Monthly Archives: October 2013
(A4O, 26 October 2013) Many journalists and diplomats who attend events in Finfinnee’s gleaming new African Union building are probably unaware that it rests on the site of one of Ethiopia’s most notorious prisons. While that prison was torn down in 2007, its legacy of torture and abuse continues today at the heart of the capital.
Over the past year, I have spoken to dozens of people who were held in a detention centre called Maekelawi in central Addis. They described dire conditions and a range of abusive interrogation methods to extract information and confessions.
Since 2011, scores of high-profile individuals have been detained in Maekelawi under Ethiopia’s draconian anti-terrorism law, including journalists and opposition politicians, and held for months under the law’s lengthy pre-charge detention period as their “cases” are prepared for trial.
“Getachew,” a 22-year-old ethnic Oromo, was snatched from his university dorm, driven hundreds of kilometres to Addis Ababa, and locked up for eight months in Maekelawi. His parents were never informed of his whereabouts; he was never charged or given access to a lawyer; and never appeared before court. He was ultimately released on condition that he would work for the government.
Like Getachew, many of the people detained in Maekelawi over the past decade are political prisoners — arrested because of their ethnicity, their real or perceived political opinions and actions, or journalism work. Voicing peaceful dissent or criticism of government policy is increasingly risky.
In a new report, ‘They Want a Confession’: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station, Human Rights Watch documents how the police who run Maekelawi have tortured and ill-treated detainees during investigations. Former detainees held in the facility since 2010 described how investigators slapped, kicked, and beat them with batons and gun butts. Some were held in painful stress positions for hours upon end.
Some are held in solitary confinement for days or months. Getachew said he was held alone and shackled for five months: “When I wanted to stand up it was hard,” he told me. “I had to use my head, legs, and the walls to stand up.”
Those held in Maekelawi’s two worst detention blocks, nicknamed by residents Chalama Bet [dark house] and Tawla Bet [wooden house], described particularly dire conditions.
To make matters worse, investigators use access to basic facilities and needs to punish or reward detainees. Even access to the toilet can depend on the whim of the police, as Getachew explained: “I was only allowed to use the toilet once a day, although after two or three months, I was allowed twice… They want to get something, and either they get some evidence or they don’t.”
Access to daylight is also restricted; one person said that he was taken outside for just a few minutes three times in 42 days in the dark cells. Several former Chalama Bet detainees complained of lasting vision problems.
Detainees have also been denied access to their families and legal counsel, particularly those detained on politically motivated charges.
Former detainees described being forced, often while being verbally abused and beaten, to sign statements and confessions for crimes they did not commit. Sometimes the confessions are presented in court as evidence or used to put pressure on those released to support the government and ruling party, as in Getachew’s case.
Most recently, the prosecution submitted statements gathered in Maekelawi from prominent members of the country’s Muslim community who were charged under the anti-terrorism law in 2012 for organising peaceful protests. There is credible information that several of the defendants were mistreated in Maekelawi, making their statements questionable.
The fate of those passing through Maekelawi’s gates is largely unknown to the outside world. Tackling the regular abuses of the rights of political prisoners’ right in the heart of the capital requires first acknowledging the violations and then making a commitment to address the culture of impunity among security forces.
Ethiopia’s leaders should publicly state that torture and other ill treatment is prohibited, and should take concrete steps to hold to account those found responsible for these abuses.
Most important, the Ethiopian government should ensure that no one is ever arrested for exercising their basic rights, including by peacefully expressing their political opinions.
That means urgently overhauling Ethiopia’s draconian civil society and counter-terrorism laws. But change is unlikely to happen unless key regional actors such as the African Union, the African Commission on Human Rights Peoples’ Rights, and Ethiopia’s foreign donors make their concerns known.
Turning a blind eye to the abuses in the centre of Addis Ababa should no longer be an option.
Laetitia Bader is an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
(A4O, 20 October 2013) A Melbourne Oromo activist, Toltu Tufa, is driving an ambitious push to revitalise learning in her native African language. Social media is buzzing with positive responses to her efforts in reviving education in the once-doomed Oromo tongue.
According to SBS Tv reporter, Luke Waters, Toltu Tufa is a young lady with abundant energy and a clear objective. “My aim is to create Oromo educational resources for every child in every family in every home,” she says.
Frustrated at a lack of resources for Oromo language and culture classes, she created her own.
She says community input ensured images and information are culturally appropriate, relevant and effective
An internet presence is critical in reaching more of the estimated 40-million Oromo people globally, but Toltu says there are practicalities to consider.
“I think with on-line technology there is a real potential for this to catapult into something viral… something massive,” Toltu says.
“I also think there’s still room for the hard copy books because there are so many countries where people don’t have access to technology and don’t have access to internet and wi-fi.
A website spruiking the program was launched last week and the hits are already in the thousands.
But for Toltu it’s all about the classroom.
“More than the verbal response…it’s the physical response that I see in children when they see the products,” she says.
“Their eyes light up and they say, ‘wow this is something I’ve never seen before’.
“And looking at the parents, some of the parents have been quite emotional saying I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
But one response means more than most.
“I think one person that who reacted like that who touched me most deeply was my dad.”
And she says he’s played a key role.
“When it came to the Oromo language, the only person I had was my Dad,” Toltu says.
“The way he taught me was literally verbally.
“This is how we do things, this is how we speak, this is what the Oromo language is about.
“He taught me with pen and paper and growing up that’s what everybody else seemed to be doing.”
In broken English, Abdul-Wahab Tufa describes his pride for his daughter’s work, and memories of a time when the Oromo language was banned in Ethiopia.
“Yes, punishment…put in the jail make some problem some people death,” he says, describing the punishments that speaking the banned language could exact.
Toltu Tufa says it’s a privilege to have ensured the survival of a language for her father and community.
“I feel really lucky that I’ve got a tool that I can use to help grow what my Dad actually planted a very long time ago.
“I feel really, really privileged to be able to do that and to be able to do that with my community. (It’s) not just me saying, ‘Hey this is what I’ve got, how we going to make this work?’
“But everybody is giving me feedback and suggestions and (we’re) creating something together. That’s been the most special part for me.”
Now, Toltu’s seeking funding to roll the program out globally – but there are no flash cards or posters involved in this appeal.
She has taken to YouTube to send her message.
“Regardless of where you are in the world, let me know if you have what it takes and together lets pledge to preserve a language whose story needs to be told.”
(A4O, October 18, 2013) After extensive consultation, over several months, with various segments of Oromo society, a group of community leaders, human rights activists, feminists, journalists and attorneys who are committed to the principle of democracy, human rights, freedom and justice, formed the Madda Walaabuu Media Foundation (MWMF).
According to Ayyaantuu.com, the foundation is committed to creating relevant media outlets (website, radio, TV, etc.) for the purpose of elevating knowledge about the Oromo people and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa. “The MWMF media outlets will specifically focus on the flagrant human right violations – past and present – against the Oromo people and other marginalized nationalities in the region.”
The name “Madda Walaabuu” encapsulates the deepest meaning enshrined in Oromo democratic values as manifested in its democratic institutions – Gadaa, Qaalluu, Ateete, Jaarsummaa. In Oromo language, the word Madda means “source” and the word Walabuu means “independence” and hence, the founders of MWMF adopted the name Madda Walaabuu to embody the essence of these values in this new critical initiative.
MWMF is a non-governmental, non-partisan, and non-profit organization, incorporated and registered in Washington, D. C., USA. It is operated by board of directors and administrative staff under the direction of Executive Director. The MWMF media outlets are run by experienced journalists. It is a membership based organization, which seeks the support and participation of all interested and committed Oromo and all persons of goodwill who have the desire to empower the Oromo, so that they can confront the 21st century in their own terms.
The Oromo, although constitute the most populace nationality in the Horn and Sub-Saharan Africa, – there are about 50 million Oromo in the region – have remained the invisible majority due to the legacy of conquest, colonization, and continued marginalization. At the present time, the Oromo people do not have access to any source of independent media, which has the capacity to inform, educate them about their basic needs and their fundamental rights. MWMF believes that having access to independent media is an essential requirement for the survival of any indigenous nation in the 21st Century.
MWMF is committed to creating relevant media outlets (website, radio, TV, etc.) for the purpose of elevating knowledge about the Oromo people and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa. The MWMF media outlets will specifically focus on the flagrant human right violations – past and present – against the Oromo people and other marginalized nationalities in the region. It will also work towards making people aware of their environment and social concerns like education, health and others. It proposes to engage the Oromo at home and abroad relative to the issues, which will have profound impact on their future.
In addition, it proposes to engage Oromo neighbors regarding common interests and common strategies in facing the 21stcentury. It will engage Oromo community leaders, human rights activities, journalists, feminists and scholars in promoting Oromummaa and Oromo national unity.
(A4O, 15 October 2013) Afaan’s campaign to revolutionise the way ‘Afaan Oromo’ is taught to young children begins in November 2013. Supporters can get involved in the November campaign by creating awareness on social media, hosting a fundraiser event, or pledging financial support towards Afaan’s campaign to revitalise a once hidden language.
The historical development of Written Afan Oromo and reasons for using Latin Script to Write Afan Oromo*
The Development of Written Afan Oromo
Afan Oromo is the second widely spoken indigenous language in Africa south of the Sahara (Mekuria,1994; Mohammed,1994). Afan Oromo is widely spoken in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somali, Sudan and Tanzania (Tilahun, 1993). Besides, Afan Oromo has long history of and well developed oral tradition. Despite of this and the size of its speakers as well as its value as widely spoken language in the Horn of Africa, it remained as unwritten language for long period of time. As Tilahun (2006:113) stated “Until recently, Afan Oromo remained an oral rather than literary language.” This is because of different factors.
Factors that Delayed the Development of Written Afan Oromo
Different interrelated factors have been forwarded by scholars for the delayed and clumsy transition of Afan Oromo from oral to written language. For example, Tilahun (2006) indicated that the transition was mainly delayed by Political reason. He further stated that rather than promoting the development of the language, the past governments of Ethiopia discouraged the use of Afan Oromo even from private conversations. Under the consecutive imperial as well as the dictatorial regimes of Ethiopia, writing in other natives languages of “Ethiopia” except Amharic is strictly forbidden. Supporting this, Mohammed (1994:86) stated “— it was not permissible, to write, preach, teach and broadcast in the Oromo language in Ethiopia until the early 1970s.”
Other linguistic groups are forced to read and write in Amharic by forgetting their own. The Ethiopian governments had neglected and actively suppressed the development of Oromo literature and other groups whose native language is not Amharic. For this reason, Afan Oromo today lacks a developed literature and has less printed materials (Mekuria, 1994: Mohammed,1994 ; Feyisa,1996). In addition to the prohibition of learning and writing in Afan Oromo by law by the past Ethiopian rulers, Feyisa (1996) mentioned different factors that impede the development of written Afan Oromo such as lack of trained linguists in the language, lack of Afan Oromo training Academy and lack of suitable scripts. Further, Tilahun (2006) argued the factors could be subsumed under political factor.
Despite the political suppression on the development of Afan Oromo, the Oromos at home and Diaspora, and other interested individuals did not simply accept the suppression condition and look the situation as it is. Rather they made different attempts at home and abroad to overcome the condition and contribute their own share to development of written Afan Oromo (Feyisa, 1996). For example, Tilahun (1996:131) said” Since the early 1970s, Oromo nationalists and scholars have made tremendous effort to develop it as a literary language.” In addition, before a decade or more, Afan Oromo has been written for various purpose using different scripts such as Arabic, Ethiopic as well as Roman scripts (Hayward and Mohammed, 1981).
Attempts to Write in Afan Oromo by the Oromo People
The history of written Afan Oromo was started in the first part 19th century. Religion especially Christian and Muslim and Oromo scholars played a pivotal role in the development of Afan Oromo literature and writing system. With this regard, Mekuria(1994:91) noted that “Oromo religious leaders and scholars have attempted to make Afan Oromo a literate language. In1950s, an attempt was also made to develop an alphabet suitable to Oromo sounds.” The next section illustrates attempts made to develop written Afan Oromo.
Feyisa(1996) and Tafari (1999) stated that the first attempt to write in Afan Oromo was made by Oromo themselves and the first script used was Arabic. This was come to existence through the expansion of religion, especially Musilm among the Oromos. Tafari(1999:113) stated that “After long period of Islamic education and Arabic literacy, the idea of using Arabic alphabet for Oromo language was raised.” There are different to examples to support this.
Concerning the use of Arabic script to write Afan Oromo, Feyisa(1996) illustrated that Wallo Oromo have used the Arabic Alphabet to write religious poetry in Afan Oromo. Feyisa further explained that since the beginning of 19th Century Afan Oromo was used as a correspondence among all the Oromo kings and it was language of education in five Jimma States and in Wallo. In addition, the Muslim Oromos in Arsi, Bale and Hararghe areas used Arabic script to write Afan Oromo. The Arabic alphabet was used basically to write religious poems and praise poems for the Muslim saints. With this regard, Tafari(1999) mentioned that scholars such as Sheikh Ahmed Siraji, Sheikh Mohammad Asi Haba and Sheikh Mohammed Aliy Ta’oo used Arabic script and composed religious poem and different materials in Afan Oromo. Thus, it can be said that Arabic language and Islamic education made great contribution for the development of written Afan Oromo, at least in its early beginning. But the unsuitability of the alphabet to Oromo language is believed to limit the expansion of written Afan Oromo in 19th Century (Tafari,1999).
Attempts to Write in Afan Oromo by Foreign Scholars
In addition to the attempts of Oromo people, foreign scholars write Afan Oromo using different scripts. According to Feyisa(1996) Bruce, a Scottish traveler, is the first European who collected a few words and develop sentence structure in Afan Orom using Latin script. After Bruce, various European scholars, who kept in touch with Oromo in Africa and Europe and working with them, were interested to study Afan Oromo and attempted to write Afan Oromo in Latin as well as Ethiopic scripts.
One of the attempts to write Afan Oromo was made by Ludwig Krapf. He came to Ethiopia for missionary activity and latter, he was highly interested to study and write about Afan Oromo (Krapf,1840). On his way to Showa(around 1839), he met several Oromo’s and gathered some information on Afan Oromo, culture and religion(Mekuria,1994). Krapf recognized the importance of Afan Oromo for missionary purpose in Northeast Africa. For this reason,, he was interested to study Afan Oromo after he arrived at the court of the king of Showa. While at the court of’ the Shoan king, Krapf began to study Afan Oromo with the assistance of his servant. Hence, Krapf studied Afan Oromo in its natural surroundings. Then, he published a book in 1840. In his book, Krapf specifically focused on the script that should be used to write the language and he described the situation that exists before the beginning of his writing as follows: Whereas the [Oromos] are in want of letters, the choice of Alphabet for their language depends on who first begins to write it. If the writer be a native of Abyssinia, he will no doubt choose a form of letters from his own alphabet [Ethiopic or Geez]: and many Abyssinia, in fact, on seeing me occupied with the study of [Oromo] language, endeavored to persuade me to adopt the Ethiopic character (Krapf,1940:20).
From the quotation, one can understand that Afan Oromo had no one decided script of writing and selection of the scripts depends on the first who began to write it. However, if the Abyssinia (Amhara and Tigre) starts the writing, he/she will use Ethiopic script for writing Afan Oromo. Krapf also disclosed that the Abyssinia people attempted to convince to make him use of Ethiopic Alphabet after they were aware that Krapf was interested to study Afan Oromo. This shows that the suppression on Afan Oromo was started long years ago. But Krapf(1840) reported that he did not follow the advice given to him. His Justification was that” —because the Ethiopic Characters present great difficulty to writing as well as to memory” (Krapf, 1840: 21).
Further, Feyisa(1996:22)stated that”—he [Krapf] observed a number of problems with the use of Geez script to write in Oromiffa[Afan Oromo]. Through trial and error, Krapf discovered that Geez was unsuitable for writing Oromiffa. He noted that Geez alphabet does not include some of the major phonological distinctions in Oromiffa and fails to express some particular sounds in it.” To solve the perceived limitation of Ethiopic alphabet, Krapf used the Roman script to write Afan Oromo.
In addition to the early attempts made by the Oromo themselves and the Europeans described above, various Oromo scholars attempted to developed and adapt the script of Afan Oromo suitable for writing the language. Among these, the works of two Oromos namely Sheikh Bakri Saphalo and Onesimos Nasib, are worth mentioning. These scholars contribute their own share for and played great role in the development of written Afan Oromo. Below an attempt is made to show how they attempted to developed the writing system of Afan Oromo.
The Contribution of Onesmosi Nasib to the Development of Afan Oromo Writing
Onesimosi translated different materials to Afan Oromo. Mekuria(1994:94) mentioned the works of Onesimos saying “Onesimos wrote and/ or translated most of them between 1885 and 1898. During those thirteen years, he translated seven books, two of them with Aster Ganno. He also compiled an Oromo-Swedish Dictionary of some 6,000 words.” However, the translation of The Bible to Afan Oromowas the most significant contribution made by Onesimos. According Mekuria(1994), his translation of the Scriptures is regarded by historians and linguists as a great intellectual feat and a remarkable accomplishment for a single individual.
Further, Feyisa(1996:22) explained the contribution of Onesmos Nasib by saying” He was a real pioneer in Oromiffa literature. His translation using the Geez alphabet with an additional glottal letter for ‘dh’ is still the standard work in the field, and without doubt he was a father of Oromiffa literature.” He wrote Afan Oromo in Ethiopic script.
The Contribution of Sheik Bakri Sapalo to the Development of Afan Oromo Writing
According to Hayward and Mohammed (1981), Sheikk Bakri was a prolific writer. Starting from his early teaching, he began to write in Afan Oromo. In addition to this, he invented an indigenous Oromo alphabet (Feyisa,1996). The development of the indigenous alphabet is said to have taken place during 1956, at the village of Haii. Hayward and Mohammed (1981:553) described his invention as ”It does seem highly likely that Shaykh Bakri was the first Oromo who saw clearly the problems inherent in attempting to write the Oromo language by means of orthographic systems which had been devised primarily for other languages.” He was interested to develop an indigenous alphabet in that he had strong nationalistic aspiration and felt that possessing glorious historical traditions and a uniquely democratic society, lacking a means of writing as a great problem. Feyisa(1996:22) stated that” He devised scripts an indigenous and original system of writing as part of his attempt to overcome problems of orthography in writing Oromiffa. He devised scripts which were different in forms , but followed the symbol-sounds forming patterns of Geez system.”
Having developed the alphabet, the Sheik Sapalo taught it to all his students and to others as well. Then, people began to exchange letters in the new alphabet. In addition to letters, Sheik Bakri himself employed his alphabet for writing his poems and other works, and manuscripts of these are also reported to be in existence. It is claimed that there are still people who can use it.
After the news of the development of the scrip of Afan Oromo was spread rapidly, it encountered negative reaction from the officials of the area. Nevertheless, Sheik Bakir Sapalo continued to use his own alphabet for writing. Hence, Sheik Bakir contributed his own share in the development of Afan Oromo writing by developing unique script.
The Adoption of Latin Script, Qubee, as Formal Orthography of Afan Oromo
As described the preceding section, Afan Oromo has been written for different purposes using different scripts by various individuals. During the previous governments, Afan Oromo was not used as a medium of instruction. However, after1970s the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) began to use it as official language in the librated areas (Tilahun, 1993).In addition, after 1991, it was proclaimed that the native languages can be used as medium of instruction as well as can be studied as a subject of a study. Thus, there is a need to develop one formal script that can be used by all speakers of the language uniformly. Around 1970s both Sabean and Latin were suggested to be the scripts of Afan Oromo.
During this time, Mengistu partially lifted the ban on the use of Afan Oromo and allowed the use of Sebean script (Tilahun,1993). However, in November 1991, five months after the downfall of Mengistu, OLF called Oromo scholars and intellectuals a general meeting. Tilahun(1993:36) described the objective and the participants of the meeting as “The purpose of the meeting was to adopt the Latin script that OLF had been using or suggest an alternative. Over 1000 men and women attended the historic meeting which met in the Parliament Building in Finfinnee.” After long hours of the discussion, it was decided that the Latin script was to be adopted. There are different reasons for the adoption of Latin script. However, the major ones are linguistic, pedagogical and practical reasons.
The first was linguistic reason
On the meeting, Sebean script was suggested as an alternative. However, it was agued that its roughly 250 characters are too clumsy to adapt to Afan Oromo. Tilahun also indicated the weakness to adopt Sabean saying” It must also be added that the Sabean syllabary not only fails to indicate vowel length and germination, but also slows down a writer’s speed since each symbol, which cannot be written cursively, must be printed.”(1993:37). Afan Oromo, excluding those sounds represented by P,V,Z, has 34 basic sounds (10 vowels and 24 consonants). Thus, for linguistic reason, it was decided that the Latin alphabet be adapted to Afan Oromo.
The second one is pedagogical reason
According to Tilahun (1993), the 37 characters (or 34+ P,V,Z) can be learned in less than a month. In fact, only 32 symbols (minus the 5 double vowels) need to be recognized. For an Oromo learning these signs and sounds they represent, the task is even much easier It may take a non-Oromo a little longer because producing the sounds-especially those not found in his/her language-takes time.
Practical reason is the third reason for the adoption of Latin script
Latin script was adapted to many languages of world. Thus, Qube Afan Oromo aligned itself with the so many countries of the world that use Latin script. For example, one practical advantage that is an Oromo child who has learned his own alphabet can learn the form of the English script in a relatively short period of time. Another practical reason is that its alphabetic writing’s adaptability to computer technology (Tilahun,1993). To sum up, the decision to adapt Latin Script as the writing alphabet of Afan Oromo was made by talking the above three main reasons into consideration. Subsequently, Afan Oromo was made the medium of instruction for elementary level and administration in Oromiya.(Mekuria,1994). After the adoption, different textbooks and other useful reading materials began to be published by the new alphabet. In September 1993, school instruction was legally launched in Afan Oromo for the first time. Hence, the use of Latin Script for Afan Oromo writing is based on scientific evidence.
* This article is abridged from the article written to respond for political allegation based on scientific evidences.
In July 2007 in Minneapolis, the Oromo Youth Leadership Conference discussed how to promote Oromo cultural identity. After the conference, several of the participants—including myself—proposed the creation of a new Oromo webzine that would feature poetry, fiction, visual arts, fashion, interviews with musicians, essays on culture, and more. As we first imagined it, the goal of our webzine was to contribute to an event that hasn’t fully happened yet—the Oromo Renaissance. Coincidentally, unknown to us when we began our project, the Oromo playwright Dhaba Wayessa was thinking along similar lines. He recently wrote, “As we all aspire to participate in the Oromo cultural renaissance, we need to nurture and develop our magnificent cultural traditions so that our children may embrace and carry them forward as an essential part of their lives,” and this March, he began raising money in Washington D.C. and Minneapolis for a new film project, Halkan Dorrobaa. Also unknown to us when we began, another Oromo intellectual, Asafa Jalata, concluded his new book Oromummaa with an essay that encourages the Oromo to learn from the political projects of other black communities, namely the Harlem Renaissance.
Clearly, something is in the air. And something important is on the horizon. But what? What will an Oromo Renaissance look like? It is difficult to write about the future, especially from the perspective of an outsider—as I am obviously not myself an Oromo—but that is precisely the task of my essay. To accomplish this task, I will raise three questions: (1) What is the meaning of the word “renaissance” and what sort of project does it entail? (2) What is the usefulness of comparing one cultural renaissance such as the Oromo Renaissance to another such as the Harlem Renaissance? and (3) Is there something new about the twenty-first century that would make the formation of a cultural renaissance today different from earlier ones. As I am not myself an Oromo, I do not claim to have any answers to these questions. I can only offer the readers of this new webzine Ogina my expertise as a professor of English and American literature.
I raise these three open-ended questions in part because of a vague uneasiness I observed being expressed at the OYLC. Many of the Oromo living in Diaspora feel disconnected from their cultural roots and have developed attachments to other forms of culture (e.g., American hip hop, American consumer culture, western universities, Lutheran churches, and Muslim mosques.) However, there is a profound desire to reconnect creatively and imaginatively. For instance, around the same time that the editors of Ogina were thinking about creating this webzine, two other individuals—Roba Geleto and Gity Teressa—created an “Oromo Art and Poetry” group on the on-line networking tool FaceBook to “unleash the beauty of Oromia throughout our imaginations” in a way that would transcend the political and religious differences within the Oromo community. The FaceBook group includes poetry written in both English and Afan Oromo as well as links to YouTube videos of hip hop by the Oromo artist Epidemic the Virus who lives in Toronto. What is notable here is how Oromo youth are already exploring their cultural identity through a hybrid of American and Oromo poetic forms. At the same time, however, many Oromo youth have been long dissatisfied with the political rhetoric of their elders who assert a simplistic and often jingoistic image of Oromo-ness, or Oromummaa. The editors of this new webzine Ogina want to follow the advice of scholars such as Mekuria Bulcha and Asafa Jalata by not simply asserting a nostalgic sense of what it means to be Oromo. Instead, they want to honestly and courageously explore the strange paradoxes and deeply felt contradictions of real, lived experience—their culture in a globalized world.
With the goals of the editors of Ogina in mind, I want mention something I noticed when I first mentioned “Oromo literature” to the several of the older generation of Oromo scholars and journalists. They seemed to think that I was interested in old Oromo folk tales, when what I was really interested in was the possibility of something new—an Oromo novel set in the present. And I mention these divergent senses of the word “literature” because there is more at stake in these two very different emphases than mere idle speculation. There is money and the question of what to use it for. The Oromo community financially supports scholars at universities both in Oromia and in the U.S., Sweden, and elsewhere who research and recuperate the cultural and political history of the Oromo, but as far as I could tell, no money was being used to support young literary talent. This, of course, is important to me not just because I am a teacher of literature, but also because it is well known to historians that the African-American literature in the 1920s significantly helped to enable the Civil Rights movement. That the literature, music, and art of the Harlem Renaissance were important to the Civil Rights movement is obvious. Both of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson—were also novelists. And we also know that much of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance could not have been written without a significant injection of money and support from various organizations, such as churches and the Communist Party of the U.S.A. Theorists and scholars of civil rights movements all over the world have long appreciated the role of magazines, novels, poetry, and theater not only for galvanizing a political community but also for exploring the ethical dilemmas and problems faced by that community. So, at first, I thought that the Oromo living in Diaspora should really be using their limited financial resources to focus on the present and the future, not the past.
But when I thought further, I began to think about it differently. Literally, the word “renaissance” means “rebirth,” and so one of the peculiar aspects of a renaissance—any renaissance—is that it is simultaneously a looking back and a looking forward. For example, at the time of the English Renaissance in the 16th century, England was not yet a “nation” in the modern sense of what a nation is. Looking ahead to England’s new imperial future, poets such as Edmund Spencer invented a mythic past dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. In other words, England’s “rebirth” was not just about becoming something new or different, but a metaphorical renewal of the past. The same is true of the American Renaissance in the early 19th century following the Revolutionary War. And likewise, many writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s recuperated an African-American folk tradition. So, this renewal of the past—sometimes based in truth, but often also imaginatively invented out of scarce archival resources—was important for the African-American project of self-liberation.
Not only did these three renaissances re-imagine their cultural history, but their poets and scholars worked hard to institutionalize a national language. Alongside the English Renaissance came the first Bible in English and later the first English dictionary. When one looks at the spellings of words and names in English before 17th century, there seems to be no consistency to them. Even the famous playwright William Shakespeare spelled his own name different ways. Similarly, perhaps you have noticed how some words in Qubee seem to have several spellings. Considering that public use of Qubee only began in 1991, this is not surprising. It took the English more than one hundred years to systematize their written language. And the institutionalization of a national language and culture was not unique to the English Renaissance. Alongside the American Renaissance came the first American-English dictionary made by Noah Webster and a state sponsored elementary education system. And though the Harlem Renaissance did not produce a “dictionary” in the usual sense of that word, its poets and novelists experimented with how to represent the uniqueness of “black” English, and linguists and teachers later developed something called Ebonics. The Oromo today find themselves in a similar situation as the English in the 17th century, the Americans in the 19th century, and the African-Americans in the 20th century. For almost one hundred years, the Ethiopian state made it illegal to publish or teach in Qubee. Only since 1991 have people in Oromia been able to publish books and go to school in their own language. And, among the children growing up in Diaspora, there is a powerful desire to learn their own language. For instance, there is a young man in Norway named Siraj (a.k.a. kEnna, Or abUmbraL), who is currently busy trying to program iPods and iPhones in Afan-Oromo.
And so, obviously, what motivates the Oromo elders to recuperate their cultural history is the fact that not just their culture but even their very language had been suppressed for so long. I will not spend time in this essay on that history as many Oromo scholars have already described it in considerable detail, such as Sisai Ibssa, Bonnie Holcomb, Asafa Jalata, Mekuria Bulcha, and Asmarom Legesse, just to name the authors I have had a chance to read. There are certainly more, and I assume that all readers of this essay know already (far better than I do) the effects of Ethiopian state violence on Oromo language, culture, and sense of self. Likewise, their children, growing up in the U.S.A., Canada, England, Australia, Sweden, Kenya, and Somalia, struggle to understand their cultural roots, a culture that sometimes even their parents have difficulty articulating except through other institutions such as the church or the mosque.
However, no renaissance can simply be a nostalgic looking back at a past only dimly recollected. And so, the novelists, poets, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance also dramatized their present condition as well as imagined a brighter future. They invented the new musical form of jazz by blending together musical forms from Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Their writers borrowed the traditional European forms of prose and poetry but changed them in order to express their own way of speaking, feeling, and thinking. They were inventive, playful, and experimental.
Thus, the second question of this essay is a comparative one. The Italian and English Renaissance writers looked to the ancient cities of Athens, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Baghdad for inspiration and knowledge, and they even imagined direct cultural linkages. Likewise, the Harlem Renaissance looked everywhere for inspiration, from German philosophy and literature to French modernist art to ancient African traditions. At the same time, of course, these renaissances also paid attention to how they differed from all other cultural traditions and trajectories—above all, they asserted their uniqueness. And what made them unique was their heritage. For the Oromo writer today, that heritage is called Oromummaa. Interestingly, if one reads carefully Jalata’s book Oromummaa and Legesse’s book Oromo Democracy, one notices that they are describing two things at once. They are describing the unique heritage of the Oromo people, but they are describing it in the supposedly “universal” terms of democracy and human rights. So, just as a renaissance is simultaneously a looking back and a looking forward, it is also simultaneously a celebration of its uniqueness and its universality. Is this not an energizing paradox?
Today, no Oromo man or woman can help but notice the globalized nature of his or her own culture. Musicians have adopted western electronic instruments. Hip hop is popular not only among Oromo youth in the United States but also in Oromia. And this cultural hybridity is nothing new. Not only did the revolutionary culture of the 1960s and 70s borrow heavily from Russian and Chinese Marxism, but so too were its popular music and even the hairstyles (e.g., the Afro) a mixture of local and global cultural forms. Moreover, the Oromo know that their future has been—and continues to be—affected by the politics of the United Nations and other global institutions as well as the economics of multinational corporations. That is why they have become involved with fair-trade coffee co-ops such as Equal Exchange, the first company in the United States to market a coffee with the name Oromia. And so, the Oromo have always deeply understood the necessity of making connections to people and cultures outside their own community. In other words, they have always understood that to achieve political freedom and to end the injustice of their oppression, they have felt the need to demonstrate the injustice of their situation to a world audience.
Hence, like the English, American, and Harlem renaissances before it, the Oromo Renaissance today will have two different audiences. One will be the Oromo community itself, but the other will be the international community. Therefore, just as within their ethnic community, Oromo artists adapt non-Oromo art forms, so too, beyond their community, artists hope to secure a place for themselves in a global culture. This attention to the “cultures of globalization” and the multinational publishing corporations that produce “world literature,” however, presents us with another paradox. And the paradox is this: in order to achieve their cultural integrity, the Oromo are finding that they must look outside their own culture.
And this paradox leads to the third question of this essay, and that is the question of the 21st century. What is novel about the Oromo Renaissance—and perhaps any cultural renaissance of the 21st century—is its location. Unlike the renaissances of Europe, America, and Harlem, the Oromo Renaissance is happening not just in one location, but in a state of Diaspora. Although all renaissances have historically emerged out of a dialogue between a local culture and a world culture, in the past they have typically been rooted in metropolitan centers such as Venice, London, and New York. In contrast, the Oromo Renaissance is an event that has no single center but is happening everywhere. It is happening in the U.S.A., Canada, England, Australia, Kenya, Somalia, Sweden, Norway, and even in Cyberspace as well as within the political state of Ethiopia. Therefore, the artists of the Oromo Renaissance, both young and old, are paying close attention to something truly wonderful—just how profoundly new their situation actually is.
*Steven W. Thomas is an assistant professor of English literature at The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota. He has published scholarly articles on eighteenth-century literature and on twenty-first century globalization.
Tesfaye Gebreab: The man who created the first Oromo main character in the history of the vast Amharic literature.
By Hunde Dhugassa*
Asmarom Legesse is an anthropologist, Ph.D. Harvard, Emeritus Professor, formerly of Boston and North-western Universities and Swarthmore College. He has conducted many years of field research among the Oromo of Ethiopia and Kenya. He is the author of several books including, Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System. He also wrote Gadaa: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society (1973). He is one of the few non-Oromo Hero to the Oromo people. We have dozens of articles, high level speeches and even Songs to honour his outstanding contribution.
After three decades, a young enthusiastic writer Tesfaye Gebreab emerged with “Yeburqa Zimita” a semi-historical novel surrounding the reflection and reaction of the Oromo people on the century old marginalization, discrimination and suppression which dates back to the annexation of the Oromo land by King Minilik II in the late 1890’s with the advice and logistical support of the then European leaders.
The book in general has resulted in at least three opinion groups as far as Ethiopian audiences are concerned. The majority who think he did what he have to do as a responsible author. The second group who think the book is correct in all aspect but fear the detailed revelation of the facts might hinder future and continued coexistence. There is also a minority third group who think he is a destabilizing agent commissioned by these who don’t like the Ethiopian unity.
The Oromo nation is one of the indigenous peoples of East Africa. Throughout long history it has developed its own culture, identity, religious cult and ritual performances. Irrecha means literally worshiping and praying to the Waaqa (Creator).
The Melbournians Oromo gather together at riverbanks and thank the Creator for past rains and ask for sustained weather and crops, for children to grow, for the sick to heal and for fraternity to prevail among human beings.
Melbourne based blogger of Far.From.Africa, Marion Cabanes, writes on her facebook timeline, “…I was invited by the Oromo Community (from present-day Ethiopia) to celebrate Ireechaa (‘Thanksgiving’) where Muslims and Catholics gathered to pay tribute to their god living in all parts of nature. Men explained how their women are powerful and respected in the community.”
A Melbourne-based human rights activist and freelance writer, Siinqee Wesho, reports the event to Opride.com.
As seen elsewhere, on Sep. 29, the Australian Oromo Community in Melbourne gathered at the Footscray Park and river to celebrate Irreecha. Their heart raced as if to catch the moving wind, their face radiated as if to outshine the sun, they all smiled and greeted each other from distances until they meet and hugged each other tightly and fondly. Nostalgia about the serenity and calmness of home set in.
At the Footscray Park, slightly damp green and evenly trimmed grass rose an inch above the ground. The morning’s mild wind propelled the leaves of various trees from left to right graciously. The Ixora and Bogenia shone brightly to reflect the onset of spring and the Footscray River stayed calm as if unaware of the activities around it.
South American drummers beat their drums uninterrupted, a group of Africans fried tender BBQ, and others simply basked in the sun while a curious few joined in the Irreecha festivities. Much of the park’s cosmos maintained its disorganized balance but the hearts of Oromo Melbournians beat erotically with excitement – as if the auspicious day was a therapy for their trauma for the loss of home, culture, and ways of being.
The green park was covered by the rainbow color of Oromia’s dress codes. Children run around showing off their Qoloo and Callee while women’s beads sparkled from their necks and foreheads. Men superbly dressed in Kumaala andBullukko (top wears) holding Bokkuu decorated in the colors of Faajjii Walaabuu.
Women holding their Siinqee and Coqorsaa (a bunch of thick untrimmed grass) led the crowd to the riverbank whilst chanting songs of prayers and thanksgiving. The crowd followed by repeating the chorus slowly behind. Once at the pointed creek, the elders explained the official Irreefanna procedure.
This involved elders from the Borana tribe; the Angafaas led the awaiting crowd with Eebba or blessings. Everyone dipped the Irreessa inside the water as the prayers went on.
The elders later explained, while dipping this grass in the water, one’s heart and mind has to forget worldly evil and focus on the good. This was a tender moment of forgiveness, thanksgiving, and gratitude for the bounties of Waaqa.
Once this was done, the public joyously exchanged greetings more as follows:
“Baga furdaa (bacaqii) gannaa baatanii booqaa birraa argitan, akkasuma kan hortanii horattan mara wajjiin saddeetni sadeetattii isiniif haa naannawu .” This roughly translates to Merry Spring and thanksgiving. May Waaqa bless your wealth and belongings throughout the Gadaa cycle.
The BBQ chops replaced the sheep that would be slaughtered in Oromo homes or festival places such asHulluqqoo in Borana and Hora Arsadi. Freshly roasted coffee filled the air and ushered in the Ragadaa, Shaggooyyee, Tirrii and Dhiichisa songs from around Oromia.
Young and old, men and women were drunk in celebration. A small group huddled together to recall something of Irreessa back home while others listened dreamily and intently.
As the sun sat over Melbourne, elders gave the final blessing to conclude the festivities on this significant day. For the first time in Melbourne, an aftermath party that was hosted by the Melbourne Oromo youth and notable musicians like Jawe Bora entertained the crowd till late night.
Far away from Oromia, the Oromo diaspora community eagerly expressed their longing for home in the best way possible. This was their way of saying: Aadaa bareeda qabna hin jiru ka keenna gituu, seenaa bareeda qabna hin jiru ka keenna gituu…yaa Oromoo kumnillee hin bitu.