In the rising heat of the early morning, tens of thousands of Oromos flock to a lake about 50 km from Addis Ababa to celebrate Irreecha, an ancestral religious and cultural festival, but also a sounding board for long-stifled identity and political demands.
A white tide of dresses, tunics or costumes, often adorned with the black-red-white colors of the Oromo flag, children, women and men of all ages, converged on Sunday, on foot, to Lake Hora Arsadi, the annual epicenter of this celebration , located in the locality of Bishoftu.
Representing about a third of Ethiopia’s approximately 120 million people, the Oromo are the largest of Ethiopia’s approximately 80 peoples.
“Ireecha is an important traditional and cultural celebration for the Oromo people”, explains Sabkebar Gezu, 35, owner of a small business, “the Oromo come to the lake to give thanks to Wakaa”, ancestral divinity source of life, “for the end of the rainy season and the arrival of spring.
The Oromo are almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Many commonly refer to God as Waaqa and some still practice Waaqueffannaa, worship of Waaqa.
The Waaqeffannaa has accompanied the awakening for three decades of Oromo identity claims, whose culture and traditions were long oppressed in modern Ethiopia, unified in the 19th century by the conquests of the Christian Emperors of the Solomonid dynasty, claiming to be heirs of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Crowned in 1889, Emperor Menelik and his successors gradually imposed the Amharic language and culture as the Ethiopian national model, denying the Oromo their traditions. The official historiography of the time makes the Oromo “barbarians” to be civilized.
The military-Marxist Derg regime, which overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, in turn largely silenced their cultural demands.
Long banned, the celebration of Ireecha reappeared at the end of the 1990s, after the new federalist regime replacing the Derg guaranteed, via the 1994 Constitution, the right of the nationalities making up Ethiopia to “promote their culture”, while largely restricting freedom of expression.
– “Our strength” –
Tola Micha, 52, in a white hat and suit accented with a tie in Oromo colors, remembers the return of the first Ireecha celebrations, after the fall of the Derg in 1991: “At the beginning, there were a few hundred of us, now we are present in numbers, it makes me proud.” “Irreecha is our fist, it represents our strength,” he assures.
“We inherited this culture from our ancestors and we must keep it alive” because the Oromo people and culture “have been marginalized for many years,” underlines Fantam Bogale, a 28-year-old trader from Wolliso, 100 km from there.
“Previous generations paid a high price so that our generation could come here to celebrate” Irreecha, Sabkeba Gezu recalls.
For Kiya Tadessa, a 24-year-old NGO employee, “Ireecha is a cultural event, which has nothing” about politics, even if some try to “divert its message.”
From one group, political messages suddenly burst out: “many Oromo are imprisoned! We are marginalized! We will have our rights respected! We respect the government but that does not mean that we are weak.”
The slogans also demand an end to the conflict ravaging their regional state of Oromia, large areas of which are in the hands of armed groups – between the anti-government insurgency and banditry – and the scene of ethnic massacres.
Since Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 – Oromo through his father – it is one of them who has governed Ethiopia for the first time. But his popularity has fallen as far as Oromia and many Oromos are struggling to hide their disappointment. Often through careful periphrases, because we avoid speaking publicly about politics in Ethiopia.
“Many problems of the Oromo people remain ignored and not only cultural issues,” slips Mr. Sabkeba.
“All this was not given to us for free, many shed their blood (…) and even today (…) many issues are not taken into consideration. However, it is a little better, we can come here and freely celebrate our culture,” said Ababa Korsa, a 30-year-old accountant.