Posted by Gishe Abdi Wako Waxabajjii/June 9, 2015
Here is my story …
I was born to Oromo parents, whom, I suspect now, might have been activists in the Oromo struggle, in Addis Ababa in the late 1970’s. I suspect my parents might have been Oromo activists since the subject of Oromummaa had never been brought up in our daily conversations during my boyhood. As it’s common in any family during those revolutionary days, my family also kept many kilometers away from any politics, and from anything that resembled politics, as the saying goes, “politics and electricity are to be enjoyed from afar.” If not activists, then they were conscious of Oromoness.
My African Oromo Name
As most of the Oromo kids, born to Oromo-conscious family of Finfinne from that era, I, too, had an Oromo name. Yes, it ends with “-ssaa.” Both of my siblings were also given Oromo names at birth.
Since my parents could afford it – with both of them earning decent salaries at that time, my siblings and myself were sent to one of the best private schools in Addis Ababa. There, at the school, we also would find other kids with Oromo names. Sometimes, the high number of Oromo students at that private school felt as if the Oromo parents in town had agreed to send their children to certain schools where our Oromoness was not used as a target for bullies – a subject which I would explain below.
As I grew up, the first thing I felt about my Oromoness was my name sounded strange to those in Addis Ababa. As a young boy, I couldn’t understand why my name became such a controversial part of who I was. The following were some of the questions and comments my name garnered, and still garners in some corners.
The first was a question – a weird question for a young boy to deal with:
“Are your parents from Wollega? How/why did your parents give you an Oromo name while you’re born in Addis Ababa?”
For the record, my parents are not from Wollega. And, I had asked my parents why I was asked this question many times by strangers. I was told by another relative that it’s because Oromos from Wollega always maintained their Oromoness even after being urbanized; so the other Addis Ababan residents equated any Oromo with pride in Oromoness to being from Wollega.
Another one was a comment:
“Oh, your name reminds me of the story about a certain Minister from the Janhoy time. His name was Yilma Deressa; he was the Minister of Finance, I think. He used to hire anyone with the name ending with ‘-ssaa.’ All he used to do during the interview was ask your name. If you say, ‘I’m Abdissaa’ – he used to say, ‘you’re hired.’ ‘I’m Qananissaa’ – he said, ‘you’re hired.’ Then, a Gurage said, ‘Enessaa?’ (in Amharic, what about me?), and since the ‘Enessaa’ word ended with ‘-ssaa,’ Minister Yilma said, ‘you’re hired, too.’” (and laugh …)
Another was the overzealous question about the meaning of my ‘strange’ name. I have had friends with names from the Bible or the Koran, such as Daniel, Aster, Hassan, and so on. I have never seen them being questioned about the meanings of their names; and I bet you they do not know the Hebrew or Arabic meanings of their names, except that they’re names from the Bible or the Koran. But, here I am – an Oromo with an African Oromo name, being challenged about the meaning of my name. Don’t get me wrong; I have no issue with the question, but with its implication. It always came with the sound that ‘I was the other,’ like “is this name from Ethiopia? is this name not from India?” The question pissed me off because it attempted to write me off from my African Oromo roots altogether. And, the fact that my friends with Amharic or Tigrigna names, such as Abiyot, Bereket, etc. were not asked this question, showed me there were at least two worlds out there.
And, yet another jab at my Oromo name came in the form of deliberately mispronouncing it. This group of jabbers added a letter or two to make my name sound Amharic or Tigrigna. I was even ‘told’ many times (and so were my parents), in order to get jobs in the future, it was better for my name (and the names of my siblings) be changed to something that sounded Amharic or Tigrigna by adding a letter or two. My parents always brushed off this question/demand with a smile. However, even at the early age, I asked ‘why?’ ‘Why would I have to add a letter or two to change my name?’ and ‘Why would I not get a job with my original Oromo name?’
The Prison Visits
My parents, from time to time, used to visit their friends imprisoned at Karchelle, the biggest prison in Addis Ababa, where ‘political prisoners’ were locked away during the Derg period (1980’s). I was very much puzzled by those people imprisoned at Karchelle; the secrecy surrounding my parents’ visits to the prison also puzzled my small brain as a young boy. Years later, I would find out the secrecy was to make sure their prison visits were not politicized as sympathizers. My parents would announce to no one that they would visit their friends in prison; however, as special food was being prepared to be taken to the prisoners, we, the children, would hear about it. The visits always happened on Sundays, the day the prison would open to the general public for visits. Early in the morning, my mother would pack the food in a bag and leave with my father for Karchelle. A couple of times, they were stopped on the way because there was a meeting at the Kebelle(a neighborhood association) that everyone must attend, and the security guards would surround the neighborhood and allowed no one to leave the perimeter until after the meeting had been over – by that time, the prison would be closed for visits.
I had not met any of the prisoners, but some of their names were famously known in the Oromo parents’ circle. I had asked my parents many times why their friends were in prison; they would simply tell me it’s for the ‘Oromo cause.’ At that age, the word ’cause’ was a very hard concept to comprehend for a boy. But, the repeated use of the word had seared into my mind and consciousness. And, the way they would say the phrase, “Oromo cause,” in low voice (as if even the walls could also hear them) and while watching over their back (even while being inside our house) made it a special phrase for me. It would take me several years to connect the dots about the Addis Ababan Habesha’sobsession with my Oromo name with the Oromo political prisoners as well as the “Oromo cause.” Years later, when I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiographical book, I would picture the Robben Island as the Karchelle of Addis Ababa.
“I Am Oromo First” and the Question of Land Ownership
Some three decades after my 1980’s boyhood, my Oromoness would confront me again. In the 1990’s, my Addis Ababan Habesha friends (and sometimes, these Habesha friends are those Oromo fully assimilated into the Addis Ababan Amhara) had fully accepted and respected my Oromoness. With the introduction of the Afan Oromo TV and increased awareness of national oppression in Ethiopia in the 1990’s, myHabesha friends would even casually address me as “Obboo X” (where the Obboo designates their acceptance of my Oromo identity). I separated with some of them in the mid-2000’s since, I, too, had to join the growing Oromo Diaspora population, partly due to my involvement in the Macha-Tulama movement when the capital of Oromia moved away from Finfinne.
Since the latter half of 2000’s, however, my Habesha friends suddenly became suspicious of my pride in Oromoness; one of them would even assert that my parents were “tribalist” (and “racist”) to give me an Oromo name. Though my Oromoness had been a target of jab in the 1980’s, it had never come to the point it has been since the latter half of 2000’s. I tolerated my Habesha friends’ change of mind for a long while; they even said, “Woyane is the one who has brought all this talk about tribalism.” When I tell them I had been an Oromo before the 1990’s rise to power of Woyane and about those imprisoned friends of my parents during the Derg period – whom were locked up for the “Oromo cause” at Karchelle, they would prefer to ignore those facts. For some reason, they would only focus on Woyane’s rise to power in 1991 and try to associate my identification as an Oromo to the 1991 change of regime. I repeatedly told them that the 1990’s was actually the time when I began to no longer feel being the “other” in Ethiopia. Seeing the changes with the introduction of the Afan Oromo TV; the transitional government being a composition of all national groups in Ethiopia – though, short-lived; the realization of Oromia as a region; the use of Afan Oromo as a working language in the region of Oromia – all these were policies that had made me, and many others, believe in the possibility of changes in Ethiopia. However, here I am in the Diaspora with old Habesha friends who continue to believe these pro-Oromo policies are “tribalist” and “racist.” A few years ago, I made my own decision that the struggle, the “Oromo cause,” ought to continue for the sake of freedom for the Oromo.
It was under this conflict that we heard the “I Am Oromo First” interview with a young Oromo named Jawar Mohammed on the worldwide television called Al Jazeera. It was a new chapter for me as a person and also for the Oromo as a people. We no longer have a room to accommodate ignorance and arrogance meant to undermine our national identity. We must assert our national identity and celebrate it.
Immediately after that also came the plan of Woyane to displace millions of Oromo farmers from their land. This signaled to me that the “Oromo cause” was not only about identity, but also about ownership of one’s own land (country). First, I have to share with you the story of my grandfather and grandmother (my father’s parents) in rural Oromia.
My grandparents have lived in rural Oromia all of their lives. Generations before them had lived in the same homestead (Qa’ee) for several centuries; they were physically and psychologically attached to the Qa’ee. During the Italian invasion, the Italians built roads passing through their farms. After the Italians had left, the new Habesha rulers came to the region, and divided the farmland amongst themselves and forced my grandparents and their entire clan to become “gabbar” (tenants), i.e. someone who would till the land and give the produce to the newHabesha landowner. For my grandparents and their clan, it would take the 1974 Revolution to regain possession of their farmland as well as their freedom as free-producers (though the Derg regime still maintained some level of state ownership of both the land and the produce – sometimes, the Derg used to force them to sell at lower prices for the ‘national call’ of the ‘motherland.’)
Then, one day during the Derg regime in the mid-1980’s, they were told to abandon their Qa’ee and be relocated to live by the highway the Italians had built several decades ago. The Derg called this “villagization.” My grandparents and some of the members of their clan refused to leave their Qa’ee to live across a busy and noisy highway. However, the local militia came to force everyone to relocate for a living by the uninhabitable highway “villagization” camp (“SEFERA TABIYA”).
My grandparents now see the impact of that policy of the Derg. Over the last three decades since then, many Oromo farmers in the new “villagization” camp died of plague that was easily transmitted due to the closeness of the homes in the new “villagization” camp. My grandfather also regrets the fact many of the youth, due to the proximity of the highway, left for the nearest urban center, leaving behind an aging farming population. My grandmother regrets losing her spiritual connection to her forebears once she was forced out of her Qa’ee; the highway and the new neighborhood had come at the cost of losing her cultural and spiritual being. Because of the construction of an Orthodox Church in the new “villagization” camp, she was told by the priest, who came from afar, to abandon her traditional Oromo beliefs. She had repeatedly told him that she would not “throw away her Callee (Chelle)” though the priest had continued to harass her, even publicly – which is very uncharacteristic of Christian teachings. She told me once that the priest was demanding her to forsake her ancestral heritage in order to be saved by the Orthodox God; she felt she had already been saved by the Oromo Waaqaa, who didn’t take her ancestral heritage as sinful, and for that reason, she didn’t need another savior. Sometimes, my grandmother’s stubbornness in maintaining her Oromo identity at the cost of being excommunicated from the so-called Church reminds me of my own stubbornness in maintaining “Oromo First” in the world I live in.
As my grandparents were starting to remake their lost Qa’ee in their new “villagization” camp, they were told by the new Woyane regime that they would need to leave their neighborhood and farmland, and find relatives in the nearest urban center to move to since the highway was expanding, and the farmland was being allotted for economic developments and investments. My grandparents and their neighborhood refused to leave their land. This time around, they said to the local authority, they would have to kill them all instead of force them out of their land. I was told my grandfather was the local organizer of the opposition during last year’s protests; the youth, whom he thought had been lost from the land because of their migration to the nearest urban center, came to his rescue. What infuriated my grandfather was the developments and investments meant the relocation of the entire farming Oromo community to the urban center; he did not understand why human beings would volunteer to live packed in urban centers like cattle. He also did not understand why the old Habesha landlords would be taking his ancestor’s farmland, now posing as “investors,” while the Oromo were being forced to migrate to the urban centers. During the opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan in 2014, though my grandfather didn’t live around Addis Ababa, he took a proactive role in asserting Oromo’s ownership of the land in his neighborhood. According to the news I had received at that time, my grandfather had proposed a reverse migration to his old Qa’ee (before “villagization”) to the local authority. He still feels the “villagization” project and the new “investment” scheme are both the same policy of taking away land from the Oromo. Growing up in the 1980’s, my grandfather’s refusal to move out of his Qa’ee during Derg’s “villagization” campaign and the love he has for his land had shaped my mid-2000’s involvement in the Machal-Tulama movement against the removal of Oromia’s capital from Finfinne, and his stance still reflects in me and in millions of other urbanized Oromo youth: the land is Oromia, and Oromia belongs to Oromos.
In short, I am of my grandmother’s Oromo first and foremost, and from my grandfather’s Oromia, where – whether it’s rural or urban, the land belongs to Oromos. I also believe my parents inherited me the “Oromo cause” to fight and reclaim my Oromoness as well as Oromia.