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Against the waves

Insights of the 2014 Irreecha festival

By Daniel Dormeyer

When they left from Addis Ababa early in the morning of Sunday October 5, the two Europeans, James Cator from England and Daniel Dormeyer from Germany, accompanied by two Ethiopians, Minassie Alemayehu and Haile Mekonen, did not really gauge the significance and importance of what they would experience when attending Irreecha in Bishoftu, Oromia regional state, around 45 minutes south of the capital.

With almost one third of Ethiopia’s population, the Oromo constitute the largest ethnicity in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.

Cator and Dormeyer had just arrived, excited about a country charged of history, culture and noble values, and willing to overcome waves of preconceived ideas about Ethiopia.

The season of blessing and love

Traditionally decorated Oromos headed by a man with baboon skin head dress

Traditionally decorated Oromos headed by a man with baboon skin head dress

Established by Oromo forefathers, Irreacha (also called Irreessa) takes place annually throughout Oromia and amongst Oromo communities abroad on the first Sunday of last week of September or the first Sunday of the first week of October according to Oromo time reckoning (Dhahaa). Bishoftu hosts the major gathering of a festival believed to be one of the largest in Africa.

Known as Oromo’s Thanksgiving to their God (Waaqa) for his goodness over the past year, Irreecha marks the beginning of a new lunar calendar and a seasonal change from winter to spring, and more particularly the end time of starvation (Gadaa Belbaa), disunity, chaos (Mormor), and the auspicious occasion to wish plentiful harvests in the upcoming year.

After a pleasant drive through enchanting though unexpected landscapes on the uncrowded highway in the wee hours of the morning, during which they wondered about a dead hyena and the probability of getting hit by a car, the multicultural group of friends finally reached Bishoftu.

Bishoftu means “the land full of water” in Oromiffa language. Indeed, the main ceremony would take place at the Lake Hora Arsadii. In fact they reached sacred ground, where Oromo people believe God will grant all their wishes.

Waves of joy, harmony and unity

The car needed to get parked right before a blocked area. It was a short, but already crowded walk down to the lake. The rising sun dispelled the last clouds around Bishoftu, and casted bright spotlights on first waves of chanting and dancing people running down the street and moving towards the venue. Like tens of thousands of Ethiopia’s ethnic Oromo, they gathered for Irreecha to celebrate the transition from the dark and challenging rain season to the sunny new Birraa (Spring) season.

Even though some habitants got together in front of their homes around a delicious coffee while teenagers were still playing football, they knew that new waves of people from different parts of the country would arrive soon and just take them along to the ceremony. The effervescence, an irresistible attraction was already palpable.

“I was so impressed by the huge number of people, all beautifully dressed and moving ahead peacefully and cheerfully. A real festival of colors. I can’t remember having seen in my country such a traditional event respected and followed by so many people and with so much passion.”, Cator says.

Symbols of an identity and a worldview

The group of four bought scarfs in the traditional white / red / black colors and a green tree on it, as well as the green grass and yellow flowers (umama) to comply with the tradition. Indeed, everything related to Irreecha has a meaning and a purpose: for instance the Oromo gather in symbolic places such as hilltops, river sides and the shades of big sacred trees. Green being a symbol of fertility, peace, abundance and rain.

At Lake Hora Arsadii the three predominant Oromo colors on the Oromia’s traditional dressings sticked out of this huge green area.

Waves of joy and happiness brought the pilgrims and the group of four to the shores, amongst thousands of people already standing there and waiting the elders to stir long grasses in the lake before sprinkling the blessed water. They believe to get blessed as well and that it will bring them closer to Waaqa (God). Many of them also made presents to thank God for the blessings and mercies received in the previous year.

In the distance various boats could be spotted on the lake, sometimes with newly married couples aboard.

An older man started explaining the spiritual significance of Irreecha to Minassie and his obligation to convey the meaning of a ritual that has been passed down many generations and that will be passed to the next ones.

Then the group of friends also dipped their grass in the water, trying to imitate the repetitive hand movements people did to reject all possible bad vibrations while making wishes. Probably more generally about peace and health when the Oromos praise God also for fertility and abundance with regards to the one who matter to them, their livestock and the upcoming harvest.

Three united dimensions

Overwhelmed by this visual feast of colors and the irresistible vision of fraternity, the four friends climbed back to a clearing where the main ceremony would take place. The white seats in the shade of the big sacred trees they spotted when walking down to the lake were now occupied by the central persons of the blessing festival.

At this very moment the group of four realized the union of three dimensions of Irreecha: religious, political and social.

First this thanksgiving embraces all religious persuasions: Christians (amongst them Orthodox, Protestants), Muslim and Animists. They all came to thank the higher force and pray for a fruitful harvest.

Second Oromos from all ages and all stripes gather to Irreecha, sharing the same values and respect for the traditions.

Third various officials (speaker of the House of Peoples’ Representatives, officials from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, President of the Oromia Regional State) performed in harmony with the honored Abagedas (the elders, the traditional leaders of the Oromo community, elected according to the traditional Gadaa principles). The speeches were held in three languages: English, Amharic and Oromiffa. Solemnity, pride, confidence and magnificence emerged from the speeches, reminding people about the uniqueness of this highly symbolic and truly global event.

Ethiopia is coming

Warmth was in the air and also in the words. Besides the respect of tradition and the awareness for the Oromo culture and history, this unique event symbolizes the pride and rise of Ethiopia.

Elites and supporters got encouraged to help paving the way for promoting Ethiopian values of sharing and fraternity conveyed by Irreecha, but also to convince the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to register this outstanding festival on the representative list Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“The holiday is the only occasion, to the best of my knowledge, that brings together members from all religious persuasions to honor it. Seeing the masses attending this day is an evidence to how people here have not abandoned their traditional values even as they embrace modernity. It’s no wonder that it is a candidate for UNESCO’s World Heritage list with generations after generations protecting it,”Minassie says.

A sign sent to the world

When the group of four left, they walked back against further, even more massive waves of people joining the celebration. Waves of peace (Nagaa), freedom (bilisummaa), unity (tokkummaa), and reconciliation (araara), bringing people closer to each other and making religious, political and social bonds.

The two Europeans perceived Irreecha also as a positive movement against many waves they are experiencing in their societies: tradition resisting to modernity (people still looking for endorsement by the elder), all ages united instead of generations divided, all social classes brought together rather than class struggle, all confessions in harmony unlike so many parts of the world.

This year Oromos celebrated the Irreecha blessing festivities in millions. The group of four felt proud and honored to have been part of this movement. And they simply let themselves go with these positive waves.


Irrecha: From Thanksgiving Ritual to Strong Symbol of Oromo Identity

By Asebe Regassa, PhD Candidate, Bayreuth University | August 24, 2013

Introduction: Irrecha celebration in Hora Arsadi
 1186672_10201587883435512_1748561943_nIt has become evident since recently that the Oromo across religious, political and geographical boundaries have converged together in celebrating an annual ritual/festival called irrecha. Historically, irrecha has been understood and practiced within the context Oromo religion, Waaqeffannaa – a belief in one supernatural power called Waaqa (God). However, as I will discuss shortly in this piece, irrecha has undergone some transformations in accommodating non-religious aspects of Oromo culture and thus has played significant role in building Oromo identity and sense of unity. In the contemporary context where the ritual brings Oromo across different walks of life, irrecha should be understood more as an arena where Oromo identity is articulated, reconstructed, built and practiced, rather than as a religious-oriented or a mere thanksgiving celebration. Before delving into some historical trajectories that shaped irrecha to be the way it is practiced today, I will briefly clarify on some conceptual understandings of the ritual itself.

Traditionally, the Oromo practiced irrecha ritual as a thanksgiving celebration twice a year (in autumn and spring) to praise Waaqa (God) for peace, health, fertility and abundance they were given with regards to the people, livestock, harvest and the entire Oromo land. Irrecha is celebrated as a sign of reciprocating Waaqa in the form of providing praise for what they got in the past, and is also a forum of prayer for the future. In such rituals, the Oromo gather in places with symbolic meanings such as hilltops, river side and shades of big sacred trees. Here, I would like to make clear that Oromo people never worship any of these physical landscapes though some outsiders and detractors of Oromo culture and religion represent it as such. Rather, these physical landscapes are chosen for their representations in Oromo worldviews, for example, green is symbolized with fertility, peace, abundance and rain.

In Oromia, the core center of irrecha celebration has been around Hora Arsadi in Bishoftu town, some 25kms to the south of Finfinne, the capital city. Annually, particularly during the Irrecha birraa (the Autumn Irrecha) in September or October, the Oromo from different parts of the country come together and celebrate the ritual. In the past few decades, irrecha celebrations have been expanded both in content as well as geographical and demographic representations. This short commentary deals with such historical trajectories by contextualizing the changes within political discourses in Ethiopia vis-à-vis Oromo nationalism.

Irrecha in Pre-1991 PeriodsAny analysis of the rights of Oromo people to exercise its culture, religion, economy, governance, language and identity within the Ethiopian state should be positioned within the historical trajectories that brought the birth of the modern Ethiopian state and the subsequent political, economic and cultural dominations unfolded upon the subjugated peoples of the South in which the Oromo people was a part. Following the military conquest of the different hitherto autonomous states of the South by the army of Menelik II in the late 19th century, the Amhara ruling group imposed its culture, language, religion and political dominance over the subjugated nations and nationalities. Menelik’s soldiers dispossessed the land of the conquered people and reduced them to the status of tenancy. In areas of religion, Orthodox Christianity was installed as the only legitimate religion while other religious practices were denigrated, discouraged and at times banned. For instance, Orthodox priests took the place of Oromo Abba Qaalluu and other religious leaders. Oromo religious and cultural practices became targets of state repression during those times. Irrecha rituals were very restricted and were portrayed by state backed Orthodox Christian church as a practice of devilish worship.

The military regime that overthrew the imperial regime in 1974 initially seemed to have tolerated traditional cultural practices, language diversity and religion but its communist orientation and ‘modernist’ discourse had placed the regime at odds with these fundamental rights of the peoples of the country – the right to cultural and religious practices. While it outlawed ‘religion’ – though Orthodox Christianity did not face state persecution as other religious sects – it labeled traditional cultural practices such as irrecha as ‘backward’ and obstacles to development and revolutionary ethos of the regime. As a result, irrecha and other Oromo religious and cultural practices were banned by the government.

It is imperative to mention two fundamental motives behind state suppression of irrecha (as common to other Oromo cultural practices) during those eras. First, successive Ethiopian regimes had subtle and overt policies of establishing culturally, linguistically and religiously ‘homogenized’ Ethiopia in their quest to build Ethiopian nationalism as a replica of Amhara and to some extent Tigrayan identities. Secondly, the Ethiopian state was built on a cultural and political identity that depicted Amhara/Tigrayan cultural/political superiorities. The myth of ‘great tradition’ that portrays the North as cradle of ‘civilization’ and conversely demotes the South to the opposite was in the center of Ethiopian state identity. This myth has been used to legitimize exclusionary policies of the state against the people in the conquered region in the process of political, economic and cultural representations. In the process, denigrating the culture or religion of the ‘Others’ as ‘backward’ was used as strong instrument to place one’s own on the privileged position.

The Revitalization of Irrecha in post-1991 PeriodIn 1991, Ethiopia underwent remarkable political reconfiguration following the overthrow of the military regime. The analysis of the political ideologies of the new regime is not the objective and scope of this piece. Rather, it suffices to mention that the new political arrangement along ethnic federalism fundamentally deconstructed the old illusion of nation building along one dominant cultural path. Ethnic groups (nations and nationalities) were for the first time given a constitutional right to exercise, preserve and promote their religion, culture, language and history. Although the translation of these constitutional rights into practice has faced inconsistencies and flaws all through the last twenty years, it was a breakthrough in providing a political space for cultural revitalization.

Under the initiative and organizational leadership of Macha-Tulama Association, irrecha celebrations were started in Hora Arsadi in mid 1990s. As the period was the heyday of Oromo nationalism and self-conscious, irrecha became not only a religious practice as in the past; rather it served as an arena where Oromo people across religious boundaries could meet and share their common identity. However, it maintained its fundamental element of Oromo’s connection to Waaqa (God). The thanksgiving ceremonies, prayers and blessings by elders have put Waaqa in the center of the ritual while songs and material culture the youth decorated themselves with brought into the scene political and emerging Oromo national identity. In both cases however, two fundamental principles of the ritual were consistent across different time spans. Firstly, irrecha served and still serves as a medium or symbol of connection between Oromo and Waaqa through thanksgivings, prayers and blessings. Secondly, irrecha rituals reflect how emotional, cultural, psychological, spiritual and identity issues are embedded and embodied within the Oromo and thus one cannot dissociate one of these elements from another.

Another major feature of the post-1991 irrecha celebration was that it attracted more of the youth and the educated class than before. This should be contextualized within the broader Oromo consciousness and the rise in Oromo nationalism. University students, government civil servants, businessmen/women and people in different professions were highly involved in the celebrations. It became at times an arena where people could meet, discuss and demonstrate their common issues – political and cultural to a larger extent.

However, it soon became a contested space between different actors, mainly between political parties (the ruling party and opposition political parties and movements). The ruling party was confronted by two ambivalent developments on its side with regard to irrecha and other Oromo cultural revitalization movements. Firstly, the constitutional provisions its enacted grants, in theory, the right of nations and nationalities to exercise their culture, religion, language and history. On the other hand, people’s exercise of such rights – like the case of irrecha, music, language, etc. – would inevitably raise the level of self-consciousness of the people that would in the long run challenge the status qou. For example, using the constitutional right as a legal protection, many participants on irrecha used to ecorate themselves with material culture and costumes that reflect the flags of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) rather than that of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). Around the year 2003/04, the government of Ethiopia heavily scrutinized irrecha festival and tried to manipulate it for its own advantage. Since then, irrecha in Oromia fell under full control of the government. While such intervention gave irrecha more publicity on the one hand, as the celebration was at times given huge coverage on state media, it has added a political dimension on the other hand. It should be noted, however, that the contestability of this cultural field still persists despite strong state intervention.

Irrecha in ExileIrrecha is not only practiced among the Oromo in Oromia. As hundreds of the Oromo are in exile for different reasons, their culture, religion, language and identity also exiled with them. Because irrecha has a cultural ambiance in connecting the people to Oromo land and the creator, Waaqa, it still remained as strong element of connection between the Oromo in diaspora and home – Oromia. In the past ten years or so, the Oromo across different parts of the world (from Toronto to Melborne and Bergen to Johannesburg) have come together and celebrated irrecha as a common icon of their identity. If anything could be mentioned in bridging the differences (political and religious) within Oromo in the diaspora, irrecha has become the major binding force not as a mere cultural or religious practice but for its conjoint constitution of culture and identity. Currently, irrecha has got publicity among the non-Oromos (Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians alike) to the extent that city administrations in different countries recognized the celebration and granted the Oromo with the spaces for the ritual.

To sum up, irrecha as one of the Oromo cultural practices has responded to different forms of internal and external influences but persisted across history in binding the Oromo across religious, political and geographical boundaries together. Today, it is considered as the major unifying emblem of Oromo identity. Despite relentless attempts by different actors (interest groups) to appropriate irrecha for their interests or to demote it altogether, it continued to be a marker of Oromo’s embedded cultural identity. Among the diaspora in particular, where political rift is more apparent, irrecha is believed to converge differences and in the future investing on how Oromo common markers of identity would contribute to common visions of the people should be the core agenda of all the Oromo.

Oromo Activists Fight US-Backed Land Seizures

Oromo ethnic group

Ethiopians of the Oromo ethnic group stage a protest against the ruling government. (Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi)

This article is a joint publication of and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Yehun and Miriam have little hope for the future.

“We didn’t do anything and they destroyed our house,” Miriam told me. “We are appealing to the mayor, but there have been no answers. The government does not know where we live now, so it is not possible for them to compensate us even if they wanted.”

Like the other residents of Legetafo—a small, rural town about twenty kilometers from Addis Ababa—Yehun and Miriam are subsistence farmers. Or rather, they were, before government bulldozers demolished their home and the authorities confiscated their land. The government demolished fifteen houses in Legetafo in July.

The farmers in the community stood in the streets, attempting to prevent the demolitions, but the protests were met with swift and harsh government repression. Many other Oromo families on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s bustling capital are now wondering whether their communities could be next.

These homes were demolished in order to implement what’s being called Ethiopia’s “Integrated Master Plan.” The IMP has been heralded by its advocates as a bold modernization plan for the “Capital of Africa.”

The plan intends to integrate Addis Ababa with the surrounding towns in Oromia, one of the largest states in Ethiopia and home to the Oromo ethnic group—which, with about a third of the country’s population, is its largest single ethnic community. While the plan’s proponents consider the territorial expansion of the capital to be another example of what US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the country’s “terrific efforts” toward development, others argue that the plan favors a narrow group of ethnic elites while repressing the citizens of Oromia.

“At least two people were shot and injured,” according to Miriam, a 28-year-old Legetafo farmer whose home was demolished that day. “The situation is very upsetting. We asked to get our property before the demolition, but they refused. Some people were shot. Many were beaten and arrested. My husband was beaten repeatedly with a stick by the police while in jail.”

Yehun, a 20-year-old farmer from the town, said the community was given no warning about the demolitions. “I didn’t even have time to change my clothes,” he said sheepishly. Yehun and his family walked twenty kilometers barefoot to Sendafa, where his extended family could take them in.

The Price of Resistance

Opponents of the plan have been met with fierce repression.

“The Integrated Master Plan is a threat to Oromia as a nation and as a people,” Fasil stated, leaning forward in a scuffed hotel armchair. Reading from notes scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper, the hardened student activist continued: “The plan would take away territory from Oromia,” depriving the region of tax revenue and political representation, “and is a cultural threat to the Oromo people living there.”

A small scar above his eye, deafness in one ear and a lingering gastrointestinal disease picked up in prison testify to Fasil’s commitment to the cause. His injuries come courtesy of the police brutality he encountered during the four-year prison sentence he served after he was arrested for protesting for Oromo rights in high school and, more recently, against the IMP at Addis Ababa University.

Fasil is just one of the estimated thousands of students who were detained during university protests against the IMP. Though Fasil was beaten, electrocuted and harassed while he was imprisoned last May, he considers himself lucky. “We know that sixty-two students were killed and 125 are still missing,” he confided in a low voice.

The students ground their protests in Ethiopia’s federal Constitution. “We are merely asking that the government abide by the Constitution,” Fasil explained, arguing that the plan violates at least eight constitutional provisions. In particular, the students claim that the plan violates Article 49(5), which protects “the special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa” and gives the district the right to resist federal incursions into “administrative matters.”

Moreover, the plan presents a tangible threat to the people living in Oromia. Fasil and other student protesters claimed that the IMP “would allow the city to expand to a size that would completely cut off West Oromia from East Oromia.” When the plan is fully implemented, an estimated 2 million farmers will be displaced. “These farmers will have no other opportunities,” Fasil told me. “We have seen this before when the city grew. When they lose their land, the farmers will become day laborers or beggars.”

Winners and Losers

The controversy highlights the disruptive and often violent processes that can accompany economic growth. “What is development, after all?” Fasil asked me.

Ethiopia’s growth statistics are some of the most impressive in the region. Backed by aid from the US government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the country’s ruling coalition, is committed to modernizing agricultural production and upgrading the country’s economy. Yet there is a lack of consensus about which processes should be considered developmental.

Oromo activists allege that their community has borne a disproportionate share of the costs of development. Advocates like Fasil argue that the “development” programs of the EPRDF are simply a means of marginalizing the Oromo people to consolidate political power within the ruling coalition.

“Ethiopia has a federalism based on identity and language,” explained an Ethiopian political science professor who works on human rights. Nine distinct regions are divided along ethnic lines and are theoretically granted significant autonomy from the central government under the 1994 Constitution. In practice, however, the regions are highly dependent on the central government for revenue transfers and food security, development and health programs. Since the inception of Ethiopia’s ethno-regional federalism, the Oromo have been resistant to incorporation in the broader Ethiopian state and suspicious of the intentions of the Tigray ethnic group, which dominates the EPRDF.

As the 2015 elections approach, the Integrated Master Plan may provide a significant source of political mobilization. “The IMP is part of a broader conflict in Ethiopia over identity, power and political freedoms,” said the professor, who requested anonymity.

American Support

Standing in Gullele Botanic Park in May, Secretary of State Kerry was effusive about the partnership between the United States and Ethiopia, praising the Ethiopian government’s “terrific support in efforts not just with our development challenges and the challenges of Ethiopia itself, but also…the challenges of leadership on the continent and beyond.”

Kerry’s rhetoric is matched by a significant amount of US financial support. In 2013, Washington allocated more than $619 million in foreign assistance to Ethiopia, making it one of the largest recipients of US aid on the continent. According to USAID, Ethiopia is “the linchpin to stability in the Horn of Africa and the Global War on Terrorism.”

Kerry asserted that “the United States could be a vital catalyst in this continent’s continued transformation.” Yet if “transformation” entails land seizures, home demolitions and political repression, then it’s worth questioning just what kind of development American taxpayers are subsidizing.

The American people must wrestle with the implications of “development assistance” programs and the thin line between modernization and marginalization in countries like Ethiopia. Though the US government has occasionally expressed concern about the oppressive tendencies of the Ethiopian regime, few demands for reform have accompanied aid.

For the EPRDF, the process of expanding Addis Ababa is integral to the modernization of Ethiopia and the opportunities inherent to development. For the Oromo people, the Integrated Master Plan is a political and cultural threat. For the residents of Legetafo, the demolition of their homes demonstrates the uncertainty of life in a rapidly changing country.


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