Much Amhara ingenuity has long been invested in the direct exploitation of natural resources. An Amhara would rather spend as much time as necessary searching for suitably shaped hard or soft saplings for a walking cane than perform carpentry, which is traditionally largely limited to constructing the master bed ( alga ), wooden saddles, and simple musical instruments. Soap is obtained by crushing the fruit of the endod ( Pircunia abyssinica ) bush. Tannin for depilation of hides and curing is obtained from the yellow fruit of the embway bush. Butter is preserved and perfumed by boiling it with the leaves of the odes (myrtle) bush. In times of crop failure, edible oil is obtained by gathering and crushing wild-growing sunflower seeds ( Carthamus tinctorus ). If necessary, leaves of the lola bush can be split by women to bake the festive bread dabbo. The honey of a small, tiny-stingered bee ( Apis dorsata ) is gathered to produce alcoholic mead, tej, whereas the honey of the wild bee tazemma ( Apis Africans miaia ) is gathered to treat colds and heart ailments. Fishing is mostly limited to the three-month rainy season, when rivers are full and the water is muddy from runoff so that the fish cannot see the fishers. Hunting elephants used to be a sport of young feudal nobles, but hunting for ivory took place largely in non-Amhara regions. Since rifles became available in Amhara farming regions, Ethiopian duikers and guinea fowl have nearly disappeared.
Subsistence farming provides the main economy for most rural Amhara. The traditional method required much land to lie fallow because no fertilization was applied. Cattle manure is formed into flat cakes, sun dried, and used as fuel for cooking. New land, if available, is cleared by the slash-and-burn method. A wooden scratch plow with a pointed iron tip, pulled by oxen, is the main farming tool. Insecurity of land tenure has long been a major factor in discouraging Amhara farmers from producing more than the amount required for subsistence. The sharecropping peasant ( gabbar ) was little more than a serf who feared the (often absentee) feudal landlord or military quartering that would absorb any surplus. The revolutionary government (1975-1991) added additional fears by its villagization program, moving peasants at command to facilitate state control and deporting peasants to the south of Ethiopia, where many perished owing to poor government planning and support.
The preferred crop of the Amhara is tyeff ( Eragrostis abyssinica; Poa abyssinica ), the small seeds of which are rich in iron. At lower or drier elevations, several sorghums (durras) are grown: mashella ( Andropogon sorghum), often mixed with the costlier tyeff flower to bake the flapjack bread injera; zengada (Eleusina multiforme), grown as crop insurance; and dagussa ( Eleusine coracana, or tocusso ), used as an ingredient in beer together with barley. Wheat ( Triticum spp.), sendē, is grown in higher elevations and is considered a luxury. Barley ( Hordeum spp.), gebs, is a year-round crop, used primarily for brewing talla, a mild beer, or to pop a parched grain, gebs qolo, a ready snack kept available for guests. Maize, bahēr mashella, is recognized as a foreign-introduced crop.
The most important vegetable oil derives from nug ( Guizotia abyssinica ), the black Niger seed, and from talba ( Linum usitatissimum ), flax seed. Cabbage ( gomen ) is regarded as a poor food. Chick-peas are appreciated as a staple that is not expected to fail even in war and famine; they are consumed during the Lenten season, as are peas. Onions and garlic are grown as ingredients for wot, the spicy stew that also contains beans, may include chicken, and always features spicy red peppers—unless ill heath prevents their consumption. Lentils substitute for meat during fasting periods. The raising of livestock is traditionally not directly related to available pasture, but to agriculture and the desire for prestige. Oxen are needed to pull the plow, but traditionally there was no breeding to obtain good milkers. Coffee may grow wild, but the beans are usually bought at a market and crushed and boiled in front of guests; salt—but not sugar—may be added.
Division of Labor. Although much needed, the castelike skilled occupations like blacksmithing, pottery making, and tanning are held in low esteem and, in rural regions, are usually associated with a socially excluded ethnic grouping. Moreover, ethnic workmanship is suspected of having been acquired by dealings with evil spirits that enable the artisans to turn themselves into hyenas at night to consume corpses, cause diseases by staring, and turn humans into donkeys to utilize their labor. Such false accusations can be very serious. On the other hand, the magic power accredited to these workers is believed to make their products strong, whereas those manufactured by an outsider who might have learned the trade would soon break. The trade of weaving is not afflicted by such suspicions, although it is sometimes associated with Muslims or migrants from the south.
Land Tenure. Land tenure among traditional rural Amhara resembled that of medieval Europe more than that found elsewhere in Africa. Feudal institutions required the gabbar to perform labor ( hudād ) for his lord and allocated land use in exchange for military service, gult. In a system resembling the European entail, inheritable land, rest, was subject to taxation (which could be passed on to the sharecroppers) and to expropriation in case of rebellion against the king. Over the centuries, endowed land was added to fief-holding church land, and debber ager. Royal household lands were classified as mād-bet, and melkenya land was granted to tax collectors. Emperor Haile Selassie attempted to change the feudal system early in his administration. He defeated feudal armies, but was stymied in abrogating feudalistic land tenure, especially in the Amhara region, by feudal lords such as Ras Kassa. The parliament that he had called into existence had no real power All remaining feudal land tenure was abrogated during the revolutionary dictatorship (1975-1991), but feudalistic attitudes practiced by rural officials, such as shum shir (frequently moving lower officials to other positions to maintain control), appear to have persisted.