Thursday, May 2, 2013


Performing Nationalism in Ethiopia
Cushitic Salale Oromo in Northeast Africa 

Indiana University
Spring, 2013


In this study, drawing my examples from folk songs and narratives of the Salale Oromo resistance to state oppression in Ethiopia, I argue that heroic songs and narratives of heroism are powerful forms of symbolic performance used to fume Oromo cultural nationalism and resistance against internal colonialism. Using examples of oral data of collective performances obtained from Salale as a ritualized remembrance of collective experience, I argue that internal colonialism stance in the Ethiopian context can be destabilized by the examination of the genre(s) of heroic songs and heretic narratives in Salale. To this aim, John Hutchinson’s notion of “cultural nationalism” (2007; 1999) coupled with “internal colonialism theory” (Gordon in Stoler 2006) are employed to legitimize the thesis of the present study. That is, the Salale Oromo cultural resistance has a double function as part of the ongoing Oromo struggle for national liberation and Oromumma revivalism: it is a galvanizing object of resistance movement against internal colonialism in Ethiopia, and it is a vehicle for collective mobilization in terms of “cultural nationalism” embedded in Oromummaa (Oromoness) (Asafa, 2007). 1

Background: Historical Perspective2
The Salale are the Tulama branch of the Cushitic Oromo in Ethiopia inhabiting northwest of Finfinne (also called Addis Ababa), the capital and also the political seat of African Union. Because of their geographical proximity to the Shawan Amhara Christians to the north the Salale live(d) under an unequal historical relationship and suffered economic exploitation, especially land appropriation, and political subjugation before any other Oromo branches to the south (Zeleke 2003; Ege, 1996; Bairu 1986). Available oral data and the social history of power recorded since the 19th century (Krapf and Isenberg 1843; Harris 1844; Beke 1844) show the continuous resistance of the Salale against Shawan domination, which the Ethiopian and Ethiopianist scholars and chroniclers recorded merely the history of political rulers and their coercive measures  to guarantee peaceful coexistence and collaboration. As to be further explored in this study, the “grassroots history” of the people shows that the “traditional nationalism” took varied forms of cultural resistance including social banditry and full-scale battles (Tsegaye 2003; Abbink 2003; Ege 1996; Crummey, 1986).

In the history of the Abyssinian rulers, internal power struggle, problems of power transfer and other factors made it difficult for the central government to control tributary local states and enforce laws and tax collection. When the central state could not enforce law and order, the local tributaries apparently exercised a type of sovereignty. Whereas, when power is consolidated at the center, it crashes the tributary states and weakens them, however, resistance and compliance was inevitable. Laws were imposed to be violated, orders were forced to be disrupted, and, consequently, humanity was dislocated, life was disintegrated. For where there was no justice no wrong life could be lived rightly! The Salale were dispersed or internally migrated. Those who remained back home, some rebelled and some lived as tenants under servitude from Ras Darge to his great-grandchildren, Amdie and others. The heretics’ abodes were the heroes’ sanctuaries. The Salale sang thus (interview, Sime, 2010)

ati yaa Amdee Abarraa
maaf qotte maasaa lagarraa
silaa hiyyeessa fixxee lafarraa?
si haa gaafatu ayyaanni warraa!

oh, Amdee Abarra
why you plowed the farm on the banks
and displaced the poor?
may their ancestral spirit judge you, punish you

The Salale Oromo used narratives and folksongs as cultural resistance against domination, and in so doing, to commemorate Salale heroes and constitute their identity and ‘history’ from “below”. I consent that a constructivist strategy must be employed to consider the role of cultural nationalism in general and folk songs and narrative accounts in particular in studying the current Oromo nationalism. Toward this end, the thesis of the present study is that the Salale Oromo have challenged the Abyssinian internal colonialism in Ethiopia through cultural nationalism and continuous resistance to subvert the Christian dominant culture and hierarchical (systematic) political domination mainly since the 1840s (Ege, 1996; Baiu 1986). Thus, based on the data obtained through interview from Salale, this study aims to provide a retrospective analysis of the people’s ‘history’ and cultural politics from “below”. Against the Abyssinian nation-building tenet of the late 19th century, to Eric Hobsbawm (1990), nations are not the mere products of territorial unity but the result of politics, technology, and social transformation, i.e., economic and technological development based on equal distribution of resources. Thus, by the internal colonialism stance, as it will be further explored in this study, the social inequalities and “uneven development” of regions in Ethiopia fumed the glaring fire of nationalism supported by cultural resistance from “below”. According to Hobsbawm (1990: 10), nations and nationalisms are constructed essentially from above which cannot be understood unless analyzed from “below,” to which Gellner’s account does not pay adequate attention (Ozkirimli,2010:96)

Methods and Theories

Oromo folklore scholarship necessitates an appropriate and intellectually stimulating theoretical analysis and new models based not on positivistic explanation of mere facts but rather an intellectual and attitudinal framework to pursue ethnographic3 Oromo folklore research goals. To this aim, folklore produces a different kind of “imagined community” utilizing elements of shared dialect(s) and the vernacular instead of the neo-Abyssinian linguistic and cultural domination and to produce a national sublime, to mobilize collective resistance against domination and help the Oromo nation to come into being through self-reflexive poetic calls to action. Toward this end, I use a constructivist stance that builds on the people’s lived experience by making sense of the world they live in in different ways. Constructivist stance sees human existence as contextual, relational, and ethical. The ‘construal’ act can only be understood in terms of living in a shared world socially negotiated through shared perspectives with others. By a constructivist model, the role of “cultural nationalist” as a social and moral innovator is to maintain a historically-rooted ethical way of life based on the basic tenets of “Oromumma” (Oromoness) (Asafa, 2007): freedom for all, peaceful coexistence, and the principle of waadaa,4 i.e., covenant. From the Salale Oromo perspective, the waadaa principle of Oromummaa overrules how we perceive and describe the world and others who inhabit it with us, and the relationship is always an ethical/safuu one (social/moral order) (Gurmu, my informant, 2010). In this study, the oral data obtained through interview from Salale in September 2009 to July 2010 and other historical (historiographical) information are described and analyzed in line with folkloric, historical, and anthropological ethnographic methods. In what follows I discuss the theoretical stances used to describe and interpret examples of “cultural nationalism” and creative resistance in other sections.

“Internal Colonialism Theory”
The issue of nationalism and national question is built around the political solutions to the economic exploitation and social oppression examined by internal colonialism theory (Ozkirimli, p78). The theory deals with social inequalities caused by “uneven development” and economic exploitation and whether the oppressed nationality have the right to self-determination as a nation and can exist as a cohesive independent state.  The Internal Colonialism Theory is a notion of structural political and economic inequalities between regions within a nation state used to describe the uneven effects of economic development on a regional basis, otherwise known as "uneven development", and to describe the exploitation of minority groups within a wider society (ibid).  

Franz Fanon’s (1964) classical book, the Wretched of the Earth is a Marxist analysis of Algerian battle for independence against French domination in a manner that is highly applicable to other anti-colonial struggle. Fanon narrated the paths of the natives’ mindset through various stages of the independent struggle. There are also debates about the root of African nationalism and whether Colman’s (1971 in Adeleke 2012) view of the primary resistances and post-pacification revolts constitute traditional nationalism and fed into modern nationalism (p67).  Fanon noted that before the start of an anti-colonial rebellion, endemic violence arises among the colonized toward each other as a manifestation of the brutal psychological violence of colonial domination. The Wretched of the Earth is a narrative of evolving thoughts and actions from below which includes peasants, trade unionists, and laborers and Fanon’s theory of nationalism is very applicable to other external and internal colonial situations. However, by Gellner’s (1997; 2006) theory of nationalism, the political duties of citizens override all other obligations, and this is what distinguishes modern nationalism from the traditional primordial group-identification as less demanding category. 

Hobsbawm (1990) assents to the view that nations do not make states and then nationalism, but the other way round. That is, nationalism emerges at the intersection of politics, technologies and social transformation and not just by forcefully hording people into a territorial mélange but through a technological and economic development. By Anderson’s (1991) theory of “print capitalism” the “imagined community” emerge(d) around a common language and discourse generated from the use of printing press and a common language imposed on the local dialects and vernacular languages leading onto “print colonialism”. “Print capitalism” that helped the first European nation-state to emerge around a “national print language” came to dominate other languages and “history” in Africa by forging “official nationalism” (Anderson, 1991:86). From the internal colonialism theory perspective, in Ethiopia, without the spread of literacy and mass education to maintain national language, unite the nation around a common discourse, and create national identification around the official ideology of “official nationalism” has been difficult. Internal colonialism in Ethiopia has been malfunctional to create the common-sense notion of “manifest destiny” (the nation-building thesis) and, in so doing, to stabilize “official nationalism” through deepening what Linda Gordon calls “intimate colonial relations” (in Stoler, 2006) by the construction of colonial practices (education, dominant culture, religion) to perpetuate, for example, Ethiopia as a “heimat”, a ‘homeland,’ a Christian island, a melting pot of ethno-nations. Thus, multiculturalism and modernity are the tools of colonialism. After the four Abyssinian autonomous kingdoms (the Tigray or Axumite, the Gondari, the Gojjami, and the Manz) were united under the Manz which became the Shahwan Kingdom, Menelik led the internal colonial campaign aided by European and Russian military strategists in the second half of the nineteenth century to conquer the Oromo and others ethno-nations (Holocomb and Ibssa, 1990).

History from ‘Below’
Looking back at the oral and social history of the Salale Oromno in the context of the 19th century Shawan Kingdom and the current Ethiopia’s situation, there is no a balanced body of ready-made source-material to depend on for interpretation and, therefore, the need for social constructivist approach and “history from ‘below’” is crucial.  Hobsbawm believes that every kind of history has its technical problems (Hobsbawm in Krantz 1988:204), and the Ethiopian history is no exception. Hobsbawm argues most of the history written by chroniclers and subsequent scholars since the beginning of literacy or since the 19th century tells us little about the people they recorded (Hobsbawm, ibid. p202). The same theory applies to Ethiopia where traditionally most history scholarship was written for the glorification of political rulers or for their practical use to concoct ruling-class politics to be taken as true instead of occasional reference to the mass of the subject population. However, society seen as a pyramid, the density of history from the point of view of the common people is immense from “below”. In line with this argument, to Hobsbawm, nations and nationalism are dual phenomena:  they are constructed from above but cannot be understood unless studied and analyzed from “below” in terms of the intentions, hopes, fears, views, needs, assumptions, and interests of the ordinary people, the view from below to which Gellner does not pay adequate attention (Ozkirimli, 2010: 96).

Grass roots history, history from below, or history of the common people is relevant to the sort of history written traditionally as “the history of major political decisions and events only form the moment when  the ordinary people become a constant factor in the making of such decisions” (Hobsbawm, ibid. p202). In the Ethiopian context, the Bale peasant rebellion is the case in point as  Gebru Tareke’s (1996) study shows. The Bale popular revolt and peasant resistance was one of the three important peasant-based rebellions between 1941-1970 against the long-reigned Haila Selassie’s monarchic rule (cf. Abbink et al, 2003; Crummey 1986).  By Colman’s (1971) analysis of the history of African nationalism against European colonialism, traditional nationalism which constituted people’s primary resistance and revolts against established colonial actions and rules was a “backward looking and negative”; however, it “had utilitarian value for modern nationalism and as intensely nationalistic as modern nationalism” (in Adeleke 2012:67).

Franz Fanon’s theory of violence is relevant to the notion of mass protest against any form of injustices as efforts to subvert internal colonialism (Fanon 2004). Fanon insists that the “colonist is not content with stating that the colonized world has lost its values or worse never possessed any” (p6). Beyond a nostalgic memory of the past, the natives’ negativistic “backward looking” is, in Earnest Renan’s view (in Bhabha 1990:8-22), to remember what unites them as a nation and to forget what tears them apart and, in so doing “to speak on behalf of large number of anonymous dead people” (Anderson, 1991:198), the violent deaths which “must be remembered/forgotten as our own” (ibid, 206). Towards this end, the study and analysis of grassroots history is essential not “merely to give it a retrospective political significance which it did not always have, we are trying more generally to explore an unknown dimension of the past” (Hobsbawm in Krantz 1988:204). According to Fanon, “this passionate quest for a national culture prior to the colonial era can be justified by the colonized intellectual shared interest …that the past was not branded with shame but dignity, glory and sobriety” (p148).  While working on internal colonialism, paying attention to the views of the ordinary people and constructing their history from “below” has a paramount importance.

Description and Analysis

In this study I examine the role of Salale Oromo heroic songs and the narratives rendered by my informants in the context of Oromo resistance to the neo-Abyssinian domination in Ethiopia. What makes the genre(s) (heroic folk songs and narratives) such a pivotal, galvanizing force of “creative co-existence” and a unifying agent for the resistance movement that lacked traditionally a geopolitical focus is a pertinent folkloric enquiry in the present study. The aim is to destabilize the uncritical “common sense” notion of territorial “unity” of nation-state disregarding “diversity” and describe and analyze the problem as evidence of “internal colonialism” the people suffer in the name of “nation building” (Holocomb and Ibssa, 1990). Based on available data and my own personal experience, I share Hobsbawm’s (1990) view that nations are not only the products of the quest for territorial state, but the result of technological and economic development based on equal distribution of resources and power.

Heroes and Heretics: the Oromo View
The heroic quest is allegorical in that the journey involves a move away from the ‘knowable’ and at the same time toward the ‘unknowable’. For the purpose of this paper, the ‘knowable’ is the tension and conflict in the social field of the hero who struggles to challenge and change the face of historically unequal, socially charged life pattern. The quest is an unended journey, a call to adventure, a journey to an unknown zone, to where destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity out of the wretched, dismal pit of embitterment to beyond defiance often seen as transgression by the oppressor. The journey is mythical in that there are several mythic tales, performances and rituals about other ethnic heroes who traveled the same road before him. As to be discussed in this paper, with particular reference to Agari Tullu, the Salale pierced through rebellion and individual heroism the veil of the unknown, the fearful, unspeakable disenchantment hauled them. They performed and sustained Salale identity through rituals and folkloric and spiritual practices in daily life as part of a collective metaphysical quest that transcends spatial and temporal liminal zones through such heroic ardency for identity and the right to life. Unlike the ‘massification’ by the oppressor it is not the mass that joins the resistance but few strong breeds do.

Such is the fate of African and Oromo men who traditionally marked their rites of passage into adulthood and an emerging status of a responsible member of the community through a vision quest. The heroic journey is part of the struggle to discover the internal strength to sustain an external quest since the journey by itself cannot be the destination as it pervades in myths, legends, epics and folksongs of the great traditions. Like spiritual leaders who suffer for the service of others, there are heroes in the secular world whose quest is the never-ending story of humanity and a story of struggle to answer why humanity suffer, what can be done to save humanity. Where collective rights to identity are usurped, the hero sets out in search for personal rights to identity, as if “personal nationalism” were an alternative paradigm (Cohen 1996).

If Anthony Cohen’s Scottish view of “personal nationalism” is right, legitimacy of nationhood is explicitly related to personal and political rights. The Salale Oromo ethnic hero chose to fight back the ‘massification,’ ‘subordination,’ or ‘anonymization’ of himself and his people, against the top-down cultural and political (official) nationalism imposed by the Abyssinian Christian rulers. The immediate cause of the struggle may be economic, such as land or land resource, and, therefore, the nature of resistance is autochthonous (e.g. banditry) (Hobsbawm 1969/2000). The Oromo ethnic heroes lived like the Greek epic heroes (Odysseus) in search of “home,” or like other African ‘mythic’ figures, Sundiata  of Mali, or the Oromo traditional law-giver, Makko Billi, who faced and accepted the necessity of the vision quest as old as time along the hero journey. Like those mythic hero figures, for a society to sustain as a people, apparently, both individual and collective heroic vision quest becomes a vital determinant factor. The Salale Oromo heroes are no exceptions.

The Tale of Agari Tullu
Gurmu critically pointed it out to me during the interview that Agari Tullu’s journey from the early days of his serfdom to a rebel was part of change in the individual to revenge his father’s untimely death caused by wretched poverty and a symbolic social transformation as a collective life experience of the Salale. Gurmu, as a heretic would, also believes that problems, conflicts and stress are neither good nor bad. From what Gurmu attested to me, to say violence, conflict, or stress is good or bad in life depends on how the hero deals with them to turn his fate into negative or positive force. That is to say, factors like self-discipline, ardency, and perseverance significantly affect the hero and his people. Agari Tullu chose the life of a rebel as he strongly believed from the outset that it was by immersing himself in problems, tests and trials and living austere life, one could come up with creative solutions. By avoiding real problems, there is no productive change because, in real life, it is by confronting problems that breakthroughs are made possible. In the lines next,

Agari yaa Agarii!
yaa tokkicha qixxee nama sagalii.

oh Agarii, what a wondrous hero you are,
Agari! not one you are equal to nine

the Salale perform resistance, and recount the deeds of their heroes through songs and narratives believing that it is important to reconstruct the journey if one is to direct the profusion of attributes that have been imputed to the hero, not as a single hero but manifold.

As part of a great metaphysical quest, the heroic journey allegorically symbolizes, beyond its literal meaning, the awakening of spirit. The people believe that the hero possesses a mythic power that leads him through severe tribulations and tests so that he survives. According to Raggasa (92, Informant, 2010), when Agari Tullu shot himself with dummy bullets in public and did not die or bleed, he also asked the people to shoot him with the same gun, and the people shot at him but in vain, he did not die or bleed.  From that day on, Agari was believed to be a demigod among the Salale, and during the heyday of Agari Tullu in the 1960s, people said a prayer in his name, cursed or swore by his name.

Whether or not the heroic deeds of the individual hero is associated with the social or economic,  the moral demands that the society places on  the individual is determined by his self-discipline and heroic imagination to carry on the fight to end or revenge their predicaments. Though the hero is anthropomorphized and his courage is taken for granted, the underlying principle in heroism and warrior like sentiment is handed down from generations and traced to the exploits of other ethnic heroes in the past from the time of Sahla Selassie (r1813-1847) to 1930s. Such traditional Saale heroes include Beru Kenne of Hidhabu, Gissilla Geto of Amuma, Alamu Ejersa of Warra Jidda, and Janka Nagawo of Kurfaa. By commemorating those supermen, the Salale constitute their history and politics from “below” and transmit sense of heroism and resistance to the young generation.

The Salale believe that the kind of warrior hero that the society looks up to in the time of need is essentially motivated by the values of warrior culture, which he supremely exemplifies. Those values of warrior culture are honor and deeds extolled and retold by others through songs and narratives like in the Indo-European epic tradition of Beowulf, Iliad and Odyssey, or the Bhagavad Gita, and narratives in honor of the African warrior heroes such as the Mali’s Sundiata. Despite their peace-making principle called waadaa (covenant), among the Salale, there has been such a warrior culture induced from the first encounter with the expansionist Showan Kingdom whose motto is “Die, you win heaven; conquer, and you enjoy the earth,” a version of USA’s “Manifest Destiny”. The Abyssinian imperial whim is to subjugate the Oromo while it is a matter of life or death for the Oromo to defend their territory. In the 19th century Shawa Kingdom, Svein Ege (1996) writes citing Krapf and Isenberg (1843), the central areas “supplied most of the soldiers for the campaigns against the Oromo,” and he adds, “army service was limited to peasants holding land on favorable conditions” (p188).

Text, Folkloric Representation, Identity (Re)Creation
The analysis of texts and folkloric representation brings us to the issue of accessing subjugated knowledge and the lived experience of those who are disenfranchised. Heroic songs and narratives presented in this study are paramount to the interpretation of marginalized voices. Underneath the texts, the subtexts shape our perception and understanding of the social reality about those forced to the peripheries of the dominant order, outside the trajectory taken by the heroes. The Salale sing of their hero who walks from one end of the world to another. They tell that he travels day and night until his feet blister, until the sun turns dark, until the shadow sinks into the sea, until the shooting star cools down, until his last breath. He travels until the torch grows shorter in his hand, until his fierce temper feeds life to the flame and the fire leaps high again above his head to give light to those caught up in fear of pitch-darkness in the disenchanted world of internal colonialism. In the overall heroic journey, like the “road of trials” (Joseph Campbell, 1949), the hero and his companions face significant tests, trials and tribulations which, in the following tender lyric, the Salae minstrel, Naggasa Abdi recaps the futility of humanity,

Kurfaa Jaankaa Nagawoo                  
in koran malee bu’a hin oolanii,         
jabaadhu yaa ilmoo-namaa                 
in turan malee du’a hin oolanii!         

Kurfaa of Jaankaa Nagawoo is such a mystery
one ascends the hill only to descend and fall,
oh, humanity, you should stand it,
be persistent, perseverant
to the end, as death is inevitable and all! 

[Gurmu, Informant, 2010]

After repeated and failed attempts the trials and tribulations ultimately initiate the mythic hero into a higher level of personal identity earnestly sought and to a new sense of awareness, self-consciousness, to know himself and see from the top of the hill (Kurfaa) the world around him, know the “unknowable”, the inexplicable abode “Kurfaa,” which one ascends to the peak only to slip and fall away. The inevitable period of spiritual and emotional doubt and despair that may precede the breakthrough of insight, wisdom, and transfiguration is the same as the journey of “the dark night of the soul”.

The Minstrel’s song above is about the inevitable, i.e., about death as the ultimate fate of mankind. In Oromo worldview much like the Christian eschatology, death is a journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God, the journey narrated in “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a poem by the 16th century Spanish poet, Saint John of the Cross. “Darkness” represents the hardships and difficulties the soul meets in detachment from the world reaching the light of the union with the Creator. Allegorically speaking, a way up the hill is a way down the hill, which is to mean, temptations abound along the journey, luring the hero to deviate from the heroic vision quest and move backward toward innocence, to the less demanding phases of the journey or to make serious mistakes and fall in a trap. The perpetuity of the hero’s tenacity in search of “personal identity” (personal nationalism) is continually tested by the fear and trepidation of the journey through darkness as Odyssey was tempted to forsake his (sacred) duty and turn from the chaos of the battle surrounding him to undergo countless tests back home to Itacha, tests that can thin his moral fiber so that he fails to overcome them. The same applies to the Salale hero in the massive gorges of the Mogor River and the terrains of Jamma. This quell of the self is in favor of the cause and the unended heroic vision quest recapped in the song and is a lament for the continuing denial of the integrity and authenticity of the Salale Oromo ethnicity. For the oppressed, the songs, rituals, performances and the imagined journey are symbolic subversions against the denigration of their culture and identity by the Shawan Amhara Christian rulers.  

As some touchstones along the heroic journey, the hero is determined to move toward the danger, toward the unknown, as if problems are his friends, and, for him, tests are natural and constant to help the hero grow as a quester. The problems (tests and trials) help the hero to use his power of discrimination to choose between good and evil. That is, it is a chance for him to ask himself something, now that he has learnt something, being tested and learnt something in life, what is he going to do about it? Tests along the heroic journey are opportunities to assess the quality of his behavior and to examine his motives, purposes, and strengths. Tests are the trials, rituals that prove whether or not the hero has learnt the lessons the journey is teaching him in the hardest way. According to Gurmu (78, Informant, 2010), one of my primary informants in Salale, for him as Salale, problems were natural and inevitable, and parts of initiation and growth in life.  Gurmu’s comment about Agari Tullu and his other two brothers, Jima Tullu and Herko Tullu, the three Salale brothers executed same day at the same place as Salale ba ndits in 1970, is “Lubbuun dhiiraa billiqa,” literally, “The hero’s soul is a quick sunbeam,” which is consent with the belief about the unpredictable fate of the hero. It is a version of the Spanish Poet’s nightlong journey of the soul from the world reaching the light of the union with the Creator.

Collective Identity (Oromummaa) and “National Identification” Paradox
To Asafa Jalata, the concept of Oromummaa (Oromoness) is beyond the issue of a national identification with the “state”. It is instead, a “complex and dynamic national and global project” (2007:12). As a national project, Asafa rightly argues, Oromummaa is a master ideology of the Oromo national movement” which enables the Oromo work on cultural revivalism to maintain their cultural memories, fight against “internal colonialism,” voice their grievances, mobilize resources, and develop Oromocentric political strategies to subvert the neo-Abyssinian domination. As a global project Oromummaa is a principle of national self-determination and multinational democracy and promotes global human freedom (ibid). Of ordinary people’s view of national identification project and the significance of “history from ‘below’”, Hobsbawm cautiously notes three preliminary conclusions about an attempt to understand the ordinary people and their view of “national identification”: that official ideologies are not reliable guides to what ordinary people think; that national identification is not always superior to what constitutes the identity of the social being, and, finally, that what national identification means to each individual can shift in time, and in the course of short time (Hobsbawm, 1990:10-11; Ozkirimli, 2010:96).

In this genre of commemorative ritual song called amsala, the Salale sing of identity, of affine and close kin in desperate situations. The first two lines below,

namni alagaaf gubate cilee hin qabu; 
namni lammiif gubate hambaa hin dhabu!

he who died for the alien is in vain, no trace of his name
he who died for is people is a martyr, slain beyond a fame.

is a social critique of surrogate ‘national identity’ which Hobsbawm comments as difficult to “assume that for most people national identification is always or ever superior than other forms of identification which constitutes the social being” (in Ozkirimli, 2010: 96). In this song rendered by Ababo Tulama (my informant, by correspondence, 2012) there is a revivalist account of Oromo tradition “consisting of survivals” as carried in a literal translation of the two words above “cilee” (line 1) and “hambaa” (line 2) meaning, “cinder” and “remain/heritage,” respectively, where new forms emerge out of old forms, which imply a “spurious” nature of “modernity” instead of “authenticity” of “tradition”.  The praise song of “lammii ofii” “one’s pedigree” next, is an unpretentious glorification of one’s ancestry and identity, not a sycophantic account of irrevocable ideological rivalry as in the first two lines above:

lammiin ofii kafanaa,
yaa aabboo, yaa aayyoo
….jedhu gamaa gamana!
one’s own people is one’s refuge
oh father! oh, mother
…. they say, here and there!

By the all-encompassing, unifying general pact of nagaa, “peace” of (Borana) Oromo endorsed by waadaa, “covenant” as among the Salale, “differences” are resolved guided by a larger overarching concern for the social cohesion and stability of the whole society (Augliar, 2008:181-202) than just individual:

shuu! shuu buchi yaa saree,
maalitti waamu saroota?
lakki gorii narraa,
nu walii obbolootaa,
adaraa Waaqa dhalootaa!

shu! shu, away oh dog
what to call a pack of dog for?
behave yourself,

we are affine,
for God’s sake, behave yourself!

(Ababo Tulama, ibid )
The song is an example of performing resistance through culture, through reference to the controlling function of songs against violations of social norms by confrontational behavior. To make claims for the centrality of protest songs as part of Salale cultural resistance against Ethiopian state oppression is to trace the ways in which other Oromo cultural forms are performed to revitalize the concept of cultural nationalism.5 The texts are also fresh evidences of the disintegration of Ethiopia’s “territorial unity” of the “state” along ethnic lines.6

It is an accepted convention to alienate groups or individual seen as a threat to the nagaa, “peace” of the Oromo and to watch those who violate the waadaa, “covenant”. The following lines are rather critical about those who trespass and break the social law, the safuu (social and moral order) of the society:

aaboon anaa mana ol hiikse bakkaa,
yaa gadhee, waan ati gootun argaa!
aabboo tolchee mana ol hiikse roggee,
yaa gadhee ofitti hin dhiitin dhoqqee!

my father has built a house for me off the terrain
I’ll see, you slothful being if you train!
my father has made a home for me up the hill
oh, you indolent I know how jealous you feel!

(Ababo Tulama, ibid )
According to Benedict Anderson, songs work to foster intense feelings of solidarity and solidify nationalist bonds between a group of people too large to know one another personally as “there is a contemporaneous community which language alone suggests above all in the form of poetry and songs….no matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity” (p145). Anderson adds that, “at precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance” (ibid).

 Memory and Cultural Revival
The dominant culture in Ethiopia, working through Amharic language and Orthodox Christianity, wields the most power and sets the rules and standards of the minority cultures in the country.  Thus, dominance is determined by who holds the power over political and economic institutions than by who holds the majority. Hence, the census shows, the Cushitic Oromo branch have been, politically speaking, the minority although numerically the majority in the country, i.e., twenty-seven million by the 2007 national census.  According to Finfinne Obse Robale (my informant by correspondence, 2012) in the text below elders play the role of heretics to advocate against the dominant culture through their symptomatic narratives of cultural revival: 7 

namni alagaa keessaa lama nama dhiba:
-gaafa du'aa dhiba
-gaafa gumaa dhiba

one who sought refuge among aliens,
woe is a duo:
-to perform his funeral is awkward
-to avenge his murder is absurd

(Ababo Tulama, ibid )
In narratives of resistance and protest folksongs the Salale continually galvanized a sense of collective “unisonance” by making the audience recall the value of unity and solidarity against state violence. Folksongs are particularly effective as part of the covert resistance against the minority-led state that they are compact in form, yet replete with emotion and it is customary to disseminate subtle messages of resistance on such grand occasions as weddings, festivals, funerals, and ritual performances and cooperative works.  Contrary to the Amhara-Tigre ruling class elitism and relative literacy status of the Abyssinian dominant culture, it is the very accessibility of folk songs in the Oromo context that makes it such an important genre for collective political mobilization and identity formation against “national identification”. And this total expression comes about in such a heretic way of saying of “lammii”:

alagaan bara:
-yoo jabaatte kofoo sii baafata
-yoo sitti hammatte kofoo sirraa baafata

the alien and a shifting time are one:
when you are strong they revere you
when you are weak they contempt you

(Ababo Tulama, ibid )

Not only because they live in conditions of poverty but also they come from a historical experience where they had to rely on their very breath rather than on “print capitalism,” the Salale folk songs and narratives, as exuberant oral forms that impel the audience to participate and contribute through the sheer joy in the shared oral tradition. They are intimately connected to their land and stood throughout history distinct from the hierarchical and aristocratic Shawan ruling class:

lammiin walif shanan Gadaati:
-yoo dhihoo sii yaada
-yoo fagoo si yaada
-yoo malkaa galmaa si qaba.
-yoo galmaa malkaadhaa si qaba

-bakka sii qaba, bakkaayis si qaba

Gadaan ni mosoomsa, hin hiyyoomsu!

one’s own people, like the basics of Gada ritual,
are vital. those near you care for you
those far away fond of you
at well-spring, to tow water and fill the tow-hole 
at court, to make a sound judgment
your people are your refuge
your heimat, your home are your people  
and gadaa prospers, never fails you!

(Ababo Tulama, ibid )

In sum, those folksongs and narratives show that the stories the people live by, the values they hold, their creative expressions, how they build themselves as ‘community’ constitutes the realm of culture.  It is pertinent to foster cultural nationalism and construct national identity since it serves as a ground on which the battle is fought (Hutchinson 2006; Fanon 1969).  Hobsbawm shares Gellner’s point of view that “the political and national unit should be congruent” (Hobsbawm 1990:9; Gellner 2006/1983:1). From a cultural nationalist point of view, however, “ethnic and linguistic groups are synonymous” and, to Hutchisnon (1999) cultural nationalism is essentially a language movement” (p393).

In this paper I have made a claim that the cultural root of nationalism can be authenticated by folkloric data. This includes a collection of expressions that make a society who they are: stories they tell and believe about who they are, songs they sing about what they accomplished, what they failed and why, their values and world views all constitute their culture that makes up Oromumma. Thus, culture is a lens through which the society interprets the reality. The dominant culture within the Ethiopian context is overruled by Orthodox Christianity and Amharic language as a national emblem of Semitic ancestry though in reality there are about one hundred different ethno-nations and nationalities in the country.  Based on the data obtained through folkloric ethnography and “history from ‘below,’” Oromummaa as Oromo cultural nationalism reflects the economic, social and material conditions of the society and expresses the ways the people suffer, jubilate, survive, and evolve and as a form of resistance, it also served as a “weapon throughout history” or used for “social control”. Those Salale heroes who survived dictators’ murder and unlawful executions in Ethiopia are today’s heretics and tradition bearers. 

I have argued from Oromo perspective that Oromummaa or Oromo cultural nationalism influences all kinds of daily activities and events, and shapes the most self-conscious public actions and identities, especially when the people feel they face strong threats as a result of internal social changes, economic instability or external pressure to their well-being. Using the Salale folksongs and narratives of heroes and heretics, I have demonstrated that during the times of internal social tensions caused by Abyssinian domination the need for unity and historical references emerge by invoking the history of sacrifices of past generations and heroes who exemplified the national values now at risk. The Ethiopian state domination is not without the support of external ally from Western powers.8 Although modernity has emancipated humanity from laborious tasks and made life easier and better for few, it has also aroused insatiable human greed for power and wealth and to misuse the debilitating resources. Thus, by linking national politics to specific cultural, linguistic, and religious identities, Oromo (cultural) nationalists promote Oromummaa by constructing cultural revivalism and working towards literary culture.  Literary culture serves as a site where vernacularization as a process of change replaces the universalistic orders, formations and practices by localized forms which gradually evolve into the coalescence of nationalist ideologies. In so doing, Oromo cultural nationalists and tradition bearers (as well as heroes and heretics), idealize visions for the national future while working on fixing the false consciousness of the people, i.e. changing the systematic misrepresentation of dominant social relations set in the people’s consciousness by internal colonialism.

Finally, I should add, the aim of cultural resistance as a historical element of cultural nationalism is to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of humankind and perpetuate emancipation of mankind from any form of injustices. While the definition of ‘resistance’ can be problematic, ‘culture’ transcends the political, economic and social meaning of human practices. A “theory of culture,” Kenneth Surin (1997) claims, “does not impinge directly on culture, but on the concepts of culture, which are no less practical, actual, or effective than culture itself” (in Mudimbe, 1997:202). Thus, theory of culture is constructed by reflections on the natures and functions of its expressivities (p203), presumably, of human life experience.


1. Professor Asafa Jalata’s (2007) profound research shows the concept of Oromummaa is Oromo cultural identity and oppressed nationalism looking the impact of Oromummaa on Oromo liberation movement and community organization, and political and societal unity. Asafa also identifies and explores the nature of Oromo political behavior and how Oromummaa affects Oromo politics, and why some Oromo elites in the diaspora engage in destructive behavior. As a result of several structural problems, the unevenness of the development of Oromo nationalism is a serious problem, Asafa rightly argues, and the Oromo movement is currently in the process of confronting its obstacles to march towards the intended goal, i.e. Oromo self-determination (p10). 

2. Lael Weissman (1991) in “Herder, Folklore, and Modern Humanism,” discusses nationalism as an agenda of modern humanism, i.e., an essential conflict between the ideal and the actual (p51). Citing William Wilson (1973) Weissman states that serious folklore studies from the beginning searched the folklore record of the past not just to see how people lived in the past, which is “a principal interest of the antiquarians….but primarily to discover “historical” models on which to reshape the present and build the future” (Wilson p819, in Weissman, p51).  From the time of their encounter with the Christian rulers (the Amhara-Tigre) in the 16th century, the Oromo were often described “as the fierce horde of warriors aiming at ruthlessly destroying the Ethiopian state,” and, Bairu Tafla adds, “the prejudice deeply rooted within the Amhara-Tigre…, to the disadvantage of science and art, undermined the objective recording” of the history of the people (Tafla, 1987:48). Like any oral society, though the Oromo recorded their history through oral tradition, Tafla is right in that the time-depth of the oral tradition “does not at any rate exceed the documented time period,” (p49).

3. In this study, the term ethnography is used with the intent of providing a detailed, in-depth description of everyday life practices of people under a disempowering situation. Clifford Geertz (1973) calls such a detailed ethnographic interpretation of culture as a “thick description” in his writings about an interpretive theory of culture in the early 1970s. Thus, for the purpose of the present study, while ethnography is defined as a qualitative research process or method, the aim of ethnography goes beyond a mere cultural interpretation and reporting events and details of experience. In the present study the ethnographic search is to explain how the experiences represent what Geertz calls “webs of meaning” of the cultural construction in which humanity lives and theorizing people’s daily life practices the way they live.

4. Waadaa (Covenant) is a ritually sanctioned solemn oath especially among the Salale to maintain social cohesion and solidarity among themselves and for a sustainable co-existence with others.  Other equivalent words for the same moral / ethical concept overriding the principle of peaceful co-existence among the Oromo as part of the safuu (social/moral order) are irbuu and kakuu, as among the Boorana and Macca Oromo branches respectively.

5. Cultural Nationalism, John Hutchinson (2006) states, was a concept initially subsumed into a state-oriented political culture, which was recurring, legitimizing innovation through conservative arguments. In its various forms of media, art or language as both ‘unifier’ and ‘oppressor’, for Hutchinson, cultural nationalism is a “communitarian,” not “statist,” concept of the nation and it can shape bottom-up the agenda and direction of nation-states through expressive culture. 

6. History describes the temporal scope in terms of the contemporary (very recent) events, a defined intervening period (a century, a reign, a dynasty, a decade or a particular event), an originating episode or set of circumstances that gave rise to the entity for which the origin is claimed (the origin that places the history of one people as early as possible and transplant the “barbarian pasts” into a world chronological scheme much later than that of the West, which becomes a total chronological span over which the historical entity (people or event) has existed (Woolf  in Wang et al 2007:86).  The tension goes beyond nationalist forums to academic dialogues and, consequently, historical debate emerges to settle what happened to the community, society, people or nation. To tackle the challenge through process and answer when and why nationalism became such a powerful “ism” in their politics and public life constitutes the national history. In general, the subject of how nationalist fears and aspirations affect relations and the emotional power in people and in the personal lives of the ‘modern’ individual emerges as a compelling historical project both for scholars and nationalists. A social history constituted from “below” critiques how nationalism shapes those competing ideologies and the increasing arguments, and marks the spot where (and when) nationalism intersects with culture as a proper object of narration. 

7. Where the ancient poetry is resistant to interpretation against the daunting culture-history elements, but for the interpretation of ancient history and culture, conversely, poetry is a favorable illumination of the veil between the remote antiquity and the present (Bauman & Briggs, 2006). In this regard, literary culture serves as a site where vernacularization as a process of change replaces the universalistic orders, formations and practices by localized forms which gradually evolve into the coalescence of nationalist ideologies. By this metadiscursive paradigm of the localization of poetic tradition, texts in the vernacular repertoire are highly valued as national symbols and, in their hybrid state they are remnants of the past in the present without the intervention, mediation, and authorization of intellectuals. In the vernacularization process, to Herder’s poetics and ideology of language, language is the treasury of the thought of an entire people, its whole heart and soul, in which tradition, history, religion and principles of life dwell.  For a nation, its national language is a storehouse of thought.

8. Against the culture model of nationalism, Kwame Appiah (2006) argues, the focus should be on the long-term political and economic development of nations in line with the Western capitalist and democratic model, an approach that relies on continued (quantitative) growth of the capital-driven world. However, with the global flow of information, capital, labor that aggravates the uneven distribution of power, knowledge and resources in the Third World countries, the Western capitalist model is introduced to disrupt the livelihood of the peoples involved, the ethical question which Appiah shoves aside in his “Kindness to Strangers” that ‘it is not up to “us” to save the poor and starving, but up to their governments, and the cosmopolitan’s role is, to Appiah, to ensure that the nations-states respect, provide for, and protect their citizens (ibid.). And Appiah’s view that only our “fair share” and not at the expense of our own comfort, or the comfort of those “nearest and dearest” to us is an evidence for the presence of Western capitalist architects in the Third World which heightens the ambiguity of the ‘internal’/‘domestic’ colonialism vis-à-vis the presence and surveillance of ‘external’/‘foreign’ power(s). His view of cosmopolitanism also challenges cultural ‘difference’ in favor of ‘universal’ values which he suggests taking precedence and culture, in his view, matters less than the Western democratic/capitalist model. This conception of capitalist model of development and the focus on quantitative (GDP) growth further complicates the cultural root of nationalism.

The political thrust of nationalism is not necessarily revolutionary. An oppressed nation can seek to end its oppression by achieving self-determination but has limited options in its battle for complete equality and to obtain a higher level of democracy through fully enacting regional autonomy. Earnest Gellenr (1983), in his Nations and Nationalism describes nationalism as taking “pre-exiting cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invent them, and often obliterates” and Gellner stresses, “that is a reality, and in general an inescapable one” (pp48-49).  And almost at the same time Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) introduced the notion of ‘inventing traditions’ that involves ‘adaptation’ of old values and institutions and invention of “new” ones for some purpose. John Hutchinson (1999:392-407) challenges the notion of “invention of traditions” as surrogate statist than communitarian in principle. Thus, in Hutchinson’s view the primary goal of cultural nationalist as a social and moral innovator is to maintain a historically-rooted way of life. 


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Monday, December 31, 2012


Assefa Dibaba
Indiana University


This study has two aims to attempt: first, to revisit the historical background of Oromo folklore research and ethnographic undertakings and, second, using historical and literary approaches to explore the individual (and group) folklore research endeavors with a special reference to the Oromo team of 1880s and ’90s at Monkullo, Eritrea, Northeast Africa. The rationale for focusing on the Monkullo team is the relative massive work of Oromo folklore collection for linguistic endeavors and bible translation by the former slave young Oromo evangelists. The examination of the history of Oromo folklore shows that in the beginning the preoccupation was with collection, which was made not by folklorists or for folklore scholarship. Hence, I posit, the folklore collection made by emancipated former slave young Oromos with their mentors at Monkullo, Germany, and Lovedale in South Africa, has a pivotal role in the history of written Oromo language and Oromo folklore research. Towards this end, the archival collection of interviews in Sandra Shell’s Oromo Diaspora Narratives and other documents have been used in the present study and can be used for a broader study of Oromo folklore. The ex-slave young Oromo boy’s, Gutama Tarafo’s, four-page essay which he read to the Lovedale Literary Society in 1897, is a case in point. The essay is dense with primary information about the Oromo world-views, food-ways, traditional costumes, lifestyle, and marriage custom of his time. Thus, the core hypothesis of the present study is that Oromo folklore collection which began in the 19th century served as a wellspring, a repository, for other undertakings including lexicography, (bible) translation, and folklore study to the present.

Oromo, Salvage Ethnography, History of Folklore Study, Onesimos Nassib,
Aster Ganno Salban, Enrico Cerulli, Diaspora Oromo Narratives, Monkullo/Eritrea, Ethiopia


The examination of the history of folklore shows the preoccupation with collection. The early Oromo folklore collection was made not by folklorists or for folklore scholarship. To do folklore history is more than to “collect and classify the facts about past collecting and classifying;” it is more than to list facts into a calendric succession which, according to Dan Ben-Amos (1974), is a “chronic fallacy” of re-counting a chronicle, not writing a history of folklore (p114). “Chronicling” is undoubtedly one methodological pitfall that folklore scholarship suffers, especially at its formative stage. To practice ethnographic history is, however, to practice what Greg Dening (1961) calls “history’s theatre” or “performance,” that is, making-history, performing/doing history, and making-history involves “present”-ing the “past”. Centering on folkloristic approach, I import liminality theory (Turner 1967; 1969) to discuss the “in-between space” and time of isolation, the ‘ritual’ which the pioneering Oromo young evangelists went through as slaves. In line with Van Gennep’s liminal situation I apply Foucault’s notion of “other space/place” in a non-Foucaultian regal sense of colonists, the notion of heterotopia, i.e., a separate space (Foucault 1986), to reveal the situation under which the Oromo folkloristics was brewed at Monkullo, near Red Sea, Eritrea, by the people in a state of crisis. For our purpose, in this paper, the recurrence of ritualized, metaphoric and folkloric “other space,” “liminality,” and “performing history” to “produce effect” will be tolerated.

Methodologically speaking, an attempt is made to establish ethnographic history of Oromo folkloristics using historical and literary approaches chiefly based on secondary data and case studies done by other researchers. Some of the primary sources include, e-mail contacts and conversations about archival documents with Sandra Shell, 65, a PhD student in South Africa, and studying Oromo Diaspora Narratives., i.e. former Oromo slave narratives at Lovedale, SA. The collection of interviews in Shell’s Oromo Diaspora Narratives can be used for a broader study of Oromo folklore. For example, Gutama Tarafo’s four-page essay, which he read to the Lovedale Literary Society in 1897 deals with the Oromo folk-life, dense with data about the Oromo world-views, food-ways, traditional costumes, lifestyle, and marriage custom. In what follows, I turn to sketching the historical background of Oromo folklore scholarship.

The ethnographic history of Oromo folkloristics in this study has two parts: first, revisiting the historical background of Oromo folkloristics and the early ethnographic undertakings and, second, exploring the individual (and group) folkloristic research endeavors using historical and literary approaches with a spatial reference to the Oromo team of 1880s and ‘90s at Monkullo, Eritrea. The rationale for focusing on the Monkullo team is the relative massive work of Oromo folklore collection for linguistic endeavors and bible translation by the former slave young Oromo evangelists.

Early Oromo Philology, Ethnology, and Travelogues

In this section my aim is to outline the background history of Oromo folklore research through exploring early ethnographic travelogues, preferably “salvage ethnographies,” in East Africa and beyond. While I establish some insights into understanding the early Oromo folkloric, historical, and ethnological writings, the objective is to identify and understand those early works and reexamine them as ethnographic undertakings. In doing so, the primary focus of the present study will be reevaluating the folkloric collection at Monkullo in 1885-1898, which is one of the most astounding and groundbreaking works in the history of Oromo folklore collection (Bulcha, 1995; Pankhurst, 1976).
The groundwork done by the pioneering native Oromo evangelists in the nineteenth century was a vital reference point to reconstruct the history of Oromo folklore study. Though no research tools such as classification systems, indexes, annotated collection, and bibliographies were developed, the knowledge of those early collections is still vital in terms of theories and philosophical issues for current Oromo folklore scholarship. When in his Folklore and Folk-life Dorson (1972: 5-7 in Ben-Amos, p115) wrote folklorist’s skills or techniques are the use of fieldwork, museum, and indexes, the message was clear that ethnography and historical approach were among the dynamic methods in folkloristics while folklore theories were/are imported from other disciplines. Although literature focusing on the state of early Oromo research in general and folklore in particular is thin on the ground,  if ever a scanty contributions existed, they were either sentimental, predisposed to be imbalanced, unfairly critical or not in English language. The following are examples of early ethnology, linguistics, missionary and travel writings which made seminal contributions to the current Oromo folklore scholarship while some made unscholarly foregone conclusions.  

The Journal of African Society published in its 1914 January edition an article in two parts titled “The [Oromo] of the East Africa Protectorate” by Alice Werner. In its introduction the journal reads, among many difficult subjects Science did not say the last word or give but imperfect information or divided opinion about the region (Africa) were racial characteristics, political and industrial conditions, disease, and education (p121). Thus, as a primary objective of the journal, we are told, “it has been considered best to allow those competent to form an opinion …and conclusions they have arrived” in line with the “object of the Journal,” that is, “to gather information, and that each writer must be held responsible for his own views” (ibid). In the Journal of African Society, one can see that there was a need for ethnographic ethics and moral accountability, as it were, though the object was “to gather information,” it was also to do a scholarly work free from any bias and subjective judgment of any kind against the subjects.

Nonetheless, in the same journal, Werner describes disparagingly the Oromo of the East African Protectorate that, in her view, the Oromo near [B]oi, a station of the Ugandan Railway, were “the terror of East Africa” in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Conversely, writing about the Oromo who lived near Abyssinia in Oromoland, Werner quickly rectified her hasty conclusion by referring to those earlier travelers in Abyssinia and Oromoland. Among those early travelers she refers to and who lived and travelled in Oromoland were Tellez (entered the country in 1537), Jerome Ludolf (1622), and James Bruce who travelled in 1768 to 1773.  The Reverend J.L. Krapf “who made their acquaintance and studied [Oromo] language between 1838 and 1842” (ibid. p123), also collected Oromo songs and tales, compiled Oromo dictionary and grammar he later published in Europe. Krapf formed a high opinion, Werner argues, of the character and capacity of the Oromo “and believed that they were destined to play the same part in the development of Africa as the Teutonic races have done in that of Europe” (ibid).

In the same article Werner’s study focused on the folk-life of the “Orma,” meaning “free people,” part of the Oromo settled in the southeastern side of Kenya mostly along the lower Tana River, currently with a population of about 80, 000. In the paper she read on the Meeting of the Society in 19131Werner claimed that other Oromo populations settled in Wollo to the north and in the mountains of Shoa near the head-waters of Abai, to the neighborhood of Harar in the east and, across the border the Borana Oromo settled on a large tract of country east of Lake Rudolf. Werner’s ethnographic voyage covered four settings close to where she camped at Ngao, southeastern Kenya: Kulesa, on the Tana, a day’s journey by motor-launch; the Golbanti, a short distance from Ngao; Witu of Godana Jarra (chief), and Kurawa (p124). In this ethnographic encounter with the “Equatorial Oromo,” Werner’s methods included apparently interview and observation to draw a conclusion that the Orma, one hundred years back today, were exogamous matrilineal society organized into two moieties of Irdid (Arsi) and Barentuma (p136). She also drew on case studies and secondary sources done by Paulitschke, Johann L Krapf, a missionary who traveled in the region in early 1840s, and Charles New, Thomas Wakefield, and Robert Moss Ormerod.

Alice Werner’s study is most pertinent in the ethnographic history of Oromo folkloristics in that she presented the folkloric and ethnological accounts of Orma tradition. Among other things her study included gift exchanges among the Orma (p123), festivals (e.g. Godeya) and rituals (p125),costumes (p125ff), dance (p126), artisans / tumtuu (p126), houses (p127) and household items (p128), genealogy (p133), ritual chats as “secrete words of the old times” (p133) centered around the lu[b]a (chief) (ibid), marriage custom and kinship (pp136-7). Most of the cultural nuances discussed in Werner’s study among the Orma Oromo in Kenya are not radically different from what Enrico Cerulli presented in his MA folklore research in 1922 and the Oromo Grammar (1922) both conducted in Oromoland, except for the Orma moiety structure and matrilineal kinship system. The transcription and translation of the folklore text presented in the same paper is unintelligible to discuss. However, from the ritual context, one can tell that the text is one of blessings and prayers by the Orma luba (chief).  

Ethnographically speaking, the notion of interviewing, taking photos and conducting research among the Orma was not easy. Werner states that she was unable to obtain photographs of the best feminine types and did not get one successful negative of [Oromo] woman” (p125). The reason being, those at Kulesa, for instance, were shy to consent to pose. Werner’s theory of origin for the ‘Equatorial Oromo’ (pp124, 131) was Tullu (meaning, hill) on the Lower Tana, between Ngao and Kulesa, near the site of Marfanno, which is controversial so much as that of the ‘Abyssinian Oromo’ origin (pp122, 133) pointing at Tullu Nam-dur (Fugug) in Bale to the east. According to Werner, there is hardly any available data for fixing the chronological data when the Oromo settled in the equatorial region. Oral tradition and genealogy such as that of the chief Godana Jarra may give only a clue (p133). Godana could trace only his seven descents: Jarra (his father), son of Bagura, son of Uto, son of Dida, son of Kolbo, son of Dayu, son of Nine, son of Okole (p133). Thus, in 1824 when Captain Owen was there, the Orma were in the hinterland of Lamu (p135), southeastern Kenya. However, the presence of the Oromo to the north of Kenya was a matter of fact witnessed by Abba Bahrey as far back as in the 16th century.

Bahrey’s “History of the [Oromo] (1593)
Bahrey’s chronicle is important not just because of the reproachable motive of the literature but also because it blotted the Oromo ethnographic history in general and the writing of Oromo folkloristics in particular. It has become part of the emergent Oromo scholarship to reconstruct the disfigured past (Asafa, 1996). Bahrey was considered a historian and ethnographer by most of the Ethiopian and Ethiopinist scholars (Levine, 1993) who echoed the chronicle, “History of the [Oromo], without questioning critically its historical validity. According to Huntingford, Bahrey was a native of Gamo, south, who wrote what he observed closely and the region was invaded by the Oromo sixty or seventy years before Bahrey wrote the History (Levine, 1993:23). However, it is equally untenable as it is hard to justify an individual to become readily a monk, an ecclesiastic, chronicler in Geez script having come from no background to Christianity and writing tradition in the 16th century southern Ethiopia. Yet, Bahrey is best known among the Abyssinians for his chronicle and for recording folksongs in praise of Sarsa Dengel, the Abyssinian king threatened by the Oromo encounters in the16th century.

Among the reasons why Bahrey wrote about the Oromo, as he inadmissibly puts it, were “to make known the number of their tribes, their readiness to kill people, and the brutality of their manners”(Bahrey 1993:44). And he goes on to say, if anyone should ask why he wrote the history of “bad people,” he would answer by saying that “the history of Mohamed and the Moslem kings has been written, and they are our enemies in religion” (ibid.). Historically speaking, one can infer that the politics of place/space and religion intolerance in Ethiopia is as old as the emergence of the two main world religions, namely, Christianity and Islam, in the Horn. From a general standpoint, the term “Galla” that Bahrey engraved in the chronicle became a misnomer for over three centuries instead of the term “Oromo” until avoided in the 1970s as a pejorative term in Oromo ethnography and scholarly discussions and publications. However, not until in the 1990s was the term “Galla” fully shunned in media, conversations and publications in Ethiopia. Abba Bahrey’s chronicle, the so called “History of the [Oromo],” in Sabean (Geez) script became an ultimate source of information for the 16th century Oromo history. Manuel de Almeida borrowed heavily from Bahrey in wring history of Ethiopia as Hiob Ludolf derived much information on the Oromo from BaltazarTéllez's summary of Almeida’s work (Levine, 1993)

Of Oromo genealogy, Bahrey chronicled the two Oromo lines of decent, Borana and Barentuma, and most of all, the gada system, an egalitarian structure of unlimited folkloric, historical and anthropological values. Asmarom Legesse, an Eritrean anthropologist, studied the Oormo Gada system for his PhD and published it as Gada(1973), and later Oromo Democracy (2000). Though there was a number of undertakings in lexicographic, ethnological and travel writings in the following historical periods, not until in the second half of the 19th century was a collection of Oromo folklore made possible (Bulcha 1995). In 1880’s the young Oromo evangelists led by Onesimos Nassib and Aster Gannon Salban collected and documented from memory a large bulk of folkloric record ever compiled by native Oromo by the time and perhaps also by an African native in the northeast. The collection at Monkullo served as a springboard for the later Oromo (folklore) research such as the Folk Literature and the Oromo Grammar, though distracted by the Abyssinian policies and Abyssinianist prejudices of the European philologists and ethnologists.

In his book titled Ethiopians, for instance, one can read Edward Ullendorff’s (1960) misrepresentation of the Oromo in his most discriminatory sentimental account ever written about the people. He asserts that the Oromo belated the development of Ethiopia(ns) and had nothing to contribute any material or spiritual culture whatsoever. Huntingford reviewed Ullendorff’s dogmatic collation in the Africa journal and acclaimed it most as encyclopedic that it “covers the whole fields of Ethiopian studies” and avowed “no recent work of its kind in any language” (1960:296). Writing of the attitudes of Huntingford (and Leakey) about Africa, Sutton (2006) is right in noting that “Colonial attitudes and prejudices can be readily identified by every student perusing Africanist literature of the early twentieth century” (p287). In this regard, in early ethnographic travelogues, most notably in those attitudes of administrative outlook, “one gets to recognize different slants,” which is obvious in most part of the works “perused” in this essay, with further contrast between Protestant and Catholic missionaries, and mission educated Africans (ibid). According to Sutton, in 1920s both English scholars (Huntingford and Leakey) took on assignments in Kenya for the colonial government, as Enrico did in Ethiopia. However, they also volunteered “their wisdom about “native customs” and mentality whenever inexperienced officials, insensitive settlers or zealous missionaries encountered distrust or open protest” (Sutton, p287).

As we will see later in this study one of the four major sources of Enrico Cerulli’s (1922) MA research, the Folk Literature of the [Oromo] of Southern Abyssinia was the folklore collection made by Onesimos Nasib and Aster Ganno Salban published by Paulitschke as Oromo Readers(1894). For his German-Oromo-English Dictionary(1842) in Germany, Dr. Karl Tutscheck collected folklore from the young Oromo girl, Mahbuba (Birille)2 by which he enriched his lexicographic endeavor (Pankhurts, 1976). Liban Bultum, the former young Oromo slave from Lovedale, South Africa, came home with other Oromo returnees in 1909 and worked on the Oromo-English, English-Oromo Dictionary with Edmund Foot (1913). Admittedly, Foot and Liban could not embark on their lexicographic venture in Ethiopia without the collection of Oromo folklore and compilation of a corpus of Oromo vocabulary (Foot, ibid).

From what has been presented, there were two waves during the inception of Oromo ethnographic history both at home and abroad. The first wave was that in Oromoland the fire of Oromo collection and literacy was lit by the Reverend Krapf in 1839 and ‘40s among the Tulama Oromo when at the same time the former young Oromo slaves (Mahbuba, Oshu Aaga, and Akka-fedhe) were collaborating with Karl Tutscheck in Germany on folklore collection and compiling vocabulary for the Oromo-German-English dictionary (Pankhurst 1976). Though it was banned in its early inception in 1842, Krpaf’s venture was not without result as planned by the Abyssinian clergies and the king. The compilation of vocabulary, outline of the Oromo grammar, and bible translations were published but the folklore collection was not brought to fruition. The second wave propelled the emancipated souls that took refuge on two extreme poles of the continent: Northeast Africa, Monkullo, near Read Sea, in 1885-1898 (Mekuria, 1995), and Lovedale, East Cape, South Africa, in 1888, when, by such a lucky accident, the former young Oromo slaves put anchor and marked the beginning of Oromo ethnographic history and Oromo Diaspora narratives (Shell, 2010) as if driven by some magic life force at the same time.

The Oromo folklore collection began as a craft rather than as science before more than a century but lagged behind to lay the foundation for research, identification and selection of researchable subject matter, construction of a theoretical framework, and the proposal of methodological procedures. The Ethiopian language and education policies, among other factors, trapped Oromo scholarship and folklore is no exception.  As a common practice of the day at Monkullo and Europe, methodologically it could be difficult for the philologists, ethnologists, missionaries, and linguists in the 19th and early twentieth centuries to work successfully on collecting and compiling Oromo dictionary and grammar without doing folklore collection. The Oromo team at Monlkullo followed the same pattern. Though banned and expelled from Oromoland by the Shoan king, Sahle Selassie, in 1842, the Reverend Krapf collected Oromo vocabulary and published in 1842 (Foot, 1913; Pankhurst, 1976…), and “An Outline of some elementary forms of Oromo Grammar,” as he also collected some Oromo songs and stories (Pankhurst 1976) among the Galan Oromo and Ada’a. In the Practical Oromo Grammar by Arnold Hodson and Craven Walker (1922), the same year when Cerulli was conducting his MA research on Oromo folklore, the two authors heavily drew on the sources of Oromo folklore collection, as Cerulli did, to demonstrate Oromo grammar (pp146, 263-269).

Regarding the nature of the available data to establish the background of the ethnographic history of Oromo folkloristics, the five-part VOA (Oromo) interviews3 with Sandra Shell and the late Prof Neville Alexander David, among other sources, are rich databases. Neville Alexander was a maternal grandson of Bisho Jarsa who was a former Oromo slave at Lovedale and a teacher. The interview titled the “Story of Onesimos Nasib as told by his grandson, the Reverend Barnabas Daniel, is also another document to excavate further the works of Onesimos Nasib and the team at Monkullo and later in Oromoland until he died in 1931 at 75 or 76. To be acquainted well with the specific context of the documents, the present study uses maps of the regions mentioned in the text to assist the contextual introduction of the discussion.  

Historical and Literary Approaches to Oromo Folklore Study

Knowledge of Oromo history is essential in understanding the mosaic of Oromo folklore. Part of this mosaic is supplied by the historical and political situations the Oromo were put in for more than a century, the situation to which they never readily surrendered from the early days of the Abyssinia-Oromo encounters in the 15th century. In a human history, as peaceful “co-existence” based on mutual understanding and recognition of partners enforced cultural exchange and solidarity, repression and insatiable greed for expansion in the name of nation-building imposed assimilation and a gradual “no-existence” for the subordinate. In the Amhara-Oromo interactions since the second half of the 19th century, the Oromo engaged in a continuous resistance and faced violence, war, subjugation and serious consequences of the violence such as loss of lives, famine, and slave-raid memorized and recorded in songs and stories and handed down to generations to contemplate. As if by lucky accident, the emergent knowledge creation repressed for years by the Abyssinian despots took a momentum outside of Oromoland in Europe and in northeast and southern tips of Africa by Oromo young ex-slaves and western scholars fascinated by the Oromo language and culture. The historical journey of Bilillee to Germany in 1830s to meet there other Oromo ex-slaves such as Oshu Aaga and Akka-fedhee to lay ground for Oromo folkloristics and Literacy is part of the lucky accident. Bilillee’s  ragic romance presented in the Encyclopedia Aethiopica (2007) shows her contribution to the Oromo culture, which was arrested by her premature death at 16. My purpose is to excavate the unwitting ethnographic excursions of the Oromo pioneers somewhere else but outside of their beloved homeland. 

Inspired by my participation in the graduate course Historical and Literary Approaches in Folklore Scholarship, I set out to revisit the history of Oromo folklore studies in the historic and folkloric landscape(s) set by compatriot and foreign scholars as a vast stage for the later Oromo folklore scholarships. It is also time to revisit the (re)search I did five years back with my students at Addis Ababa University on the survey of Oromo literature (folklore and written Oromo language) in 2007 and 2008 and published in Oromo language as Eela: History of Oromo Literature (Asafa, 2009). Although the 2007 and 2008 project, Eela, fused into one the two separate disciplines, namely, history of Oromo literature and history of Oromo folklorsitics, the focus of the project was primarily to find out the beginning of a written account of the Oromo in the Horn of Africa. In the findings we traced in salvage ethnographies the genealogy of written accounts of the Oromo up to the chronicle titled History of the [Oromo] commonly dated as1593 and widely accepted as a work of the Abyssinian monk, Abba Bahrey, as already discussed in this paper. He was the chronicler of Emperor Sarsa Dengel (1563–1597), the Abyssinian king who was constantly campaigning against the Oromo.

In the salvage ethnographies by travelers, missionaries and ethnologists explored in the study conducted I with my students in Ethiopia (2009),the findings showed that there were sources of written Oromo language in which a small portion of the Bible was translated into Oromo by James Bruce in his Travels in Abyssinia (1768), as he was practicing to read and write in the languages in the region as part of the narrative of his adventures in the Horn of Africa.  Later Henry Salt (1814:399-402), another traveler, compiled a handful of vocabularies of African languages and published a thin volume of English-Harari-[Oromo]-[Afar]multi-lingual dictionary.

In the last sections, an attempt has been made to constitute a historical context for the scholastic revolutions that our predecessors handed down and, so doing, I hope will reveal the state of Oromo folklore in the remaining part of this paper. Those pioneers showed radically new forms of action and perseverance that could transform the historic landscape of the history of Oromo studies in general and folkloristics in particular. However, the idea of promoting Oromo research in Oromoland was delayed by the pressure imposed by the Abyssinian warlords. It was a particular moment of ongoing dialogue  by travelers and ethnologists among themselves while the dialogue among the  missionaries was rather sidetracked by two immediate but conflicting forces of conversion of the young former slave native Oromo to Christianity and assimilation of the Oromo by the Abyssinian colonial rule who banned the evangelists to reinter Oromoland. Through repeated risk takings, continued dialogues between the young Oromo missionaries and the Abyssinian warlords, and perseverance, commitment and action, the ethnography of Oromo studies were eventually established as a “mini-academy” in Monkullo, Eritrea (Bulcha 1995).  The academy included folklore collection, lexicography and translation of the bible and other evangelical literature into Oromo language

Monkullo as “Other Space”: Heterotopia, Liminality
Ethnographic history has an epistemological strand and interpretive scheme as a model. I the model to exploring history of Oromo folkloristics by drawing attention to the activities of research and writing, to the site of the researcher’s engagement with documents, and with the manifold uncertainties of historical inquiry. Ethnographic history claims that there are more than one ways of engaging in the past by constructing many stories from different vantage points and constituting oral histories. In so doing through a systematized orientation of history and ethnographic search of historical actions the ethnographic history transforms the cultural relativism approach that all cultures are equal to a more radical stance that different cultural histories were produced for different occasions, values and ethnos.

There is lack of clarity in the previous studies about that history of the early Oromo folklore collections. Ethnographic history is not just narrating words about words as the traditional historical approach would do but engaged from a particular vantage point in the dialogue between history and folkloristics, history and literature, and history and ethnography/ethnology. Starting in  the first half of the twentieth century with Enrico Cerulli’s (1922) MA thesis until in the late 1970s and later when few BA and MA folklore research began to appear at Addis Ababa University requires thorough investigation if it was merely a such a long and barren time period in Oromo folklore scholarship. However, the ethnographic history of Oromo folkloristics, lexicography, and translation based at Monkullo between 1885 and 1898 is worth studying each discipline separately as the history of those disciplines has been fuzzy so far and lumped into one with less details and clarity.

Rooted in interests of performance and ritual drama, in a balanced approach to meaning and action arose the influence of Victor Turner’s notion of “liminality”. Turner ensured the widespread usage of the concept in anthropology and other fields based on Van Gennep’s concept of “ritual”.  To facilitate for experiencing nuances of historical particularities, wider values and ethos of particular cultures, ethnographic history can be fruitful while put to practice in conjunction with Geertz’s “thick description” (Turner, 1967).  In such an interdisciplinary fashion, for the purpose of this study, ethnographic history can adopt those concepts of  “separation,” “liminality,” and “re-assimilation” applied  creatively by drawing attention to the richly textured nature of activities, which were rituals in their own right but had otherwise been seen in instrumental ways.  The words “liminal” and “liminality” derive from the Latin “limen” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of the doorway that must be crossed to enter a building. OED puts “liminality” as first used in publication in the field of psychology in 1884 and introduced to the field of anthropology by Arnold Van Gennep in his The Rites of Passage in (1909).

According to Van Gennep’s observation of human behavior, the ritual ceremonies that accompany the landmark of human life differ only in detail from one culture to another and they are in essence universal. Van Gennep described rites of passage such as coming-of-age rituals and marriage as having three part-structures of separation, liminal period, and re-assimilation (Turner 1969)In this view, the initiate undergoing the ritual is first separated, alienated i.e. stripped of the social status possessed before the ritual, and then inducted, inaugurated into the liminal period of transition, finally to be given new status and re-assimilated into society.  Given the folkloric and anthropological affiliations of this concept of liminlaity later developed by Victor Turner’s theory, I apply the concept here to the ethnographic history model to explain the condition of the ex-slave young Oromo evangelists at Monkullo.  By the same token, the native Oromo ex-slaves were caught by slave raiders and estranged from their home and society, converted to Christianity and stayed in camp far from home and society for years, which was a prolonged liminal yet productive period, banned for years to re-assimilate with the society.  Likewise, Sheick Bakri Saphalo, poet and educator from eastern Oromia was also forced to flee his homeland by Haile Selassie officials (Asafa, 2009).  

In his Ndembu Ritual (1967) based in Zambia Turner interpreted liminality by drawing heavily on Van Gennep’s  three-part structure focusing entirely on the transitional or liminal stage, the middle stage of the rites of passage where the subject of the passage ritual is structurally ‘invisible’  (p95) during the liminal period. Similarly, the “social invisibility” of the Oromo young ‘initiates’ at Monkullo was also obvious, though relatively “free,” but they were encamped and kept in confinement in Eritrea deprived of the right to re-inter the Oromoland and re-assimilate with their people. Much the same way as liminal individuals their status was socially and structurally ambiguous. That is, their liminality was that, spatially, they were “neither here nor there,” rather “in-between”. As Turner rightly states, the liminal stage is the realm of “pure possibility” and structural invisibility. The liminal individual is “betwixt and between” the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, and convention” (1969:95). Turner’s liminal period is a source of positive structural assertions and a realm of pure possibility “whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (Turner, ibid. p97).

In 1880s and ’90s the young Oromo evangelists lived in a “space-between” in Monkullo, Eritrea, after they were freed from slavery but marked the beginning of Oromo studies and practiced unwittingly ethnographic history in the fields of folkloristics, lexicography, and (bible) translation set in a liminal positionIn this regard, as Greg Denning states, the abiding grace of history is not in knowing the truth by being told it but in experiencing it in everyday life, which requires seeking it earnestly since truth can be clothed in a story in some other way than expected (Denning, 1961). For the individual(s) in a liminal stage, ‘truth’ is being “not here nor there,” a space of otherness that is simultaneously physical and mental, a heterotopia, a concept elaborated by Michelle Foucault (Foucault, 1986) as a place/space that functions in non-hegemonic conditions. In line with this, Denning argues, we experience the truth “in everyday life sometimes uncertainly, sometimes contradictorily, sometimes clouded by the forces that drives us to it, sometimes so clearly that it blinds us to anything else” (ibid). The Monkullo Oromo  team, as if by irony of fate, were separated from home at childhood and enslaved, then freed and put in a liminality far from home until they turned adulthood to become sources of positive structural assertions and a realm of “pure possibility” from where arose a “new light” of history in Oromo literacy and folkloristics.

After repeated attempts and prohibitions by Menelik, the Abyssinian despot, to enter their homeland, Onesimos resumed with his team the teaching duties at Munkullo and ‘set about the most important part of his life-work: that of creating an Oromo literature’ (Bulcha citing Aren 1977:262). To let the young evangelists into Abyssinia and then cross to Oromoland, for the Abyssinian warlords, was to pollute the purity (of language, religion, and ideology) sanctified by the Orthodox Christian rule over the subordinate without education and therefore without political consciousness. By citing Mary Douglas’s (1966)Purity and Danger,4 Turner argues liminal individuals are polluting and dangerous to those who have not gone through the liminal period. That is, the liminal group is not a typical social hierarchy but a communal group in which all are equal and that they have no status, rank, kinship position, or nothing to demarcate them structurally from their fellows (1967:98). Since they can infect and spoil with the new religion (protestant), new scripture translated into the native language, Oromo language, and new way of worshiping, the young Oromo evangelists had to be banned and kept on the border from entering Oromoland.

To construct the ethnographic history of Oromo folkloristics one faces, among others, the problem of the possibility of space spread out of reach as time. However, as Michelle Foucault (1986) writes in his “Of Other Spaces,” one of the two functions of heterotopia is a “compensation” of a space, that is, to create a real space, a space that is “other”. Far from home and in estrangement, the Oromo team of young evangelists at Monkullo, Eritrea, compensated in the 1880s and ‘90s the real space in relation to the space/place that could not immediately come to their eye, namely, “Biyya Oromo” (Oromoland). For the young Oromo evangelists, in liminality, Oromoland was a utopia,in a non-Foucaultian regal sense, but Monkullo is a heterotopic compensation for Oromoland, an idea or image not real, but represents a perfected version of society (Foucault 1986:27). The notion of heterotopia and liminality theory is compatible in that the ritual heterotopia, like the liminal space, is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, other space, isolated from the real space and not freely accessible like a public space. Ethnographic history cannot disregard the intersection of time with space since in everyday human life there are places of important function (p22), real or imagined. Of crisis heterotopia in the so-called primitive societyFoucault writes, there are forbidden places reserved for people in a state of crises (p24): for a menstruating women, a pregnant women, and elderly, or as in spirit possession, spaces reserved for the subject, diviner and clients. Between crisis heterotopia and heterotopia of deviation (e.g. prison, hospital, and reservation camp) is a borderline of a crisis. Old age and retirement is also considered a deviation, as Foucault sates, “in a society where leisure is a rule, idleness is a sort of deviation” (p25).

In the case of the Oromo ex-slaves who were freed from slavery but not free to go home, banned from re-entry, and put in a state of crisis they had to create a liminal space, a crisis heterotopia where, as converts, they could make history and experience truth. They formed a small heterotopic society of “other space” with several places not only for the affirmation of differences but also as a means of escape from authoritarianism and repression (Foucault 1986). Thus, the idea of place as a heterotopic entity relates more to ethnicity and gender than class in the postmodern theoretical discussion of social heteronomy, or in absence of autonomy.

The Former Slave Oromo Young Evangelists, Monkulloo (1885-1898)
In this paper I do not aim to provide comprehensive details of the places where early Oromo studies and inceptions of folkloric research works were brewed. The intention is rather to give a few accounts of the places, i.e., Monkulu and Lovedale, among others, in relation to the early attempts made to initiate Oromo studies in the 19th century.  Place names present a particular difficulty since they have been spelt and pronounced differently by people speaking different languages in various historical contexts.  Hence, in this study, I have chosen the most common variant used in Oromo studies such as the works of Mekuria Bulcha who has been writing extensively with a particular interest in the history of written Oromo language and Ethiopian language policy (Bulcha 1995; 1996). Hence, I follow Bulcha’s way of common vernacular transcription and pronunciation. 

The Setting
Monkullo is an inland village in today’s Northern Red Sea Region of Eritrea that lies along the northern three quarters of the Red Sea. Monkullo possibly emerged in the early period of Ottoman rule to develop in the first decade of the 19thcentury as a satellite of Massawa, the port town of Eritrea. It served as a main gate to exports of civets, gold, ivory, and slave from the south of Abyssinia to import spices, silken, and garments of all kinds from India, and carpets and weapons (Pankhurst, 1982:233). Monkullo, about four miles inland from the coast was the main source of drinking water for Massawa and a place of refuge for the well-to-do families from the hot and stifling climate of Massawa. By 1830 Monkullo was inhabited by people from Massawa with their cattle and slaves to the relatively cool and green area and get good drinking water which was carried by donkey and slaves to Massawa (Pankhurst, p241). Europeans (French, British, Austrian, and later Swedes) consuls also built residences in 1840s until abandoned with the arrival of a Tigre warlord, Dajjazmach Webe in the 1850s and to resettle in the Island (ibid. p241).

In the 1880s the presence of missionaries in the region was evident, especially “the Swedish Protestant School at Monkulu, and the French Lazarist at Karan (Pankhurst, p198). Improvement at Massawa, the colonial capital of Italy until 1899, led to the growth of Monkullo, the nearby satellite village town. According to Pankhurst, although banned by Emperor Yohannes, the Swedish Missionary School was ‘very well conducted’ and provided the pupils with ‘a very useful education’. They trained the boys as carpenters, blacksmiths, and masonry, and the girls were trained in cooking, sewing, and household works (ibid). However, limited by the static character of the economy, it was difficult to be employed by the skill. “Outcast from their own people and unable to find employment,” which was hard for women than for men (ibid), the ex-slave young Oromo at Monkullo had ample time to focus on Oromo folklore collection, dictionary and bible translation while attending school.

Onesimos Nassib and Aster Ganno Salban
Onesimos Nasib and Aster Ganno Salban5organized the hard core of historical facts by initiating Oromo mini-academy at Monkullo around the turn of the 20th century. After the repeated and failed attempts in the 1880s to reenter the Oromoland through Abyssinia the Oromo team at Monkullo turned to work on collecting Oromo folklore, compiling dictionary, and translating the bible and bible stories. Under the leadership of Onesimos Nasib and Aster Ganno Salban, the team contributed a large Oromo collection at the Swedish Missionary School opened in 1866.6Among the collections include short religious books, collection of folksongs and stories in the Oromo Spelling Book (1894) by Onesimus Nasib and Aster Ganno, Weedduu, or Oromo Maiden Songs (1894) by Aster Ganno, comprehensive grammar of Oromo language, more than 15, 000 Oromo vocabularies to compile dictionary, John Bunyan’s Man’s Heart translated into Oromo language, Luther’s Catechism, and Dr. Barth’s Bible Stories, all translated into Oromo language with the Holy Bible, which was published in 1899.The Monkullu team of Oromo used Geez (Aethiopic) script but also relied heavily on memories of the members of the young evangelists, Aster Ganno Salban in particular.7 The Oromo Spelling Book (1894), was one of the achievements of the Monkulu team which Enrico Cerulli (1922) translated into English with Lorensiyos Wolde Iyasus and included in his MA research the songs, stories, riddles, and proverbs documented both by Aster Ganno Salban and Onesimos Nasib from their memory (Bulcha 1995; Pankhurst 1976).

Despite a resurgence of scholarly interest among the pioneering young Oromo evangelists in the second half of the 19th century, there were only few ‘ethnographic’ endeavors by European travelers and missionaries involving natives when Enrico Cerulli took up the pioneering folkloric (and historical, linguistic, and anthropological) project for his MA research  among the Oromo in 1922. However, Enrico’s folklore research among the Oromo is not the first folkloristic endeavor ever made. The history of Oromo folkloristics might have started, as Pankhurst (1976) points it out, with those collections and compilations of Oromo folklore in Germany by the freed young Oromo girl in 1839 with the philologist Dr. Karl Tutscheck (ibdi). Those early large collections and compilations of more than 600 texts by the young Oromo evangelists in 1885-1898 at Monkullo can be considered as the first Oromo folkloric ‘ethnography’ ever made by natives in the region (Bulcha 1995) which served as a source of folkloric and linguistic research works (Cerulli, 1922;Hodson and Walker,1922).

Enrico Cerulli acknowledges four major sources of his data: Lij Haile Mariam Gugsa Dargie (the son of the Abyssinian duke of Salale), Aga Mohammed Seid of Limmu (Macca), Lorensiyos Wolde Iyasus, and the collections of the MTO, but he states that he recorded the most part of his Oromo texts through interviews primarily with Loransiyos Walda Iyasus, a war veteran and Salale Oromo of Abbichu. Of the three informants, Loransiyos was the most resourceful and significant one not only by providing the researcher with reliable and substantial data from memory but also by his knowledge of the Oromo language during the translation and transcription of the texts which Enrico wrote in Latin script (Enrico 1922/2003)

In the next section, I will present two folksongs, as a sample of Oromo nuptial songs, which often overlap with faaruu gaddaa, i.e., songs of sorrow.The genre chronicles the bride’s past experience with her peers and the care and love of her kin, which she misses because of marriage, separated far away from her village, now she cannot help but woe day and night living among strangers. By the same token through editing some place names in the folksong, Aster and Onesimos recapitulated their memory and recreated the nostalgic presence of irresistible love for their home in the Oromo Spelling Book (1894:140; Cerulli 1922). Thus, the collection of the folksongs and stories in the book are metadata, or metacontent since they serve as data about data, representing the living experience at Monkullo, the “other space,” since they were banned to return home. Through the act of reading, writing, translating, and collecting folklore, I posit, the Oromo team exercised agency under a disempowering situation.

Poetic Metadata
In the hegemonic contract fused with consent and dissent in the life experiences of the ex-slave Oromo young evangelists, one can feel them torn in two and stuck in “betwixt and between” like initiates  forsaken unduly, in a ritualized but heterotopic other space, yet, they vowed to “produce effects,” to borrow Greg Dening’s (1967) performing phrase. The consent is a refusal to succumb to a stultifying trauma of slavery and, instead, work on reinforcing nostalgia of reenactment, make a living museum, i.e., “produce effects,” and make history. In the two songs below in Onesimos Nasib’s (1894) Oromo Readers, Onesimos recaps his and his group’s inundating return of past experience in the hands of slave raiders under Menelik’s warlords and after not in silence and emptiness, but, in Paul Valery’s words, as ‘the active presence of absent things’:

yammuu gaara baate,                                                      
maaf na hin waamin maaloo?                                                                                       
yammuu gargar baanee                                  
yammuu “Macca” taanee                                               
maa na hin nyaatin Baaro!                                            
                                                                                                            when way up the hill you hurried, 
why you left me back to woe?
or when we parted for good
and became alien, like “Macca”
oh! had I drowned in the Baro River!…
[text 1]

At the heart of this nuptial song sung by peers is a close emotional association which causes the listener(s) to shed tears hearing the song as simple in form as in style, and accept it without any question for its dense content, embedded by the melancholic heave of separation and estrangement represented by “Macca” as by marriage. At the same time, by the universal appeal of liminlaity, the initiate finds himself (herself) in a limbo but through the intrinsic beauty of childhood memory sees in resentment the nostalgia of inseparability, closeness, and home, the “other space”. The sublimity of the seemingly simple tune of the nuptial song above lies not just in an overcoming of the heterotopic “otherness” but persists in the consent of the group to have common vision to “produce effect,” i.e. the folklore collection from memory, compiling Oromo dictionary, and bible translation as they are teaching and learning.

Onesimos draws heavily on his and Aster Gannon Salban’s memory and other Oromo ex-slaves for the folk songs in his collection titled Oromo Readers. Aster also recorded at Monkullo more than 500 maiden songs later published as Weedduu (citation needed). In the next folksong, Onesimos put his own despondent poetic voice instead of the bridal mournful image and lashed at those raiders who heartlessly caught and sold him seven times before he came to Massawa, near the Red Sea:

utuu jirbii footanii                                                            
bubbuuttuu akkam gootanii?                                         
ofii “Galla” teessanii                                                                       
Moxuwwaa na buuftanii                                 
guungumtuu na gootanii,                                
guumgumtuu akka ilmoo dhabaa                 

as you spin and spine,
where you hid the spinning machine?
now you settled as if calmly at home,
but you flung me away to Massawa
and I became a moaner, wailer, protester,
like the only begotten but naughty child!
 [text 2]

The folksong gives poignant reminders of the universal timeless characteristics of mankind, that is, the shared humane quality of living, loving and “suffering truth”. It is the personal quality of the nuptial song, which Onesimos adapted for his own poetic end that makes the persons or events very real to identify with and share the irresistible feelings of homesickness, the personal identification which makes folksongs vitally important.

Toponymic Functions of Place Names
In Oromo nuptial song, the bride outlines local place names and the names of her kin and to memorialize those places where she harvested, fetched firewood and water, danced, and played with her peers as a young girl. Now it is time she is married off to a village far away from home among strangers, Macca, as the notion of “estrangement” is thus recapped to refer to “alien”.  Onesimos and Aster used “Macca” interchangeably with “Cush” in the bible they translated. However, Macca is the name of one of the two ethnic groups (Macca and Tulama) where I come from in the western part of Oromia. Most of the former Oromo slaves belong to Macca, including Onesimos and Aster.

In the two texts above, the place names Baro, “Galla,” and Moxuwwa (Massawa) have two toponymic functions. First, they show the origin of the folksong, and, second, they also give some geographical information about where the singer comes from. Editing folksong is another scenario worth mentioning here. It is not amazing that those texts were/are widely known and popular among the Macca Oromo. In the second nuptial song, the singers (author(s)) edited the original variant song and changed some place name, i.e., the bride’s village or any local name, to “Galla” which, in this context is to refer to Oromoland. What poetic purpose is achieved by editing the original text? First, the song describes in a lyrically sorrowful way the distance, banishment, and the overwhelming feeling of nostalgia not of their immediate birthplace but the whole Oromoland. In the songs, the singers, i.e. the young Oromo evangelists now dwell and work under the paternalist mentorship of the Swedish Missionary Institute until they came home to Oromoland in 1903 to teach and preach evangelism to the Oromo of Macca in the west.

In this paper I have tried to set an ethnographic historical context to examine the beginning and development of Oromo folklore scholarship. By focusing on the ethnographic undertakings at Monkullo, I have highlighted two major historical episodes which negatively affected the development of Oromo research in general and folklore study in particular. The first is the unbearable language and educational policies of the authoritarian Ethiopian regimes that trapped and hindered promoting Oromo culture through the expulsion of missionaries (e.g. Krpaf in 1842) and banning of native evangelists from re-entry. Second, the unrelenting biases of ethnologists and travelers and their relative lack of ethically oriented engagement with ‘ethnographic’ approaches to work in the field with the people (the Oromo) also markedly impaired Oromo scholarship. The fact that the early ethnologists and travelers came to the Oromo through the regal door of the Abyssinian kings, approached the culture with their own sentimental views, and copied each other in their travelogues, affected other scholars to succumb to the highly relativist and unscholarly ethnographic projects appended to the domineering Ethiopian Studies. The wash-back effect of the two setbacks discussed is obvious as the national histories of both the radical, “emergent knowledge construction” of the Oromo nation is juxtaposed with the rather conservative rival unit, Ethiopian Studies, and both place politics at their forefront and marginalize questions of culture or insist on the political character of cultural beliefs by closing door to partnerships.  

1. Alice Werner, poet and professor at Oxford and Cambridge with her sister Mary Werner until her retirement in the end of 1929-1930 published her article in the Journal of African Society in 1914 later renamed Journal of the Royal African Society. By way of a bibliographical evidence to this journal, the editor announces in the July 1935 issue, the change in the name from African Society to the Royal African Society will help to draw attention to the coordination of European effort in Africa both for the settlers of all countries and for the improvement, development and well-being of the African native himself. Now, as time loomed, African Affairs came to be published on behalf of the Journal of the Royal African Society focusing on the recent political, social and economic developments in sub-Saharan countries.

2. Mhabuba was an Oromo slave girl from Guuma, who was taken to Germany in the early 19th century by the famous German Prince Herman Puckler-Musaku, a noble garden architect and writer. She was originally called Bilillee (Oromo ‘narrow naked flask’) and nicknamed Ajami (or Ajiame”, i.e. ‘non-Arab’; cp. Assing-Grimelli 1874). According to Pankhurst, allegedly captured as a result of fighting in which her father and six brothers were killed, she and a sister were taken by slave merchants to Gondar, where they were separated. Mhabuba was then conveyed to a Khartoum slave market where she and several other slaves are said to have been bought by a French speculator, after which she was, ca. 12-13 years old, purchased at Cairo in 1837 by the eccentric Prince von Puckler-Musaku, who called her, significantly, Mhabuba (Assing-Grimelli 1874:111f., 117-20). She followed him during his exploration of the Sudan, until Meroe. He then took her, together with another Oromo salve-girl, also called Ajamie, up the Nile to Cairo, and then to Palestine, where she met the remarkable British woman traveler of the East, Lady Hester Stanhope, and visited Jerusalem (Stanhope, 1845:97, 100f., 106f.; Cleveland, 1914”105f., 109f., 113).Puckler 1 subsequently took Mahbuba to Lebanon and Turkey, taught her Italian, which he considered the language of love, and interviewed her about the Oromo conception of God. Developing consumption, she was taken by Puckler to the Bohemian health resort of Marienbad, after which she was installed in the Puckler family estate at Musaku (   ). There, by then in failing health, she came in contact with another Oromo ex-slave Oshu Aaga, informant and student of Tutscheck, the author of the first Oromo dictionary (1844:xiii). Oshu recommended Mhabuba to Tutscheck to whom she recited Oromo poems and whose linguistic studies she thus assisted until she died in 1840 at the early age of 16. The prince, later he would write that she was “the being I loved most of all the world (Persoon, 2007:654).

 (See also her wax figure, Ohff 1993:161). She was buried in Musaku church  (Assing-Grimelli 1874:188f; 1875:17, 21, 37).

3. Lovedale was a Scottish mission station and educational institute in today’s East Cape Province of South Africa, on the banks of the Tyhume (Chumie) tributary of the Keiskama River, some two miles north of Alice.  Originally 64 ex-slave Oromo children arrived in Lovedale in 1888. The children were enslaved during Menelik’s invasion of the Oromoland in 1880s and destined for the Arabian market but rescued on the Red Sea coast by the British Navy’s HMS Osprey in September 1888. According to Sandra Shelly, who is doing her PhD on “Oromo Diaspora Narrative,” the children were liberated and taken to the care of the Free Church of Scotland’s Keith-Falconer Mission at Sheik-Othman in Aden. As the children suffered in the harsh living and weather condition in the northern part of Aden, the Missionary deliberated to send the children to one of its African missions called Lovedale Institution, Eastern Cape, South Africa. However, when 13 of the Oromo ex-slave died, the rest dispersed throughout South Africa except one and others ventured in neighboring countries. While some remained back, the rest repatriated independently, including Liban Bultum, who came to co-author Oromo-English Dictionarywith Edwin Foot (1913). Others, such as Bisho Jarsa, grandmother of the late South African Activist and Educator, Professor Neville Alexander David, stayed back to become teachers.

4. In her Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas is concerned of “purity” as a central theme of every society in their everyday life. Purity for Douglas has a wide-ranging impact on the individual’s attitude to society, values, cosmology and knowledge, and her perspective has a huge influence in many areas of debate in religion and social theory.

5. According to the available information, Aster Ganno (c.1872–1964) was an Ethiopian Bible translator who worked with Onesimos Nesib as a translator of the Oromo Bible, published in 1899.Aster was born free, but was later enslaved by the king of Limmu-Ennarea, western part of Oromia. She was emancipated in 1886 when Italian ships intercepted a boat which was taking her to be sold on the Arabian Peninsula, then took her to Eritrea where the Monkullo School of the Swedish Evangelical Mission took her in. Aster was educated at the school and Onesimos quickly “discovered that Aster was endowed with considerable mental gifts and possessed a real feeling for the Oromo language” (Arén 1978:383). She was assigned to compile an Oromo dictionary, which was first used in polishing a translation of New Testamentpublished in 1893. Aster also translated a book of Bible stories and wrote down 500 traditional Oromo riddles, fables, proverbs, and songs, many of which were published in the Oromo Spelling Book (1894). She later worked with Onesimos in compiling an Oromo hymnbook. Gustave Arén reports that a large amount of folklore she collected is still unpublished preserved by the Hylander family, Sweden (1978:384, fn. 71).

6. From the mid-nineteenth century, the Swedish missionaries dedicated their lives to Africa with practical issues of building schools, churches, and hospitals in addition to preaching. They also engaged in agriculture and small-scale industries. Since 90 percent of the population belonged to church automatically at birth Wohlgemuth (2002:42), they valued the spread of missionary activities in Africa. The first Swedish Missionary Station was founded at Monkullo in 1871 by the National Missionary Society of Stockholm who sent their first missionary in 1866 to Massawa, Eritrea. According to Connell and Killion, Lutherans of the Swedish Evangelical Mission (SEM) established themselves in Eritrea in 1864, founded a school at Monkullo in 1866 and worked with Werner Munzinger to distribute bible. In 1890, SEM’s Monkullo School was moved to Beleza, which became the center of missionary activities through 1920s (Connell and Killion 2011:432).

7. At Monkullo, the Swedish Protestant missionary activities provided a contextual frame and the young Oromo evangelists mixed Protestant zeal with romantic European nationalism and the Oromo past to reformulate modern elements of Oromumma (Oromoness). The ardent feelings of estrangement and the love for homeland is evident in the folksongs and stories collected at Monkullo by Aster Gannon with Onesimus Nesib and published by Paulitschke asOromo Spelling Book (1894) in which Aster “deplores the fate of being thrown out from Biyya Oromo to whom they devoted their folkloristic collections (Cerulli 1922:102). The word “Galla” in the song (text 2) and in the collection is loaded with the meaning of “estrangement” inflicted from the beginning of the Amhara-Oromo encounter in the 16th century, the “estrangement” that implied “otherness,” that the Oromo were people without known origin and, therefore, without cultural history whatsoever (Zittelmann, ibid).

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Internet Resources
David, Neville Alexander David

Massawa, Eritrea, the Pearl of the Red Sea

Oromo former Slaves

Rufo Christian Paulus Ludwigc. 1848/50 to 1871. Protestant Mission, Ethiopia

Shell, Sandy Rowoldt Shell (2011).

Story of Onesimos Nasib as told by his grandson