Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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BAHRU Zewde, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

In addition to the tribute that the Ethiopian peasant was customarily obliged to pay to the lord, he had to bear the more onerous burden of corvée labour. This assumed many forms, including working on the farm of the lord for a certain number of days, building his house and fence, herding cattle, loading pack animals during military campaigns, and carrying the pole for pitching tents. This onerous burden of the Ethiopian peasantry was the subject of many passionate and poignant writings by the reformist intellectuals of the early twentieth century. Many an article was devoted to portraying this situation in graphic detail in the weekly Berhanena Salam (“Light and Peace”), which had effectively evolved as the organ of the reformist intelligentsia.Probably inspired by the writings of the intellectuals, Ras Tafari (and later Emperor Haile Sellassie) issued three decrees that significantly eased the labour burden of the peasant. The first, issued in November 1928, gave the peasant the option of either working for only three days on hudad or giving an equivalent amount in grain. The lord was instructed to desist from asking the peasant to perform any other labour obligations. In May 1935, on the eve of the Fascist Italian invasion, the emperor promulgated another decree abolishing corvée labour and fixing the annual tax at 30 birr per gasha of land. These measures were further consolidated by a decree of October 1944. Progressive as they were, the measures did not abolish corvée labour in its entirety. Indeed, a subsequent decree of October 1950 amplified the 1944 provision by stating that the ban on corvée did not include work done for the Church out of a sense of spiritual obligation, including the building of churches. Moreover, tenants continued to be subjected to labour obligations in addition to the proportion of produce that they were contracted to pay. Equally significant is the persistence of what one could call the “corvéee culture” even after the formal abolition of the institution. The conscription of labour for a national cause became the prerogative of the state. This was particularly evident during the post-1974 military regime. Everyone was liable to be called to serve when the Revolution or the motherland was under threat. This labour service ranged from the preparation of provisions for soldiers fighting against foreign invasion or internal insurgency to the commandeering of civilian pilots to deliver arms and other supplies to the battlefield.