Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizen can change the world ~ Margaret Mead
Few days ago a friend asked me a strange question; How old I am in relation to thegandee/gandumma, amantummaa, Goobana, sabboona, tokkummaa and other related buzzy words frequently used in Oromo socio-political discourse. I didn’t have a cutting answer thou. Later, I realized that I am very young for these words except “tokkummaa” from Nuhoo Gobana song, which has been stacked in my memory for about 15 years now. The first and last encounter of my own with one of these terms however is very recent, June, 2014 when someone labeled me as ‘gandee’ and I have to called out for friendly assistance in its contextual meaning. The fact of the matter is that our people wishfully praise some of these concepts as the only means to achieve Oromo causes while they blame the others as evil and source of all sorts of failure. Progressing in our political journey is very much about progressing in understanding conceptual meanings and the logical orders that can follow them. Having this in mind, I decided to write this piece to nudge fellow Oromos to see on the bright side of what we often blame. To do so, I use the concept of group and group dynamics to illustrate how much ‘gandumma/amantummaa’ can help to strengthen ‘tokkumma’ in Oromo. I know, some people may rash to abandon reading this piece from as beginning as this line, assuming that I am trying to marry enemies. But the reality is not that. The law of group dynamics tells us that it is very natural and humanly to have smaller groups in bigger once. To make that point clear, let me start from the nature and characteristics of group life.
The nature of group life
A (social) group consists of two or more people who interact with one another and who recognize themselves as a distinct social unit. Frequent interaction leads people to share values and beliefs, cause them to identify with one another. Identification and attachment, in turn, stimulate more frequent and intense interaction. Groups are important both to their members and to the society at large. Through encouraging regular and predictable behavior, groups form the foundation upon which society rests. Individual human beings have meaningful existence only because group of people exist and groups exist because their meaningful members exist. The dilemma of the social being and group has remained the dilemma of egg and chicken.
Various social science studies indicated that people tend to behave differently in different group settings. The type and size of the group affects people’s behavior, attitudes, and perceptions in a different ways (Gastil, 2009). The general conclusion is however that groups are essential for social life, in large part because they play an important role in the socialization process and provide emotional and other support for their members. Sociologists argue that the influence of groups on individuals is essential for social stability. Social stability results because groups induce their members to conform to the norms, values, and attitudes of the groups themselves and of the larger society to which they belong. However, conformity to the group, has a downside effect if it means that people might adopt group norms, attitudes, or values that are bad for some reason to hold, if it leads to restrictions in anyways, if leads to ethnocentric perception of their group and may even result in harm to others. Conformity is thus a double-edged sword.
Although there are many different ways of classifying a group, writers made a clear distinction between primary and secondary groups. Primary group is small, long-term groups characterized by face-to-face interaction and high levels of cohesiveness, solidarity and member identification. Secondary groups are larger, less intimate, more goal-focused groups typical of more complex societies. This classification of group indicates the importance of group size for the functioning of a group, the nature of its members’ attachments, and the group’s stability. The law of group dynamics is all about how the size of the group affects the intimacy and intensity of interaction, member`s self-identification and group stability. Sociologists Georg Simmel studied the effects of groups of different sizes on group dynamics. The smallest possible group he identifies is the two-person group also known as dyad. In these smallest groups, Simmel noted, relationships can be very intense emotionally, but also very unstable and short lived. This is because dyad ends when one of the group members ends the relationship.
When the group size increases to three-person, also known as triad, the group involves relationships that are still fairly intense, but it is more stable than a dyad. A major reason for this, said Simmel, is that if two people in a triad have a dispute, the third member can help them reach some compromise that will satisfy all the triad members. Even if one of the group members opts out of the group the remaining two people can decide to continue as dyad. This is probably why Oromo elders bless and advise newly married couples to have kid as soon as possible. The downside of a triad is that two of its members may become very close and increasingly disregard or exclude the third member, reflecting the old saying that “three’s a crowd.”
From this we can understand that as groups become larger, the intensity of their interaction and bonding decreases. This is because each member of the group has the chance to interact with more people, which negatively affect the intimate relations. As the saying goes “the friend of all is the friend of none”. However, group stability increases because even if some people opt out of the group the remaining (two and more) people can continue as group. For example, in a dyad only one relationship exists, that is between the two members of the dyad and there is only one chance to keep the existence of the group, which is to have both members in a relationship. In triad there are three relationships. It takes three steps to end the group. In a group of four people there are six relationships and it take six steps to end the group.
Group stability thus increases in larger groups because there is a chance to continue to have smaller groups even if members opt out. Larger group are also stable because they experience less interaction, less emotional attachment, low expectation from group members and higher chance of having smaller groups within. The chances to have smaller groups within larger groups start from a group of four people. In a group of four it is possible to have two dyads. In a group of five, it is possible to have one dyad and one triad. In a group of six, it is possible to have two triads or three dyad but also being the member of the larger group.
This tendency of having smaller groups within the larger group is often accidental and spontaneous. Situations that increase intensity and intimacy of interaction led to the creation of small groups. Small groups are source of identity, because it involves sharing secret, builds trust and reduce risks. The type of trust that develops in smaller and larger groups also differs. In smaller group members develop a trust called particularistic trust. In this case people trust each other because they know each other on personal bases and they share something in common and that push them pay cost to help or align with each other. In larger groups they develop generalized trust, a trust that people have only because you belong to the same larger group. In this case you pay less attention because you have many people who share the same bonding with you. With this theoretical background let us resort to how re(li)gionalism works in Oromo; benefits and drawbacks.
Re(li)gionalism as a law of group dynamics
Religion and region are structuring institutions of a given society. It is a way of creating relatively smaller group with personalized interaction and bonding or sharing the third member/deity they revolve around. The only viable means to structure bigger societies is to sub-divide it into manageable units. However, re(li)gionalism remains the biggest group we recognize at national level and it is very obvious that there are many smaller groupings within it. The law of group dynamics tells us that in a group of four and more, it is natural to have a downsized grouping structure to make effective and efficient interaction and trust possible. But regional and national identities and grouping are both large and secondary group with diffused and generalized trust. The fact that small identity crafting groups are anonymous to both regional, religion and national group make the difference between regional and national groups insignificant in many ways. The bottom line of this argument however is that it is very much in the natural framework for people to identify themselves in smaller groups like family, village, community etc. After all, we are all born in family, raised in community, socialized in village, administered in district, region and country.
Sometimes smallness is beauty simply because you can control, administer, trace and know things easily. People try to narrow down thing to what they can make sense of and to what they can attach themselves better. Oromo elders clearly ask you which lineage (balbalaa) are you from, to just make informed and personalized conversations. Today asking where people are from is often taken as indicator of your narrowness. Come on, we were small group yesterday than today and asking for lineage is more relevant today if we have to have meaningful conversation. Hence, re(li)gionalism can be used as a positive groupings in this sense. However, we all know that it often get abused and produce undesirable results. Anything in its extreme form is not desirable and the increasing intimacy between small group members can sometimes take the wrong direction because members tend to develop fatalistic attachment with declining recognition for larger groups. There could at least be three major challenges emerging with this fatalistic attachment to smaller groups. These are the development of groupthink, ethnocentric perceptions and lack of recognition for their larger diverse group.
- i) Groupthink. This is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for conformity results in an irrational decision-making outcome. It occurs when members of the group try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and isolating themselves from larger group influences. The loyalty of group member to their smaller groups requires individuals to avoid raising controversial issues, alternative solutions which leads to loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. The dysfunctional group dynamics of the smaller groups produces an illusion of invulnerability. Thus the smaller group significantly overrate its own abilities in decision-making, and significantly underrates the abilities of the larger groups.
- ii) Ethnocentric perceptions. This perception emerges whenever someone from a given smaller group compare him/her group to another smaller group and make a judgmental comment that his/her group is better than someone`s group and those that are not like his own group are inferior or not correct. This is an ethnocentric assertion that a person can make to arrive at a conclusion that “I am better than you because I belong there or that group is better than other groups because I belong there”. The ethnocentric perceptions make it difficult for people to consider their group in relative terms. The concept of cultural, value, regional relativism may help here. This is an idea that says your region serves you the same purpose that my region serves me. In Oromo, regions are just administrative units, may be with closer ancestral memory and certain dialect. Moreover, there is no standard parameter to make comparison between these administrative units.
iii) Lack of recognition for diversity. The smallness of the groups may lead to lack recognition for the diversity. Member of smaller group may put pressure on others to act in similar fashion using different techniques. The ideal step to counteract these challenges is however, not by creating new vocabularies or exporting certain vocabularies or attitude from one smaller group to the other and giving a fuzzy description but by teaching the group members why in the first place we need to have smaller groups and how to relate it to the larger groups. Not speaking the same dialect does not mean we are different. It shows our richness and beauty. We only need to increase our understandings about social life and concepts and I hope this piece can serve one. Now, let us see this issues in the reality of Oromo social group life.
Oromo Group Structure: The Law of Tracing Memories
The Oromo structure is based on moieties, sub-moieties, clan, lineage, extended families, and nuclear families. The Borana and the Bareentu are the two oromo moieties from which all Oromo subgroups can and do trace their genealogies. Oromo believe Borana and Barentu moieties descended from the same family stock called Oromo (Baxter 1983). However, this doesnot in anyway imply that the Oromo limit their kinships to biological ancestry; the Oromo kinship system has been based on both biological and social descent. The original two moieties, Borana and Barentu, had one overarching political structure called the gadaa system that helped fashion Oromo relations within themselves and with outsiders. According to Baxter (1994) although the Oromo had a biologically- and socially-constructed complex kinship system, the formation and expression of Oromo peoplehood are mainly culturally shaped. Hence, understanding the social organization and religious institution of the Oromo is critically important in understanding their peoplehood, their identities and their achievements.
Let us recall the Oromo kinship system on macro and micro-levels as the basic social structure for defining common interests. The Oromo call the largest kinship system gossa, which is subdivided into moiety, sub-moiety and qomo. According to Legesse (1973) these subdivisions have lower-order branches of kinship known as mana (lineage), balbala (minor lineages), and warra (minimal lineage or extended family). He added, wherever the Oromo were divided into sub-moieties and clans, there is clear distinction between clans and lineages. The clan (qomo) is first of all a social group, consisting of several descent groups. The heart of every clan is compounded of a cluster of lineages tracing their descent to the ancestor who gave his name to the clan (Bartels, 1990). There were five sets of sub-moieties that extended from the Borana and the Barentu moieties: the Sabbo and the Gona, the Macha and the Tulama, and the Raya and the Assabo, the Siko and the Mando, and the Itu and the Humbana (Megerssa, 1993.The first three sets belong to Borana, and the second two sets are branches of Barentu.
The descendants of these moieties occupy specific areas in Ethiopia/Oromia today: The Raya and the Assabo branches occupy northern Ethiopia/Oromia including some part of Tigray, the whole of Wallo and some part of northern Shawa. The regions of Macha and Tulama include most of the present regions of Shawa, Wallaga, Ilubabor, and the Gibe region. The branches of Sabbo and Gona occupy some part of the present Sidamo, part of Gammu-Gofa, and Borana, Gabra, and Guji lands, and some part of Kenya. The descendants of Siko and Mando occupy the Arsi and Bale lands, and some part of the Rift Valley. Finally, the branches of Itu and Humbana live in most of Haraghe and some part of Wallo in the north. Nevertheless, there have not been demarcated boundaries among these parts of Oromia. Whenever members of these moieties are asked to identify their descents, they always provide the name of their moieties, rather than their lineages. As Baxter puts it, the complexity of the Oromo kinship system is demonstrated by the existence of similarly named putative descent groups on the macro and micro kinship levels across the whole spectrum of Oromo society.
Against this fact of the Oromo classification into moieties, sub-moieties, clan, lineage, sub-lineage and families, our Facebook world came up with these buzzy terms like gandummaa, sabboona, Goobana and tokkummaa. These are the most widely (over) used concepts in Oromo political discourse and at the venture of losing their meanings, not less for no one knows their analytical meaning and no one question its contextual usage. Before discussing their place in the group politics, as example let us try to see the meanings attached to one of these words in different parts of Oromia. From my deliberation with colleagues (from June, 2014), I recognized that gandummaa has two potentially contrasting meanings in Oromo. The first one comes from the central part of Oromia. In this area the term is used in slightly different wording “gandattu” which roughly used to describe a person who would like to visit others (neighbors). Although this term shows the openness of the person to some extent, it is also used to describe the xenocentric nature of people, as someone who value others resource, attitudes and ideas as opposed to their own. In the other part of Oromia the term “gandee” used, to refer to someone who values his own area, values and ways of life as better than others. This makes an ethnocentric perception that my own things, (way of life, values, norms etc) are correct and others which does not look like mine are wrong and thus inferior to mine.
The other strange usage of the term gandee in Oromo is as opposed to unity/tokkummaa. I would like to place a clear argument here. Re(li)gionalism can be the best tool for strengthening unity in large societies like Oromo. This is because smaller groups increase chances of intimate interaction and development of particularized trust. However, the question remains what is the bigger cause that makes the bigger group united. Crafting causes and issues that unit the larger group without personalized interaction and trust is a difficult job and also claiming for unity without having clear cause is the other failure. How are the bigger causes framed, who framed it, do they know the issues well, does it represent the entire region and religion in the country, how much are they pressing for the entire people etc needs to be considered for the unity of the people towards these causes.
Unity in larger and diverse societies like Oromo often emanate from common causes/goals. Although it is the base, it is difficult to expect common ancestral memories to glue 50 million people forever. It is also unrealistic and unfair to reduce the whole society to an ancestral memories. Generation needs to develop causes and achieve goals, we need to have the urge to do our own history and cherish it. That makes us one; that creates fresh memories that we can all talk and walk. In most cases what reduces people to regional and religious group is the fact that they can not interact with the entire member of the larger group practically. Otherwise, there is no limit to group membership. As the size of group increase its openness also increase. If we don’t opt out we belong to larger groups by default. We belong to the world the largest human group or society. The question, however, remains what do we share with other members in such larger groups? Here, the bell should be louder, we need to expand what we share, we need to discuss and share our causes, we need to think broadly and refresh our questions. The question is “what is that cause/goal/question itself?, do we speak the same language on this matter? For me the main point remains here. We don`t have clear idea of what we are asking, whom to ask, how to ask, when to ask etc.
The theory of group dynamics tell us that groups sized four and above have the chance to have smaller groups within and it is health/humanly. These smaller groups within the larger groups keeps lively intimate interaction that facilitate the development of trust. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with having smaller groups in whatever form in Oromo, a society with 50 million people. Regional and religious grouping can be seen and used as a structuring system. Despite the discouraging moves against this structures it has a lot to offer if used properly. Discouraging re(li)gionalism in such broad society on the other hand can easily lead to the disintegration of the whole society as there is no other ways of maintaining its solidarity. The development of technology and increasing communication between people is making shared ancestral memories and placeness less important as a gluing factor and means of self-identification. Therefore, having small groups with better, intimate interaction and structuring these small groups through representative mechanisms is the only viable structuring method in larger societies. Taking representatives from these regional and religion groups is an ideal step to have decentralized structure. It is also through same groups that it is possible to develop the common societal causes and achieve them. While we are observing the effort of governments to create smaller handy groups (the five-one grouping in Ethiopia as an example) it has no good logic in it to discourage small groupings in Oromo. However, it should be underlined that groupthink syndrome and ethnocentric belief associated with small groups are dangerous for both the smaller and larger groups. Lastly, all I want to do is to warn my good friends (fellow Oromos) to think twice before making statements about these complex organizational structures on our Facebook pages. Ask yourself if there is factual reason behind it or if someone is doing some sabotage by using our diversities against us. Most often than not, there are logics for things to exist and may be the closest reason for not understanding these logics is our own ignorance (if not stupidity).