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Where are the Children of Mixed Unions in Ethiopia?

by Asefa Belachew*
January 26, 2021

Mixed Unions, inter-ethnic, inter-religious and inter-racial marriages, are expected to reduce conflict and promote harmony1. In countries where inter-ethnic and/or inter-faith marriages are significant, ethnic conflict is not pervasive. To the contrary, where political and social divergencies are promoted, inter-marriages are discouraged openly or covertly2. The absence of conflict, in turn, facilitates investment and social and economic growth3. In today’s Ethiopia, ethnicity is in the center of popular discourse, regular social activities, and access to resources. Thus, the requirement to classify oneself and to state it on ID cards had been government policy until two years ago. It is not clear how much this has changed in recent years. Historically, interethnic marriages used to be encouraged. The royalty and nobility used arranged marriages to build bridges among different ethnic groups. Despite these situations. however, the quantitative evidence shows that the degree of integration seems to be low in Ethiopia particularly compared to many countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Due to Ethiopia’s rural and agricultural base, limited urbanization and low level of education as well as limited inter-regional migration, mixing has been sporadic and many individuals neatly fall in one or the other of over 80 ethnic classifications. 

Ethiopians assume (believe) that there are considerable inter-marriages. Where this true, people of mixed origin are conflicted where to classify themselves; either put themselves along the paternal lineage as is traditionally the case or call themselves of mixed origin, if such a category is offered. Despite the importance of this category of population, however, there is practically no quantitative analytical work done4. This essay, in a very modest way, tries to contribute to fill the void and stimulate discussion on the subject. It aims at shedding some light on the magnitude of the population of mixed lineage. 

Mixed lineage could take different forms. It could take an ethnic, or religious or racial mix or it could be a combination of all three. The racial mix is only of historical relevance in Ethiopia. Before the mid-1970s, Ethiopia had a large Italian and Yemeni (Arab) residents (over 200,000 each) and their children born, in the main, of Ethiopian mothers. With the return to Italy and Yemen of these people during the Derg this category has been rendered miniscule. Still however some prominent individuals such as Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi remain.

The principal categorization today is along ethnic line and, to some extent, along the religious one. Some prominent Ethiopians, including the Prime Minister and General Kassaye Chemeda5 belong in the mixed category. It also includes some vocal personalities like Merrs. Tewodros Zewdu and Taye Bogale. The PM comes from Christian-Amhara mother and a Moslem Oromo father6, while General Kassage reports that he comes from Oromo parents on the fathers’ side, (father, grandfather, great grandfather, etc.) and Amhara parents on the mother’s line. 

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