After a long dry summer in 2009, the community of Aleta Wondo was worried. When would the next rain come? Would their crops survive the dry spell? Would they have the food they had counted on for survival? What would happen to the coffee crop? The elders of Aleta Wondo approached Common River staff and requested support for a Sidama ceremony to bring rain after months of drought. They requested a cow, which is the main part of the Sidama rain-making ceremony.
Working to revive Sidama culture and re-ignite respect among tribal elders, Tsegaye and I were hesitant to support the ceremony. What would happen if the ritual did not work? Would this further the general feeling amongst the youth and middle aged that Sidama culture is unworthy of respect and not to be believed? It could be disparaging to the elders if it didn’t work or it could be a powerful affirmation if it did. We took a leap of faith and decided to honor their request and support their tradition. We took a chance and bought them a cow.
On the special day chosen by the tribal elders, they arrived, dressed in traditional garb, and sat under a huge ancient tree in town. Townspeople gathered to watch and get fresh meat. The ceremony started with incantations and prayers…bowing to touch the earth with one’s forehead, taking sips of honey wine and spitting it over people as a blessing, etc. When the cow was sacrificed, its blood was smeared on the foreheads and chests of various people (I was one of them). They cooked the fresh meat over an open fire, and skillfully cut it up into equal portions, placing on large enset leaves. Meat was shared with everyone attending.
The elders then sat with the important task of reading the “future” in the cleaned lining of the cow’s stomach. It is like a piece of fine, white lace, which held messages for the Sidama who knew how to read it. At one point, a group of 5-6 elders could not agree on the meaning of their reading. Hence, the lining was rolled up and put inside a cylinder of bamboo, to be delivered to another elder who lived over the next mountain. He would be able to make the final the decision of the reading.
Later that day, word got back that the coming year would be fruitful and that the rains would come to save the crops and it would start within the day. We waited till dusk. Then we waited till after dinner. Then we waited until just literally a minute before midnight, when the hut suddenly was shaken by a large clap of thunder clap. Within seconds the skies opened up and the rain poured down like a monsoon. We were jubilant and relieved!
We did it two years later in July 2011 and it worked again. In fact, it would not stop raining and it started to flood the town. We asked the elders if they could perform a “Rain-stopping” ceremony, but they said they did not know how to do that. We are convinced in the wisdom of the Sidama tribal elders, who are the stewards of a cultural heritage that is both potent and still very much alive.
Written by Donna Sillan
The sacrifical cow.
Reading the cow’s stomach lining to portend the future.