The Oromo Fashion
by Dr Peri Klemm
This article appears as “Oromo Fashion: Three Contemporary Body Art Practices among Afran Qallo Women” in African Arts. vol. 42, no. 1 2009. All photographs are the property of the author and may only be reproduced with the author’s written consent. For access to the longer version and a list of full citations and bibliographical information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1998, when I first visited Harar a town in eastern Ethiopia, I was traveling with a young Muslim Oromo-American woman. Wherever we ventured in and around the old walled city, people stopped dead in their tracks and stared. Not at me, per se, although my light skin and hair color certainly attract attention, but at my traveling companion. She looked Ethiopian, certainly, and even Oromo. Her headscarf indicated her faith in the devoutly Islamic region of Harar and though I also covered my head as a sign of respect, for her it was culturally and religiously motivated. Unlike Oromo women in Harar, however, she usually wore the clothes of an American college student and she appeared heavier than most Ethiopian women in her t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. In Harar, those bold enough, usually men, stopped her on the street to ask her with some insistence: What is your father’s name? Where is your family’s house? Why do you dress this way? Those living in and near Harar, we learned, were particularly curious about my friend because she could not easily be identified. I, on the other hand, as a white foreigner, was either classified as part of the growing tourist presence in Harar or as an NGO worker on temporary leave.
Categorizing people by ethnicity, religion, marital status, social and economic class, and occupations is by no means limited to the inhabitants of eastern Ethiopia. Throughout Africa, one could argue, those not easily deposited into recognized and accepted expressions of personhood, are suspect and afforded considerable attention. In Harar, however, where four major ethnicities live and work within close proximity to one another, identifying and categorizing others through visual signifiers such as clothing, hairstyle, and body markings is crucial to formulating all future modes of interaction. This is particularly overt for women. Men from all local ethnicities- Harari, Argobba, Somali, and Oromo- wear similar types of clothing, including waist wraps made of imported Indonesian textiles or pants with t-shirts, dress shirts, and jackets, which render them virtually indistinguishable from one another. Women, on the other hand, clearly differentiate themselves through specific dress ensembles that convey their regional ties, clan affiliation, class, and life cycle stage. This information is clearly communicated to individuals who understand the complex language of dress in eastern Ethiopia. Beyond the immediate visual correspondences more subversive political references also exist, many of which have developed during the last generation. This paper examines three body arts created and worn by Oromo women and explores how each communicates ethnic and politically seditious codes. Each is a relatively new art form created within the last fifty years, easily situated within the framework of fashion. In the following three examples- qarma, ambarka, and kula- Oromo women have adapted wearable, imported commodities in ways that render them culturally appropriate and politically meaningful. In doing so, they claim a place for themselves in a rapidly changing and increasingly modern Ethiopian economy, while still maintaining ties to indigenous practices.
Oromo Aesthetics and Women’s Dress
Rural Oromo women are constantly on the move. As traders they haul heavy bundles of wood, coal, produce, and water along the main thoroughfare to and from local markets in the city of Harar and in surrounding communities. Oromo women in this Eastern Ethiopia are currently facing a debilitating drought that is affecting livestock and crops and sending many to seek aid in urban centers in Jijiga, Dire Dawa, and Hargeisa and refugee camps near the border with Somalia. In addition, hunger, malaria, cholera, dysentery, and infectious diseases are a constant battle. Yet even in the face of these challenges, these same women, both young and old, are deeply invested in fashion. Oromo woman interviewed throughout Eastern Hararghe confessed that they take fashion very seriously for it provides them access to specific kinds of modernity. Through contemporary costume women reconfigure and make relevant the markers that connect them to their cultural, religious, and familial heritage. They also use dress to make sense of their current situations and to create visual networks to distant, and often unfamiliar Oromo communities in the Diaspora, many of which are inscribed in a current struggle for nationalism and self-determination. Creating conscious connections to a larger Oromo identity is achieved through personal expressions found on the body, particularly around the neck, on the face, and in the hair. Herein I will discuss three parts of this ensemble of bodily embellishments used by unmarried, rural Oromo women in order to emphasize the importance of transnational fashion as a pliable medium used to communicate a political voice. These three body arts are: a beaded necklace called ambarka, a beaded headband called qarma, and temporary facial markings known as kula, literally ‘to color the face’. Each of these items is constructed with newly imported materials that travel from ports along the Somali coast to local markets in Ethiopia’s eastern Highlands. Each item is also filtered through specific design strategies that either copy directly or visually reference dress styles of the past. While Oromo women today are constantly redefining their individual tastes and priorities, they are collectively rooted in an indigenous aesthetic system and governed by culturally endorsed prescriptions surrounding the degree to which innovation is encouraged or discouraged in their personal arts. Within these prescriptions, fashion in the form of constantly changing, imported commodities can be manipulated to reflect meaningful connections to indigenous notions of family, individuality, value and memory.
What is worn is largely dictated by what is considered to be appropriate, financially viable, and above all, beautiful. But due to the limited repertoire of materials available for purchase in the urban markets, which are visited by the various ethnic groups who rely on these centers for their outfits, many of the same articles are incorporated into costumes across ethnic lines. Yet, Oromo dress is distinctly Oromo in several ways. For example, women’s body arts are rendered uniquely Oromo through the specific design and color choices that women make; these rely heavily on stylistic conventions, durability, financial restraints, and material availability in the production of textiles, leather, bead, and metalwork. In addition, items that may appear similar to another ethnic group’s body art are encoded with Oromo folklore and historical narratives. They thus become wearable markers that constantly refer backward in time to a distinctly Oromo heritage much in the same way that the past is evoked today through women’s songs and dance gestures.
As objects and bodies change through time and place, meaning also fluctuates and shifts. An object worn on the body is as much noted for the act of its placement and for the relationship it holds to the body and other objects as for its ability to beautify. The Oromo manage this negotiation through their categorization and placement of dress. Oromo aesthetic of dress arrangement is dependent on two competing concepts within wider Oromo society. On the one hand, sacred objects and acts should be kept hidden. In this sense, the most spiritually or socially powerful body art practices should not be perceptibly pronounced. On the other hand, women should be recognized first and foremost for their ethnic distinction, a process that is only possible by drawing attention to the ensemble of things with which they decorated their bodies. These two ideals between hiding that which is most value-laden and making available the visual symbols of Oromo identity are brought into dialogue on the body through an aesthetic of accumulation that mixes the textures and colors of various body modifications and supplements. At an Oromo woman’s head, for example, she layers fiber, cloth, and beaded bands over and under a hairnet or headscarf that may be further ornamented with modern accessories like butterfly hairclips while more potent medicines and amulets remain invisible, tucked under her hair. The layering effect both disguises the clarity of individual objects and brings them into a relational patterning with other similar and different items. As objects shift in position or as they are replaced with items of more modern appeal, such as temporary pink nail polish dabbed onto the face instead of permanently tattooed marks, they continue to be arranged appropriately, through an aesthetic of accumulation.
The Afran Qallo Oromo of Eastern Oromia
The Oromo population resides primarily in Ethiopia but also in Somalia, Kenya, and abroad. Within Ethiopia, they number close to thirty million people or forty percent of the population. The Oromo in Ethiopia recognize their nation as Oromia, extending 600,000 square kilometers from the Nile River in the north to the Hararghe Plateau in the southeast. After Arabic and Hausa, the Oromo language, Afaan Oromo, is the most extensively spoken language on the African continent. Despite the wide use of the language, until the 1990’s, Afaan Oromo was only formally recognized and taught in schools during Ethiopia’s brief Italian Occupation (1936-41) and only under the present government has any significant progress been made in the development of the Oromo language at the national level, including the publication of the first texts exclusively in Afaan Oromo using the Latin script rather than the established Amharic Sabean syllabary.
While the Oromo constitute the ethnic majority within Ethiopia, they have historically been marginalized politically, economically, and socially within the Ethiopian state. The Eastern Oromo, for example, lived under Ethiopian imperial rule most of the last century and intermittent conditions of subordination within the region of Harar since the eighteenth century. Today, they live within a nation-state that is built upon the recognition of ethnic diversity. It is within these contexts, where issues of identity are crucial, that women’s costume in eastern Ethiopia becomes especially telling.
When and from where the Oromo first appeared in present-day Ethiopia is a contentious issue that precipitates controversy about land use and indigineity and that continues to be heavily debated among Oromo and non-Oromo populations alike. Most scholarship characterizes Oromo movement into Ethiopia as a single wave of migration from either the Somali coast in the east or Lake Turkana in the south, or from the northern Highlands near present-day Bale spurred by pressures from Somali herders during the sixteenth century. These accounts rely heavily on a highly biased and propagandistic account written by a monk named Bahrey who lived in southern Ethiopia in 1593. More recent revisionist scholarship challenges the claim that the Oromo fled in mass exodus into the Ethiopian interior. Since the existence of nomadic pastoralist bands has been verified by archaeological evidence several centuries earlier (especially in the eastern regions of Ethiopia) it is possible that the Oromo migration and their subsequent assimilation was, in fact, a gradual transition that happened at various moments in different places.
The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in the central eastern region of the country. They are organized through a segmentary patrilineal structure. They come from the Barentuma branch or eastern division of the great Oromo confederacy which was born out of the union of Xabboo and Haromeetu, the original Oromo father and mother and propagated through their two sons Barentuma (also known as Barentu) and Boran (also known as Borana). Those descendants of the Barentuma lineage near to Harar, the Ala, Oborra, Baabbile, and Daga, are known as the Afran Qallo, literally ‘the four sons of Qallo.’ Oromo clan, or gosa, traces its line of descent to Ala, Oborra, Baabbile, or Daga. Thirty years ago, the Oromo of the former Eastern Hararghe province were conservatively estimated to number one and one half million although it is likely to be closer to four million today. The Afran Qallo Oromo have largely given up pastoralism and RabaDori, their traditional governance system known among other Oromo groups as the gada system. Referred to as Qottu or ‘those that dig’ in the past, the Afran Qallo are principally rural agriculturalists today. The fact that they have remained settled in communities for the past century has meant that the Afran Qallo Oromo have had increasingly better access to markets and trade goods. This access is reflected in the types of materials incorporated into Oromo women’s dress.
The stylistic choices of diamonds and horizontal bands are also significant in this discussion of nationalism and Oromo identity. Certainly women are drawing on basketry as a model in their ambarka beading through the same concerns with containment of shapes, the repetition of form and pattern and the use of primary color sets of stripes and diamonds. We know from Phillip Paulitschke, the Viennese ethnographer who visited Harar in the 1880’s, that 120 years ago, the rhombus was the most reproduced figure in dress and jewelry designs and on the flat expanses of everyday objects. This shape is still visible on the incised gourds made by Oromo men. Yet, a review of the ambarka reveals that ambarka diamonds are further divided into four by two strong diagonals. When I asked what this division of the diamond was called, women told me it was simply known as ‘Afran Qallo’ and I dismissed the divided diamond design as nothing more than a genealogical identifier. In hindsight, however, I believe that there is more to it. This divided diamond pattern is unique to the ambarka and is a very recent bead pattern. It emerged at a time when the EPRDF government was attempting to suppress all forms of Oromo nationalism. In this context, this divided diamond pattern may directly represent the Afran Qallo or more specifically ‘the four sons of Qallo.’ The larger diamond is Afran Qallo and the four smaller diamonds are his four sons from which all Afran Qallo trace their genealogy: Ala, Oborraa, Baabbile, and Daga. Each of these clan names is thought of as a large shade tree, the symbolic location for traditional worship, court counsel, and business matters for the Oromo, and today a metaphor of cultural vitality and unity.
Throw up your head in the air,
tilt it and lay your naannoo in harmony
Shaggee of straight nose
black edged eyelids and close eye brows
that look as if they are carved
“your kula and qarma
faroora and kulkultaa
I saw, they look as if they are flawlessly created”
-From the song Mari Mee, recorded in 1994
In the song Mari Mee above, the singer compliments the decorated space between the young Oromo woman’s eyes, the central focus for cosmetics. Adorning the eye area and the cheeks with colored pigment known as kula is a recent phenomenon. Today, women no longer utilize natural mineral pigments on the face but instead, invest in more fashionable and easily applicable substances: bottles of nail polish. Nail polish is today applied to the bridge of the nose, between the eyebrows, and to the cheeks. Nail polish decoration, which either exists side by side with tattooing and scarification on young women’s faces or has replaced them entirely, falls along a continuum in the indigenous practice of facial alteration. Historically, an Oromo woman’s face became a canvas for subtle tattoo marks, tumtuu, applied in conjunction with scarification, haaxixa (Fig. 20).
Scars are usually incised with a sharp thorn or razor that lacerate the first few layers of skin above the eyebrow, along the bridge of the nose, and on the cheeks and that heal in a recessive dell. These marks, which are usually made at the onset of puberty, become meaningful on several levels: when those above the eye are cut, the blood is allowed to drip down and cleanse the eyeball, which is believed to free it from disease; the mark along the nose is intended to visually lengthen the nose and enhance its appeal; the marks on the cheeks further beautify a woman’s face and can suggest geographical identity. Often haaxixa are enhanced with tumtuu, in which a green black paste made of soot and plant extract is applied with thorns pricked under the skin. Today, the process of scarification and tattooing is usually discussed as a feature-enhancing cosmetic that, like dots of polish, adds to a woman’s attractiveness. Haaxixa placed above the eyebrow, along the bridge of the nose, and on the cheeks are intended to heal, protect, and beautify. But marks around the eyes are also meant to divert the gaze of strangers who could potentially inflict harm through attack with the evil eye. The evil eye as a pan-Ethiopian phenomenon is most widely known as buda, a term which references both the inherent eye power and the individuals who possess it; usually castes that smelt iron, tan leather, and fashion pots as their primary means of livelihood. The practice of scarring the face is also reported to have been used specifically during the first reign of Haile Selassie I to make ugly, rather than to beautify.
The Oromo speak of a turbulent time in the 1920’s when young men and women began disappearing in great number. As most Afran Qallo Oromo had had little exposure to Ethiopia’s government or state-sponsored education at this period, an uncertainty grew concerning the motivations of a distant leader called Haile Selassie I. Severe changes to land use policy, the complete eradication of the traditional socio-political governing institutions, and new demands for labor and a national militia, created mounting distrust toward the Ethiopian state. Informants state that in the 1930’s it was confirmed by a famous Oromo mantiyya, a jarrii spirit expert, that Haile Selassie was himself possessed by a jarrii spirit. This spirit was said to inhabit his dog, a Chihuahua breed with bulging eyes that often appeared with his master in official photographs and news broadcasts. Afran Qallo Oromo feared that the small dog was masterfully controlling Haile Selassie to tour the country to collect and consume the most attractive people. As a result, people believed that the most beautiful Oromo men and women were being confiscated by government troops and eaten by this insatiable ruler. Mothers began to hide their children and disfigure their faces to keep them from abduction.
In this sense, excessive haaxixa was used as a means of marring beauty and keeping young men and women safe. While haaxixa was practiced much earlier than this, it was because of the harshness of the Amhara administration, especially from 1887 to 1936, that Oromo tradition emphasized the importance of heavy haaxixa in the 1930’s. This visual and oral evidence suggests that fear of buda and the foreign administration of the imperial Ethiopian governments was not prevalent in Oromo belief until the first reign of Haile Selassie- a time when the wearing of scars was on the increase.
Nail polish operates both within this belief system as a way of diverting the gaze from the eye area but also as a beautifying agent intended to harness visual attention. Adorning the body to invite the attention of mates or to hide from those with buda speaks to issues of disclosure and concealment inherent in all of the body arts used by Oromo women.
Women say they like nail polish for its impermanence, its color variety, and its foreign manufacture. While permanent scars and tattoos bleed, fade, and shift over time, nail polish can be applied quickly and painlessly, then scraped off and reapplied again. Applied polish also promotes personal expression. Dabs of polish allow a young woman creative space to articulate an individual style that will catch the attention of potential suitors she might meet on her way to and from market or on wood gathering excursions. Decorating with polish also suggests a high economic status. The price of an imported bottle of polish fetches the equivalent of four days work for a wood or coal seller. Despite the cost, women are reluctant to collectively buy a bottle together since styles copied in a communal color from one face to another would not give the woman her unique look and promote her individual appeal.
Polish is rarely wasted on the fingernails since it is not an area that traditionally gets painted and thus, not a candidate for the dissemination of cultural meaning. Young men, however, who travel broader distances than women and come into contact with nail salons or fashion magazines, commonly wear polish on their nails. This again suggests women’s astute decision to limit cosmetics to places on the body that continue to be decorated in traditional ways and whose decoration conveys important cultural meaning. Even though kula made with bright pink and red polish is becoming increasingly popular the practices of scarring and tattooing persist. As a personal art, polish can literally exist alongside or on top of other kinds of markings that make resonant connections with collective Oromo values and belief systems.
Women’s Participation in Oromo Nationalism
Among the Afran Qallo Oromo, a series of moral codes shaped through a shared past, common religious belief, and conditions of subordination dictate bodily restraints and determines which collective physical representations are withheld or reproduced at particular moments and within specific contexts. The collective presentation of the Afran Qallo female body runs parallel today to the emergence of an Oromo national consciousness, one that extends beyond the borders of present-day Ethiopia into the surrounding nation-states that are also home to large Oromo populations. This consciousness is largely informed by a debate centered on whether the Oromo in their nation of Oromia should attempt to secede from the Ethiopian state or rally for equal treatment and self-determination as members of a unified Ethiopia.
The cultural glue of this nationalist movement within Oromia, which is the Oromo regional state within Ethiopia, and the Oromo Diaspora is largely founded on the shared experience of language, history, and political domination. The historic gada or RabaDori system, common to all Oromo, is often promoted as a socio-political organizing ideology through which to mold an independent Oromo nation. While both Oromo men and women throughout Oromia can lay claim to a shared experience, including the move from the stratified grades of the RabaDori institution to the court system enforced by the Ethiopian state, the loss of rights to grazing and farm lands, and increased state-sponsored violence, Oromo nationalism has been most publicly formulated and articulated by educated Oromo men in a male-centered paradigm. Kuwee Kumsa reports that Oromo national movements, particularly the Oromo Liberation Front, have not adequately acknowledged the role of women in its formation and struggle nor has the organization included a women’s voice. Further, the place of women and the roles played by women’s arts have not been formally acknowledged as a relevant component of nationalist sentiment.
Yet, as these three examples have shown, women’s bodies and their personal arts are instrumental in the production, albeit subtle and symbolic, of Oromo identity and Oromo consciousness. Further, Oromo society views women as the dominant creators and assimilators of cultural symbols. The reason the decorated body is left out of this debate has much to do with the ways in which Oromo nationalism was first conceptualized as an abstract ideal. The establishment of the Macha-Tuluma self-help organization among western Oromo in Ethiopia in the 1960’s and the participation in government sponsored programs under the Derg regime in the late 1970’s coupled with an increased exposure to secondary education and urban jobs, created a uniquely modern Oromo consciousness for young men as Mekuria Bulcha has written. In this male-centered political climate, the expressions of rural women in localized areas went largely unnoticed. At this time, however, women were independently creating their own material expressions based on the emerging nationalist consciousness sweeping the Oromo countryside, and these practices continue today through the manipulation of new materials in the production of upper torso body art.
Oromo women’s dress is most closely associated with the lower body and its association with procreation. For the Oromo, the lower body is connected to the past through its link to the ground, to birthing, and to containment. This is a space where loose, layered skirts and a tight, cloth belt become metaphors for the opening and closing of the body. The upper body, on the other hand, is where the future rests and a whole host of objects, including amulets, beadwork, and face paint, are brought together here to assert a national identity in anticipation of future encounters.
I have introduced three body art practices that underscore how fashion can be manipulated to resonate meaningful connections to indigenous notions of individuality, community, and memory. These beaded bands and color swatches celebrate the individual style of each young woman and therefore, no two should look identical. Yet, in this multiethnic environment, these body arts are clearly a communal Oromo visual expression. The beaded ambarka necklace and the beaded qarma headband are both patterned with the diamond – a shape that dominates older basket forms while the kulaface paint is modeled after older permanent facial markings. To be fashionable among the Oromo, then, carries with it the limitations imposed by a bounded aesthetic system, one that Afran Qallo women are largely responsible for generating, maintaining, and communicating both as objects and as subjects. This system requires the layering of old and new forms, intended to both catch and confuse the eye, simultaneously revealing and concealing; beautifying and repelling; personalizing and unifying to those that understand the language of dress.
Throughout the historical period discussed, Oromo women have developed a clear, cultivated fashion sense that connects them to peoples and places beyond their region. As increasingly active agents, Afran Qallo women are creating new looks that draw from and resonate with historically relevant body art practices and which link them to a wider global world. Further, contemporary dress is a symbolic means through which Afran Qallo women come to understand and make sense of their socio-political and economic experiences and their identity as Oromo within the Ethiopian state today.
Dr. Peri Klemm is an African art historian at California State University, Northridge. She is currently working on a book about dress throughout Oromia. Any information or suggestions you would like to share are welcome email@example.com.