The Welayta, Wolayta or Wolaitta are an ethnic group and its former kingdom, located in southern Ethiopia. According to the most recent estimate (2017), the people of Wolayta numbered 5.83 million in Welayta Zone. The language of the Wolayta people, similarly called 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 had their own kingdom for hundreds of years with kings (called "Kawo") and a monarchical administration. The earlier name of the kingdom was allegedly "Damot" - this was said to include the south, south-east, south-west and part of the central region of present Ethiopia. The ruler was King (Kawo) Motolomi who is mentioned in the religious book Gedle Teklehaimanot, as an invader of the north and the king to whom was surrendered the mother of the Ethiopian saint, Tekle Haymanot. Some assume that the saint 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 an independent kingdom 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. Kawo (King) Kawo Tona Gaga, 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. The Welayta were previously known as "Wolamo", although this term is now considered derogatory.
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.
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 1,800,000 (1991 UBS); it is the native language of the Welayta people.
There are conflicting claims about how widely Welayta 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.
Welayta 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 Welayta people use many proverbs. A large collection of them was published in 1987 (Ethiopian calendar) by the Academy of Ethiopian Languages. Fikre Alemayehu's 2012 MA thesis from Addis Ababa University provides an analysis of Wolaytta proverbs and their functions.
The southern peoples were also closely engaged with their northern counterparts.
King Amde Tsion is believed to have built churches throughout the region, and the Zagwe Dynasty also contributed by sending missionaries representing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to the powerful Damot King Motolomi and his people, who at the time, aside from a few exceptions, were largely pagan.
The historical legacy of the Wolaita and their dynasty is still evident and passed down orally, among the over 200 clans, which are divided into two main sub-clans.
The large majority of the clansmen can be found in Wolaita and its neighboring regions.
Some of the major clans include the Tigre, Wolaita Malla, Zirgo Malla, Hiziya, Weshesha, Homine, Amara, Homi Girra, etc.
An interesting aspect of some of the Wolaita clans is that they can trace their ancestry to major Ethiopian ethnicities, such as the Amhara, Tigre and Oromo.
Leading the region for over a thousand years, the Tigre clans of Wolaita are believed to be among the most dominant clans, second only to the Wolaita Mallas.
The most notable kings of these clans include the King Damote and the last king of Wolaita, King Tona who both hailed from the Tigre dynasty, while King Motolomi was the most notable from the Wolaita Malla dynasty.
With the loss of their unity and identity, fights are common to this day between the southern peoples’ tribes. For example there has been infighting between them for small cases such as ownership of grazing land, marriage related squabbles, farm land disputes, cattle rustling, etc.
Some recorded battles include the fighting between the Docko Dalo and the Doko Masho, the Boreda and the Wolaita, the Kanbata and the Marqo, the Sidama and the Oromo or Burji, the Benna and the Tsami, the Tsami and the Konso, the Maalle and the Bena, the Mursi and the Geleb, etc.
Knowledge about the relative similarities between the southern peoples is also very rare, for example, Ethiopians consider the weaving done by southerners to be a very unique and highly valued product.
But unfortunately, only the name Dorze lingers, as most people believe the weaved local handmade cloth (Dungaza) to originate from the Dorze tribe, but the Gamo, the Ocholo, the Sullaa, the Docko, the Azo, the Barana, and several other tribes are also historically and equally tied to the weaving tradition as the Dorze.
Welayta music plays a prominent role in national entertainment in Ethiopia. The unique and fast-paced Welayta 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 Welayta musical style into their songs, including vocalists Tibebu Workeye, Teddy afro and Tsehaye Yohannes. Just as influential are Welayta traditional dance forms that are often adopted by musicians and widely visible in Ethiopian music videos.
Raw beef, commonly known as “Kurt” is deep rooted cultural food by Welayta people. Little is known on the origin of raw meat eating habit. Minced raw beef called “Kitfo” by the Gurage people and Kurt are mostly served on special occasions such as holidays like "Finding of the True Cross" or "Meskel" holiday, celebrated annually on September 27 in Ethiopia. Moreover, Enset foods are traditionally incorporated into cultural events such as births, deaths, weddings, and rites of planting, harvesting and purification.
Wolaita people used different type of currencies through their kingdoms for trade purpose. Among them Karetta Sinna and Shalluwa, both of the products of cotton, are the priors. But next to this currencies Wolaita people achieved one of the most important civilizations in the sphere of currency and created a currency made from metal pieces, which is called Marchuwa. Marchuwa is equal to 18 Maria Theresa Thalers or 0.50 US dollars.