Irreecha: Oromo’s Largest African Festival Celebrated by Millions at Hora Arsadi, Bishoftu
On Sunday October 5, 2014 an estimated 4 million people attended the annual Irreecha Festival at Hora Arasdi (lake) in Bishotu town, located 47.9 kilometers southeast of the Oromo nation’s capital Finfinne (aka Addis Ababa).
Although not conceptually, historically and purposively equivalent, people sometimes superficially use the word from the American holiday “Thanksgiving” to describe Irreecha Festival to expatriates. Oromo and friends of Oromo from across all religions and backgrounds converged to celebrate the transition from a gloomy (dukkana) rainy season to a bright (booqaa) birraa (fall season).
The rainy season that runs for 3 months–June to August– is considered a harsh winter and is associated with darkness and separation from friends and families because of rivers swelling, (and also because of the lack of electricity). In contrast, Fall is considered a more pleasant season of festivity. Honestly the tropical rainy season is not as a harsh a season as Winter as we know it in the northern hemisphere if you have the skills to swim and walk in and on waters.
To say that Irreecha is a celebration of escaping a bad season, would be a gross oversimplification given the long and complex history of the Oromo indigenous African holiday practiced for thousands of years before the arrival of Abrahamic faiths in Oromia, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Some people try to desecularize the holiday, but elders relate to us that Irreecha is quintessentially about uplinking with God and thanking God at natural and beautiful sites that he created for allowing people to withstand harsh weather conditions and natural disasters.
A bouquet of flowers arranged with wet grasses is presented to God (Waaqaa/Creator/Uumaa) as a gift on outdoor natural sites such as rivers, lakes and hilltops. People dip the grasses, coqorsa, in water and sprinkle the water over their foreheads sometimes as a way of receiving blessings.
Then they leave the gifts on the side of a lake for Waaqaa to see and enjoy the sight. This shows the deep Oromo connection with nature and creatures. Irreecha is about thanking God, it’s about preserving the environment, keeping nature intact and green and about maintaining harmony between human and non-human beings in the universe. Hence the prayer for araaraa-reconciliation with God and nature.
The concepts of celebrating the link between uumaa and uumamaa(Creator and Creation) is at the core of Irreecha. It’s also about freedom music, having fun, expressing social grievances and the need for liberation, meeting people, recovering and re-asserting the marginalized and lost Oromo way of life–culture and identity.
According to the description of Irreecha obtained from the website of Waldaa Waaqeffattoota Addunyaa (Council of World Worshippers of the Oromo God), a body with authority to comment on the subjectmatter of Irreecha, Irreecha is celebrated for the following main reasons in outdoor natural settings:
- to thank Waaqaa (God) for blessings and mercies we have received throughout the past year at the sacred ground of Hora Arsadi, Bishotu, Oromia;
- to welcome the new season of plentiful harvests after the dark and rainy winter season associated with disruption of social life; and
- to mark the end of rainy season (winter) and the beginning of Birraa (Fall);
Irreecha has been celebrated for the last 6400 years in Oromia and the Horn of Africa, according to the source above.
With this many million visiting the town of Bishoftu near the Irreecha site, the economic and tourism benefits of Irreecha is obviously tremendous. Pilgrims from other Oromia areas pay for public transportation and stay in hotels and some go to opening and closing concerts and other sub-events contributing to the economic growth of the state. Millions buy cultural clothes as well, which is a huge economic boost for Oromo and other traders.
Seemingly caving to popular demand for the holiday to be registered as a world heritage by UNESCO, Oromia State’s administrators and Ethiopia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism allege that they are teaming up in an effort to register Irreecha with UNESCO and report that 80% of the work needed for the registration has already been completed. While seeking international recognition is right, ironically Ethiopia doesn’t have the holiday on its list of national holidays. If it materializes (it is a big IF), this can be an important development as many Ethiopian regimes have long suppressed every element of Oromo culture as alien even internally, let alone seeking international recognition for them.
The Abbaa Gadaas who did the blessings praising the Ethiopian government did so under duress and they may not mean it anyway. The EPRDF government deployed an an entire Central Command part of its army in full gear, making the festival tense and occupied by TPLF soldiers. Yet, Qeerroo Oromiyaa kept singing freedom songs and didn’t budge at this huge display of force.
Notes: Italicized words are from Afan Oromo, a language spoken by the Oromo people, making up nearly half of Ethiopia’s population, single largest and one of the most repressed ethno-national groups in Oromia and Ethiopia.
“Holiday” and “Holyday” can be used interchangeably in this text depending on why you are clebrating Irreecha.
Gadaa.com’s Irreecha “Central” is recommended if you want to view further photos and videos of the event in Oromia, Ethiopia and worldwide.