The following notes reference a significant work by John Iliffe, The African Poor: A History, African Studies (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987). The notes are limited to Illiffe's discussion of poverty in Ethiopia. The publication came just 4 years before Mengistu's Communist government fell, but the focus Illiffe has is more broadly historical--and therefore, in the case of Ethiopia, also theological. Too often, discussion of matters of wealth and poverty in Christian theology are inadequately rooted in the right fields of study, such as Biblical exegesis and theology, historical research, and cultural analysis. Instead, one finds theoreticians who build discussion on principles and values and lay themselves open to ideological agendas and unstated presuppositions that easily and regularly distort the Biblical text, Christian history, and actual contexts. So, these notes are offered as exemplary for the kind of discussion needed at one level (the others being Biblical exegesis and theology and Christian history) when considering matters of wealth and poverty.
I. The Comparative History of the Poor
A. There is a false idea that the African community takes care of each other
and so there is no "poverty" (3).
B. JeannPierre Gutton,.La societie et les pauvres: l'example de
la generalite de Lyon 1534-1780 [Check last date]. (Paris3 1971): 51n3:
a. Structural Poverty: "long term poverty of individual: due
to their personal or social circumstances (Iliffe3 p. 4)
b. Conjunctural Poverty: "the temporary poverty into which
ordinarily self-sufficient people may be thrown by crisis” (Iliffe3 p. 4).
a. Structural Poverty of societies with ample resources3 especially
land. Problem is here "lack of access to labour needed to exploit land", whether due to their own problem: (age, incapacitated, or due to the lack of others (no families or other support).
b. Structural Poverty of societies with few resources. Here the problems
include: "a” but also the "able-bodied who lack access to land (or other resources, and are unable to sell their labour power at a price sufficient to meet their minimum needs.” (4)
C. Compare poor in Africa to elsewhere historically and geographically:
1. Until about 12th c. Europe was land rich. Structurally poor were mainly the
weak. Widows, orphans, captives, infirm. In 12 and 13th centuries population increases added to these numbers poor who could not sell their labour (5). Migration to town: in early 14tH c. involved many not able to sell
their labour. Europe's population decreased, but by end of 16th c. and into 17th c. it became a problem again. Contrast early medieval Europe's beggars who were mostly aged and blind to 18th c. France's beggars who were mostly children.
a. Poverty in Asia is mostly due to lack of land3 unemployment, low wages.
b. Poverty in India is largely due to large families.
c. Africa (argues Iliffe in this book):
1. Pre-colonial Africa: mainly lacking access to labour, not
lack of land, agricultural technology, world religions.
2. Structural Poverty due to landlessness grew slowly in Africa. Not
due to ruler: depriving people of land but to personal misfortune and poverty due to lack/loss of cattle in society: depending on cattle. "Extensive landlessness first emerged in S.A. during the 18th c.” (6). Its cause in colonial Africa: "ruthless alienation or unusual population density” (6). Yet many could sell their labour. "Only slowly during the 20th c. did African--and chiefly southern African--see numerous able-bodied men lacking land, work, or
wages sufficient to maintain physical efficiency. Only slowly did possession of a family, rather than lack of one, become a cause of structural poverty. By the 1980's southern Africa had certainly entered a resource crisis as acute as that of 13th c. Europe” (6). Structural poverty had been cumulative and like that of Europe.
3. Conjunctural Poverty:
a. Pre-colonial Africa: chief cause was climatic and
political insecurity, perhaps leading to famine deaths.
1. England': last major death: due to famine to cause major
deaths was in 1623.
2. France': was early in 18tH c. Massive famine mortality
disappeared fm Western Europe in 1740's.
3. India: massive famine deaths disappeared (with one
exception) in early 20th. c.
4. China: earlier this century major famine deaths
5. Africa: conjunctural poverty changed this c. too. More
effective government, better transport, wider markets, improved hygiene, medicine brought down mortality rates due to starvation but resulted in "endemic undernutrition for the very poor” (6). Now conjunctive and structural poverty merged.
D. Means of Survival:
1. Institution: to help poor (little seen in Africa, mostly in Christian (i.e.,
Ethiopia) or Islamic regions)
2. Informal and individual charity (more widespread, even where
Christianity and Islam did not penetrate; Graeco-Roman world did not accept idea that poor merited special sympathy)
3. Organisation by poor themselves in underworld o, e.g., Untouchables of
Asia (Africa: rare, more common in modern towns)
4. Own efforts of the poor (crime, begging, hawking, guile (common in Africa).
5. Chief resource for survival is the family.
a. Different family structures in Africa (nuclear, extended)
b. Poverty associated with not having family: barren women, childless
II. Christian Ethiopia
A. History (my category)
1. Francisco Alvares, Portuguese priest who wrote 1st European account of
Ethiopia (1520): "more than 3,000 cripples, blind men, and lepers” at a miraculous shrine close to the ancient capital Axum (9). Lepers don't live apart but with people "who, out of their devotion, wash them and tend their sores with their hands” (11).
2. Father Jerome Lobo (17th c.): "their Charity to the Poor may be said to
exceed the proper bounds"--encouraged great numbers of beggars--"afford more exercise to a Christian's patience, than his Charity" (3).
3. Cornwallis Harris (1840's), regarding a religious festival: "In the adjacent enclosure a crowd of horrible and revolting objects formed the most miserable of spectacles. The palsied, the leprous, the scrofulous, and those in the most inveterate stages of dropsy and elephantiasis, were mingled with mutilated wretches who had been bereft of hands, feet, eyes, and tongues by the sanguinary tyrants of Northern Abyssinia, and who bore with them the severed portions, in order that their bodies might be perfect at the Day of Resurrection...." (10f).
4. 1060's: 85% of population of Addis Ababa fell victim to poliomyelitis
5. Epileptics--thought infectious and greatly feared; likely to "end up as
demented and disfigured beggars around the churchyards and cemeteries" 10, quoted from another quote).
6. Leprosy--special category among poor. Concentrated in isolated rural
region: (e.g.3 Gollam). Beggars, tended to leave homes for centres of wealth and population often clustered into distinct communities; patron saint was Gebre Christos, son of wealthy king who sold his wealth and prayed successfully for leprosy to suffer like Christ; thought to be incurable; Church taught it was a punishment for sin or a test of faith (10); 20th c. account of monks refusing treatment: "the more miserable their bodies the purer their souls would grow” (11). Other reasons: heredity, sorcery, evil spirits, breach of taboos (11).
B. Reflections (my category)
1. "...in Ethiopia, as in early medieval Europe, the very poor were chiefly
the incapacitated" (10).
2. Not old age but widowhood cause of poverty (11).
"Helplessness of unmarried women is a recurrent theme of modern
Amharic literature" (11).
3. Orphans, abandoned children. Nathaniel Pierce (1818), in Adwa,
recorded abandoned children at rich men's doors, women hoping to reclaim them when they escaped poverty (11). "By European standards, however, such children were rare” (11).
"`Curiously with patriarchal people living in communities, a British traveller wrote during the 1890's, `a large family is a source of wealth; just the reverse to what it is in England'“ (11).
4. Some poor because they belonged to "stigmatised, endogamous groups"
a. Craftsmen. "Literally spit on, cursed at, and considered lesser men",
"suspected of sorcery and forbidden to own land, but were not necessarily poorer than their neighbours" (11).
b. 1900, Addis Ababa: "depressed slave communities from southern groups. Not all poor, but a "distinct lower stratum existed among them” (12). "Disinherited slaves who are designated by the soubriquet `tchintchanachker', `servants of the wasteland'“ (12).
Were the infirm, aged, sick, diseased from birth: thus "incapacitation was the chief reason for severe structural poverty in this society" (12).
5. Some poor due to natural catastrophe: (conjunctural poverty):
Famines, due to drought, locusts (10 [check number in Illiffe] recorded famines between 647-1900), excessive rain and cold (1611). Perhaps most terrible in 1889-90 chiefly due to cattle plague. People at one another.
a. Comment on famine behaviour: "initial resort to famine foods,
abandonment of homes when local resource: were exhausted: convergence on churches, monasteries, houses of great men, and
especially the court, wholesale but ultimately inadequate distribution of relief in expectation of spiritual reward, the king's recourse to prayer and symbolic encouragement of self-help, the collapse of men's control of nature and themselves, and the fact that even so widespread a catastrophe weighed most heavily on the poor” (p.13--commenting on report om plague by Menelik II's secretary).
b. Who feels famine worst?
1. Regional differences: dry lowlands saw most death: in 1889-92; arid lands of Tigre suffered repeatedly.
2. Occupations: herdsmen suffered when cattle died, people trying
but unskilled in agriculture.
3. Social differences: abandoned, sole children, aged, infirm, very
6. "Armies were the curse of the Ethiopian peasantry. Ludolphus (17tH c): "The Poverty of the Soldiers impoverished the Countries through which they march, unable to carry provisions through mountains, they take from peasants. (14f).
This in turn leads some peasants to become soldiers, and so on. Emperor
Tewodros (19tH c.): "Soldiers eat, peasants provide” (15).
7. Shefta, or bandit, preyed on the poor because they were powerless (15).
8. Family structure. Except for Gurage, Ethiopian family structures were
Bilateral--one might move to this or that side of the family to claim land inheritance upon marriage. Hence extended family ties were not like in the rest of Africa, and one has fewer people on whom to call in times of need (15f). Divorced, especially barren women, orphans, childless widows, old men suffered because of the lack of a social structure to help them.
9. That the poor were so visible in Ethiopia is mostly due to their clustering together (16).
C. Help for the Poor
1. Miracles of holy men.
a. Takla Haymanot (13tH c. priest): account of healing crippled woman (10).
D. Views on Poverty
1. Part of culture: Fasting, self-mortification, charity have special place in Ethiopian Christianity. (13).
2. Why poor are so numerous and visible in Ethiopia; why so central to the
a. Professor Goody: Ethiopia lies within Africa but culturally outside. Hence: It shared cultural features with pre-industrial Europe which "bred both a poor stratum and a reaction against conspicuous privilege by elite members who instead practised charity or asceticism. These cultural features were the plough, a large agricultural surplus, wide differences of landownership, a culturally distinct ruling class, literacy, and a world religion (14).
b. Iliffe: probably with Goody: "Ethiopia, as in early medieval Europe, the very poor were impoverished less by lack of access to land than by lack of access to labour: they were chiefly those incapacitated and bereft of care" (14).
E. Strategies for Survival
1. Poor can struggle for independence or dependence. In Africa and Europe most poor struggled independently, but in Ethiopia their survival was through dependence (16f).
2. Until about 100 [check number in Iliffe] years ago, Ethiopia used to be bereft of substantial towns, where the poor might try to scrape a living. In Addis Ababa, one might see urchins selling dung, old women selling fire wood, young women prostituting themselves.
3. Hence the prominence of begging. Begging also common since:
a. a man with "clean bones” would rather beg than practice a despised
b. the acceptance of begging in Christianity
4. Who begged?
b. victims of famine and insecurity.
c. Deserving poor vs. able-bodied vagrants. The Ethiopian Church
distinguished these in Fetha Nagash (`Last of the Kings'), in use by 17th c., which said that to give to vagrants was to rob the poor. Yet custom was to give to all who come without distinguishing. Able-bodied vagrants might include students at religious schools for whom begging was spiritual training, and boys far from home in villages.
d. Servant who broke something, debtor, murderer begging blood money (`For my life! For my life!')--each until he has money to repay. (19)
e. Vagabonds: without inns in villages, villagers were obliged to entertain strangers. This created opportunity for vagabonds. (19).
f. Minstrels and praise-singers, performing for the wealthy, rather
preyed on the wealthy. [Cf. priest at Debre Libanos today splashing holy water, giving blessing, expecting money.]
g. Lalibala--descendent of a leprosy sufferer. Considered insolent beyond belief sometimes openly plundering in the marketplace.
h. Accounts do not mention child beggars (except students (20). Suggests
family poverty due to scarcity of land was not yet common.
5. One might turn to religious institutions (20).
a. Zaro [check spelling] spirit possession cult, preserving pre-Christian beliefs, probably provided some help for poor, especially barren women and marginal men with sexual difficulties. Help through providing service: for leader (spinning cotton, etc.).
b. Especially the Church.
1. Churchyard: were places of refuge. People would live
there. Earliest account in existence of this phenomenon comes from 1500’s [cf. Mt. 8.28].
2. Miraculous healing.
3. Deacons (dabtara) incl. many medical experts.
4. Monk: required to provide charity to poor; rules detailed
how. Some casual assistance for travellers, other help was more permanent.
Debre Wagas (Shoa): 16th c. document speaks of hospice for the poor near the church. Debre Bizan (Tigre): many old men, boys brought up from the age of 8, lame and blind--"monks not only cared for the poor, many of them were the poor” [cf. Debre Libanos monk--young boy from Gondor who fled with brother to monastery]. (21). Was common for elderly to retire into a monastery, either after spouse's death or by mutual agreement.
6. Lay charity.
a. During 1889-9: famine, many turned to Emperor and rich (22).
"Menelik opened his granaries and ordered noblemen to care for the famished"; Iyasu did same in 1701; Susenyos in 1627.
b. Also help for structural poor. Emperor Amda Seyon known
for being kind to the poor (1300s); King of Shoa in 1800’s fed
some 200 per day and reserved certain articles of tribute (a coarse black cloth, for poor (22). Tribute reserved for charitable purposes: Yohannes (1665-82) distributed precious metals and clothes he found in the treasury; his successor broke up his crown and gave gold fragments to the poor (22). "Once a fixed capital was established in 1636, emperors" gave feasts which poor could sometimes attend (22). "Zara Yaqo (1434-68) ordered that Christian festivals should be sanctified by the distribution of alms"--this became a practice (22f). Empress "expected to personify female compassion” (23). Also provincial governors, district officials helped structural poor. "Every pious man was expected to give an annual feast for the poor on the festival of his patron saint” (23). Wealthy expected poor to be present at major events in his life (e.g., marriage, death). Alvare (1600s) reports that alms were distributed at certain times after his death. At .teskarô poor at gate must be fee first before banquet begins.
7. Charitable clubs, existing at least by early 19th c.
a. .Sembeteô was a club in which members would alternately bring
food to church, distribute to poor and travellers, then eat the rest (24). Club members helped each other in need, and poor were expected to help a member too, e.g., collecting wood if house had been destroyed, etc.
b. Serkehebestô worked similarly, except food was displayed
alongside the road and travellers ate (24).
F. Theology of Charity (24ff)
1. Set out most systematically in Fetha Nagastô (see Guide, in Fetha Nagast II, pp. 166n82).
2. Alms were "`a loan made to God...secure and advantageous'“ (24).
3. Reward: remission of sin in proportion to his intention given gladly, either publicly or in secret, latter more admirable (24).
4. Help only truly needy, regardless of faith or character (24).
5. Recipient's chief duty: pray for benefactor (24). But in celebration of
Christ’s nativity, even poor expected to give. If healthy in body3 then give work to benefactors (chop wood, etc.): if not, then give a little of one's food to another poor person (24f).
6. Nothing virtuous or honorable about poverty as such: poor not closer to
God (so European theology before St. Francis). Poor played a role in God's economy, permitting others to be charitable (25). Virtue lay in the act of giving, not in being poor. Poverty was noble not in paupers but in holy men (25).
a. E.g.: story from Takla Haymonot (d. 1313. Parents gave to the poor, God
rewarded them with wealth. But no children. Wife convinced husband to give to Church and even furniture to poor "`so that God might be our creditor'“ (25). She conceived, they hold a feast for poor, Takla Haymonot is born, later as a man he distributed all his belongings and entered a life of self-mortification. He withdrew to desert toward his life's end, ate and drank only on Sabbath, lived in a cave cell just large enough to stand in with 8 iron spikes sunk into walls. One thigh bone broke off after standing a long time. Thereafter he stood upon one leg for several years, and he drank no water at all (25n26).
b. Iliffe distinguishes between the Ethiopian ascetic (heroic charity) and St.
Francis (participant charity). Ethiopian ascetic was heroic, not sharing poverty of poor--his austerity was that of a heroic ethos. St. Francis sought to share in the poverty of the poor (26).
c. Holy men weren't hermits3 a: Syrian monasticism3 nor lived the
cenobitic life, as Benedictine Rule. They lived alone in huts or cells around a church, kitchen, and assembly hall. Poor received aid from "institutional resources of the monastery and from the personal charity of the individual holy men" (27).
d. Emphasis on giving seen in some people giving gifts to wealthy, who in
turn were expected to give larger gifts in return (28).
G. Criticism of Wealth and Revolt
1. Given the relationships between rich and poor, criticism of inequality was
2. Revolt was common, often with millenarian elements (28).
a. Isaac the Inciter, a metal-worker who didn't make enough
money to live on, organised a revolt in 1686-7. Yet he also
claimed to be rightful emperor, and people from borders of Shoa
joined in--so it went beyond revolt of the poor.
b. Iliffe seems to say both that it was common and not common. He
notes that Ethiopia was less turbulent than the Europe of the
13tH c. and after--otherwise there was a parallel with Europe in
rare social protest (28).
3. Proverb (on dependency): "Thinking that I would be righteous, I put her
on my back, but she remained hanging there” (28).
4. Poor often brutally treated: respectable citizens sometimes asked that they
be dispersed as a public nuisance; visitors often noted generosity of others to poor (28f).
H. Comparisons and Contrasts with Medieval Europe (29).
1. Equally visible and central
2. Poverty rarely a result of land shortage, hence
3. family poverty and child begging was rare.
4. Structurally poor were mainly the incapacitated.
5. Conjunctural poor were especially numerous in Ethiopia because of drought, famine, insecurity in society.
6. Poor were individuals: categorisation was imprecise and unimportant.
7. Despite availability of land, poor were almost by definition unable to
8. Ethiopia lacked towns and therefore certain means for independent survival.
9. Hence many beggars and recourse to charity.
10. Charity seen as a mean: to earn merits a "loan to God", practised
11. Panache which matched the heroic ethos.
12. "Individualism and legacy of the Eastern Church bred in Ethiopia a lack
of specialised institutions for the poor which was the most important difference (along with the prevalence of drought-induced famine) between poverty there and in early medieval Europe" (29).
I. Ethiopia and other Pre-Colonial Societies
1. Similarity in who poor were: incapacitated, outcaste groups, victims of
climatic or political insecurity.
2. Ethiopian poor were probably more numerous and definitely more visible
anywhere else except in Muslim Africa. Why? Insecurity was extreme in Ethiopia, bilateral kinship proved little family support, "and the scale of Ethiopian society created both a large reservoir of rural poor and institutions which attracted them and made them visible” (29). Most important: such institution was Christian charity and physical institutions of parish church, monastery, court. "Elsewhere in Africa, except in Islamic regions, the poor had fewer opportunities for dependent survival and, therefore, a greater incentive to independent struggle" (29).