Wax & Gold

Levine's Wax & Gold (1965) is one the 'classics' of Ethiopian studies in the socio-anthropological realm. Much ink has been spilled about his work (including the author himself added a Preface to the 1972 to explain his change of views), much work has also been inspired that draws on the wax and gold concept that Levine describes and employs. 

In many ways, this was a book of its time - similar to other ethnographic type works that emerged in the early decades within the discipline of anthropology. Levine has sections on history, coming of age, adulthood, roles, marriage, individualism, social organizations, psycho-social analysis; all of which focusing on the Amhara. This post won't delve into the content, but instead share his points on the idea of wax and gold:

  • "The apparent, figurative meaning of the words is called "wax"; their more or less hidden actual significance is the "gold"." (p. 5)
  • "This terminology is derived from the work of the goldsmith, who constructs a clay mold around a form created in wax and then, draining the wax, pours the molten gold into that form." (p. 5)
  • The chief delight of Ethiopic poetry is to attain a maximum of thought within a minimum of words. This effect is reached, as we have seen, through subtle allusions and plays on words." (p. 7)
  • "... wax and gold is so important in Amharic that some Amhara maintain that one does not properly speak the language unless he is well versed in the art of exploiting its numerous ambiguities." (p. 8)
  • "Just as the Amhara tends to be tight-lipped and evasive when confronted with questions he does not feel like answering, so he finds pleasure in stubbornly withholding his meaning from his audience through employing figures and allusions which no one can understand. This may be understood as a passive form of oral aggression." (p. 230)
  • "Unless there is some overwhelming personal advantage to be obtained from providing information, the Amhara tend to give answers - when they do not pretend not to understand the question - in terms so ambiguous as to be worthless" (p. 251). 

The 'wax and gold' tradition is one wherein ambiguity is praised as it conveys one's linguistic and intellectual abilities to speak with brevity and offer multiple meanings at once. Literal, straight forward viewed as simplistic and lacking of intellect, whereas the use of 'wax and gold' in communication conveys complexity and intellect.

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Ethiopia & Food Security


  • "As every farmer will emphasize, there is no average household, average yield, average rainfall or average food security situation. Averages are imposed; they provide illumination but are not lived realities. Instead of focusing on averages, greater attention should be placed on the diversity of ways in which households encounter food insecurity" (p. 25-26)
  • "One of the greatest strengths emerging from the Stages of Food Security methodology is the depth of qualitative insight. The process resulted in a reformulation of questions and metrics, and their co-analysis facilitated the emergence of highly contextualized information about the socio-cultural, economic, political, historical and gendered vulnerabilities to food insecurity." (p. 130)
  • "Fertilizer and pesticide use similarly vary by crop, indicating how typical household questionnaires make invisible the intricate and informed choices that smallholder farmers make within their agricultural practices." (p. 162-163)
  • "Ethiopia is making progress in creating new programs and expanding the coverage of services, yet significant challenges remain. With almost half of all children under the age of five experiencing stunted growth due to malnutrition, the need for action is urgent lest another generation be denied the opportunity to fulfill its potential because it has been limited by food insecurity." (p. 205)


  • "Ethiopia and Food Security could not have come at a better time. The author, who has lived, worked and conducted extensive research in the country over many years, brings a wealth of knowledge to the subject, a greater empathy for the rural people who are the chief actors in the book, and a fresh perspective, making the work richer as well as more insightful." —Dessalegn Rahmato, Forum for Social Studies, Addis Ababa
  • "While applauding Ethiopia's remarkable success in drought mitigation and famine prevention, Dr. Cochrane provides a unique perspective on the complex drivers of food insecurity and options for alleviating them. Ethiopia and Food Security is highly recommended for anyone interested not just in understanding and measuring these problems but also in addressing them by designing effective programs, policies and services." —Teferi Abate Adem, Research Anthropologist, HRAF at Yale University
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Native Colonialism

The people of Ethiopia defeated European attempts to colonize it. However, Dr Yirga argues that in embracing western education and erasing local history and tradition, the institutions and laws put in place colonizing processes, what he calls 'native colonialism'. This is one of the most interesting books I have read of recent, highly recommended to anyone interested in what (de)colonization means, and specifically for readers looking for critical works on education and Ethiopian history. Native Colonialism: Education and the Economy of Violence Against Traditions in Ethiopia (2017) by Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes (Res Sea Press) is a unique book and offers (what many will see as) a provocative take on education in Ethiopia. In so doing, Dr Yirga also offers rich insight into the traditional education system, particularly of his home Lalibela. This is recommended reading. The Introduction and Conclusion appear onlineA few quotes:

"This book attempts to show that beneath the good name of education, there is a constant violence against local traditions that perpetuates the degradation of the lives of the majority whose survival depend on those traditions. The belief in the redemptive power of western education is informed by a colonialist worldview that local traditions and people are primitive. It is also an indictment that privileges westernized elites to speak and act for the rural majority without the latter's consent." (p. 2-3)

"Ethiopia has never been colonized by an alien political power, but a political system similar to colonialism has been institutionalized in the country by native colonizers. The western political ideology of the lite class has become the source of economic, political and social policy. Political parties determine development processes, and modernization is seen as a government-sponsored project rather than an evolutionary process that emerges from people's local experiences. Education has played a central role for the emergence and expansion of native colonialism. It promotes a worldview and culture that produces colonial consciousness. This book critically articulates the historical emergence, ideology and effect of native colonialism." (p. 3)

"The best way to show the violence of this empire is not to reason based on its own rationalities. This is what most commentators did when they criticize the quality or relevance of the education system. They often start from the education system, not from the meaning of education." (p. 4)

"Imitation, not interpretation, was the principal mechanism by which the new laws were adopted. Following the constitution of 1955, six codes were issued. These include a civil code, a penal code, a commercial code, a maritime code, a civil procedure code, and a criminal procedure code. "These codes were all either drafted by foreign lawyers or inspired by foreign sources" (Vanderlinden, 1966-1967, p. 255)." (p. 107)

"The adoption of western laws had the effect of creating institutions that are violent to tradition. The most significant manifestation of this violence is the silencing of local histories, knowledges and experiences, while reinventing the state as a sole source of authority using instruments of power that are alien to the people." (p. 109)

"...the combined effect of the two senses of alienation creates centeredlessness. First, the education system isolates students from their traditional roots. It declares tradition backward and barbaric; it initiates a sense of mission and a promise of power to students. Alienated from their place of tradition, students make efforts to seize the promises of western knowledge through the formal channels of the state. Although knowledge is presented as a stepping stone or a promise of power, Elitdom has strong barriers that make it difficult for many students to succeed. Consequently, students fall into the condition of powerlessness and meaninglessness." (p. 190)

"...the majority of the rural people are served by young graduates or school leavers who are indoctrinated by the superiority of science and western knowledge over Ethiopian tradition and history. This denies the possibility of developing local wisdom and experience into policy making." (p. 200) 

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Ethiopian Discourse

Teodros Kiros is a public philosopher, demonstrated by his commitment to making philosophy accessible and bringing philosophy into the public spaces. Ethiopian Discourse (2011) is a kind of companion book to Teodros Kiros' Philosophical Essays (2011). Both are published by Red Sea and both are collections of articles written in the Ethiopian Reporter newspaper, amongst other platforms (some of which no longer active, which makes this collection a unique repository of writing). The articles were penned during the 2000s. While Philosophical Essays was about broader (more eurocentric) political philosophy, this collection focuses on African philosophy and Ethiopian affairs (interestingly, with a thread of ancient Egyptian morality waved throughout).

The book contains 81 short entries. Like the other book, many essays focus on political philosophy, albeit with an orientation to Ethiopia. I found the articles on African novels and Ethiopian philosophers the most interesting (the author also wrote a book on Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob), of which there are multiple contributions. These also better stand the test of time, compared to the more situated-in-time pieces. We are indebted to Kiros for bringing forth the work of Zera Yacob (along with Claude Sumner), particularly Kiros in the public realm (as Sumner's works remain difficult to find, and in long philosophical books).

For those interested, Kiros has a 2021 book with Cornel West, which they discuss in this online event. 

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