OMN: Wolaita Program; Knowledge about Wolaita
The Welayta, Wolayta or Wolaita is an ethnic group and its former kingdom, located in southern Ethiopia. According to the most recent estimate (2017), the people of Wolayta numbered 2.4 million in Welayta Zone only, or 2.31 percent of the country’s population, of whom 289,707 are city-dwellers. The language of the Wolayta people, similarly called Wolaytta, belongs to the Omotic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Despite their small population, Wolayta people have widely influenced national music, dance and cuisine in Ethiopia. Wolayta is related to Gamo, Gofa and other Omotic and Southwest Ethiopian peoples. Religion: Mainly Protestant Christians with sizable minority of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christians.
The people of Wolayta had their own kingdom for hundreds of years with kings (called “Kawo”) and a monarchical administration. The earlier name of the kingdom was allegedly “Damot” – this was said to include the south, south-east, south-west and part of the central region of present Ethiopia. The ruler was King (Kawo) Motolomi who is mentioned in the religious book Gedle Teklehaimanot, as an invader of the north and the king to whom was surrendered the mother of the Ethiopian saint, Tekle Haymanot. Some assume that the saint was the son of this king. After the defeat which overcame the northern part of its territory the kingdom was reduced to its present size and the name became the Kingdom of Wolayta. It remained thus an independent kingdom for hundreds of years until the expansion of Emperor Menelik II into the regions south of Shewa during the early 1890s. The war of conquest has been described by Bahru Zewde as “one of the bloodiest campaigns of the whole period of expansion”, and Wolayta oral tradition holds that 118,000 Welayta and 90,000 Shewan troops died in the fighting. Kawo (King) Tona, the last king of Welayta, was defeated and Welayta conquered in 1896. Welayta was then incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire. However, Welayta had a form of self-administrative status and was ruled by Governors directly accountable to the king until the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The Derg afterwards restructured the country and included Welayta as a part of the province of Sidamo. The Welayta were previously known as “Wolamo”, although this term is now considered derogatory.
In 1991 the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) restructured the country into ethnically-based Regions, and Welayta became the centre of Region 9. Later, Welayta was included in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR, consisting of the former regions 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11) as part of the Semien Omo Zone. The regional government claimed that the Welayta were so closely related to the other Omotic-speaking peoples of that zone that there was no justification for a separate Welayta zone. Welayta leaders, however, stressed that their people had a distinct language and culture and demanded a zone for themselves. In 1998, the regional government attempted to introduce an artificially constructed language, based on the various local North Omotic languages and dialects, as the new language of education and administration for Semien Omo Zone. This triggered violent protests by Welayta students, teachers and civil servants, which led to the withdrawal of the new language. In November 2000, the Welayta Zone was established.
Wolayta language on Africa map
Welayta is an Omotic language spoken in the Wolaita Zone and some parts of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region of Ethiopia. The number of speakers of this language is estimated at 1,800,000 (1991 UBS); it is the native language of the Welayta people.
There are conflicting claims about how widely Welayta is spoken. The ‘Ethnologue’ identifies one smaller dialect region: Zala. Some hold that Melo, Oyda, and Gamo-Gofa-Dawro are also dialects, but most authorities, including Ethnologue and ISO 639-3 now list these as separate languages. The different communities of speakers also recognize them as separate languages.
Welayta has existed in written form since the 1940s, when the Sudan Interior Mission first devised a system for writing it. The writing system was later revised by a team led by Dr. Bruce Adams. They finished the New Testament in 1981 and the entire Bible in 2002. It was one of the first languages the Derg selected for their literacy campaign (1979–1991). Welaytta pride in their written language led to a fiercely hostile response in 1998 when the Ethiopian government distributed textbooks written in Wegagoda – an artificial language based on amalgamating Wolaytta with several closely related languages. As a result, the textbooks in Wegagoda were withdrawn and teachers returned to ones in Wolaytta.
The Welayta people use many proverbs. A large collection of them was published in 1987 (Ethiopian calendar) by the Academy of Ethiopian Languages. Fikre Alemayehu’s 2012 MA thesis from Addis Ababa University provides an analysis of Wolaytta proverbs and their functions.
Wolayta is one of the 16 Zonal Administrations of the Southern Region In Ethiopia, Located 300 kilometers south of Addis Ababa.
Wolayta is limited north west by Tambaro, eastward by Bilate river which divides it from Arsi-Oromo, Southward by Lake Abaya and Kucha, westward by Omo River. Gilgel Gibe III Dam is a hydroelectric power plant built on Omo river; and with the capacity of 1870 Megawatt, it is the third largest hydroelectric plant in Africa.
The vegetation and very comfortable climate of the large part of the region are conditioned by an overall elevation of between 1,500 and 1,800 meters above the sea level. There are, however, five mountains higher than 2,000 meters, with Mount Damota – at 3,000 meters – at the center.
Through mildly undulating hills, one can travel through the whole area with out difficulty, there are no Large forests except in the Soddo Zuriya, and Omo river basin, which is well below 1500 meters and a malaria zone.
In the local view, there are only two regions: the highlands (Geziyaa) and the lowlands (Garaa). In the highlands, there are numerous streams and small rivers. Several thermal hot springs are situated around Lake Abaya, with boiling and steaming water which is believed to cure diseases. The ajora waterfalls are a majestic scene of the wilderness, like damota precipices.
The soil of the Wolayta is of heavy red color which becomes brown and black during the rains and has the fragility and the softness of sand. The dry period makes the soil hard as brick, one reason why people can plough and dig only after the rains. One can hardly find any stone except on the river banks, whose soil is light and easy to excavate. The layer of soil is very deep—an average of 30 meters—in both the plains and the hills, as verified during the drilling of wells. The soil is very fertile and produce two crops per year when the rains are regular.
The climate is stable, with temperature variation between 24 and 30 °C during the day and 16 to 20 °C at night, all year round. The dry, temperate heat makes the climate simply “delicious”.
The year is divided into two seasons: the wet season (balguwa) from June to October, and the dry season (boniya) from October to June, broken in February by a short period of so-called “little rains” (baddessa). The average rainfall for the entire region is 1350 millimeters per year.
The dry season is characterized by a strong wind which blows from the east; the sky is absolutely blue and rarely crossed by small white clouds. At night the sky is so transparent that it seems to hold twice the number of stars as in European or American skies.
During the heavy seasons, heavy precipitation and violent storms which, at the end of the season can last a full evening or night are common events.
Fog can be seen in the valleys almost every morning of the rainy season; it then evaporates in the first hours of the sun.
In both seasons either hail which destroys crops or tornadoes, which knock down trees, are possible events.
For a visitor coming from the north by the shashemene-Arbaminch road or through the Addis-Hosanna Road, through the Arid dusty savanna sparsely covered by thorny plants, or from the south through the hilly and mountainous territory of Gammo, the Wolayta zone appears like a paradise (wanderheym 1896:162).
The vegetation is abundant through the year with eucalyptus, pines, acacia, magnolias, fire trees, and enormous sycamores mingled with false banana (Utta).
Grass, at the end of the rainy season, can be as high as three meters. The variety of trees and colors make the region very impressive, and all travelers comment on its beauty (Leontief 1900:292; Du Bourg 1906; Pascal de luchon, March 29, 1930, and December 25, 1937).
Du Bourg wrote enthusiastically about Wolayta: “The indications of the richness are abundant all around the villages: large fields of cereal surround them, and above all, the large cotton plantations.
Here is the cotton country, the country where the Ethiopian mantles are prepared, where this plant grows, which together, with the coffee is the source of the present Ethiopian wealth and which will become the great product of the exportation in the near future.
“Maize, wheat, durra, barley, and teff are cultivated all over the area…for many of them can reap two harvests per year” (gaslini 1940:986).
All Mediterranean trees grow and bear fruit: grapes, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, oranges, tangerines, bananas, papayas, avocados, etc. –with impressive production all year round.
There are no forests, but a great variety of non-indigenous trees in the region: bamboo, eucalyptus, and euphorbia grow naturally in steep and arid soil and are used for fire and the milky liquid is used as a poison.
Greatly appreciated are the fern, because of its resistance to termites and the wild olive. A softer tree (ochiyaa), with leaves like the olive, is used for fences and domestic purposes.
The most appreciated of all is the very hard wood of the (gassa) which is heavy and strong as iron. Its wood is made into the long sticks used for tilling because it can penetrate the most arid soil.
Sugar cane and a light fibrous wood (kaytariya or deshsha loomiyaa) are used as tooth brush culturally; a pleasant smelling wood (susungiyaa) is used in coffee, and the aromatic (natra) is added to butter for cosmetics. Many kinds of mushrooms are used either alone or mixed with raw meat.
Wolayta music plays a prominent role in national entertainment in Ethiopia. The unique and fast-paced Wolayta tunes have influenced several styles and rhythm as it continues to shape the identity of Ethiopian musical diversity. Various famous Ethiopian artists from other ethnic groups have incorporated Wolayta musical style into their songs, including vocalists Tibebu Workeye,Teddy afro and Tsehaye Yohannes. Just as influential are Wolayta traditional dance forms that are often adopted by musicians and widely visible in Ethiopian music videos.
Raw beef, commonly known as “Kurt” is deep rooted cultural food by Welayta people. Little is known on the origin of raw meat eating habit. Minced raw beef called “Kitfo” by the Gurage people and Kurt are mostly served on special occasions such as holidays like “Finding of the True Cross” or “Meskel” holiday, celebrated annually on September 27 in Ethiopia. Moreover, Enset foods are traditionally incorporated into cultural events such as births, deaths, weddings, and rites of planting, harvesting and purification.
- Hailemariam Desalegn – Prime Minister of Ethiopia
- Hon. Ambassador Teshome Toga – Ethiopia’s Ambassador to EU, Speaker of the 3rd House of the Peoples’ Representatives
- Kawo Motolomi – The famous king of the Kingdom of Damotfile, 1896
- Kawo Tona Gaga – the last king of Wolayta kingdom. His army defeated King Menelik’s forces six times before losing to combined forces of Menelik and Abajefar in 1896
- Doctor Petros Olango – Former Deputy Speaker of The Ethiopian House of Representatives and Head of Civil Service Reform Office
- Doctor Helen Kassa – agricultural scientist; studied and published articles on ensete ventricosum
- Tekilewold Atenafu – Governor of National Bank of Ethiopia
- Roman Tesfaye – First Lady of Ethiopia (2012–2018). In the past, she held senior management positions in the United Nations Development Program and other offices