Ashura and Wirshato festival in Harar

The first month of the Islamic calendar is known as Ashura. The term Ashura derives from the Arabic word asher– to mean ‘ten’- and Ashura, which is one of the religious and cultural festivals celebrated warmly on the tenth of Muharam of Islamic calendar by the Muslim communities.

As the legend goes, Ashura is celebrated throughout the Islamic world to honor the demise of Imam Hussein (grandson of Prophet Mohammed) at the battle of Kerbela in 680 A.D and the whole month is named after the tenth day.

The Harari people, those people residing in the walled city of Harar, also carry out the tenth day of the month with their own peculiar rituals, spiritual and cultural assets and values.

According to Harari Culture Heritage and Tourism Bureau webpage, Discover Harar, Ashura- is a cultural event which takes place on the tenth of Muharam of Islamic calendar. The festival is celebrated by crushing a freshly cut wood. During this holiday, hyenas feed porridge prepared by the local people.

In Ashura, Hararis celebrate three different events which have cultural values. The first occasion is Wirshato that is smashing of the gourd; this event is accompanied by song. The theme of Wirshato is to condemn the evil and wish peace and prosperity in the coming New Year. The symbolic nature of the celebration is breaking the gourd in order to symbolize the benefit that deserves from breaking the habit.

The second event of Ashura is porridge feeding for people. One has to consume adequately, excessively in voracious intensity. Otherwise, it is assumed that who does not manage to eat to the just portion of the day or to the expectation; it is believed that he is doomed to suffer from hunger throughout the year.

Feeding the hyena is the most astonishing events of the event. Harar is known as a friend of hyena. Despite people’s consideration, the hyena as a wild animal, hyena is assumed as “messenger of Sheiks” (Derma Sheik) that is a respected guy to hold and disseminate message in thundering and roaring sound. Hararis feed porridge to hyena on Ashura day at numerous sites of shrines:-Aw Hakim, Aw Abdulqadir Jyilan, Aw Nugus and Aw Aboker.

The reason behind the hyena feeding is assumed, in a belief of resolve the conflict of people and hyena in events in which the hyena remained discontented. On that particular day the hyena appears surprisingly punctual with due expectations; and so do elderly leaders from shrines attend the hyena feeding ceremony. The guest “hyenas” appear in grace and glamour accompanied by its followers in cordial arrival to be feed from porridge made from numerous cereals and pure butter. The amount of porridge the hyena consumes and the action and reaction of the hyena to the porridge presumably occur in three hypothetical scenarios, to the usual expectation of viewers and the shrine leaders. From three events of the hyena feeding the most expected consumption to the proper dosage is the best of the best. The occurrences of the two remaining scenarios are in extreme position, the shrine leaders interpret both events to either famine or pestilence is expected. And people spend the night praying.

As to Abdulmuheimen Abdulnassir stated in his article titled: ‘Wirshato: The Gourd Smashing Ceremony African Study Monographs’, on Ashura, the tenth day of Islamic month of Muharam, Hararis celebrate Wirshato, a gourd smashing ceremony that commemorates the prohibition of alcohol indicated by the Prophet Muhammad.

During the ceremony, young boys run around the city holding sticks and singing the Wirshato song; when they enter the house compound, they are given traditional gourds, habitually employed to contain liquids. The boys, hence, smash the gourd with their sticks and make toys out of the broken pieces, to symbolize the benefits that derive by breaking bad habits. Other members of the community take part in the festivities by donating gourds and feasting on porridge to usher in abundance for the coming year. The event is accompanied by songs.

The observance of Wirshato in Harar starts on New Year’s Day and continues for nine consecutive days, the last day being the eve of the tenth day. From New Year’s Day, high-spirited groups of young boys walk around their neighborhoods between four  and six o’clock in the afternoon; that is after they have attended the Qur’an school to its usual daily conclusion. But quite different from the usual school day, these nine days

 are extremely special for the young boy because they are Wirshato days where every late afternoon is gourd-smashing time. Every boy, after having put his books in their place, makes sport of finding a quality-hewn stick that reverberates well in his firm hold. Having selected their ideal stick the boys set out on their way to participate in the exciting annual ceremony of gourd smashing, enjoyed by Harari boys for ages. As they promenade from house to house the boys sing:

Dearest Grandmother,

We have swatted and our sticks are tired.

Please look around in your kitchen

And throw us a gourd to smash!

When they receive dry gourds from the neighboring households, they proceed to smash the gourd with their sticks and make toys out of the broken pieces, in order to symbolize the benefits that derive from breaking bad habits (such as consuming alcohol, which the Hadiths prohibit).

Not all of the gourds are smashed on each of the nine evenings, however. After gathering a collection of gourds whose interiors are too moist to break easily, the boys perforate and fill them with dry reeds. These bundles of drying gourds are then amassed in the Qur’an schools and in the many shrines of the city. Finally on the evening of the tenth day, Ashura, the boys sit around the gourds and eat Genfo (hot buttered porridge usually made from barley or wheat) in commemoration of the woman who did not board the Ark, but was saved nevertheless.

Throughout the Harari community, it is believed that whosoever does not manage to eat his/her just portion that day is doomed to suffer from hunger for the rest of the year. Therefore, the women ensure that everyone is served plenty of Genfo and that a fresh supply of gourds is provided for the coming year, thus ensuring abundance of sustenance and renewal of determination to break bad habits.

The city of Harar is home to 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, and 102 shrines.

In the 1990s, Harar was awarded a UNESCO prize as a City of Peace because so many different ethnic groups lived there harmoniously.

The Ethiopian Herald July 29, 2020


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