Call For The Sidama Lunar New Year, Fichchee, To Be Recognized as The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage


By: Wolassa L. Kumo (Sidama Worancha) | September 18, 2013

Wolassa Kumo

Wolassa Kumo

1. Background

The Sidama people live in South Ethiopia. They belong to the indigenous African Kushitic (also written as Cushitic) group of peoples that have inhabited north eastern Africa stretching from the current Southern Egypt and northern Sudan to Ethiopia, Northern Kenya and Tanzania for the past 7000 years. The Kushitic peoples living in various parts of north east Africa today include: the Beja in northern Sudan and Egypt, the Saho in Eritrea, the Sidama, Oromo, Agaw, Afar, Somali, Hadiya, and many others in Ethiopia, and the Rendile and the Sakuye in Kenya and parts of Tanzania. The Alaba, Xambaro and Qewena people who currently live in Kambata and Gurage administrative sub regions in Southern Ethiopia belong to the ethnic Sidama people. They had migrated from the current Sidamaland during the medieval period for search of better economic opportunities, particularly grazing land. Studies indicate that the Kushitic peoples of north east Africa are also related to the other Hamitic groups in northern Africa such as the Berbers and the Tuareg.

The ancient Kushitic civilization at Kerma in northern Sudan predates the ancient Egyptian civilization. The current ruins of Kushitic empire in Northern Sudan provide vivid evidence of the ancient power of the Kushitic kingdom in the region. The ancient Kushitic civilization influenced the ancient Egyptian civilization and was in turn influenced by the latter. The Kushites invaded Egypt during the 8th century BC and formed the 25th Pharaohnic dynasty. Notable Kushitic Pharaohs who ruled Egypt include Pharaoh Taharqa and Pharaoh Piye or Piyenka. After 100 years at the helm of the Egyptian power, the Kushites were pushed out of Egypt by the invading Assyrians. The center of Kushitic power remained Napata and later Meroe in Northern Sudan. The ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus used the word Aethiopia to refer to the peoples living immediately to the south of ancient Egypt and specifically the area now known as the ancient Kingdom of Kush, now a part of modern Kush in Egypt and Sudan, as well as all of sub-Saharan Africa in general.

Sidama People

Sidama-PeopleThe ancient Kushitic Empire in Napata and Meroe was a greatempire with trade links with ancient Egyptians and the Arabian Peninsula as well as other Kushites in the Horn of Africa. The Kushitic empire in North East Africa disintegrated after King Ezana of Aksum defeated the last Kushitic king at Meroe in 350 AD and incorporated part of the Kush kingdom into the Aksumite Empire. Ezana not only conquered the Kush kingdom but also borrowed the Kushitic name Ethiopia and used as the name of his newempire in the vicinity of Aksum. The Kushites never regained political supremacy in the region until the Kushitic Zagwe Dynasty led by the Agaws with its capital at Lalibela reclaimed power from the Aksumites in the 9-10th century and ruled northern part of the present day Ethiopia until 1270 before being toppled by the claimants of the mythological Solomonic dynasty. According to the chronicles of the Kebre Negast, King Solomon of Jerusalem and Queen of Sheba were believed to have had a son together known as Ebn Melek (later King Minelik I) who was the founder of the Solomonic dynasty.

The Sidama people along with Agaw and Beja in Sudan were the first settlers in the northern parts of the present day Ethiopia, before migrating to the South looking for more fertile lands. Following the European partitioning of Africa in the late 1880s, the North east African Kushites were scattered across several “sovereign” counties in the region and until today continue to lament about their lost civilization and political supremacy in the Horn region.

2. Sidama: Administrative Arrangement, Economy and Culture

Sidama is currently part of the Southern Ethiopia Region. Hawassa is the capital of Sidama. Administratively, Sidama is divided into 19 rural districts and 2 urban administrative units: Hawassa and Yirgalem. The rural districts are further subdivided into 547 rural clusters of villages known in national language as kebelles and 41 towns, akin to rural municipalities in other parts of the world.

Agriculture remains the mainstay of the Sidama economy. Enset is the most dominant staple crop in Sidama. Enset has various economicvalues in Sidama society. Varieties of foods are prepared from it including Buurisame (fine and dry Enset food prepared with butter and spice) , which has become a source of tourist attraction in Sidama since recently; and Bu’lla (the fine part of Enset which is also exported to Europe and America particularly to meet the demand of the Ethiopian Diaspora). Enset also has multitude of other economic values. Ropes made of Enset are used to build rural houses while fibers are used to make sacks and so on. Enset is drought resistant compared to other crops and has therefore cushioned the people from threats of food insecurity for centuries. Nevertheless, its farming as well as processing technology remains rudimentary and laborious for women, who are solely responsible for preparing food from Enset. Attempts to introduce improved processing technologies have not materialized due primarily to lack of financial support for research and development.

Coffee is another dominant crop produced in Sidama. Sidama, Yirgacheffe and Harar are known for their best quality specialty coffees loved by consumers across the globe. In spite of being the major suppliers of best quality coffee to the world market, farmers in Sidama continue to languish in poverty. This is partly because Ethiopia does not have control over the determination of the international coffee prices. In spite of being the origin of coffee, Ethiopia, supplies less than 3% of coffee to the world market and therefore has no influence whatsoever on theinternational coffee prices.

Sidama is endowed with variety of geographical, historical and cultural heritages. On top of the lash green topography filled with gasping agroforestry system from the outskirts of Hawassa town to the Welle Magado and Welle Hangala villages at the South Eastern tip of the Sidama land, natural bestowed the Sidamaland with amazing beauties such as volcanic springs at Hawassa, Wondogent, Burqito, Gidawo, Lagadara, Wene Nata, and Abaya among others. Lake Hawassa and lake Abaya remain two major tourist attractions. Logita and Galana waterfalls in the highland districts of Harbagona and Bansa are breath taking. Garamba, which lies approximately above 4000 meter above sea level is the highest mountain pick in Sidama followed by Bansa, Agana, and Hema mountains scattered across Sidama.

Other physical historical sites in Sidama include the solid rock statues believed to have been erected by one of the Sidama legendary superman: Dingama Koya, known as the Dingama Koya Statues. These rock statues are found in various places acorss Sidama as Gorbe Salla and Beera in Dalle, Boa Badagallo, Dongora in Alata Wondo, Futahe, Shabbe and many other places.
Sidama is also endowed with variety of cultural heritage: Luwa, Fichchee, Qeexala, circumcision, marriage and mourning ceremonies, the Qale and Qolle cultural sports, and war games by young adults are some of the most prominent cultural heritages of the Sidama society. The age-grade based Luwa system of administration akin to the Oromo Gada system is an indigenous democratic system of governance in Sidama society. The Sidama society has unique circumcision ceremonies associated with the Luwa system. In traditional Sidama society circumcision is based on one’s Luwa age grade cycle and is followed by an elaborate celebration by community members. Among these Fichchee, the Sidama New Year stands out to be the most dominant cultural in Sidama society today.

3. Fichchee: The Sidama New Year

Fichchee is the Sidama New Year celebration. Sidama follows a lunar calendar which is different from both Ethiopian (Julian) and Western (Gregorian) calendar systems. Fichchee, is unique in the world and is based on the Sidama calendar system. According to the Sidama calendar system, there are only 5 days in a week. These are known as Qawado, Qawalanka, Dikko, and Deela to be followed by the first day Qawado to complete the 5 day week cycle. A month consists of 28 days, equally divided into 14 days of moonlight and 14 days of darkness (known in Sidama language as Agana and Tunsichcho, respectively). Each of the 28 days of the month has a particular cultural significance attached to it in Sidama society. Some days are believed to be days that would bring peace and prosperity while others are regarded as days which would lead to challenges and misery. A day that ushers in peace and prosperity is known in Sidama culture as “Adula” day. Anyone who intends to start a new venture, such as marriage, building a house, building a business, is encouraged to begin it on the “Adula” day. Likewise elders advise anyone planning to commence a new venture to avoid days that lead to challenges and misery.

3.1 Fichchee and Sidama Astronomy: The Sidama New Year –Fichchee is determined by observing the movements of stars and the moon by the Sidama astrologists known in Sidama language as “Ayyaantto” who have deep knowledge of space and astronomy. The Fichchee, New Year date is not fixed. It depends on the relative movements of stars and moon in space. Every year, after different Sidama astrologists assess movements of stars and moon at night for several days they make a preliminary determination of the New Year date. Nevertheless, the preliminary findings of the “Ayyaantto”, the astrologists, must be reconciled with the traditional calendar system before the final date of for Fichchee is determined. Therefore following the conclusion of their assessment of the movements of the stars and moon and their relative positions in the solar system, the Sidama astrologists convene wider consultation meetings with the Sidama elders and clean leaders to decide the most appropriate date for the New Year, Fichchee. The Fichchee date is therefore determined by collective consultative process among the Sidama astrologists and wise men, elders and clan leaders. The consultation is needed to ensure that Fichchee doesn’t fall on any day. As a New Year, Fichchee always falls on a day of peace and prosperity.

Lunar calendars are used to determine traditional holidays in parts of the world such as Arabia, India, China (Lunar New Year), Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Nepal. However, what makes the Sidama New Year, Fichchee different is the elaborate processes followed and unique astrological observations made by the Sidama astrologists before the declaration of the New Year. The Sidama astrologists use a combination of Lunar movement and constellation of stars known in Sidama language as Buusa to determine the Fichchee date. The Fichchee date will be determined when the apologists see close approximation of the moon to five constellations of stars (five Buussa). Even after such elaborate astrological evidences, the Fichchee date will not be determined without close consultation with elders and clan leaders to reconcile the New Year date with the traditional values associated with each of the 28 days in a lunar month. It is this unique processes that qualify Fichchee to be the global cultural heritage.

The Fichchee process does not end with the determination of the date of the New Year. About a month before Fichchee, the Sidama respected elders known as Cimeessa in Sidama language and traditional leaders known as Woma begin to fast to repent for their sins and the sins of the Sidama society. They eat very little at night and nothing during the day. This cultural practice is known as Unsura. At the end of Unsura elders announce the imminent approaching of the Fichchee celebration by qeexxaala (popular chanting) ceremony, ushering in the commencement of the eve of the Fichchee celebration.

The Fichchee date is announced in rural markets across Sidama through popular pronouncements known as Lallawa, in Sidama language: The pronouncer would normally lament: ”Fichchee will fall on this date. Be ready to usher in the New Year. Tell those who have not heard!”. Fichchee falls only on Qawado day every year.

After the fastening, Unsura ceremony, and some 10 days before the New Year (Fichchee) elders carry out a cleansing ceremony by slaughtering animals and by painting blood of the slaughtered animal at the faces of the community members. Then unmarried boys and girls begin to sing and dance in their villages and major rural markets. When 2-3 days are left to Fichchee New Year, community members gather together again to confess their sins. In Sidama culture all conflicts, grievances, sins that have taken place during the current year must be resolved before the beginning of the New Year. People who have fought with each other must confess and ask each other for forgiveness. Society has to be clean to usher in the New Year with the new spirit of peace, love and fraternity! Elders must ensure that all conflicts in the community are reconciled before New Year begins. This is the most valuable contribution of the Fichchee culture for reconciliation and peace building in the Sidama society. Sins to be cleansed include adultery, eating animals which were not slaughtered by elders, any kinds of lies and misinformation in community, stealing, etc…Those who have confessed their sins will be placed rings made of green leaves on their necks by an elder who is regarded in the community as the least sinful and who is authorized to carry pout the cleansing. Then they would be cleansed with blood of animas slaughtered only with spears, which are also regarded as clean implements in Sidama culture.

After the cleansing process is completed the cleansing elder will take the rings and hand them over to his wife to declare that the sins of the repentant community members have been taken away from them. On the eve of the Fichchee, every household should fence its compound with new fences, and prepare enough fire wood and materials required for preparing food for the feast during the celebration. The first day of Fichchee is known as Fixaare. During the early hours of Fixaare elders slaughter an animal and read the stomach of the animal to determine if the New Year is going to be the year of prosperity or there will be challenges ahead. If there will be challenges ahead they warn the community to be ready for it and take some remedial actions. During the afternoon of Fixaare, community members carry out a ceremony of transition to the New Year known as Hulluuqa (meaning passing through in Sidama language). Hulluuqa is an arch made of various strong woods through which every humans and cattle should pass during the first day of Fichchee to signify transition to the New Year.

The Hulluuqa process is conducted according to the age and social status in the society. The first to pass through Hulluuqa are elders, to be followed by mothers, young adults and then children and at last cattle to show love of the Sidama people for their cattle. After Hulluuqa elders will kneel down and thank God for allowing them to transition from old to New Year. The Fichchee feast begins at the elders’ home in a village. Everyone comes together and eat and enjoy together. During Fichchee, the main food eaten is called Buurisame made of Enset and butter prepared well with natural spices. The Buurisame is prepared usually on shaafeta a big clay bowl that preserves the quality of food intact for many days.

Festivity  begins with prayer to one God, Kaaliqa, and the creator: “Fichchee diruni dirro iillishinke”. “Fichchee, transition us from one new year to another”. Food is handed out in accordance with age and social class. Elders mothers, young adults, and then children. Everyone must eat Buurisame. An egalitarian system.

People move from house to house eating and drinking milk. But everyone has to return to his house before midnight. The Sidama people never eat meat during the Fichchee ceremony. Even if there was meat in the house it would be taken out during the Fichchee celebration. Husbands and wives should not travel away during the Fichchee night. Even those who were separated with their husbands would return for the Fichchee night if they were not married with someone else.

The second day of Fichchee ceremony is known as cambalaalla. On this day, children move from house to house chanting “Ayide cambalaalla” similar to saying Happy New Year. Someone in the house usually mothers would reply: “Iille”. Something like: “happy new year to you too, come and join us”.

During the Fichchee day, animals must also be fed well. Cattle are fed Boole, salty soil also rich in calcium, which cattle in Sidama like most.

The third day of Fichchee is known as Shashiiga. During the third day and subsequent days people flock to the Gudumaale, public square and big rural market places and elders conduct qeexxaala public chanting of happiness, well-wishing, and determination to build and protect the society.

Young boys and girls play Faaro and Lembo, popular Sidama traditional songs and dances. Girls and boys also identify their potential partners during the celebration. Hair style and cloth should reflect Sidama cultural clothing style made within Sidama, by the Sidama entrepreneurs. Fichchee preserves the culture and also protects the local industry.

The last stage of the Fichchee celebration involves going out in mass to celebrate and is known as Fichchii Fulo in Sidama language. During this phase all Sidama clans flock to the public square, Gudumaale and sing and chant side by side. Newly married women and newly circumcised men who have missed the long process of celebrating Fichchee will come to the Gudumaale to be part of the process.

The Fichchee celebration will end after 14 days with blessings from elders all over Sidama. Fichchee is a valuable cultural heritage of the Sidama society which has survived massive influence of Christianity during the past half a century. About 90 percent of the Sidama people are Christian today and do not endorse some ritualistic practices of Fichchee although every Sidama person celebrates Fichchee today as New Year. Fichchee is an indigenous and ancient cultural practice handed down from generations to generations and uniquely preserved by the Sidama society. It is a unique cultural heritage not only of the Sidama people, but also of Ethiopia, Africa and the whole world.

4. The Negatives and Positives of the Sidama New Year, Fichchee, Culture

The Fichchee culture has several positive contributions to the Sidama society:

   It encourages peace building and reconciliation and maintaining the cohesion of the Sidama society and its cultural values;

   Encourages assessments of the performance of the society every year;

   Encourages discussions of the plans for the new year,

   Preserves and encourages the development of the local industry by prompting use of locally manufactured goods.

Nevertheless, Fichchee also has some negative implications. Among these:

   The extended period of festivity may undermine economic activities;

   Slaughtering large number of animals prior to the actual Fichchee celebration may be wasteful.

With certain measures to minimize wasteful expenditure and limit the extended period of festivity, Fichchee remains a unique cultural asset to be preserved and nurtured by the country as well as the international community.

5. The Sidama Lunar New Year, Fichchee, is an Intangible Cultural Heritage in need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Fichchee is a valuable and unique cultural heritage of the Sidama society, of Ethiopia, of Africa and the world. As provided in UNESCO’s 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Assets, Fichchee, qualifies to be inscribed in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. As such it must be recognized and protected as national and world heritage. The Ethiopian government has indicated that it would send a request to UNESCO to register Fichchee and Meskel as two cultural world heritages in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, the onus is on the Sidama administration to take the lead to make sure that Fichchee is first recognized in the country as the national heritage and then proper documentation has been prepared by the Government of Ethiopia to submit to UNESCO to justify the demand for global recognition and protection.

The Sidama people both at home and in Diaspora wish to express their support to the current movement in Ethiopia to ensure the international recognition and protection to Fichchee and Meskel as the UNESCO global intangible cultural heritages. We wish to see these unique cultural assets of the world accorded the necessary national and global protection sooner than later.


About The Author: Dr. Wolassa L. Kumo – is a development practitioner and researcher. His research interests include risk and uncertainty, productivity and efficiency, finance and investment, currency substitution and development problems of Africa. Currently, he is working as a researcher in a public institution with a primary responsibility in econometric modelling. Previously, he taught Principles of Economics in an academic institution.

Afro Articles on Sidama Worancha


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