Ethiopia is recognized to have more than 80 languages! Impressive, eh? However, you can identify 9-10 major languages corresponding to each of the regional states. Oromo could be the natively most spread language (33%), as it is the largest group; however, Amharic (29 %) is the official language and it is actually more widely spoken around the country as most of the people speak a bit of Amharic and their own language… English is somehow spoken in urban areas but forget about it in the countryside, unless it is a child trying to proudly grab his first words together.
Learning the basics of Amharic is widely recommended (greetings, numbers, etc.) as they will love it. Amharic is a semitic language that has its own alphabet, something that looks like this: ሄሎ! (you probably wonder what did I write, eh?!). In most cases you can get around with English, especially in restaurants, taxis and stores (be ready to sharp your ear to a broken English like mine!).
There are some Amharic-English books in the libraries and in the hands of the street sellers, but they are poorly written in my opinion. For a handy introduction, I really liked the Lonely Planet phrasebook for its portability (pocket size). For those who want to dig deeper into the language there is an Amharic Guide for Beginners, A4 size, green cover, made by the Scandinavian protestant church which is an excellent book to get serious on it (if you are ready to learn the alphabet). For people who don’t want to get that far I attach further in this post a 2-pages basic guide I made few years ago for my family and friends when they came to visit; the guide is currently in Spanish, but I will include an English version if I see that lot of people demand it :).
Ethiopia is a country with deep religious roots. The most spread religion has historically been Ethiopian orthodoxy (a branch of Christians that used to be linked to Egyptian Copts till not long ago), which is believed to descend from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, defending the presence of the Ark of Convenant in the country, though not allowed to see :). All aspects of life are somehow touched by religion (blessing the table, going to church, national holidays, music…) and I encourage the visitor to attend at least one ceremony in Ge’ez (their cult language, root of Amharic) as it can be a very deep-shocking rite for the imagery and sound employed on it.
Next in number of followers comes Islam, a religion that has found comfort in Ethiopia along the years, a religion that has been respected and that respect others thanks to -according to the legend- Mahoma’s words: “leave the Ethiopians in peace” after his exiled followers were granted asylum here in the past. Today, some muslims are claiming for more political representation, which had led to some confrontations and troubles between them and government bodies, even though Ethiopia can still be considered a pacific inter-religious country where even mixed-religion weddings happen a lot.
Protestantism comes next, with lots of denominations and sects specially growing in the south of the country through the missionaries that settled there. Traditional beliefs are present countrywide and catholics have presence in schools, missions, cooperation programs and politics, but not in the religious life of Ethiopians, representing less than 1%.
There is (there was?) also a well known minor group of jews, the Beta Israel (some people derogatorily call them “falashas”) around the town of Gondar, even though most of them migrated to Israel in the 80s as part of the Israeli government’s relocation missions known as “Operation Moses” and “Operation Solomon”. There is a very touching French movie called “Va, vis et deviens” (“Live and become”) that tells the story of an Ethiopian boy who goes to Israel and his challenges during his life in afterwards.
And now coming back to the language chapter and as promised, for those who have reached so far there you go my little gift: the Spanish-Amharic basic guide. Practice in the bus!