Eternal periphery?: toward a socio-political history of Maji, an Ethiopian frontier town, 1898-2020

TitleEternal periphery?: toward a socio-political history of Maji, an Ethiopian frontier town, 1898-2020
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsG.J. Abbink
Secondary TitleInternational journal of African historical studies
Date Published2023
Publication Languageeng
Keywordsdevelopment, Ethiopia, history, small towns

The small town of Maji in Southwest Ethiopia has long been considered the periphery of the periphery. It was founded as a kätäma (fortified settlement)in 1898 by officers of Emperor Menelik II’s imperial army after its conquest of the area by his general Ras Woldegiorgis Aboye, and it developed as a small hub for trans-regional trade and as an imperial border post near British Sudan. It was founded in the territory of the Dizi people and was lightly ‘governed’ and economically marginal. Well into the Dergue period, Maji was seen as an economic and social backwater, as a place of ‘exile’ for political administrators and army officers who had ‘failed’ or incurred the displeasure of their superiors. Its reputation was notorious, as it emerged basically a place based on exploitation or predation of the hinterland after its foundation in 1898: for foreigners (Baluchi and Swahili traders, gold diggers and big game hunters), Ethiopian state agents, long-distance traders, modern-day state bureaucrats, and today also for tourist visitors.Building on pioneer work by historian P. Garretson and a few others, in this paper I reconstruct the outlines of Maji’s socio-cultural history as a microcosmos of Ethiopia’s history and political economy, reflecting structures of power on the local and national level as well as cultural ‘ranking’ and diversity. Following Garretson, I thereby rephrase its reputed ‘isolated’ status then and now: while economic and political connections to the wider society, mediated by youth agency and Internet connection, are slowly emerging, its image of an ‘isolated place’ is still dominant, buttressed by the town’s geographic fringe location. Whether Maji’s current modest growth and transport connectivity are redefining its status as a ‘remote periphery’ and reshape its link to wider political-economic-social networks remains to be seen.


Also published in SocArXiv, March 2, 2024.

Citation Key12746