The Sidama are an ethnic Cushitic people traditionally inhabiting the Sidama Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR) in Ethiopia.
On 23 November 2019, the Sidama Zone became the 10th regional state in Ethiopia after a zone-wide referendum. They speak the Sidamo language, which is a language of the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family.
Despite their large numbers, the Sidama lacked a separate ethnic regional state until continuous protests resulted in the proposal being voted on in a November 2019 referendum.
The Sidama preserved their cultural heritage, including their traditional religion and language until the late 1880s during the conquest by Emperor Menelik II. Before this, the Sidama had their own well-established administrative systems that dated at least to the 9th century, though it was made up of a loose coalition of Sidama kingdoms.
These kingdoms extended into the Gibe region. As a result of marginalization and since the language does not have its own alphabet, very little has been written on Sidama issues. Many were not able to attend school until after the Derg came to power in 1975.
They occupy the vast area of north eastern and eastern Africa extending from the Sudan throughout the Horn of Africa to Tanzania. The Sidama nation is situated in Southern Ethiopia or the Sidama Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia where there is deep contest and conflict over identity, including the population size. The Sidama population is estimated to be 8 million.
They do not call themselves Sidamo, a term which confuses their name and suppresses their identity. The conquest and the suppression of their identity went hand in hand with underestimation of the nation’s numerical strength. Sidamaland has shared borders with Oromia in the northeast, Wolayita in the west and Gedeo in the south. The northern border extends from Lake Hawassa to Dilla town in the South. Te eastern boundary starts at Mount Garamba and extends westward to Bilaatte River in the West.
Total area of the Sidama land including the lands of the sub groups is estimated to be about 50,000 km sq. The major Sidama land is an extremely densely populated are with about over 460 people per sq. km. The capital city of the Major Sidama land, Awassa, is located 275 kms south of Addis Ababa. Land features range from low lands of about 1500 m a.s.l in the Great East Africa Rift Valley that cuts through lakes Awassa and Abaya up to 3000 m a.s.l in the eastern Sidama high lands of Arbegona, Bansa and Arroressa districts. The Sidama land is one of the most ever green and fertile lands in Africa. As a result, for centuries, the Sidama people led one of the most stable and self sufficient lives as an independent nation state in the north eastern Africa until the nation was annexed to the present day Ethiopia by king Minelik II in 1891. Before the annexation, the Sidama people lived in indigenous egalitarian and democratic social, economic, political and cultural systems.
Sidama people speak Sidaamu-afoo. Sidaamu-afoo is an Afro-Asiatic language, belonging to the Cushitic branch, part of the Highland East Cushitic group. It is spoken in parts of southern Ethiopia. Sidaamu-afoo can alternatively be referred to as Sidaama, Sidaamu, Sidaminya, or Sidámo ’Afó. Sidaamu Afoo is the ethnic autonym for the language, while Sidaminya is its name in Amharic. Although it is not known to have any specific dialects, it shares over 50% lexical similarity with Alaba-K'abeena, Kambaata, and Hadiyya, all of which are other languages spoken in southwestern Ethiopia. The word order is typically SOV. Sidamo has over 100,000 L2 speakers. The literacy rate for L1 speakers is 1%-5%, while for L2 speakers it is 20%. In terms of its writing, Sidamo used an Ethiopic script up until 1993, from which point forward it has used a Latin script.
The term Sidamo has also been used by some authors to refer to larger groupings of East Cushitic and even Omotic languages. The languages within this Sidamo grouping contain similar, alternating phonological features. The results from a research study conducted in 1968-1969 concerning mutual intelligibility between different Sidamo languages suggests that Sidamo is more closely related to Derasa (also called Gedeo) than other Sidamo languages. Sidamo vocabulary has been influenced by Ge'ez and Amharic, and has in turn influenced Oromo vocabulary.
One of the ancient Kushites, the Sidama people live in the southern part of the present day Ethiopia, with notable geographical features such as lake Awassa in the North and lake Abaya in the South. The Great East African Rift Valley dissects the Sidama land into two: western lowlands and eastern highlands.
During the course of the great popular migration around the first century AD from North and East Africa to the South of the continent, some Sidamas were left behind and were later scattered into different parts of the sub region. According to the Sidama oral history, during this course of popular migration, the first group of Sidamas reached as far South as the Dawa river, in the present day Ethio-Kenyan boarder before returning back to their present land.
During this period, the Sidama people were separated into 5 sub groups. These are: the Major Sidama group, Alaba, Tambaro, Qewena and Marako. The latter four Sidama sub groups currently live in the western vicinity of the present day Sidama land, out side of the major Sidama province. The current estimated population of the major Sidama and its sub groups is about 8 million people.
The Sidama economy is based primarily on subsistence agriculture characterized by archaic production techniques. However, a substantial area of the Sidama land produces coffee, which is the major cash crop in the region. Coffee has been the major source of income for the rural households in the coffee producing regions of the Sidama land.
However, the recent plunge in international coffee price drew most of these households back into the subsistence production and absolute poverty (coffee prices fell dramatically even during the commodity price boom of 2001 to mid 2008). Sidama is one of the major coffee producing regions in Ethiopia. It supplies over 40% of washed coffee to the central market. Coffee is the single major export earner for the country. Export earnings from coffee ranges from 60-67% although the country's share in the world market is less than 3%.
The Sidama people have never faced major hunger and famine until very recently. Due to reliable rainfall and evergreen land area, they were always able to produce enough to ensure food security. The society has been characterized by what one may call a low level economic equilibrium. Even the 1984 great famine that hit all other parts of the country did not have a major impact on the Sidama land. However, a continued dependence on subsistence agriculture, which relies on archaic technology and vagaries of nature coupled with massive growth of rural population, and limited rural development, made the Sidama land prone to frequent hunger and famine since recently. Thus, it is not surprising to see that, today, about one-fourth of the total population in Sidama is directly or indirectly dependent on food aid from the international community.
Other major crops produced in Sidama include Enset (also called false banana or Weese in Sidaamuaffo, Sidama langauge), wheat, Oat, maize, barley, sorghum, millets, sugar cane, potatoes, and other cereal crops and vegetables. Enset is the main staple food in Sidama. Apart from being the main source of food, parts of the Enset tree can be used as inputs in other economic activities like construction of houses, production of containers such as sacks, and for handling food items during and after preparation of traditional food. The pattern of Enset and coffee production and consumption over the years has substantially shaped the nature of the Sidama culture and hence the name, the Enset culture.
The role of livestock was highly significant in medieval and early 20th century Sidama society. However, recently the size of live stock has been dwindling because of two factors. First, a rapid increase in population reduced the size of grazing land for large stocks, and second, a severe 'Tse-Tse' fly disease in low land areas had virtually wiped out most of the livestock population during the last quarter of the 20th century. However, livestock is still the most important source of livelihood for people living in the peripheral areas of the Sidama land.
Although agriculture is a key to the development of the country, successive regimes failed to successfully transform the traditional agriculture in Ethiopia. The transformation of traditional agriculture as an engine of growth and development was emphasized by a famous American economist, Theodore Schultz (1964), who states that all resources of the traditional type are efficiently allocated, and hence the rate of return to increased investment with the existing states of the art is too low to induce further saving and investment.
Access to markets is another essential component of transforming the traditional agriculture. When the poor manages to produce surplus in one bumper season, they will not be able to sell the produce due to lack of access to markets. Consequently, during the next season the farmers are bankrupt and unable to sustain the previous level of production. This perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty in the Sidama land.
The recent Ethiopian Commodity Exchange is expected to alleviate such problems. However, its effectiveness depends on the ability of the rural poor to tap into such markets which are based primarily in major cities.
Forestry and fishery are underdeveloped in the Sidama area. Fishing activities are limited to the most prominent lakes in Sidama: lake Awassa and lake Abaya. Although Sidama has several perennial rivers, they have never been exploited. Commercial forestry is underdeveloped in the area, but Sidama is well known for its traditional agro forestry system which saved the land from erosion and desertification for centuries. Every household in Sidama practices agroforestry. However, this tendency has also brought a negative impact in recent times. Farmers began to practice planting Eucalyptus trees alongside other crops. Because the later plant has a poisonous effect, it destroys other crops planted under it. Most farmers are aware of the problem. However, the economic benefits of the eucalyptus tree outweigh the cost of losing small crops near it for individual farmers. However, it is generally recognized at present that this trend is dangerous for the overall environmental sustainability of the Sidama land.
Sidama is characterized by a very low level of industrial development. There are very few manufacturing industries in the land. A very few factories available in the area are all located in Awassa town and its environs. The government owned textile and ceramic factories are the only notable manufacturing activities in Sidama. A chip wood factory built in recent years and a meat processing factory in Malga Wondo are the only major private manufacturing activities in the entire Sidama land. Small scale manufacturing activities are highly underdeveloped. Agro processing, a natural system of industrialization in an agrarian economy, is totally absent in Sidama land except for some coffee processing plants.
The conventional agriculture development led industrialization involves the building of agro processing industries that process the local agricultural inputs that can be sold in domestic or export markets thereby adding value to the primary products. This plays a crucial role in reducing rural poverty. The poverty reducing impact of such projects is twofold: first, the market for the agricultural products is readily available at the door step of the producers. Second, processed products fetch better price both in domestic and foreign markets than primary products.
Mining is virtually non existent. Although Sidama is said to have a good potential of mineral resources particularly in the Great East African Rift Valley and the eastern highlands of the Sidama land, these resources are not yet exploited. An absolute lack of industrial development in the area characterized by massive rural over population, perpetuates the current higher unemployment, lingering poverty and overall underdevelopment.
The development of both economic and social services is very low. Economic infrastructure is severely underdeveloped. The Supply of electricity, water and telephone services has recently improved. However, the over all social and economic infrastructure is still severely underdeveloped. All whether roads are not more than 400 kms. Asphalted roads are non existent except for the 90 kms stretch of the Cairo - Addis Ababa- Gaborone road that dissects the land. The private financial services are beginning to operate in the area but are still insignificant. Trade and transport services are severely underdeveloped and limited mainly to very few urban areas. Trade activities in rural Sidama heavily depend on purchase and sale of coffee. The coffee slum of the past 7 years has severely affected these activities.
There is a great tourism potential in Sidama land. The rift valley lakes like Awassa and Abaya are already some major tourist attractions in the area. However, the access to lake Abaya through Sidama land has been opened only recently and is not well developed and not open for potential tourists. The agro forestry and the mountain ranges of eastern highlands are other potential tourist attractions in Sidama. However, they have not been exploited so far.
Unemployment and underemployment is rampant. Out of an estimated total population of 5 million in major Sidama area, an estimated 3 million people are in the active labour force of which 70% are estimated to be underemployed or unemployed. Employment in modern sector is very much limited. The total estimated number of the labour forces employed in modern sector in Sidama is less than 1%. If properly utilized huge supply of labour can make positive contribution to economic development. As early as the middle of 20th century, development economists such as William Arthur Lewis, the first economist of African origin to win Nobel Prize in economics, have emphasized the potential of economic development with unlimited supply of rural labour. Lewis's (1954) paper on 'Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour', elaborates how the dual sector model can be successfully used in promoting economic development in poor countries with unlimited supply of labour.
The Sidama region is highly overpopulated. Land holdings have dwindled to less than 0.3 hectares per household due to population explosion. As a result extensive farming is not a viable option. To reduce the current massive rural underemployment,urban unemployment, and excruciating poverty, the region must implement a rapid and massive alternative income and employment generation schemes. This requires the formulation and implementation of a clear and comprehensive rural development as well as small and medium enterprise development strategy, changes in education and training policies, and an overhaul of the over all industrialization strategy in the region in particular and in the country at large.
The Sidama nation was administered by the Moote system. Moote is the system of administration where Mootichcha who is equivalent to a King, is nominated by the family and near relatives for the position. The nominated Moote (the King) is presented to a Fichche, the Sidama New Year ceremony, for Qeexala or popular demonstration. Qeexala serves both as approval and mass media to communicate the decision of the coronation to the general public. Then, the Mootichcha (the King) starts to carry out his duties and responsibilities. The Mootichcha is the head of political and administrative structure. The Mootichcha is assisted by Ga´ro, akin to king´s assistant, and hence next to the former in politico-administrative authority.
Fichche is the most celebrated Sidama cultural holiday which represents the Sidama New Year. The Fichche is based on the lunar system. Sidama elders (astrologists) observe the movement of the stars in the sky and decide the date for the New Year and the Fichche celebration. The Sidama New Year is therefore unique in that it does not have a fixed date. It rotates every year following the movements of the stars. Sidama has 13 months a year. And each of the months is divided equally into 28 days while the 13th month has 29 days. This is because the Sidama week has only 4 days and hence each month has 7 weeks instead of the conventional 4 weeks. The names of the 4 days in Sidama week are called: Dikko, Deela, Qawadoo and Qawalanka to be followed by Dikko completing the cycle of a 4-day week.
The Moote and Ga´ro rule in consultation with the council of people´s representatives known as the Songo. The Songo is similar to the modern day parliament. There was a great parliamentary democracy in the Songo. Agenda for discussion was forwarded by every member of the Songo and decisions were made by the members and forwarded to the Moote for approval. The Songo did not have written constitution. It was guided by the oral constitution which was handed over by generations and was learnt by all involved by heart. Moote was involved in over all political and administrative issues of the society including defence, provision of justice, and the like.
The defence side of the administration is handled by Gaadana or war leader. The Luwa system which involves both administrative and cultural aspects of the Sidama society was mainly responsible for the defence activities of the society. Luwa is administered by an age grade system where each grade rotates every 8 years. There are five rotating grades in the Luwa system: These are: Darara, Fullassa, Hirobora, Wawassa and Mogissa. The Malga clan in Awassa district adds Binancha as the sixth grade.
In the Luwa system, recruits stay outside of their homes for about 5 months. During this period, the recruits carry out military training and training on war songs like Geerarsha which is a counterpart of Geerarsa of the Oromo people, another Kushitic group. Luwa is ruled by a democratic principle and its leader is known as Gadaana (different from Gaadana-war leader). The deputy of Gadaana is known as Ja´lawa. Under Ja´lawa comes Murrichcha (division leader) who during wartime leads Murassa an equivalent of a military division. The Sidama indigenous defence system was therefore fairly well advanced. This was because of the threat of constant conflict with the neighbouring tribes for more cultivable and grazing lands.
The cultural affairs of the Sidama society is handled by the Woma system. The Woma system has its own council known as the Womu Songo. Woma acts like a cultural and religious leader. He usually performs Kakalo (sacrifices) and other cultural and religious rituals including marriage and circumcision.
There were also other independent socio economic institutions which reflect a unique and egalitarian culture of the Sidama society. Among such institutions the most notable one is Seera. The Sidama Seera system is divided into two: the first refers to the broad concept of Seera as a social constitution which governs the Sidama social life based on the Sidama moral code of halale (the ultimate truth). John Hammer, an American anthropologist who studied the Sidama society extensively, stated that the Sidama moral code halale, provides the basis for distinguishing "good" and "evil" and in the broadest sense the term refers to ´the true way of life´ (Hammer 2002). If an individual in a community is involved in wrongdoing but refuses to admit it or pay the prescribed fine, this may result in ostracism (Seera) where the recalcitrant becomes non-person as people refuse to work, eat or associate with him (Hammer 2002). Although there were no written procedures and enforcement mechanisms for Seera, individuals abide by it because of the fear of breaking the halale and being referred to God, by the elders, as a consequence.
The second concept of Seera refers to the narrower sub constitution created to facilitate cooperation among the community members in construction of houses. This type of Seera is usually referred to as Minu Seera (constitution for house construction). This is similar to the modern day constitution of building society´s but is more powerful because it is linked to the broader concept of Seera that is linked to the societal moral code of halale.
Another related Sidama social sub constitution is called Jirte. Jirte refers to the mechanism of community cooperation during death and other ceremonies. In Sidama, community members living in near by villages form one Jirte system. The Jirte system is comprised of 4-6 villages and is usually formed based on lineages. If a person dies, community members share the burden of looking after mourners until the mourning ends. The mourning usually takes one week. However, non Christian community members could organize remourning ceremonies based on the social status of the deceased. If a community member does not obey the Jirte system, he can be fined based on the principles of the larger Seera system. Jirte is a typical example of the present day voluntary community based organizations (CBOs).
The Sidama society also had unique systems of economic cooperation. The most notable of these are: (a) Dee-rotating labour contribution for farming, (b) Kotta- producers´ cooperatives, and (c) Shufo-rotating butter credit exclusively for women.
Dee is a voluntary arrangement to contribute labour during the farming season instead of farming on one´s plot individually. The labour pooling system usually involves manual digging of plots but can include oxen farming if all of the members have oxen and are willing to cooperate to rotate the farming. The labour pooling system starts with the elders in the groups and goes down to the youngest member. However, if any one in the system needs an urgent assistance, the members will skip the age based system of rotation. Dee is unique Sidama economic cooperation for which modern counterpart cannot be found easily.
The Sidama society also had what one may call an early form of cooperative movement called Kotta. Kotta is a voluntary farmers´ (producers´) cooperative and hence common ownership of given crops on a given plot of land. The Kotta can be limited to one year or can continue for several years and is purely voluntary economic arrangement. The output of the crops is shared among the Kotta members according to their contributions. The Sidama society had, thereof, had a model cooperative system in Kotta that could serve as an example of successful voluntary producers´ cooperatives.
The Shufo, rotating butter credit for women, is different from other economic arrangements in that it involves (a) commodity credit and (b) it is carried out exclusively by women. In Sidama society women could not own any property except butter. Therefore, when they are in a financial problem or have social occasions for which they need larger amount of butter, the other women living in the village can bring certain amount of the commodity and hand over to the needy women after taking the measurement of the size of the butter contributed by each woman. Another interesting feature of Shufo is that, not all women know how to measure the butter and keep the size of the butter each woman contributed in their memories for so many rounds. It needs exceptional talent to keep the size of each measurement in memory because none of the women involved are literate and can read and right. This was how the Sidama women fought both poverty and economic marginalization by men.
During those days land in Sidama was mostly owned privately. Every household had access to land and was able to produce enough for its needs. Land outside of the private ownership was owned communally and was called the Danawa land. The Danawas were administered by the local Songos and were distributed to newly married men and new comers based on their needs. Communal lands in Sidama were properly conserved.
In that way the Sidama society was able to maintain sustainable socio-economic and socio-political system for centuries. After the annexing into the bigger Ethiopia in 1891 most of these systems were disrupted.
God, spirits, and ancestors are the foundational elements of faith for the Sidamas and are the constitutive part of their life.
Sidama has a staunch belief in a supreme being and a creator God named Magano. The word magano is a compound word of ma and gano. Ma means "what" and gano has three meanings: as a noun it means conspiracy; when used as a verb it means I beat and I say or call or name. The approximate meaning of the compound word Magano can be "What can I call?" or "What can I say?" It indicates a deep experience of incomprehensible and incomparable God. It could be that the original person, unable to express the experience, resolved by calling Magano, "What can I say or call?"
Magano is addressed by the Sidamas as father. Other attributes for Magano are Kalaqa (the Creator), Kaaliqa (the Almighty) and Halalancho (the True One). There exists one, supreme, and universal Magano. He alone created all that a person could see around: humankind, nature, animals, birds, heaven, sun, moon, stars, and so on. The Sidamas make a clear distinction between God and their common ancestors saying that the ancestors were created by Magano. They say that "Magano had created and taken them away". Even during their sacrificial offering to their common ancestors Magano comes first before the ancestors' names.
An elaborate story of creation is not what is typical of Sidamas. Some clans attribute a mythical element and special power to their common ancestors, such as claiming a descent from heaven or emergence from earth. Yet every Sidama, if asked about the one responsible for creation, he/she automatically replies that Magano is the one who created all.
The Sidamas generally agree that in the beginning God used to live with people. As the result of sin they committed, Magano departed far away into the sky. Even then Magano is perceived as being actively involved in human life for which reason people continue reconciling themselves with God through sacrificial offerings until today. Magano is called daily in different situations. For instance, people say Maganu wolqai... (In God's power...), Magano anna’ya kaa’li’e (God, my father, help me), Maganu kaa’lona (may God help), and so forth.
The Sidamas possess no statues or images of Magano. For them Magano, though active in their life, cannot be represented. Generally Magano’s name is feared or highly respected and is not called for wrong intentions (e.g. cheating, telling lies, stealing). But one can observe some mischievous people or thieves swearing in Magano’s name to hide themselves from being discovered when they are suspected of such acts. Theft itself is a recent experience for the Sidama people.
There is no special day (like Sunday for Christians) for worshiping Magano. Apart from daily invocation of Magano’s name individuals such as the family heads make burnt offering for thanksgiving without any obligation or time set by a special authority. Communal burnt and sacrificial offerings take place at a particular moment and are dependent on the situations provoking them. More than offerings Magano demands good behavior because one often hears people saying "Do not do that for it displeases Magano" or "Magano will get angry". It is only the act of responding to Magano either in thanksgiving or asking forgiveness that people make animal offerings. The Sidamas see their Magano as a true loving father, the one who really cares for his children. They also experience Him as merciful and believe that He forgives their trespasses when they ask for forgiveness. Sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial lamb is a sign of reconciliation with Magano and with each other.
Belief in Spirits
The Sidamas believe that there exist good and bad spirits. The good spirit, dancha Ayyaana, is identified as God's spirit, as the spirit coming from God. This manifests how Magano is perceived as being present in the people's daily life. Maganu Ayyaana, God’s Spirit, is presented as real and playing the role of giving life and blessings. Without Magano’s name, the spirit is not mentioned. One can certainly think that the hierarchical structure that exists within the community (i.e. ancestors - clan elders and religious leaders - parents - children) reflects the degree of the presence of Maganu Ayyaana. Consequently, a common ancestor is conceived as having Maganu Ayyaana abundantly and is made like divine. He lives with Magano and plays the role of a mediator between Magano and his people. Tribal elders and religious leaders are also filled with Maganu Ayyaana.
The bad spirit, Busha Ayyaana, is also seen as real and is hated by the religious leaders and community elders. They curse it whenever they offer sacrifice to Magano. They command saying, Busha ayaana gobbatee ba’i (Bad spirit, go away from the world!) and Magano busha ayaana gobbatee huni (God destroy the bad spirit from the world". The term sheexaane is a borrowed name from the Christians to refer to the bad spirit and is widely used. The Sidama People also say that evil spirits can cause diseases but cannot cure them. Consequently, some Sidamas fear the evil spirits. The individuals called qaallo are seen as the medium of the bad spirits through which communication with them is enhanced. In order to avoid getting sickness some people give animals (male sheep or goats). These spirits have recognition only in a family setting and not in the community setting. There is no community acceptance of them.
There also exists a female spirit, belonging to mothers-in-law, prayed and honored by women alone. They make food offering to it, sing and dance (always at night and under a tree). They call it woxa. It is a cult of fertility. At child birth, mothers-in-law say: ane woxa tirtohe - let my spirit help you for safe delivery. Sometimes when a dream occurs telling of eventual dangers such as war or plague or drought, women also make an offering (always food) and pray to this invisible mother-in-law spirit. However, they never associate it with being Magano but see it as another existing reality. They are aware that Magano alone is the Supreme. At the same time they believe that this mother-in-law spirit can protect them from the evil spirits and help them during their delivery. The food offered is expected to be eaten by the hyenas in the absence of women. The significance of this requires further investigation.
Belief in Ancestors
The Sidamas believe that the ancestors live with Magano, who granted them special power to act. They play a mediating role. However, daily practice of praying to Magano directly or daily calling of Magano’s name and spirit renders the ancestors’ involvement superfluous and reveals Magano’s direct involvement in the life of the people. During the time of supplication Magano’s name takes precedence and that of an ancestor comes next.
Since the Sidama people are organized according to clans, the common ancestor of each clan receives special respect and is paid homage in terms of appreciation that the people came into existence through his instrumentality. The Sidamas, being a patriarchal society, attribute power and authority to men alone. Equal respect and homage is not given to women ancestors. Common ancestors are regarded as very much blessed and filled with Magano's spirit, living in a state of divine. A lot of animals are periodically offered to them as a sacrifice.
Apart from acting as mediators, the common ancestors are seen as blessing and protecting the people and their ethical and religious values. They communicate with their people through dreams and warn them against human abuses of the defenseless, animals, and nature. Whoever dreams a dream, if the dream touches a situation implicating a clan or the nation, spiritual leaders call their councils and examine the dream carefully. If they conclude that the dream truly touches the reality existing within the clan or the nation, they give directions to the people on what to do. They also make an offering to Magano asking for forgiveness and protection from the eventual dangers. The following example illustrates these points.
If an elder a from let say Holloo clan has a dream. The dream is carefully studied by the clan’s spiritual leaders called Gaana and Woma. These people are the consecrated ones. They offer sacrifices on behalf of their clans. Each one has his own council of elders (all men). They do not take any decision without the knowledge of their councils. In their councils' meeting they act as moderators. Gaana and Woma announce and execute the decisions of their respective council. They are very much respected and their words are taken seriously by their people. They live separately and each one has his own council. Yet they work harmoniously in such a way that whatever decision one takes, the other one does not oppose or act against it. There exists constant communication between them. Magano ask the common ancestor of Holloo clan, who is called Aabo, about the issue. The ancestor replied to Magano that he was going to ask his representatives, the Gaana and Woma.
The immediate dead parents also receive respect and veneration. A grand-father is also remembered. A person offers a bull for his dead father and to a certain degree he also remembers his dead mother. They are seen as being part of the family still living. They play a role of mediating, blessing, and protecting the family from misfortunes.
Thus far we have seen the elements of faith in Sidama Religion, we now proceed to the faith responses which the Sidamas make in their lives.
The Elements of Response in the Sidama Religion
Morality, prayer and sacrifice reflect the faith of the Sidama people. And this section explains what these elements are.
Morality and religion are identified in the Sidama culture so much so that outsiders may not recognize the existence of monotheistic religion in it. Consequently, they would easily regard the Sidamas as animists. Many of the missionaries have spoken and some have even written about the people as animists and today some still hold this idea with conviction. However, for a thorough observer and sensitive person, the opposite is true. For Sidamas, morality holds a holistic approach: relationship among individuals, with God, and vis-a-vis creation (land, animals, plants, trees, ...). The dictums, Gafo ikkanno and Maganu di-baxxanno (God does not like it), are the keys that regulate individual’s attitude towards the "other".
At all times a Sidama person would never fail to mention God's name. For example, Magano anna'ya ati afootto; Hai Magano anna'ya; Maganu lao; Maganu kaa'lo,... [in a respective order: God, my Father, You know it all; O God, my Father; May God see or witness; May God help,...].
One cannot find a commandment taught and imposed on the people saying that there is only one Magano to worship and everyone must worship Him. One does not receive or learn the values and practices of Sidama through formal teaching, but learns the ways of behaving and even beliefs and practices from elders through hearing comments about acts, following the elders, and also being reprimanded or physically punished if one acted in an unacceptable way. All passed through customary practices. In other words, the social structures contribute to the young ones to grow in conformity to the cultural values. Seeing, listening to, and following mark children's behavior. As they grow up they, consciously or unconsciously, assimilate and interiorize all the cultural values and practices. Grand-parents and mothers play a role in helping their children to grow in the socially accepted ways. Elder brothers and sisters also help their younger ones.
Elders are generally respected. There has existed a harmonious and supportive relationship between parents and children or the older generation and the younger one. However, today young people, due to different factors such as education, political ideologies, new fundamentalist churches and so forth are diluting the force of the relationship which previously existed between the two generations.
Killing a Sidama person by a Sidama is prohibited. Unfortunately, this value is changing because of the political motivations imposed from outside. For instance, if some people are seen as a threat to Ethiopian government, those who promote the interest of the government would seek to eliminate them.
Adultery and fornication have been also strictly forbidden. Virginity for a girl has been a value honored very much until today. It is considered a very shameful thing for the parents if their daughter is discovered to have lost her virginity. A virgin girl is considered as equal to a man. During marriage people talk of making a girl a woman as if she was never a woman. But if she is not a virgin, she loses her respect and pride, and under customarily setting, she often becomes a second wife and remains under the kindness of her husband. No dowry will be paid for the family. Today, however, because of education there is more relaxation and contact between boys and girls. The educated group does not put emphasis on virginity as a necessary condition for paying dowry and for marriage. As for adultery, Sidama people have lived according to family, sub-clan, and clan level. Those who belonged to one clan regarded themselves as brothers and sisters, and sleeping with the wife of one’s brother was unacceptable and a taboo.
Truth is highly regarded. The expression Halaale gorsitooti [don't abuse or diminish truth] carries with it a deep respect for truth. Maybe this is because truth is also associated with Magano. The people believe that a person who takes offence against truth will certainly suffer the consequence. This is manifested in the expression, Halaalu annasi di-hawao. The exact translation of the expression into English is difficult, but it implies that truth itself will take revenge against the offender and bring justice to the offended. It also means that the one who walks in the truth will win. This is a principal reason for respecting the property of others and refraining oneself from speaking false things. There exist, however, some dishonest people and thieves, who falter this value within the Sidama people.
The consecrated people practice three days fasting before the new year feast, Fichee. Customarily the Sidama people do not practice of fasting, and even the fasting of the consecrated people could be because of their being too busy reconciling and solving problems in the community before the new year.
A holy man is a man who avoids bad words and acts in a good (acceptable) way. He is respected and considered as being blessed and loved by Magano. Maganu maassi'no manchoti, Maganu battino manchoti, Maganu battino bettoti, Maganu maassi'no bettoti are the common expressions. The Sidamas consider Magano as fully involved in people's daily life. With this and other reasons which I have directly or indirectly mentioned, I conclude that for the Sidamas morality and religion are one. Fr. Markos Beyene, a Sidama priest, rightly observed and wrote in his unpublished article - 'A Christian Approach to Traditional Religion in Sidama Area"' - saying that 'the Sidama people see the direct action of God in creation more than the natural laws. Everything comes from God...the fulfillment and success in life is achieved only by the will of God (...). They believe that if people misbehave God goes away from them' [p.8].
Meaningful life is understood as doing good things and passing life (procreating). Every young man is expected to get married and beget children. This is very much valued.
Generally elders, the cimeeyye, try to live an exemplary life. Wherever hatred or quarreling exist the elders bring reconciliation. They solve problems; they take care of social affairs, look after the needs of the widows and the weak, and maintain justice and peace. Misbehaving results in disturbing a harmonious relationship that exists between God and the people, among the people themselves, and among them and their ancestors.
Apart from the consecrated ones (e.g., Ga'ro and Qqaddo) one has to be at least 50 years old and a circumcised in order to assume the position of a community elders. Ga'ro (Moote) plays the following roles: he organizes communal sacrifices if war or drought or plague occurs, commands the army during war, reconciles if two clans are at war or tension, takes decisions on issues concerning the whole clan, solves juridical problems which cannot be solved in sub-clan level, and announces the date of the new year feast, Fitchee, and makes prayer. Qqaddo is a collective name for Woma, Gaana, Gaadala, and Qqaarricha. Their roles are more or less the same but with some particularity to each one. Two of the Sidama clans do not have Woma. The Holloo clan has created a complicated organization. It has both Ga'ro and Qqaddo. Except Woma the rest of the Qqaddo are not found in any other clans except in the Holloo. Ga'ro and Qqaddo are the consecrated people who take care of the life of the whole Sidama people. Each of them have their own council of elders. These people are deeply religious as the elders too are notoriously religious.
Elder women (Qqarubba) are respected, too. But they do not practice authority over men. In the Sidama culture men do not associate with women. Consequently, women also have their own organization. The elder women practice authority over them. Women can change men's decision if it violates peace and harmony in the society. The eldest woman (Qqaro) can impose a punishment if a husband abuses his wife. The punishment cannot be reversed unless he fulfills the imposed obligation by the Qqaro.The good life a person lives determines his position or importance. One can be the eldest in the community but if his way of living is not appreciated he cannot play a role of an elder (cimeessa), who is a very much feared and respected. This is explained in the expression, "chimeesu chilo itisano" [The elder can make a person eat faeces].
Many other practices such as hospitality, respect to foreigners, ceremonies during birth, marriage, funerals, and festivals that exist in the Sidama culture are left for future study.
Prayer and Sacrifice
People pray to Magano individually or communally. Individual prayers can be done with or without sacrificial offerings. But communal prayers are always accompanied by sacrifices. During communal offerings the consecrated people act as the celebrants. If it is at the sub-clan level, unless there exists a consecrated person, a notable elder leads the community into prayer.
The Sidamas follow twenty seven important "moments", which are called ayyaana, in a month. They are followed through the position of the stars. Only some particular men called the ayyaanto (astrologists) know how to follow the stars and discover the types of ayyaana. Each ayana is used for a special function: ayyaana for marriage, for feast, for war, for success, and so forth. The ayyaana for offering sacrifice to Magano are either adula or gutcha. The ayyaanto and the consecrated people whose duty is to look after the issues of their people, direct most of their activities according to the ayyaana. Individuals consult these people to know, for example, when weddings should take place.
Two types of sacrifices exist within the Sidama religion: one is offered to Magano and the other is to the ancestors.
Sacrifice Offered to Magano
Burnt offering: As thanksgiving and asking for blessing the Sidamas offer this sacrifice to Magano. It is offered individually (e.g., a family head) and communally (e.g., at the sub-clan or clan level).
A male animal, a lamb or a bull, is killed and burnt. Before slaughtering, the person in charge starts with a prayer of blessing and mentions reasons for such gathering and offerings. For example, he mentions the good things (blessings) Magano has done for his country, his nation, and his clan. Then the animal is killed. The celebrant, while burning the animal, calls Magano’s name and says (the content is dependent on the intention):
Magano, itoommo, agoommo, duwoommo. Tini xinino, tini shilqqo, atera iilitohe ... Gobba'ya gowi, keere assi, ge'issi, gada'ya geedo'ya seeki, gobbate, saadate kaaya kaayoma qqoli. [God, I have eaten, I have drunk, I am satisfied. Let this burnt offering reach you.... Unite my country, bring peace and stability, bless my generation and the coming generation, and domestic animals].
At the family level, the family-head offers the sacrifice to thank Magano for all the blessings (e.g., children, wealth, good fortunes) he has received from Him. While burning the animal he says, "My Father, take this. Let it reach you. It is for you, and take it." He also prays for more blessings. Some individuals who prayed during their suffering, such as barrenness and serious sickness, offer the burnt offering sacrifice to Magano when their prayer is answered. These people had promised Magano an animal if He would respond to their prayers, if He would come to their help. Women and young men bring their promises to the spiritual leaders who would offer on their behalf.
Blood offering: This is done communally for the purpose of purification, reconciliation and protection from bad things such as enemies, drought, and plague. If something which is considered as grave offense against human beings, and indirectly against Magano, within a sub-clan or a clan by an individual or the individuals, the community offers this type of sacrifice. When those with the gift of foreseeing tell the eminent danger (e.g., war, plague, drought) or when a dream revealing the eminent danger occurs, the consecrated people organize the sacrifice. If the people are suffering because of plague or drought, the consecrated people make supplication through blood sacrifice.
The ritual of this type takes place in the following ways:
The consecrated people choose and announce the day of the sacrifice, the ayyaana, and the place where the sacrifice will take place. On the day of the sacrifice people gather together. The sacrificial animal is prepared. A consecrated person presides over the activity. The presider opens the ceremony by welcoming people and telling them the reason of the gathering. After this, everyone with grudges and quarrels comes foreword and presents his cases. They are listened to and the matters are solved. In other words, people are reconciled with one another. A prayer for the forgiveness of the sins of the people is offered to Magano. The presider prays concerning the needs of the community and slaughters the animal. The blood of the animal is collected and sprinkled to the sky, to the earth, and onto the people as the sign of reconciliation.
With this act the people are reconciled with Magano and with the earth, which is regarded as mother, and with themselves. Thus, they are purified from their guilt. They also make their supplication to Magano. Then a small piece of meat is taken before removing the skin. The presider takes and raises the meat, tastes it, and passes it to the elders. After this the meat is cut, roasted and cooked, and everyone present in the gathering consumes it. Finally, the future issues of the community are discussed. The presider concludes and the people go to their home.
Sacrifice Offered to the Ancestors
The Sidama people show their gratitude to their ancestors through sacrificial offerings. At the communal, clan level, the offering is done to the common ancestors. At the family level, the husband fattens a bull and offers it for his father.
Bulls are slaughtered in several numbers periodically as a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the blessings received from the common ancestors and for their continuous presence among the people. At the same occasion, people also ask for their continuous blessings and presence. For instance, the people of Holloo clan offer their sacrifice to their common ancestor after every seven years.
During an interview with an eighty-eight years old elder from the Holloo clan concerning the sacrifice, he says that their common ancestor does not demand that the people must bring animals for sacrifice. But individuals who possess animals want to keep a bull among their cattle in gratitude for the blessings they have received from their common ancestor. Moreover, out of the sacrifice the ancestor wants the poor in the society to feast on meat, for they rarely get it. So it is a joyful moment for the poor to gather together with others and enjoy meat to the full. Both the poor and the rich alike celebrate together, and carry the remains back to their homes.
When the bulls are killed the blood is poured on the tomb of the ancestor. Those who received favours (e.g., children) they had asked from Magano or the ancestor also bring whatever they had promised . The lambs brought on this account are killed and burnt as a thanksgiving offering to Magano, and to the ancestor if he was asked to mediate. His name is mentioned after Magano’s name.
Each individual also remembers his immediate parents, specially his father. He fattens a bull and offers it at the time he wants. At different moments he prepares honey and milk and pours them on his father's tomb and then on his mother's tomb. The grand-parents are also remembered.
However, if an individual is poor, he is not obliged to do so. Responding to the question why an individual has to make an offering to his parents, an elder, Gujo No’ora, said that when a sacrificial offering is done here on earth a simultaneous gathering and celebration of the people living with Magano in heaven takes place. When one is remembered by his son, all his friends come to celebrate together. But if one is forgotten by his own, he will feel that he is like an abandoned beggar. So he communicates through a dream to his son. It is believed that if the son who possesses wealth refuses to respond to the dream, he will fall sick until he reconciles himself with his dead father. As we observe, the concern is more on a father than a mother.
An offence a father commits against somebody is perceived to affect not only himself but his children as well. If he dies without solving the problem, the case has to be solved before or after his burial by his relatives. This signifies that the familial and affective relationship continues between the living and the physically dead. The relatives organize reconciliation to heal the wound caused by their late member lest their children suffer the consequences. The dead parents are also beneficiaries of this reconciliation, for they too are perceived getting peace.
As we have already mentioned above, there are some people who offer sacrifice to the bad spirits because they fear getting sick. This is done not to honour or venerate these spirits; they are hated, but because the people believe in their existence, they would like to appease them from causing
harm. This is a family affair that does not involve the whole community.
Concerning the sacrifices offered to Magano on communal level, no fixed place is found. There exists neither a house nor a tent, not even an altar. All depends on the dreams specifying the place or on the indication of those who possess the gift of prophesying or on consensus. On the individual level, it is done at home not inside but outside the house of the one offering the sacrifice.
As for the ancestors, the sacrifice is offered where their tombs are found. There exist in different places the shrines called hara but only houses, without statues or images, where the elders and others come to pray. The elders also conduct their meetings there. Sometimes burnt offering to Magano at the sub-clan level takes place at these shrines.
The Sidamas are truly Monotheist and they do not see Magano as a tribal or exclusive entity. God does speak to people through their cultures and situations. To this communication or revelation each individual or group responds according to its understanding of God and culture.
God has been speaking to the Sidama people in their culture, revealing through dreams, prophets, and individuals' deep experience of the sacred. What I consider important is that be it a dream or a prophecy, but if it deals with avoiding evil, promoting human life, and bringing people closer to God it is good and a revelation. The Sidama religion is an example of God's universal salvific act. God truly acts and Christianity is not the only way for salvation. An honest dialogue and true respect to other religions are important not only for collaboration in promoting human life and to live in harmony with others, but also to discover more the mystery of God's work to bring humankind into Himself.