Wolaytan way of ushering in New Year
Ethiopia is home to numerous and diverse ethnic groups, and languages. All in all, there are nine administrative regions and two city administrations in Ethiopia. Among the nine, the Southern, Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional Government is really the fountain of diversity. It is believed that more than 56 Nations and Nationalities live in the Southern Region.
The Wolayta are indeed one of the prominent ethnic groups in the Region. For centuries, the people of Wolayta have preserved their indigenous culture, belief, civilization, tradition and social identity that define them as a people, and make them distinct from other people in Ethiopia. One such heritage of the Wolayat is no doubt the Gifaataa.
Celebrated annually in the month of September, Gifaataa is essentially a New Year festival of the Wolayta. Even though there are little written materials exploring the origins of Gifaataa, oral history and elders’ account puts the festival some hundreds of years back serving as a bridge between accepting the New Year and sending off the old one. These accounts claim Gifaataa has been a major identity marker for the Wolayta people.
On the day of Gifaataa, the Wolayta generally get rid of any residual issues of the past year, taking bold moves to reconcile with family and community members regardless the quarrel. People living in different places come back to their home town to celebrate Gifaataa with their family and friends. The day is meaningful to them because they think it is the beginning of a new dawn and a new year; and hence the need to start afresh.
Gifaataa is also a grand opportunity to strengthen social ties through marriage arrangements, conflict resolutions, gift-giving, elders’ counseling and the like. On top of that, it is a vehicle for transferring cultural heritages, language traditions and generally the wisdom of the community as whole to the younger generation.
Apart from strengthening social ties, Gifaataa also promotes the social transformation of individuals through marriage and conflict resolution. Wolayta people have a long-lived and strong traditional culture of making individuals pass through different steps of social transformation to be a full-fledged adult member of the society: selection of life partners based on cultural merits and getting married majorly takes place during Gifaataa celebration.
During Gifaataa, the youth in Wolayta meet at “Gaziyaa” (traditional location for Gifaataa songs and dances) and discusses their common issues with the blessing of the elders. The major focus of this discussion is strengthening their social relationship, promoting common interests and overcoming factors that hold back their relationship.
Gifaataa is not only about elders’ blessings but also promoting the useful societal disciplines to the younger generation. This critical opportunity for the elders to transfer their traditional culture, language and identity to the younger generation; and promoting it among invited guests in the celebration.
According to Tsegaw Semon Director of Wolayta Zone Culture and Tourism Sports Department, the Wolayta has its own cultural calendar. “Every year, the festival is celebrated on September and we call Gifaataa “bayra” or the first month, since it appears on the first month of the year (September 14 to 20),” he says.
But due to some politico-religious factors the real pictures of Gifaataa has been blurred so many years, Tsegaw further said. He cites four factors for this cultural setback; and the replacement of Gifaataa by religious ceremonies such as Meskel is major one. Explaining about this, Tsegaw said “the maintenance and intergenerational transfer of Gifaataa celebration has been impeded by the wrongful mixing up of Gifaataa and Meskel celebrations. Gifaataa is celebrated for receiving New Year and sending off the old one; whereas Meskel is the celebration of the finding of the true cross of Jesus Christ. However, the steps taken by successive regimes have resulted in mixing the two up and eventually for Meskel celebration to overshadow Gifaataa. That is why Gifaataa lost its originality and color in recent times.”
The second point he raises has to do with some common misconceptions regarding the celebration of Gifaataa. He, in fact, claims that the long-held belief, especially that of some of the followers of the Protestant Christianity religion in Wolayta area, regarding the essence of Gifaataa and what it stands for. “There is a problem of wrongfully associating Gifaataa with traditional beliefs of animal sacrifice and blood and evil spirits; but this is cannot be more wrong,” he argues. The actual reality, according to Tsegaw, is Gifaataa is a just a New Year festival and celebration, something that is common around the globe.
The third point is lack of facilitative political environment. The political environment of Ethiopia has ignored indigenous celebration including Gifaataa for more than one hundred years, says Tsegaw; the last factor being youth misconception regarding the Gifaataa celebration and related ceremonies.
According to Tsegaw, this year’s plan is to make the cultural festival gain recognition form UNESCO as one of the world’s intangible heritages; “For this to come true we are working with the Ethiopian Heritage Preservation Authority and other different government bodies.”
The Wolayta have an ancient understanding of the movements and effects of natural systems through the observation and studying of the movement of the moon and the sun. They divide their seasons in to four and call them poouwaa, xumaa, xeeruwaa and gobana.
This people also have their own way of counting days, weeks and months. They call the day time Galassa and the night Qamma and call a full day Issi wontta.
The days in a week are dubbed Naau wontta, hezzu wontta, oyddu wontta, Ichchasshu wontta, husupun wonta; while Naau giyaa means the two market days of the weeks.
The Wolayta count weeks in the month based on the local market, calling each week Naau giyaa, heezzu giyaa, oyiddu giyaa , lchchshu giyaa, respectively, and say Issi agina to connote one moon. So, after counting 12 moons, the Wolayta say Issi laytawhich meaning 1 year. With this calculation, they find the New Year on the first month and first day which lays on Sunday; celebrate their New Year, Which is Gifaataa.
At this year’s festival, divorced couples Zenebech Geleto and Bekele Balcha were reconciled after 20 years of breakup. According to the relatives of the two, their reconciliation shows how powerful Gifaataa is.
This couple made this decision because they were asked by the elders. And accepting their question makes them blessed throughout their life, they believe.
According to Zenebech reconciling through elders request brings so much more to a married life. “We will be blessed, our children will be blessed, and more, the whole family will be blessed which helps the marriage stay strong. But, if one says ‘no’ to the elders then he will be cast-side by the community,” she added.