Yelunta (ይሉኝታ) is a central theme in Ethiopian culture. It can be roughly summed up by the feeling of restraint coming from the fear of asking oneself ‘what will the neighbors think?’ Proper behavior conducted in a manner that will not bring shame, or cause one of the interlocutors to lose face, is always paramount. Yelunta bis (ይሉኝታ ቢስ), somebody who doesn’t feel shame, or a sense of decorum in front of his pairs, is a damning character assessment. It is an accolade to be avoided at all costs in Ethiopia. Yelunta yelowm (ይሉኝታ የለውም) which, strictly speaking, means to have no sense of propriety, translates into English as ‘unscrupulous.’
From ይሉኝታ and the fear of losing face, of acting or saying something in an inappropriate way, stems Ethiopia’s heavy reliance on the formal rituals of engagement that often bewilder foreigners. Sene magber (ሥነ ማግባር) –etiquette, or the rules of interaction- is paramount and should not be ignored – for fear that one of the interlocutors may lose face in the exchange. Nor no! (ነውር: ነው!) That is taboo! Is the expression that will often greet these unseemly acts.
This heavy reliance on ritualism is all pervading in Ethiopia, from the way you eat a traditional meal of injera and wot to the correct manner of greeting your colleagues and folding a gabi. This complex ballet often puzzles foreigners. But there is also great beauty and liberty to be found in respecting these arcane rules. To know the rules is to be able to bend them. Just stop short from being called a ይሉኝታ ቢስ!
Which is of course what I am, for bringing this subject up in such an unseemly fashion in an open forum. Never trust a foreigner to know his ሥነ ማግባር!
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