DEBRE ZEIT, Ethiopia (AFP)— Cheered by the throng, Oromo dignitaries in traditional headdresses, lion skins and brightly-coloured velvet made their way to the edge of Lake Hora for an annual thanksgiving.
This was the yearly Irrecha festival when Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, the Oromo people, celebrate the bond between man and nature.
“Irrecha is the culture of the Oromo people. Long before the Christians or the Muslims, the Oromo had their own practices and religion,” explained Nourie Ula, a young Oromo attending the celebration earlier this month some 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of the capital Addis Ababa.
The chiefs dip their horsehair fly swatters into the murky water and splash the crowd thronged on the bank, aiming in particular for small children, before circling round an ancient fig tree a group of women have covered in butter.
Other women, sitting on the ground on top of fragrant, freshly-cut herbs, offer up prayers to the trees’s twisted branches.
“They are thanking God for the beauty of the place. The water is considered holy and brings prosperity. Nowadays everybody still comes here, Christians or Muslims and of course those who are still animist,” Nourie said.
More than 100,000 people had gathered, dressed in their traditional costume of white cotton bordered with bright colours. Some were mounted on small ponies, flanked by a huge crowd raising a thick cloud of dust.
Those closest to the shores of this crater lake under a blistering sun splashed themselves with the water, using small bunches of flowers they brought along. Then came the dancing and the all-important consultations, for in Oromo culture Irrecha is a great time of reconciliation.
“This day and the ceremonies here around the lake, are very important for us Oromo people. They come from all over Oromiya region, from places far away to celebrate here,” said Nourie, sitting under a tree where young people are dancing.
Traditionally Irrecha is also the day when Oromo chiefs transfer power to their successors.
“The Abagaada are the leaders of the Oromo people, like kings, but they can only stay in power for eight ears. They then hand over power peacefully to others chosen by the communities,” Nourie explained.
The ceremony, which was frowned upon or actively outlawed in the days of Ethiopia’s former dictator Mengistu Haile Maryam who was ousted in 1991, is now encouraged.
The Irrecha festivities also mark the end of the rainy season in Ethiopia and with that the hope of an abundant harvest, hence the offerings made by the crowd to the lake and the tree, both symbols of the one god traditionally worshipped by the Oromo.