Every eight years under a full moon, a tribe of Karrayyu priests gather in the Methara region, south of Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, for a ceremony to transfer power, this ceremony is named Gada. Five families share and govern the power.
In two days, 10,000 people come, mainly by foot to help with the running of the ceremony. Absolutely no tourists are allowed in the proximity. After weeks of negotiation with the tribe’s leader, I managed to obtain access to help at the ceremony. Throughout the entire negotiation process, it was never a matter of money, as is often the case with tribes, it was simply that the ceremony has never been open to foreigners.
The chiefs finally accepted, the Karrayyus are living in particularly
difficult times and their position is precarious. They want to make
the world aware of their predicament ; the drought killing off their
livestock and the government selling their fertile land to
Saudi-Arabia, India and South Korea.
Their former tribal wars with their neighbours, the Afars and the Sidamos, are beginning again. The number of young fighters wearing an ostrich feather in the hair acts of a badge of having killed another man, this acts as evidence of renewed conflict.
The ceremony takes place in the desert with hundreds of temporary
houses having been constructed specially for the Gadda. In front of
each house there is cow fencing, the cow being a sacred animal, each
one being named like one of their children.
A mound of dry cow pat decorated with yellow fruit draws the boundary and the limit that nobody will dare to pass.
Inside the house, each family has brought their bugée mataas, a strip of artistically, studded leather, their only valuable object.
In front of the fences, the home owner waits for the ritual gifts that the visitors have come to offer them : milk, butter, sorghum …
An accurate list of what has been offered is kept by a sort of official or clerk.
As night falls, Karrayuus who have not managed to find the friends
begin to shout their names, walking up and down in front of the
houses. Some send texts from the mobiles, the only infringement of
At midnight, the tribal danses begin, the mass circle forms, the warriors, the Qondallas with their afro hair style leap up and down to show their power. The desert is no longer just an immense dust cloud.
At the same time, a group of other men look for the daughter of the
future chief. She hides and they must find her, they are fortunate
enough to have help, a full moon. Everybody else waits. All of a
sudden at 3am, the women who were sleeping using their dresses as
duvets leap to their feet and start singing : the chief’s daughter has
been found !
The presents are then bought into the houses and the monstrous feast begins.
In the early hours of the morning, one hundred cows are sacrificed. Their throats cut by the Gille, a long traditional blade. The Karrayuus smear blood on the foreheads of the children as a sign of protection.
Later on towards midday, all of the men of power including the chief
shave the heads meanwhile the women pierce their ears with acacia
thornes. Dozens of cows are again sacrificed, and once again the hot
blood is smeared on the mens’ freshly shaven heads, even babies have
their heads smeared.
At this point, women are allowed to leave the camp.
Then comes the solemn, formal moment of the ceremony, the two families
face one another. Each holding blades of wildgrass, irrechas and
symbols of power. In a mad scramble, the exchange takes place in just
a few seconds. The new chief declares power and disappears immediately
The former chief leaves with tears in his eyes, the warriors pump themselves up in every sense. Drunk with happiness, the chants and songs start again. Everyone agrees to repeat the ceremony, in just 8 years time.
© Eric Lafforgue