Culture Change in Ethiopia: An Evangelical Perspective

  • Alemayehu (Alex) Mekonnen
  • Jan 29, 2014
  • Series: Volume 17 - 2014

Mekonnen, Alemayehu. Culture Change in Ethiopia: an Evangelical Perspective (regnum Studies in Mission). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013. 174 pp.  Paperback, $26.  ISBN 978-1-62564-516-6

Culture is an aspect of life that is inescapable and, in many ways, determines how we observe and interact with the world around us.  To a large degree, we carry this influence with us no matter where we may go, and by default it determines reactions we have towards the world around us.  The understanding of culture, whether our own or our neighbors’, is paramount if we are to evangelize those living among us who do not have the same belief system we adhere to as Christians.  If we are to make an impact for the Kingdom of God, this cultural understanding is critical.

Changing a culture is a difficult task under the best of circumstances.  History is rife with attempts at culture change that failed miserably.  Dr. Alemayehu Mekonnen, associate professor of Missions at Denver Seminary, has crafted a seminal work on culture change that has formed and continues to form Ethiopia as a nation and a people.  Through his extensive research into his homeland’s decades-long attempts at culture change, we are given a glimpse of the complexities and pitfalls of the attempts and their results.

The groundwork assembled by Alemayehu in the initial chapters of the book brings to light the culture as it existed historically in Ethiopia.  We are given a very detailed look at the inner workings of their culture, the depth of the roots of the culture, arguably reaching back to Solomon, the close relationship that the Orthodox Ethiopian church had with the government, and the methods of education used in Ethiopia.  This foundational presentation of the rich historical Ethiopian culture provides the reader with the necessary tools to properly interpret the heartfelt but misguided attempts by Ethiopia’s own leadership, along with that of the United States and the Soviet Union, at culture change.

Following this introduction, we are presented with the efforts of Haile Selassie who, using the tutelage of the superpowers of the day, attempted to make changes in the educational system.  However, these changes demonstrate the need for all participants of culture change to pay close attention to the relevance of the culture to modernization.  The United States and the Soviet Union instituted, at different times, systems of education that mirrored their own.  They paid very little attention to how Ethiopians would best be educated nor what curriculum would suit their needs as they attempted to modernize.  Taking the ‘cookie cutter’ approach with education within the context of cultural change is an awkward paradigm at best.  Additionally, the provision for native Ethiopians to be educated in the United States during the upheaval of the 1960’s led to the seeds and sprouts of Marxism which eventually led to the ousting of the Americans only to be replaced with another culturally insensitive system brought by the Soviet Union.

In parallel with the educational efforts of modernization, the Ethiopian leadership made attempts to modernize their military, which is another area discussed within the book.  Each superpower brought their own style of military ideologies, methodologies, and hardware to the Ethiopian government and attempted to overlay that on the Ethiopians who had already demonstrated a bravery and military ability in fighting the Italians during World War II.  In another instance of cultural ignorance rather than cultural intelligence, both superpowers extracted monies from the Ethiopian economy that may have been better spent on other aspects of cultural change.  This led to a massive debt burden, first to the United States, and subsequently to the Soviet Union, that, in some ways, lingers today.

From a religious perspective, detail is given regarding the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and its relationship with the government as well as the Pentecostal movement and Islam.  The close governmental relationship is shown to erode over time and the shift towards the evangelical and Pentecostal movement, driven to some degree by the educated class, primarily because the Church did not keep pace with the cultural changes that were occurring in Ethiopia.  While the Orthodox Church still holds the numerical edge, the Muslim movement is gaining momentum for reasons similar to the interest in Ethiopia by the military arms of the superpowers: Ethiopia’s geographical location.  The thinking is that the importance of the Red Sea in relation to desires of isolating Israel keep this portion of Africa high on the list of important regions for domination.

The economic impacts of these cultural changes are well documented within the book, and we are presented with an interesting shift from what seems to be an agriculturally focused boon to a rapid decline, ultimately contributing to the downfall of the western-focused government.  What follows is an example of a paradigmatic shift in economic thought which leads to further degradation of the economy.  The economic importance of Eritrea is discussed and the negative impacts of the secession and independence of Eritrea is well presented.

The books ends with a detailed examination of how Ethiopia can move forward in spite of the issues presented in the book.  It is amazing that one can document the rocky path that Ethiopia has been on for close to 70 years and still have the hope that the wrongs can be remedied and life can improve for Ethiopia.  Dr. Mekonnen is to be commended for his optimism.  The path towards what Haile Selassie envisioned is still a rocky one that will require patience and perseverance.

This book is excellent regarding the documentation of the cultural significance of change in Ethiopia, but I believe it has a broader application.  Abstracting from the focus on Ethiopia and approaching the book from a more general sense, all of the unintended consequences that grow out of a culturally insensitive context can be educational on what to not do.  Certainly, this book should be studied by missiologists to prevent this damaging course in future endeavors.

Richard E. Obrecht
Denver Seminary
January 2014