In Ethiopia, the old year passes and the New Year is officially welcomed on September 11 (September 1 in the Ethiopian Calendar). However, there are traditional celebrations that take place on different dates during September, in different parts of the country, especially in the south.
It makes it special that the cultural change which has been passed down from generation to generation is also eagerly awaited by the different ethnicities of the nation. Addis Zeybe has reviewed the New Year Celebrations in Wollaita, Hadiya, Gedeo, and Sidama areas.
“Gifata” Wollaita people’s New Year
“Gifata” is celebrated from the 24th to the 30th of September, and its meaning is ‘beginning’ or ‘crossing’. This describes the transition from the old year to the new, from darkness to light.
There is no document that indicates the exact time when and how the festival started and grew. It has somehow withstood time and existed until now, with generations passing the tradition down to their descendants.
Wollaita Zone’s Head of Culture and Tourism Department, Teshome Habte, told us about the tale of how the forefathers decided the dates of the New Year celebrations.
“Legend has it that chronology experts used to go out at night to find out the origin of the moon’s cycle to pinpoint seasonal changes. They distinguished the phases of the moon, calling them Poua, Tuma, Tera, and Gobana.”
According to Teshome, the traditional astrologers used to advise the king, Kao in Wollaita, of their observations and it is from this that they would settle upon the exact day of the New Year festival.
The king’s messengers would then announce the approach of the festival to the people in every market and at other public gatherings. The announcement could be made several months ahead.
To this day, this tradition has continued and all members of the community –including fathers, mothers, young men and women, and even children –have their own role in the preparation of the Gifata festival.
Around the end of June, mothers start preparing for Gifata with different kinds of traditional food.
Young people in each neighborhood gather to go to the woods. They cut trees that seem unusable and drag them and pile them in one place. This practice is called Guuliyaa among the locals.
Some 15 days before the New Year festival, a pole is erected and the collected wood is arranged vertically around it to make a huge bonfire.
In the three weeks leading up to the Gifata festival, there are special open markets held for the public. They are known for heralding the approach of the New Year celebrations.
These markets are known as Hare Hayiqo, Bobooda, and Gooshsha, and the other is called Qae Giyaa. The first three markets are held on Thursdays for three consecutive weeks before the festival while the last one is held on the Gifata Sunday.
Hare Hayiqo is the first week of the market. This literally means ‘the death of a donkey’, to show the fatigue of donkeys at that time, as they carry grains to the markets.
What makes this moment different is that a donkey can be loaded and walk to the market more than three times a day as there are multiple purchasers crowding the markets, shopping for Gifata.
Bobooda is the second week’s market which is usually frequented by women; selling and buying pottery. It’s a popular market as women shop for new household items for the New Year.
Gooshsha, the third week of the market, translates as ‘madness’. Men, women and children come as families and gather from 5:30 in the morning. It’s a chaotic setting, which is why it is called the ‘mad market’, as shoppers push and jostle each other while looking for traditional attires, especially worn for Gifata. Women also buy jewelry to adorn themselves for the New Year.
After Gifata, there is no market held for three weeks. That contributes to the frenetic energy as people try to stock supplies for the festival and beyond. Cattle for slaughter are also sold in Gooshsha market.
The last stall called Qae Giya is held from 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. on the Sunday of Gifata. This market is held for customers who may have forgotten to buy some items prior to that day.
The festival of Gifata is always celebrated on the nearest Sunday to the 27th of September as it is the celebration of the Founding of the True Cross, when Ethiopian Christians celebrate Meskel.
Most Southern ethnic groups also mark their New Year alongside Meskel.
Gifata’s Sunday is also known as Shuha Wogga in Wollaita which means Slaughter Sunday.
Various arrangements are made at home for Gifata’s Sunday starting from dawn.
Mothers get up earlier and start preparing the hot sauce called Data and Kocho, which is a flat bread made of false banana stalks. These are just part of the many dishes on offer.
When the fathers (men) come in with the meat of their slaughter, false banana (Koba) leaves called Erggiya await them spread on the ground in the living room, as a dining table. For Gifata, meat is eaten on Koba leaves.
Before they start dining, they give thanks to God for passing them safely from the old year to the new. When the elders say the prayers, the rest say, “Amen” all together.
Then, families, relatives, and neighbors gather around the Koba leaves and feast on the raw meat, cutting with knives that each one of them holds. Raw meat dipped in Data (hot sauce) is the favorite among Wollaitas for Gifata.
Around 7 PM on the Gifata evening, fathers and youths gather around the wood piled up from June. A senior from the neighborhood is given the honor of lighting the bonfire (Guuliyaa in Wollaita) with a torch brought from one of the houses.
All along they say their prayers, asking for peace love and abundance in the New Year.
The young men then walk around the neighborhood, each with a burning torch singing, blessing each other and having fun. Until the bonfire falls, young people surround it and sing and dance to the traditional song called Hayaaya Lekkee.
Yahode: Hadiya ethnic group’s New Year
Among the Hadiya ethnic group, Yahode Meskela marks the beginning of the New Year, which is celebrated on September 24.
It is an important celebration as, beyond it being a celebration, it allows distant relatives to meet and spend time together, exchange good wishes and reconcile the old year’s grudges. It is given special attention over the rest of the holidays all year long.
ThoughYahode is celebrated along Mesqel, The Founding of the True Cross, it doesn’t have any religious content. It is purely a cultural occasion.
Hadiya, the ethnic group with its own culture, customs and traditions, has its own calendar as well.
According to Ersido Antese, Directorate of Language and Arts in Hadiya Zone, Yahode celebrations begin with Atekana Himo.
The evening before Yahode, Hadiyas eat the food called Atekana and light a bonfire with torches just like the Wollaitas. This event, held outdoors, is attended by families, relatives and neighbors coming together.
“Elders present the Xomboraa (torch) and then the local community dressed in traditional clothes and sing and dance Yahode. As seniors light the fire, they explain that this heralds the beginning of the new era, hoping that the year will be a year of light,” says Ersido.
TheYahode (Ole Ole) dances, mostly performed by young boys, are not danced any other time of the year.
The dances are accompanied by music –mainly led by a flute-like traditional instrument called Gambaabbuya. This flute is a unique item only belonging to the Hadiya.
The instrument is played among the young boys starting from mid-August untilYahode.
When the community hears the sound of the flute, they realize that Yahode is nearing and they happily continue the preparations for the festival.
Although the meaning of the word Yahode is difficult to give an equivalent definition, the idea can be taken as meaning ‘declaration’.
Just like Wolayta’s Gooshsha, Hadiyas also have a ‘mad market’ called Mechal Meera, which is a holiday gathering that starts in the morning and ends at noon on the day before the Yahode holiday.
Everything that is needed for the festival is up for sale on Mechal Meera. As it is held only for half of the day, people push one another in the market, looking for the items they need starting from spices to cattle for slaughter.
In Hadiya, no open market is held for almost a month afterYahode. Hence, everyone needs to make sure they have all they need for that duration.
Each member of the family will have different roles in the preparations for the Yahode festival.
Households fatten cross-breed bulls for 3 to 4 months, and maintain an area where grass grows. The family prepares for the festival 3 to 4 months before the festival.
Women prepare seasoned butter, Wijjoo, hot sauce, Data, and traditional drinks like wine and beer called Aydaaraa, Dinqaa, Diqaassa.
Young girls clean the house and decorate the walls with different paints while the young men prepare woods for cooking and the bonfire. They arrange the woods in different shapes and dry them.
Hebo: Yem people’s New Year
Hebo, Yem’s New Year, is celebrated starting from September 24 to October 15.
Hebo has been passed down from generation to generation and it is also a day when conflicts between people are resolved, peace is advised, and criminal activities are disclosed.
Among the preparations to celebrate the Hebo traditional turning-of-the-year festival, fathers, mothers and youths make long-term and short-term savings. The saving is done in two ways: financial and material.
The beginning of Hebo on September 24 is called in Yem as Kama Kesa. The major event on this day is that conflicts between families and relatives are resolved through elders.
The reason it is done on this day is that it is believed that going into the New Year with a grudge will bring various social crises.
September 25th is a day of cleaning. People spend the day cleaning their houses, compounds and themselves. This day is called Iftu.
September 26, called Hametu, is the eve of the actual Hebo festival. Cattle are slaughtered on that day. The cattle spend the winter in the lowlands, being fattened, for the New Year.
September 27 is the first day of the year in Yem. While the holiday is Hebo, the day is called Isonsi Fina. On this day, everyone eats and drinks at home.
Hebo, as a turning point for the Yem people, has a high cultural and social benefit for the community. The people express their identity and cultural values through the festival. In addition, it creates a close bond and friendship among the Yems.
Mashkaro of the Kaffa People
Kaffa is the place where coffee was first discovered by the goat herder, Kaldi. Kaffa people celebrate their New Year, Mashkaro, on September 22nd and 23rd. On this day, the Kaffa people give thanks to the Creator. It is an eagerly awaited celebration as relatives living in different places come together.
Kaffa people are farmers and spend the winter cultivating their lands. They sow grains on their land starting from the beginning of July. Mashkaro is an epoch for the Kaffa that signals a break from the toil.
Studies of the Kaffa culture show that 77 days are counted from the beginning of July until September 22nd and 23rd to mark Mashkaro. These 77 days are known to be the worst time of the year as they are accompanied by heavy rain and wind.
Tourism experts of the zone say that Mashkaro began to be celebrated in the 18th century. Families, relatives and friends visit the former seat of the King of Kaffa, known as Bonge Shanbeto, to commemorate the ‘old days’.
The Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, also mark their New Year in September, the holiday named Irrecha.