I hadn’t lived in Debre Markos for long when I was warned about the Shifta, roaming groups of bandits in the rural areas not far from here. If I wandered in the wrong area, I might be robbed, or worse. I took the warning with a grain of salt because I’d already wandered pretty wide, if not far, into the countryside. I’d encountered no problems at all; in fact I found the country people more respectful and friendly, on the whole, that the city folks here. But there was a certain allure to the idea of these Shifta, a mystique piqued by that hint of danger. Who were these people? My understanding was that they’d long lived in this region, surviving on robbery and light terror.
Later on I would hear the term shifta in other contexts, and I dropped that capital letter in my understanding. This was not a specific, organized group; shifta was a general term for any armed bandit or group of bandits. I was pretty sure this was correct. But much later I was puzzled when reading Theroux’s Dark Star Safari. He was traveling through Ethiopia and trying to make his way south into Kenya when that familiar but forgotten word popped from the page. The passage started like this:
Only cattle trucks went south, in a straggling convoy of ten vehicles or so. “Because of the shifta.” The name was derived from a raiding, plundering, bloodthirsty Somali clan, the Mshifta, but now meant any roaming bandit in the great desert that extended from Somalia to Sudan and took in the whole of northern Kenya. The shifta tended to raid remote settlements and ambush isolated people and vehicles on the road. There were only a few roads but many shifta.
So my understanding was essentially correct based on Theroux’s explanation. But the idea that term was confined to the desert area just didn’t jibe with what I’d heard; the term had obviously spread far from the southern deserts, way up into the highlands of Amhara.
Just today I read another puzzling piece of reportage. Despite the seriousness of the incident, I reacted quizzically when I read a recent article from the Sudan Tribune:
Ethiopian gunmen attack Sudanese governor
A convoy carrying the governor of Sudan’s eastern state of Al-Qadarif across the shared borders with Ethiopia on Sunday was attacked by suspected members of the Ethiopian gang known as Shifta, Sudan Tribune has learned. The attack took place as the convoy of the governor, Karam Allah Abbas, was crossing Um Dabalo area in Abu Sanda Sudanese locality bordering Ethiopia. Abbas was on his way to the neighboring Amhara Region of Ethiopia for a meeting with its governor when he stopped in Um Dabalo after spotting an Ethiopian farmer working in the area. The governor started an argument with the Ethiopian farmer and told him that the land belongs to Sudan, at which point a group of armed Ethiopian men arrived at the scene and opened fire on the governor’s convoy.
The news report seems to insinuate a political motive behind the attack, with tensions between the two countries as a backdrop. But is there actually an “Ethiopian gang” called “Shifta?” Or were these just garden variety, opportunistic shifta, with a lower case s, taking advantage of a situation, “ambush(ing) isolated people and vehicles on the road”?
With free time on my hands and Wolf Leslau’s Concise Amharic Dictionary at my side, I did a speck of lazy research. On a hunch, I looked up the word “bandit” in the English portion of the book. The first corresponding Amharic entry? Shifta.