Why the annual ritual ceremony of Ethiopia’s Oromo is a symbol of indigenous resurgence in Africa

 Oromo PeopleIndigenous resurgence represents one of Africa’s more notable social phenomena of the new millennium and has swept across many of the continent’s nations.

Like many African countries, Ethiopia is home to a variety of ethnic groups and has now been declared a country of mixed nations and nationalities.

Ethiopia was previously considered as a single nation-state, a status that undermined its ethnic and cultural diversity, and its government placed restrictions on the cultural and ethnic identities of subaltern ethnic groups within its borders.

Following the collapse of the military regime in 1991, Ethiopia became a multi-national federal state which constitutionally allowed ethnic groups in the country to practise their valued traditions and fully express their identities.

Ethiopia’s indigenous resurgence and the opening up of political spaces to defuse the resentments felt by minority groups fueled the recognition – and indeed the celebration – of ethnic identities.

The reforms led to the revival of a ritual ceremony known as Irreechaa (Thanksgiving), which is celebrated by the ethnic Oromo.

With a population of 35 million, the Oromo represents Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, comprising over a third of its population. But despite their numbers, the Oromo claim that they have been economically and politically marginalized by successive Ethiopian regimes, all of which suppressed their ethnic identity.

Traditionally, the Irreechaa ceremony is celebrated in September every year to thank the creator (Waqa) for the change of season from cloudy and dark rainy season to a brighter autumn season.

During the former season, rivers and streams get flooded, bursting their banks and restricting the movement of people while preventing villagers in remote homesteads from coming together.

The brighter autumn season, however, comes with a clearer sky; rivers and streams recede as the summer rainfall declines and the crops in the fields promise a good harvest.

Oromo People
People marching to Hora Arsadi (Lake), Bishofu holding bundles of green grass to sprinkle water on their body as part of the ritual

In the festivities, participants dress in traditional black, red and white costumes and wave flags of the same color. The colors represent rites of passage in which black is childhood, red is adulthood and white is old age.

In the ceremony, people from different religious backgrounds all join harmoniously, and one of the unique features of the celebration is that it crosses the divide between traditional religious sects and denomination boundaries.

In an otherwise ethnically polarized Ethiopia, this celebration transcends preexisting conditions by bringing together people from different political and ideological orientations.

The Thanksgiving has been celebrated in different parts of Oromia Regional State since 1991, and in the major gathering place in Bishoftu, a city on the eastern outskirts of Addis Ababa.

Although Addis Ababa is located at the heart of Oromia Regional State and was the center of the Hora Finfinnee celebration, a ritual that dates back to a time before the foundation of the city in the 1890s, the Oromo were not allowed to celebrate in the city under the old regime.

The Oromo claim that Addis Ababa (which they prefer to call Finfinnee) was built in the county of the Tulama Oromo sub-group but excluded the Oromo people economically, socially and culturally.

This resentment fueled deadly protests in 2014 against Addis Ababa’s new master plan which was designed to expand the city into the territory of the surrounding rural villages of Oromia.

The Oromo claim that throughout its history of expansion, the city displaced and dispossessed Oromo peasant landholders but was unwilling to absorb them into newly urbanized areas. The Oromo claim that this represents part of the ongoing discrimination against them.

In September 2019, after a 150-year hiatusIrreechaa was colorfully celebrated in Addis Ababa once more, representing a landmark for the Oromo people.

The celebration of the ritual in the capital city attracted millions of people from Ethiopia and neighboring Kenya and was made possible by the political reforms initiated by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling party.

Oromo People
People sprinkling water on their body with bundles of green grasses in Addis Ababa

The reforms were initiated as a result of the continuous protests from 2014 to 2018 by young people in Oromia Regional State against the alleged socio-political and economic marginalization of the Oromo by Addis Ababa.

The protests were later joined by other ethnic groups, forcing national dissatisfaction past a critical point and resulting in a cabinet reshuffle and the introduction of several democratic reforms.

The resurgence of the festival and its celebration in Addis Ababa, the seat of international organizations, including the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, has far-reaching implications.

For the ethnic Oromo, it represents a victory for cultural aspiration, as well as, a political gain as a restoration of Oromo presence in the city, in terms of the ownership of Addis Ababa – or at least the sacred site upon which it was built.

The acceptance of the ethnic Oromo cultural presence in Addis Ababa may soothe the resentments of the past and help to strengthen the relationship between the city and the surrounding Oromo rural villages and towns.

Since the festival is interdenominational and ethnically diverse, Irrreechaa is considered to improve inter-ethnic relationships in a country where ethnic polarization is seen as a major concern.

The Thanksgiving is a large-scale festival in which over six million people from all over the world participate every year. In Ethiopia, it contributes to the development of the tourist industry, a sector the Ethiopian government is working hard to improve and modernize.

The African continent has suffered from manmade catastrophes from the slave trade to colonialism, and its post-colonial legacies, including economic disparity and misrepresentation at global levels that have weakened indigenous systems.

The loss of indigenous culture across the continent has deprived minority groups of the social fabric that sustained healthy societies throughout history.

The Irreechaa ritual is an indigenous African festival that has been resurrected as part of a wave of resurgence that goes against the tide of globalization, and on that symbolizes the renaissance of indigenous African practices.

This ritual is embedded in the history of African self-determination that includes environmental protection and the peaceful resolution of conflict. It is a valuable asset in a new age of growing Africanism, especially among the young people of Africa.

More importantly, the ritual contributes to Ethiopia’s efforts to recreate its image in the eyes of the world, and the country should feel proud to host this ritual in its capital city.

It is already beginning to prepare for next year’s Irreechaa which is destined to be even more popular and colorful than this year’s event.