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All About Ethiopia: Facts for Sponsors

If you sponsor — or are thinking about sponsoring — a child in Ethiopia, here are some facts to help you learn about this ancient nation, its land and its people.

Ethiopia is a landlocked nation in eastern Africa, bordered by Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, Somalia to the east, Kenya to the south, and South Sudan and Sudan to the west. It is predominantly an agricultural country, with more than 80% of its population living in rural areas. Three major crops are believed to have originated here: grain sorghum, castor bean and coffee, which today is the national drink of Ethiopia. Ethiopians drink coffee at least three times a day, often prepared in a ritualized ceremony called buna mafflat.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in the world, with more than 3,000 years of ancient history. It differs from other African nations in that it has never been colonized, apart from a five-year occupation by Italy. Its customs continue to be deeply rooted in centuries of practice, and many aspects of daily life are ritualized.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in the world, with more than 3,000 years of ancient history.

For example, there is a correct and traditional way to serve coffee, cut chicken, fold a dress and even greet people. (It is customary to greet the eldest people first out of respect, for instance, or shake hands lightly when greeting strangers.) The country also has its own ancient alphabet — the Amharic — and a calendar consisting of 13 months. Moreover, the nation is home to one of the earliest Christian religions, the Ethiopian Orthodox church.

Today, Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy in Africa, yet social issues prevail. The country faces poverty, drought, food insecurity and civil unrest, and roughly 4.5 million Ethiopian children are orphaned or separated from their families. Each year, Holt donors and sponsors provide life-changing care and support to more than 125,000 children and their families, including those children living in orphanage care.  

Basic Facts About Ethiopia

Capital

Addis Ababa (Amharic for “new flower”)

Population

120,812,698 people. Ethiopia follows Nigeria as the second-most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also the most populous landlocked nation in the world.

Official Language

Amharic, spoken by 29.3% of Ethiopians. English is the major foreign language taught in schools.  

Area

426,372 square miles, slightly less than twice the size of Texas

Climate

Ethiopia is presently in the midst of a years-long drought, but typically has three seasons. The bega, the long, dry season, lasts from September to February. The belg, a short, rainy season, takes place in March and April. May — a hot, dry month — precedes the kremt, or long, rainy season that extends from June through August. December and January are generally the coldest months in Ethiopia. March, April and May are the hottest.

Religion

Ethiopian Orthodox, 43.8%; Muslim, 31.3%; Protestant, 22.8%; Catholic, 0.7%; traditional, 0.6%; other, 0.8%

Ethnic Groups

Oromo, 35.8%; Amhara, 24.1%; Somali, 7.2%; Tigray, 5.7%; Sidama, 4.1%; Gamo-Gofa-Dawro, 2.8%; Guragie, 2.6%; Welaita, 2.3%; Afar, 2.2%; Silte, 1.3%; Kefficho, 1.2%; other 10.8%

Type of Government

Federal parliamentary republic

Sponsored children in Ethiopia hold bookmarks with their pictures on them that they received as gifts from their sponsors.

National Celebrations

Because Ethiopia was one of the first countries in the world to convert to Christianity, many of its major celebrations revolve around significant Orthodox Christian events. These joyful, colorful festivals often last for days and are accompanied by deliciously large feasts. Here are two celebrations of note:

Timkat (the Epiphany) commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the river Jordan and is the most colorful festival of the year. It lasts for three days, with the main celebrations taking place on January 19. On this day, Ethiopians — dressed in white and with their heads covered in scarves — attend church and renew their baptismal vows. Afterwards, families enjoy a special feast of traditional foods, such as doro wat (a spiced chicken dish), and coffee.

On New Year’s Eve, Ethiopians light wooden torches to symbolize the new season of sunshine. Many families also attend a church service, offering prayers to usher in the coming year.

Enkutatash, meaning “gift of jewels,”celebrates the Ethiopian New Year, the feast of St. John the Baptist and the end of the long, rainy season. Enkutatash festivities typically last a week and revolve around family gatherings. The main day is September 11.

On New Year’s Eve, Ethiopians light wooden torches (known as chibo) to symbolize the new season of sunshine. Many families also attend a church service, offering prayers to usher in the coming year. On New Year’s Day, families gather together to enjoy a traditional meal of injera (flatbread) and wat (stew) and to wish one another Melkam Addis Amet, or Happy New Year in Amharic.

Ethiopian Food & Drink

Woman pouring coffee in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has a distinctive cuisine that relies heavily on spices and stews. Its most typical dishes are wats and alechas — stews that contain beef, goat, lamb, chicken, fish or vegetables. Berbere, a spice mix containing dried, hot chili peppers, is often used to flavor stews; and niter kibbeh, a spiced clarified butter, is used to season sautéed foods. Ethiopians may eat ayib, a fresh soft cheese, to temper the heat of spicy dishes. They will also eat injera, a flatbread made of teff flour, as a staple at almost every meal.

Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians do not consume meat or animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays, as they are days of fasting.

Common dishes include shiro be kibbe, a legume stew with seasoned butter; tibs, meat chunks sauteed in oil, onions, garlic, rosemary and hot pepper; and doro wat, a chicken stew usually served on holidays and special occasions.

Coffee (keffa) is the national drink and may be consumed up to three times a day, often prepared in a ritualized ceremony. During the coffee ceremony, families, friends and neighbors gather together and talk about what’s going on in their lives. Most importantly, the ceremony creates an opportunity for children to listen to stories from their parents and elders.

Mealtime Customs

  • Before meals, Ethiopians wash their hands using water poured from a pitcher into a basin. A prayer or grace is said before eating.  
  • Injera is layered on a round woven basket, and stews such as key wat (spicy beef stew) or alecha (vegetable stew) are arranged on top.  
  • Ethiopian food does not generally require utensils. The right hand (or a piece of injera) is used to scoop food from a shared platter. 
  • It is a sign of respect when one finds the best piece of food on the table and puts it into their guest’s mouth.

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Social Concerns

Poverty

While Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy in Africa, a third of the population continues to live in poverty. Most Ethiopians live and work in rural communities and have limited opportunities to pursue goals beyond meeting their family’s basic needs. In the 1980s and 90s, the HIV epidemic caused hundreds of thousands of children to lose their parents.

In more recent years, the effects of recurrent drought, ongoing social and political unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst locust invasion in decades have threatened the stability of families — putting children at greater risk of separating from their parents.

Today, roughly 4.5 million Ethiopian children are orphaned or separated from their families, and Ethiopia continues to face challenges in maternal mortality, nutrition and gender equality. 

Learn how Holt sponsors and donors help strengthen families living in poverty.

Ethiopia’s Drought & Food Insecurity

Ethiopia is in the midst of one its worst droughts in decades. In the past few years, water wells have dried up, hundreds of thousands of livestock have died and crops across Ethiopia’s lowlands have been destroyed. Millions of families have lost their livelihoods.

According to UNICEF Ethiopia, some 4.4 million people are currently facing critical water shortages in the drought-impacted areas of Somali and Oromia — where most Holt-sponsored children and families live. UNICEF projects that in 2022 an estimated 850,000 children in these regions will be severely malnourished due to political conflict, drought and economic downturn. 

In addition, more than 155,000 children living in the lowlands have dropped out of school. Instead of attending classes, they help fetch water or look after younger children, while their caregivers search for water for their families and cattle. The drought is putting a larger burden on women as well — particularly elderly, pregnant and breastfeeding women — who must walk even longer distances to find firewood, water and food for their families and livestock.

Learn how Holt sponsors and donors help meet the nutritional needs of families in Ethiopia.

With the support of Holt donors, these boys and their mom received emergency treatment for malnutrition.

Maternal Health

In rural Ethiopia — where more than 80% of the country’s population resides — only 3% of births are attended by a health professional. Among the poorest, it’s just 1%. The average number of physicians available to every 100,000 people in Ethiopia is about two. In the Shinshicho region in southern Ethiopia, it’s less than one.

In 2015, thanks to the generous support of Holt donors, the Shinshicho Mother and Child Hospital opened its doors, giving women access to quality healthcare. Until that time, the community lacked a medical facility equipped to care for women facing complications in childbirth, children born with surgically correctable conditions or anyone who needed more advanced care than a small clinic could support.

Learn more about how the Holt-funded Mother and Child Hospital is providing care for women and babies.

Gender Inequality

In Ethiopia, 57.2% of the male population over age 15 is literate, meaning they can both read and write. (Literacy is typically measured by the ability to comprehend a short, simple statement on everyday life.) By contrast, the same can be said for only 44.4% of Ethiopian girls older than 15. What’s more, twice as many girls as boys are out of school. In rural communities, girls are typically kept home to help with house and farm work.

In some instances, girls drop out of school because they must share bathrooms with boys and even male teachers. These bathrooms rarely have locks or even doors. Without safe facilities, school can be a dangerous place for young girls. Schools may also lack resources for menstrual hygiene, so teenage girls beginning puberty might stay home altogether to avoid embarrassment and harassment from others.

Learn how Holt sponsors and donors help girls in Ethiopia — and around the world — receive an education.

Holt Donors Help Build a School in Ethiopia

In 2010, Holt partnered with a local church in the rural, southern region of Wallana to build a three-room stone schoolhouse. With support from donors, Holt hired local teachers and social workers, and equipped the school with desks, chairs and chalkboards while sponsors provided uniforms, books and supplies for the children. Today, on a large compound surrounded on every side by family farms and traditional mud huts, nearly 600 children receive an education that many of their older siblings never received.

Group of kids raise hands in Ethiopia

Most of the families in Wallana live in extreme poverty — earning less than one dollar a day — and when the school first opened, some parents hesitated to send their children, especially their daughters, whom they relied on to help with house and farm work. To encourage parents to educate both their sons and their daughters, Holt relied on local social workers and teachers — all of whom come from Wallana and are respected within the community. In the years since it opened, Holt donors have helped to expand Wallana to serve kids through grade four. So many children are enrolled at the school that they attend in two shifts so as not to overflow the classrooms.

Learn more about Wallana Kindergarten and Holt Ethiopia’s rapidly growing childhood education program, which strives to give greater access to a high-quality early education for children living in impoverished communities.

Read more stories about how sponsors and donors help children thrive in Ethiopia.


Learn more about Holt’s work in Ethiopia!

See how sponsors and donors create a brighter, more hopeful future for children and families in Ethiopia!

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