Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
21. Expanding Trade, Changing Ways of Life – and Conclusions
We saw last week that Ethiopian imports, in the 1920s and 1930s, were both growing and becoming more diversified.
This development may be further illustrated by a comparison between the statistics compiled by the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway company for 1916, the year of Lej Iyasu’s overthrow, and 1930, the year of Ras Tafari Makonnen’s coronation as Emperor Haile Sellassie. The import of textiles, a traditional item of consumption, rose substantially from 3,573 tons to 5,901, while that of articles associated with the modern sector of the economy rocketed: petrol rose from 142 tons to 453, ironware from 41 to 221, glassware from 11 to 247, soap from 67 to 421, rice from 64 to 297 and sugar from 51 to 595.
The gradual introduction of more and more imported goods, as well as the adoption of mechanical techniques, inevitably resulted in the beginnings of a great transformation, which is of course still in progress today.
The social impact of such changes on the daily life of the peasant, and above all of his wife and daughter may be deduced from the following poems, collected by Ato Alemayehu Mogus outside Dabra Marqos after World War II. Several voice bantering male comment on the easier life opened up for their womenfol, and are by implication critical of feminine laziness. They remind us of Emperor Tewodro’s comment on a flour mill cited in a pervious article.
The advent of imported abujedid, or calico, and of flour ground by mechanical mill, causes a husband to exclaim to his wife:
My trousers are of abujedid, and my shamma is of (manufactured) warp. My ox does the ploughing; I have the flour mill to grind the grain, What right have you (feminine) to ask where I spend my days or nights?
A similar theme is apparent in the words of the man, who, commenting on the various innovations of the time observes, in sexist vein:
She does not grind pepper: we now have pepper mills,
She does not wash our feet: we now have large shoes,
She does not gather wood: we now have eucalyptus trees.
A broken piece of tin is of no practical use. Take your daughter, my lady, for a mother cannot abandon her offspring (however useless).
The same idea may be seen in the following excerpt from a poem in which the husband exclaims:
Welkffa trees (a tree the bark of which is used in making rope) grow in the valleys; Unable to make her grind the tef,
I had it ground (at the mill), and brought it for her to make the dough,
She put the pot on the fire like a cultivated woman,
But she went wandering about instead of preparing the dough,
And my children were hurt when the pot wasoverturned.
The existence of the mechanical flour mill provokes the husband, who still relies on his wife’s labour, to say to her:
Wake up and do the grinding, Shall I also buy flour like the sleepy one?
A conservative, linking together the idea of women’s emancipation and the use of imported calico, or abujedid, says
She who has come as an advocate of women
Is clad in abujedid from head to feet.
What the women themselves thought is not recorded!
Changing Way of Life
Not withstanding the elements of change outlined above the static forces in Ethiopian economic and social life continued to be powerful. Charles Rey, writing in the mid-1920’s, reported that though imported cloth was by then much cheaper than the locally produced article, it did not penetrate far from the main trading centers. This latter statement was corroborated by his compatriot Rosita Forbes. She recalls that at the old town of Ankobar people still did their own spinning and weaving, and adds: “In front of every hut we saw one or two hand looms where men plied wooden shuttles on a primitive frame, the white shammas growing under the gaze of their womenfolk, who with a basket of cotton fluff beside them, wound the froth on to a bobbin and spun it into thread.”
The review of the history of innovation in Ethiopia covered in over twenty articles of this series reveals the inflexibility of the country’s economic and social life, the strength of tradition, and the immensity of the task of modernisation which confronted the rulers of the past. Isolation, which tended to be broken mainly by undesired events, such as invasions and wars, not to mention the intrigues of the Great Powers, rather than by useful contacts with foreign lands, produced a situation in which the population was essentially conservative. Many people disliked the idea of change, and still more were profoundly unaware of its possibility. The prevailing attitude was therefore one of extreme conservatism: may I indeed say of misoneism?
On the other hand the rulers of the country, to whom all classes looked for leadership, in many cases displayed great interest in newinstitutions. Though often unconscious of the exact nature of the gulf which separated them from the countries of Europe many rulers were anxiousto bridge it, usually for reasons of military strategy. The desire for technical progress, until recent times, was in fact largely restricted to three sectors. It was primarily apparent in the military field, especially in relation to fire-arms, but may also be discerned in the medical field, and to some extent in that of the building of palaces and royal churches.
The royal insistence on innovation in these three areas moreover had a great influence on the public at large, so that the society’s attitude to change presented a dichotomy. European rifles and medicine won the greatest possible admiration, from a people who spurned any attempt to introduce the wheel, or to adopt a new kind of currency.
One may hazard the view that change was acceptable if it promoted one or more of the following aims: the acquisition or maintenance of power, as in the case of the gun, the preservation of health and the conquest of disease, as in the case of modern medicine, or the glorification of the ruler, as in the case of the constructing of palaces and certain churches in their vicinity. Innovation which failed to promote any of these aims tended to be regarded at best with indifference, and at worst with suspicion, often being dismissed indeed as a threat to the Christian way of life.
The almost wistful longing for foreign technicians, manifested by the Ethiopian rulers of the Middle Ages gave way in in the course of time to the construction of the great castle-like palaces which symbolised the Gondar period. The renewed attempts by Dajazmach Wube and King Sahla Sellase to import craftsmen from abroad in the first part of the nineteenth century was followed by the remarkable modernising efforts of the innovating Emperor Tewodros II, whose ideas in a sense foreshadowed the modern era. His progressive ideas were followed by Emperor Yohannes IV, but,more especially, by Emperors Menelik II, and later by Haile Sellassie, whose reigns both witnessed notable attempts at innovation. These steadily expanded, from the military field to almost all others.
This later period, discussed in the last few articles, witnessed such developments as the construction of modern roads and bridges, the advent of the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane, the coming of the telephone, the telegraph and the radio, the establishment of central administration, schools and hospitals. In the capital, where innovation was most pronounced,there was greater division of labour than ever before, more external influence and increased utilisation of foreign goods. The cumulative effect of these developments began at that time to be felt by increasingly large sections of the community.
The conservative tendencies still inherent in the society, however, continued to make themselves felt, and as a result innovations which were often experimental in character, failed to gather the momentum necessary for self-sustained or spontaneous development until after World War II. These, however, have no place in the present series of articles, which come to a close today.