A traveller visiting Ethiopia cannot fail to be impressed by the colour and individuality of its cultures and traditions. Whether in the bustle of the town or the tranquillity of the countryside, there is a strong sense of identity and pride that is visible in all aspects of life.

Religion plays a guiding role in the life of Ethiopia’s peoples with a myriad of religions being practised in the country, from Christianity to Islam to animistic beliefs. Accompanying these religions are a wealth of festivals that create high points in otherwise regular and well-ordered lives.



Food is also pivotal to the Ethiopian lifestyle, whether it be the focal point of a communal gathering or the daily challenge to obtain enough food to be comfortable.

There is a unique menu of food and drink which makes the most of sometimes scarce resources. Likewise, transport is a pragmatic mixture of the mechanical and the animal which often makes for an interesting spectacle on the street!

Music, dance and imagery are everywhere. The churches are filled with a special brand of picturesque images of colour and tradition, while itinerant musicians can be found in every town and village, lightening the mood and providing accompaniment for energetic dances.

No matter how urban or rural the community, the people dress with style and pride in their white or embroidered wraps, contrasting with the opulent colours worn by the priests in their long robes holding sparkling umbrellas.




Ethiopian dress is quite different from the multi-coloured traditions of people in West Africa for example. It also varies greatly according to the tribes and areas concerned.

The Amhara people, who form the dominant group on the high central plateau, wear predominantly white.  Men wear tunics or shawls worn over the shoulders while white dresses and wraps are worn by women.

Special occasions see the best embroidered dresses being paraded by the ladies, accompanied by complex hairstyles and jewellery.

Amid the relative quietness of the national costume, the brightly coloured robes of the many priests stand out, often accompanied in public ceremonies by large embroidered parasols that sparkle in the sunshine with their gold and silver threads.

In other parts of Ethiopia, particularly the southern tribes in the Rift Valley, dress is much more primitive and basic. The men of the Surma tribe, for example, still wear nothing apart from a cloth that is knotted over one shoulder and hangs down over the body. Scarification is a common feature of many of the lowland tribes.

While the national dress is displayed at religious festivals and weddings, more day-today outfits include simple skirts, shirts and trousers, some of them handouts from international charities.

Indeed, western attire is more commonly being worn, particularly in urban areas where young Ethiopians like to follow the latest fashions.  A premier league football shirt is a highly coveted item!



Yet another unique feature of Ethiopian culture is its childlike style of painting that is found in every church and other important locations. This style seems to have remained almost unchanged for centuries.

Figures are drawn in two dimensions, almost cartoon-like in their direct and simplistic portrayal, with strong colours and clear lines. The almond-shaped eyes are a particularly appealing characteristic.

Church painting in Ethiopia serves a very real purpose, with both biblical and more localised religious stories being portrayed clearly and simply to inform illiterate people of their traditions and heritage. European medieval imagery is a clear comparison here.

One modern name is clearly prominent in the world of Ethiopian painting today. Afework Tekle has an international reputation as an artist of immense standing. His works, though clearly based in an Ethiopian tradition, have a new and creative dynamism that is immediately of universal appeal. His vibrant paintings, many of them on very large canvases, are to be seen throughout Ethiopia in museums and galleries as well as on postage stamps and postcards.


Food and Drink

Ethiopia is as individual in its food and drink as it is in so many other aspects of daily life. Even though the menu choice is not particularly wide, the Ethiopian people delight in sharing what they have with habesha and farengi alike.

While the outside world may think famine is a permanent concern in Ethiopia, the majority of the country are able to secure their daily sustenance, either through growing their own food or exchanging goods at market.

The staple fare of the Ethiopian home is injera, a pancake usually made from a locally grown cereal called t’ef which is found only in Ethiopia. The t’ef batter is fermented for three days before being cooked over a large open wood fire. A typical meal will consist of a large injera, the size of a round coffee table, on which other dishes are placed such as boiled vegetables, spicy sauces, milk curds and on special days, chicken, beef, lamb or fish.


The most commonly found dish is called shiro wat (‘wat’ means sauce or stew) which is made from chickpeas and is eaten at any meal of the day. The national dish is doro wat which consists of pieces of chicken and hard-boiled eggs served in a hot sauce made with a spice called berbera (the predominant flavouring in Ethiopia). Doro wat is usually reserved for special occasions, particularly Ethiopian New Year. More affluent households will enjoy meat dishes such as ‘tibs’ (fried lamb) while on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the fasting season, only animal-product-free dishes will be consumed by most Orthodox Christians.


An rather unusual Ethiopian delicacy is raw steak, which is eaten at special occasions such as religious ceremonies and weddings.  So much raw meat is eaten by Ethiopians that occasionally tablets have to be taken to kill off worms in their digestive system!

Usually the women in the house prepare the food. When it’s ready, the master of the house sits down to eat first along with any guests present, followed by any other adults and then the children last. Bread is a common accompaniment in many areas.

The national drink is coffee, originating in Ethiopia and providing one of the major exports of the country. Every meal will, where possible, conclude or commence with the coffee ceremony, when green coffee beans are washed, roasted, ground and boiled in water; all this taking place on a bed of fresh grass and in front of the family or guests.

Many people say that coffee served in an Ethiopian home is the best they have experienced. Shai (tea) is also popular in Ethiopia, and is usually served in small glasses with no milk and plenty of sugar.



Bottled water, Pepsi and Mirinda (fizzy orange) are found everywhere and are sometimes consumed in the home. T’eller is a ubiquitous and inexpensive local brown beer with a unique flavour found in the many t’eller bets in every village. T’eller bets are usually someone’s home (they are marked by an upturned tin can on a pole outside the home) and, given most Ethiopian homes have only one or two rooms, you will often find children interspersed with beer drinking men! T’ej is more often reserved for special occasions and is a potent and cloudy honey-wine.
Ethiopians love to invite visitors into their home for coffee ceremonies, injera and sometimes t’eller because they see hospitality as an important part of everyday life. If you are invited you can expect to be well fed, and encouraged to eat more!

Music and Dance

St Yared is the Ethiopian patron saint of church music and, in every church, music serves to give atmosphere to the ritual and to heighten personal experience. Every church has its drums, covered with decorated material, and its sistra, metal rattles that date back hundreds of years. These accompany the chanting of the priests, along with the beating of the prayer sticks and the clapping of hands.

Out in the community, musical instruments play a social and entertaining role. The single-stringed masenko is played by minstrels who sing of life around them and invent, calypso-like, topical verses on the spot. The krar is a lyre-like plucked instrument with 5 or 6 strings while the begenna is the portable harp.



Up in the hills boys can be found looking after cattle and sheep whilst playing on the washint, a simple reed flute played with one hand.

Ethiopian people know and love their folk songs. Singing is high pitched and shrill and frequently accompanied by excited ululation, especially at weddings and other joyful occasions.

In addition to more traditional styles, Ethiopians also listen to popular music where the country boasts a whole host of contemporary artists, some of whom are internationally recognised such as Gigi.

Mainstream music from the West has also infiltrated Ethiopian culture where you can hear Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber alongside Ethiopia’s man of the moment Teddy Afro (see link below) on the radio!


No joyous occasion passes without the Ethiopians indulging in their unique form of dancing. Each ethnic group has their own individual style of dancing (and costume that accompanies it) to match their own particular form of music.

In the north of Ethiopia, people dance mainly with their upper body, moving their head, neck, shoulder and chest to the rhythm.  As you move further down the country however, gradually more of the lower body is incorporated into the dance, for example the waist and legs.

Check out some of the Ethiopian moves here:







While Addis Ababa is much like any other African capital city with regards to its cars, taxis, lorries and general bustle, elsewhere in Ethiopia private transport is rare.

The roads, largely unpaved, are mainly used by people on foot, many individuals walking miles per day to reach the nearby town or village. Carrying abnormally large loads are the multiple donkeys who peacefully and patiently tread the daily route between home and market.

Public motorised transport consists of somewhat ancient taxis and busy minibuses, which have to drive with care on the road to avoid ubiquitous potholes as well as weaving between people, donkeys, dogs and cattle.

In some centres, such as Gondar, the gari is an important and inexpensive way of moving people and goods from place to place. These two-wheeled, horse-drawn carts are hardly sophisticated in their design or indeed condition, yet they have served their purpose for centuries and provide a very definite ‘local colour’.


The national carrier Ethiopian Airlines is one of the most efficient and comfortable on the African continent and Addis Ababa is a major hub of travel between African countries and out into the wider world.

Why Ethiopia?

You may also be interested to find out why we believe education is so important and why that’s our focus. You can also learn about Link Ethiopia’s approach to changing lives through education. How are we doing? You can explore our results, see our completed projects and hear from students who have benefited from our work. If you’d like to be part of this journey, get involved!