Oromo have a very rich culture defined by everything from Oromo language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. Today, the Oromo culture is influenced by the many factors of life and fostered by the size of the population and large land areas with diverse climatic conditions. One highly developed self-sufficient system which has influenced every aspect of Oromo life is the Gadaa system. It is a system that organises the Oromo society into groups or sets (about 7-11) that assume different responsibilities in the society every eight years. It has guided the religious, social, political and economic life of Oromo for many years, and also their philosophy, art, history and method of time-keeping.
The activities and life of each and every member of the society are guided by Gadaa. It is the law of the society, a system by which Oromo administer, defend their territory and rights, maintain and guard their economy and through which all their aspirations are fulfilled.
The traditional Oromo language is known as Afaan Oromo or Oromiffaa, the written form of which has recently changed to use the Roman alphabet called Qubee Afaan Oromo. Afaan Oromo was banned during the regime of Haile Selassie, and Amharic was the only language taught in schools or used in the public sphere for decades. Thus Oromos who had formal education or grew up in urban areas can speak and write Amharic, while people in the countryside who were isolated from educational campaigns have continued to speak Oromiffaa. Some Oromos may also speak Tigrigna, Somali, Arabic, or Swahili, but most Oromo refugees prefer to speak Oromiffaa as a matter of cultural pride. Literacy in English is limited but growing as more people take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
The Oromo Law is a collective rules and guidelines which are enforced through Oromo social institutions to govern Oromo life and behaviour. The Oromo Law is a system of collective body of Oromo religious law called Seera Qaalluu and Gadaa Law derived from the Oromo customs and traditions. The Oromo Law has two basic categories:
- Laws believed revealed by Waaqaa (God) to the Oromo people at Odaa Nabee
- Laws of human origin including Seera Gadaa, interpretations, customs, traditions etc.
In Oromo culture, each person has one main name, their given name. They are often given other personal “love names” by family members. Their second name is the main name of their father. A third name is usually the name of their paternal grandfather. The formal Oromo name is used in Oromo rituals. There are no formal religious requirements for naming a child in the Oromo tradition. The name has also no inherent religious significance.
Traditionally, the father picks Oromo children’s names but the mother has great influence in naming the daughter of the family. It must also be said that Oromo names have meanings as if to convey wishes of success, wisdom, and prosperity through generations. For instance, the most popular Oromo names are Ibsaa for males and Ibsituu for females, both meaning “light”.
According to Oromo Law:
- Baby naming is not held before birth.
• Children are given an Oromo name.
Status, Role, Prestige
Oromos view advance in age with great respect. The “Gadaa system”, an Oromo traditional government, is based on age grade system. For instance, to take full responsibility for a nation or society “Abbaa Gadaa” (the leader/President) reaches full leadership only at age 40 or on eighth Gadaa. (The Oromo people use base eight as opposed to the traditional Western base ten.)
Oromos have a tradition of viewing long age as accumulation of wisdom gained from experience. Therefore, Oromos approach elders as students would professors, ready to learn. The elder of the village or the household is a leader of a given domain and perhaps beyond. Responsibilities, light or heavy, are assigned to persons according to how old the person is. The older the person, the less physical responsibilities, such as farming, heavy lifting, etc. are given. Physical responsibilities are usually assigned to the young, physically strong and able. Elders are given the task of thinking, conveying and radiating wisdom as needed.
When issues such as weddings, death, or disputes arise, the most able and senior of elders are assembled. Issues can be won or lost on the credibility and ability of the elders, much like the quality of counsel defending or prosecuting legal cases in Western cultures.
The traditional greeting used by men and women is called “nagayaa gaafachuu”. They grasp each other’s hands and kiss the top of the other person’s hands or cheeks. If they are related or close friends, they would kiss each other. In the diaspora, however, they often shake hands in the western manner. When meeting a person on the road or street they say, “Did you have a peaceful night or day?” Children are commonly hugged when greeted.
- Good morning – “Akkam bultan”
- Good afternoon – “Akkam ooltan”
The Oromo language tends to be more formal than English language in their social exchange. Oromo are formal with everyone except family, close friends, classmates and young children.
Displays of Respect
“Obbo” is the Oromiffaa equivalent to “Mister”, and for a married woman the term is “Aaddee”. Elders are generally given great respect within their communities. Within the language there is a formal for of “you” which is used to address respected persons. Persons who are older are addressed as “mother” and “father”.
Birth, Marriage and Death
There are three things Oromos talk about in life: birth, marriage, and death.
In Oromo law and tradition, although the human soul exists before birth, human life begins at birth, that is, at the time when the child is more than halfway emerged from the mother’s body.
In Oromia, women are helped through pregnancy and childbirth by female neighbors or female elders in the community. Formal prenatal care may be unfamiliar, but women traditionally increase the amount of meat in their diet and pay special attention to nutrition. If a woman was ready to deliver in Oromia, she might notify a female friend but not her husband. Men are not supposed to participate at all, and many women here are still reluctant to have their husbands involved in the birthing process.
Immediately after birth, a woman is considered ulmaayee and must remain sexually separated from her husband until the purification of next ministration cycle. After delivery, a woman is supposed to rest in bed for forty days attended by the other women of the community, who cook special foods for her and tend her other children while she regains her strength. Unfortunately, women have been unable to do that here because of school, work, and logistical problems.
According to the Oromo Law:
- Life begins at birth
- Baby naming is not held before birth
- Children are given an Oromo name depending on different circumstances.
- Male circumcision is performed either on the 8th day or 8th year after birth. It can be performed before the 8th year of the Gadaa ceremeony, ie 32 years age.
There is formal and ritual procedure of adoption in Oromo Law. Adoption is called Guddifachaa and it exists in Gadaa law in very prescriptive manner, because Oromo adoption is essentially a transfer of title from one parent to another, and in Oromo law, parents do not own their children.
In most ways, the adoptive parents are to the child as any birth parent would be. The Gadaa Law says that he who raises someone else’s child is regarded as if he had actually brought him into the world physically. For those who cannot have children of their own, raising adoptive children satisfies the obligation to be fruitful and multiply. The child may be formally named as the child of the adoptive parents, owes the adoptive parents the same duty of respect as he would a birth parent, and observes formal mourning for the adoptive parents as he would for birth parents.
Matters relevant to the child’s status are determined by the status of the adoptive parents, not by that of the birth parents.
Marriage is one of the most important rituals in the Oromo culture. These are the events that add to or take away from the family. Before the onset of foreign religions, namely Christianity and Islam, Oromo marriage rituals included exchange of gifts, mainly by the bride to be.
The ritual of courting begins a long time before the marriage date. It may entail encounters at events, mainly at weddings, or the courting may stem from understanding between the families. Once the boy has demonstrated responsibilities, not only for his own livelihood but also for the society in which he lives, he picks the girl he is interested in. He will inform a family member, usually his father, who then contacts the family of the girl. Usually the girl knows of the boy’s intent and, in many instances, she encourages him to pursue her in this way. There are mediators, such as the girl’s best friends, who convey the girl’s wishes to the boy.
The first visit to the girl from the family of the groom-to-be involves other elders from his village. Special clothing is worn to underscore the importance of the meeting. A stick called “siinqee” is carried to the bride-to-be’s house and left at the door to indicate to her parents that the process of courting their daughter has begun in earnest. On the second visit, the “siinqee” may come in with the groom’s party indicating the girl’s family has accepted the gesture. Visits by the groom’s party may continue over the course of two years. The visits will prepare the way for acceptance of the young man, not only by the girl’s immediate family, but by her relatives as well. It may also happen that the future son-in-law must till the land of his future in-laws – the idea is to make parents’ sure that their daughter is marrying into a family who can support their daughter and her needs.
In Oromia, when a household is faced with the reality of death, community support is given in the form of money, time, and physical labor. In Australia, this tradition continues, as it is the only way to support the grieving families.