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Julian Sommerschuh

My research, based on 22 months of fieldwork, deals with changing values in Dell, an Aari- speaking south-western Ethiopian farming community. Previously part of an independent kingdom, Dell came under imperial Ethiopian rule in 1898. The invaders imposed themselves as landlords reducing the local population to serfdom. This ended with the 1974 revolution. Since then, Dell has seen two modernist governments, the Derg (1974-1991) and the current EPRDF, trying to reform local ways of life and move people toward “development”. Since the 1990s there has also emerged an evangelical church in Dell, to which so far two thirds of the community have converted, with one third continuing to practice traditional religion. In the course of these historical transformations, local understandings of what is good and important in life have changed. My research aims at understanding the processes through which this change has taken place and continues to take place in the present. One aspect of the study of change, of course, is the study of (actual or purported) continuity. So looking at those who practice traditional religion and, more generally, profess to be following a way of life established by the ancestors, was part of my fieldwork. The photographs relate to this group's deep concern with hierarchy and blessings.

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The Mother's Voice – During a funeral, a diviner reads the entrails of a sheep sacrificed to the woman who is to be buried shortly. The sheep was provided by her oldest son, who listens to the reading attentively. Through the entrails, the mother – in whose voice the diviner speaks – tells her children whether she will “breast-feed” them, or whether, angry about having been ill-treated by them in life, she will withhold her blessings. If so, further sheep need to be sacrificed until the entrails “clear” and the mother says “I will go to my grave now, I shall send you coolness.”

 

 

 

 

 Water of Life, Water of Death – A young man drinks water from a half calabash held by God Birr, agodmi or hereditary priest. 

JS scaled 9pcA4  2 Water of Life, Water of DeathThe context is a traditional court, to which people take lawsuits involving contradictory testimonies in order to ascertain the truth. Each party states their position and then drinks water as depicted. Usually, “making drink water” is the paradigmatic way in which superiors pass on blessings to those below them in the social hierarchy. Here, however, the water becomes a blessing only for the one speaking the truth – the liar, sooner or later, will die.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Order of Precedence – During a lineage ritual, the lineage head hands some grilled sheep liver to a kinsman who receives it JS scaled A4  3 In Order of Precedencewith respectfully cupped hands. The liver is handed out to lineage members in order of precedence from the most senior man to the most junior girl. Thus, social hierarchy is represented and linked to the idea that all blessings flow from high to low.