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The Me'en of Ethiopia and Sudan

Location:
The Me'en are an ethnic group of about 80,000 individuals located in the highlands and lowlands of southwestern Ethiopia.  According to ethnographic surveys conducted by linguists, they live in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State, Bench-Maji zone.  About 1500 of them live across the border in Sudan.

History:
It is believed that the Me'en may have originated in southern Sudan and gradually moved into southwestern Ethiopia.  The Me'en, however, claim that they originated near the Omo River in southern Ethiopia, where they believe that their ancestors emerged from a hole in the ground.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Me'en were known by the highland Ethiopians as one of the populations from which large numbers of slaves were taken.  They had a reputation of fierceness in battle, demonstrated in the tough resistance they put up against Amhara feudal troops.

Identity:
The Me'en are a Nilotic group closely related to neighboring peoples with similar language.  The whole cluster is referred to as Surma.

"The term Surma is the Ethiopian government's collective name for the Suri, Mursi and Me'en groups that inhabit the southwestern part of the country, with a total population of 186,875. All three groups speak languages belonging to the Surmic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family" [Surma – Wikipedia]

The Me'en are also called Mekan, also sometimes called Tishena in older literature.  Other forms of their name are Men, Meqan, Mie’en and Mieken.  Tishena has been reported as the name for highland agriculturalist Me'en.  More recent research by SIL International reports that the name Tishena (Teshina, Teshenna, Tishana), meaning ‘hello’ in Me’en, is a name given by Amhara settlers and advises that this name should be avoided.  The Ethnologue uses the name Banio for the highlanders.  The Banio live in the Bachuma area.

The Bodi group are pastoralists living in the lowlands near the Omo River.  Another lowland group called Koruwo are agriculturalists.  Most of the Me'en live in Ethiopia.  New surveys by SIL International in 2005 reported a total population of 80,000 Me'en, and 51,446 of those monolingual in their form of the Me'en language.  This included 4,553 Bodi.

The word Me'en means "people," "humans."  The Me'en are subsistence-level farmers and herders.  They use hoes for loosening the earth and wooden digging sticks for planting.  They produce no surplus of significance.  There are few details available on the Me'en.

The Me'en live in fear of the spirits which inhabit their people as well as the spirits of their dead ancestors.  Addiction to a locally-made beer, called "sholu," has resulted in the frequent outbreak of fights which has led to killings.

Language:
The language of the Me'en people is also called Me'en.  The forms of the language are called by the names of the respective sub-groups speaking that form, Banio.  Koruwo and Bodi (or Podi).  Some sources may refer to the Bodi as a separate people.  The Bodi form of the Me'en language is also known by the name Mela.

The Me'en dialects belong to the Surmic family of languages, and are linguistically similar to Suri and Mursi.  Me'en and its Surmic relatives belong to the Southwestern branch of the Eastern Sudanic languages, related to the Southeastern branch languages Didinga and Murle, spoken in southeastern Sudan.

Second Languages spoken by the Me'en groups are Sudanese Arabic and Amharic.

Political Situation:
The Tishena group within the Me'en community have hostile relations with the neighboring Tirma and Chai people.  Their clashes frequently result in fights over territorial rights and some deaths.  The Dime people border them on the east and have fairly peaceful relations.

Customs:
The Me'en virtually all live in small scattered hamlets and compounds in the rural areas.  Their homes are made of stick walls and grass roofs.

All three peoples of the Surma group share a similar culture, with agricultural and herding variations.  The homeland of the Me'en, Suri and Mursi peoples is remote and distant from control of the central government.

"They have a fierce culture, with a liking for stick fighting called Donga or Saginay bringing great prestige to men — it is especially important when seeking a bride — and they are very competitive, at the risk of serious injury and occasional death. The males are often shaved bald, and frequently wear little or no clothes, even during stick fights." [Surma – Wikipedia]

Traditional Me'en clothing was made from cow, goat, or antelope skins.  Barkcloth clothing came into existence later.  The Me'en once produced their own bark cloth clothing and bags, yet this practice has declined with the availability of imported cloth.  Women wear bracelets consisting of beads and giraffe or warthog hair.

The staple food of the Me'en are corn and sorghum.  In addition, they grow barley, t'eff (a small Ethiopian grain), cabbage, a variety of beans, peas, peppers, sugarcane, and some tobacco.  The Me'en have no access to modern transport or agricultural services.  The chief means of transportation for the Me'en are horse and mule.  They also hunt and gather, trading in antelope, buffalo, and leopard skins.

The main source of fuel for the Me'en is firewood.  Its abundance, however, is rapidly decreasing due to an ever-increasing population.  The average Me'en birthrate is 8 children per married wife.  It is estimated that four out of every ten children die before their sixth year.

The Me'en do not boil their water for drinking nor for the preparation of food.  Water is generally accessed in the highlands from the numerous springs which flow out of the mountainsides.  Lowland Me'en are dependent on the streams which flow from the highlands.  Latrines are non-existent.

A Me'en man can, depending upon his wealth, marry more than ten women.  Most men, however, have one to three wives.  The women plant seeds, weed fields, grind grain, prepare food, draw water, fetch wood, take care of small children, and clean the compound and house.  The also make their own cooking plates, pots, and jugs; baskets; sieves; containers of straw and wood; and fashion gourds into drinking and beer containers.

A study was done in 1989-1991 on the medical practices of the Me'en and the ways in which plants are used in their social rituals.  This downloadable report provides a descriptive survey of the most important plants used and a brief description of the plant's use. They describe plants used for house building and household utensils, plants used for clothing, magical plants, famine plants, medicinal plants, and ritual plants. The emphasis is on medicinal and ritual plants.

The Me'en have special music and dance styles known as the gulay.  The gulay are songs of joy about love, good harvest, prosperity of the family, cattle, and male vigor.  For entertainment, the Me'en enjoy drinking the beer which they make themselves.

When a Me'en dies, an elaborate funeral lasting several days is held.  At the burial, the Me'en will kill cattle or goats and read the intestines in order to discern signs from the spirit realm.  The corpse is then wrapped in cow skin and buried, a procedure meant to appease the spirits of the dead.

Religion:
The Me'en myth of origin says that their ancestors emerged from a hole in the ground somewhere in southwestern Ethiopia.  The Me'en live in fear of the many spirits which they suppose fill their rivers and woods.  The Me'en believe that communication with the spirit world is indispensable in order to avert misfortune from the spirits of the dead.

The Me'en also believe in a sky god called Tuma.  They believe this god has created them and that he is the god of rain and fertility.  They expect a holy dog to intercede with Tuma on their behalf.  K'alichas, or traditional spirit mediums, practice divination and will place curses on others at the request of their enemies.

Christianity:
The Me'en have had little opportunity to hear and accept the gospel.  They are classified as Unreached, and the 1500 living in Sudan have been even more isolated.  No portion of the Bible has been translated into the Me'en language.

For more on the Me'en (Mekan) People

Internet
Funeral as ritual: an analysis of Me'en mortuary rites (southwest Ethiopia)
Me'en Language – Ethnologue
Me'en language – Wikipedia
Me'en ritual, medicinal and other plants: a contribution to South-West Ethiopian ethno-botany
Mekan people – Wikipedia
Surma people – Wikipedia
Ritual and environment: the 'mósit' ceremony of the Ethiopian Me'en people

Related on the Internet
Amharic Language – Ethnologue
Didinga Language – Ethnologue
Murle Language – Ethnologue
Mursi Language – Ethnologue
Sudanese Arabic – Ethnologue
Suri Language – Ethnologue

Orville Boyd Jenkins
Original version written February 1997
Rewritten 4 August 2012

Copyright © 1997, 2002, 2012 Orville Boyd Jenkins

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