ETHNONYMS: Tishana, Bodi
Identification and Location. Me'en ("people," "humans") is the self-designation of a small ethnic group in the Maji region of southwestern Ethiopia.
The Me'en territory lies at the southern fringe of the Ethiopian highlands, extending up to the Maji mountains, roughly between 35°10" and 36°20" est longitude and 06°20" to 06°50" north latitude. Some more isolated groups live in the Gurafarda area, toward the border with Sudan. Although they were originally a lowland people living in the valleys of the Orno and the Shorum rivers, most Me'en have moved to the intermediate highland zone. A small group of cattleherding Me'en, known as Bodi, still live in the plains on the eastern bank of the Orno River. Although they have the same language and cultural background, they consider themselves apart from and superior to the highland Me'en. The two groups live in climatically different zones that have led to diverging modes of subsistence. Temperatures in the low-land area range from 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the "cold" wet season to 100 to 110 degrees in the dry season. Highland temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees lower, with more precipitation during the dry season. Rainfall in the predominantly agricultural highland area of the Me'en is unreliable, and the lack of the "small rains" in February and March often leads to crop failure and hunger.
Demography. The most recent Ethiopian census (1994) listed the Me'en at 52,815 persons and the Bodi at 4,686, which is probably an underestimate. Although there are five small towns in the area, almost all the Me'en live in scattered hamlets and homesteads. A 1980s government policy of resettling them in new villages has failed. There is little outmigration of Me'en to other areas. The ethnic "boundary" of the Me'en with neighboring peoples such as the Bench ("Gimira") and Dizi is rather open, although they represent different cultural-historical entities that had violent clashes in the past. There is frequent intermarriage between these groups. The Me'en birthrate is an average of seven to eight children per married wife, but child mortality is high. The estimate is that out of every ten children four die before the sixth year.
Linguistic Affiliation. Me'en is a Southeast Surmic language. The Surmic group is part of the East Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language cluster, which belongs to the Afroasiatic phylum. Other Surmic languages are Koegu (Muguji), Tirmaga, Chai, Baale, Mursi, Didinga, Narim, and Murle. These peoples reside in southwestern Ethiopia, except for the last four, who live in Sudan just across the border.
History and Cultural Relations
The Me'en, as descendants of proto-Surmic speakers, are historically related to the South Sudanese Nilotics, although they have diverged from them considerably in the last millennium. On the basis of linguistic and cultural data it can be tentatively concluded that the (proto-) Me'en, like other transhumant pastoral Surmic peoples, gradually moved from southern Sudan toward the southern fringe of the Ethiopian highlands. This migration route probably led along the northern rim of Lake Turkana and northward along the Orno River. The Me'en claim that they were "created near the Pacha" (Orno), where their ancestors (founders of the first twelve clans) allegedly emerged from a hole in the ground. They later dispersed, crossing the Orno into their present area. This expansion, which started in the early nineteenth century, may have been fueled by the substantial loss of cattle caused by the Ethiopian rinderpest infestation of the 1880s and 1890s. In the process, the Me'en conquered territory from the Ornotic-speaking Bench, Dizi, and Kaficho people. Some of the Me'en remained near the Orno as pastoralists: these are the present-day Bodi (divided into two groups: Mela and Chirim).
In the late nineteenth century the Me'en were securely established in their present area, well before the arrival of Ethiopian imperial troops and armed settlers sent by Emperor Menilek II around 1898. The Me'en acquired a reputation for fierceness in battle and tough resistance against these newcomers. The mostly Amharic-speaking northern settlers tried to impose the gäbbar -system, which implied turning local, subjected people into labor serfs. Although the Me'en were frequently raided for slaves, they also made occasional alliances with northerners and other slave raiders to prey on the Suri (Tirmaga and Chai) and Dizi. The Me'en were never completely subdued, although the Ethiopian rulers, by appointing local leaders (balabbats) among them, partially incorporated the Me'en into their feudalist system.
While most Me'en welcomed the Italian colonialists who abolished the gäbbar system in 1937, some, especially the powerful K'asha group, engaged in violent conflict with the Italians. In the postwar Haile Selassie period after 1941 the Me'en had marginal contacts with the national administration and were again represented by their balabbats. In the postrevolutionary period after 1974 these leaders, then labeled "feudal chiefs," were deposed. Me'en were organized in peasant associations, the new socialist political framework in the Ethiopian countryside.
As a Surmic-speaking people, the Me'en are socioculturally related to other ethnic groups in southwestern Ethiopia, such as the Tirmaga, Chai, Mursi, and Bodi and some smaller groups near the Sudanese border (Baale and Nyalam). As a result of long contact, they were culturally influenced by the Dizi and Bench in diet, material culture, cultivation methods, and some magical-religious practices. There is, however, still tension between the Me'en and the Bench and Dizi, whom they call Su or Suc, a general term for earlier-settled hill-farmer peoples. For the Bodi-Me'en, the term Su refers to the Dime people to the east.
The Me'en live dispersed in family compounds across the countryside. They are mobile, with no place being occupied for more than two or three years except for the few in the five mixed villages where northern settler-descendants live with local people. Settlement is patrilocali A married son and his family usually live with his parents. Occasionally, affinal kin or a woman of the same lineage and her husband and children may join the household. The lineage groups and "clans" do not form localized groups. Each new agricultural year (bergu) household heads decide where to set up camp. The Bodi, being more dependent on cattle, with on average ten times as many cattle per capita than the agricultural Tishana-Me'en, have more developed patterns of labor cooperation (herding) and live together in larger compounds. Me'en huts have wood walls and grass roofs. The cone-shaped low-land hut differs substantially from the highland type, which is close to the general Ethiopian type usually referred to as tukul Huts are built by men in collective work teams.
The Ethiopian villagization program of the mid-1980s had only a slight impact on Me'en settlement. Six new villages were constructed, but they were never popular, and in 1991, after the collapse of the socialist-oriented Mengistu regime, all the remaining sites were abandoned.
Subsistence. The Me'en are shifting subsistence cultivators and herders, producing no surplus of significance except coffee and honey. Livestock is not sold very often. There is much internal exchange between families and friends on a generally reciprocal basis. The chief products of the Me'en are maize and sorghum, their staple foods. In addition, they grow barley and t'eff, cabbage, beans, peas, peppers, sugarcane, and some tobacco, largely for their own use. In the lowlands they practice shifting cultivation, clearing a new site every season by slash-and-burn techniques. In the higher areas the system might be called rotational field cultivation: They move the fields every year but after four to five years return to the same plot.
Although every male household head has his own plot for cultivation, several households often combine their labor power for clearance, weeding, and harvesting the crops (maize and sorghum) on adjacent fields. Although government policy is aimed at raising output levels, trying to introduce the plow (and plow oxen) and encouraging the production of grains such as t'eff and barley, Me'en agriculture has not changed much over the past decades because input of production factors (improved seeds, draft animals, transport and credit facilities) and market development has been very limited.
Commercial Activities. As a result of the underdeveloped subsistence economy, commercial activities are very modest. In local markets small quantities of grains, cabbage, coffee, peppers, fruit, chickens, and tools and utensils (clay pots and cooking plates, ropes, hoes, baskets, and gourds), are traded, but these exchanges produce only small amounts of cash. Some Me'en women prepare maize-sorghum beer for local sale. Their main cash income—needed to pay national taxes—derives from the sale of honey. From the lowlands Me'en people bring the skins of antelopes, buffalo, and occasionally leopards for sale.
Industrial Arts. Until the 1960s the highland Me'en had their own blacksmiths, who learned the trade from neighboring peoples such as the Ch'ara and Dizi. They produced iron in large clay furnaces and forged knives, hoes, machetes, spears, dancing bells, and cowbells. The mining and extracting of iron ore has virtually disappeared because of the importation of scrap iron. The number of smiths has also declined. The Bodi-Me'en bought iron tools from the Dime people. Me'en women make all the pottery, including cooking plates, pots, and jugs. Decoration is minimal. They also make baskets, sieves, and containers of straw and wood and fashion gourds into drinking and beer containers. Former arts such as the production of bark cloth clothing and bags are declining as a result of the importation of abujedid (light white cotton cloth) and other fabrics by traders.
Trade. The Me'en used to barter with neighboring peoples, trading livestock, grain, honey, iron tools, pottery, and other handicraft products. Today cash is paid for all the products sold in the local markets. No Me'en products except some coffee and wooden craft items sold as souvenirs are exported outside the local area.
Division of Labor. There are no established social strata in Me'en society in the sense that all males and females can perform the same limited number of labor tasks and can produce most of the household utensils needed in the Me'en economy. However, there is a clear-cut sexual division of labor. Some productive tasks can be done only by men, such as clearing and burning off fields, building houses and fences, doing repair work, and making and placing beehives. Men also trade livestock and maintain contacts with administrative officials. Women do the planting of seeds and the weeding of fields, grind grain, and prepare food and beer. They also draw water, fetch wood, take care of small children, and clean the compound and house. In recent years, as a result of the ethnic policy pursued by the post-1991 Ethiopian government and aimed at establishing local "self-rule," a new Me'en political-administrative elite is emerging, connected to the ruling party. These people receive a government salary and are somewhat detached from the demands of the subsistence economy.
Land Tenure. There is no formal pattern of land tenure among the Me'en. Land is collective property, and they live on it as free-roaming shifting cultivators. There is no land scarcity. Clans had an original core settlement area, carved out by the ancestors, but members of other lineages can cultivate unused surplus land in a "clan area" with prior permission from the elders. Although in the postrevolutionary period all land was declared state land and had to be distributed under the authority of the peasant association, the Me'en land use pattern has not changed much. The legally allowed amount of "private land" for cultivation by a member of a peasant association is rarely claimed fully. In the imperial-feudalist period the Me'en balabbats had large holdings that were cultivated by their followers and family members.
The Bodi-Me'en pattern of land use (scattered cultivation sites for sorghum and maize, dry season and wet season pasture for the cattle) has not undergone much change. Collectivization of agriculture and state farm development have not reached the Me'en area.
Kin Groups and Descent. The basis kinship unit is the three- or four-generation lineage called du'ut. This is a named group with a known ancestor, the male married members of which live in each other's vicinity. Lineages have emerged from the older clans (kabuchoch), but only Me'en know from what clan their lineage descended. Genealogical knowledge is scant and usually does not reach beyond the fourth ascending generation. Descent is patrilineal, and children become members of the lineage of their father. Me'en clans are ranked in a moietylike dual structure, with a difference in prestige.
Kinship Terminology. The kinship terminology of the Me'en is of a mixed type. On the basis of an older Omaha type, it seems in the last century to have evolved toward an Iroquois-type terminology. A very important relationship is that between a mother's brother (oina) and a sister's son (ngo sonit) —a joking relationship. The ngosonit is entitled to receive a cow from his oina at the time of his marriage. Next to kin relations, the ritual friendship relation called lalang is socially the most important. It is initiated by a gift of cattle, and the relationship of reciprocity lasts for a lifetime, often transferred to the sons of the two partners.
Marriage. Marriage is of the generalized exchange type. Partners are taken from another lineage, and the exogamy rules of the old overarching clans is blurring. The boy and girl often initiate the marriage themselves. After they have agreed, they go to the parents to ask permission and arrange the marriage ceremony. Occasionally a boy, with the help of his friends, "captures" the girl and then opens negotiations with the family through the elders. Another form is elopement: If neither set of parents agrees to the union, the young couple runs away and opens negotiations once the matter has cooled down. The clans of the traditional chiefs (komorut) do not exchange marriage partners. A Me'en man can, depending on his wealth, marry more than ten women, but most men have one to three wives. The bride-wealth to be transferred to the family of the wife ranges from three to ten cattle. In addition, cash is given. In the lowlands one pays from fifteen to thirty cattle and also gives a gun. Because of the long time needed to accumulate the bride-wealth, men often marry relatively late (in their late twenties). Women usually marry ten to fifteen years younger. Postmarital residence is patrilocalneolocal.
Domestic Unit Becasue Me'en households often are polygamous, the basic domestic unit might be said to consist of a wife and her children. Each wife in a polygamous marriage has her own hut and "hearthhold" within the compound and lives there with her children. The man has no hut except for his sleeping and meeting place below a granary (dori). Each wife has her own garden and piece of land, cleared for her and given to her by the husband.
Inheritance. The Me'en do not have accumulated property to be handed over to children except for cattle, which are distributed among sons and other agnates. There is no ownership of land and thus no rules for its inheritance. Married sons cultivate near the fields of their father in what might roughly be called the "lineage territory." The personal property of a deceased person (ornaments, weapons, or tools) goes to the oldest son.
Socialization. Young children are cared for primarily by the mother and by other young children. The father is barely involved in the early education of his children. Around the sixth or seventh year boys begin to assist in guarding fields and herding livestock. Girls are expected to help in the preparation of food, minding babies, cleaning, and washing. Young children are treated with great affection and care. Corporal punishment is not common. Children are subservient to their parents and to lineage elders. There is a strong divide between the female and male spheres even in early youth (labor tasks, life in peer groups). A minority of Me'en children are able to attend primary school.
Social Organization. Me'en have a "kin-ordered mode of production" in which family and lineage groups are mutually intertwined in networks of labor assistance, marriage alliances, and reciprocity. Households do not live and produce on an individual basis. There is neither a social stratification differentiating lineages, families, and domestic units nor a social division of labor with separate groups performing specific tasks. There is only one such a group, of different ethnic origin: the Ydinit or Koegu living along the Orno near the Bodi-Me'en.
Political Organization. The Me'en form one of the dozens of recognized ethnic "nationalities" in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Their educational and politicoeconomic integration into the new political structures of Ethiopia is proceeding gradually.
"Peasant associations" form the basic framework at the local level. A few men have established themselves as relatively powerful translocal leaders, but they owe their position mainly to the support and pay they receive from the provincial administration. Their position has no roots in traditional Me'en political organization, where hereditary priestly leaders (komoruts) and elders of various lineages discussed and decided on community matters. Komoruts were also mediators in group conflicts and rain ceremonies. The local balabbats disappeared after the 1974 revolution, when komoruts also lost most of their power and prestige. Their authority is no longer recognized by the majority of the Me'en. In the area of the Me'en as a whole, government presence in the form of administrative centers, police posts, courts, and services such as clinics and cooperative shops is limited. Many families, while paying taxes, live virtually without contact with the wider national sociopolitical structure.
Social Control. Traditional Me'en norms, group interdependence through affinai links and labor cooperation, and the threat of supernaturally backed sanctions meted out by spirit mediums called men de nyerey lead the Me'en to seek mediation and reconciliation within their own group. The ritual leaders (komoruts) have a normative influence only among certain sectors of the Me'en. In exceptional situations such as serious interethnic conflict, cases are brought to a government court.
Conflict. During the expansion of Me'en groups toward the highlands, lineage groups often fought each other or neighboring groups (Bench, Dizi, Kaficho). In the early twentieth century Me'en frequently clashed with the northern settlers because of slave hunts and the attempt to impose the labor serf system. After the 1974 revolution Me'en local leaders were condemned and made powerless by the new authorities. In the confusion of the postrevolutionary years the Me'en carried out a coordinated armed attack in May 1977 on the five northern settlements in their territory but were defeated after a brief period of heavy fighting with government troops. Within their society there were no authority figures for the whole population except for the "priestly" mediators, and group conflicts resulting from a homicide were and still are resolved by careful mediation between representatives of the two lineages involved, meeting at a traditional river border of their territories. This ceremony, called asina, included a compensation payment of cattle and the handing over of a young girl to the lineage that had lost a person.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Me'en believe in the sky god Tuma, who created them and controls fertility and rain. There are several clans, whose chiefs mediate between Tuma and the people, performing ceremonies when drought threatens crops and cattle. Tuma also is invoked during the harvest ceremonies (mosit) and when contagious disease threatens families or livestock. The Me'en recognize local spirits of rivers and woods (kolle ) and revere their lineage spirit, the kalua. They also read the intestines of cattle or of goats killed at a collective ceremony such as a burial.
Religious Practitioners. The ritual leaders called komoruts had religious functions. They still operate, but their normative and judicial influence has waned with the dispersal and growth of the population and with increasing state influence. However, they are often still referred to as the "real Me'en leaders." There are also influential magical practitioners such as the men de nyerey or k'alichas, persons "who have a spirit," who may curse people at the request of their enemies, help locate stolen property, and practice divination. This institution has come from the Kaficho and Bench people. The more traditional Bodi-Me'en do not have k'alichas.
Ceremonies. Me'en life is replete with ceremonial aspects. The most important large-scale ceremonies are the rain rituals, still occasionally carried out by rain masters (komoruts) in times of impending drought; the annual harvest ritual (mosit) for the staple crop sorghum; and the elaborate funerals for older people, when cattle are ceremonially sacrificed. Another ritual is the collective intestine reading divination intended to foretell the immediate future of the land and the people.
Arts. The Me'en have special music and dance styles such as the gule (songs of joy about love, a good harvest, and family prosperity) and the heret or luc (about cattle and male vigor or courageous feats). The highland Me'en have a special dance and song style performed at burial ceremonies called moy, accompanied by large drums, horns, and women's ululating songs. Some gule songs and k'alicha songs are accompanied on the chonggi, a string instrument resembling a bowl lyre. The mourning songs of the Me'en are sung at dawn by the female relatives of a deceased person.
Most men fashion their own small wooden stools (chakam) and take pride in their spears and knives. Huts, pottery, wooden utensils, and gourd containers have little decoration except for the common local geometric patterns also found among groups such as the Dizi and Suri. There are no specialized artists among the Me'en.
Medicine. The Me'en have a large variety of herbal medicines against diseases ranging from malaria to snake poison. The knowledge of these sometimes effective remedies is not shared with outsiders but is transmitted within certain families or told to people with a deep interest in healing. Four primary clinics in the Me'en area were set up by the government in the 1980s. They reach only some of the Me'en, are understocked, and tend to undermine traditional healing. However, in most cases Me'en still use traditional medicine. The most common diseases are syphilis, intestinal parasites, wound and skin infections, bronchitis, and malaria.
Death and Afterlife. The Me'en do not have a pronounced belief in an afterlife, although they believe in ancestral spirits and have a notion of the "life essence" or "soul" (shun) going up to Tuma. Their burial ceremonies, especially for older people of both sexes, are elaborate, lasting for several days. To die without a proper funeral, without cattle being killed in one's honor, is a disgrace to one's relatives and the lineage as a whole. Burials are important events, reaffirming the idea of continuity of the lineage and of placating its "guardian spirit." The corpse is wrapped in a cow skin and then placed in a deep grave holding six to fifteen corpses. Usually a fig tree is planted on the grave, but no subsequent commemorative gatherings are held.
For other cultures in Ethiopia, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.
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—— (1993). "Reading the Entrails: Analysis of an African Divination Discourse," Man 28(4): 705-726.
—— (1995). "Ritual and Environment: The mosit Ceremony of the Ethiopian Me'en People," Journal of Religion in Africa 25(2): 163-190.
—— (1997). "The Myth of Tishana 'Kingship': Ideological Reflections of Socio-Economic Change," Anthropos 92 (4-6): 551-556.
—— (1999). "Artifacts as 'Daily Art' in Me'en Culture. The Life and Work of Bogine Shala and Gelta Foroshowa." In: Ethiopia: Traditions of Creativity, edited by Raymond A. Silverman. 26-45. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
Fukui, Katsuyoshi (1979). "Cattle Colour Symbolism and Intertribal Homicide among the Bodi." In Warfare among East African Herders, edited by Katsoyoshi Fukui and David Turton. 149-179. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.
—— (1988). "The Religious and Kinship Ideology of Military Expansion among the Bodi (Mela), Southwest Ethiopia." In Proceedings of the VIIIth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa 1984, edited by Taddesse Beyene. Volume 1, 785-792. Addis Ababa: Institute of Ethiopian Studies and Frankfurt/M.: Frobenius Institut.
—— (1996). "Co-Evolution between Humans and Domesticates: The Cultural Selection of Animal Coat Colour Diversity among the Bodi." In Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication, edited by Roy Ellen and Katsuyoshi Fukui. 319-386. Oxford and New York: Berg.
JON G. ABBINK
"Me'en." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/meen
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