- Religion and Beliefs
This paper results from the research project carried out in 1996. Different notable personalities, community leaders and elders were interviewed in different parts of the region. Through this work the author, a Sidama himself, hopes that the article will help those who are interested in carrying out further study in the field in the future. The presentation below is restricted to the foundational elements of the Sidamas’ faith and the way the Sidamas live out this faith.
The Sidama nation is located in the north-east Africa, the now southern Ethiopia. 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 land is located between 4500 - 10000ft above sea level, and is marked by three climatic zones: lowlands, midlands, and highlands all supporting different activities and life styles. About 90% of the Sidamas live in rural areas with the substantial number being adherents of Sidama religion. There exist the followers of Christianity and Islam.
The social organization in Sidama
is changing because of the education, political changes, contacts with
different people from other regions and provinces and religions. This
phenomenon also affects their cherished values, such as the rule of
Halaale (truth), the government of the elders, dialogical and consensus
based method of problem solving, and the fear (respect) of Magano
Magano is addressed by the Sidamas as father. Other attributes for Magano are Kalaqa (the Creator), Kaaliqa (the Almighty) and Halalancho (the True One). There exists one, supreme, and universal Magano. He alone created all that a person could see around: humankind, nature, animals, birds, heaven, sun, moon, stars, and so on. The Sidamas make a clear distinction between God and their common ancestors saying that the ancestors were created by Magano. They say that "Magano had created and taken them away". Even during their sacrificial offering to their common ancestors Magano comes first before the ancestors' names.
An elaborate story of creation is not what is typical of Sidamas. Some clans attribute a mythical element and special power to their common ancestors, such as claiming a descent from heaven or emergence from earth. Yet every Sidama, if asked about the one responsible for creation, he/she automatically replies that Magano is the one who created all.
The Sidamas generally agree that in the beginning God used to live with people. As the result of sin they committed, Magano departed far away into the sky. Even then Magano is perceived as being actively involved in human life for which reason people continue reconciling themselves with God through sacrificial offerings until today. Magano is called daily in different situations. For instance, people say Maganu wolqai... (In God's power...), Magano anna’ya kaa’li’e (God, my father, help me), Maganu kaa’lona (may God help), and so forth.
The Sidamas possess no statues or images of Magano. For them Magano, though active in their life, cannot be represented. Generally Magano’s name is feared or highly respected and is not called for wrong intentions (e.g. cheating, telling lies, stealing). But one can observe some mischievous people or thieves swearing in Magano’s name to hide themselves from being discovered when they are suspected of such acts. Theft itself is a recent experience for the Sidama people.
There is no special day (like
Sunday for Christians) for worshiping Magano. Apart from daily
invocation of Magano’s name individuals such as the family heads
make burnt offering for thanksgiving without any obligation or time set by
a special authority. Communal burnt and sacrificial offerings take place
at a particular moment and are dependent on the situations provoking them.
More than offerings Magano demands good behavior because one often
hears people saying "Do not do that for it displeases Magano"
or "Magano will get angry". It is only the act of
responding to Magano either in thanksgiving or asking forgiveness
that people make animal offerings. The Sidamas see their Magano as
a true loving father, the one who really cares for his children. They also
experience Him as merciful and believe that He forgives their trespasses
when they ask for forgiveness. Sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial
lamb is a sign of reconciliation with Magano and with each other.
The bad spirit, Busha Ayyaana, is also seen as real and is hated by the religious leaders and community elders. They curse it whenever they offer sacrifice to Magano. They command saying, Busha ayaana gobbatee ba’i (Bad spirit, go away from the world!) and Magano busha ayaana gobbatee huni (God destroy the bad spirit from the world". The term sheexaane is a borrowed name from the Christians to refer to the bad spirit and is widely used. The Sidama People also say that evil spirits can cause diseases but cannot cure them. Consequently, some Sidamas fear the evil spirits. The individuals called qaallo are seen as the medium of the bad spirits through which communication with them is enhanced. In order to avoid getting sickness some people give animals (male sheep or goats). These spirits have recognition only in a family setting and not in the community setting. There is no community acceptance of them.
There also exists a female
spirit, belonging to mothers-in-law, prayed and honored by women alone.
They make food offering to it, sing and dance (always at night and under a
tree). They call it woxa. It is a cult of fertility. At child
birth, mothers-in-law say: ane woxa tirtohe - let my spirit help
you for safe delivery. Sometimes when a dream occurs telling of eventual
dangers such as war or plague or drought, women also make an offering
(always food) and pray to this invisible mother-in-law spirit. However,
they never associate it with being Magano but see it as another
existing reality. They are aware that Magano alone is the Supreme.
At the same time they believe that this mother-in-law spirit can protect
them from the evil spirits and help them during their delivery. The food
offered is expected to be eaten by the hyenas in the absence of women. The
significance of this requires further investigation.
Since the Sidama people are organized according to clans, the common ancestor of each clan receives special respect and is paid homage in terms of appreciation that the people came into existence through his instrumentality. The Sidamas, being a patriarchal society, attribute power and authority to men alone. Equal respect and homage is not given to women ancestors. Common ancestors are regarded as very much blessed and filled with Magano's spirit, living in a state of divine. A lot of animals are periodically offered to them as a sacrifice.
Apart from acting as mediators, the common ancestors are seen as blessing and protecting the people and their ethical and religious values. They communicate with their people through dreams and warn them against human abuses of the defenseless, animals, and nature. Whoever dreams a dream, if the dream touches a situation implicating a clan or the nation, spiritual leaders call their councils and examine the dream carefully. If they conclude that the dream truly touches the reality existing within the clan or the nation, they give directions to the people on what to do. They also make an offering to Magano asking for forgiveness and protection from the eventual dangers. The following example illustrates these points.
During an interview with one elder called Ribbo talked about a recent dream dreamt by someone from Holloo clan. The dream was being carefully studied by the clan’s spiritual leaders called Gaana and Woma. And the dream goes as follows: a horse, cow, and dog were pleading in Magano's presence. When Magano asked about their problems, they explained a miserable life they were living in. The horse complained that the areas reserved for the horses to graze (always along the rivers) were no more there. There were now fences everywhere that they could not move as before. The cow complained that the areas reserved for them were shared by the people and that they had no place to move and feed upon. The dog complained that people used to give them food but now no one cared for them. Instead, everyone chased them away and that they were dying of hunger. Magano asked the common ancestor of Holloo clan, who is called Aabo, about the issue. The ancestor replied to Magano that he was going to ask his representatives, the Gaana and Woma.
This dream is to be understood in the Sidama cultural context. It is already noted that the Sidamas used to be semi-pastoralist people. Because of the high population growth, all free places are being occupied. The lands left free for communal use have been divided and shared. People with small pieces of land are very much affected for they lack enough grazing places for their cattle. In the past, all the areas along the rivers were free for the horses to graze. Now it is becoming very narrow and the number of horses as well as cattle is decreasing. Certainly many Sidama people do not like dogs and chase them away. This dream does reflect the reality. The story shows how the Sidamas conceive the relationship between Magano and the common ancestors. The mediator role of the common ancestors is shown in the story. Moreover, even animals are shown receiving Magano’s concern.
The immediate dead parents also receive respect and veneration. A grand-father is also remembered. A person offers a bull for his dead father and to a certain degree he also remembers his dead mother. They are seen as being part of the family still living. They play a role of mediating, blessing, and protecting the family from misfortunes.
Thus far we have seen the
elements of faith in Sidama Religion, we now proceed to the faith
responses which the Sidamas make in their lives.
2] Many of the missionaries have spoken and some have even written about the people as animists and today some still hold this idea with conviction. However, for a thorough observer and sensitive person, the opposite is true. For Sidamas, morality holds a holistic approach: relationship among individuals, with God, and vis-a-vis creation (land, animals, plants, trees, ...). The dictums, Gafo ikkanno and Maganu di-baxxanno (God does not like it), are the keys that regulate individual’s attitude towards the "other".
At all times a Sidama person would never fail to mention God's name. For example, Magano anna'ya ati afootto; Hai Magano anna'ya; Maganu lao; Maganu kaa'lo,... [in a respective order: God, my Father, You know it all; O God, my Father; May God see or witness; May God help,...].
One cannot find a commandment taught and imposed on the people saying that there is only one Magano to worship and everyone must worship Him. One does not receive or learn the values and practices of Sidama through formal teaching, but learns the ways of behaving and even beliefs and practices from elders through hearing comments about acts, following the elders, and also being reprimanded or physically punished if one acted in an unacceptable way. All passed through customary practices. In other words, the social structures contribute to the young ones to grow in conformity to the cultural values. Seeing, listening to, and following mark children's behavior. As they grow up they, consciously or unconsciously, assimilate and interiorize all the cultural values and practices. Grand-parents and mothers play a role in helping their children to grow in the socially accepted ways. Elder brothers and sisters also help their younger ones.
Elders are generally respected. There has existed a harmonious and supportive relationship between parents and children or the older generation and the younger one. However, today young people, due to different factors such as education, political ideologies, new fundamentalist churches and so forth are diluting the force of the relationship which previously existed between the two generations.
Killing a Sidama person by a Sidama is prohibited. Unfortunately, this value is changing because of the political motivations imposed from outside. For instance, if some people are seen as a threat to Ethiopian government, those who promote the interest of the government would seek to eliminate them.
Adultery and fornication have been also strictly forbidden. Virginity for a girl has been a value honored very much until today. It is considered a very shameful thing for the parents if their daughter is discovered to have lost her virginity. A virgin girl is considered as equal to a man. During marriage people talk of making a girl a woman as if she was never a woman. But if she is not a virgin, she loses her respect and pride, and under customarily setting, she often becomes a second wife and remains under the kindness of her husband. No dowry will be paid for the family. Today, however, because of education there is more relaxation and contact between boys and girls. The educated group does not put emphasis on virginity as a necessary condition for paying dowry and for marriage. As for adultery, Sidama people have lived according to family, sub-clan, and clan level. Those who belonged to one clan regarded themselves as brothers and sisters, and sleeping with the wife of one’s brother was unacceptable and a taboo.
Truth is highly regarded. The expression Halaale gorsitooti [don't abuse or diminish truth] carries with it a deep respect for truth. Maybe this is because truth is also associated with Magano. The people believe that a person who takes offence against truth will certainly suffer the consequence. This is manifested in the expression, Halaalu annasi di-hawao. The exact translation of the expression into English is difficult, but it implies that truth itself will take revenge against the offender and bring justice to the offended. It also means that the one who walks in the truth will win. This is a principal reason for respecting the property of others and refraining oneself from speaking false things. There exist, however, some dishonest people and thieves, who falter this value within the Sidama people.
The consecrated people practice three days fasting before the new year feast, Fichee. Customarily the Sidama people do not practice of fasting, and even the fasting of the consecrated people could be because of their being too busy reconciling and solving problems in the community before the new year.
A holy man is a man who avoids bad words and acts in a good (acceptable) way. He is respected and considered as being blessed and loved by Magano. Maganu maassi'no manchoti, Maganu battino manchoti, Maganu battino bettoti, Maganu maassi'no bettoti are the common expressions. The Sidamas consider Magano as fully involved in people's daily life. With this and other reasons which I have directly or indirectly mentioned, I conclude that for the Sidamas morality and religion are one. Fr. Markos Beyene, a Sidama priest, rightly observed and wrote in his unpublished article - 'A Christian Approach to Traditional Religion in Sidama Area"' - saying that 'the Sidama people see the direct action of God in creation more than the natural laws. Everything comes from God...the fulfillment and success in life is achieved only by the will of God (...). They believe that if people misbehave God goes away from them' [p.8].
Meaningful life is understood as doing good things and passing life (procreating). Every young man is expected to get married and beget children. This is very much valued.
Generally elders, the cimeeyye, try to live an exemplary life. Wherever hatred or quarreling exist the elders bring reconciliation. They solve problems; they take care of social affairs, look after the needs of the widows and the weak, and maintain justice and peace. Misbehaving results in disturbing a harmonious relationship that exists between God and the people, among the people themselves, and among them and their ancestors.
Apart from the consecrated ones (e.g., Ga'ro and Qqaddo) one has to be at least 50 years old and a circumcised in order to assume the position of a community elders. The good life a person lives determines his position or importance. One can be the eldest in the community but if his way of living is not appreciated he cannot play a role of an elder (cimeessa), who is a very much feared and respected. This is explained in the expression, "chimeesu chilo itisano" [The elder can make a person eat faeces].
Many other practices such as
hospitality, respect to foreigners, ceremonies during birth, marriage,
funerals, and festivals that exist in the Sidama culture are left for
The Sidamas follow twenty seven important "moments", which are called ayyaana, in a month. They are followed through the position of the stars. Only some particular men called the ayyaanto (astrologists) know how to follow the stars and discover the types of ayyaana. Each ayana is used for a special function: ayyaana for marriage, for feast, for war, for success, and so forth. The ayyaana for offering sacrifice to Magano are either adula or gutcha. The ayyaanto and the consecrated people whose duty is to look after the issues of their people, direct most of their activities according to the ayyaana. Individuals consult these people to know, for example, when weddings should take place.
Two types of sacrifices exist
within the Sidama religion: one is offered to Magano and the other
is to the ancestors.
A male animal, a lamb or a bull, is killed and burnt. Before slaughtering, the person in charge starts with a prayer of blessing and mentions reasons for such gathering and offerings. For example, he mentions the good things (blessings) Magano has done for his country, his nation, and his clan. Then the animal is killed. The celebrant, while burning the animal, calls Magano’s name and says (the content is dependent on the intention):
Magano, itoommo, agoommo, duwoommo. Tini xinino, tini shilqqo, atera iilitohe ... Gobba'ya gowi, keere assi, ge'issi, gada'ya geedo'ya seeki, gobbate, saadate kaaya kaayoma qqoli. [God, I have eaten, I have drunk, I am satisfied. Let this burnt offering reach you.... Unite my country, bring peace and stability, bless my generation and the coming generation, and domestic animals].
At the family level, the family-head offers the sacrifice to thank Magano for all the blessings (e.g., children, wealth, good fortunes) he has received from Him. While burning the animal he says, "My Father, take this. Let it reach you. It is for you, and take it." He also prays for more blessings. Some individuals who prayed during their suffering, such as barrenness and serious sickness, offer the burnt offering sacrifice to Magano when their prayer is answered. These people had promised Magano an animal if He would respond to their prayers, if He would come to their help. Women and young men bring their promises to the spiritual leaders who would offer on their behalf.
Blood offering: This is done communally for the purpose of purification, reconciliation and protection from bad things such as enemies, drought, and plague. If something which is considered as grave offense against human beings, and indirectly against Magano, within a sub-clan or a clan by an individual or the individuals, the community offers this type of sacrifice. When those with the gift of foreseeing tell the eminent danger (e.g., war, plague, drought) or when a dream revealing the eminent danger occurs, the consecrated people organize the sacrifice. If the people are suffering because of plague or drought, the consecrated people make supplication through blood sacrifice.
The ritual of this type takes place in the following ways:
The consecrated people choose and announce the day of the sacrifice, the ayyaana, and the place where the sacrifice will take place. On the day of the sacrifice people gather together. The sacrificial animal is prepared. A consecrated person presides over the activity. The presider opens the ceremony by welcoming people and telling them the reason of the gathering. After this, everyone with grudges and quarrels comes foreword and presents his cases. They are listened to and the matters are solved. In other words, people are reconciled with one another. A prayer for the forgiveness of the sins of the people is offered to Magano. The presider prays concerning the needs of the community and slaughters the animal. The blood of the animal is collected and sprinkled to the sky, to the earth, and onto the people as the sign of reconciliation. While sprinkling the blood with a branch of a particular tree, the presider addresses to God and says:
Gatisi, xummisi, gobba gatis, Holloo, Hawela, Faqsa, Alata, Sawola Qwena gatis ... [Save us, purify us, save...(here he mentions each clan of the nation by name).]
With this act the people are
reconciled with Magano and with the earth, which is regarded as
mother, and with themselves. Thus, they are purified from their guilt.
They also make their supplication to Magano. Then a small piece of
meat is taken before removing the skin. The presider takes and raises the
meat, tastes it, and passes it to the elders. After this the meat is cut,
roasted and cooked, and everyone present in the gathering consumes it.
Finally, the future issues of the community are discussed. The presider
concludes and the people go to their home.
Bulls are slaughtered in several numbers periodically as a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the blessings received from the common ancestors and for their continuous presence among the people. At the same occasion, people also ask for their continuous blessings and presence. For instance, the people of Holloo clan offer their sacrifice to their common ancestor after every seven years.
During an interview with an eighty-eight years old elder from the Holloo clan concerning the sacrifice, he says that their common ancestor does not demand that the people must bring animals for sacrifice. But individuals who possess animals want to keep a bull among their cattle in gratitude for the blessings they have received from their common ancestor. Moreover, out of the sacrifice the ancestor wants the poor in the society to feast on meat, for they rarely get it. So it is a joyful moment for the poor to gather together with others and enjoy meat to the full. Both the poor and the rich alike celebrate together, and carry the remains back to their homes.
When the bulls are killed the blood is poured on the tomb of the ancestor. Those who received favours (e.g., children) they had asked from Magano or the ancestor also bring whatever they had promised . The lambs brought on this account are killed and burnt as a thanksgiving offering to Magano, and to the ancestor if he was asked to mediate. His name is mentioned after Magano’s name.
Each individual also remembers his immediate parents, specially his father. He fattens a bull and offers it at the time he wants. At different moments he prepares honey and milk and pours them on his father's tomb and then on his mother's tomb. The grand-parents are also remembered. While offering the sacrifice the person who offers says:
gedeno'ya seeki, geedo'ya seeki, galte'ya seeki, ooso'ya seeki. Ooso'yarana saada'yara gosa'yarano kaaya abbi [Make straight my future, my wife, my children, my cattle. Bring blessings to my children, cattle and to my nation].
However, if an individual is poor, he is not obliged to do so. Responding to the question why an individual has to make an offering to his parents, an elder, Gujo No’ora, said that when a sacrificial offering is done here on earth a simultaneous gathering and celebration of the people living with Magano in heaven takes place. When one is remembered by his son, all his friends come to celebrate together. But if one is forgotten by his own, he will feel that he is like an abandoned beggar. So he communicates through a dream to his son. It is believed that if the son who possesses wealth refuses to respond to the dream, he will fall sick until he reconciles himself with his dead father. As we observe, the concern is more on a father than a mother.
An offence a father commits against somebody is perceived to affect not only himself but his children as well. If he dies without solving the problem, the case has to be solved before or after his burial by his relatives. This signifies that the familial and affective relationship continues between the living and the physically dead. The relatives organize reconciliation to heal the wound caused by their late member lest their children suffer the consequences. The dead parents are also beneficiaries of this reconciliation, for they too are perceived getting peace.
As we have already mentioned
above, there are some people who offer sacrifice to the bad spirits
because they fear getting sick. This is done not to honour or
venerate these spirits; they are hated, but because the people believe in
their existence, they would like to appease them from causing
As for the ancestors, the
sacrifice is offered where their tombs are found. There exist in different
places the shrines called hara but only houses, without statues or
images, where the elders and others come to pray. The elders also conduct
their meetings there. Sometimes burnt offering to Magano at the
sub-clan level takes place at these shrines.
God has been speaking to the
Sidama people in their culture, revealing through dreams, prophets, and
individuals' deep experience of the sacred. What I consider important is
that be it a dream or a prophecy, but if it deals with avoiding evil,
promoting human life, and bringing people closer to God it is good and a
revelation. The Sidama religion is an example of God's universal
salvific act. God truly acts and Christianity is not the only way for
salvation. An honest dialogue and true respect to other religions are
important not only for collaboration in promoting human life and to live
in harmony with others, but also to discover more the mystery of God's
work to bring humankind into Himself.
 These people are the consecrated ones. They offer sacrifices on behalf of their clans. Each one has his own council of elders (all men). They do not take any decision without the knowledge of their councils. In their councils' meeting they act as moderators. Gaana and Woma announce and execute the decisions of their respective council. They are very much respected and their words are taken seriously by their people. They live separately and each one has his own council. Yet they work harmoniously in such a way that whatever decision one takes, the other one does not oppose or act against it. There exists constant communication between them.
 Animism denotes the belief in many spiritual beings who are autonomous in their dealings with human beings. It is characterized by its "particularism, a quality opposite to the universalism of the ‘great religions’, which conceive man as subject to global powers and personal destiny." Individual divinity is attached to a particular place and person or resident in a particular creature. "If animistic spirits anywhere exercise authority, they do so in particularistic, even egoistic fashion, sanctioning men for ritual neglect or breaking taboos, not for acts of moral neglect or secular offence. Animistic religion do not readily coalesce with systems of political authority and probably do not favour their development." See Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, Vol. I (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1977), under "animism", pp. 923-4. If Christianity is not associated with animism, one wanders why the Sidama religion is termed animistic. Both religions venerate ancestors (e.g. Catholic and Orthodox Christians venerate the saints as the Sidamas venerate their ancestors). The ancestors or the saints possess no autonomous power to practice over human beings unless in relation to God. The only difference would be that the Sidamas take their ancestral veneration as a duty. The ancestors are not seen as egoistic. They are concerned with the well being of people. For instance, the common ancestor of Holloo clan, Aabbo, shows concern not only to his clan but also to the whole nation and to others who ask for his help. The Sidamas do not worship trees or stones but God alone.
 Ga'ro (Moote) plays the following roles: he organizes communal sacrifices if war or drought or plague occurs, commands the army during war, reconciles if two clans are at war or tension, takes decisions on issues concerning the whole clan, solves juridical problems which cannot be solved in sub-clan level, and announces the date of the new year feast, Fitchee, and makes prayer. Qqaddo is a collective name for Woma, Gaana, Gaadala, and Qqaarricha. Their roles are more or less the same but with some particularity to each one. Two of the Sidama clans do not have Woma. The Holloo clan has created a complicated organization. It has both Ga'ro and Qqaddo. Except Woma the rest of the Qqaddo are not found in any other clans except in the Holloo. Ga'ro and Qqaddo are the consecrated people who take care of the life of the whole Sidama people. Each of them have their own council of elders. These people are deeply religious as the elders too are notoriously religious.
women (Qqarubba) are respected, too. But they do not practice
authority over men. In the Sidama culture men do not associate with
women. Consequently, women also have their own organization.
The elder women practice authority over them. Women can change men's
decision if it violates peace and harmony in the society. The eldest
woman (Qqaro) can impose a punishment if a husband abuses his wife.
The punishment cannot be reversed unless he fulfils the imposed obligation
by the Qqaro.