AMHARA (Ethiopia) (2,2,3+, 4-2,2;6,1) (EHRAF




IndexAfricaEthiopia → Amhara

(Kaffa, Udhuk, Nuer, Majangir, Afar, Amhara, Qemant, Arbore

Around 1950, Messing and Bender ([1985:p208])[1] note on the Amhara: 


“When sex differentiation becomes more emphasized in the culture, at about seven[2], sex talk and sex play goes on primarily within the peer group of the same sex. The invitation to do this is […] (lit. take this-insult). They play hide and seek, whisper, reenact what they have observed their parents do at night in the hut, and fantasize experimenting with sexual possibilities. Children observe much in the quiet of the night in the hut, but are careful not to be seen watching. They misunderstand and are greatly puzzled, since no elder will explain “impolite matters” to them. It is impolite even to mention the names of genitals and reproductive organs, such as k’ula for penis, and […] for vulva, so they are merely whispered about. In church school, boys are puzzled by overt references to “Mary’s wom” and “God’s seed”, but questions are rejected as “rudeness”. Youngsters in town have broader information, because there they hear “rude” talk more often among adults”.


The authors ([1985:p264, 439]) further note: “When no adults are present, boys play games imitating the sex life of animals, sometimes highly imaginary, e.g. the “coitus of baboons[3]” […]: seated and facing each other with their feet and rock back and forth. This is largely their own mental projection of human activities, for they have all seen actual sexual intercourse among domestic animals”.


“Their powers of observation, active, free and relatively unstructured prior to later discipline, imitate in their play activities the social relations, including the family and sexual-social relationships of their elders. When about five years old, boys and girls - for the sexes are not yet separated up to that time - play “house” with considerable sophistication. For example, when they play “marriage”, the “father” of the “bride” goes to the “elders” to inquire about the character of the “groom”, after the groom’s father has initiated the negotiations on the groom’s request. They build a “marriage hut”, and play at heavy drinking of barley-beer and honey-mead. The “bride” demands a gift from her new “husband”, and enters into his “residence”. After they have been in there a while, the two best-men […], who had been duly sworn to protect her even against her husband, go off to the bride’s parents to announce loudly and joyfully that the girl had proven a virgin! Whereupon the mize [vide infra] are feted”.


Opposing the Sinhalese, who ritualise menarche, “[…] the Amhara female’s rite of passage (which may be formalized and public or casual and secret) is her introduction to adult heterosexual intercourse”. Sex and marriage are closely related in idiom, premarital virginity renders marriage legitimate, and the nuptial defloration is ceremonial (Reminick)[4]. Levine (1965)[5]:


“The experience of the wedding night cannot be very pleasant for the bride. For the first time in her life she is far from the familiar setting of her parental home. She has had little or no sexual instruction, other than the knowledge that sexual matters are “rude” and that she is supposed to resist her husband’s advances as fiercely as possible. The groom, on the other hand, has been taught to regard the nuptial night as a battle in which the bride must be forcibly overcome. If somewhat anxious himself, he at least has the moral, and sometimes the physical, support of his two or three mize. If he is unable to accomplish the defloration, he may call in the first mize—usually a married relative or friend with some experience—who will perform the task. When at last the bride has been conquered, the mize take the bloodstained cloth as proof of the girl’s virginity. Their triumphant chant—ber ambar sabara-lewo, “he has broken the silver bracelet for you” (for the bride’s parents)—is the signal for further rejoicing and revelry among the wedding guests. On the morrow groom and friends discuss the conquest with masculine glee, and the bride remains embarrassed and cowed”.


“Still another type of marriage is that known as […](“ten beds”) in which the boy goes to live with the girl’s family while both are quite young. In this case the boy has his work apprenticeship under the girl’s father. After several years, when the girl reaches puberty, a second wedding ceremony will take place—this time at the home of the groom’s parents—and the union will be consummated. This type of arrangement tends to be made when the boy’s family is too poor to provide enough to get him started on his own, or if the girl’s father has no son to help him with the work”.


“Yared Amare (1999)[[6]] has described semanya marriage in his study of northern Shewa in Amhara Region, an area where this form of marriage is also very common. He states that semanya marriage is normally arranged by the parents, at least for younger couples. […] The early marriage of girls is another common feature of married life in Amhara Region, as well as in the areas actually studied. Most parents want their girls to marry early, preferably before their first menstruation, due to the fear of pre-marital loss of virginity, or even worse, that a girl might bear a child out of wedlock. The ages of 14 to 17 are already considered late for a girl’s marriage, and unmarried girls of that age are believed to have problems in attracting young men (though they might be married to older men). Girls will often enter their first marriage as young as 8-12 years. After being married, the girl is considered no longer a child and is expected to take on the responsibilities of an adult. The marriage is arranged by the parents of the prospective spouses. Normally, the girl will have no influence over the decision, whereas the boy is more involved in the marriage arrangements. Apparently, it is quite common for the newly married wife not to enter her new marriage until she is sexually mature, assuming this is not already the case when the marriage contract is concluded. In other cases the husband will have to swear in front of the elders that he will not touch the girl until she becomes sexually mature. However, a study conducted by ANPPCAN in collaboration with Save the Children Denmark (2001) found that the swearing is only a formality and the promise often violated, despite the young age of the girl. Thus, early marriage can have dire consequences for young girls (sexual abuse, early pregnancy, etc.).” (Sørensen and Bekele, 2004[7]:p25, 26; cf. Sørensen, 2003:p10[8]; Sørensen, 2002:p46-7[9]).







Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Oct. 2004


[1] Messing, S. D. & Bender, M. L. (1985) Highland Plateau Amhara of Ethiopia. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files. Edited by M. Lionel Bender of a 1957 PhD thesis, University of Pennsylvania

[2] Late childhood commences approximately at age seven

[3] Also note the Congo game of yembankongo, indecent ape imitation described by Hulstaert ([1937:p81]) and cited by Pedrals (1950:p16), op.cit.. See also Werner (1986), as cited by Frayser (1994:p206).

[4] Reminick, R. A. (1975) The symbolic significance of ceremonial defloration among the Amhara of Ethiopia, Am Ethnol 3:751-63

[5] Levine, D. N. (1965) Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

[6] Amare, Y. (1999) Household Resources, Strategies and Food Security in Ethiopia. A Study of Amhara Households in Wogda, Northern Shewa. Department of Sociology and Social Administration/The Addis

Ababa University Press. Monograph Series in Sociology and Anthropology,Volume 1, Addis Ababa.

[7] Sørensen, P. & Bekele, S. (2004) The Impact of the Joint Programme in North Wollo, Ethiopia: Enhanced Food Security and Livelihood Sustainability for the Poor? The Impact Study Group of the Joint Ethio-Danish Development Programme in North Wollo, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen []

[8] Sørensen, P. (2003) Semanya and Nikah: Marriage Contracts and Marital Contradictions in North Wollo, Ethiopia. DIIS/Gl. Kongevej Working Paper. Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen []

[9] Sørensen, P. (2002) The Joint Ethio-Danish Development Programme in North Wollo, Ethiopia. Baseline Report. Part of the Impact Study of The Joint Ethio-Danish Development Programme in North Wollo, Ethiopia []