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We can’t afford to lose Irreechaa 

OpinionWe can't afford to lose Irreechaa 

As Irreechaa nears, I can’t help but feel anxiety, grief, and anger at our tattered, unconvicted, and depoliticized relationship with the festival. I also feel a great sense of urgency and desperation to ensure we do not lose sight of Irreechaa’s importance and value. I hope that in reading this, you will feel the same urgency to protect Irreechaa, an irreplaceable cultural symbol for the Oromo nation.

Those who think the season of Irreechaa is an appropriate and opportune time to enforce religious moralism, discouraging people from participating in the festival, understand neither the gravity of the political moment that the Oromo face today, nor do they understand Irreechaa itself.

Although Irreechaa, the largest open-air festival to take place on the African continent, has its roots in the Oromo monotheistic religion of Waaqeffannaa, it has evolved over generations to be a site of cultural pride, political resistance, communal unity, and strength for Oromo people from all walks of life. 

A contingent of Kenyan Oromos arrive at Finfinne, the capital city of Oromia regional state to celebrate the Oromo Thanksgiving holiday (Irreechaa) in 2022. Photo: Yassin Juma.

I will make the same plea that many who feel that we mustn’t lose the political and cultural significance of Irreechaa make – that an Oromo can honor Irreechaa as a political and cultural gathering without actually observing the holiday as a practice of spiritual thanksgiving. Though, let me take my plea one step further.

If we do not let go of our beliefs that Irreechaa is some kind of breach of other religious laws and practices, we will eventually lose it as a political and cultural treasure, as more and more religious leaders and communities discourage participation in the festival. And let’s be clear: we cannot afford to lose Irreechaa.

The belief that Irreechaa belongs to a pagan religious tradition is incorrect and is a narrative that Oromia’s Abyssinian colonizers used to devalue and degrade the collective Oromo identity and worldview. The Waaqeffannaa belief recognizes God as One, but like every other religion, including the two Abrahamic religions dominant in Oromia,  Islam and Christianity, it uses symbolism from the created world to bear witness to the glory, mercy, and divinity of God.

Irreechaa is not about worshiping trees or water sources. It is about bearing witness to the Creator of all things by using the created world, in this case, nature, as a symbol of God’s power, love, and mercy. However, some people may argue that observing nature as a site of God’s power is dishonoring to God. To address this concern, let me share verses from the Quran and the Bible that call us to bear witness to the Creator through what has been created in the natural world.

In Surah Ar-Rum, 24:30, it is written, “And of His signs is that He shows you the lightning for fear and for hope and that He sends down water from heaven and gives life therewith to the earth after its death; verily, there are signs in this for a people who understand.”

Furthermore, Amos 5:8 says, “He who made the Pleiades and Orion and changes deep darkness into morning, who also darkens day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is His name.”

Finally, Psalm 146:6-9 says, “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Let the mountains and all hills praise the Lord, the fruit trees and all cedars, the wild animals and all livestock, the crawling things and flying birds!”

There is nothing more that Irreechaa symbolizes as a spiritual holiday except this act of bearing witness to what the natural world reflects of the nature of God, which naturally leads the heart into a state of gratitude, the same state that every true path to God calls the human heart to assume.

Irreechaa’s significance for the Oromo is deeply political and cultural; it does not have to be spiritual for everyone to still be meaningful and important to our collective identity. Still, if we are going to become more and more doubtful, anxious, and afraid of Irreechaa’s spiritual roots, I fear that, with time, we will let go of Irreechaa’s political significance as well.

I also want to make a comparison between the way we view and fear Irreechaa and the way we embrace and accept the Ethiopian New Year, thinking that, because it’s a “secular” holiday, participating in it has no spiritual meaning or significance. 

The Kurdish political prisoner and founding member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, writes “When in former times a tribe subjugated another tribe, its members had to worship the gods of the victors. We may arguably call this process a process of colonization or even assimilation. The nation-state is a centralized state with quasi-divine attributes that has completely disarmed society and monopolized the use of force.”

Öcalan, whose work has significantly shaped my own politics, has written extensively about the inherently oppressive attributes of the nation-state. Among these attributes, he defines the way in which the nation-state positions itself over people in such a way that it almost takes on the form of a god and/or religion.

In fact, the Christian root of the Ethiopian New Year is based on a difference of opinion about Jesus Christ’s date of birth. We don’t recognize these roots because the state has adopted them as part of its national identity and symbolism but considering it’s roots, it can be argued that Ethiopian New Year too, has religious/spiritual implications, though we, the Oromo, are not nearly as critical of it as we are every year, of Irreechaa.

As we navigate the balance between relating to Irreechaa as a spiritual holiday and as a political movement, we should also be aware enough to not allow the state to strip Irreechaa of its inherent meaning in the name of cultural representation. This is how we protect Irreechaa.

Irreechaa’s celebration of the commencement of the spring season inspires thanksgiving because, for farmers who make up a majority of Oromia’s population, survival depends on a successful rainy and harvest season (spring).

In this way, militarizing the Irreechaa observed on the grounds of Hora Finfinnee and  Hora Arsadi at Bishoftu, whilst commercializing it in the name of promoting culture, is to slowly co-opt Irreechaa and turn it into an event for the political, business and social elite while making it increasingly difficult for everyday Oromos to participate in it. This is an act of the state taking Irreechaa on as another one of its quasi-divine attributes to wield power over people.

Instead, Irreechaa should be a time where class divisions within society meet Irreechaa on natural grounds, reflecting on what makes the lives that so many enjoy possible: the abundance that land provides and the work of people that cultivate it. In order to observe Irreechaa’s importance from this perspective, we must realize that our freedom cannot be measured by how much we are visible in or to the state. 

In conclusion, I want to offer one final provocation from the text “Islam and Cultural Imperative.” Although it talks specifically about the relationship of Islam to cultural identity, I think the below excerpt should be considered a guiding principle for the way Christianity (and all of its denominations) also relates to Oromo identity and culture. “In history, Islam has shown itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving, but they have no color of their own and reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow.”

Even if a person sets personal boundaries for how they observe Irreechaa, which they have every right to do, I don’t believe anything can justify calling people away from the celebration.

There are no natural barriers that stand in the way of celebrating and strengthening Irreechaa as a national and cultural symbol. Irreechaa can be honored by people of all faiths without crossing any of the lines that truly matter to the One who created us all. The only barriers and lines that exist are the ones that we create, and the risk of doing so is that generations from now, a nation of 50 million or more and the African continent as a whole may lose one of its most beautiful symbols of unity.