Islands identity hangs in the balance
The Zay people, who reside on islands in Batu (Ziway) Lake in Oromia region, represent one of Ethiopia’s smallest and most endangered ethnic groups. In a country celebrated for its incredible diversity, boasting close to 86 major ethnic groups, the emergence and potential disappearance of minor groups often goes unnoticed.
For over a millennium, the Zay have inhabited five scattered islands in the lake, having originally settled there for safety during regional conflicts in the 9th century. Having originally fled there from a campaign against the Orthodox Church over 1,000 years ago led by Yodit Gudit.
Since then, the islands have served as a refuge where the Zay maintained ancient Orthodox cultural practices and preserved rare archival materials documenting Ethiopia’s deep history.
However, this tiny ethnic population now stands on the brink of vanishing, even as their history underscores Ethiopia’s deep roots.
The lone remaining resident, Kushe Gonder, a vigorous 90-year-old woman, calls Gelila Island home – one of the five isles in Batu Lake.
However, depopulation is now a dire threat as most younger generations leave the islands seeking opportunities elsewhere.
Only one of Kushe’s daughters remains with her on Gelila, as the rest have relocated to urban areas in search of opportunity. Now just a handful of residents remain on what locals have dubbed “the one-woman island” due to Kushe’s solitary presence.
“I was wed here at 15 and this place is my life,” says Kushe passionately.
She generously shares the island’s stories, recounting celebrations and hardships across generations with the enthusiasm of a natural storyteller. Kushe acts as a living archive of Zay customs, traditions and heritage, reluctant to let their ways fade from memory.
The other four islands – Debre-Tsion, Gete-Semai, Femat and Ayset – once hosted larger Zay communities too.
Despite their diverse origins, the Zay developed a distinctive identity as “little Ethiopia,” united in their isolation on Batu’s shores yet committed to preserving facets of their faith introduced long ago.
The name “Zay” was adopted by this mixed population to signify their unified identity as Ethiopians, first on the islands and now representing a unique cultural preservation effort. However, many now fear what will remain should the Zay disappear altogether from these tranquil islands.
Population levels on the islands have sharply declined in recent years. According to a survey conducted five years ago, only around 35,000 inhabitants remained across the five islands.
The Zay introduced agriculture, craftsmanship traditions like boat-building, and other skills that were adopted by communities around Batu Lake, primarily the Oromo people who hold the Zay in high regard. However, fishing has always been the primary livelihood for island residents.
Amsale Fresibhat, a young man in his mid-twenties born on Gelila Island, works as a fisherman.
Each morning he inspects his nets from the previous night’s catch to select fish for market in the towns beyond the islands. The boats used are all handcrafted locally using traditional methods, made of wood and averaging 12 meters in length.
Despite his island roots, Amsale now resides with his family in the nearby town of Meki on the lake’s shores. When speaking of Batu, nostalgia fills his voice.
“Every Zay loves the islands with a unique, strong and enduring passion,” Amsale says. “That love is what has helped us withstand many hardships over time.”
The cultural anchor of religious festivals also risks fading as population numbers decline sharply.
Major Orthodox holidays like Epiphany take on added resonance for island communities, from children to elders. Witnessing processions of boats carrying religious leaders, worshippers and the arc of covenant traveling between islands or to shore, all dressed in traditional garments and singing hymns, offers a picturesque glimpse into island customs.
Social codes on the islands remain deeply entrenched, According to Kushe. “Even marriages are pre-arranged during pregnancy. But groom and bride would not see each other until just a week before their nuptials, underscoring the disciplined ways of generations past.”
“Even if the groom accidentally encountered the bride or her family on the road, he has to hide his face,” she says. The bride’s sister would tattoo a cross on the groom’s forehead considered a mark of beauty.
However, the longest pre-wedding ritual was days of prayers and choral singing. Music remains integral to Zay culture, with dancing featured in celebrations.
Unfortunately, development has largely bypassed the islands.
Without electricity, water, schools or other infrastructure most young Zay now feel compelled to abandon their homes.
“Life is difficult because there’s nothing here,” says Amsale. “To support families, all the youth leave for opportunity in towns.” He believes developing basic services could unlock tourism potential to benefit island communities. However, past governments have allegedly neglected the area.
The Zay Identity Retrieval Committee, formed in 2006, aims to protect their unique culture. Chair Fikadu Esko says while Zay identity is Ethiopian, other ethnic influences now overshadow their traditions. The Committee attempted to solve the matter in collaboration with the Oromia regional government.
Fikadu says the committee made significant progress working with former Oromia president Lemma Megersa.
“He initiated several development projects and programs focused on Batu islands to boost infrastructure and preserve Zay identity,” Fikadu explains, adding, “Just as the plans were nearing implementation, Lemma lost power”
Continuing the efforts became increasingly difficult after that, Fikadu laments. Ongoing internal conflicts in the country further exacerbated challenges facing the community.
However, entrepreneur Habtamu Tadesse has taken up the mantle of saving Zay culture through innovative means. He founded ‘Zay Ride,’ a taxi-hailing company promoting Zay heritage.
Habtamu pledges to funnel the profits into building clean water systems and schools on the islands long deprived of basic services. His social enterprise approach aims to both empower the Zay people economically while laying the groundwork for a more stable future on their historic home islands.