LOCATION: Ethiopia; Kenya; Somalia
POPULATION: 28 million
LANGUAGE: Afaan Oromoo
RELIGION: Original Oromo religion (Waaqa); Islam; Christianity
1 • INTRODUCTION
Although Oromos have their own unique culture, history, language, and civilization, they are culturally related to Afars, Somalis, Sidamas, Agaws, Bilens, Bejas, Kunamas, and other groups. In the past, Oromos had an egalitarian social system known as gada. Their military organization made them one of the strongest ethnic groups in the Horn of Africa between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries. Gada was a form of constitutional government and also a social system. Political leaders were elected by the men of the community every eight years. Corrupt or dictatorial leaders would be removed from power through buqisu (recall) before the official end of their term. Oromo women had a parallel institution known as siqqee. This institution promoted gender equality in Oromo society.
Gada closely connected the social and political structures. Male Oromos were organized according to age and generation for both social and political activities. The gada government was based on democratic principles. The abba boku was an elected "chairman" who presided over the chaffee (assembly) and proclaimed the laws. The abba dula (defense minister) was a government leader who directed the army. A council known as shanee or salgee and retired gada officials also helped the abba boku to run the government.
All gada officials were elected for eight years. The main qualifications for election included bravery, knowledge, honesty, demonstrated ability, and courage. The gada government worked on local, regional, and central levels. The political philosophy of the gada system was embodied in three main principles: terms of eight years, balanced opposition between parties, and power sharing between higher and lower levels. These checks and balances were created to prevent misuse of power. The goverment’s independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches also were a way of balancing power. Some elements of gada are still practiced in southern Oromia.
The gada system was the basis of Oromo culture and civilization. It helped Oromos maintain democratic political, economic, social, and religious institutions for many centuries. The gada political system and military organization enabled Oromos defend themselves against enemies who were competing with them for land, water, and power. Today, Oromos are engaged in a national liberation movement. Under the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) they work to achieve self-determination. Most Oromos support this liberation organization and its army, the Oromo Liberation Army. There are many Oromo organizations in North America, Europe, and Africa that support the Oromo national movement. Oromos are struggling for the opportunity to rule themselves and reinvent an Oromian state that will reflect the gada system.
2 • LOCATION
Oromos call their nation and country Oromia. They have been living in the Horn of Africa for all of their known history. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, with a population estimated at 28 million people in the mid-1990s. Oromia is located mainly within Ethiopia and covers an area of about 232,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers). The 3.5 million-year-old fossilized human skeleton known as "Lucy" (or "Chaltu" in Oromo) was found by archaeologists in Oromia. Present-day Oromos also live in Kenya and Somalia. In the late nineteenth century, Oromos were colonized and mainly joined with- Ethiopia. They lost their independent institutional and cultural development. Great Britain, France, and Italy supported the Ethiopian colonization of Oromos.
Oromia is considered the richest region of the Horn of Africa because of its agricultural and natural resources. It is considered by many to be the "breadbasket" of the Horn. Farm products, including barley, wheat, sorghum, xafi (a grain), maize, coffee, oil seeds, chat (a stimulant leaf), oranges, and cattle are raised in abundance in Oromia. Oromia is also rich in gold, silver, platinum, marble, uranium, nickel, natural gas, and other mineral resources. It has several large and small rivers used for agriculture and for producing hydroelectric power.
3 • LANGUAGE
The Oromo language is called Afaan Oromoo. Afaan Oromoo has more than thirty million speakers. Ethnic groups such as the Sidama, Berta, Adare, Annuak, Koma, Kulo, Kaficho, and Guraghe speak the Oromo language in addition to their own languages. Afaan Oromoo is the third most widely spoken language in Africa, after Arabic and Hausa. It is the second most widely spoken indigenous language in Africa south of the Sahara.
In spite of attempts by Ethiopian regimes to destroy the Afaan Oromoo language, it has continued to exist and flourish in rural areas. Until recently, Oromos were denied the right to develop their language, literature, and alphabet. For almost a century, it was a crime to write in this language. With the rise of the Oromo national movement, Oromo scholars adopted Latin script (the alphabet used for English and most other European languages) in the early 1970s. The OLF adopted this alphabet and began to teach reading and writing in Afaan Oromoo.
4 • FOLKLORE
Oromos believe that Waaqa Tokkicha (the one God) created the world, including them. They call this supreme being Waaqa Guuracha (the Black God). Most Oromos still believe that it was this God who created heaven and earth and other living and non-living things. Waaqa also created ayaana (spiritual connection), through which he connects himself to his creatures. The Oromo story of creation starts with the element of water, since it was the only element that existed before other elements.
Oromos believed that Waaqa created the sky and earth from water. He also created dry land out of water, and bakkalcha (a star) to provide light. With the rise of bakkalcha, ayaana (spiritual connection) emerged. With this star, sunlight also appeared. The movement of this sunlight created day and night. Using the light of bakkalcha, Waaqa created all other stars, animals, plants, and other creatures that live on the land, in air, and in water. When an Oromo dies, he or she will become spirit.
Some Oromos still believe in the existence of ancestors’ spirits. They attempt to contact them through ceremonies. These ancestral spirits appear to relatives in the form of flying animals.
Original Oromo religion does not believe in hell and heaven. If a person commits a sin by disturbing the balance of nature or mis-treating others, the society imposes punishment while the person is alive.
Oromo heroes and heroines are the people who have done something important for the community. Thinkers who invented the gada system, raagas (prophets), and military leaders, for example, are considered heroes and heroines. Today, those who have contributed to the Oromo national movement are considered heroes and heroines.
5 • RELIGION
Oromos recognize the existence of a supreme being or Creator that they call Waaqa. They have three major religions: original Oromo religion (Waaqa), Islam, and Christianity.
The original religion sees the human, spiritual, and physical worlds as interconnected, with their existence and functions ruled by Waaqa. Through each person’s ayaana (spiritual connection), Waaqa acts in the person’s life. Three Oromo concepts explain the organization and connection of human, spiritual, and physical worlds: ayaana, uuma (nature), and saffu (the ethical and moral code).
Uuma includes everything created by Waaqa, including ayaana. Saffu is a moral and ethical code that Oromos use to tell bad from good and wrong from right. The Oromo religious institution, or qallu , is the center of the Oromo religion. Qallu leaders traditionally played important religious roles in Oromo society. The Ethiopian colonizers tried to ban the Oromo system of thought by eliminating Oromo cultural experts such as the raagas (Oromo prophets), the ayaantus (time reckoners), and oral historians.
Today, Islam and Christianity are the major religions in Oromo society. In some Oromo regions, Eastern Orthodox Christianity was introduced by the Ethiopian colonizers. In other areas, Oromos accepted Protestant Christianity in order to resist Orthodox Christianity. Some Oromos accepted Islam in order to resist Ethiopian control and Orthodox Christianity. Islam was imposed on other Oromos by Turkish and Egyptian colonizers. However, some Oromos have continued to practice their original religion. Both Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia have been greatly influenced by Oromo religion.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
The Oromo celebrate ceremonial rites of passage known as ireecha or buuta , as well as Islamic and Christian holidays. The Oromos have also begun celebrating an Oromo national day to remember their heroines and heroes who have sacrificed their lives trying to free their people from Ethiopian rule.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
Since children are seen as having great value, most Oromo families are large. The birth of a child is celebrated because each newborn child will some day become a worker. Marriage is celebrated since it is the time when boys and girls enter adulthood. Death is marked as an important event; it brings members of the community together to say goodbye.
Traditionally Oromos had five gada (grades) or parties. The names of these grades varied from place to place. In one area, these grades were dabalee (ages one to eight), rogge (ages eight to sixteen), follee (ages sixteen to twenty-four), qondaala (ages twenty-four to thirty-two), and dorri (ages thirty-two to forty). There were rites of passages when males passed from one gada to another. These rites of passages were called ireecha or buuta.
Between the ages of one and eight, Oromo male children did not participate in politics and had little responsibility. When they were between eight and sixteen years old, they were not yet allowed to take full responsibility and marry. Between ages sixteen and twenty-four, they took on the responsibilities of hard work. They learned about war tactics, politics, law and management, culture and history, and hunting big animals. When young men were between twenty-four and thirty-two years of age, they served as soldiers and prepared to take over the responsibilities of leadership, in peace and war. Men thirty-two to forty years old had important roles. They shared their knowledge with the qondaala group and carried out their leadership responsibilities.
Nowadays, those who can afford it send their children to school. These children complete their teenage years in school. Children and teenagers participate in agriculture and other activities needed for survival. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, young Oromos marry and start the lifecycle of adulthood.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Oromos are friendly people, and they express their feelings openly. Oromos greet one another by shaking hands; they talk to one another warmly. Asahama? (How are you?) , Fayaadha? (Are you healthy?), and Matinkee atam? (Is your family well?) are common greeting phrases or questions. The other person answers, Ani fayaadha (I am fine), Matinkos nagadha (My family is o.k.), and Ati fayaadha? (What about you, are you fine?).
When Oromos visit other families, they are provided with something to drink or eat. It is expected that visitors will eat or drink what is offered. People can drop by and visit friends or relatives without letting them know ahead of time.
Dating is an important step for a boy and a girl. Usually a young boy begins by expressing his love for a girl whom he wants to date. When a girl agrees that she loves him, too, they start dating. Premarital sex is not accepted, but kissing and dancing are acceptable. Parents are not usually told about a dating relationship. Dating may or may not lead to marriage. Having girlfriends and boyfriends gains young people social status and respect from others.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Since Oromos are colonial subjects, their natural resources are extracted mainly by wealthy and powerful Ethiopians and their supporters. Most Oromos are rural people who lack basic services such as electricity, clean water, adequate housing, reliable transportation, clinics, and hospitals. Electricity that is produced by Oromian rivers is used mainly by Amhara and Tigrayans.
Hunger is a problem among the Oromo and many attribute it to exploitation by the Ethiopian government. Since Oromos have been denied education by a successive series of Ethiopian regimes, the Oromo middle class is very small. The living conditions of this class, however, are better than those of most Oromos. Members of this class mainly live in cities and towns.
Because of the military conflict between the Oromo Liberation Front army and the Ethiopian government army, Oromo peasants are constantly threatened, murdered, or imprisoned by the government. The Ethiopian government takes their property, claiming that the Oromo are hiding guerrilla fighters. Because of poverty, war, lack of modern farming methods, lack of education, and exploitation, the living standard of the Oromo people is very low. They live in overcrowded dwellings, which often house large extended families.
Oromos use human labor and animals such as donkeys and horses for transportation in rural areas. They use cars, wagons, buses, and trucks for transportation in cities and towns.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
The basic unit of a household is the patrilineal (male-headed) extended family. Neighborhoods and communities are important social networks connected to the extended family. A man, as head of the family, has authority over his wife (or wives) and unmarried sons and daughters. The typical Oromo man has one wife. But because of religious conversion to Islam and other cultural influences, some Oromo men marry more than one wife (a practice known as polygyny). Divorce is discouraged in Oromo society. Oromo women have begun to resist polygyny.
Because of patriarchy and sexism, Oromo women are treated as inferior to men and have little power. Oromo women live under triple oppression: class, gender, and ethnic/racial oppression. Before colonization, Oromo women had an institution known as siqqee to help them oppose male domination and oppression. Although there are Oromo women fighters and military leaders in the liberation struggle, the status of Oromo women has not changed.
11 • CLOTHING
Some Oromo men wear woya (toga-like robes), and some women wear wandabiti (skirts). Others wear leather garments or animal skin robes, and some women wear qollo and sadetta (women’s cloth made of cotton).
Modern garments from around the world are also worn. In cash-producing areas and cities, Oromos wear modern Western-style clothes. Oromos have clothes designated for special days. They call the clothes that they wear on holidays or other important days kitii and the clothes that they wear on working days lago.
12 • FOOD
The main foods of Oromos are animal products including foon (meat), anan (milk), badu (cheese), dhadha (butter), and cereals that are eaten as marqa (porridge) and bideena (bread). Oromos drink coffee, dhadhi (honey wine), and faarso (beer). Some Oromos chew chat (a stimulant leaf).
The special dish of Oromos is itoo (made with meat or chicken, spices, hot pepper, and other ingredients) and bideena bread (made from xafi or millet). Sometimes mariqa or qincee (made from barley) is eaten for breakfast. Ancootee (a food made from the roots of certain plants) is a special food in some parts of western Oromia.
All members of the family eat together. Members of the family sit on stools, eat off wooden platters or dishes, use wooden spoons for liquids, and use washed hands to pick up solid foods. The majority of Oromos eat twice a day, in the morning and at night. Muslim Oromos do not eat pork for religious reasons.
13 • EDUCATION
Literacy (the ability to read and write) is very low among Oromos, probably less than 5 percent of the group. Oromos depend mainly on family and community education to transmit knowledge to the younger generation. Older family and community members have a responsibility to teach children about Oromo culture, history, tradition, and values. When children go to colonial schools, the Oromo oral historians and cultural experts make sure that these children also learn about Oromo society.
Although their numbers are very limited, there are three kinds of schools in Oromia: missionary, madarasa (Islamic), and government schools. Islamic schools teach classes through the sixth grade, and the other schools go through grade twelve. Oromos do not have control over these schools. Oromo culture and values are constantly attacked in them. Despite all these problems, Oromo parents have very high expectations for education. If they can afford it, they do not hesitate to send their children to school.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Oromos respect their elders and value social responsibility, helping others, bravery, and hard work. Knowledge of history and culture is admired. Oromos can count their family trees through ten generations or more. These values are expressed in geerarsa or mirisa (singing), storytelling, poems, and proverbs. Geerarsa is used to praise good behavior and discourage inappropriate behavior.
Oromo cultural heritage is expressed through mirisa, weedu, and different cultural activities. There are different kinds of weedu, such as weedu fuudha (a marriage song), weedu lola (a war song), and weedu hoji (a work song). Oromo women have their own song, called helee, that they use to express their love for their country, children, and husbands. Young boys invite girls to marriage ceremonies by singing hurmiso. Men do dhichisa (a dance to celebrate the marriage ceremony) and women do shagayoo (singing and dancing) during marriage ceremonies. There are prayer songs called shubisu and deedisu.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Oromos are mainly farmers and pastoralists (herders). Young educated Oromos move to cities to look for jobs. There are also a small number of merchants in Oromo society, as well as weavers, goldsmiths, potters, and woodworkers.
16 • SPORTS
Hunting and practicing military skills were important sports in Oromia before it was colonized. Oromo men used to hunt large animals as a test of manhood. They used hides, ivory, and horns in their arts and crafts. Hunting was seen as training for warfare for young Oromos. It helped them learn how to handle their weapons and prepare themselves for difficult conditions.
Popular sports among children and young adults in Oromo society include gugssa (horseback riding), qillee (field hockey), darboo (throwing spears), waldhaansso (wrestling), utaalu (jumping), and swimming. Oromo society has produced athletes who have competed and won in international sports events. In 1956, Wami Biratu, an Oromo soldier serving in the Ethiopian colonial army, was the first Oromo athlete to participate in the Olympic Games. He became a source of inspiration for other Oromo athletes. Ababa Biqila, another Oromo soldier, won the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon and set a new world record, running barefoot. Another Oromo soldier, Mamo Wolde, became the 1968 Olympic Marathon champion. Other Oromo soldiers have succeeded in international competitions as well.
In 1988, Ababa Makonnen (Ababa Biqila’s nephew) won the Tokyo Marathon, and Wadajo Bulti and Kabada Balcha came in second and third. Daraje Nadhi and Kalacha Mataferia won first and second place, respectively, in the World Cup marathon in 1989. In 1992, Daraartu Tullu (1969–), an Oromo woman, won the gold medal for her victory in the 10,000-meter race in the Barcelona Olympic Games. In 1996, another Oromo woman, Fatuma Roba, became a women’s marathon gold medalist. She was the first from Africa to win this kind of race, and she was the fastest marathon runner in the world. The successes of these Oromo athletes demonstrate the rich cultural heritage of athletic ability in Oromo society. The victories of these athletes went to Ethiopia.
17 • RECREATION
Oromos gather and enjoy themselves during ceremonies such as weddings, holidays, and harvest festivals. At these events they eat, drink, sing, dance, and talk together. Jumping, running, swimming, wrestling, and other sports activities are recreation for boys and young adults. Oromo adults like to sit and chat during weekends, after work, and on holidays.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
There are Oromos who specialize in making musical instruments such as the kirar (five-stringed bowl-lyre), masanqo (one-stringed fiddle), and drums. Iron tools such as swords, spears, hoes, axes, and knives have been important for farming, fighting, and hunting. There is a long tradition of woodworking in this society. Carpenters make such objects as platters, stools, spades, tables, plows, bows and arrows, wooden forks, and honey barrels.
Goldwork has been practiced in some parts of Oromia. Goldsmiths specialize in making earrings, necklaces, and other gold objects. There are Oromos who specialize in making other utensils from horn, pottery, and leather. Mugs, spoons, and containers for honey wine are made from horn. Basins, dishes, water jars, and vessels are made from pottery. Various kinds of bags to hold milk are made from leather.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Oromo’s human rights and civil rights have been violated by one Ethiopian government after another. Oromos do not have control over their lives, lands, other properties, or country. They do not have a voice in the government, and they are not allowed to support independent Oromo political organizations. Oromos have been threatened, murdered, or imprisoned for sympathizing with the Oromo national movement, especially the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front). Oromos are not treated according to the rule of law.
Today thousands of Oromos are kept in secret concentration camps and jails just for being Oromo. Some Oromo activists or suspected activists are killed by Ethiopian soldiers. Their bodies are thrown into the streets to terrorize the Oromo people and to prevent them from supporting the Oromo national movement. Human rights organizations such as Africa Watch, the Oromia Support Group, and Amnesty International have witnessed many contracts aimed at reducing human rights abuses.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Abebe, Daniel. Ethiopia in Pictures. Minneapoli, Minn.s: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.
Fradin, D. Ethiopia. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1988.
Gerster, Georg. Churches in Stone: Early Christian Art in Ethiopia. New York: Phaidon, 1970.