For information about general Ethiopian culture, visit the Ethiopian culture page.
Tigray is the northernmost province of Ethiopia. It is flanked by the Sudan to the west, Eritrea to the north, the province of Wollo and Gonder to the south, and Afar land to the east. The Tigreans number about five million.
History and Politics
It is here the old Axumaite kingdom was once very powerful and had tremendous influence around present day Red sea countries. It left rich architectural and archaeological heritage of rock-hewn churches and monuments. It was a highly literate society, soon developing an alphabet, and it is from the language Geez that modern Tigrinya (alt. spelling Tigrigna), the language of Tigray and Eritrea has evolved. Christianity was introduced in the fourth century to this area. Its monasteries became centers for learning, translating Greek and Hebrew books, including the Bible in the fifth century.
By the end of the sixth century Islam was introduced to the area. The Axumite heritage is still important in Tigray today. The oblicks from this era are still standing in Axum today. They symbolize national consciousness for all Tigreans. Today Axum a small town in central Tigray is a tourist magnet attracting tourists from all over the world. The Tigreans also had an important role in defending and defining today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea from colonial powers. Yohannes the fourth, a Tigrean king, defended the area from Egyptian, Italian and Sudanese invaders.
The Italians were soundly defeated in the battle of Adwa in 1896. The first of its kind in black Africa for a modern colonial power to be defeated by a poorly armed, but determined, and ill-trained peasant army. Today not only Tigreans, but Ethiopians feel tremendous pride from this. It is one of their brightest spots in history. It has been preserved since then as a symbol of black power over colonial Europe. Present day Ethiopian leaders also started the armed instruction from western Tigray in 1974. That movement eventually ousted the brutal Megstu regime in 1991 and gave Ethiopia its first taste of democracy in centuries.
The Tigreans speak Tigrinya. It has its own alphabet. Tigrinya is derived from Geez, during the 4th century. It is spoken in Tigray and Eritrea. Tigrinya became the official language when Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia. Tigrinya has been suppressed in Ethiopia until the country changed rulers in 1991. The Tigreans were not allowed to use their language in their local school system or judicial system prior to 1991. But Tigrinya was a medium of instruction in the Eritrean school system when it was under the British mandate in the 40s and later when it was federated with Ethiopia. But King Haile Selassie banned the use of it from the Eritrean school system altogether and replaced it with Amharic. Amharic was taught in schools throughout Tigray as a subject as well as a medium of instruction for all subjects until seventh grade. Today Tigreans are using the newly gotten freedom to use ones own language to improve Tigrinya as a written language. Most Tigreans in Seattle are bi-lingual. Most of them came to the US by way of the Sudan and the former Soviet Union and could speak Arabic and Russian, besides Tigrinya, Amharic and English.
Naming in the Tigray province and Ethiopia, in general, is different from naming in the US. The use of a first name and a family name is unknown in Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia. Everyone in Tigray has his/her own name and also uses his/her father’s name, which comes after the personal name. Occasionally, the paternal grandfather’s name can be added if needed. There was a lot of confusion when newly arrived Tigrean or other Ethiopians immigrants in the US were asked for their first name and family name. When asked for a last name, many immigrants asked, ” You mean my father’s or my grandfather’s name?” Now when they have settled in the US, most Tigreans and other Ethiopians use their fathers’ name as their last name, although some use their grandfathers’ name as their last name.
Traditionally, women in the US have changed their family name when they marry. If a woman remarried several times she might have to change her family name accordingly. But women in Tigray and in the rest of Ethiopia do not change their names when they get married.
Greetings and General Etiquette
Some Tigreans greet each other with a bow of the head and by saying salaam which means peace. Tigreans appreciate this greeting in informal situations. When speaking with elders or in a more formal setting, one would also offer his or her hand.
Some people may greet by kissing each other on the cheek. It is common for women to kiss women and for men to kiss men in this way. In the U.S. it is common for women to shake hands with members of the opposite sex and with care providers.
Tigreans are comfortable maintaining a close interpersonal distance during social events, and are accustomed to making eye contact during conversation. Many Western gestures are accepted by Tigreans, though snapping one’s fingers at someone is considered very disrespectful.
When speaking with an elder, a conversation is more formal than with a friend. It is considered respectful to ask about the elder’s health and family, and a more formal tense is used in conversation.
Titles such as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” are always used to address someone who is married.
Phrases of Courtesy in Nine Languages: A Tool for Medical Providers
This language learning tool features videos of native speakers saying phrases of courtesy in nine languages, including Tigrinya (Tigrigna). Phrases of greeting, introduction, acknowledgment, departure and for emergency situations in a clinical setting can be played at a normal speed and at a learning speed. The goal of this tool is to provide a jumping-off point for developing rapport in the interpreted health encounter. View Tigrinya videos.
Marriage, Family, Kinship
In Tigray province, men are the breadwinners, the de facto heads of the household, and the disciplinarians of the children. Women do not typically work outside the home, but care for the children and the home. Some married men in rural areas sometimes feel that they own their wives. The 1960 Civil Code asserted that only the husband was the legal head of the household with rights to make the decisions regarding his family and his property. Recently enacted laws – The Tigray Family Code developed pre-1991 and The Revised Family Code of 2000 – gave women more rights when they divorced, enabling mothers who divorce to keep their children, if desired, and to receive one half of all property. These laws rose the legal marriageable age from 15 to 18 years for women (Veale, 2003). There is a stigma attached to divorce.
Urban areas are more progressive in terms of equal rights. In general, the participation of women in politics is not widespread in Ethiopia. In Tigray province women may be a more significant political force at their local and regional levels than in other places of the country. This may result from some Tigrean women’s participation in the armed struggle of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which developed a political base for these women and for gender politics in local councils. The impact of legal and social change first affecting women in Tigray, for instance, led the way for change in the national legal code (Veale, 2003). Education in the Tigray province is becoming more accessible for both girls and boys. In the past, girls were not expected or even allowed to attend school after elementary school, but now the government is urging girls to become educated and to eventually join the workforce.
Life in the U.S. has forced Tigreans to make serious readjustments to their own lifestyle at the sacrifice of their culture. Many Tigrean women in America are no longer able to work solely at home caring for the home and children, as it is usually necessary for both parents to work outside the home to earn enough income. With both men and women working, many men have learned to share household responsibilities with their partners. Parents are more likely to share the responsibility of disciplining their children.
In Tigray women are helped through pregnancy by female family members especially the mother. In the countryside (rural) it is customary for the soon to be mother to go to her parents and have her first child under her mother’s care. If a women is ready to deliver in Tigray she might notify her mother if around or a female friend, but not her husband. Men aren’t involved in the delivery process.
New mothers are taught how to care for their baby from their mothers and the elder ladies. Almost all countryside (rural) mothers breast feed, and they give special attention to diet, they understand a malnourished mother doesn’t have too much milk to feed her child. Local Tigrean women have concerns with child birth, because they are uncomfortable with male doctors. Most are scared of C-section delivery. Most think it is an unwanted procedure. Back home a woman is suppose to rest in bed for forty days. Family members or neighbors cook and care for her and her newborn child. Locally this can’t be done due to work and other factors.
Infancy, Childhood, and Socialization
Ceremonials During Infancy and Childhood
Circumcision is mandatory for health, religious and other reasons for both female and male children in Tigray. It is done by a local practitioner usually under the age of one. Hospital circumcision is not available. Unlike the other East African Community in Seattle this is not a problem among the Tigreans here. Local families understand that only boys with their parents’ consent get circumcised, but not girls in the US.
Infant Feeding and Care
The mother is the main source of milk in rural Tigray. Breast feeding in public is acceptable, the majority of women breast feed, here women don’t breast feed in public. Locally breast feeding has another problem because women work and can’t breast feed them as they are suppose to do back at home. Children are introduced to solid food about six months of age and continue nursing until they are ready to have another child or until two years of age in Tigray. Locally women breast feed on the average of eight months, this is because of the ability of other source food for the child and other social problems.
Child Rearing Practices
In Tigray children are taught to respect parents, the elderly and to be honest early on by their parents. If a child misbehaves, they are disciplined by spanking and verbal advice. Locally parents are afraid of disciplining their children because CPS might get involved. Teenage dating is scary to many families because what they know back home is pre-arranged marriage, usually done by parents. Parents are also concerned about their children getting involved in drugs and gang related activities. The Tigrean community in Seattle tries to assist youths with special needs such as drug addiction, gang related activities and school dropouts. The Tigreans in Seattle have started to understand the local culture and are trying to make the best out of it for themselves and their children in the US.
Religious Beliefs and Practices
Most Tigreans are Orthodox-Christians (coptic). In Tigray, about 20% of the population is Muslim. The majority of Tigreans in Seattle are followers of the Orthodox church, there are few Muslim Tigreans in Seattle. Back in Tigray, Orthodox-church followers do not eat meat, eggs or milk every Wednesday and Friday because of religious restriction. It is considered fasting. They also fast for 55 days before the Easter holiday, depriving themselves of all kinds of poultry, beef and dairy products. It’s purpose is to weaken ones own physical body and strengthen ones spirit, thereby getting God’s blessing for the suffering endured during fasting. Locally few Tigreans practice fasting, but go to church every Sunday. Local Tigreans adhere to their religious tradition. They fast for Ramadan. Muslims are suppose to fast all day and eat during the night and pray. Marriage between a Muslim and a Christian is rare. Muslims and Christians live with no religious problem among themselves as it is here in our Seattle community.
Abiy Tsom – The Great Lent: Dietary and Medical Implications of Fasting for followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by Dr. Tesfai Gabre-Kidan, MD, Seattle, WA.
Death and Grief
The majority of Tigreans are Orthodox Christians, and their beliefs regarding death are influenced by Christian doctrine. Tigreans believe that a person’s time to die is determined by God’s will, and that illnesses come from God. Western medicine is well accepted, and Tigreans are comfortable with life-extending treatments such as chemotherapy and life support. This type of care is not readily available in Ethiopia, however, and can be prohibitively expensive.
In Ethiopia, families and communities are very close. Traditionally, the news of someone’s death is relayed to a close relative (such as a parent, sister, or good friend) of the deceased. These people will then deliver the news to those that are most immediately related to the deceased. If the family is Christian, the community will erect a tent near the site of death with the capacity to hold 50-60 people. People will stay in this tent day and night in order to comfort the grieving family. Friends of the family do all of the cooking and provide emotional support to the family.
When there is a death in the community, the grieving is tremendous. In Ethiopia, women with braided hair may pull out their braids as an expression of their grief. This practice is becoming less common, however. It remains customary for both men and women to display their grief vocally, often by wailing and pounding their chests.
Religious leaders actively discourage excessive grieving, as do community elders. Priests will support those who are grieving by advising them to cry less and by recommending that those in mourning pray for the deceased. Tigrean women will continue to mourn and wear black for one to two years following the death of a loved one.
When someone passes away in the Seattle area, the Tigrean community is ready to support the family of the deceased. If possible, it is best for the news of the death to be delivered to the affected family by a close friend or relative. People begin arriving at the home of the grieving family in the evening after the news of the death has been delivered. These close friends and family bring food, and will sleep on the floor at the family’s house for three to seven days. If an autopsy is being performed and the funeral service is delayed, people will likely remain with the family for longer (about a week). If the body is returning to Ethiopia, it is sent away immediately following the funeral service.
In the Seattle area, money is donated to the family of the deceased by members of the Tigrean community. People constantly visit the family to provide support. It is difficult for Tigreans to grieve in a traditional manner in the U.S., as there are different cultural and economic constraints on families that live in the U.S. Because Tigreans living in the U.S. are usually separated from their extended families, community members are more active in the aid of grieving families than in Ethiopia.
A few days after the death of a loved one, the emphasis of the community will shift from grieving with the family to attempting to cheer them up. Community members will tell jokes to ease the pain of the family and to help them move on. While talking about the deceased is avoided as much as possible, if the deceased is mentioned, people will say, “God bless his soul.”
Care providers can aid in the grieving process by helping to manage the physiological manifestations of grief, such as prescribing sleeping pills, if necessary. When possible, providers should also call a relative or friend of the family when there is a death so that news of the passing can be delivered to the family in a traditional manner.
Experience with Western Medicine
In the Country of Origin
Most Tigreans understand what modern medicine has to offer to them, but that doesn’t mean there are no traditional healers who perform minor surgeries such as tonsillectomy and uvulotomy and drainage of abscesses using a special vacuum creating local made surgical instruments called “Mahgoma” in Tigrinya.
There are also wizards locally known as “Tenqalie” for men and “Tenqalite” for women, that people see them for various illnesses and misfortunes. Their healing practice includes blessing, giving patients local herbs to drink or to put on top of the affected area and other superstitious ideas such as killing a goat, chicken or sheep and make the patient cross-walk it.
There are also “Defteras”, a combination of religious and traditional healers. Diagnosis is usually done by referring to a holybook, and the patient is given some kinds of anti-bad spirit written material (written on leather) and bound by a leather and usually hung around the neck, shoulder, could also order herbs too.
Of course most traditional healing practices are dying in Tigray due to the expansion of modern medicine today. The main emphasis on health care in Tigray today is prevention, before it was of getting patients cured, after contracting diseases or having developed one.
The lack of hygienic understanding is a major problem today. Water-born parasites such as amboea, schistosomiasis and malaria, hepatitis, tuberculosis and veneral diseases are common in Tigray. AIDS also is spreading among the urban young population. The government is trying to education the public about safe sex, but the population’s reluctance to follow the directives hasn’t helped much.
In the United States
Most local Tigreans are accustomed to modern medicine. Majority of them come to Harborview for medical care. Most patients expect to receive medications for every illness, failure to give prescribed medicine will be considered by some patients as if the doctor didn’t know the illness and will result in not patient coming again to the same doctor. Some patients are nervous about giving blood for any type of test. There is an assumption that blood is taken from them for other purposes, other than serving them. \
Blood transfusion is alien to most Tigreans. It could create anxiety and fear. Explaining the condition that warranted blood transfusion to the patients should diminish the patients anxiety if not totally eliminate it. Women are reluctant to discuss gynecologic issues with male doctors, nurses on their first visit. If possible a female health provider will be the best choice. Women feel very uncomfortable discussing female private parts with a male provider. It is also very important to have a female interpreter if the situation permits for reasons already discussed.
Most immigrants who come from countries that rely on traditional medicine continue to use that form of medicine in conjunction with the use of conventional medical facilities. In many cases Ethiopian patients use traditional remedies in combination with prescribed conventional medications for related or unrelated health conditions without informing their physician. See EthnoMed article: Ethiopian Traditional and Herbal Medications and their Interactions with Conventional Drugs by A. Gall and Z. Shenkute.
Seattle Community Life
The Tigrean population in Seattle could exceed the 2,000 mark and is growing rapidly mainly due to migration from other states and newborn babies. Most come from small towns in Tigray and many had formal education, but a small number of them came from the country side where they may have had no formal education at all. There are a substantial number of Tigreans with a higher level of education, i.e. doctors, engineers, accountants, etc. They work in different capacities around the Seattle area. Unemployment is not a major problem around this community, but that does not mean university graduates have gotten jobs according to their profession.
Most Seattle Tigreans came to the US during the mid 80s escaping repression from the Soviet backed regime of Mengstu. The Tigrean community in Seattle was founded in 1989 to help members and the Tigrean community at large about social issues concerning the community at large. The community has an after school tutorial program for youths and counsel them on a number of issues, i.e. drug abuse, gang related activity, and alcohol abuse and teen pregnancy. The community also assists women on health and job issues. The Tigrean community is located in the Yesler area. It hosts social gatherings and meetings. Most Tigreans live in and around south Seattle, but others also live in west and north Seattle, Kirkland, Lynnwood, and Kent.
Local Community Resources
Tigray Community Association
1902 E. Yesler #3
Seattle, WA 98122
- Women’s Organization
- Youth Organization
- English as a Second Language (ESL) classes
- Senior citizen activities
Common Acculturation Issues
The majority of the Tigrean population in Seattle are refugees. Most were relocated by a sponsoring organization in the late 1980s and early 1990s and therefore have had a lot of support transitioning into life in Seattle. They receive assistance with finding housing, work, enrolling in ESL classes, and registering children for school.
Those who immigrated of their own accord are not eligible for many of the same benefits as refugees and may have to rely solely on their own contacts for support. Individuals coming from more rural areas in Ethiopia may find the transition more difficult than those who had lived in cities. The language barrier remains the biggest source of frustration for most.
Tigreans continue to arrive in Seattle, though the numbers are small, and almost all are now immigrants.
Youth Acculturation Issues
Youth who have immigrated live in two different cultures: the conservative, traditional culture of home, and the diverse, permissive American culture. As a result, these children may face different problems adjusting to life than their parents. Though immigrant youth learn the language better and more quickly than their parents, they usually find themselves with greater responsibility in the home.
It is not surprising that youth who immigrate at a very early age generally adjust to life in the U.S. more easily than older children. In fact, it is often difficult for older teens to adjust to life at school. Children who lived in refugee camps may have gone several years without education, causing them to be placed in a grade with much younger classmates. Language barriers may also cause someone to be placed in a grade below their actual level, making them feel uncomfortable and making learning difficult. Some may choose to drop out of school and work instead. Those who do not graduate by age 19 can no longer go to high school and may pursue GED programs and attend community college.