Falasha - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In Ethiopia, the Falasha were (and are) subsistence farmers and artisans (blacksmiths and potters). In the traditional prerevolutionary social order, they were tenant-peasants, eking out a living on land owned by the Amhara-Tigray; only a few Falasha families retained land rights given to their ancestors in the days of kings Fasilades and Galawdewos (sixteenth century). The main crops were the indigenous Ethiopian cereal téff ( Eragrostis téff ), wheat, maize, beans, and chickpeas. They also cultivated garden crops, such as spices, oilseeds, onions, and cabbage. Surpluses were marketed in the regional markets in small quantities. Livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, chickens) were raised in very small numbers. In their cultivation system (i.e., the use of ox-drawn plows and the rotation of crops), the Falasha hardly differed from the Amhara-Tigray peasants; however, their standard of living was usually lower. After the revolution of 1974, the traditional landholding system was abolished. Peasants were entitled to receive up to ten hectares for cultivation, within the framework of the new peasant associations. (All land was nationalized after the Land Proclamation Act of April 1975.) This ended the overt social inequality and exploitation of the peasants, although it did not immediately solve all problems or lead to a rise in living standards. In one village (Weleqa, near Gonder town), women earned some cash income from the sale of small black clay figures for the tourist market. This product was first introduced in the 1930s and has no traditional base whatsoever in Falasha culture. The Falasha were also well known in northwestern Ethiopia as a caste of artisans: potters and blacksmiths (and, less commonly, weavers). Because of imports of cheap iron tools and cooking utensils, however, the Falasha have been forced to subsist more and more on agriculture and some small-scale trade, which has also grown markedly. In Israel, the occupational structure of the Falasha/Ethiopian Jewish community is completely altered. Settled in urban areas, they are trained as skilled or semiskilled workers and find employment in industry, in offices, or as agricultural wage laborers. Very few have been able to set up independent private businesses. The young people, having completed high school or other training courses, quickly attain a much higher educational standard than the previous generation, improving their position in the job market.

Industrial Arts. Apart from craft work (see "Subsistence and Commercial Activities"), the Falasha had no forms of industrial art. In Israel, the women have retained and developed the production of traditional colorful basketry, although now with cotton thread instead of the tough and durable Ethiopian reeds.

Trade. In Ethiopia, the Falasha traded their surplus agricultural products at the regional open-air markets, which were held at fixed weekly intervals. There they also sold their pottery wares and iron tools. Some Falasha blacksmiths were noted for their repair work on old guns (like Männlicher, Fusil Gras, Albin, and so forth).

Division of Labor. Traditionally, the Falasha have been plow agriculturists. Men do most of the work in the fields (i.e., plowing, sowing, weeding, and harvesting—the last on a collective, mutual-help basis). Men also do the blacksmithing, weaving, and building. Women cultivate the gardens, perform the domestic tasks (preparing food, cleaning, taking care of children), draw water, and supply firewood. In addition, they produce pottery for domestic use and for sale. They also sell products in the markets. In the 1960s some Falasha men went to work as laborers in Addis Ababa and Asmara, and as sailors in Mesewa, but labor migration in general has always been insignificant. In Israel, the social structure of the Falasha community being entirely different, women are, in a way, becoming more dependent both within the household and in a wider social sense, as wage laborers competing with others in a tough job market.

Land Tenure. Before 1974, the Falasha were landless peasants paying heavy annual tributes to Amhara-Tigray landlords. Only a few Falasha had customary land-use rights. They were essentially a caste, "appended" to the Ethiopian "feudalist" system. In the Tigray region, however, many Falasha did own land. Following the introduction of wide-ranging land reform after 1975, the Falasha worked their own parcels of land within the framework of "peasant associations," which were collective communities designed to develop into full-fledged producers' cooperatives. In most of these peasant associations, Falasha lived together with the Amhara peasants on a more equal footing than they previously did, although the old fears about the Falasha possessing the evil eye are still not completely eradicated. There are also indications that religious differences and the Falasha's known desire to move to Israel continue to cause occasional friction.


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