estled amidst the awe-inspiring natural grandeur of Batu Lake, located 100 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, are five distinct islands. These captivating island dwellings serve as vibrant reflections of Ethiopia’s enduring history, spanning over twelve centuries.
Kushe Gonder, a remarkable 90-year-old woman, resides on Gelila Island, one of the five captivating islands within Batu Lake. While only one of her daughters remains with her on the island, the others have chosen to embrace urban life, leaving behind the tranquil shores of Gelila. With only a handful of inhabitants, Gelila has earned the nickname “the one-woman island.”
“I was married on this island when I was just 15 years old. This island is my entire life. I simply cannot imagine leaving,” shares Kushe. Acting as a living repository of knowledge, Kushe eloquently narrates the stories, history, and the myriad of experiences—both positive and negative—that have shaped the Batu islands. Her passion for sharing extends particularly to Zay culture, customs, festivities, history, and deeply cherished values.
The remaining four islands within Batu Lake are named Debre-Tsion, Gete-Semai, Femat, and Ayset.
The inhabitants of Batu, also known as Ziway, are referred to as Zay. Originating from various regions across Ethiopia, these resilient individuals sought refuge on the islands during the 9th century. They fled from the merciless attacks inflicted upon Christians in the Axum kingdom during the reign of Yodith Gudit.
They brought ancient books of Ethiopia’s oldest kingdoms, and oldest Christian scriptures with them, to the island. These ancient scriptures, along all the oldest traditions, are still alive in the islands. They flee to this island was planned mainly to save orthodox Christianity from Yodit’s campaign against the religion, at the time.
The Zay people, often referred to as “little Ethiopia,” are a diverse community consisting of members from various ethnic groups across Ethiopia. Their unique identity as Zay emerged as a new population group on the islands, embracing a collective Ethiopian nationality. Despite this amalgamation, the Zay people have successfully preserved the rich cultural heritage of their religious practices on the islands, up to the present day.
Presently, the islands are sparsely inhabited, with only a small population remaining. A survey conducted five years ago estimated that approximately 35,000 individuals resided on the islands at that time.
Zay brought agriculture, art-crafting, boat crafting, and other methodologies to the islands. As the result, zay are loved by the population that lives in the surrounding of Batu Lake, who are the Oromo people. But the major source of living for Zay people, is fishing.
Amsale Fresibhat, in his mid-twenties, is a Zay grew up on Gelila. He is a fisher. Every morning, he assesses the lake to check if the nets he laid on the previous night have caught some fishes. Then he takes the fishes to the markets outside the islands. The boats used on the islands, is all handmade, using traditional knowledge. The boats are made of wood and are 12 meters long, on average.
But Amsale no-more lives on the Batu islands. He relocated his family to Meki, a nearby town to the Batu lake. Talking about the Batu islands, Amsale’s eyes are filled with joy.
“Every Zay loves the islands with unique, strong and endless affection. That love is the only weapon that helped us to survive lots of problems,” says Amsale.
The Epiphany holiday, along with other Orthodox holidays such as Demera-sort of a bonfire to commemorate the finding of the True Cross, hold a special place in the hearts of the Zay community. These occasions offer captivating and unique spectacles, as numerous boats carry the clergy, laities, and the sacred Replica of the Arc of the Covenant, traversing the waters. Dressed in traditional and religious garments, the people passionately engage in hymns and prayers as the boats ferry them between islands and the mainland.
According to Kushe, the islands uphold a discipline as firm as steel. For instance, marriages are arranged even before the birth of a child. However, widows are prohibited from seeing each other until just one week prior to the wedding day.
“Even if the groom accidentally spots the bride or a member of her family on the road, he must hide. Additionally, there is a purification ritual preceding the wedding ceremony. The sister of the bride tattoos a cross on the groom’s forehead, which is considered a symbol of beauty,” shares Kushe. However, the most significant aspect of the weeks leading up to the wedding day is the dedicated time for prayers and religious choirs.
Dancing and songs are major features of Zays culture.
The main reason most Zay people are forced to abandon the islands and go to live in urban areas, is underdevelopment. There is no electricity, water supply, schools, or any infrastructure on the islands.
Hence, despite their love and strong bondage with islands, Zay people are forced to leave.
“Life is very difficult on the islands, because there is no any infrastructure or development on the islands. In order to find a job and support our family, all Zay youth is forced to go to towns and cities. It is very sad,” says Amsale.
He says if the Batu islands had infrastructure it could have been easier to make it a tourism hotspot.
“The huge tourism potential of the surrounding could have generated huge revenue that could have developed the area.”
However, the residents accuse governments in the past for neglecting the development of the islands and the surrounding areas.
Fikadu Esko chairs the Zay community Identity Retrieval Committee. The Committee was formed in 2006, in a bid to have Zay community identity, culture and livelihood from being swallowed up by other ethnicities.
“The identity of Zay community is Ethiopian. But our identity is being override by other ethnic identities,” says Fikadu. The committee tried to solve the problems particularly with cooperation with the Oromia regional government.
Fikadu says the committee had a very good progress during when Lemma Megersa was the President of Oromia Regional State. “He introduced several projects, and programs to ensure development in the Batu islands, and also save Zay identity. Just while he was preparing to implement them, Lema was removed from power.”
Fikadu expressed the challenges faced in the aftermath of Lema, making it difficult to carry on. He also acknowledged that the ongoing conflict in the country has exacerbated the issues, further complicating the situation.
Another individual dedicated to preserving the Zay community is Habtamu Tadesse, an entrepreneur. Habtamu took the initiative to establish ‘Zay Ride,’ a ride-hailing taxi company, with the primary goal of uplifting the Zay people and generating funds for the Zay community. He made a commitment to utilize the profits generated from the taxi service to finance essential projects such as clean water initiatives and the construction of schools on the Batu islands.