SIDAMA TRIBAL BACKGROUND
Within the southeast Highlands of the Great Rift Valley, there is a nation of people called the Sidama. As avid coffee drinkers and enset eaters, the Sidama cultivate these crops for their lives, using some of the world’s oldest farming techniques, which honor not only the earth, but also themselves.
The Sidama homeland is located in the Sidama Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR) in southern Ethiopia. They number 3 million and constitute 4 % of the nation’s population. The Sidama land is located between 4,500– 10,000 feet above sea level, and is marked by three climatic zones: lowlands, midlands, and highlands all supporting different activities and life styles. Different from the arid northern landscape, which most people outside of Ethiopia think is the norm for the entire country, the land is surprisingly lush and green, with rolling hills and verdant valleys.
The Sidama live close to the land and are closely connected to the earth spiritually. This connection however is getting severed as will be discussed later in this book. They are peace loving people by nature and by geography. They have been remote and off the beaten track, avoiding much of the political turmoil that typically embroils around the capital of Addis Ababa and along Ethiopia’s borders. The majority of the Sidama practiced their traditional beliefs, and only in the 1960s that European missionaries came to their region did any leave that faith. However, according to the 1994 national census, only 15% practice traditional beliefs while the majority (67%) are Protestant, 8% Muslim, 5% Catholic, and 2% practice Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. The Sidama speak a language called Sidaamu-afoo.
Nearly 95% of the Sidama live a life centered on agriculture. Customarily, the Sidama people have been agriculturalist and semi-pastoralist. However, today, because of the high density of population and education, pastoral life is disappearing. The Sidama preserved their cultural heritage, including their traditional religion and language until the late 1880s during the conquest by Emperor Menelik II. Before this, the Sidama had their own well-established administrative systems that dated at least to the 9th century, though it was made up of a loose coalition of Sidama kingdoms. As a result of marginalization and since the language did not have its own alphabet, very little has been written on Sidama issues. Many were not able to attend school until after the Derg came to power in 1975. Today, the Sidama area has only a small number of schools, and inadequate health services, though primary education has increased recently.
The Sidama economy is based primarily on subsistence farming based on archaic production techniques. The important staple food is ENSET. Other crops are also grown and they breed cattle. However, a substantial area of the Sidama land produces coffee, which is the major cash crop in the region. It supplies over 40% of washed coffee to the central market. Coffee has been the major source of income for the rural households in the coffee producing regions of the Sidama land.
However, the recent plunge in international coffee prices and rising food prices drew most of these households back into the subsistence production and absolute poverty. The Sidama people have never faced major hunger until very recently. Due to reliable rainfall and evergreen land area, they were always able to produce enough to ensure food security. However, the vagaries of nature coupled with massive growth of rural population, limited rural development, and a departure from their cultural ways, the Sidama are now facing hunger and poverty, which was basically unknown a generation ago. About one-fourth of the total population in Sidama is directly or indirectly dependent on food aid from the international community, which raises many questions about the future of the tribe.
Other major crops produced besides enset and coffee are wheat, oat, maize, barley, sorghum, millets, sugar cane, potatoes, and other cereal crops and vegetables. The pattern of Enset and coffee production and consumption over the years has substantially shaped the nature of the Sidama culture, in terms of their socio-economics, indigenous knowledge, food sovereignty, resiliency and sustainability.
The role of livestock was highly significant in medieval and early 20th century Sidama society. However, recently the size of live stock has been dwindling because of two factors. First, a rapid increase in population reduced the size of grazing land for large stocks, and second, a severe ´Tsetse´ fly disease in low land areas had virtually wiped out most of the livestock population. There is a high value attached to livestock by the Sidama among whom a person without cattle is not regarded as a fully-grown social person, but as an outcast.
Fishing activities are limited to the most prominent lakes in Sidama: Lake Awassa and Lake Abaya. Although Sidama has several perennial rivers, they have never been exploited. Commercial forestry is underdeveloped in the area, but Sidama is well known for its traditional agro forestry system, which saved the land from erosion and desertification for centuries. Every household in Sidama practices agro forestry. This tendency has also brought a negative impact in recent times. Farmers began to practice planting Eucalyptus trees alongside other crops. Because the later plant has a poisonous effect, it destroys other crops planted under it. It also absorbs water and leaves the land dry. Most farmers are aware of the problem. However, the economic benefits of the eucalyptus tree outweigh the cost of losing small crops near it for individual farmers. However, it is generally recognized at present that this trend is dangerous for the overall environmental sustainability of the Sidama land.