By Siru (Rose) Zhu
Staff Writer

In July, 2015, I embarked on a 6-month trip to explore and learn about the world. During the trip, I went to the UK, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Maldives, India, UAE, Indonesia, China, etc. Despite the countless similarities in people and the many differences among cultures, there was one question that no matter where I went, I was always asked: Where are you from?

I saw this as a good opportunity to spark conversations and shine light on some historical facts that few people talk about, so I decided to say that I was from Ethiopia, where the oldest fossils of our common human ancestors are found. Not long after I said that, people began to ask me all kinds of questions about Ethiopia because many of them had never met an Ethiopian before. I realized my lack of information about Ethiopia so I then decided to include it in my trip and see the country with my own eyes.


(Pictures taken at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa)


I arrived in the capital city of Ethiopia – Addis Ababa. Staying in the capital city and visiting one of the oldest world-renowned skeleton fossils of human ancestors – “Lucy”- were on the top of my list. Lucy, also called “Dinknesh” in the Amharic language (which means “You are wonderful”), was discovered by the paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson’s team in 1974. Being “the first of its kind of that age with that kind of completeness” with 40% of the complete skeleton, Lucy can be dated back to 3.2 million years ago. Lucy is also well-loved throughout her motherland of Ethiopia. Even the Ethiopian national women’s football team is known as Dinknesh, in honor of her name. With more recent discoveries of other fossils in nearby areas, such as Ardi, “the world’s oldest and most complete skeleton of a potential human ancestor” that dates back to 4.4 million years ago, and the Ledi jaw, a 2.8 million-year-old lower jawbone mixed with “primitive and advanced features” that provides a good transitional link “between Lucy and later humans,” Ethiopia has established its undoubtable international status as “the cradle of humanity,” and presents proof of human beings’ common ancestry.

(Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Besides the rich history in anthropology, I was surprised to find out that Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world if not the oldest, and it has some of the most ancient churches in the world. Some sources say that the presence of Christianity in Ethiopia can be dated back to the 1st century AD, which was before that in Europe. In the 4th century AD, the country became Christian. Today, “roughly two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christians.”

Holy Trinity Cathedral, as shown in the picture above, is “the second-most important place of worship in Ethiopia.” It is also the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife Empress Menen Asfaw, and is also a commemoration of the war against the Italian occupation. Even though Ethiopia remained independent during the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s, there was a brief Italian presence in Ethiopia from the late 1880s to the mid 1890s, which ended with the defeat of the Italian army in 1896 that led to the independence of Ethiopia.

Being in the crowds and listening to the preaching at the churches in Addis Ababa showed me a face of Christianity that I had never seen elsewhere. There were usually two separate praying and worshipping sections for male and female devotees. Most ladies covered their heads and upper bodies with thin white clothes called “netela” that usually have decorated ends on them. Additionally, many ladies would also use netela or other similar scarves to wrap around their heads and upper bodies when walking on the streets.

Whenever there was preaching or chanting, churches were usually filled with overflowing crowds, and many people would stand outside of the churches praying and chanting due to the lack of space inside the churches. I also noticed that some people would pray to the outside wall of the churches while occasionally kissing the wall to show their respect and devotion. These were scenes I had never seen elsewhere.

(Merkato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

I went to Merkato in Addis Ababa, which is one of the largest markets in Africa. The word “merkato” is influenced from the Italian word “mercato.” The market is said to be established during the time of the Italian occupation, and was originally called “Merkato Indigino” – market of the indigenous. One can find all kinds of merchandise here, including spices, herbs, cooking wares, vegetables, beans, flour, clothes, shoes, baskets, livestocks, plastic, metals, handcrafts, cleaning supplies, etc.

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(Merkato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

There were about six ladies sitting in a store chatting and laughing. They waved at me and invited me over for a cup of coffee. To my surprise, the coffee is salty. Later on, I learned that the traditional way to drink coffee in Ethiopia is with a pinch of salt, instead of sugar. To the knowledge of a few, the origin of coffee is actually from the Ethiopian Highlands. It was from Ethiopia that coffee spread to Yemen and the Red Sea Coast and later to the Ottoman Empire. Then, when it spread to other areas of Europe, Southern Europeans started to drink coffee. For centuries, people associated coffee specifically with Turkey. But, Turkey did not produce coffee. The biggest port for exporting coffee was called Mocha, which was on the Southern Arabian coast. Therefore, the term “mocha” became associated with coffee, and with a certain kind of coffee. [1]

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(Merkato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Among the many other things that I had never seen before were these stacked starch piles I encountered while walking in Merkato. A local Ethiopian put some of the “starch” on my hand and asked me to taste it. I put a little bit in my mouth and could not believe that people actually ate this. It tasted a little bit bitter mixed with other strange flavors while also leaving an unsmooth feeling in my mouth. It almost tasted like an unripe green banana, but with a more complex flavor. I frowned and spat it out.

Later on, I found out that this substance that forms the starch piles is called “kocho,” which is a fermented starch derived from a plant called “enset.” Kocho is often used to make flatbread. Before using it, people, usually women, take the amount needed out of the pit and then chop it up until there isn’t any unbroken fiber left in there. The “dough” is then often mixed with spices and butter, and later on formed into flatbread. The flatbread dough can be wrapped in enset leaves and baked with various cooking wares.

What interested me more was actually the information I came across about the enset plant, which some people call “the miracle crop.” It is deemed miraculous because every part of the plant can be used with different functions. For example: enset leaves can be used for making kocho and wrapping; the enset plant itself traps rainwater, which helps coffee to grow better; “enset groves accumulate plant matter and nutrients” while leaving the soil more fertile; enset leaves and fibers can be used for cooking, packaging, making ropes, baskets and roofing materials, some people even use the leaves as carpets, etc. Furthermore, enset is “typically more productive and sustainable than the cereals” that are brought in to replace it by the international agronomists. It is truly a “miracle crop.”

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(Merkato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

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(A restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Another “miracle” that I encountered was the national food of Ethiopia – injera. Injera is this thin spongy pancake-like food that tastes a little bit like sourdough. The picture above shows a common way of local people eating injera – by putting a small amount of different sides on the injera, ripping some injera off starting from the edge, using it to grab the sides, and then putting the whole small wrap in the mouth. Injera is a “miracle” because it is made by fermented teff flour. Teff has been produced and consumed in Ethiopia “for millennia,” and it may become the new “super grain” of Europe and North America, “overtaking the likes of quinoa and spelt.” This grain is high in protein and calcium, gluten-free and high in resistant starch which is “a newly discovered type of dietary fiber that can benefit blood sugar management,” and is also extremely prolific compared to planting many other popular grains such as wheat. “One pound of teff can produce up to one ton of grain in only 12 weeks,” and this minimal harvest time and seed requirements have protected Ethiopia from hunger when food resources were under attack from various invaders in the past.

I was fortunate to have come across some of the many “miracles” that took place in Ethiopia, and I am eager to find out more what this beautiful “cradle of humanity” has to offer mankind as a whole.


  1. HIAF 111 Winter 2016 Professor Jeremy Prestholdt, Modern Africa since 1880, Lecture 1/28/2016

Images by Siru (Rose) Zhu


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