O Buhé Belu, Where Art Thou?

Every 13th day of Nehase (August 19) followers of Ethiopian Orthodox celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor. Ethiopians call this religious event Buhé Belu, and have devised various traditional ways with which to commemorate it. But over the years, with developments in globalization, the general attitude of Ethiopians towards the holiday has changed.

Organizing the ceremony was challenging, but Bezaye Girma has volunteered to take up the engagement. She has used the unexpected chance to orient her students, who come for Amharic lessons, to learn about the Ethiopian Buhé Belu celebration.

But there was an important instrument she needed: the Buhé Belu knocking stick the children should carry to knock on the floor to accompany their chanting. She could not find it easily. But there is nothing unsolvable if only one tries hard enough.

As Haile Gebrselassie said, nothing is impossible, a sort of slogan that has vibrated with Bezaye.

And yessir, she did it.

She went over to a nearby wood furniture, a small factory, and requested from them few spare parts. After a long discussion, that dealt with what Buhé Belu was, they agreed to comply with her request.

The next challenge was the campfire phenomenon. For understandable reasons, the students, their parents and the city authority, could not swallow the adverse safety concerns playing with fire would bring. But she told them Buhé Belu is as good as nothing without the fire the children could sing and dance around to. She made them give in, by showing them the anticipation in the young kids’ eyes.

Only one thing was missing. A whip to make the loud bang that complements the festivities.

But that incurred major drawbacks and proved to be the last straw for the authorities. Any such loud noises that sound surreptitiously like gunshots or explosives were major no-goes.

The group of the Buhé Belu band were composed of six children who had travelled some 80Kms from a town known as Ciney, a municipality in Belgium. Her main target was to inculcate the Buhé Belu ritual in the minds of these Ethiopian children.

The Buhé Belu ritual chant has at least 3 main parts. The first pattern initiates the children to simply echo “Ho” as a chorus. This pattern of the Hoya Hoye song praises the master of the house so that he would be rather generous to them. The cheer master, or the lead singer, also flatters him poetically if the patriarch is dragging his feet or his donations are too little.

The other part deals with lyrics under the title Assio Bellema. The leader repeats “Assiyo Bellema” as an opener to a call responded by “Oho ho” followed by some narration. The third part is a prayer that wishes the participants see each other in health and in happiness in the coming year.

As my daughter was cheering the children with lyrics that her mother had taught her, I was taken back to my own experiences with the festivity in my childhood. Nostalgia overtook me, and my tears rolled down my cheeks uncontrollably. I went back in memory to my childhood when me and my two other brothers were never allowed to go around and chant the Buhé Belu song.

As we lived close to an extremely sensitive government compound, the guards used to come to us each year not only to chant long and hard but also to enjoy a local brew, Tella, my mother made from the purest barley she could put her hands on. They were also treated to Mulmul Dabo, homemade loaves, to accompany the harsh brew.

As many of them had come from different areas of the country, they sang the Buhé Belu song in compliance with their background experiences, crowning it with enjoyable originality.

These days, the Buhé Belu annual ritual is criticised on at least two counts. The first count is the dwindling excitement or interest on the festival. The second count, and an inevitable one at that, is the wrong assumption that Buhé Belu, the festival, is akin to begging. The context of expectancy is despised due to the fact that it does not concur with the policies and plans of sustainable self-reliance the youth is expected to assume.

The fact that the Buhé Belu ritual takes place around a campfire has also become controversial, as some argue that the chibo, which burns in the campfire, is dangerous, and could burn out of control. Yet, others suggest that the 12th day of the Ethiopian month Nehase (August 18) was the right date, as opposed to the 13th.

But Buhé Belu still endures. It seems like there are less and less people celebrating it every year, but there are still those dedicated to the very unique Ethiopian tradition. God bless them.

As the fire fades away and the last chibo turns into ash, it is time to call it a day and bless the children so that we meet again. My recollections have taken me back to my boy scout days. All this memory is infecting me with homesickness for my beloved country Ethiopia, which I hope to visit in good health one day.

By Girma Feyissa

Published on Aug 26,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 904]



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