Monthly Archives: February 2011

 ACCOMMODATION: A mechanism of change in nonviolent action in which the opponents resolve, while they still have a choice, to agree to a compromise and grant certain demands of the nonviolent resisters. Accommodation occurs when the opponents have neither changed their views nor been nonviolently coerced, but have concluded that a compromise settlement is desirable. The accommodation may result from influences which, if continued, might have led to the conversion, nonviolent coercion, or disintegration of the opponents’ system or regime.

AUTHORITY: The quality of leadership which enables the judgments, decisions, recommendations, and orders of certain individuals and institutions to be accepted voluntarily as prudent or wise and therefore should be implemented by others through obedience or cooperation. Authority is a main source of political power, but is not identical with it.

BOYCOTT: Refraining from patronizing a service, buying a product, having contact with certain people, or having transactions with certain institutions or businesses.

CIVIC ABSTENTION: A synonym for acts of political noncooperation.

CIVIC ACTION: Nonviolent action by civil society conducted for political purposes.

CIVIC DEFIANCE: Assertive acts of nonviolent protest, resistance or intervention conducted for political purposes.

CIVIC RESISTANCE: A synonym for nonviolent resistance by civil society with a political objective.

CIVIC STRIKE: A shut-down of economic and social space conducted for political reasons. Not only workers may go on strike, but importantly students, professionals, shopkeepers, white-color workers (including government employees), and members of upper classes can participate.

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: A deliberate peaceful violation of particular laws, decrees, regulations, ordinances, military or police orders, and the like.

These are usually laws which are regarded as inherently immoral, unjust, or tyrannical. Sometimes, however, laws of a largely regulatory or morally neutral character may be disobeyed as a symbol of opposition to wider policies of the government.

CONVERSION: A change of viewpoint by the opponents against whom nonviolent action has been waged, such that they come to believe it is right to accept the objectives of the nonviolent group. This is one of four mechanisms of change in nonviolent action.

DISINTEGRATION: The fourth mechanism of change in nonviolent action, in which the opponents are not simply coerced, but their system or government is disintegrated and falls apart as a result of massive noncooperation and defiance. The sources of power are restricted or severed by the noncooperation to such an extreme degree that the opponents’ system or government simply dissolves.

ECONOMIC SHUT-DOWN: A suspension of the economic activities of a city, area, or country on a sufficient scale to produce economic paralysis. The motives are usually political.

This may be achieved with a general strike by workers while management, business, commercial institutions, and small shopkeepers close their establishments and halt their economic activities.

FREEDOM (POLITICAL): A political condition which permits freedom of choice and action for individuals and also for individuals and groups to participate in the decisions and operation of the society and the political system.

GRAND STRATEGY: The broadest conception of how an objective is to be attained in a conflict by a chosen course of action. The grand strategy serves to coordinate and direct all appropriate and available resources (human, political, economic, moral, etc.) of the group to attain its objectives in a conflict.

Several more limited strategies may be applied within a grand strategy to achieve particular objectives in subordinate phases of the overall struggle.

GRIEVANCE GROUP: The general population group whose grievances are issues in the conflict, and are being championed by the nonviolent resisters.

HUMAN RESOURCES: A term that is used here to indicate the number of persons and groups who obey "the ruler" (meaning the ruling group in command of the state), cooperate with, or assist the ruling group in implementing their will. This includes the proportion of such persons and groups in the general population, and the extent, forms, and independence of their organizations.

A ruler’s power is affected by the availability of these human resources, which constitute one of the sources of political power.

MATERIAL RESOURCES: This is another source of political power. The term refers to property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic system, means of communication, and modes of transportation. The degree to which the ruler controls, or does not control, these helps to determine the extent or limits of the ruler’s power.

MECHANISMS OF CHANGE: The processes by which change is achieved in successful cases of nonviolent struggle. The four mechanisms are conversion, accommodation, nonviolent coercion, and disintegration.

METHODS: The specific means of action within the technique of nonviolent action. Nearly two hundred specific methods have thus far been identified. They are classed under three main classes of nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation (social, economic, and political), and nonviolent intervention.

NONCOOPERATION: A large class of methods of nonviolent action that involve deliberate restriction, discontinuance, or withholding of social, economic, or political cooperation (or a combination of these) with a disapproved person, activity, institution, or regime.

The methods of noncooperation are classified in the subcategories of social noncooperation, economic noncooperation (economic boycotts and labor strikes), and political noncooperation.

NONVIOLENCE (RELIGIOUS OR ETHICAL): Beliefs and behavior of several types in which violent acts are prohibited on religious or ethical grounds. In some belief systems, not only physical violence is barred but also hostile thoughts and words. Certain belief systems additionally enjoin positive attitudes and behavior toward opponents, or even a rejection of the concept of opponents.

Such believers often may participate in nonviolent struggles with people practicing nonviolent struggle for pragmatic reasons, or may choose not to do so.

NONVIOLENT ACTION: A general technique of conducting protest, resistance, and intervention without physical violence.

Such action may be conducted by (a) acts of omission — that is, the participants refuse to perform acts which they usually perform, are expected by custom to perform, or are required by law or regulation to perform; or (b) acts of commission — that is, the participants perform acts which they usually do not perform, are not expected by custom to perform, or are forbidden by law or regulation from performing; or (c) a combination of both.

The technique includes a multitude of specific methods which are grouped into three main classes: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.

NONVIOLENT COERCION: A mechanism of change in nonviolent action in which demands are achieved against the will of the opponents because effective control of the situation has been taken away from them by widespread noncooperation and defiance. However, the opponents still remain in their official positions and the system has not yet disintegrated.

NONVIOLENT CONFLICT: A conflict in which at least one party uses nonviolent action as its means to wage the conflict.

NONVIOLENT INSURRECTION: A popular political uprising against an established regime regarded as oppressive by use of massive noncooperation and defiance.

NONVIOLENT INTERVENTION: A large class of methods of nonviolent action which in a conflict situation directly interfere by nonviolent means with the opponents’ activities and operation of their system. These methods are distinguished from both symbolic protests and noncooperation. The disruptive intervention is most often physical (as in a sit-in) but may be psychological, social, economic, or political.

NONVIOLENT PROTEST AND PERSUASION: A large class of methods of nonviolent action which are symbolic acts expressing opposition opinions or attempting persuasion (as vigils, marches or picketing). These acts extend beyond verbal expressions of opinion but stop short of noncooperation (as a strike) and nonviolent intervention (as a sit-in).

NONVIOLENT STRUGGLE: The waging of determined conflict by strong forms of nonviolent action, especially against determined and resourceful opponents who may respond with repression.

NONVIOLENT WEAPONS: The specific methods of nonviolent action.

PILLARS OF SUPPORT: The institutions and sections of the society which supply the existing regime with the needed sources of power to maintain and expand its power capacity.

Examples are the police, prisons, and military forces supplying sanctions, moral and religious leaders supplying authority (legitimacy), labor groups and business and investment groups supplying economic resources, and similarly with the other identified sources of political power.

POLITICAL DEFIANCE: The strategic application of nonviolent struggle in order to disintegrate a dictatorship and to replace it with a democratic system.

This resistance by noncooperation and defiance mobilizes the power of the oppressed population in order to restrict and cut off the sources of the dictatorship’s power. Those sources are provided by groups and institutions called "pillars of support."

When political defiance is used successfully, it can make a nation ungovernable by the current or any future dictatorship and therefore able to preserve a democratic system against possible new threats.

POLITICAL JIU-JITSU: A special process that may operate during a nonviolent struggle to change power relationships. In political jiu-jitsu negative reactions to the opponents’ violent repression against nonviolent resisters is turned to operate politically against the opponents, weakening their power position and strengthening that of the nonviolent resisters. This can operate only when violent repression is met with continued nonviolent defiance, not violence or surrender. The opponents’ repression is then seen in the worst possible light.

Resulting shifts of opinion are likely to occur among third parties, the general grievance group, and even the opponents’ usual supporters. Those shifts may produce both withdrawal of support for the opponents and increased support for the nonviolent resisters. The result may be widespread condemnation of the opponents, internal opposition among the opponents, and increased resistance. These changes can at times produce major shifts in power relationships in favor of the nonviolent struggle group.

Political jiu-jitsu does not operate in all cases of nonviolent struggle. When it is absent the shift of power relationships depends highly on the extent of noncooperation.

POLITICAL POWER: The totality of influences and pressures available for use to determine and implement official policies for a society. Political power may be wielded by the institutions of government, or in opposition to the government by dissident groups and organizations. Political power may be directly applied in a conflict, or it may be held as a reserve capacity for possible later use.

SANCTIONS: Punishments or reprisals, violent or nonviolent, imposed either because people have failed to act in the expected or desired manner or imposed because people have acted in an unexpected or prohibited manner.

Nonviolent sanctions are less likely than violent ones to be simple reprisals for disobedience and are more likely to be intended to achieve a given objective. Sanctions are a source of political power.

SELF-RELIANCE: The capacity to manage one’s own affairs, make one’s own judgments, and provide for oneself, one’s group or organization, independence, self-determination, and self-sufficiency.

SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE: A source of political power. The ruler’s power is supported by the skills, knowledge and abilities that are provided by persons and groups in the society (human resources) and the relation of those available skills, knowledge and abilities to the ruler’s needs for them.

SOURCES OF POWER: These are origins of political power. They include: authority, human resources, skills and knowledge, intangible factors, material resources and sanctions. These derive from the society. Each of these sources is closely associated with and dependent upon, the acceptance, cooperation, and obedience of the population and the society’s institutions. With strong supply of these sources the ruler will be powerful. As the supply is weakened or severed, the ruler’s power will weaken or collapse.

STRATEGIC NONVIOLENT STRUGGLE: Nonviolent struggle that is applied according to a strategic plan that has been prepared on the basis of analysis of the conflict situation, the strengths and weaknesses of the contending groups, the nature, capacities, and requirements of the technique of nonviolent action, and especially strategic principles of that type of struggle. See also: grand strategy, strategy, tactics, and methods.

STRATEGY: A plan for the conduct of a major phase, or campaign, within a grand strategy for the overall conflict. A strategy is the basic idea of how the struggle of a specific campaign shall develop, and how its separate components shall be fitted together to contribute most advantageously to achieve its objectives.

Strategy operates within the scope of the grand strategy. Tactics and specific methods of action are used in smaller scale operations to implement the strategy for a specific campaign.

STRIKE: A deliberate restriction or suspension of work, usually temporarily, to put pressure on employers to achieve an economic objective or sometimes on the government in order to win a political objective.

TACTIC: A limited plan of action based on a conception of how, in a restricted phase of a conflict, to use effectively the available means of action to achieve a specific limited objective. Tactics are intended for use in implementing a wider strategy in a phase of the overall conflict.

VIOLENCE: Physical violence against other human beings which inflicts injury or death, or threatens to inflict such violence, or any act dependent on such infliction or threat.

Some types of religious or ethical nonviolence conceive of violence much more broadly. This narrower definition permits adherents to those beliefs to cooperate with persons and groups that are prepared on pragmatic grounds to practice nonviolent struggle.

* Source: Gene Sharp, There Are Realistic Alternatives, (Boston: The Albert Einstein Institution, 2003). pp. 31-38. Some modifications have been made to Sharp’s definitions.


The Oromo Fashion

 The Oromo Fashion
                                     by Dr Peri Klemm

This article appears as “Oromo Fashion: Three Contemporary Body Art Practices among Afran Qallo Women” in African Arts. vol. 42, no. 1 2009. All photographs are the property of the author and may only be reproduced with the author’s written consent. For access to the longer version and a list of full citations and bibliographical information, please contact

In 1998, when I first visited Harar a town in eastern Ethiopia, I was traveling with a young Muslim Oromo-American woman. Wherever we ventured in and around the old walled city, people stopped dead in their tracks and stared. Not at me, per se, although my light skin and hair color certainly attract attention, but at my traveling companion. She looked Ethiopian, certainly, and even Oromo. Her headscarf indicated her faith in the devoutly Islamic region of Harar and though I also covered my head as a sign of respect, for her it was culturally and religiously motivated. Unlike Oromo women in Harar, however, she usually wore the clothes of an American college student and she appeared heavier than most Ethiopian women in her t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. In Harar, those bold enough, usually men, stopped her on the street to ask her with some insistence: What is your father’s name? Where is your family’s house? Why do you dress this way? Those living in and near Harar, we learned, were particularly curious about my friend because she could not easily be identified. I, on the other hand, as a white foreigner, was either classified as part of the growing tourist presence in Harar or as an NGO worker on temporary leave.

Oromo FashionCategorizing people by ethnicity, religion, marital status, social and economic class, and occupations is by no means limited to the inhabitants of eastern Ethiopia. Throughout Africa, one could argue, those not easily deposited into recognized and accepted expressions of personhood, are suspect and afforded considerable attention. In Harar, however, where four major ethnicities live and work within close proximity to one another, identifying and categorizing others through visual signifiers such as clothing, hairstyle, and body markings is crucial to formulating all future modes of interaction. This is particularly overt for women. Men from all local ethnicities- Harari, Argobba, Somali, and Oromo- wear similar types of clothing, including waist wraps made of imported Indonesian textiles or pants with t-shirts, dress shirts, and jackets, which render them virtually indistinguishable from one another. Women, on the other hand, clearly differentiate themselves through specific dress ensembles that convey their regional ties, clan affiliation, class, and life cycle stage. This information is clearly communicated to individuals who understand the complex language of dress in eastern Ethiopia. Beyond the immediate visual correspondences more subversive political references also exist, many of which have developed during the last generation. This paper examines three body arts created and worn by Oromo women and explores how each communicates ethnic and politically seditious codes. Each is a relatively new art form created within the last fifty years, easily situated within the framework of fashion. In the following three examples- qarma, ambarka, and kula- Oromo women have adapted wearable, imported commodities in ways that render them culturally appropriate and politically meaningful. In doing so, they claim a place for themselves in a rapidly changing and increasingly modern Ethiopian economy, while still maintaining ties to indigenous practices.

Oromo Aesthetics and Women’s Dress

Rural Oromo women are constantly on the move. As traders they haul heavy bundles of wood, coal, produce, and water along the main thoroughfare to and from local markets in the city of Harar and in surrounding communities. Oromo women in this Eastern Ethiopia are currently facing a debilitating drought that is affecting livestock and crops and sending many to seek aid in urban centers in Jijiga, Dire Dawa, and Hargeisa and refugee camps near the border with Somalia. In addition, hunger, malaria, cholera, dysentery, and infectious diseases are a constant battle. Yet even in the face of these challenges, these same women, both young and old, are deeply invested in fashion. Oromo woman interviewed throughout Eastern Hararghe confessed that they take fashion very seriously for it provides them access to specific kinds of modernity. Through contemporary costume women reconfigure and make relevant the markers that connect them to their cultural, religious, and familial heritage. They also use dress to make sense of their current situations and to create visual networks to distant, and often unfamiliar Oromo communities in the Diaspora, many of which are inscribed in a current struggle for nationalism and self-determination. Creating conscious connections to a larger Oromo identity is achieved through personal expressions found on the body, particularly around the neck, on the face, and in the hair. Herein I will discuss three parts of this ensemble of bodily embellishments used by unmarried, rural Oromo women in order to emphasize the importance of transnational fashion as a pliable medium used to communicate a political voice. These three body arts are: a beaded necklace called ambarka, a beaded headband called qarma, and temporary facial markings known as kula, literally ‘to color the face’. Each of these items is constructed with newly imported materials that travel from ports along the Somali coast to local markets in Ethiopia’s eastern Highlands. Each item is also filtered through specific design strategies that either copy directly or visually reference dress styles of the past. While Oromo women today are constantly redefining their individual tastes and priorities, they are collectively rooted in an indigenous aesthetic system and governed by culturally endorsed prescriptions surrounding the degree to which innovation is encouraged or discouraged in their personal arts. Within these prescriptions, fashion in the form of constantly changing, imported commodities can be manipulated to reflect meaningful connections to indigenous notions of family, individuality, value and memory.

What is worn is largely dictated by what is considered to be appropriate, financially viable, and above all, beautiful. But due to the limited repertoire of materials available for purchase in the urban markets, which are visited by the various ethnic groups who rely on these centers for their outfits, many of the same articles are incorporated into costumes across ethnic lines. Yet, Oromo dress is distinctly Oromo in several ways. For example, women’s body arts are rendered uniquely Oromo through the specific design and color choices that women make; these rely heavily on stylistic conventions, durability, financial restraints, and material availability in the production of textiles, leather, bead, and metalwork. In addition, items that may appear similar to another ethnic group’s body art are encoded with Oromo folklore and historical narratives. They thus become wearable markers that constantly refer backward in time to a distinctly Oromo heritage much in the same way that the past is evoked today through women’s songs and dance gestures.

As objects and bodies change through time and place, meaning also fluctuates and shifts. An object worn on the body is as much noted for the act of its placement and for the relationship it holds to the body and other objects as for its ability to beautify. The Oromo manage this negotiation through their categorization and placement of dress. Oromo aesthetic of dress arrangement is dependent on two competing concepts within wider Oromo society. On the one hand, sacred objects and acts should be kept hidden. In this sense, the most spiritually or socially powerful body art practices should not be perceptibly pronounced. On the other hand, women should be recognized first and foremost for their ethnic distinction, a process that is only possible by drawing attention to the ensemble of things with which they decorated their bodies. These two ideals between hiding that which is most value-laden and making available the visual symbols of Oromo identity are brought into dialogue on the body through an aesthetic of accumulation that mixes the textures and colors of various body modifications and supplements. At an Oromo woman’s head, for example, she layers fiber, cloth, and beaded bands over and under a hairnet or headscarf that may be further ornamented with modern accessories like butterfly hairclips while more potent medicines and amulets remain invisible, tucked under her hair. The layering effect both disguises the clarity of individual objects and brings them into a relational patterning with other similar and different items. As objects shift in position or as they are replaced with items of more modern appeal, such as temporary pink nail polish dabbed onto the face instead of permanently tattooed marks, they continue to be arranged appropriately, through an aesthetic of accumulation.

The Afran Qallo Oromo of Eastern Oromia

The Oromo population resides primarily in Ethiopia but also in Somalia, Kenya, and abroad. Within Ethiopia, they number close to thirty million people or forty percent of the population. The Oromo in Ethiopia recognize their nation as Oromia, extending 600,000 square kilometers from the Nile River in the north to the Hararghe Plateau in the southeast. After Arabic and Hausa, the Oromo language, Afaan Oromo, is the most extensively spoken language on the African continent. Despite the wide use of the language, until the 1990’s, Afaan Oromo was only formally recognized and taught in schools during Ethiopia’s brief Italian Occupation (1936-41) and only under the present government has any significant progress been made in the development of the Oromo language at the national level, including the publication of the first texts exclusively in Afaan Oromo using the Latin script rather than the established Amharic Sabean syllabary.

While the Oromo constitute the ethnic majority within Ethiopia, they have historically been marginalized politically, economically, and socially within the Ethiopian state. The Eastern Oromo, for example, lived under Ethiopian imperial rule most of the last century and intermittent conditions of subordination within the region of Harar since the eighteenth century. Today, they live within a nation-state that is built upon the recognition of ethnic diversity. It is within these contexts, where issues of identity are crucial, that women’s costume in eastern Ethiopia becomes especially telling.

When and from where the Oromo first appeared in present-day Ethiopia is a contentious issue that precipitates controversy about land use and indigineity and that continues to be heavily debated among Oromo and non-Oromo populations alike. Most scholarship characterizes Oromo movement into Ethiopia as a single wave of migration from either the Somali coast in the east or Lake Turkana in the south, or from the northern Highlands near present-day Bale spurred by pressures from Somali herders during the sixteenth century. These accounts rely heavily on a highly biased and propagandistic account written by a monk named Bahrey who lived in southern Ethiopia in 1593. More recent revisionist scholarship challenges the claim that the Oromo fled in mass exodus into the Ethiopian interior. Since the existence of nomadic pastoralist bands has been verified by archaeological evidence several centuries earlier (especially in the eastern regions of Ethiopia) it is possible that the Oromo migration and their subsequent assimilation was, in fact, a gradual transition that happened at various moments in different places.

The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in the central eastern region of the country. They are organized through a segmentary patrilineal structure. They come from the Barentuma branch or eastern division of the great Oromo confederacy which was born out of the union of Xabboo and Haromeetu, the original Oromo father and mother and propagated through their two sons Barentuma (also known as Barentu) and Boran (also known as Borana). Those descendants of the Barentuma lineage near to Harar, the Ala, Oborra, Baabbile, and Daga, are known as the Afran Qallo, literally ‘the four sons of Qallo.’ Oromo clan, or gosa, traces its line of descent to Ala, Oborra, Baabbile, or Daga. Thirty years ago, the Oromo of the former Eastern Hararghe province were conservatively estimated to number one and one half million although it is likely to be closer to four million today. The Afran Qallo Oromo have largely given up pastoralism and RabaDori, their traditional governance system known among other Oromo groups as the gada system. Referred to as Qottu or ‘those that dig’ in the past, the Afran Qallo are principally rural agriculturalists today. The fact that they have remained settled in communities for the past century has meant that the Afran Qallo Oromo have had increasingly better access to markets and trade goods. This access is reflected in the types of materials incorporated into Oromo women’s dress.

The stylistic choices of diamonds and horizontal bands are also significant in this discussion of nationalism and Oromo identity. Certainly women are drawing on basketry as a model in their ambarka beading through the same concerns with containment of shapes, the repetition of form and pattern and the use of primary color sets of stripes and diamonds. We know from Phillip Paulitschke, the Viennese ethnographer who visited Harar in the 1880’s, that 120 years ago, the rhombus was the most reproduced figure in dress and jewelry designs and on the flat expanses of everyday objects. This shape is still visible on the incised gourds made by Oromo men. Yet, a review of the ambarka reveals that ambarka diamonds are further divided into four by two strong diagonals. When I asked what this division of the diamond was called, women told me it was simply known as ‘Afran Qallo’ and I dismissed the divided diamond design as nothing more than a genealogical identifier. In hindsight, however, I believe that there is more to it. This divided diamond pattern is unique to the ambarka and is a very recent bead pattern. It emerged at a time when the EPRDF government was attempting to suppress all forms of Oromo nationalism. In this context, this divided diamond pattern may directly represent the Afran Qallo or more specifically ‘the four sons of Qallo.’ The larger diamond is Afran Qallo and the four smaller diamonds are his four sons from which all Afran Qallo trace their genealogy: Ala, Oborraa, Baabbile, and Daga. Each of these clan names is thought of as a large shade tree, the symbolic location for traditional worship, court counsel, and business matters for the Oromo, and today a metaphor of cultural vitality and unity.

                    Kuula: Color
Throw up your head in the air,
tilt it and lay your naannoo in harmony
Shaggee of straight nose
black edged eyelids and close eye brows
that look as if they are carved
“your kula and qarma
faroora and kulkultaa
I saw, they look as if they are flawlessly created”
                                                              -From the song Mari Mee, recorded in 1994

In the song Mari Mee above, the singer compliments the decorated space between the young Oromo woman’s eyes, the central focus for cosmetics. Adorning the eye area and the cheeks with colored pigment known as kula is a recent phenomenon. Today, women no longer utilize natural mineral pigments on the face but instead, invest in more fashionable and easily applicable substances: bottles of nail polish. Nail polish is today applied to the bridge of the nose, between the eyebrows, and to the cheeks. Nail polish decoration, which either exists side by side with tattooing and scarification on young women’s faces or has replaced them entirely, falls along a continuum in the indigenous practice of facial alteration. Historically, an Oromo woman’s face became a canvas for subtle tattoo marks, tumtuu, applied in conjunction with scarification, haaxixa (Fig. 20).

Scars are usually incised with a sharp thorn or razor that lacerate the first few layers of skin above the eyebrow, along the bridge of the nose, and on the cheeks and that heal in a recessive dell. These marks, which are usually made at the onset of puberty, become meaningful on several levels: when those above the eye are cut, the blood is allowed to drip down and cleanse the eyeball, which is believed to free it from disease; the mark along the nose is intended to visually lengthen the nose and enhance its appeal; the marks on the cheeks further beautify a woman’s face and can suggest geographical identity. Often haaxixa are enhanced with tumtuu, in which a green black paste made of soot and plant extract is applied with thorns pricked under the skin. Today, the process of scarification and tattooing is usually discussed as a feature-enhancing cosmetic that, like dots of polish, adds to a woman’s attractiveness. Haaxixa placed above the eyebrow, along the bridge of the nose, and on the cheeks are intended to heal, protect, and beautify. But marks around the eyes are also meant to divert the gaze of strangers who could potentially inflict harm through attack with the evil eye. The evil eye as a pan-Ethiopian phenomenon is most widely known as buda, a term which references both the inherent eye power and the individuals who possess it; usually castes that smelt iron, tan leather, and fashion pots as their primary means of livelihood. The practice of scarring the face is also reported to have been used specifically during the first reign of Haile Selassie I to make ugly, rather than to beautify.

The Oromo speak of a turbulent time in the 1920’s when young men and women began disappearing in great number. As most Afran Qallo Oromo had had little exposure to Ethiopia’s government or state-sponsored education at this period, an uncertainty grew concerning the motivations of a distant leader called Haile Selassie I. Severe changes to land use policy, the complete eradication of the traditional socio-political governing institutions, and new demands for labor and a national militia, created mounting distrust toward the Ethiopian state. Informants state that in the 1930’s it was confirmed by a famous Oromo mantiyya, a jarrii spirit expert, that Haile Selassie was himself possessed by a jarrii spirit. This spirit was said to inhabit his dog, a Chihuahua breed with bulging eyes that often appeared with his master in official photographs and news broadcasts. Afran Qallo Oromo feared that the small dog was masterfully controlling Haile Selassie to tour the country to collect and consume the most attractive people. As a result, people believed that the most beautiful Oromo men and women were being confiscated by government troops and eaten by this insatiable ruler. Mothers began to hide their children and disfigure their faces to keep them from abduction.

In this sense, excessive haaxixa was used as a means of marring beauty and keeping young men and women safe. While haaxixa was practiced much earlier than this, it was because of the harshness of the Amhara administration, especially from 1887 to 1936, that Oromo tradition emphasized the importance of heavy haaxixa in the 1930’s. This visual and oral evidence suggests that fear of buda and the foreign administration of the imperial Ethiopian governments was not prevalent in Oromo belief until the first reign of Haile Selassie- a time when the wearing of scars was on the increase.

Nail polish operates both within this belief system as a way of diverting the gaze from the eye area but also as a beautifying agent intended to harness visual attention. Adorning the body to invite the attention of mates or to hide from those with buda speaks to issues of disclosure and concealment inherent in all of the body arts used by Oromo women.

Women say they like nail polish for its impermanence, its color variety, and its foreign manufacture. While permanent scars and tattoos bleed, fade, and shift over time, nail polish can be applied quickly and painlessly, then scraped off and reapplied again. Applied polish also promotes personal expression. Dabs of polish allow a young woman creative space to articulate an individual style that will catch the attention of potential suitors she might meet on her way to and from market or on wood gathering excursions. Decorating with polish also suggests a high economic status. The price of an imported bottle of polish fetches the equivalent of four days work for a wood or coal seller. Despite the cost, women are reluctant to collectively buy a bottle together since styles copied in a communal color from one face to another would not give the woman her unique look and promote her individual appeal.

Polish is rarely wasted on the fingernails since it is not an area that traditionally gets painted and thus, not a candidate for the dissemination of cultural meaning. Young men, however, who travel broader distances than women and come into contact with nail salons or fashion magazines, commonly wear polish on their nails. This again suggests women’s astute decision to limit cosmetics to places on the body that continue to be decorated in traditional ways and whose decoration conveys important cultural meaning. Even though kula made with bright pink and red polish is becoming increasingly popular the practices of scarring and tattooing persist. As a personal art, polish can literally exist alongside or on top of other kinds of markings that make resonant connections with collective Oromo values and belief systems.

Women’s Participation in Oromo Nationalism

Among the Afran Qallo Oromo, a series of moral codes shaped through a shared past, common religious belief, and conditions of subordination dictate bodily restraints and determines which collective physical representations are withheld or reproduced at particular moments and within specific contexts. The collective presentation of the Afran Qallo female body runs parallel today to the emergence of an Oromo national consciousness, one that extends beyond the borders of present-day Ethiopia into the surrounding nation-states that are also home to large Oromo populations. This consciousness is largely informed by a debate centered on whether the Oromo in their nation of Oromia should attempt to secede from the Ethiopian state or rally for equal treatment and self-determination as members of a unified Ethiopia.

The cultural glue of this nationalist movement within Oromia, which is the Oromo regional state within Ethiopia, and the Oromo Diaspora is largely founded on the shared experience of language, history, and political domination. The historic gada or RabaDori system, common to all Oromo, is often promoted as a socio-political organizing ideology through which to mold an independent Oromo nation. While both Oromo men and women throughout Oromia can lay claim to a shared experience, including the move from the stratified grades of the RabaDori institution to the court system enforced by the Ethiopian state, the loss of rights to grazing and farm lands, and increased state-sponsored violence, Oromo nationalism has been most publicly formulated and articulated by educated Oromo men in a male-centered paradigm. Kuwee Kumsa reports that Oromo national movements, particularly the Oromo Liberation Front, have not adequately acknowledged the role of women in its formation and struggle nor has the organization included a women’s voice. Further, the place of women and the roles played by women’s arts have not been formally acknowledged as a relevant component of nationalist sentiment.

Yet, as these three examples have shown, women’s bodies and their personal arts are instrumental in the production, albeit subtle and symbolic, of Oromo identity and Oromo consciousness. Further, Oromo society views women as the dominant creators and assimilators of cultural symbols. The reason the decorated body is left out of this debate has much to do with the ways in which Oromo nationalism was first conceptualized as an abstract ideal. The establishment of the Macha-Tuluma self-help organization among western Oromo in Ethiopia in the 1960’s and the participation in government sponsored programs under the Derg regime in the late 1970’s coupled with an increased exposure to secondary education and urban jobs, created a uniquely modern Oromo consciousness for young men as Mekuria Bulcha has written. In this male-centered political climate, the expressions of rural women in localized areas went largely unnoticed. At this time, however, women were independently creating their own material expressions based on the emerging nationalist consciousness sweeping the Oromo countryside, and these practices continue today through the manipulation of new materials in the production of upper torso body art.

Oromo women’s dress is most closely associated with the lower body and its association with procreation. For the Oromo, the lower body is connected to the past through its link to the ground, to birthing, and to containment. This is a space where loose, layered skirts and a tight, cloth belt become metaphors for the opening and closing of the body. The upper body, on the other hand, is where the future rests and a whole host of objects, including amulets, beadwork, and face paint, are brought together here to assert a national identity in anticipation of future encounters.


I have introduced three body art practices that underscore how fashion can be manipulated to resonate meaningful connections to indigenous notions of individuality, community, and memory. These beaded bands and color swatches celebrate the individual style of each young woman and therefore, no two should look identical. Yet, in this multiethnic environment, these body arts are clearly a communal Oromo visual expression. The beaded ambarka necklace and the beaded qarma headband are both patterned with the diamond – a shape that dominates older basket forms while the kulaface paint is modeled after older permanent facial markings. To be fashionable among the Oromo, then, carries with it the limitations imposed by a bounded aesthetic system, one that Afran Qallo women are largely responsible for generating, maintaining, and communicating both as objects and as subjects. This system requires the layering of old and new forms, intended to both catch and confuse the eye, simultaneously revealing and concealing; beautifying and repelling; personalizing and unifying to those that understand the language of dress.

Throughout the historical period discussed, Oromo women have developed a clear, cultivated fashion sense that connects them to peoples and places beyond their region. As increasingly active agents, Afran Qallo women are creating new looks that draw from and resonate with historically relevant body art practices and which link them to a wider global world. Further, contemporary dress is a symbolic means through which Afran Qallo women come to understand and make sense of their socio-political and economic experiences and their identity as Oromo within the Ethiopian state today.
Dr. Peri Klemm is an African art historian at California State University, Northridge. She is currently working on a book about dress throughout Oromia. Any information or suggestions you would like to share are welcome

%d bloggers like this: