Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning Hawassa was in a festive mood as the Sidama, one of the tribes in the south, celebrated Fiche their new year. While the Sidama celebrated their New Year in the rural areas some of them travelled to Hawassa to join their relatives in the town.
The Sidama have their own unique calendar in which a week has five days and a month twenty-eight days. Each of the twenty-eight days has its own name. And a year is thirteen months long.
However, their New Year does not fall on the same day every year. The day is determined by elders who practice astrology and announce it to the communities. The Ethiopian New Year falls on September 11 every year. But Fiche was celebrated September 7 this year. Last year it was on September 15 whereas the year before last year it was on September 27. But always it falls on Qawado, the first day of the week. It is always what the elders make out in the stars that determines Fiche.
Two weeks before Fiche, elders hold a fasting after which they pronounce blessings upon their people, cattle and villages. Then the celebration starts with singing and dancing.
But before the celebration actually starts, if there are people who have quarrelled, they bring their cases before the elders and forgive one another. The eve, therefore, is essentially a day of reconciliation amongst those who have been estranged, according to Toloma Kabisso, Tourism and Parks Development Coordinator of the Sidama Zone.
Having made peace among themselves, they walk in a procession and pass through an arch made of fresh bamboo. Even the cattle participate in the ritual. For the Sidama, walking through the arch, which they call huluqa symbolises passing from the old to the New Year.
Fiche is communally celebrated at a gudumale, a kind of clearing which the Sidama use as a public square in every village in the countryside. Or it can be done at marketplaces. Such places are never farmed and the Sidama do not cut the trees which grow there.
In Hawassa, it took place on a grassy field on the shore of Lake Hawassa where hundreds of the Sidama, including Shiferaw Shigute, head of the regional government, gathered and were entertained by a local band playing traditional music and dances.
The dancing varies depending on the age group of the participants. The dance of the old men is called ketala. They don their traditional clothes of home-spun shirts and jodhpurs and dance standing side by side and holding each other’s shoulders or shaking their spears and shields. The children and the youth also have their peculiar dancing styles. Unmarried girls wear silver bracelets over their bare arms when they are dancing.
The dancing and the celebration goes on at different gudumales for two weeks. Boys and girls used to express interest in each other during the celebration of Fiche but the practice is waning according to Tolema. Just as in some parts of the Amhara Regional State, it is common for young men and women to throw lemons at each other; the Sidama youth would send a toothbrush made of twigs to one another.
When a girl accepts a young man’s interest, she sends him back the toothbrush in the hands of the same messenger who brought it to her and the young man understands.
In the evening they eat buurusame, which is quocho flour mixed with plenty of butter. And they drink milk over that. They use false banana leaves for scooping the buurusame. The leaves are warmed over fire to make them flexible and in the process they become free from bacteria.
On Fiche the buurusame is served in a bowl called shafeta which is larger than the one they commonly use for other occasions. Dozens of people scoop the buurusame with the false banana leaf from one large bowl and take it dripping with hot butter to their mouth. When they are done they depart wishing one another a good, prosperous year and hoping to celebrate Fiche again the following year.
On Fiche, the Sidama do not eat meat because, they believe, they must honour their cattle on that day. If there is some meat in anybody’s house they put it outside.
The day after Fiche is called Chambalala on which fathers take the cattle to pastures and relieve their children who go around in their villages bringing New Year greetings, saying “Aide chambalala” (roughly: Happy New year) and good wishes to every family. The mothers wait for them, receive them into their houses saying, “Ille, ille” and feed them buurusame. Then they anoint the children’s head with a generous measure of butter.
The Sidama generally agree that they have been celebrating Fiche for many generations but none can say when they started it. A few decades ago the celebration of Fiche seemed to be declining but now it is reviving.