Who are Wolaytans? A short Chronicle on Origin of Wolayta, by Chuchu Abe

Wolayta ( ወላይታ)  sometimes interchangeable with Wolaita is the name given to the inhabitants of north Omo basin in the Great Rift Valley of central south Ethiopia. The Etymology of the word Wolayta is not clear.However, it  speculated that the word Wolayta came from “Wolaheta”, meaning mixed, or the mixed people. Therefore it is anticipated that, Wolayta is the mixture of various groups (tribes) with diverse origin mainly from main land Abyssinia. The language of Wolayta is called Wolaitigna (ወላይትኛ) in Amharic or Wolaitatuwa in the local language. Historians classify this people as Omotic family which is one of the five language families in Ethiopia. This is because their settlement is parallel with the Omo River in the area. Wolaytans are considered to be the early inhabitants of the region with their own civilization, including their own currency. The historical location of Wolaita is different from the current location, especially with regard to the coverage area. As some historians suggest, the administrative area of Wolaita extends up to Rudolf River in the south and North Shewa in the northern part of the current Ethiopia. Before the integration of Ethiopia by Minilik II, Wolayta was led by the traditional Kings Monarchy. The last known king of Wolayta, Kawo Tona, from the Tigre dynasty was wounded and captured during the bloody war with the conquering troops of King Minelik, in 1880. Since then, Wolayta was governed by centralized governors appointed by Ethiopian emperors.  The historical legacy of the Wolayta dynasty is still visible in some parts of the northwest and south Ethiopia. The most popular dynasties of Wolayta, King Damote and King Mottolomi   have had their extended territory near the north west of Ethiopia. Beghe Midir, with the highest point Damot, in present Gojam is named after King Damote similar to the highest point mount Damot in Wolaita. “Tossa” meaning mighty or above all, is named as the highest point in the present Wollo, mount Tossa. The present day agew midir have a culture quite similar to that of Wolayta. The music and the exotic body dance of the Agew  is difficult to identify  from Wolayta for  an unfamiliar listener. In fact, the rhythm and the music of Agew are interchangeable with Wolayta.

In the present Ethiopia, Wolaytans are much closer to  Dawro, Gofa, Gamo, Kulo, Konta. Infact all these tribes are located at the Omo river basins and share same or very similar culture, language and religion. In all the aforementioned regions, a slight variation in dialect of the language Wolaytigna is spoken.

Early wolaita

Wolayta during 1930′s a picture from Raymond J.Davis. Fire on the Mountain,1966 Edition


 Some historians believe that these groups of tribes descended from offspring’s of same family, with Wolayta being the elder among them.  Wolayta has over 200 clans  divided in to two main sub clans.  Most of the clans found in Wolayta are also found in the neighboring regions. Tigre, Wolayta Malla, Zirgo Malla, Hiziya, Weshesha, Amara (Amhara),  Homine,  Homi Girra, etc. are  among the major clans  in Wolayta. Most these clans are also  found in the neighboring regions of Wolaita. Some of the clans in Wolayta date back their ancestors to the major tribes in Ethiopia, such as Amhara, Tigre and Oromo. The Tigre clans in Wolaita are among the dominant clans next to Wolaita Mallas in leading the region for over thousand years. The notable kings from these clans include the famous dynasty of King Motolomi ,   from Wolaita Malla  and  King Damote and King Tona, the last King of Wolayta kingdom  during 1880’s from the Tigre dynasty.

Article shared by Gamo Galgalo, chuchuabe@gmail.com

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