Ethiopia: Sidama’s New Year
Ethiopia has been named to be the World’s Best Tourism Destination for 2015. It was given the award by the the European Council on Tourism and Trade, who praised Ethiopia’s outstanding natural beauty, dramatic landscapes and ancient culture.
Thirty-one countries were considered for the illustrious award this year, with Ethiopia coming top of the pile. Ethiopia has nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, which were heralded by the commission and the aim is to boost tourist revenues to USD three billion this year – in 2013 revenues from tourism were at USD two billion. But instead of beach holidays and safaris, Ethiopia is promoting its imperial past, its natural beauty and its cultural heritage, one of which is Sidama’s New year, Fitche-Cambalala, writes Henok Reta.
Ethiopia has long been known for its cultural diversity. Words such as multi-lingual, multi-cultural and a typical heterogeneous society have been used by many to express these massive contrasts.
However, this time, the diversity includes the use of a different calendar. Visiting the land of the Southern Peoples, Nations and Nationalities at the present time would be an extraordinary experience for one who still wonders if Ethiopia uses a different calendar. Indeed, many have been surprised that the latest millennium celebration in Ethiopia took place nearly eight years after the rest of the world.
In Hawassa, seemingly attracting more massive numbers of local and foreign visitors than other bigger towns in the country, an ambitious plan is taking place–a plan that would probably make it an ideal tourist destination in East Africa due to its massive potential for tourism.
With a population of over 300,000 Hawassa is ever-working, ever-growing. The city is located 275km south of Addis Ababa, 180 km South of Ziway and 20 km south of Shashemene.
It is one of the fast growing cities in the country and can be considered to be model for many other towns all over the country. Since the current political administration took power almost 25 years ago, Hawassa has been named the capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State.
Founded more than 50 years ago, Hawassa typically distinguishes itself as a home for more than 45 tribes in the southern region, which does not happen in other regional capitals. In spite of previous tribal conflicts in the regional capital, particularly between the indigenous Sidama tribe and others, nowadays Hawassa remains a capital of diversity. It draws tens of thousands of people for annual festivals and rituals.
Nevertheless nothing is as dominant as Fitche-Cambalala, the Sidama people’s New Year. According to socio-cultural heritages handed down by forefathers through generations to descendants, Sidama New Year (Fitche) has been celebrated for more than 2000 years.
The basis for such unique local New Year’s Day determination and celebration is the Sidama calendar which was an outcome of unreserved and relentless innovative efforts of selected knowledgeable and highly respected group of people who were actively involved in a profound study of the solar system among which the moon, earth, sun and stars are included.
Starting from the ancient times up to the present day this selected group of people has been undertaking comprehensive study on characteristics including shape, color, volume, distance between each other, mobility, change of their position through time and related situations of the solar system.
To accomplish the very tasks of such unique phenomenon in the locality, they get out of their living house at midnight and assemble outside and observe situations of the moon and stars for several hours a day for at least four to six days per month. Most of the time they perform such tasks collectively and on some occasions they carry out their study individually.
When undertaking the investigation in groups each will present analyzed findings of what he has observed and thoroughly discussions on observations and findings will be conducted to arrive at plausible conclusion. If observations and related investigations are done individually, investigation findings will be presented on appointed time and place where general meeting of the group is held.
Basically, it marks the herald of spring at least by a month beforehand. According to Aklilu Adelo, chief of Sidama zonal administration, the New Year celebration is based on a traditional wisdom of astronomy. Ayantos, respected elders, are the people who declare the day on which the New Year falls on after having appraised the stars in their calm night sky. He explains that Fitche-Cambalala has long been the most exciting holiday, featuring dramatic rituals for the Sidama people.
“Now, we have embarked on a new era to celebrate it with festivities and gatherings,” he says.
The regional capital is decked out with the Sidama clothing, dance and culinary activities on this three-day long festivity while the countryside continues celebrating for more than a couple of weeks.
From the very day the ayantos announce the start of the New Year, millions of Sidama people commence preparations at home. Somewhat conforming with another popular holiday – Meskel – everything, including food making, is held months ahead across the region. False bananas, locally known as enset, are the most significant source of food. A variety of Sidama’s traditional foods are made from enset.
Dances and merrymaking, popular activities among Ethiopians, have, for some time, been an incredible identity amongst the peoples all over the country. The first day of the festival features an eve revelry.
The eve of the New Year is popularly called Fitaari. During this event households residing nearby gather in the house of this eldest father in the neighborhood to celebrate the event.
As mentioned above, preparations made by each household to celebrate New Year had commenced several months ago and kocho or preferably bulla is prepared and mixed with butter. It will be served with milk to those who gather for the feast to welcome the New Year. Similar events take place on that very special event in each household in the communities.
Thousands of young men tour the city, dancing, chanting and carrying out the rituals that used to be made by their forefathers. The eve revelry starts at the city’s grand monument named Suduma and ends at the city’s rift valley lake.
The next day, the ayantos, gather at Gudumale, a savanna venue, to announce through a series of rituals that the New Year has arrived. An intense look into the lamb cecum (a pouch considered the beginning of the large intestine) by elders is also a basic part of the rituals held at the Gudumale that determines what is good or evil.
“We are not performing witchcraft, but we have an ancient traditional wisdom of prediction from the stars above and the pouch below,” Elder Shumumale Aluda, says. Despite a stern approach many of the youth have towards this practice, he believes they will ensure that their rituals live on. “Look at them. They are eager and willing to learn from us. They are all happy and proud of what we do.”
In fact, this reality is made clearer as the city sees an influx of young men holding spears and sticks, and wearing animals skins like their fathers did.
“We love our culture. We want to show Sidama’s culture is the best amongst the many Ethiopian cultures,” Teshale Fugamo, 24, says.
Sidama’s New Year, which is primarily celebrated in the Southern Region, does not only promote the young men, but also has a spot for girls and young women to display their attractive looks as well. Hundreds of young women and girls put on their typical traditional outfits for the festivities.
“I really enjoy it. I’m extremely happy to be a part of it. That’s why I can’t miss it every year, even though I live in Addis Ababa,” Lemlem, in Miss Sidama pageant winner, says.
Born from a traditional protestant family, Lemlem sees nothing that contrasts with her belief.
“I understand what many of my friends think. They’re wrong. It’s just a practice regardless of belief,” she explains.
According to the Sidama Zone Culture and Tourism Bureau, the regional government, along with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, are working hard to get United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO’s) recognition for its valuable preservation in the area of traditional rituals that can be used as a basis for science.
“We have a positive view with regard to its UNESCO registration. I hope it will be realized in a few years’ time,” Workneh Flate, the head of the bureau told The Reporter.