Welayta people

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Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Ethiopia 1,700,000
Wolaytta language, Amharic
Mainly Protestant Christians with sizable minority of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christians
Related ethnic groups
Gamo, Gofa

Wolayta (also spelled Wolaitta) (Ethiopic: ወላይታ Wolaytta) is the name of an ethnic group and its former kingdom, located in southern Ethiopia. According to the most recent census (2007), they number 3.7 million people or 2.31 percent of the country's population, of whom 289,707 are urban inhabitants.[1] Their language, 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.


The people of Wolayta have a rich history. Wolaytas are known for their patriotism, rich culture and modern music. The people of Wolayta had their own kingdom for thousands of years with kings (called "Kawo") and a monarchical administration. The earlier name of the kingdom was "The Famous Kingdom of Damot" - this included the south, south east, south west and part of the central region of the present Ethiopia. The famous King of this Kingdom was King (Kawo) Motolomi who is mentioned in the book Gedle Teklehaimanot, as an invader of the north and the king to whom was surrendered the mother of the Ethiopian saint, Tekle Haimanot (Tekla Haymanot). Most Wolaytas assume that Saint Tekle Haimanot 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 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.[2] 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.

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.[3]

Welayta people play a significant role in the politics and economy of Ethiopia. They are known for their humble personalities and friendly approaches. Wolaytas are mostly Christians with a majority of Protestant followers.


Wolayta is one of the 13 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.

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".[4]

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.[5]

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 language[edit]

Wolaytta 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 2,000,000 (1991 UBS); it is the native language of the Welayta people. The estimates of the population vary greatly because it is not agreed where the boundaries of the language are.

There are conflicting claims about how widely Wolaytta 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.

Wolaytta 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 Wolaytta people use many proverbs. A large collection of them was published in 1987 (Ethiopian calendar) by the Academy of Ethiopian Languages.[6] Fikre Alemayehu's 2012 MA thesis from Addis Ababa University provides an analysis of Wolaytta proverbs and their functions.[7]

Wolayta music[edit]

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 and Tsehaye Yohannes. Just as influential are Wolayta traditional dance forms that are often adopted by musicians and widely visible in Ethiopian music videos.

Famous people[edit]

  • Kawo Motolomi - The famous king of Kingdom of Damot
  • Kawo Damote Amado, one of the powerful kings of Wolayta (Great great Grand father of Kawo Tona)
  • Kawo Tona Gaga, the last king of Wolayta kingdom. Believed to be one of the greatest warrior and the most powerful king of Wolayta. His army defeated King Menelik's forces six times before lossing to combined forces of Menelik and Abajefar in 1896.
  • Dejazmach Girma Sanato - Commander of a southern Ethiopian militia during the Battle of Adwa
  • Fitaworari Desta Feseha, Grandson of Tona and Governor of Wolayta under Haile Silassie rule. Dejazmach Desta was arrested with several other leaders in 1962 for attempting to organize rebellion against Haile Silassie rule and senstenced to life in prison. Some members of the group died in jail. Kegnazmach Wada Dele was among those. The rest including Fitwarari Desta were released by Derg regime.
  • Warrant Officer Manjura - one of the top officers in the Ethiopian Air Force during Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I
  • Bogale Walelu - Minister of Education during the reign of Haile Selassie.
  • R. Admiral Tesfaye Birhanu - Commander of the Ethiopian Navy under the Derg
  • Hon. Leuleselassie Temamo - Minister of Culture and Sports during the TGE in 1991-1994.
  • Hon. Ambassador Teshome Toga Chanaka - Speaker of the House of Peoples' Representatives
  • Doctor Petros Olango - Deputy Speaker of The Ethiopian House of Representatives
  • Hailemariam Desalegn - Prime Minister of Ethiopia
  • Amanuel Ottoro - EPRDF-SEPDF Politics/Propaganda Chief and 2nd President of Woalita Zone
  • Firew Altaye - Member of Parliament and chief Adm. of Wolayta Zone
  • Mengistu Haile Mariam - The first President of Ethiopia (Derg) (half Amhara and half Welayta)
  • Tekilewold Atenafu - Governor of National Bank of Ethiopia


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Census 2007", first draft, Table 5.
  2. ^ Sarah Vaughan, "Ethnicity and Power in Ethiopia" (University of Edinburgh: Ph.D. Thesis, 2003), p. 253.
  3. ^ Lovise Aalen, "Ethnic Federalism and Self Determination for Nationalities in A Semi Authoritarian State: the Case of Ethiopia", International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 13 (2006), pp. 243-261.
  4. ^ Hodson 1970:33
  5. ^ WADU 1977-1978:table 1
  6. ^ "Wolayteto Lemsuwa". Good Amharic Books. Retrieved 2013-02-03. 
  7. ^ Alemayehu, Fikre (May 2012). "An analysis of Wolayta proverbs: Function in focus" (PDF). Retrieved 3 February 2013.