Thursday, March 22, 2012

Social Courts and Social Bonds

Ten neatly dressed women sitting in the shade of a spreading ficus tree appear to be conducting an important meeting. My Ethiopian contact explains that I am witnessing a Social Court, a structure that exists in rural Ethiopia where a police or governmental presence is rarely seen. Community leaders convene a Social Court to settle domestic disputes or community complaints. A person found guilty by his community may be fined, forced to perform work, or shunned, a harsh penalty in a close-knit interdependent community. Social Courts are an effective control over the behavior of rural citizens. They hold the community together and give offenders a real understanding of the group’s expectations.

Examples of social bonding abound in Ethiopia. A strong example is the Ethiopian tradition of family, friends, and invited guests sharing the same food from a common serving—and eating by hand. The meal of meat or vegetables is placed on a thin sheet of fermented bread, known as injera. Those sharing the meal tear off pieces of injera to scoop up bites of food. Social customs in Ethiopia build bonds between friends as well as between those meeting for the first time. Ethiopians always stand, shake hands, and acknowledge everyone in the room. However, if a person is sick or his hands are not clean, he offers the wrist as a handshake. In the Ethiopian countryside, one sees the close bond that Ethiopians have with their animals. When young boys herd the family’s animals, they mind their owners like well-trained dogs. Beasts of burden carry bundles of goods along roads ahead of their owners who follow on foot. Animals and people sleep together inside small huts for protection from predators. Quite a few Ethiopian families maintain a bond with their honey bees, mounting their hives under the low-hanging thatch roofs of the family’s hut. Children play among the flying honey bees. People, livestock, and honey bees live in close proximity. Wubishet Adugna and I share bereles of tej.

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