updated 5/29/2007 3:50:02 PM ET 2007-05-29T19:50:02

Ethiopia began counting its population Tuesday, a daunting task in a country where asking personal questions is considered socially taboo but where the government and international donors sorely need more information to plan economic and social programs.

More than 100,000 census takers, most of them schoolteachers, fanned out across Africa’s second most populous country as part of a 10-day program to find out from every household details such as how many of them there are, their ethnicity, religion, and the languages they speak.

One out of five homes will also be asked questions about their education and even the condition of their homes.

“In some cases, some people do not like to be asked such questions,” said English teacher Tsedale Endale, 32, a census worker who allowed a reporter from The Associated Press to accompany her. The problem is most prevalent in rural areas, where most Ethiopians live, she said.

“They think that if they count their children, one of them will die soon,” Tsedale said, referring to a popular African superstition.

Population hard to track
The last census was in 1994 when officials found out there were 54 million Ethiopians in the country. Preliminary results of the 2007 population count will be released in five months, and final results in 1½ years.

“It is a huge activity especially in this country, where the majority of the population is not literate, where transportation is not adequate, and so many people live in rural areas,” said Mekonnen Tesfaye, a census official and statistician.

The difficulty of conducting a census in Ethiopia is compounded by the nation’s nearly 90 different ethnic groups and as many languages.

The terrain and weather also make it difficult, delaying the count in some areas such as the remote Afar and Somali regions. The largely nomadic population in those regions disperse over a wide area during the rainy season, which has begun. They will be counted in November when they return to more accessible areas.

That count will be in addition to the 10-day one that began Tuesday.

Taking population counts in African countries has long been difficult. In Nigeria, for example, four censuses have been aborted since independence from Britain in 1960 because of logistical problems and allegations that ethnic and religious groups had sought to inflate their numbers.

Estimate: 79.3 million people
The U.N. Population Fund’s 2006 report estimates Ethiopia has 79.3 million people, ahead of Egypt with 75.4 million people. The most populous country in Africa is Nigeria, with 134.4 million people.

Because most of the officials doing the population count in Ethiopia are teachers, schools closed three weeks early this year to allow them to prepare for the census.

On Tuesday, Tsedale and geography teacher Zemeny Ali, 32, wound their way through the Ethiopian capital’s serpentine neighborhoods to reach a large apartment project where they worked through 40 apartments in four hours.

Residents were for the most part cooperative, many offering tea and food to the census takers. But many also complained that the numbers they cared about were not addressed by the census.

“Life is becoming very expensive,” said 33-year-old Merkineh Mohammed, who fixes fire hydrants for the fire department. But he added, “I don’t expect anything from the government, because the government is also living on aid.”

Complaints already
As much as a third of Ethiopia’s budget is funded by Western aid.

Others complained about the census itself. “The process is too long,” said Mekonnen Alemu, 29, of the 47-question form, which took him half an hour to complete. “We’re asked too many questions.”

The census takers, who are being paid $6 a day, also found the process tedious, but persevered because they believe the exercise is important.

“I think it’s actually a little boring,” Zemeny said after asking two dozen people the same set of questions.

But, Tsedale added, “We do it because we love our country.”

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