On the Power of Phrases
This article, penned by H. Q. Loltu, was first published on The Kindling Point, an occasional print that was active in the 1980s to be a voice for historically marginalized people.
When I declared my own personal independence from Ethiopia, all I had to do was tell my friends and acquaintances to start referring to me as an Oromo. Abyssinians had their own special curse word for their longtime mortal enemies who recently became their slaves; that word was “Galla.” What is unbelievable is that they were able to get the world also to call us “Gallas” for almost a hundred years. If you go to the card catalog of any library, you find the word “Galla” to refer to my people instead of Oromo. But you cannot find anyone living on the land who will use that word to refer to himself. It has always been an insult for Oromos.
The closest thing that I can think of that is as strong as “Galla” is the American word “nigger.” Can you imagine a European coming to the United States in the 1800’s and going around the plantation with the master observing the situation and then writing a report on “Niggers in America”? That is exactly what has been happening inside the Ethiopian empire ever since the Abyssinians conquered the Oromo republic in the 1890’s, cut it into pieces, and made its citizens their tenants. This happened after they got their hands on Remington rifles. The word Oromo and the greatest democratic tradition on the African continent, Gada, were replaced by an institutionalized insult: “Galla,” and a network of suspicious landlords and police. They carried those Remington rifles everywhere and their spy network reported on any “uppity Galla.”
Any son of a slave (“ Galla”) who went to school had to prove how deserving he was to be going into the armed stronghold, the town, which was really foreign territory to him, and to be learning the language of the conquerors. He was taught that this government by armed men was called “Ethiopia” and he was told that it was the greatest African empire on the earth. He had to memorize the geneology of its conquering generals and kings. He learned that the “Gallas” had been horrible savages and ruthless killers who were sent out on bloodthirsty missions and carried home the genitals of their victims. He was taught that the “Gallas” had a heathen culture that had to be destroyed for the good of mankind. It was the job of all educated “Gallas” to help replace those pagan traditions with Amhara culture and substitute this primitive language with Amharic.
I was one of these educated. It was our privilege to be a part of this civilizing process. It seems amazing now, but many of us accepted the assignment. Schoolchildren like myself became ashamed to admit that we had anything to do with these horrible “Galla” people. Most of us accepted Amharic names and tried to pass for Abyssinian. When I think of what proof they tried to give us about the culture of “Gallas” and how they behaved, I remember that teachers used to read from old Amhara monks’ diaries and from the position papers written by the Emperor’s scribes which were meant to justify the massive killings by Abyssinian kings of neighboring peoples. The stories did not match with what my grandfather had told me about the Oromos. These school lessons did not match what I knew when I was growing up in the Oromo countryside about the way our lives were organized around the concept of peace and reconciliation. But that did not occur to me then.
It has occurred to me now. It has occurred to a great number of Oromos that our very own history has been written by other people. It is not a new thing on the African continent for the history of a people to be written by their conquerors. Coming out of darkness about one’s own past has always been part of the process of liberation.
Everyone recognizes that this kind of national liberation is a battle of all the people together. But it is also a difficult personal battle for the educated ones. Our battles do not take place on the battlefields; the ammunition that disables us is words. For us, a single phrase can be more powerful than a bullet. It can go straight to the heart and make a person weak with terror. It can go to the brain, scramble thoughts. A phrase or a label can silence a person completely. It can make him impotent. Our conquerors built up a huge arsenal of potent phrases to use against us every time we showed interest, sympathy, or pride in our own tradition, and they took a shot at us every chance they got. They still do.
When I think of the times that I was silenced by a single word or phrase, it amazes me. All someone had to do was suggest that I might be a “separatist,” or an “extremist,” and I shut my mouth. I was simply terrified of being “misunderstood” and losing my “friends.” If someone labeled me, it had the same effect as if he had put a bullet in my brain at close range. One difference: If I had been shot, no one could possibly suggest that I was silent because I was fine and everything satisfactory.
For me to decide to call myself an Oromo and to insist that all others call me an Oromo was my moment of truth. You may think that it is just a small thing. But for me it was war. It was easier for me with strangers met at parties. When I decided to draw a line for my old school friends and Ethiopian social acquaintances not to cross, I knew had reached a point of no return. It took me a long time to work up the courage. At first, I reduced my contact with many friends, saying that I was busy and out of town. In that time I was reading everything I could find on Ethiopia and Oromo, all with a new perspective.
Finally, after a long period, an Ethiopian friend called me on the Ethiopian New Year. I decided to respond.
“Hello, Happy New Year! It has been a long time since you disappeared. Let’s celebrate together anyway and catch up with each other.”
“Hi. What is it that you are celebrating?”
“It is our new year.”
“Ours?” I asked. But I agreed to go.
When I arrived at the restaurant, two more Ethiopians were there. It is what I expected. None of them ever talked to me about politics or anything controversial when we were alone, but when everyone got together, then each one individually got brave. I have always been the one who felt that I had to prove myself and my loyalty by repeating their ideas with more force than they used. I would be the first to say something negative or to condemn the Gallas who wanted to make trouble. It was done to avoid being categorized. Tonight would be different.
At the dinner, it was not long until they detected the change in me, my unwillingness to do as before. Then came the test. “Well, how about the Tigray victories these days? And some of the Gallas are saying that they are a colony?”
I said that I thought the Tigrayans had a legitimate question of democracy which they are entitled to. “As for the Gallas, why do I have to prove myself to you all the time? Listen to me, I do not want to hear the word Galla any more. You should address me as an Oromo. I will not even speak to anyone from now on who refers to me or to my people as Gallas or to our language as Gallinya.”
“Since when?” one asked, “What happened?”
“Is that why you have been so cool?” asked another.
The friend who had first called to invite me out said, “Does this have anything to do with why you said, ‘Ours?’ when I reminded you about the new year?”
“Yes, It is not mine, but yours. Oromo New Year has not come yet.”
“Oh, sorry you see it that way. Nobody here ever said that you are not a Galla—sorry, I mean Oromo—but just that you are Ethiopian first. Like us, Aren’t you?”
“No, I was an Oromo first, and I am an Oromo first.”
“This is new. Does that mean that you have joined the WORROOMOO revolution?”
I looked at them and for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for them. These are the sons and daughters of the armed guards who were over Oromos. Their parents had been the landlords over my people. They had been raised in the towns and gone to school there. Their whole way of life was built upon the backs of working Oromos. They looked down on ones who worked hard. Their families had actually produced very little but instead spent all of their time in court arguing and backbiting each other and fighting over who was going to get a bigger share of what the Oromos had produced, dividing and redividing among themselves what there was.
“You used to laugh at Oromo kids, who you called ‘Gallas,’ when they were whipped for speaking their own language on the school grounds. Don’t make the same mistake again. Don’t make fun of the Oromos or some of us who decide to support those who are defending themselves against this kind of outrage today.”
“Can’t we forget what is passed? Yes, that was wrong.”
“Has it passed?” I asked, “Today it is worse. Instead of being whipped on the schoolyard, people are being imprisoned, sent away to the military, suspected of being a ‘narrow nationalist’ and receiving ‘revolutionary justice.”
“We don’t approve of that. That is also wrong. Can’t we build a country together? We are one people,”
What makes you and me one? We do not speak the same language; we do not share the same history or the same culture. We never had the same governmental structure. Oromos do not have any more in common with you than with all other human beings on the earth. There are many societies with whom the Oromos share much more in terms of history and common experience than with Abyssinia.”
They were shocked to hear this coming from me.
“Then what do you want? Do you want to break the country up into tiny pieces? Are you advocating fragmentation? Is that your objective? That would lead to a crisis; you know that very well.”
I stopped and realized that there was a time when I would have been absolutely terrified at the accusation that I was advocating fragmentation. But I sat there and looked back at them and said, “Tell me. How could this empire be in any worse crisis than it is now? Millions are starving. The government is bombing people on every side. And you are telling me fragmentation would bring crisis? Tell me. How would the demands of people for their rights bring fragmentation? Tell me what you mean by fragmentation.”
“It is getting late; let’s stop it right there,” they said, Good night.”
“Good night,” I said, leaning back in my chair.
That was when the power of their phrases lost any control over me.