The Oromo people are the most numerous ethnic group in Ethiopia, and their area surrounds Addis Ababa as well as large areas to the East, West and South. Although many Oromos’ hold Moslem or Christian beliefs, many retain the tradition of the ‘one god’, the worship of Waaqa.

The Oromo people are the most numerous ethnic group in Ethiopia, and their area surrounds Addis Ababa as well as large areas to the East, West and South. Although many Oromos’ hold Moslem or Christian beliefs, many retain the tradition of the ‘one god’, the worship of Waaqa.

One of the most important festivals of the ‘one god’ belief, is the Irreechaa Festival on October 1st. One place where this is celebrated is near Finfinnee at Bishoftu. There are a number of places which are having their names changed. Those of us used to ‘Nazareth’ will have to get used to ‘Adaamaa’, for example.

The shores of Lake Hora, one of the crater lakes of Bishoftu, is a major site for the celebration, and a very attractive one.

Hora lake is large and round, with tree covered hills rising above the blue waters. It is a perfect setting for a ceremony. The lakeside is the important place for the worship. Believers will take a sheaf of leaves or yellow flowers and carry them down to the lakeside. They lay the sheaf at the edge of the lake as they give thanks to Waaqa for the green things and offer any other praises or prayers they wish.

Different ceremonies and rites are taking place around the lake edge. One is around a huge sycamore tree, the sacred tree of the Oromos which they call oda. Around the tree are a group of people sitting, with lit incense sending up plumes of scented smoke. People go in to make quiet offerings amongst the circle of believers next to the tree. Around those seated was a very large crowd of people standing, some praying but many chatting with friends.

Around another nearby tree was another ritual, which I was told was more in keeping with traditions. This consisted of a large group, almost all men, dancing and chanting. Many had staffs in their hands, and the central dancers had manes of hair around their heads. They looked properly fierce!

“The other activity the faithful undertook was a walk around the path at the edge of the lake. There is a nice wide path, with is a good walk at any time. Near the beginning of the path there were a bunch of little boys swimming in the lake, but I don’t think they were motivated by religious feelings.

There were plenty of people to ask about the significance of the festival, and I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the answers. My host for the day, Melaku Geleta, took me to the senior religious official to introduce me and get answers to my questions, which I thought might be too intrusive. In the event, it was fine.

Not only did I have all my questions cheerfully answered, I found myself at the centre of a huge crowd of curious onlookers. As well, all sorts of videos and tape recorders appeared and recorded everything we spoke about.

Despite these disconcerting distractions, I was able to get answers to a variety of questions. The celebration of thanksgiving and good wishes have been going for a long time. At Lake Hora it is said to have started 1400 years ago, when a bull and a cow escaped from their stable in Borena, the original Oromo area in the south. The intrepid bovines walked all the way to Lake Hora, then refused to leave. The leader of the Oromos at the time, Nebi, knew that this was a sign, and he initiated the festival at Lake Hora.

The Irreechaa festival is celebrated by the Oromo at many places, other lakes and even mountains. It is said to be the pre-eminent festival of the Waaqa followers. In some places the traditional sites for Irreechaa have become holy Christian sites. The crater lake at Sekwala is one example. There have apparently been some unholy competitions between faiths at these sites in the past.

“The senior spiritual leader at the festival, Obboo Firisa, is a Malimas, which is an hereditary spiritual position. He was responsible for blessing the lake early in the morning to start the festivities. He is 87 years old.

The Oromos have a fascinating age caste system, the Gadaa, which groups all males in a 8-year system. Once you have gone through 5 cycles of 8 years then you become an elder. There is an interesting form of democracy, as every 8 years the leader is elected from the appropriate Gadaa group, to be the Abbaa Gadaa, or administrative leader. The spiritual leaders are hereditary.

The Oromo say that Waaqa is the oldest monotheist religion in the world. Moses, for one, is said to have derived his monotheist beliefs from the example of Waaqa. As with Moses, the staff is a sacred object for the Waaqa followers.

Bokkuu is the name for staff or stick, and is also a symbolic word. If I understand correctly, Bokkuu means an unwritten law used for guidance or as a principle. If you say Bokkuu it means there can be no deviation and no deception. The Bokkuu is handled by the elected leader, the Abbaa Gadaa.

“The other sacred term is Kallacha, which is not a visible object. It is spiritual, and can only be seen or touched by selected spiritual persons.

It was nice to be introduced to a few of the mysteries of the followers of Waaqa. I’ve seen various places where traditional Oromo worship takes place, including rocks which have wax or butter poured on them at Sekwala and South Wollo. The Irreechaa festival helped me to understand the background of these places.