Agriculturalists, the Aari cultivate maize and sorghum (or inset in very high altitudes), supplemented by other grains and legumes. Vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and various root plants also flourish. Plentiful rains and fertile soil produce rich crops most years, even when neighboring areas suffer drought. Cash crops are coffee and cardamom. People raise sheep (or goats in the lowlands) and cattle as well as chickens. Mules are the favored beasts of burden, coping well with narrow, slippery trails, but tending to succumb to disease in the lowlands. Within the past 15 years some all-weather roads have been built to reach major towns in the area.
Heavy rainfall washes iodine and other nutrients from the soil, resulting in a high incidence of goiter in the highlands. In the past lack of access to medical help made for a high infant mortality rate, fistulas and a fair number of deaths in child bearing. Respiratory and digestive tract diseases still claim many lives among the very young. Malaria is a growing problem in the lowlands; occasional outbreaks of meningitis and relapsing fever occur. Immunization programs for children are lowering the rate of tetanus, measles and other diseases. A new hospital in Jinka, the regional capital, meets a real felt need. The Aari generally do not practice female genital mutilation, nor is male circumcision culturally prescribed.
The artisans (blacksmiths, tanners, wood carvers, potters, basket weavers) belong to a particular lineage called Mana. Traditionally they were despised by other clans and were not allowed to marry outside of their own lineage, but this is changing with the influence of both the Gospel and politics. They are said to have their own language, although they speak Aari fluently. They make the waali, a sickle-like instrument with wide curved blade that is useful for cutting through thick brush, lopping off small tree limbs, etc. This tool is found in every home and coveted by neighboring people groups. Wood carvers make beautifully decorated chairs, bowls and other household items.
The capital of the region, Jinka, is located about 60 miles from Kenya and 80 miles from Sudan. Only about 1/4 of the population is ethnically Aari. The Aari are surrounded by semi-nomadic peoples who traditionally raid each other's cattle. For the most part the Aari live at peace with their neighbors, who do not consider it bravery to kill an Aari because of the Aaris' non-warring, agricultural lifestyle. For this reason the Aari can work very effectively as evangelists among the surround people groups. And if they have the whole Bible in their heart language, they will be better equiped to evangelize their neighbors.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Amhara rulers sent by Emperor Menelik II to secure the area became landlords and the Aari were reduced to serfdom. This and the introduction of 'araqe, a strong alcoholic drink, contributed to a decline in Aari culture with resulting low self-esteem and lack of initiative. With the overthrow of the monarchy in 1974, the land was reclaimed by the Aari people. Their social and economic situation has improved considerably over the past quarter century. Interest in education has increased, and most towns have a school.
Orthodox Christian priests accompanied the military forces and rulers sent in by the emperors; there is an Orthodox church in almost every town. Most Aari still follow a traditional religion which includes veneration of ancestors, with beliefs about the origin of clans (from a certain river, mountain, tree, etc.). Sickness, infertility and death may be attributed to the resentment of a deceased relative. The relative is appeased by the offering of a sacrifice, usually a sheep. When a person dies, a sheep may be slaughtered and its intestines "read" to find the cause of death. The oldest son of the oldest generation performs rites for the whole clan. SIM and the Kale Hiywot Church, which grew out of SIM's ministry, have been active in the area since the early 1950s, and about 10% of the population claim evangelical Christian faith. More recently the number of mosques has increased, but few Aari profess to be Muslims.
There are nine or ten dialects of Aari, a dialect area usually being equated with a former chiefdom. The central dialect is Sido, spoken in the area by that name. I lived in the Sido area, just outside of a town called Metser, from March 1988 to July 1998. The Aari translation team produced a primer (1991), the New Testament (1997) and several small books in the Aari language. We also translated Genesis Exodus, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Esther, Ruth, Psalms, Leviticus, Joshua and Judges. Only Genesis has been published. Another organization is currently working with the Aari churches to complete the Aari Bible and promote literacy.
The literacy rate in Aari at present is probably less than 10%. We produced a Bible-content primer series, and my vision was to see these primers used to evangelize the whole Aari area, bringing the literacy rate to 100%. After the primers were published, the Aari church leaders decided to change the spelling system. This means a new series of primers need to be prepared.