Boundaries of Sacred Power: Religion and Integration in Southwest Ethiopia

A spirit medium in Dawro, standing next to the central post of his ritual house, holding a spiritual stick he inherited from his father who was genealogically an Oromo but politically identified as an Amhara.

This project proposes to investigate the significance of various traditions of religiosity in southwestern Ethiopia with special reference to the question of integration. Particularly in the recent history of this part of the Horn of Africa, there developed an increased interaction and contestation between different religious institutions, namely, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, multitudes of Protestantism, Islam and networks of ‘spirit mediums’. Each of these connects a set of actors across social space while at the same time drawing boundaries between members and non-members. Their interaction in the history of this region is complex but religious difference has not commonly been a cause for physical violence in this part of the country. Sociologically speaking, a salient feature of their interaction in contemporary, particularly ‘post-socialist’ southern Ethiopia, is an unprecedented increase in efforts of one set of religious groups to ‘socially expand’ while other sets of religious actors react so as not to ‘disappear’ from the socially significant space, and at other times ‘pre-empt’ proactively not to lose their dominance in this contested space. This project intends to look at the ‘cross breeding’ of ideas and the boundaries between these religious institutions, and to examine the ensuing patterns of interaction of people across variously defined boundaries.

This is based on a preliminary observation that there are increased religious disputes between different religious institutions in this region. In specific places, it happens that while religion connects some locals with the outside world, it deeply divides kins and neighbours. Religion is also implicated being a cause for local dispute. However, it is necessary here to distinguish between two types of local disputes: those that emerge in the context of competition between different religious institutions and those disputes in which people appropriate their religious networks to win a dispute which is primarily non-religious.

The latter is part of a larger reality that, in Ethiopia as in many other countries, religion remains to be a sensitive issue in the complicated power-play of this multi-ethnic nation. Thus it is important to look at how flexibility or rigidity of local religious boundaries relates to broader political and economic processes.

The following are some of the questions I hope to answer in the course of this project:

  • How do religious disputes relate to the degree to which local practices are tolerated or rejected by respective ‘modern religions’?
  • How does each of these religions mobilise support (both locally and trans-nationally)?
  • What is at stake in these disputes? How is losing or wining signified?
  • What kind of key symbols are chosen either as targets to attack or emblems to cherish?
  • What kind of frames of integration and boundaries of interaction are made relevant and do these relate to other such boundaries and frames?

I intend to combine historical and ethnographic methods and conduct a multi-sited fieldwork among more centralised and hierarchically organised former kingdoms of Omotic speaking societies: mainly Kaffa, Wolaita and Dawro. The main reasons for such a focus are: firstly, there is a great variation between these societies of Omotic speakers with regard to which religious institution enjoys more popularity. Secondly, historically, although the rulers of these polities were considered divine kings in some of the literature, it is far from clear how the secular tasks of the kings and the sacred roles (of the Sharetcho - a local spiritual institution) co-existed or cooperated. For instance, in Kaffa the highest sacred institution was that of Gumbachino (spiritual office) and not that of Kafa-tato (king). A variation of a broadly similar pattern is observed in Dawro and Wolaita, where the king used to consult and even take blessings from the Sharetcho of certain clans. It is curious then to explore how the Sharetcho as an institution fared in the years following the abolition of kingship. Thirdly, looking at what happened to the institutions of the formerly centralised polities might shed important light on the nature of so-called national integration: how deep or shallow its ideological impact has been, how social space has been disputed beneath, as it were, the field of coercive force and the transformation of the relationship between the political and religious institutions.

Go to Editor View