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George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.


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Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Sidamo Peoples mind-mapping diagram

Part Five
Synthesis in the Nile Corridor
— 23 —
Sidamo Peoples

Along the outhwestern margin of the Ethiopian plateau dwell a group of culturally very distinctive peoples known collectively as the Sidamo. Though racially very much mixed, they retain no traces of the Bushmanoid hunting population that originally inhabited their country. Authorities agree that they contain strong ingredients of both Caucasoid and Negroid blood but disagree about which predominates. The Caucasoid element is certainly Cushitic, for all the peoples of the area speak languages of the Westem branch of the Cushitic subfamily of the Hamitic stock, with the single exception of the Gibe, who have adopted the Galla language through conquest within the historical period. The Negroid element, reflected in such characteristics as kinky hair and a chocolatebrown skin color, presumably derives from the Prenilotes who brought Sudanic agriculture to highland Ethiopia about 5,000 years ago. We lack sufficient evidence, however, to determine how the mixture occurred, whether through early Negro infiltration among Caucasoids after the latter had expelled the Bushmanoids or through later Caucasoid expansion into territory where Negroes had previously displaced the indigenous hunters.
East of the Sidamo peoples live the Darasa, Kambata, Konso, and Reshiat tribes, who exhibit a similar mixed racial composition and who are consequently often classed with them. They differ substantially, however, in many aspectl of culture and speak languages of the Eastern rather than the Western branch of the Cushitic subfamily, affiliating in both respects more closely with the Galla. We shall therefore segregate them for special treatment in Chapter 25.
The total population of the Sidamo tribes approaches l,500,000. They are divisible into the following seven major groups:

  1. Bako, with the Amar (Amarcocche, Ammur, Hamarkoke, Hummurcocche), Ari (Are, Arro, Shangama), Bachada (Baciada, Bagata, Bashada). Bana (Banna, Burmo), Biya (Bio, Biye), Boda, Borali (Burle), Dime (Dima), Gayi, Kerre (Cherre. Karo, Kere, Koure, Kure), Oida, Sido, Tdamoo, Tsamai (Cule, Duma, Dume, Koule, Kule, Samai, Tsamako), and Ubamer. It is possible that a few of these tribes speak Eastern Sudanic rather than Western Cushitic languages. They are pagans and probably number at least 30,000.
  2. Gibe, embracing the Enarya, Garo (Bosha), Gera, Gomma, Guma, and Limmu. Conquered by Galla invaders in the sixteenth century, they are now Moslems and have adopted the Eastern Cushitic language of their rulers.
  3. Gimira (Gemirra, Ghimirra), with the kindred Benesho (Benischo, Bennecho, Bienescio, Bimenso), Kaba (Caba, Kabo), Nao (Naa, Naho, Naji, Nayo), Shako (Chako, Mocha, Saco, Sciacco, Shekke), and She (Dissu, Dizu, Schewe, Sewo, Shewo). They number about 20,000 and are pagans.
  4. Janjero (Yamma, Yangaro, Yem). They are pagans in religion.
  5. Kafa (Goffa, Gonga, Kafficho). The population of this primarily pagan nation was estimated at half a million in 1905.
  6. Maji (Maciu, Madsche, Magi, Mancho, Masi, Mazi). This group, a detached branch of the Gimira, numbers about 6,000 and is pagan.
  7. Ometo (Omati, Omcti), embracing the Alga, Badiru (Amara, Amarro, Baddiru, Coira, Hamarro, Koira, Kuera, Kwera), Baskero (Baskatta), Bodi (Bodu), Borodda, Chara (Ciara, Tsara, Zara), Doko (Doco, Dokko, Sidi, Sido), Dollo, Dorse (Dorze), Garno (Zagitse), Gofa, Haruro (Aruro, Gagembe, Gatzamba, Kachama, Katsamma, Tzademba), Konta (Coma, Gobo, Kobo, Kuontab, Uaratta, Waratta), Kucha (Cuccia, Cuiscia, Koisha), Kullo (Cullo, Dauro, Dawaro, Omati, Wammate), Malo, Uba (Ubba), Walamo (Ualamo, Uollamo, Walaitsa, Wallamo, Wollamo), Zala (Sala, Tsala, Zalla), and Zaysse (Seysse, Zaisse). They number several hundred thousand, and most are pagan.

Recorded history among the Sidamo peoples does not extend back beyond about A.D. 1400, when the Kafa kingdom was founded. The Gibe were conquered by Galla invaders shortly before 1550, and the Gimira were subjugated by the Kafa in the eighteenth century . In wars of territorial aggrandizement between 1886 and 1900, Menelik II conquered the Gibe, Janjero, and Kafa and incorporated them in the Ethiopian state, which today exercises suzerainty over the entire area.
The Sidamo peoples cultivate the soil with exceptional intensity. Many of them practice irrigation on terraced fields fertilized with animal manure, and about half of them have adopted the ox-drawn plow. They raise all the crops of the Ethiopian complex, but unlike the Central Ethiopians depend, except for the Gibe, primarily on root crops rather than on cereals. The staple is ensete, an original local cultigen, to which have been added the Sudanic coleus, the American sweet potato, and the Malaysian taro and yams. Grains, which come next in importance, include barley, eleusine, maize, millet, sorghum, teff, and wheat. Auxiliary crops include cotton, cow peas, gourds, and sesame from the Sudanic complex; black caraway, cabbage, chick peas, coriander, flax, garlic, lentils, opium poppies, peas, and vetch from the Egyptian complex; lemons and limes from the Greco-Roman complex; ginger from India; bananas and sugarcane from Malaysia; and haricot beans, pumpkins, tobacco, and tomatoes from America.
The peoples of the area keep cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs, chickens, and bees, and they utilize milk and butter. The Gibe and Kafa also catch and tame wild civet cats, keeping them for the extraction of a glandular secretion which is used for perfume and which constitutes an important export item. On the whole, however, animal husbandry plays a role distinctly subordinate to agriculture. Little hunting and gathering are done, and no fishing, except by a few Bako, for the Sidamo peoples in general observe the widespread Cushitic taboo against eating fish. Men tend the livestock, but women ordinarily milk them. Men do the plowing, but hoe cultivation usually devolves upon the women.
In contrast to the village pattern of settlement among the Central Ethiopians, most Sidamo tribes live in neighborhoods of dispersed homesteads, each surrounded by its own plot of cultivated land. Some groups of Bako and Ometo occupy compact and sometimes palisaded villages, but they constitute a distinct minority. Dwellings are typically round, with cylindrical walls of wattle and daub and conical thatched roofs supported by a central wooden column, and are usually clustered in compounds.
Marriage requires payment of a bride-price and is forbidden with any first cousin. Most tribes practice general polygyny, establishing each wife in a separate hut within the compound, but the Janjero limit plural wives to men of noble rank. Patrilocal residence prevails generally but does not usually give rise to extended forms of the family. Descent, inheritance, and succession universally follow the patrilineal rule. Sibs and lineages, though usually exogamous, are only rarely localized as clans.
Most, if not all, Sidamo tribes have hereditary slaves and despised endogamous castes of smiths, hunters, and leatherworkers. In addition, the Gibe, Janjero, and Kafa observe a sharp differentiation into three social classes—royalty, nobles, and commoners. The Gibe and Kafa practice clitoridectomy, but the Janjero do not. In addition to circumcision, which is nearly universal in the area, Janjero males have their nipples and one testicle excised. Cannibalism does not occur, but a number of tribes take the genitals of slain enemies as trophies.
Monarchical forms of political organization prevail throughout the Sidamo area and exhibit a single characteristic pattern, which is particularly elaborate among the Gibe, Janjero, and Kafa. The Kafa system, described below, may be taken as generally applicable to the other tribes as well, subject to a reduction in scale for the Bako, Maji, and Ometo and to the loss of the ruler's religious sanctity in the five Gibe states, in consequence of the Galla conquest.
At the head of the Kafa state stands a divine king (tato), in whom the spirit of the sky god is incarnate. His eyes are compared to the sun, and so dangerous is their power that the populace hides when he leaves his palace, and only his wives, attendants, and high officials may look upon him or speak to him. His life is hedged in with taboos; he cannot, for example, touch food himself and must therefore be fed. He lives in a fortified palace in the capital town of Bonga, where he is urrounded by a harem of wives, a bodyguard of eunuchs, and personal officials with specialized functions, e.g., four chamberlains and a private treasurer and commissary. His insignia of office include a golden armband, various other ornaments of gold and silver, a conical hat or crown, a drum, an umbrella, and two thrones, one a bed and the other a chair. He is both the chief judge of the kingdom and its high priest, conducting sacrifices to the sky god on a sacred hill.
In addition to conquered and tributary states, the realm is divided into 134 administrative districts with salaried heads, and these are grouped into twelve provinces. Although the provincial governors are appointive in most of the states of the area, in Kafa they are hereditary within particular patrisibs, though they must be invested in office by the king. The territorial officials judge disputes; raise troops in case of war; levy taxes in cattle, slaves, cloth, and ivory, but not in agricultural products; and conscript corvees to build and maintain roads and to labor on the royal estates. The entire administrative hierarchy is responsible, not to the king, but to the Katama, a vizier or prime minister, who is also the commander in chief of the army and the immediate administrator of the capital town.
Supreme authority in the state, however, is vested, not in the Katama or in the king, but in a privy council (mikirecho) of seven ministers, without whose concurrence no major decision can be made. Except for the Katama, its members are all provincial governors, and most of them have other specialized functions. Thus one is the king's speaker, master of ceremonies at court, and foreign minister; another is minister of public works and commandant of the palace guards; a third is the supervisor of the king's slaves and of labor on the royal domains. The minister of trade and markets, however, does not belong to the council; he holds office by appointment from the king and is responsible to him alone.
Although in some of the Sidamo states, e.g., Janjero, the relatives of the king fill appointive offices in the administrative hierarchy, they play a relatively unimportant role in the political life of the Kafa. An important exception is the Gabirecho or Queen Mother, who exercises supreme supervision over the royal court, the members of the royal family, and the palace stores. When the occupant, who is in the first instance the mother of the ruler, dies, she is succeeded in her important office by the Queen-Consort, or chief wife of the king.
When the monarch falls ill, the fact is concealed; and when his death approache , all his male kinsmen are put in chains until his successor is chosen. The heir is always a son of the deceased ruler, but the selection is made, during an interregnum of eight days, by the privy council acting as an electoral college. The corpse of the dead king is wrapped in many cloths (a reflex of mummification?), and human sacrifices mark his funeral. The council not only appoints the king but may depose him, although this has actually happened only once in history—by poisoning. The only other specific evidence of regicide in the Sidamo area is a report that Janjero kings who are wounded in battle are put to death.
The Kafa conduct war for slaves, cattle, and other plunder as well as for territorial aggrandizement. All males except the members of four privileged sibs are liable to military service. The king retains one-tenth of all war captives and half of all other booty, the remainder being divided among the captors. The country is thoroughly organized for war. In addition to a system of highways connecting the major towns and markets, with bridges over rivers and resthouses at intervals, the state maintains a special system of military roads. Even more rapid communication, for mobilizing an army or other emergencies, is achieved through a special signaling system using slit gongs. Finally, the entire state of Kafa, and those of the Gibe and Janjero as well, is completely surrounded, except where impregnable geographical barriers exist, by a single or double palisade, a deep ditch, and an outside strip of cleared land, with fortified gates at moderate intervals manned constantly by armed guards. With the exception of the Great Wall of China, and possibly a few sections of imperial Rome's frontier defenses, no other known people has lavished such effort in military protection.
If certain resemblances between the Sidamo political systems and those of the Prenilotes suggest to the reader a historical connection between them, and the possible derivation of both from Dynastic Egypt, he should bear in mind an alternative route of diffusion, namely via central Ethiopia, where all traces of conceivable Pharaonic influence on governmental forms have long since been obliterated by millennia of Sabaean, Byzantine, Islamic, and recent European contacts.

Selected Bibliography