By Oromsis Adula*
It was a wet-nippy day in Minnesota, the North Star State – the Land of 10,000 Lakes. At about 10A.M brightly dressed members of the Oromo Community started arriving at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis.
For onlookers, especially the Americans, it must have been strange to see young children, women and elders dressed so lightly and colorfully on such a typical “Minnesota day”.
But for the Oromo group that was gathered by the lake, the day was a lot more than just usual. They came together to mark the Oromo Thanksgiving Day commonly called Eretcha (variably Irreeechaa or Irreessaa). Eretcha is one of Oromo’s most treasured holidays and traditions.
For picture slideshow of the event follow this link.
According to the organizers, this year’s Eretcha is different from previous years for various reasons. For the first time explains Mr. Gemechu, who has been instrumental in organizing the Minnesota event over the past five years, Eretcha is being celebrated on three different continents on the same day (Oromia, Norway, Germany, Minnesota and Seattle, Washington among other places).
In Oromia and most other places, the number of attendees has grown exponentially in recent years. Reportedly, last year close to a million (two million by another estimate) people flocked-out to celebrate Eretcha at Hora Arsadi in Bishoftu amid strict security and road blockade. Preliminary reports from the area indicate a similar trend in turnout on today’s celebration.
With the white megaphone frequently going off making a sound similar to a siren, the ecstatic small group of Minnesotans took turns to dance their hearts out. Young, old, men and women walked in circles cheerfully singing along. On the side, core members of the organizers have already started setting up the grill, hastily cutting meat and bread. Gemechu looks at a time on his cell phone frequently and makes frenetic calls to friends still on the way about his fear of a sudden coming of Minnesota rain. Staring high up at the dark cloud on the sky– as if they could predict the exact time at which the rain would pour down, friends try to calm him down awaiting the arrival of more people. As the singing heated up, more and more people started coming out of their car hideouts.
On the other side of the lake, life seems to be going on normally. Bikers, runners, dog walkers and kids are all engaged in their usual business. Very few stopped to ask what was happening. A handful of white American friends that came with invitation from members of the group engage the youth with questions. Oromos like to tell their stories – especially to white people. As I walked around to pick at the subject of their heated chat, the youth passionately discuss politics, geo-politics, culture and history with the Americans.
Traditionally, this premier holiday of the Oromo people marks the end of the dark-rainy season and the beginning of a blossom harvest season of Birraa. It is in Oromo tradition to gather at the river banks, mountain tops and lake shores to give thanks to the almighty Waaqa (Oromo equivalent for God) for all the blessings throughout past years and ask for Nagaa (peace) and Araara (reconciliation) for many years to come.
The day of Irreeechaa begins as the colorfully dressed attendees start to assemble holding Irreessaa/keellloo (a colorful flower, shrub or just a green grass). Once a sizable number of people are gathered at a common location, a cheerful group of young people take the lead by enthusiastically singing traditional songs and hymns in turns. After a spectacular and heart-warming cultural display by the energetic youth, organizers announce that it is time to head to Malka (the ford) or Hujuba (a common place where the Irreessaa will be hoarded). Then the elder’s or spiritual leaders take over to wrap-up the sacred aspects of Eretcha celebration with praise, prayers, and blessings.
Normally, Abba Malka (literally father of the ford) is the leader in the process. But at the absence of Abba Malka or other dignitaries, the elders will be called to the fore. . Rooted in the Oromo worldview and way of life is the notion that the elders lead and the young follow. But this can sometimes be tricky. For instance, among the Oromo seniority is not always determined by one’s age. There are times when the young can assume seniority based on his/her lineage or legal ruling. Oromo people trace their ancestry back to a common father who had two sons – Borana and Barento. Borana being the elder son of Ormaa, almost always, assumes seniority by a virtue of descent not age. Ormaa (sometimes mentioned as horo), although not proven, is believed to be the father of Oromo. There are also times when a junior person could be judged to be the elder, and hence the leader of a group, on account of bravery, wisdom, maturity and the like.
As I have alluded to above, once at the ordained place, the bundle of grass (Irreessaa) would be hoarded together (usually at the river bank, lake shore or under a sycamore – Odaa tree). Then the elders or religious leaders would take turns to praise Waaqa – bless the young, old, sick, disabled, the country, the world – pray for greater peace, equality, reconciliation, harmony – and ask Waaqa for increased productivity during this harvest season.
My knowledge of the older and “original” tradition and practices of Eretcha celebration is as limited as the absence of written materials on the subject. But based on my observation at Hora Arsadi and other places where I attended Eretcha, the thanksgiving ceremony is usually followed by some sort of remarks from the organizers – poems – a call for unity among Oromos – an educational drama – music – and a lot of food (no food is served at Arsadi where the crowd is far more than what can be accommodated). I will leave this point for the experts or our elders. It should also be noted that in recent years, since I left Ethiopia, reports show that government bureaucrats also stage their own share of propaganda, assuming ownership in the event.
Oromo people come from far and near places (usually bus full of representatives coming from all regions of Oromia) to signify a very deep sense of togetherness. Many argue that Eretcha is not only an event that brings together Oromos who are followers of different faiths but it has also increasingly become symbolic of Oromo unity. Albeit not as much as one would hope, the government run television station has also started covering the event. Although some elements of the celebration, like songs critical of the government and the Oromo flag, are censored out, this has given those who are in far corners of Oromia the opportunity to connect with the center where the grand celebration takes place. Some are calling on the Ethiopian government to make Irreeechaa a national holiday. If they indeed listen to the call, it could well be something the OPDO can brag about come 2010.
The Oromo Diaspora also deserves a great tribute for taking this tradition to the outside world. In almost every town/state/country/continent where large numbers of Oromos reside, Eretcha has become an annual tradition. One unfortunate dilemma is the timing. Some advocates including few that I chatted with at Lake Nokomis, Minnesota, want to make Eretcha a national holiday – celebrated around the world on one day. But it so happens that seasons vary across the board– from North America to Europe, Australia and Africa. There are also those who call for celebration of Eretcha at the turn of spring or summer whenever that might be on the globe. For example, this would mean celebrating Eretcha at the end of often bitter cold winter for Minnesotan Oromos. For now everyone is trying to get closer to or make it about the time that Eretcha is celebrated in Oromia.
This year’s celebration of Irreeechaa in the state so famously dubbed “little Oromia” is disappointing to say the least. Whereas the number of attendees dwindled since Eretcha was started, this year the organizers seemed to have contributed to the problem. Admittedly, the group relied heavily on flyers posted at local Oromo business centers and radio announcements to get the word out. Whether knowingly or mistakenly the group did not use other means of communication such as email announcement to Oromo list serves, social networking sites or the event was not added to an online global Oromo events calendar. That is only half the problem. There has always been a greater misconception about Eretcha itself. Most people categorically assume Eretcha is exclusively for Waaqefataa’s (followers of traditional Oromo religion). Furthermore, the political tug of war and factionalization has hit Minnesota hard. Due to the endless bickering that goes on in the community, a general sense of gloom hangs on the cloud, making it extremely difficult to reach out to different groups.
Even more, the organizers political affiliation seems to have played some role in dissuading people from coming to the event. The tradition of seeing social life, friendship, culture and other commonalities above politics seems to have not set foot hold among the Oromos.
The organizers appear to be aware of these underling issues. The group’s sole speaker of the day Mr. Shuna started his remarks by calling on all Oromos to start viewing Eretcha as a holiday for all, stressed the dire need to rise above mini-family infightings and collaborate on events such as Irreeechaa.
In closing; wishing you all Baga Waggaa Geessan. Waraa barana kan bara hedduu. Irreechii Irree Keenya…I leave you with this beautiful quote from Jeylan Waliye’s writings to point out women’s role in prayers during hard-times. None of the over dozen women was party in the sermon at the Minneapolis event.
The following rainmaking Atete hymns of Oromo women are said to win the benevolence of Waaq. The hymns also reveal the society’s awareness that Waaq’s wrath is provoked when people violate the normal, prescribed way of life. It is thus directed towards maintaining the welfare of the community.
Malkaa Katiyyoo ta irreesaa
Waan jabaatellee Goofta
Malkaa Katiyyoo irri goodaa
Homaa hin taatanii
Baatani jedhe Gooftaan.
Siinqee tiyya jiituu
Safuu tiyya ilaaltee
Atuu ana hin miituu.
Uummata dillin dhibbaa
Rabbiyyoon dilii jibbaa
Gooftaa dila nuu dogi!
The ford of Katiyyo (river) where the ritual is done
O, Lord, I take refuge in You
When the hard comes
And (I know) You admit me
The ford of Katiyyo has high ground
And Lord has confirmed our safety
My wet and lustrous stick
O God, You harm me not
By just considering
My (silly) sin