Violent Qemant dispute fueling explosive Amhara-Tigray divide

The bitter argument over the status of the Qemant people is part of a dangerous political struggle between the leaders of Amhara and Tigray regions

In early November, a Qemant community militia erected a checkpoint to search for weapons as people passed through their district in Amhara region.

The travelers were attending an event recognizing that Negade Bahir, a town of around 7,000 people, would become part of an an Amhara enclave in an otherwise ethnically Qemant area, said Yirga Teshager, a priest, former civil servant, and member of a committee campaigning for self-determination for the Qemant people.

“We respect the decision of the people in Negade Bahir but we feared that conflict would be created as armed Amhara farmers passed through our districts,” he said in an interview in Addis Ababa on Nov. 12.

Locals also worried that Amhara officials would gradually seek to control surrounding Qemant kebeles, Yirga explained. Those concerns come after the Amhara government granted self-rule to the Qemant in 69 districts last year, but withheld it in three others, saying they were not suitable for Qemant administration as they were not contiguous with the other territories.

Instead of preventing trouble last month as intended, the Qemant firearms checkpoint at Meqa led to a clash. Two days later conflict had again expanded to surrounding areas in Chilga Woreda, Genda Wuha, and Shinfa, where Qemant houses were reportedly torched.

Regional security forces and mobs killed at least 42 Qemant in a week in Metema and Chilga woredas of West Gondar Zone before the military controlled the situation, said Yirga. Amhara’s security head Asaminew Tsige said that the Qemant were the aggressors in fighting that’s killed at least 69 people in two recent flare-ups: “The conflict was provoked by Qemant, not by Amhara. Almost nine grain mills were burned, 67 houses were burned, and some people were massacred.” 

The violence is tied to the deteriorating relations and territorial disputes between Amhara and Tigray’s governments. Asaminew believes Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) officials are stoking a manufactured Qemant identity issue and—referring to separate areas from the Qemant territories—that there is “no doubt” parts of southern and western Tigray are rightfully Amhara land. “They are clearly getting support from previous TPLF leaders and we have identified that some groups from the military were also providing support for the Qemant people. TPLF has given an assignment to destabilize Amhara society as Amhara people have a question of identity to be resolved by TPLF leaders. We are claiming these areas (in Tigray), and they want to block that issue by giving an assignment in our region,” he said by phone from Gondar on Dec. 15.

We are claiming these areas

Retired Brigadier General Asaminew was sentenced for allegedly being part of a group of soldiers that were involved in a Ginbot 7 coup plot in 2009. He told judges he was tortured in detention. Asaminew was released in February under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s rule as part of a political amnesty. A leaked U.S. Embassy cable doubted the charges against the group of 46. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reinstated his military rank and pension in June.

Asaminew’s appointment in recent months as Head of Peace Building and Public Security Affairs Bureau is part of the harder positioning of the ruling Amhara Democratic Party. And his allegation that military elements are assisting Qemant aggression raises the specter of fissures in the defense forces and clashes between the troops and Amhara security forces. Prior to his arrest, Asaminew and colleagues had allegedly complained about the control of the armed forces by former TPLF rebel fighters, who formed the core of a new military after the Derg’s overthrow in 1991.

TPLF leaders say Amhara revanchists are orchestrating unrest in the ethnically mixed Raya and Wolkait areas of Tigray, which used to be part of the Wollo and Gondar provinces that are now in Amhara. “They think—and wrongly so—that they can get away with an anti-Qemant pogrom and focus on Tigray later. Most of them operate with a mindset that is reminiscent of the Era of Princes,” said Getachew Reda, a TPLF politburo member and political advisor to Tigray’s de facto president, about some “expansionist” Amhara leaders, referring to an approximately 80-year period until the mid-19th century when chieftains from modern-day Amhara, Oromia and Tigray battled for control. 


One of the recent victims, Beletu, who was contacted via a political activist, described a campaign that sounded like ethnic cleansing, saying Qemant were beaten, killed, evicted, fired from government jobs, and told they can’t live in Metemma.

“In the last two weeks the regional security armed mobs and the mob started hunting. Every Qemant is taken away from their farm, their property robbed and put in warehouses, and their houses are set on fire. In Metemma Woreda you can’t find a property that belongs to Qemant,” she said on Nov. 8.

Mohammed, a Qemant government worker, said he was forced from his home in Genda Wuha by Amhara groups in September and received reports of extreme violence after the Meqa fighting. “Properties are completely destroyed. They killed a certain person and took 5,800 kilograms of sesame. 600 cattle were robbed. Houses are set on fire,” he said.

‘Ethnic cleansing’ is not a specific crime under international law, but a UN expert commission on Yugoslavia defined it as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

Web of competing claims

Insufficient reporting and civil society investigations mean it is hard to verify the claims of violence in Qemant areas, which occurred again this month. Without independent assessments, this inter-regional dispute with potentially seismic ramifications is shrouded in a web of competing claims.

The recent accounts echo events in December 2015 when the government’s Human Rights Commission held Amhara Special Police and locals responsible for illegal killings in Chilga, Metema, and Lay Armachiho woredas. The deaths of 74 Qemant and 23 Amhara, and burning of properties, occurred after Amhara’s government granted the Qemant an initial 42 kebeles, the Commission said in a November 2016 report. That led to Qemant protests demanding more districts and counter demonstrations.

The Qemant areas to the west of Gondar

Factions from both groups encouraged lawlessness and local officials and party cadres sided with their own ethnicity. The “hardliners” included the Amhara Committee that organized an illegal demonstration in Shinfa on Dec. 9 that was attended by approximately 65,000 people, around a quarter of them armed, according to the Commission.

It “was replete with racial hatred, often accompanied by the war song “Yileyal Zendiro” (“It will all be resolved in these times”). This brought about enormous harm to Qemant and Amhara nationalities as well as those of Tigrayan origin engaged in business activities in Shinfa Kebele,” the report said.


Genetu Yibeltal, a representative of new opposition party, the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), said the Commission produced disinformation as it was headed by a Tigrayan. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International did not report on the 2015 violence and said they did not have enough reliable information on November’s events. The non-profit Ethiopian Human Rights Council said on Nov. 29 that insecurity had made it difficult to access the area recently and so it had been unable to conduct adequate research.

Daniel Berhane is a political activist who claims the federal government is using propaganda to agitate a genocide against Tigrayans. He says Tigrayans and Qemant have been persecuted in Amhara but Western rights groups have ignored the type of evidence that they normally rely on to make allegations of violations in Ethiopia: “Why did the human rights industry have difficulty getting information about Tigrayans and Qemant being targeted in the same area where they boldly reported other abuses?”

The Qemant had self-rule requests rejected by the region after raising the issue in 2009 with the House of Federation, which adjudicates on constitutional questions and has representatives from each ethnicity. Qemant leaders were detained by regional authorities who said they were Amhara.

Qemant people are the same as Amhara

That viewpoint is shared by NaMA’s Genetu: “The Qemant people are the same as Amhara. They don’t have a different language, culture, or geographical landscape from Amhara. Qemant and Amhara are indeed two sides of a coin. But still they have the right to self-rule if they need to.”

And also by Asaminew: “Qemant and Amhara have no differences in religion, culture, or other practices. Qemant have 99 percent of similarity with Amhara compared to other people. We are living with the same geography and we are interconnected. The name Qemant is only known for five years.”

The Qemant, a group of less than 200,000 people, are a subgroup of the Agew. That now scattered people speak a Cushitic language and ruled Ethiopia under the Zagwe dynasty during the 12th and 13th centuries when Lalibela’s monolithic churches were built.

Frederick C. Gamst, a U.S. anthropologist who published his thesis on the Qemant, said their religious culture was damaged during the 1872 to 1889 reign of Emperor Yohannes IV, a militant Christian from Tigray, which exposed the “Pagan-Hebraic Qemant” to Amharization. Writing in 1967, Gamst expected full assimilation over the next three decades, which may have been prevented by the institutionalization of identity politics that culminated in the 1995 federal constitution.

Another Agew group, the Awi, have an administrative zone inside Amhara, as do the Oromo, which Genetu and Asaminew say demonstrates that minorities are respected in the region. The Agew Democratic Party is campaigning for an Agew state, while several ethnic zones in Southern Nations region are on course for statehood.

Mohammed thinks that violence renewed in Qemant areas because the Tigray-Amhara flared over protests in Alamata in Raya, while Genetu, who sits on NaMA’s audit and inspection committee, says it was due to TPLF scheming: “Destabilizing, impoverishing and killing Amhara has been the main agenda of TPLF because they consider the Amhara as a threat to their power and looting of the country.”

Roughly two years ago the TPLF was pushing the Qemant claim at party and government meetings and has also provided members with intelligence, a source close to the committee said. Getachew said TPLF was only to blame for “its failure to highlight the pogrom on Qemant as the opening salvo for the concerted campaign to destroy the federal arrangement. The leadership of EPRDF—TPLF included—miserably failed to sound the alarm when it was obvious that many in the ruling party in the Amhara region were either complicit in the campaign or reluctant to stand up to those who were hell bent on finishing off an unfortunate minority.”


Amhara activists have produced a 238-page report alleging a TPLF-led “genocide” between 1991 and 2015. Some claim birth control programs were used to suppress the Amhara population, a dubious theory that appears to have contributed to the October mob killings of two health researchers in West Gojjam Zone.

The Amhara allegations are just one tier of multi-layered grievances in Ethiopia’s political landscape. For example, the TPLF-engineered federal system was nominally designed to overcome the oppression of minorities that occurred under a military regime it ousted and the preceding feudal system, which was generally dominated by native Amharic-speakers.

But the TPLF has long been accused by opponents of imposing authoritarian hegemony using divide-and-rule tactics. Activists from less populous ethnic groups that occupy poorer, peripheral regions, such as Benishangul-Gumuz, say they have been oppressed by Amhara, Tigrayans and Oromo, Ethiopia’s most populous ethnicity.

In the past, Amhara opposition politics was associated with a pan-Ethiopianism that rejected the ethnofederal system, while the regional ruling party was viewed as subservient to the TPLF. But it is now also characterized by groups such as NaMA, and consequently the ruling Amhara Democratic Party has become more forceful as it strives for popular legitimacy in an increasingly competitive environment.

Something of a turning point was a demonstration in Gondar in August 2016 over the Wolkait issue. That appeared to be facilitated by the ruling party and involved strong expressions of Amhara pride. There was also violence around the time of the rally that involved the targeting of Tigrayans and their businesses and a subsequent mass exodus of Tigrayans. This occurred after a leading activist on the Wolkait issue, Colonel Demeke Zewdu, was arrested following a shootout with security forces. He was also released in February. 

Heightened feeling of inequitable representation

Dereje Feyissa Dori, an Addis Ababa University federalism expert, believes the current more assertive Amhara politics is driven by a legitimate desire to protect vulnerable Amhara, particularly those outside the region, as they are blamed for historic injustices; a heightened feeling of inequitable representation in the constitutional order; and, for some, imperial nostalgia, or at least a re-channeling of pan-Ethiopian impulses.

“It feels that Amhara ethnicity politics is replicating the ethnonationalism of the other groups in the early 1990s. This suggests that they will soon moderate their demands and expectations, such as fixing the Wolkait and the Raya questions immediately,” said the associate professor, who’s also a Senior Research Advisor at the Life & Peace Institute.

The Raya and Wolkait disputes appear problematic as they are not readily solved through constitutional means such as referendums. That is because activists do not dispute that they are majority Tigrinya-speaking areas, instead they allege that since its rebellion in the 1980s the TPLF has resettled Tigrayans in the area.

Rather than a demand for the federal system to be respected, claim of Tigrayan annexation can therefore be seen more of an outright challenge to the current constitutional order, which the TPLF was key to designing in the early 1990s after spearheading a successful rebellion and forming the core of a new military, ruling coalition and government. Furthermore, like elsewhere in Ethiopia, the multi-faceted identities in southern Tigray and Qemant areas reflect the fluidity of ethnicity, and therefore arguably the challenges inherent in organizing administrative structures according to such criteria.


Although it was denied by Getachew, an individual connected to the Amhara and Tigrayan political establishment said that at the root of the Wolkait problem is competition for scarce fertile land. The claims that Wolkait and surrounding areas were Amhara only gathered strength after the government in Mekele stopped distributing plots in 2012, the source said. A key crop in the northwest is sesame, one of Ethiopia’s highest earning exports.

Getachew said two senior Amhara officials were directly involved in organizing the November attacks on Qemant. “They are using the same tried and trusted tactics to unleash terror on the Qemant and Tegarus—that they are Trojan horses for TPLF,” he said. “The Qemants are a thorn in the side of the Amhara expansionists as they fear they will stand in the way of their plans against Tigray.”

Such viewpoints reflect Tigrayan fears of encirclement, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed allies with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, the autocratic arch-enemy of TPLF veterans, and Amhara president Gedu Andargachew. Tigray region hardened its stance recently when de facto president Debretsion Gebremichael accused the federal government of selectively targeting Tigrayans as it cracked down on corruption and abuses.

Nahusenay Belay, an Addis Ababa University political scientist, says the TPLF, and by extension Tigrayans, are being unfairly blamed for all of the country’s ills, particularly by the neighboring region: “The government in Amhara is not able to provide answers on issues of employment, political participation, and governance, so as a matter of strategy they have externalized all of their problems to Tigray.”

We will never stop our identity quest

After Abiy initially expressed a desire for reconciliation, the government pardoned Eritrea-backed armed groups, but then began prosecuting the former intelligence officials who had been monitoring those groups when they were classified as terrorists, said Nahusenay, who works at the Center for Federal and Administration Studies.

Expressing a theory that has gained traction among Tigrayan activists, he thinks there is a plan by Abiy, Isaias, and Amhara leaders to coerce Tigray into cooperation by backing the claims that it annexed Raya and Wolkait. Debretsion has said the TPLF is prepared for a struggle to defend the federal system and there have been large protests in Tigray against federal government policy recently.

Abiy’s official approach to the federation’s troubles is a new commission on borders and identities and sweeping democratic reforms to facilitate free and fair 2020 parliamentary elections. He visited Gondar last month with Isaias and told Fekadu Mamo and other leaders of the Qemant committee that their requests must be pursued constitutionally and that the House of Federation would investigate the request for additional kebeles.

Fekadu said in an interview that there was more violence against his community this month, as the dispute simmers. “Unless we are granted our constitutional rights, we will never stop our identity quest,” he said.

Query or correction? Email us

Article amended Dec. 17 to clarify Getachew Reda’s reference to “expansionist” Amhara

Main photo: A torched Qemant home

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

William Davison

William is the owner and editor of Ethiopia Insight. He has been reporting on Ethiopia for almost a decade and was Bloomberg's correspondent in Addis Ababa from 2010 to 2017.

About the author

Solomon Yimer

Solomon is a freelance journalist and Ethiopia Insight reporter. He used to work for Addis Fortune newspaper.

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Kibreab Beraki

Kibreab Beraki is an economics graduate based in Mekele. He's been a data analyst for NGOs and worked with the international media.


  • My advice : separe identity questions from administrative questions.

    There is no reason that the right to celebrate a language, folkloric holidays and dances, be confused with the right to have a district, have a gun-touting militia, mint coin or whatever else Meles Zenawi constitution.

    We can create as many “cultural areas” as the 90 ethnicities of Ethiopia (all will ask eventually for a kilil anyway).
    And have rational districts named according to rivers and mountains. Militia and police should be national, as in Kenya.

  • To: Messers William Davison, Solomon Yimer, and Kibreab Beraki
    From: Frederick C. Gamst ( 12.21.18
    Today, I downloaded and read your insightful, information rich, “Violent Qemant dispute fueling explosive Amhara-Tigray divide.”
    I find your analyses sound, given recent history of the Horn of Africa. The analyses are as you explain lethally more than troubling.
    Generally, I note my views of (a) PhD dissertation of 1967 or (b) book reprint of 1984 originally published in 1969 are interpreted by partisans as static, i.e., no information that has occurred since is thought capable modifying my past views outmoded with the passage of decades. (Year 1969 subtracted from 2018 is forty-nine years. Unreflected accusations of temporal intransigence (thus unyieldingness) by me must be the machinations of illogical minds. What, brief, thoughts do I have for 2019 in the fiftieth year since the publication of the Qemant book?
    First, violence diminishes (and can end) the lives and lifeways of people of any ethnic group, from Oromo to Gafat. Consider the ghastly conflict and barren results of the Europeans’ World Wars I and II. Their deaths and mutilations of persons and destruction of property resulted largely from faulty, emotional planning by various European countries. Do the ethnic groups of Ethiopia want to repeat such demonstratively ferengi idiocy and madness?
    Second, independence of ethnic groups into sovereign states will make these small bickering polities prey for neoimperialist countries seeking forms of governmental control through the state economy, always necessarily a political economy. As the saying goes, Ethiopia first (Ityopya begemeria?)
    Third, some kind of federal Ethiopia with its commerce including free flow of goods, services, and people are the “that without which none” where the inhabitants enjoy a pursuit of happiness (wellbeing). Thus, not independence devolving into government by and wealth to elites (kleptocracy) must be the solution for the future of Ethiopia.
    Fourth, future government must have checks and balances among three equal branches–executive, legislative (either bicameral or unicameral), and judicial with an apical supreme court. Perhaps the units into which the entire country has partitioning should be semi-sovereign, to lessen the political power of political parties and elites.
    A minor note, you use the words nation, ethnicity, and ethnic group in the way I have done in presenting sociocultural anthropology since 1961. To use the word tribe as a synonym for these terms (and their concepts) is prejudicial for the level of social organization and integration between the band and chiefdom.

    Below, a 1995 publication probing more deeply into the nature of the Qemant than the Qemant book’s overview.
    Frederick C. Gamst
    Emeritus professor of Anthropology,
    University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA
    All communications to:
    Frederick C. Gamst, University of Massachusetts, Boston

    1995j “The Religious World View of the Qemant of Ethiopia.” In African and African-American Sensibility, Michael W. Coy, Jr. and Leonard Plotnicov, eds., pp. 91-106. Ethnology Monographs no. 15. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Publications in Anthropology.

    1. Introduction

    We will discuss the broad religious cosmology, and its implications for their lifeway, of an African people, the Qemant. They are a Central-Cushitic speaking people and one of a group of related cultures collectively called the Agaw. But who are the Qemant? And where do they live? These people subsist by plow agriculture and animal husbandry on the high plateau of Ethiopia, just to the north of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. No doubt you have viewed some scenes of the greater Qemant region on your television news of the past six years. Their region is topographically rugged; has a rainy season during our three summer months and a dry season during most of the other nine of our months.

    The anthropologist George Peter Murdock, in his encyclopedic book, Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History, said of the Agaw peoples that they were almost completely unstudied, and that: “The lack of information is doubly regrettable since all indications point to the Agau as one of the culturally most creative peoples on the entire continent” (1959:182). This creativity Murdock referred to was the Agaw’s development of crops, both borrowed from elsewhere and domesticated locally. According to Murdock, the original Agaw region of Ethiopia “ranks with China and India as one of the world’s important centers of origination of cultivated plants” (1959:182).

    Today, eight remnant Agaw groups survive in enclaves scattered across what was once entirely their homeland, the plateau of northern Ethiopia. The Qemant group of these Agaw peoples has a population of perhaps 30,000. The Qemant have the best preserved Agaw way of life, or culture. Their culture is a descendant of that extant before the expansion during the past two millennia across the north of the new dominant Semitic-speaking peoples of Ethiopia.

    The Qemant are organized into two related chiefdoms which after the 1600s have been embedded in the feudal Christian state of Ethiopia. Until 1974, Ethiopia was ruled by a king of kings who was mythically descended from Solomon and Sheba and anointed as the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Qemant chiefs called wambar, or judge, as with other classic chiefs, have both political and religious bases of their authority.

    2. Broad Religious Cosmology

    In our consideration of the Qemant, with much of their ancient culture still preserved, our focus is the broad religious cosmology of these people. Cosmology is a world view, also called world vision, and Weltanschauung. As the anthropologist Edward Norbeck explains, religious cosmology rests “upon supernaturalism and the structures, doctrines, attitudes, and practices which have grown upon supernaturalistic interpretations of the universe” (Norbeck 1961:13). The religious cosmology of the Qemant is a body of socially learned belief collectively carried by the members of Qemant society. It is handed down from generation to generation and is a central part of their culture. The broad cosmology of a society provides logically consistent answers to the underlying How’s, Why’s, Where’s questions of life. It is a theory of a people about how the universe, as they know it, functions; why it functions in such a manner; and where the universe is located in terms of space and time. A broad cosmology, then, answers humankind’s age-old questions of existence. Such cosmology is a view of the ordering of the world, a blueprint of the way things exist. With their broad cosmologies, humans reduce the seeming chaos in the experiential world to a purported meaningfulness. Cosmology allows an apparent certainty for action and thought and an apparent comprehension for a rational behavior. Cosmology is not so much, as anthropologist Robert Redfield says, “the structure of things as man is aware of them,” (1953:86) but, instead, the structuring of things by a human desire for some kind of order in the surroundings.

    Broad cosmology contains myth, or a kind of explanatory history of supernatural and human beings who were or are important actors in a particular cosmic theory of the universe. Myths are sacred tales, passed from generation to generation, with dogmatic rather than verifiable content. Myth not only explains cosmological states and processes, it justifies the orders of things in the world. Broad cosmology includes a classification of supernatural forces such as spirits, supernatural humans, magic, and witchcraft. And it depicts a cosmography of space and time, that is, of the various sectors of existence such as in life, in death, in dreams, and in the spirit realm and of the temporal dimensions of these sectors. Especially in its mythic aspect, cosmology supports and either realistically or symbolically exemplifies the core values in a culture. In turn, cosmology and related values are reflected in and reinforced by ceremony.

    As they relate to values, most cosmologies contain moralisms, or ideals of conformities with generally accepted standards of goodness in behavior or character. Their myths often contain charters or explanatory rationales for the reason why things are the way they are. In this way the institutions, social order, and values of a society are vindicated. Given the existence of a particular underlying cosmology for a society, a monocultural person does not look beyond the “proofs” engendered by the elements of this world view. Socialized to an underlying cosmology of a culture, a person consciously and unconsciously selects, fits, and rejects information to fashion a satisfying consistency with his or her background world vision. Accordingly, a Qemant does not believe but, instead, knows the earth is flat.

    Discussed under Qemant cosmology, then, are some hallmark African beliefs concerning the essential character of humans, the nature of their society, and the place of these in the natural and supernatural ranges of their world. In the Qemant view, the two ranges are intertwined, although logically distinct.

    3. Qemant Cosmology among Other Cosmologies

    As exemplified by the Qemant, traditional Africans, within their cosmologies, made logical judgments resulting in practical actions involving understandings of mechanical and organic processes and their causal linkages in technology and in nature. For example, tested mechanically efficient ways exist to make a plow or to construct a stone building, and proven organically efficient means exist for nourishing crop land and protecting plants, to some extent, against pests and drought. But as with European cosmology of a few centuries ago, because of the limited technological and social organizational means of testing knowledge about and controlling potentially harmful forces in the total environment, supernatural beings and processes are conceived and related to for filling the cosmological gaps in information concerning the world.

    As necessary for individuals in nonindustrial, that is traditional, societies without the benefit and costly luxury of a decade of more of modern, formal positivist education, however, ultimate causes of events in the world remain in the age-old supernatural realm of humans. Without the technological means for a systematic, collectively carried body of knowledge of scientific method and resultant testable information, much regarding the events in nature and in social relations remains outside of any profound naturalistic exploration or even contemplation. That is, biologically, without a microscope it is difficult to derive a germ theory of disease; physically, lacking a large telescope it is impossible to formulate a hypothesis of groups of myriad galaxies in a time-space continuum expanding since the big bang; and, behaviorally, minus the development of statistical methods, survey procedures, and devices for data processing it is unmanageable to assess the opinions and attitudes of a large population.

    4. The Qemant Cosmological Creation Myth

    Myths are traditional stories, undoubtedly of composite sequential authorship, ostensibly historical, and used to explain some aspect of the cosmos. The ultimate first cause in the Qemant Creation myth is Mezgana, a great sky spirit, and tribal high god, who is conceived of as being eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. Everything in the Qemant cosmos was created by Mezgana, who, therefore, has the right to harm or destroy anything. The details of Creation are vague, however. Mezgana is entirely anthropomorphic and it is said: “Mezgana looks like a man.” In a society where the social role of the father to his children is economically, socially, and psychologically important, we could expect to find a male deity (Norbeck 1974;13). This holds true for the Qemant, with their kinship organization into patrilines. (A patriline is a kinship line of descent traced through a person’s father, and his father, and so on.) Somewhat anthropopsychic, in the term of William Goode (1951:43), Mezgana, the Creator, is both male and severely fatherly, but is rather remote from humans and not an entirely knowable or kind father. Not always does He heed the needs of His people. At times, He rides a great horse which has created footprints in some of the rocks of Qemantland. Mezgana is also socially remote from humans, in that ordinary Qemant reach Him through intermediary members of their priesthood, who, in turn, reach him through the intermediary spirits of now-dead holy culture heroes and heroines. The abodes of the deceased culture heroes are locations on the surface of the earth, where communication with them can occur given the proper ritual. Pleading through intermediaries in the realm of religion is mirrored in the secular world of the Qemant region, where, in the regional political order, a similar pleading is used through political intermediaries.

    The spatial cosmos created by Mezgana has a flat world of a modest expanse. Much of the earth’s surface is profane, but many sacred sites exist relating to particular kinds of spirits: the Deity, an anti-Deity, and sundry lesser spirits of the earth’s exterior. These lesser spirits may be benevolent, malevolent, or indifferent towards humans. The flat earth is surmounted by a heavenly vault, containing the abode of the great creator spirit and a number of minor sky spirits, all benevolent to humans. Heaven is the final dwelling place of the souls of good Qemant, where they perform no labor, live in fine houses, and consume abundant luxury food such as honey. Heaven is restricted in that non-Qemant do not go there. Underlying the flat earth is a Hell, a physically contradictory fiery and cold place having no food. The souls of bad Qemant are dispatched here. And the archdemon, Ganel, resides here, although he also appears from time to time on the surface of the flat earth, both to plague and to torment humans.

    This demonic great spirit is the counterpart of Mezgana and, as with the Deity, possesses awesome supernatural powers. These powers are effected both directly and through natural mediums, for example, for Ganel, through thunder and lightning. Mezgana is concerned with morality among his people, the Qemant, and Genal, with immorality. Mezgana is a moralist rewarding those who follow his morality and punishing those who are backsliders. Superior to his culture heroes and earthly ministers, the members of the priesthood, Mezgana is the apical power wielder for social control in Qemant society, located on part of the surface of Mezgana’s world.

    Long-term time in the cosmos created by Mezgana is strictly linear and unidirectional, from a Creation past into the future. Along with the seasons, the thirteen months of the Qemant year cycle, beginning anew at the end of every rainy season, on our September 11. The weekly day of rest to honor Mezgana is Saturday. And all days are divided into two demi-cycles of twelve hours, beginning the first hour of each at dawn or dusk. Because the amount of daylight has little annual variation, the hour can be calculated by a Qemant from the position of the sun in Mezgana’s sky, with not over one hour’s error. To present-day Western reckoning, the beginning of Mezgana’s time, at creation, is a relatively recent event and is at most a few thousand years ago. Thus are the Qemant situated in the temporal dimensions of Mezgana’s cosmos.

    5. The Holy Culture Heroes and Ethnic Affinity, Land, and Moiety

    Among the earliest humans created by Mezgana and buffeted by Ganel were the first people, and first Qemant, in Qemantland. The first people were magnified non-natural humans–supermen and superwomen in effect and living in an early Golden age, of idyllic prosperity and happiness. At times, the culture heroes performed supernatural feats such as stopping the sun in its course for three days. But at other times, they prayed to Mezgana on behalf of their people to insure the orderly precipitation of the rainy season. To this day, the most important Qemant rites are those to insure the coming of the rains. The continuing importance of such rites and the myths of disastrous past droughts may reflect the historical natural cycle of drought in northern Ethiopia–continuing into the present. Beyond helping with the regulation of rainfall, Qemant culture heroes are role models of exemplary deportment. These heroes also serve as the foci of mythic ties reflecting the actual ethnic relations among various of the different Agaw peoples, provide the linkage to land, and constitute the rationale and organizational apices of the moiety social organization.

    Anthropologists trace the ethnic relation to one another of the eight remaining groups of Agaw. The mythology of the Qemant also traces the same cultural relations and thus helps determine their own place among the peoples of their region. One of the oldest culture heroes had three wives, who among them begat and bore the patrilines of the Qemant and four of the Agaw groups nearest to them.

    The Qemant patriline was headed by a superman called Keberwa. Each of nine proto-Qemant sons of this patriarchal culture hero, in turn, sired the nine Qemant patriclans. Each clan had its own territory under a chief, who was especially powerful in time of war. The nine proto-Qemant sons of the patriarchal hero first settled the land of their respective clans, claiming it for their descendants. A man’s charter for claiming land for cultivation and animal husbandry was formerly grounded in the post-creation myths of the Qemant golden age. But this practice is not followed today. Politicoreligious offices of a number of kinds are still traced back through the patrilines of the clans. In the past during life, each of the apical clan fathers lived in one or more locations. Today, a grove of sacred ceremonial trees is at such location, is named for the culture hero, and is an outdoor principal place of worship of the Deity, through the particular local hero. The spirit of the hero is ever present in the grove or groves dedicated to his or her memory. The time depth from the life of a culture hero to the present is from fifteen to eighteen recountable generations. Some expectable ancestral foreshortening might mean these genealogies go back even further in actual time. Animal sacrifice in the sacred groves to the Deity in the name of the apical hero is the strongest link between the first and present generations in a particular area of Qemantland.

    Many human societies have a moiety (from the French root for half) social organization. This occurs when the society is divided along kinship lines into two large well-defined units. The Qemant have class-like moieties, the politically superior one of which is named for and descended from Keberwa, the patriarchal father of the fathers of the nine clearly defined, land-holding clans. The inferior moiety, called Yetanti, has clans not clearly identifiable. Some dim myths say that the superior moiety conquered the inferior moiety in the past. In any event, the two moieties are exogamous, that is, the members of one being compelled, by a great extension of the incest taboo (or mating prohibition), to marry outside of their own moiety into the other. Neither moiety is territorial, as members of both live in the same places. The positions of chief and of higher priest is held by the members of the superior moiety and the inferior one is held the positions of lower priest.

    The ranked social order of a moiety is publicly marked not only by the importance and ritual duties of its priests, but also in other related ways. Yetanti elders show deference to the superior moiety, even to young Keber men. At a religious ceremonial feast, the ordinary members of the superior moiety wash their hands after all priests, but before the members of the inferior moiety. The mythic charter recounts that those of the superior moiety, the children of Keberwa, are pure or genuine Qemant, whereas the inferiors are “other people,” not defined except as speakers of the same language.

    6. The Distinction between the Sexes

    Not only are the superordinate and subordinate moiety statuses given mythic charter, but also the Qemant religious cosmology rigidly demarcates gender roles. The creator God, after all, is a male. And he intended males to dominate women, who are deemed in myth to be the lesser of the two sexes. Mythically, a woman was created by Mezgana for the purposes of obeying and serving her husband, including by bearing and nurturing children for him. Males, be they of superior or inferior status, have a monopoly on religious knowledge. Men alone become religious practitioners of the kinds already enumerated and of other kinds. Males alone have access to the arcane cosmological information concerning the supernatural realm of the spirits and culture heroes. Some of this information is passed down intergenerationally in the secret initiation rites and the training of male religious practitioners.

    In the cosmology, women are further viewed as dangerous ritual polluters of humans and of nature. (Being polluted by their very mythic nature, sexually mature women may not step on sacred ceremonial ground and logically, therefore, may not perform or take direct part in religious ceremonies. Such views rationalize the holding of religious and political power exclusively by men. The blood of menstruation and of childbirth are the basis of the polluting character of women. Only when a woman enters menopause is she free from this ritual stigma. Only with this physiological change may she ever walk upon a sacred site, such as in a grove of trees, or touch ritual food and beverage. The behavioral taboos during menstruation are so strong for Qemant women that their activities are not merely restricted during this period as in many other cultures. Instead, among the Qemant, they are strictly incarcerated for seven days, in a special menstruation hut. A similar confinement hut restricts a woman for seven days after giving birth.

    Beliefs regarding women include that their sensuality must be controlled and diminished, permanently. To this end, the clitoris of a female infant is excised, thus insuring, it is said, that she will not be overly active sexually. No men are present during or may observe the operation, performed by an old, experienced woman. By the operation, the infant will make a good and true wife for one of Mezgana’s chosen, a male. No Qemant male would marry a female not having undergone a clitoridectomy. For that matter, no woman desires to be married to an uncircumcised man. Beyond the attempt at social control of females, both female clitoridectomy and male circumcision are marks of gender membership in Qemant society (cf. Kenyatta 1962:128).

    7. The Annual Ceremonial Cycle for Mezgana

    The seasonal, climatological year of agricultural production of the Qemant is geared to an annual ceremonial cycle, superintended by Mezgana’s priests. The performing of the various rituals that constitute a ceremony are deemed necessary for the world of the Qemant to continue in its orderly, nurturing, predictable course. According to the Qemant interpretation of the working of the cosmos, particular ceremonies must be held at given times in the annual cycle to insure, or to give thanks for, the Deity’s benevolence for their economic and reproductive activities. Thus, not only must the Ceremony of Thanksgiving be held at the end of the final harvesting, but also the Rite of Spring, or Fertility Ceremony, must be held before first sowing.

    The Rite of Spring is the high point in the annual calendar of the many Qemant ceremonies related to their cosmology, is held during our month of March, and is concerned with fertility in all of its aspects. Following the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn (1942:78-79) such ceremony and its component rites are patterned, or organized and repetitively fixed, sacred acts. The acts are symbolic dramatizations of basic requirements for the operation of Qemant society. Such requisites are social, political, economic, biological, and sexual in their utility for societal maintenance. Drama exists in a ceremony when an audience to be impressed is present in addition to the practitioners of the event (cf. Lord Raglan 1956:278). Every society has potential problems, such as drought, war, crop failure, plague, and so forth. Dramatic ceremony related to underlying broad cosmology provides a way to resolve symbolically the concerns about the uncertainties of the world.

    In the Rite of Spring, to insure fertility in Mezgana’s world, seeds from each crop are blessed by the wambar, His highest minister on earth. The blessing is done amidst other ritual such as praying and chanting by priests. Assembled members of an outdoor congregation of Qemant chant praises to their Deity, face east, and kneel onto the ground. They then rub their foreheads into and kiss the earth that they desire to have again yield their crops. Next, they stand up, look skyward, and bow before the heavenly Mezgana. While bowing, they hold out their upturned hands in supplication to receive His bounty again for the coming year. The gesture with their hands repeats the same motor act performed when a social inferior receives food with thanks from a superior, as a child would from an adult not closely related.

    After the blessing rites for the seeds are completed, it is the proper sequential time for the animal sacrifice. Here sacrifice is the partial giving of something of value for a supernatural return. As they are slaughtered by priests, each of whom has a ritual duty fitting his status, the sacrificial animals are allowed to bleed into the ground from a stylized throat slash. A sacred beer is then poured over the bloody soil of the sacred site and is also ritually sipped by the priests, first the higher, then the lower. Others complete the butchering and prepare the animals as the central part of a ritual feast consisting of meat, chili stews, bread, and beer. This ritual sumptuous meal is the principal break of fast since the previous evening.

    Late in the day, when the feast is concluded, the principal ritual is performed. At the edge of a specially prepared field, the congregation assembles and the specially blessed seeds are again prayed over by the priests. Next, a pair of oxen are yoked to a plow. Guiding his oxen and plow, the wambar ceremonially splits the earth with the plow’s shaft into a ritual furrow. Now parted, the fertile earth is ready to receive its seed from the wambar, the most important male present. Assisted by priests, he sows some of the blessed seeds into the furrow and then fertilizes them with the ceremonial beer.

    Some of the blessed seeds are now distributed to the members of the congregation who eat them. With this act, those assembled will be healthy and, if a mature woman, fertile for the coming year. Barren women receive special attention from the wambar at this time; they obtain his prayers along with the seeds. Just as the wambar has made the earth fertile and healthy with Mezgana’s help, thus he has also made the people.

    The following day is also a holiday, but without public ceremony. In a nearby sacred grove of trees, the wambar and his priests pray at various times, to usher in a bountiful season of cultivation. Once the two-day Fertility Ceremony is completed, the sowing of the first crops by Mezgana’s people may begin. Only after this ceremony has occurred do the Qemant feel their crop yields will be both assured and plentiful. Now, with the enactment in the proper way of the Fertility Ceremony, they can feel secure about their economic well being.

    8. Retrospection

    For the Qemant as a group, their symbolic and stylized ritual and ceremony is integrated with their cosmology which holds that to insure regularity in nature, periodic religious observances must be enacted at the proper time. This time is a point of symbolic supernatural leverage in the rhythm of nature, for example, before the first sowing of crops, or else it is a point of unanticipated disruption of rhythm, as at a time of drought, pestilence, or another calamity. The yearly round of ceremony is tied to cosmology by myth. Just as the mythic culture heroes performed the rain-making ceremonies in the drought-prone mythic past, so too must their descendents perform in the present. Specific myth intertwined with both current ritual and still other elements of the broad corpus of the myth of cosmology unites the religious acts and beliefs of the present to the legendary past and its superhuman and supernatural actors and events. As summarized by Lord Raglan: “The stories of their activities, the myths, then perform the dual function of sanctifying and of standardizing the ritual” (1956:128).

    In our visit with the Qemant of Ethiopia, one of about one-thousand cultures on the African continent, we learned that Africa is not a dark continent, populated by intellectually submerged humans, a condition imagined by many Europeans. It is instead a place of intellectually intricate, profound, and logical cosmological philosophy. Such philosophy is in many ways reminiscent of that of Europe a few centuries ago before the dawn of the scientific age.

    Often in traditional societies, an ultimate explanation of misfortune or good fortune is, humanly, sought in terms of the action and even morality of a sentient being possessing supernatural powers. Thus, one finds as inhabitants of the nonscientific cosmological landscape a continuum of spirits ranging from the benevolent to the malevolent and from great to minor, plus quasi-human all-fathers, and human magicians and witches. In a traditional cosmos, an imperfect yet supernaturally malleable world is made less difficult to endure and contemplate through cultural mechanisms and symbols in the form of supernatural beliefs and acts comprising: prayer, sacrifice, other propitiation, ritual, spells, and further similarly based practices. We have briefly explored such a traditional world, once normative in Europe and yet extant in Qemantland. [End]


  • Most of the criticism of qement are
    1) they are TPLF stooges
    2) they are too small to have rights

    1) just like qimant got outside support, the welkait also get support from Amhara groups. One can’t use such excuse to delegitimize anyone. Even Ginbot 7 and OLF were stooges of Eritrea but look what happened

    2) if size was the problem, then how come the small Harari have their own state. Not zone or wereda but state!
    Every group should be treated equally.
    If you are tired of qimant, Agew etc demanding rights, then stop crying about welkait, Metekel etc !

  • The article misses the major issues the Kement vs Amhara conflict, and at times is even incoherent.

    First, the Kement are a TINY community of about 170 THOUSAND people living in one corner of Amahara region called Gonder. The Amharas number 27 million. So what is the tiny Kement community trying to accomplish? Create a teeny tiny independent ethnic enclave of 64 villages interspersed and surrounded by Amharas? Does this make sense especially since these villages are mixed with Amhara villages? Would it not make sense to fight for democracy and minority rights instead? Again the community of Kement is only 170, 000.

    The next question is why are the Tigrays involved with the Kement issue in Amhara region to begin with? The Kement are not Tigrays and yet the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has decided to be are them. Why? Because TPLF is used to using tiny minority groups to control larger ethnic groups. Thus they use Somalis against Oromos in Dire Diwa, Wellayta against Sidamas, and Haderes against Oromos in Harar. Also, it seems the TPLF and their supporters have an inexplicable need to encourage any minority community in the Amhara region to build independent ethnic enclaves, while they are silent about the minorities in their Tigray.

    The situation for the Kement is going to end awfully, because TPLF arming them and encouraging the Kement to confront Amhara villagers and the state government is enraging Amharas in Gonder. They see another attempt by TPLF to steal more of their land from them, and to control their internal affairs of their province.

    I think the TPLF is going to use the Kement issue to invade first Amhara region, which will lead reprisals against Tigrays in the rest of the country. This will provide them with the perfect presence to invade the rest of Ethiopia.

    • Whether the Qemant number 100 people or 170,000 is not the issue. Even 100 people have a right to self rule unde federalism. Federalism is not about numbers only , it is about minority rights too. Whether they want to be part of Amhara or not, they decide, not you and not the larger Amhara community. I don’t recall anything in the constitution which says that unless you have this number of people in a community, you can’t ask for self rule.

      • What so you mean they have the right to self-rule?. Please explain what you mean by self-rule? Does that mean they get a zone in which no Amharas can live in? What about all the Amharas living among them, and the Amharas living around them?

        And yes, numbers matter, and no, 100 people can not create separate homeland. My main point is that the Qemant are a tiny minority surrounded by Amhara people, and they can not survive as a separate tiny ethnic entity made up of 64 villages with out the GOODWILL of the Amhara people. Qemant are better served with democracy and minority rights. Tigrays used them to antagonize Amharas, and in the end, it will the Qemant who will loose because TPLF is a dying entity.

        • According to the constitution self rule up to succession is a right. Is it wise, is it practical, is another issue. As for the Amharas that live amongst them, they also have a right, as minorities do within a killil. The qemant May be tiny, but that does not mean they have no right to exercise self rule out of a sense of being practical. Separate the issues between inherent or intrinsic right and the need to be practical. For the sake of practicality, you don’t go against right, it is a dangerous precedent.

          • Harari should not have their own state-it is TPLF being stupid that they do. Qimant and welkait are not comparable. Qimant are not Tigrean demanding to be part of Tigray. They are a tiny group dispersed within Amharas demanding a state. Welkiat Amharas want to be part of Amhara kilil.

  • I think more analysis is needed. Ethiopia has one of the highest population growths in the world, ranking 13th in the world but its GDP ranks 116 in the world. More than 80% of Ethiopians are in the reproductive age. These young people are desperate to Live the American dream and its consumerist culture. The economy cannot grow at the pace of the population growth. The youth are frustrated and the outlets to this rage, are ethnically organized. There are also old grievances which resurface and fuel this rage, namely the tigrean-Amhara feud. Tigrean elites have always expressed resentment at the wuchale treaty which Menelik signed and made a segment of Tigrinya speakers part of Italian colonial Africa, causing a social rift between Tigrinya speakers on both sides of the Mereb, with the creation of Eritrea.
    Facebook has probably brought the biggest revolution in Ethiopia. Through FB, Ethiopian youth dream big, dream of mansions, dream of the American dream and want it translated on the ground. This accounts for the reasons why those who flee Ethiopia via the Mediterranean Sea and land in Europe also commit suicide. What an irony. The mansions and the American dream seen on FB do not exist across the Mediterranean.
    Unless there is a national narrative involving contentment (see what Bhutan is doing and also in line with what the radial climate scientist Kevin Anderson advocates debunking the myth of endless econ growth and endless entitlement), we are looking at civil collapse. Ethiopia is so busy courting Eritrea for its ports but ports are nothing if national narrative and thus policy is not intrinsically coherent (look at Somalia with various ports and yet in dismal state). The main cancer which is population growth, limited resources and a voracious appetite imposed by Facebook will fuel the crises while also fueling the smaller crises (ethnic conflict, land grabs, territoriality). This is classic of a patient struggling with cancer at stage 4. The cancer is so widespread that it is causing system failures through ( infections, blood clots, declining cognitive function). At stage 4 cancer, doctors are busy fighting infections while the main culprit, the cancer itself keeps spreading. Treating cancer is impossible with an ongoing infection and the infection needs to becleared first. We must as a nation separate the cancer from the infection and begin tackling the cancer at every single turn and window of opportunity that is afforded to us as we win the war against infections and prevent new ones from happening. We must also be daring and unintentional and creative at stage 4 cancer because it is a race against time and he window of opportunity is closing very very very fast.

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