodox, which accounts for up to half the Ethiopian population.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is part of the Oriental Orthodox Church.  It was closely aligned with the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church until it was granted its own patriarchate in 1959 by the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria.

Islam first came to Ethiopia in 615 A.D. when the ruler of Ethiopia received refugees from Mecca who were fleeing persecution; those Muslims returned to Arabia after a few years.  During the subsequent centuries, Muslims arrived peacefully along the Red Sea coast and gradually moved inland to the south and east of Ethiopia through trade and intermarriage.  Relations between independent Muslim kingdoms and the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia were often tense.  During the 19th century, most of these Muslims were incorporated into Ethiopia 's expanded territory.  Today, all Ethiopian Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, although many also have formal or informal attachments to Sufi mystic practices.

The term Pentay is used by many Ethiopians to describe Ethiopian Christians who are not part of either the Orthodox or Catholic churches.  The term is an abbreviation of the word Pentecostal, and is used to refer to all Ethiopian Protestants.  Large Protestant denominations in Ethiopia include the Kale Heywet (Word of Life), the Mekane Yesus (Place of Jesus) or Lutheran, Mulu Wongel (Full Gospel), and Messeret Kristos (Christ foundation) or Mennonite.  Most major Protestant denominations will exchange pastors across denominational lines.



Food — Injera , an unleavened bread made from teff grain, is an Ethiopian staple.  Food is usually eaten with the hands, and bite-size pieces of injera are used to scoop up stew.  Stew, or 'wat', can be made of meat or of vegetables (such as carrots, cabbage, spinach, potatoes, and lentils). 

A common spice in Ethiopian dishes is berbere, which has a red pepper base.  Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians follow the food restrictions of the Old Testament, avoiding shellfish and the meat of animals with cloven hooves or who do not chew the cud.  Neither Ethiopian Orthodox Christians nor Muslims eat pork. 

While the Muslim community traditionally fasts during the Holy month of Ramadan, in common with other adherents of Islam, the fasting regime of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is much more extensive and follows different rules. 

The coffee ceremony is a very common ritual.  During a coffee ceremony, green coffee beans are roasted, then ground and brewed in a traditional black pot called a jebena.

Social status — There were traditionally four major social groups in Ethiopia, but today social status is much more dynamic, especially in urban areas.  In urban society, one's job often determines social status; some jobs are considered “higher-class” than others.  In rural areas, the amount of grain and cattle one possesses is an indicator of social status.  In urban areas, one's level of education, type of job and neighbourhood are social indicators.

Marriage — Practices vary by ethnic group.  Traditionally, most marriages were arranged, but arranged marriage is becoming less common, especially in urban areas.  It is common for the groom's family to present the bride's family with a dowry, which may include cattle, money, or other items.

Education — Children start school at the age of five.  In rural areas, schools are few and children are needed to help on farms, so few rural children get the opportunity to go to school.  The Ethiopian government is working to build more schools that are accessible to rural children.  Children who do well in elementary school go on to secondary school.  University is free, but admission is very competitive.  Students who complete secondary school take a standardised test to gain acceptance into a university.  Each department has a quota; only a certain number of students can be accepted to a particular major each year.  The criterion is first-year marks; the students with the highest grades at the end of their first year in university get first choice of major.

Etiquette — Ethiopians often greet each other with kisses on both cheeks and many verbal greetings.  The elderly are treated with the highest respect. It is considered polite to converse during a meal.

Dress — In urban areas, most Ethiopians wear Western clothing on a daily basis.  Traditional clothing is reserved for special occasions such as Christmas or weddings.  In rural areas, many Ethiopians still wear traditional clothing for everyday wear.

Traditional Ethiopian clothing is made from cloth called yahager lebs, or “clothes of the countryside”.  This type of cloth is made from cotton woven in long strips, which are then sewn together.  Sometimes shiny threads are woven into the fabric for decorative purposes.

Men wear trousers and a knee-length shirt, and sometimes a sweater.  They often wear knee-high socks.  Both men and women wear shawls known as NaTela.  Women's dresses are known as habesha qemis, and are usually white with some colour above the lower hem.  Women often wear gold and silver bracelets and necklaces.


Travel / Transportation

Driving in Ethiopia is fairly safe, although rural roads are not lit at night.  Especially in rural areas, but also in urban areas, drivers may encounter obstacles such as pedestrians or stray animals.

Illness / Injury

Hospitals and clinics are limited in Addis Ababa, and extremely limited in rural areas.  Many Ethiopian doctors are well-trained, but most clinics and even the best hospitals struggle with outdated equipment, inadequate facilities and shortages of supplies and medications.


Pickpocketing and other petty thefts occur in Addis Ababa and other crowded areas.  Visitors should take the same amount of care with personal items that they would in any major city.

Safety and Security

Ethiopia 's political situation has been stable since June of 2006.  Visitors should avoid travelling near the borders with Eritrea and Somalia, where there are ongoing tensions and hostilities.  Since the 1990s, the Ogaden National Liberation Front and government forces have clashed several times in the Somali state of Ethiopia.


Entry / Exit Requirements

A passport and visa are required to enter Ethiopia.  It is possible to obtain a one-month visa upon arrival in Ethiopia at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, but obtaining an airport visa may cause delays or confusion.  It is quickest to obtain an Ethiopian visa from the Ethiopian embassy or a consulate before travelling.  Visitors arriving in Ethiopiahave been required to declare household electronics and foreign currency.  Although this may still be a requirement, in practice it is often not enforced.


Yellow fever is endemic in Ethiopia.  Under Ethiopian law, all travellers arriving in Ethiopia from a country where yellow fever is endemic must present proof of inoculation.  The CDC recommends yellow fever vaccination for all travellers to Ethiopia aged nine months and older.

Malaria is a risk in Ethiopia in all areas at altitudes below 2,000 meters, or 6,500 feet.  There is no risk in Addis Ababa.  Travellers who will be visiting a malaria-risk area in Ethiopia should take a course of anti-malarial drugs before travelling.  Chloroquine is not an effective anti-malarial drug for Ethiopia.

Other recommended vaccines include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, meningitis, and polio.  Consult a travel health professional to determine which vaccines should be obtained.

Special Circumstances

Visitors to Ethiopia should avoid swimming in rivers, lakes, or other bodies of fresh water, since most have been found to contain parasites which cause water-borne illnesses.

Predominantly, Ethiopia has a cash economy.  Foreign currency and travellers' checks can be exchanged at the airport and most banks, especially those in larger hotels – American Express Travellers' Cheques are preferred.  Others, including Visa Travellers' Cheques, may be accepted. There are few ATMs in Ethiopia although they may be found in some of the main hotels.  Major credit cards are accepted at some larger hotels and travel agencies.

Ethiopian law is very sensitive about photography.  Avoid photographing military structures, military or police personnel, industrial facilities, government buildings and infrastructure such as dams, roads, bridges, and airfields.  Travel guides, police and officials will be able to advise if a particular site may be photographed.



Ethiopia uses 220V/50Hz power which is suitable for European appliances but a power converter will be required to use most American appliances in Ethiopia.  Most recently-made mobile (cell) phone chargers and laptop computers are designed to run on various types of power, and will not require a converter.  Ethiopia uses plug types D, J, and L, which are all round-pin plugs; a set of plug adapters will be necessary to convert European and American-type plugs to fit in Ethiopian outlets.

Electricity throughout the country is subject to occasional power outages and voltage fluctuation.  Voltage stabilizing devices and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) are available for purchase in most urban areas.

Telephone / Internet

Both landline and mobile telephone service is available throughout most of Ethiopia, although both are subject to occasional disruption.  Mobile (cell) phones, SIM cards, and phone cards are normally available for purchase.  Most SIM cards purchased abroad will not function in Ethiopia.  Dial-up internet service is available in much of the country, but it is extremely slow and subject to frequent cuts.  Broadband service was recently introduced but is available only in certain parts of Addis Ababa and, currently, is prohibitively expensive.



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  •   Crime
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