Small holder farmers coping strategies to household food insecurity and hunger in Sidama
To appreciate a people’s explanation of life and misfortune, one
needs to have a general picture of the wider framework of their existence
Little is known about the Sidama nation, its people, its history and culture.
Sidama studies were virtually non-existent even for academic purposes.
Th ere are many reasons for this. First and foremost, the emergence of enlightened
nationalists and the promotion of Sidama nationalism were late and slow
in comparison to other regions. Secondly, the Ethiopian historiography had no
room for the promotion or development of non-Habasha cultures and peoples.
Worse, still, it had circumvented and undermined knowledge production and
dissemination of the latter. Th e combination of these factors engendered ambiguity
about the past and uncertainty about contemporary developments.
Th e ensuing lack of critical scholarship, as William Shack noted, had “distorted
the human achievements of conquered peoples including transformations
of their social, cultural and political institutions” (quoted in Jalata 1995: 95). A
lot has to be done to reverse this scenario and to revitalize the Sidama studies.
Without pretending to off er a defi nitive source of knowledge about the subject,
this eff ort constitutes the onset of a multi-disciplinary research agenda.
Th e Sidama people, like their counterparts in Africa, have rich historical traditions
that remained largely unrecorded, a problem, which is being overcome
with the advance of time and education.1 For the time being, informed debate
on Sidama history is bound to rely on oral tradition, rituals, and symbols most
of which remain matters for further inquiry. Written records are not only far
and between but they are also fairly recent phenomena. From a scanty literature
made available by expatriate scholars, diff erent names had been used to describe
the Sidama people. A browse, for example, through the works of John Hamer,
Jan Brøgger, Ulrich Braukämper, G. Hudsen, S. Stanley, Enricho Cerulli and
Klaus Wedekind indicate the use of diff erent names at diff erent times.
John Hamer (whose works on social anthropology I draw on heavily here)
noted the problem of nomenclature in his later works and settled on the name
used by the people themselves, i.e., Sidama. Other names mentioned by scholars
in reference to the Sidama people include Sadama, Sidamo or one of the
Cushitic-speaking people of Southern Ethiopia. Th e term “Sidamo” is also used
to describe the Cushitic language groups which, in addition to Sidama proper,
includes Hadiya, Kambata, Alaba, Gedeo and Bambala and sometimes to their
neighbors to the west: the Ometo, Kafa, Gibe, and Janjero.
Th e problem of nomenclature is not confi ned to scholarship; it is common
in public perception as it is infl uenced by Ethiopian polity which imposed the
term “Sidamo.” Th is term is no more than a geographic dispensation given to
a southern region that included Sidama, Boorana, Gedeo, Burji and Wolayita
nations. Such misrepresentation is undertaken to suppress Sidama identity and
to dissolve the collective identity of the people. Th e misrepresentation of reality
and the problems of nomenclature are related to the history of the conquest of
Th e Sidama are one of the ancient human groups to live in their present
environment with the inevitable internal and external population movements
aff ecting their settlement. Th ey form part of the great Cushitic civilizations
that produced signifi cant achievements in this part of Africa. Th ey share many
similarities in terms of language, culture, values, and psychological make-up
with their fellow Cushitic neighbors. Th ey also share the common history of
conquest by the army of Menelik of Shawa in the late nineteenth century which
is by far the most critical and perverse event in Sidama history. Th e conquest of
Sidamaland in 1893 had impacted the Sidama world in many ways. It brought
about the colonial system of tenant-settler relationship. It also resulted in the
promotion of authoritarian ethos and the consequent demotion of the local
systems of governance inculcated in halaale principle. It imposed a hegemonic
system of rule by undermining the luwa system which was based on consultative
decision-making. Th e values inherent in halaale or the principle of truth
and the luwa systems have contemporary validity among Sidamas despite the
assimilationist policies of subsequent Ethiopian governments (Hameso 2004).
Th e political subordination of Sidama people caused their economic
dispossession and inevitable resistance followed by severe coercion against
dissent. Th e sense of consultative egalitarian underpinning of local governance
Th e Sidama Nation: An Introduction
was replaced by authoritarian Abyssinian values. A unique combination of the
actions of the Abyssinian state and the church caused physical, cultural and
spiritual supremacy in the colonized lands.2 As the timing and the patterns of
Abyssinian conquest coincided with European colonial rule in Africa, its eff ects
were also similar. Like colonialism elsewhere, this one too undermined people’s
culture and their tools of self-defi nition. It led to “the destruction or the deliberate
undervaluing of their literature and the conscious elevation of the language
of the colonizer” (Th iongo 1986:16). However, unlike European settler colonialism,
which relinquished power and physically departed from the scene in
the mid-twentieth century, the Abyssinian colonial rule remained in Sidama
now over a century without creating the material foundation for progress for
itself or for the subjects.
Th e legacy of domination and exploitation were maintained by the “modernizing”
autocracy of Haile Selassie. Th e collective memory of the Sidama
nationals of this epoch was the modernization of oppression; namely the honing
of the methods of tax collection, recruitment of coercive army and bureaucratic
personnel. Th e period is characterized by land dispossession, feudalism, force,
myth and external support—the means through which the spoils of the conquest
Th e impact of the Abyssinian conquest and domination were reinforced by
tumultuous developments of the 1970s and 1980s. Th e relative backwardness
of the imperial era meant that cultural impositions were resisted as much as
they were repulsed. For example, Menelik’s direct attempts at forced baptism
were ignored. Th e concern during Haile Selassie shift ed to economic exploitation
and gradual consolidation of central power without undue confrontation
on the cultural and spiritual arena. In the 1960s, while the imperial government
encouraged the short-lived self-help associations to take over the local judicial
and administrative functions, it actually re-centralized the controls and eliminated
all creative autonomy (Hamer 1996:548-9). Th e same legacy of conquest
was bequeathed to the military junta of the 1970s-1980s and the TPLF militia
THE PEOPLE, THE NATION AND THE ECONOMY
Th e Sidama nation3 is situated in northeastern Africa (Southern Ethiopia)
where there is deep contest and confl ict over identity, including the population
size. Th e Sidama population is estimated to be 4.5 million.4 Th e Sidama
people believe they belong to Sidamigobba, the Sidama country. Th ey do not
call themselves Sidamo, a term which confuses their name and suppresses their
identity. Th e conquest and the suppression of their identity went hand in hand
with underestimation of the nation’s numerical strength. Sidamaland has shared
borders with Oromia in the northeast, Wolayita in the west and Gedeo in the
south. Th e northern border extends from Lake Hawassa to Dilla town in the
South. Th e eastern boundary starts at Mount Garamba and extends westward
to Bilaatte River in the West.
Sidamas had practiced mixed horticulture and cattle herding for the last
several hundred years while for much of the twentieth century they were
engaged in farming. Agriculture is still the mainstay of Sidama economy and
society. Land is the most important asset to which the people have intense
attachment. Before the colonial adventure, each member of the Sidama society
was entitled to land ownership. Private ownership of land was buttressed by
communal land or dannawu baatto earmarked for grazing and other collective
purposes including reserves for new comers and young couples. Th e local councils
or songo determined the use and distribution of community land. Th e land
holding system based on egalitarian ethos helped maintain fraternity, peace and
the moral order in society until it was replaced by feudalism during the introduction
of the naft anya system from the north.
Th e Sidama landscape involves lakes, rivers and diff erent climatic zones
suitable for various fl ora and fauna. Sidama is home to indigenous plants like
weese which resembles a banana tree. It is grown in the highlands and midlands
where the climate conditions are characterized by high rainfall. It takes three
to six years for the plant to mature and to be processed as waasa, a staple food
item. Once it is properly planted, the weese plant does not require labor-intensive
work. Planting and weeding is carried out by men while the task of readying
the plant for consumption is fi nalized by women. Th e production techniques of
waasa are anachronistic and labor intensive. Major technical change is required
in the form of research and development if the situation of women is to be
improved. Women are also responsible for the upkeep of milk and milk products.
Cattle are reared for milk, meat or as symbols of status.
Sidamaland grows several crops including coff ee. Th e production, exchange
and consumption of coff ee has direct bearing on the socio-economic welfare of
the people and political arrangements within and outside Sidama. While coff ee
is the main cash crop and the biggest source of revenue for the Ethiopian state,
the coff ee farmers are one of the least benefi ciaries. In the 1970s and 1980s, the
Derg regime had adopted the policy of fi xed coff ee pricing which determined a
rate well below the world market prices. On the other hand, farmers were forced
to pay heavy taxes and rising prices for industrial products and services with
perverse terms of trade.
In an economy which is predominantly agricultural, the majority of people
depend on this sector for their livelihood and employment. However, this
sector and the rural population were neglected by Ethiopian policy makers who
emphasized the exploitation of land and labor instead of investment on both.
Agricultural activity remains, by and large, rain-fed without proper investment
and suitable land use policy.
In the post-Derg Ethiopia, the skewed distribution of income against
Sidama meant that revenues from Sidama are diverted to fi nance projects in the
hometowns of the ruling elite, namely Tigray. Diff erent political and administrative
measures discouraged Sidama entrepreneurs because of the regime’s fear
of their potential political infl uence. More oft en than not, it is the members or
supporters of the regime who had the opportunity to acquire economic enterprises
as per the government’s “privatization” program. Despite their natural and
human resources, the majority of Sidama people remain poor and susceptible to
diseases and famine.
Health facilities are inadequate in relation to the size of the population.
Until recently, the capital city, Hawaasa (also called Awassa), had no hospital.
Th e only hospital in Sidama was the Yirgalem Hospital built in the 1950s by
foreign aid. Access to health services in general is extremely poor. Most rural
communities do not have access to social amenities. In 1994, it was estimated
that only 18% of school age children attended school which is one of the lowest
rates in Ethiopian standards and considerably below the average for sub-Saharan
Africa. Th e situation for girls was even worse. Th e government policy of education
adopted in 2001/02 restricts access by rural residents and their children to
Trade, industry and tourism and other social services are confi ned to urban
areas. Unemployment and related benefi ts do not exist. Rural residents have no
pensions where deprivation is extreme. Modern infrastructure such as transport
and communication are undeveloped. Very few towns have electricity while
most remote areas have no roads. Th e roads that exist are the ones designed to
facilitate the transportation of coff ee export. Most of them are dilapidated due
to lack of maintenance. Th ere is only one highway in Sidama which connects
Addis Ababa and the town of Moyale in the South. Th ere are neither railway
lines nor international airports. Th ere are barely industries. A textile factory,
set up in the 1980s catering for external market, had little linkage to the local
economy. Th ere are no modern coff ees processing plants except raw coff ee
LANGUAGE, CULTURE, BELIEFS AND INSTITUTIONS
Sidama is a potentially rich nation impoverished by the culture of conquest
and domination. It prizes of relatively distinct language and cultural entity. Th e
Sidama language, one of the Cushitic languages, is spoken by most Sidamas.
Like other comparable communities, the Sidama people trace their origins
to common ancestors. Oral tradition had it that Sidamas descended from two
ancestral fathers: Bushee and Maldea. Successive generations worshiped ancestor
spirit, Annuwate ayaana. It is believed that the dead retain their individual
identity and continue to play an active role in society. Like elsewhere in Africa
ancestor veneration is important to religious beliefs and practices (Howard
Sidama’s holy places associated with the founders of major groups are known
as akaako darga. Some of these include Teellamo, Wonsho, Buunama, Aroosa,
Hallo, Guushala, Beera, Goida, Bansa Illaala, Saafa and Cirfa. Th e followers
of Sidama traditional religion emphasize that they do not worship Akaako,
but a creator sky deity, Magano, who once lived on earth, but returned to sky
aft er people complained about having to make a choice between reproduction
and eternal life (Braukämper 1992:197, also Daye 2001). Since then, God is
approached through the brokerage of lower level deities. In other words, Akaako
is the mediator through whom the people approach the Supreme Being.
Stanley (1966:219) noted that:
Th e Sidama religion is basically monotheistic combined with ancestor
worship.... Even the worship of the tribal forefathers is largely
based on the belief that they are powerful protectors of the clans, as
eff ective intermediaries between God and their people.
Th rough ancestor worship, the living and the dead occupy interconnected
worlds as the spirits of the dead visit the living from the realm of ideas, mainly
through dreams. Th e notion of reincarnation and life aft er death that is actively
sought aft er in other belief systems existed in Sidama. Diff erent sacrifi ces are
off ered to “feed” the dead. Th e sacrifi ce of animals on sacred sites (such as burial
places and forestlands), the prohibition of eating pork, and the responsibilities
of the fi rst born to off er sacrifi ce at the funeral of one’s parents have similarity to
other religions. Th e older persons being close to the dead, and thereby close to
God, occupy temporal space between ordinary being and the supernatural. In
Sidama worldview, old age commands respect and recognition, as the advancement
of age is oft en associated with experience and wisdom. Th is is common to
other cultures since the “values drawn from the past do ... have contemporary
relevance and a hold in all our imagination” (Baxter 1983:183).
Sidama’s monotheistic belief tendency in divine creation, kalaqo, augured
well with the teaching of other monotheist belief systems, partly explaining
the ease with which Christian missions were received in Sidama. Th e missions
were aided by modern education and the tendency to expand their numbers by
proselytizing and converting members of other faiths to their own followers
(See also Braukämper, 1992:195-7). It has to be noted that the introduction of
cash crop economy and the spread of Christian values have undoubtedly infl uenced
the activities, beliefs, and attitudes of the Sidama people (See Hamer and
Th e pre-conquest Sidama society had rich and complex social and political
institutions. Th e people had developed their cultural ethos on the basis of community
life with complex moral codes, laws, conventions and sanctions with
predictable mechanisms of enforcement. John Hamer pointed out that Sidama’s
gerontocratic social structure is based on generational class system which tends
to facilitate the implementation of elderhood authority. It contains a “group of
specialist mediators who are leaders of the major clans (mote), the generational
classes (gadaana), and a few esteemed old men who have survived two cycles
of the generational class system (woma) (Hamer 1996:526; 1994:128). Jan
Brøgger (1986:114) described them as the system of age-grades.
In this system, age has important implications. For example, the division of
labor is predicated on age meant old men and women are respected members
of the community. From old men comes cimeesa, an equivalent of a ritual leader
who is chosen according to his age while from old women emerges qarricho
chosen again by age. Even though the society is largely paterlineal and women
are not formally members of the luwa generational system, but they are integral
to its survival through their responsibility for the reproduction of household
and the management of much of its subsistence labor. Women do not participate
directly in councils of elders, but they are represented before the council by
a spokesman of their choice, whenever having grievance. Jan Brøgger cited an
example where elderly women behave with self-assurance, even smoking water
pipe which is regarded as the prerogative of male elders, consistent with the
increase in their authority (Brøgger 1986:54). On the other hand, male elders
are empowered to legislate, take administrative actions to meet emergencies,
mediate disputes and enforce decisions. They reach their position settling disputes of everyday life, making policy rules about production, assisting the government in collecting taxes,and performing the rituals that negotiate the changing meaning of
the cultural code. Indeed, they are the ones closest to the infl uential
dead elders who, through dreams, remind the living of their obligations
to that code (Hamer 1994:128).
Th e moral code referred above is known as the halaale code which plays
an important role in religious and politico-cultural systems. Th e term halaale
means “truth” or “a true way of life.” Th e code forms the foundation for halaale
ideology defi ned as the principles of moral code governing the relationship
between people (Hamer 1994, 1996). It involves specifi c values such as the
importance of generosity, commitment to truth in confl ict mediation, fairness
in delivering blame and punishment, avoiding disruptive gossip, responsible
use of money, respect for property boundaries and avoidance of adultery and
sexual promiscuity. Th e signifi cance of wealth acquisition relates to the status
and esteem achieved through reputation for generosity by redistributing wealth
through hospitality and the support of one’s kin.
According to halaale moral code, greed and arrogance are not viewed
favorably as they invite jealousy and fear. Th e task of guarding and interpreting
the moral order and code resides in the hands of elders. Since life is a continual
process, the halaale code does not end with the death of elders who continue to
infl uence the living by reappearing in dreams. Th e latter are believed to remind
the living elders not to fail in upholding halaale and not to neglect “feeding”
them animal sacrifi ce at appropriate shrines (Hamer 1994).
In the past, the halaale code worked eff ectively well through social sanctions.
Th e code is also supported by interrelated administrative and cultural
institutions of buude, jirtee and seeraa. Recourse to ultimate sanction takes the
form of curse believed to be eff ective. From among such sanctions, the feeling of
alienation will have a marked eff ect since the ostracization by seera leads to social
rejection by both the social and supernatural worlds. A comparable phenomenon
in the contemporary Western society is incarceration in prisons which is
a complete physical removal of persons from society. Th e Sidama world knows
no capital punishment; murder is punishable by guma or blood compensation.
Neither do the elders and their council possess direct physical forces of coercion
at their disposal. Jan Brøgger (1986:109, 111) noted that:
the style of behavior and demeanor of everyday life .... is clearly not
based on threat of physical force. It is not the cowed subservience
based on fear of whips, gallows and dungeons which is displayed,
but it clearly demonstrates a concern for public opinion and sensitivity
Without the use of physical force and violence, the moral order had worked
well for centuries in preserving the institutions and the moral code itself.
It linked a household to community, generation to generation, and men to
women, on a complementary basis. Th e moral code also conformed to another
side of Sidama ethos, that of decentralized decision-making and consensual rule.
Hamer (1998b) compares the practice of community participation and rational
discourse with the authority of the Western style polity devoid of justice whose
alternative, he suggests, could be Sidama’s personalized and decentralized form
Th ree institutions dominate the Sidama political and cultural space. Th ey
are (a) kingdom (woma), (b) principality (mote) and (c) the Luwa systems. Th e
woma institution is the earliest form of political institution in Sidama governance. Th e term “woma” is associated with wisdom whose role in production
and organization is considered to be sophisticated. Th e woma presides over
a council or songo (what Brøgger compared to a senate with strong authority
whereby “pressure on the individual is not exerted by the invisible hand of the
market” (Brøgger 1986:108). Womu-songo, or the king’s council, is the senate
chaired by a woma.
Th e position of woma in society varied from place to place and from clan to
clan. While the presence of a woma is essential in all parts of Sidama, as bees have
a queen, the age and the method of electing him varied from region to region. In
most parts of Sidama, including in Alata where there are several clans governed
as federations, gerontocrats are elected from diff erent sections of society to the
role of a woma. In other places, such as Holoo and Sawolaa, the woma institution
is dynastic and familial, hence inherited. In this case, when a woma dies, his
son replaces him regardless of the age of the latter. If the son is too young and
unprepared for the assumption of authority, he is helped by regents and other
advisers (Hoteso 1990:146-47).
Th e mote institution is another form of authority relation with explicitly
political role. Th e leader is called moticha and he is elected to the position of
administration and leadership on the basis of age and knowledge. His election
takes place aft er thorough consultation with members of several local councils.
Mooticha is responsible to look aft er the national council which also subsumes
independent units of local councils such as the ollaa songos. Members of the
songo are selected from the body of “wise persons,” or hayoo, elected from diff erent
clans. Th ese councillors are, mainly but not necessarily, gerontocrats whose
job is to advise the songo, to represent a person in dispute, to take ones case or
appeal to the songo of the higher order or to lobby for assorted causes. Th e councils
are run according to customary laws. Members of the local council need
to memorize the law by heart including the crime typology and the relevant
punishment. While the most routine and relatively simple tasks were performed
at the local level, the higher and controversial issues or disputes required the
meeting of the moote songo. In such cases, the mooticha resorts to halaale and
those persons who stand in front of his court to tell a lie were perceived to die.
Th e fear of death compels suspects to reveal truth.
Th e woma institution had experienced decline through time with the
emergence of the feudal Ethiopian rule while the powers of the mote had waxed
(Hoteso 1990). Th e role of the woma was reduced to the level of non-interference
in political and administrative matters and consultation on cultural and
religious issues. Today, the position of a mote itself is largely undermined by the
existing political system and attendant changes.
Th e Luwa system is an age-related institution performing ritual, cultural,
and political roles. Th is institution has several similarities to the gada system
of the Oromos.5 Writing from a Marxist anthropological vantage, Hamer
(1998b:6) describes the luwa as the generational “class” system of structuring
society. Each “class” consists of three sets of people—elders, initiates, and preinitiates—
where all men are linked to one another in a junior-senior relationship
throughout the life cycle. Age-grades are a compromise between chronological
age and generation (Brøgger 1986). Th ere are fi ve rotating age grades: Darrara,
Moggisa, Hirbbora, Fullaasa, and Wawaasa. Members of diff erent grades pass
through time cycles (every seventh year) and their life status changes accordingly.
Th e Luwa congregation takes place at sacred sites, usually camps where
the initiates stay for two months fed by Luwa fathers away from labor and sex.
(Luwa fathers are cultural fathers who are not necessarily the biological fathers
of the initiates). Th e initiation follows the appointment of a leader gadaanna by
a panel of eight individuals. Panel members conduct the selection under strict
secrecy. As a matter of principle, they assume no prior knowledge of each other;
neither should they have contact with the young man they choose.
In the process of recruitment, they consult masalto (philosophers) and
qalichas (fortunetellers) to identify the right person. Th e panel also sets the criteria
(or the job description, so to speak) of the would-be leader’s character and
physical features. Being the fi rst-born male, preferably from the fi rst marriage
is an added advantage. Ideally, the person should be physically and morally fi t
to symbolise the rituals of power on behalf of the group. Th e desirable qualities
of leadership include ones wisdom, circumspection, and ability to mediate
disputes. Th e fi nal selection is based on the elder’s majority vote. Th e gadaanna
is appointed for the term of seven years. Th ese years are associated with his name
since it is part of the Sidama culture that “the points in history will be identifi ed
with reference to the gadaanna” (Brøgger 1986:114).
Th e cyclical feature of the luwa system means that all males will progress
from a youthful status of providing service to senior positions of redistributing
wealth and knowledge. Initially, the youth learn skills by attending council
meetings where elders make decisions. With unavoidable sense of paternalism
and trusteeship of the moral code, the elders have a direct bearing on the youth
who constitute the productive forces and the basis of wealth creation.
All these reinforce the place of elders whose roles are as diverse as consultation,
decision-making, confl ict resolution, monitoring social cohesion and the
assurance of continuity amidst change. As for confl ict resolution and the elders’
role, it had been customary that land and property disputes occupy most of their
time. Th e authority of the elders to solve confl icts and policy-making is stamped
by resort to curse and to the supernatural involving heavy sanctions. Th e usefulness and the relevance of age-related systems in general and of gerontocracy in
particular depends on its ability to positively contribute towards the economic,
political, social, educational and belief systems of contemporary society.
In times and in a society where story telling is a necessity, where spoken
rather than the written word holds signifi cance, where illiteracy is widespread,
where the economic base is confi ned to subsistence agriculture, the problem of
informing or educating the youth remains in the hands of those who possess
useful information at their disposal. From earlier stages in life, women teach
their children in several ways. Th en, through rituals and meetings, old men pass
on knowledge obtained from ceaseless struggle for survival in a harsh environment.
Th e lessons add confi dence to the young generation about the wisdom of
their past contributing to their effi cacy to solve contemporary problems.
Several forces threaten gerontocracy in Sidama, both external and internal.
Th ey include the expansion of the cash economy, the dissemination of religious
missions, and ever present political pressure from Ethiopian empire state. It is
reported that, elsewhere in Africa, age systems faltered in the face of external
infl uences, modern education, capitalist cash economy, and state intervention
(Kurimto and Simonse 1998:25). For example, in the Masai speaking Samburu
of Kenya, gerontocracy was imperiled by external infl uences. Th e British colonial
administration controlled the Masai peoples’ dispute settlement processes,
imposed taxes, and required the sale of cattle through offi cial channels. But
then the infl uence of an imposed colonial administration was limited and the
Samburu continued their traditional gerontocratic authority over herding and
community life since there was no other environmentally appropriate means of
survival (Spencer 1965).
In the case of Sidama, most external infl uences entered through Christian
missionaries, the aid agencies and schooling. Th e expansion of Lutheran,
Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Adventist churches in the mid-twentieth
century allured several social groupings to Christian preaching. Th e fact that
the churches, particularly Catholic and Adventist, were based in the rural areas
indicates their keenness to acquire more members by demonstrating their
usefulness to the needs of the rural population. In most areas, these churches
were accompanied by schools and health clinics off ering educational and health
facilities. While competing with the local values, the churches have also played
complementary role. Some preached in Sidama language or translated or wrote
books in Sidama. In their works, the priests and the churches did not face insurmountable
obstacles since the halaale code has messages that reinforce that of
the Bible. Yet the task of interpreting truth shift ed from the Sidama wise men
to learned priests who were keen to allure the youth, and through them their
families to diff ering ways of life. Th e end result, either way, was to change the
worldview of the would-be followers who no longer resort to local norms and
practices including ancestral veneration.
Th e work of aid agencies has never been prominent in Sidama until recently.
For one, the self-suffi ciency ethos of the moral code precluded any tendency to
be dependent on external alms. Begging is morally unacceptable and immediate
support comes from the community itself when needed. Secondly, it is highly
unlikely that aid agencies would be permitted to pass the Ethiopian centre and
carry out development-oriented programs in Sidama. Neither has there been a
widely publicized emergency situation worth attracting the attention for food
aid as in the northern Ethiopia. Nevertheless, minor aid programs had fi ltered
through church groups with a notable exception of Irish Aid which started its
functions in the early 1990s. Th e social and economic eff ects of this and other
externally funded programs are yet to be seen.
Th e Sidama social organization and cultural underpinning was further
undermined by the upheaval of military dictatorship.6 Th e role of customary
sanctions were relegated and replaced by communist-structured, strictly hierarchical
administrative units. Th e customary village council or ollaa was replaced
by administrative units known as qebele (also spelt as kebele), while the roles of
murichas (event organizers and informants) and cinanchos (work co-ordiantors)
were taken by qebele administrators. Th e qebele administration instituted by the
Derg had little to do with the Sidama customary law and procedures, seera.
Qebele appointees became part and parcel of the Derg administrative apparatus.
At the same time, the regime denigrated the Sidama belief system and it worked
to undermine the Luwa system. Sacred forests and public assembly-point trees
(gudumaales) were destroyed and replaced by cash crop plantation and draconian
communist villagisation programs. Th e burden on the Sidama society was
only worsened by economic oppression associated with heavy taxation and low
fi xed coff ee prices.
Given the centrist tendency of the Derg, the consensual authority of elders
virtually ceased to exist except in conformity with government edicts and unless
practiced clandestinely. Th e communist style of socio-political organization
that spreads its tentacles from the core to the villages, and the physical force
that accompanies militaristic bureaucracy distorted the politico-cultural airwaves
of the Sidama world. It undermined the social complementarity between
elders and youth as well as between genders. At the same time, the consensual
authority of elders was transferred from local songos to corrupt imposition of
qebele committees. Th e government policies of taxation and marketing controls
became more oppressive, making life worse and destabilizing to the internal
mechanisms of survival. Devastating were also the practices of collective farming
and villagisation coupled with forced conscription of youth into the army to
fi ght endless wars with neighboring countries and nationalist insurgencies.
Th e regime that replaced the Derg in 1991 was less enthusiastic in supporting
elders’ councils fearing that they might undermine its authority. Th e
problem is more than lack of enthusiasm since the TPLF regime introduced
pervasive inter-generational confl icts. By selective and manipulative arming of
the youth, the regime has exacerbated a generational divide. Upon assuming
power, it promoted a decided minority of youth with the least knowledge and
experience of the Abyssinian political machination while excluding those with
a through knowledge of the system. Worse still, as soon as the less experienced
youth gathered substantive knowledge and start asking the inevitable, they were
sacked, imprisoned or replaced by far the less experienced ones or by those more
cowed and confused. Th is practice enabled the TPLF regime, at least temporarily,
to manipulate the overall process of governance. At the same time, attempts
at co-opting the local leaders and elders were made possible at the expense of
corruption and loss of respect to their moral authority.
What happened then is the social disorientation and lack of moral direction.
For example, politically motivated semi-religious fanatic groups covered
the ground emptied of the moral code. Fundamentalist churches went on taxing
the poor while taking the youth away from work, education and the protective
shields of their parents and elders. Seemingly freed from the shackles of tradition,
the youth roam around the country engaged in endless congregations. A
generation that lost its initiation rites and rights recompenses itself by a new
form of religious initiation. In personal communication to this author, John
Hamer (1998b:7) noted that
considering the experiences of youth in being removed from the
land, impressed into confl icting military organizations, and losing
the authority and instruction of the elders, it was not surprising that
a condition of cynicism, even nihilism, engulfed much of the young
Similar pervasive role of state was also noted in the case of the Orma people,
in Kenya. Th ere, state interference in production, marketing and distribution led
to the stratifi cation of social life, favoring wealthy individuals, and a decline in the
redistribution process. Competing interests were no longer negotiated through
consensual agreement and the Orma increasingly came to rely on the sanctioning
force of the state (Ensiminger 1990, 1996; See also Hamer 1998b:10). John
Abbink opines that the Gada system of government, once graft ed on an agropastoral
way of life, is susceptible to changes in social scale, economic life and
external contacts. He further argued that the system “will not work in a stratifi
ed society with economically specialized groups, such as modern society [and
it] serves mainly as a symbol of Oromo political ethos and achievement, as well
as illustration that there were traditional constitutional limits on the exercise
of power.” In brief, the “traditions of political organization, customary law and
cultural autonomy provide elements of a value system and a fund of collective
memory and identity” (Abbink 1998:161, 163).
Changes to tradition are also eff ected by education. Th e establishment of
literacy in garrison towns initially aimed at educating the siblings of settlers
later spread to the rural Sidama through Christian missionary schools. With
uneven distribution of schools and schooling, the outcome of such literacy was
benefi cial to the northern settlers and not to the Sidama society. Lately, those
Sidamas who made it to higher education were hindered from promoting their
social and political heritage, and they were removed from Sidama to work or
live in other areas. Some Sidamas managed to migrate to the outside world
forming and strengthening the Sidama diaspora. Th e progress of the political
movements, national awareness, and further studies complemented the eff orts
in Sidama itself.
Th e political arrangement that replaced the Derg in 1991 drew its social
base from Tigray, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which
obtains its inspiration from Albanian communism. In rhetoric, and in order to
rally support, the Front bandied about the “nations, nationalities and peoples”,
decentralization and federations, and the use of national/local languages, issues
that needed real reckoning. As the centralizing tendency of the Ethiopian polity
worked against any realization of such goals, the regime revived the main thrust
of the Ethiopian past. Indeed, the half-hearted pronouncements were made to
ensure the social and political supremacy by the TPLF.
On the front of political organization, soon aft er the assumption of power,
the TPLF patched up surrogate parties such as the Sidama People’s Democratic
Organization (SPDO) to serve one and only one purpose: to become
its puppets. Th e core members of SPDO were prisoners of war taken during
armed confrontations with the Derg army. Th e membership later expanded to
include primary school teachers (who suff ered from low morale and low pay),
aggrieved personalities, and the unemployed youth who were not accustomed
to Abyssinian machination and treachery. It armed, supported and fi nanced the
SPDO elements while terrorizing other groups and individuals. By promoting
the mediocre, the TPLF demoted independent, creative and well-informed personalities
as well as nationalist elders. Th e regime’s supporters were promoted
as models to be followed while creative and critical thinkers were discouraged
and undermined. Th e regime has progressively excluded true nationalists from
decision-making process. Th e regime’s propaganda tools presented intellectuals
and business persons from the South as enemies of the people or anti-people.
Th e SPDO is supervised by another satellite organization created by the
TPLF, namely, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (SEPDF)
which is a member of the EPRDF. According Lovise Aalen
Th e TPLF’s strong regional and federal position is a stark contrast
to the position of the southern EPRDF partner, the SEPDF, which
is disempowered at both regional and federal level. Since the ruling
party at federal level is Tigray dominated, Tigrayan interest are
pursued and Tigray regional state maintains an exceptional position
in the federation, while the governments of other federal units,
including SNNPRS, remain weak and practically ineff ective (Aalen
Th rough the so-called the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s
Regional State (SNNPRS) and the SEPDF, the TPLF sought to control the
Sidama national capital, Hawaasa. Th e complicated agenda for the city resulted
in the growth of urban slums, the spread of diseases, environmental pollution
and civil strife. Th e ill-defi ned policy to make Hawaasa the regional administrative
capital, supposedly under the control of the central government, harnessed
insecurity among Sidamas culminating in popular protest and brutal massacre
of hundreds of Sidamas by the government army on 24 May 2002. Known as
the Looqe massacre, this is the most grave and historically signifi cant event in
recent history. Th e massacre, which is apart of the ongoing process of genocide
took place as the TPLF government security forces opened fi re on peaceful
demonstrators who were protesting the destabilizing policies of the government.
Over hundred lives were lost, and nearly all were Sidamas. Th e regime was
criticized by human rights organizations and national governments. Th e Looqe
massacre remains in the collective conscience of the Sidama public.
Th roughout the nation, state-sponsored confl icts continue to claim lives and
property. Times were when the regime creates confl ict (even warfare) while it
joins the game as a non-partisan mediator. Several prominent Sidamas lost their
lives in these incidents. Th is is in line with the old colonial style of divide-andrule
whereby the colonized are separated from each other so that they cannot
plausibly mount common struggle. It has been one of the measures to encourage
the elites from oppressed people to be oblivious of, if not openly hostile to, the
neighbors (i.e., the Oromo, Kafi cho, Wolayta, Hadiya, etc.) while they are compelled
to master the culture, language and the values of the oppressors.
In recent times, the Sidama nation experienced severe famine conditions.
Th e government gave little or no attention. Most relief eff ort was provided by
Irish Aid under the supervision of the independent local NGO, the Sidama Development Corporation (SDC). Th e SDC is a grass root non-profi t organization
established in July 1997 to help reduce poverty and foster sustainable
development in Sidama. Its express mission was to harness the human and
physical resources of Sidama so that the people could address the fundamental
obstacles to development. Th e idea to establish SDC came from the Sidama
people including those working in Sidama Development Programme (SDP)
funded by Irish Aid since 1994. Th e Irish Aid program has assisted in the establishment
of SDC both in terms of creating the critical awareness among the
population through integrated rural development program and making the
resources available for the establishment of the organization itself. Th e director
of SDC, Wollassa Kumo, made signifi cant eff ort to secure external resources to
help development eff orts in the land most neglected by Ethiopian authorities.
He was forced to resign in April 2002, prior to the Looqe massacre, and fl ed the
Th e development of Sidama nationalism owes its origins in the conquest
and the growing discontent and deep-seated malaise caused by Ethiopian empire
statehood. Th e spontaneous rise and fall of peasant uprisings and protests in
Sidama in the past is progressively replaced by informed nationalist program
that relies on written word. Literacy reinforces permanence and preservation
of national treasure. Th e dispersal of Sidamas throughout the world is also
strengthening the network of unity and nationalism in information age.
1. Currently, the Sidama studies are developing in the Sidama Diaspora. Th e Sidama
Concern online has established contacts among Sidamas and other scholars keen on
2. Th e Coptic Orthodox Church is the main architect of religious aff airs of the
northern ethnies. In the south, it was based in urban areas and garrison settlements
where the majority of settlers spoke Amharic language. Braukamper (1992:
197) attests that the orthodoxisation campaign failed to go beyond the sphere of
infl uence of the military colonists from northern Ethiopia.
3. Th e term “nation” here refers to people who share common descent, language,
culture, history as well as subjective identifi cation with the political peoplehood.
Yoram Dinstein noted that peoplehood is contingent on two separate elements:
an objective element of being an ethnic group with a common history, a cultural
identity, and a subjective element indicating itself as a people (Dinstein 1976:104).
I dwelt on the terminology of nations and nationalism in other publications. See,
for example, Seyoum Hameso, (1997a, 1997b).
4. Th e survey carried out by Th e Sidama Development Programme in 1995 indicated
that Sidama had a population of 3.7 million. See also Th e Hutchinson EncyclopaeTh
e Sidama Nation: An Introduction
dic Dictionary, 1991, p.368; and Th e U.S. Department of State, Country Profi le:
Ethiopia, Th e Bureau of African Aff airs, 4 December 1997.
5. See Th e Sidama Concern, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1997, pp.6-7 for comparisons. Gada is
an age-grade system of governance. It is based on consultative decision-making
with constitutional limits on the exercise of power. Th e oral law for Sidamas and
Oromos draw from the same word, seeraa, acting as a social sanction. Th ere is also
an assembly system which aims to reach consensus under a shed of a tree known as
odakoo for Sidamas, and odaa for the Oromos. Th e assembly system is cultural heritage
shared by both the Sidamas (xadoo) and the Oromos (gummi). (See Legesse
1973; see also Bassi 1997).
6. In the same year of disturbance, 1974, a Mogissa age-set was initiated following the
Hirbora age set.
7. Th e Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) as the forerunner of the Sidama Liberation
Front (SLF) was formed in the late 1970s. For most of the last decades, it
operated from outside Sidama, but joined the TPLF/EPRDF dominated Transitional
Government of Ethiopia in 1991 and was expelled from TGE shortly aft er.
On academic and the media fi eld, Th e Sidama Concern focused on promoting the
national, regional and international awareness about Sidama.
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