An Oromo Renaissance?
by Dr. Steven W. Thomas
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.