At the end of every winter, the Oromo people of Ethiopia gather to celebrate the end of what is usually perceived as a trying season and the start of a bountiful new season with a festival of thanksgiving, Irreecha.
As the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo people thank God (Waaqa) at the beginning of spring (Birraa) after a long dark rainy winter season which is between July to September each year.
To them, winter is a bitter and difficult time because the rains usually wreak havoc in their community as the rivers swell and people, cattle and crops are drowned by the floods.
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Families cannot meet up on the regular in the winter as well because the floods and swellings of the river make it almost impossible to commute.
Sadly, some families go through a period of famine in this season because their supplies from the beginning of the year ran out and the new crops do not get ready for harvesting either. Then there is the outbreak of diseases like malaria due to stagnant water and puddles from the constant rains.
This does not mean the Oromo do not enjoy winter at all or they hate the rain because there are times when seasons change, and rain is scarce. They then pray to Waaqa for rain.
Irreecha, also called, Irreessa brings families, friends, relatives and the entire community together to socialize and it is a time to appreciate the essence of togetherness and to also welcome the season of plentiful harvest otherwise known as Biiraa or spring.
Families thank Waaqa for ending the winter famine because now they can harvest their barley, wheat, potatoes, and other crops and eat to their satisfaction without having to ration meals.
This year, the celebrations were not as big as is done each year and the number of attendees was restricted to just about 5,000 people due to the current coronavirus pandemic and safety protocols.
Traditionally, Irreecha festivals are held in the city of Bishoftu, Oromia, about 50km southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the first Oromo prime minister who assumed office in 2018, for the first time last year, permitted the people to celebrate the festival in Addis Abba and the turnout was impressive.
Two celebrations were held this year, one on Saturday in Addis Ababa and the other on the traditional grounds of Bishoftu town on Sunday.
On the day of the celebrations itself, a small group of people was led to pools of water in Addis Ababa by Oromo leaders who were seen chanting. They then proceeded to perform a symbolic ritual of gratitude and renewal of season by dipping flowers in the water and sprinkling the water on themselves.
Some are saying the scaled-back celebrations this year is a ploy by the ruling government to suppress potential demonstrations due to the country’s political division and unrest. Some opposing Oromo politicians are in jail and the government security forces have reportedly used “heavy-handed tactics” against people in the Oromo region not too far from the capital.
“When people get together, they may reflect on what is going wrong in the country. For fear of that, they have restricted us. What the government is doing is not right,” Jatani Bonaya, a 26-year-old student, said over the weekend.
Prime Minister Ahmed however affirmed the restrictions were purely based on the safety of the people and not to prevent antigovernmental protests.
He wished Ethiopians well as they marked the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the season of bountiful harvests in a statement issued on Friday while urging his people to learn from their past to propel them into a better future.
“Irreechaa is a celebration of thanksgiving, forgiveness, hope, and unity. Taking a lesson from yesterday, let’s stand united to make tomorrow a better day,” he said.
The ministry of tourism is looking for ways to preserve this sacred festival of thanksgiving as it intends on passing the festival down to the next generation without having to lose any of its sentimental values or assets.
In light of this, the authorities are working at registering the Irreecha festival with UNESCO, Ethiopian News Agency reported. All the necessary procedures to ensure this is done have been followed and Ethiopian leaders are waiting on UNESCO for a favorable response.
According to Culture and Tourism Minister, Hirut Kassaw, “all criteria are fulfilled, and the study has been finalized. Thus, we are waiting for them to register Irreecha as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.”