On the road to Yirgalem
On Saturday, we hit the road for Yirgalem, which is half way between Awasa and Dilla. On the way, we have seen a cluster of straw hats and homes with their nose-shaped entrance in many places. We were told that they were typical Sidama homes made from bamboo, cut on moonlit nights and thatched with enset (false-banana) leaves. Enset is an essential plant that forms the main food of Sidama.
We have passed a couple of townships on the way, including Leku, a name of a town associated with the legendary Queen Furra.
According to local lore, Queen Furra a one -time female ruler of Sidama, wished to have a kingdom dominated by women. She was reputed for making men’s life hell and on an occasion left her entourages and servants bewildered by telling them to build a palace, without having the base on the ground.
An elderly man came up with an idea that they would obey her order on condition that she would lay the foundation first, as the tradition requires it. Defeated, (Here the tale becomes a little blurry), the queen’s body was tied to a zebra and whilst the animal sped through the countryside and forests, parts of her body were ripped off, until she was completely disintegrated.
It is said it was here in Leku that her leg fell off, for which the townships got its name, which in Sidama meant leg. There are other spots that indicate where different parts of her body and clothes fell off.
After an hour’s drive, before reaching Dila, we turned left and headed to Abosto, the nearest town to Yirgalem. The roads were built with utility, not comfort in mind; they were quite bumpy. Around the entrance, a banner above welcomed us to the steam bath found on the right side for which Yirgalem is known. We didn’t go there actually; we rather rode to the town’s center.
Arriving in Yirgalem, I was unpleasantly surprised to find a town that doesn’t live up to its name-a town they say is 75 years old. Nothing of the spurt of growth you see in Awasa. What you see is derelict houses and business. Some two or three shops compete on the main streets. There was a music shop, a number of kiosks, a gas station, a Shai Bet that resembles more like store, and a bakery. And it was a market day and there were a lot more people than other days, folks from the adjoining villages who have come to shop and to socialize. You could imagine how dull the town could be in other days. Time must have taken a toll on this out-of-the way town.
We then headed to the southerly part; as you go along, you would find the other side of the town. The atmosphere of abundance that pervaded the area is amazing. It is very beautiful with trees full of fruit. Everywhere in the area there were coffee trees reeling under the heavy weight of ripe fruits. Beautiful landscapes, well-preserved virgin forests and grass that rippled about their legs. Cattle grazed in thick grass.
Nearby lies Aregash lodge. It is a pretty place scattered among the trees, with some fine view. It is named after Aregash Tarekegn, a feudal woman who owned large acres of land during the Emperor’s time,whose picture can be seen below. She was married to a Greek national, Mr. Gregory. It is their children who are running the place now.
Through its many elegant arches and down its winding paths each year stroll thousands of appreciative visitors from near and far. The hats here are fine huts that look as though they had been built yestreday. The thatching was evenly trimmed, the walls freshly plastered. Here is a picture of my workmate, Selam standing at one of the lodge’s hut entrance.
We ran in to an old man with a white hair and slight stoop who works as a guide. His name is Haile Mariam and he is in his seventies. He could speak Amharic, Sidama and English and he has served considerable amount of his life as a schoolteacher. He gives us a superb, brief history of his region.
He told us the Sidama derived from the same father; eight groups all originally related to each other, starting with two ancestors, named Bushe and Maldea. Bushe is the father of five main groups, Fakisa, Hollo, Malga, Hadicho and Awacho. The remaining groups from Maldea. He says they are now in the 26th generations.
The Sidamas have their own calendar; a week has four days, known as Dico, Dela, Kebado, Kebelanka. Thus a month has seven weeks. Like Enkutatash, the feast of the New Year called Fiche is held at the turn of the year to honor God and ancestral spirits of the clan.
A month before the celebration, the guide told us, villagers hold fasting which include abstinence from sexual intercourse. During this season, wives don’t get close to their husbands and it is the children who serve their meals to thier fathers. On this occasion elders devote much of their time to settling disputes and quarrels created among neighbors and friends. The Sidama believe one shouldn’t welcome the New Year carrying grudges and rancor. The festivities extend for days.
The Sidamas are located in ten Woredas of the zone.The various groups that share the same territory in Sidama don’t always share the same cultural values. In fact the relationship wasn’t always pretty, though Hailemariam said things are improving for the better today.The Wollabicho and the Hadicho live side by side: but in their tradition, religion and their attitude towards social obligation, they inhabit two different psychic universes. Wollabicho, who consider themselves as the liberated one, take the Hadicho as uncivilized heathens, accusing them for eating all kinds of wild animals, like gazelles and hippos. The Wollabicho’s held a view that there was little value in Hadicho’s way of life. The Hadicho who mostly lives in Dara kept very much to themselves and these stereotypes have prohibited the two groups intermarrying each or even eating together for generations.
While the willingness to blend together might come a little hard at times,there is an increasing realization that they’re all bound by the need for economic development,freedom and cultural recoginiton.
Nowadays- an emphasis is placed on restoring the Sidama’s heritage. The regional administration is working on a revival of art forms-music, paintings, and crafts disappeared through the years. Traditional music, dance, and folklore originating from the past are being reintroduced. A college in Awasa and Training Institute in Yirgalem are named after Fura.