The Making of Addis Ababa and the Alienation of the Oromo
By Teferi Mergo (Prof.)* | December 2015
In a recent interview he gave to the Oromia Broadcasting Service (OBS), artist Sayyoo Daandanaa was asked what motivated him to write his now famous tune Boole. His eloquent response alluded to a poignant encounter he had while on a show-biz related trip to Eerar some years ago — an encounter that suggested to him that the alienation of the Oromo from their own land (Finfinnee) is so complete that they have grown to resent the city. Because of this alienation, the Oromo of Eerar (as he explained it) traveled to Sandaafaa for trading purposes, instead of going to Finfinnee, despite the latter’s clear favourability in terms of geographic proximity.
Eerar (misnamed Yerer by Amharic speakers) is located a few kilometers to the southeast of Bole Airport, and not too long ago, it used to be a rural community where certain members of the Tuulamaa Oromo lived in relative peace and harmony, earning an honest living cultivating their plots. I remember this Eerar, because I had been there, in more ways than one. I grew up in Finfinnee proper – in the so-called Doro Manaqiya Sefer (not very far from the old airport), and had made numerous excursions as a lad with my peers or cousins into the rural villages and communities that used to surround Finfinnee (Furii, Wacacaa, Eerar, Lagatafo etc.) – outings we relished, because it gave us opportunities to engage in boyhood mischief not approved by our parents (e.g. swimming in the areas’ rivers and streams). I still remember with great fondness the Eerar, the Wacacaa, the Furii and the Lagatafo of my younger days, where I felt liberated enough to speak Afaan Oromoo with the local people without “my buddies” making injurious comments about my language, my identity.
But, of course, the Eerer of yesteryear which offered me glimpses of what could be and should be, is no more. Today, it is a space where “white fences and manicured lawns surround the villas of an elegant housing estate … a potent symbol of the emerging elite in a country better known for drought and famine.” (Taste for luxury: Ethiopia’s new elite spur housing boom By AFP PUBLISHED: 07:28 GMT, 2 December 2015 | UPDATED: 07:29 GMT, 2 December 2015) I am well aware that the Ethiopian government is doing its utmost to promote a positive image of the country, trying to sell a narrative that it is overseeing an impressive expansion of the country’s GDP, with a promise of making Ethiopia a middle-income country by the year 2025. It turns out that Eerar and similar other spots in the vicinity of Finfinnee have become ground zero for this number-focused and image-heavy marketing strategy.
I am also aware of arguments some have made about the importance of integrated urban development in a country that aims to climb the development ladder. I currently teach Economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and have been making regular trips to Finfinnee to conduct empirical researches on economic development. I have thus a professional opinion of what is taking place around Finfinnee in the name of urban development, but leaving that for another piece (I will present a paper on this topic at the upcoming OSA Mid-year Conference at the London School of Economics), I want to recount a couple of my encounters during some of those research-related trips to the homeland, incidents that speak to the burning issue of our time – the alienation of the Oromo from their ancestral land.
The first one happened in the summer of 2010, when my wife and I went for a spin to one of those now virtually non-existent rural villages, largely out of curiosity to discover what has become of my boyhood stomping grounds. Needless to say, the transformation is devastatingly complete, as captured by the above mentioned article. On this trip, I wandered off the paved path (which is not out of character for me) without much resistance from my lovely wife, past the new developments, into what is left of the Eerar countryside, running into a young Oromo couple who were going about their business. I stopped to have a few words with them, to which they initially reacted with unmistakable agitation – which they couldn’t hide despite their best effort at composure. I don’t blame them, because they had been conditioned to be apprehensive of strangers, particularly the type that shows up at their doorstep, uninvited. Who knows they might have thought that I was one of the would-be “developers” of what are shaping up to be apartheid-like estates adorning their former farmlands.
The reaction I didn’t expect from the young couple, and one that will stay with me, is what happened next. When I greeted them in Afaan Oromoo, they looked at each other first, as if they were questioning what had just transpired, and then managed beautiful smiles that could not have been counterfeited – smiles of recognition, of understanding, and of identification. After the initial awkward moments, we exchanged a few words about mundane matters and parted, but the key story of the young couple of Eerar that I am trying to recount here, was communicated to me through their body language, and mostly with their eyes.
The second anecdote occurred during my most recent trip to Finfinnee in July and August of this year. Largely because we wanted my super-energetic four-year-old son to have convenient access to some facilities that can only be found in the city center, my family chose to stay in the Kazanchis area, in one of the high-rises recently built by one of the newly-minted instant millionaires. The property had a few gate-keepers (zebegnas, they call them in the local lexicon), three of whom are/were Oromo Abbaa Worraas from the local areas, into which Addis is currently expanding with blinding speed – displacing millions of farming families, exposing them to monumental socio-economic crises, with which they have been unfamiliar and ill-equipped to deal.
I was particularly struck by one of the gentlemen – an elderly man hailing from the Sabbata area – who gave me the distinct impression that he had seen better days, and was struggling to make sense of what is (in all likelihood) the last chapter of his life. I enjoyed talking with him whenever I had a chance, but I never pried too much for fear that perhaps overly intimate questions about his past might trigger unpleasant memories. I understood his fragile existence and respected his boundaries, but my daily encounters with him during those months reminded me of my own alienation, not unlike his and the young couple’s I attempted to describe above.
I was enrolled at a local school then known as Menen Asfaw under the name Biiftuu, a name my father gave me to signify that I was his first born. Once I discovered that some of my classmates were butchering my name intentionally, however, I asked my parents to give me a different name, but the request went nowhere, with my father deeming my entreaty a non-starter. Even though I liked school and I was a well-regarded kid among teachers and most of my peers mainly for academic reasons, it did not stop the system from brutalizing me because of my Oromo given name. Thus, without fully understanding the consequences of my actions, and under the worst of circumstances while my father was jailed by the brutal Dergue regime, I traded Bifftuu for Teferi – a name a close family friend (Aboy G/Egziabiher G/Medhin, RIP) gave me at my Christening – just to be able to fit into a system designed to alienate me from my identity.
Here is the moral of this narration: regardless of our stations in life, Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) has been a constant source of anguish for its rightful owners, the Oromo people. The city was founded on the gravesites of our forebears, decimating its original inhabitants – some of the clans of the Tuulamaa Oromo. Its growth and expansion have always come at the expense of Oromo identity, made possible only through diminishing the Oromo in every way – demographically, economically, politically, socially, psychologically, etc. It is demanding much more than we can afford to give, under the pretext of integrated urban development, and we have no option but to say: No, thanks!
I would like to end this piece with a now famous chant that is being heard throughout Oromia, loud and clear. Here is the English translation:
Our land: We were born here
We were raised here
We came of age here
We have raised our families here
Where should we go?
We shall be evicted no more!
* Teferi Mergo (Prof.) – Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Waterloo.