January 19, 2023
Many feel the Ethiopia’s slave-owning traditions, which lasted into the last century, do not align with the country’s modern image of itself
A boy carrying firewood near the town of Dalbo in southern Ethiopia, once the site of a slave market. Photograph: Mike Goldwater/Alamy
By Fred Harter | Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Nothing hints at the dark past of the marketplace at Dalbo, a town in southern Ethiopia. Today, it is a thriving hub that draws farmers from the surrounding countryside each week, and doubles as a sports pitch on non-trading days.
There are no plaques, monuments or inscriptions revealing that enslaved people were once sold here alongside livestock and cereals. Local people will often shut down the conversation when the subject is raised.
“They are hiding the story because they feel ashamed,” says Zerfe Argaw, who lives on a farmstead a few miles outside Dalbo. “It is seen as a closed subject; people don’t want to talk about it.”
Zerfeis in her 50s, too young to have seen people being sold in the market, but she was told about the trade by older relatives. “I heard different stories,” she says. “Slave owners owned [entire] households as slaves and would sell whole families to buyers, including the children.”
Eight decades after slavery was abolished by imperial decree by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1942, this is how the memory of slavery is preserved in Ethiopia: as fragments passed down by grandparents.
Histories of the country gloss over slavery and the subject rarely surfaces in public discourse. At the National Museum of Ethiopia in the capital, Addis Ababa, none of the exhibits deal with domestic slavery, while in Dalbo the chains once used to bind slaves have been melted down to make knives and farm implements. Little has been preserved.
“Slavery is a controversial issue,” says Nigussu Mekonnen, a guide at the museum. “There is limited evidence and information about it.”
Most history is hotly contested in Ethiopia, a patchwork of 90 ethnic groups prone to outbreaks of inter-communal violence. The nation was forged through violent conquest in the late 19th century by Emperor Menelik II – whose empire was based on the culture of the northern highlands – and resentments from that era still smoulder.
Later came famine, revolution and civil war. Today, the country is grappling with the fallout of a bloody civil war between the northern Tigray region and the federal government that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and a simmering insurgency marked by ethnic killings in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest state.
“We tend to ignore certain kinds of history that would shape the negative image of the country,” says Kiya Gezahegne, an assistant professor in the social anthropology department at Addis Ababa University. Instead, official narratives focus on Ethiopia’s ancient Christian civilisation and its reputation as the only African country to have successfully resisted European colonisation.
“We are taught to be proud of our identity, and bringing in this narrative of slavery would be a challenge to that discourse,” says Kiya.
Yet slavery was once widespread in Ethiopia. Stretching back centuries, slaves served as soldiers, domestic servants and labourers, who were put to work at royal courts, in churches and fields.
Many were born into servitude. Others were captured in raids and during wars, or sold into slavery after they failed to pay debts. Much of the trade was domestic, although Ethiopian slaves were also sold across the Red Sea to Arabia and Turkey, where they were prized as concubines and servants.
Historical data on the slave trade is patchy. Ahmed Hassen, a professor of history at Addis Ababa University, says the number of enslaved people ebbed and flowed, especially during times of war, but estimates that up to one-third of Ethiopians were enslaved at different points in history.
In some districts, the proportion was likely even higher. The sociologist Remo Chiatti calculates that 50 to 80% of people were slaves in parts of Wolaita, a southern kingdom centred on Dalbo that was absorbed into the Ethiopian empire in the 1890s.
“Slavery was everywhere,” says Ahmed. “It was the backbone of labour; it was the source of everything. It was not only landlords and the court of the emperor keeping slaves, but also rich peasants. If you had money, you had them.”
Abolition came slowly, the result of “external and internal realities”, says Ahmed. The first big step came in 1923 when Haile Selassie signed an accord promising to end slavery to gain admittance to the League of Nations, although the practice was not stamped out entirely. In the 1930s, Benito Mussolini used the issue to justify his invasion of Ethiopia, which Italian fascist propaganda cast as a “civilising mission”.
Slavery in Ethiopia is not a historical phenomenon. Its legacy still affects people’s lives today
In 1942, after Ethiopia’s liberation from Italian occupation, Haile Selassie issued the decree abolishing slavery. Even then, the practice lingered in some pockets and the influence of the former slave-owning aristocracy would not be smashed until 1974, when revolution swept to power the Provisional Military Administrative Council, also known as the Derg, a Marxist-Leninist military junta that introduced land reforms.
Today, the impact of slavery is keenly felt. After abolition, many slaves became part of the families of their former masters, but in some areas the descendants of enslaved people are seen as impure and are marginalised, barred from participating in ceremonies such as funerals or marrying into other clans. In Addis Ababa, it is common to hear light-skinned highlanders refer to darker-skinned people from southern Ethiopia as “bariya” (slave).
“Slavery in Ethiopia is not a historical phenomenon,” says an Ethiopian researcher, who did not want to be named. “Its legacy still affects people’s lives today.”
A teacher in Addis Ababa, who also did not want to be named, recalls a conversation with his mother. “She’s the type of person who, if she saw someone hungry on the street, she would bring them to our house to eat with us,” he says. “But when I asked her if I could ever marry someone from slave descent, she said, ‘No.’ For her, it’s like a curse.’”
Little has been done to heal these rifts. In 2019, a year after Abiy Ahmed became prime minister on a tide of mass protests and promising reform, Ethiopia’s federal parliament set up a reconciliation commission to address past political repression and historical injustices, including the slave trade.
“It is one of the injustices that Ethiopian society inflicted on its members,” says Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, the head of Ethiopia’s Roman Catholic church, who participated in the commission. “We felt slavery should not be put under the table. It should be studied and addressed if there is to be real reconciliation.”
But the commission’s work was never published and it has now been subsumed into a broader national dialogue commission, which opposition parties claim is government-controlled. Critics of the government say political repression has crept back in after the outbreak of the war in Tigray in November 2020.
The polarised environment has made it harder to discuss issues such as slavery. A teacher in Addis Ababa, who did not want to be named, says he grew up with “zero knowledge” that slavery was once so widespread.“People are too preoccupied with ethnic-based politics,” he says. “If you talk about slavery, you are accused of trying to divide your group.”
He says: “I see a lot of posts online about George Floyd, talking about how racist America is, and of course that’s an issue. But we also need to talk about inequality here. There are still ethnic groups looking down on others.”
A new generation of historians are starting to piece together the history of Ethiopia’s slave trade, but discussions remain confined to academic journals and seminar rooms. Last year, there were no public events to commemorate the 80th anniversary of abolition, and most local oral histories are still hidden.
This saddens Zerfe in Dalbo, who says she has passed the stories she heard about slavery on to her children and grandchildren. “As a history, it has to be told to the next generation,” she says. “What they think of it, that is up to them. But they should learn it to help them see injustice.”