Oromo history

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RELIGIONS

 

There are three main religions in Oromia: traditional Oromo religion, Islam and Christianity. Before the introduction of Christianity and Islam, the Oromo people practiced their own religion. They believed in oneWaaqayoo, which approximates to the English word God. They never worshipped false gods or carved statues as substitutes. M. de Almeida (1628-46) had the following to say: “the Gallas (Oromo) are neither Christians, moors nor heathens, for they have no idols to worship.” The Oromo Waaqa is one and the same for all. He is the creator of everything, source of all life, omnipresent, infinite, incomprehensible, he can do and undo anything, he is pure, intolerant of injustice, crime, sin and all falsehood. Waaqayoo is often called Waaqa for short.

There are many saint-like divinities called ayyaana, each seen as manifestation of the one Waaqa or of the same divine reality. An effective relationship is often maintained between ayyaana and Oromo by Qaallu (male) and/orQaafitti (female). A Qaallu is like a Bishop in the Christian world and an lmam in the Muslim world. He is a religious and ritual expert who has a special relationship with one of the ayyaana, which possesses him at regular intervals.

Although the office of Qaallu is hereditary, in principle it is open to anyone who can provide sufficient proof of the special direct personal contact with an ayyaana. In the Oromo society a Qaallu is regarded as the most senior person in his lineage and clan and the most respected in the society. He is considered pure and clean. He must respect traditional taboos (safuu) and ritual observances in all situations and in all his dealings and must follow the truth and avoid sin.

The Qaallu institution is one of the most important in the Oromo culture and society and is believed to have existed since mythical times. It is a very important preserver and protector of Oromo culture, more or less in the same way the Abyssinian Orthodox Church is the preserver of Abyssinian culture.

The Qaallu institution has political importance even though the Qaallu himself does not possess political power as such and religion is distinctly separated from politics. The Qaallu village is the spiritual centre, where political debates are organized for the candidates for the Gadaa offices. Thus he plays both a spiritual and political role in the Gadaa system. For instance, during the fifth year of the Gadaa period, the Gadaa class in power honors theQaallu by taking gifts and making their pledges of reverence. This is the Muuda or anointment ceremony. As the head of the council of electors, the Qaallu organizes and oversees the election of Gadaa leaders.

The Qaallu institution was once a repository of important ceremonial articles (collective symbols) in the Buttaa(Gadaa) ceremony, such as the bokku (scepter), the national flag, etc. The national flag is made in the colors of the Qaallu turban (surri ruufa). The national flag had three colors – black at the top, red in the centre and white at the bottom. In the Gadaa, the three colors, black, red and white, represented those yet to enter active life, those in active life (Luba) and those who had passed through active live, respectively. The use of these symbols is prohibited by the colonial government.

The Oromo Qaallu must not be confused with the Qaallicha, who has a very different, much lower, social status. He is a vagabond who resorts to conjuring and black magic for his own benefit, (Knutsson, 1967). He is notorious for extracting remuneration by threats or other means. On the other hand, it is beneath the dignity of an OromoQaallu to ask his ritual clients for gifts or payment. The Abyssinian ruling class has confused the terms, thus disparaging the Qaallu socially and religiously by using the term depreciatingly.

TempleTempleThe place of worship of Qaallu ritual house is called the Galma. Eachayyaana has its own Galma and its own special ceremonies. TheGalma is usually located on a hill top, hill side or in a grove of large trees. Many of these sites are now taken up by Abyssinian Orthodox Church buildings or Mosques. Places of worship also include under trees, beside large bodies of water, by the side of big mountains, hills, stones, etc. This has been misrepresented by outsiders claiming that the Oromo worship trees, rivers, etc.

The believers visit the Galma for worship once or twice a week, usually on Thursday and Saturday nights. At this time the followers dance, sing and beat drums to perform a ritual called dalaga in order to achieve a state of ecstasy, which often culminates in possession. It is at the height of this that the possessingayyaana speaks through the Qaallu’s mouth and can answer prayers and predict the future.

Religious Oromo often made Muuda pilgrimages to some of the great Qaallus and religious centers such asArsi’s Abbaa Muuda (father of anointment). Among the Borana Oromo Muuda pilgrimages are still common.Muuda pilgrimage is very holy and the pilgrims walk to the place of Abbaa Muuda with a stick in one hand and carrying myrrh (qumbii). All Oromo through whose village the pilgrims pass are obliged to give them hospitality. As the Mecca pilgrims are called Haj among Muslims, these Muuda pilgrims are called Jiia.

The Qaallu institution was weakened with the advent of colonialism to Oromia, which reduced contacts between various Oromo groups. The pilgrimage was prohibited. It became the policy to discourage and destroy Oromo cultural institutions and values. The Qaallu institution has suffered more during the last 35 years than it suffered during the previous 100 years. At this stage it faces complete eradication and Orthodox Church buildings are fast replacing Galmas.

Just before the beginning of the harvest season every year, the Oromo have a prayer ceremony (thanksgiving festival) called Irreessa. It once took place in river meadows where now the Abyssinian Orthodox Church takes its holy Tabot (tablets) for special yearly festivals, the ‘timqat.’ The lrreessa has become illegal and anybody who attempts to practice it is now likely to be imprisoned.

The Oromo believe that after death individuals exist in the form of a spirit called the ‘ekeraa.’ They do not believe in suffering after death as in Christianity and Islam. If one commits sin he/she is punished while still alive. Theekeraa is believed to stay near the place where the person once lived. One is obliged to pray to and to give offering by slaughtering an animal every so often to ones parents’ ekeraa. The offerings take place near the family or clan cemetery, which is usually in a village.

Oromo people have been in constant contact with other religions like Islam and Christianity for almost the last 1000 years. For instance, the Islamic religion was reported to have been in eastern Shawa about 900 A.D. and Christianity even before that. However, in favor and defense of their own traditional religion, the Oromo have resisted these religions for quite a long time.

However, today the majority of the Oromo people are followers of Islam and Christianity, while the remaining few are still followers of the original Oromo religion. It is said that the Islamic religion spread in Oromia as a reaction to the Ethiopian colonization. The Oromo accepted Islam and non-Orthodox Christianity en-masse because they identified Abyssinian Orthodox Christianity with the oppressor and also to assert their identity vis-a-vis Abyssinians.

There are many Oromo who are followers of Islam or Christianity and yet still practice the original Oromo religion. Bartels (1983) expressed this reality as follows: “Whether they (Oromo) became Christians or Muslims, the Oromo’s traditional modes of experiencing the divine have continued almost unaffected, in spite of the fact that several rituals and social institutions in which it was expressed, have been very diminished or apparently submerged in new ritual cloaks.” Many used to visit, until very recently, the Galma and pay due respect to their clan Qaallu. This is more true in regions where Abyssinian Orthodox Christianity prevails.

 

CULTURE

 

Oromo have a very rich culture, fostered by the size of the population and large land areas with diverse climatic conditions. One highly developed self-sufficient system which has influenced every aspect of Oromo life is theGadaa system. It is a system that organizes the Oromo society into groups or sets (about 7-11) that assume different responsibilities in the society every eight years. It has guided the religious, social, political and economic life of Oromo for many years, and also their philosophy, art, history and method of time-keeping.

The activities and life of each and every member of the society are guided by Gadaa. It is the law of the society, a system by which Oromo administer, defend their territory and rights, maintain and guard their economy and through which all their aspirations are fulfilled.

The Gadaa system has served as the basis of democratic and egalitarian political system. Under it the power to administer the affairs of the nation and the power to make laws belong to the people. Every male member of the society who is of age and of Gadaa grade has full rights to elect and to be elected. All the people have the right to air their views in any public gathering without fear.

There follows a brief description of how the Gadaa system works: there are two well-defined ways of classifying male members of the society, that is the hiriyya (members of an age-set all born within the period of one Gadaarule of eight years) and Gadaa grade. The Gadaa grades (stages of development through which a Gadaa class passes) differ in number (7-11) and name in different parts of Oromia although the functions are the same. The following are the Gadaa grades:-

1. Dabballee (0-8 years of age)

2. Folle or Gamme Titiqaa (8-16 years of age)

3. Qondaala or Gamme Gurgudaa (16-24 years of age)

4. Kuusa (24-32 years of age)

5. Raaba Doorii (32-40 years of age)

6. Gadaa (40-48 years of age)

7. Yuba I (48-56 years of age)

8. Yuba II (56-64 years of age)

9. Yuba III (64-72 years of age)

10. Gadamojjii (72-80 years of age)

11. Jaarsa (80 and above years of age)

 

We will briefly describe the duties of a Gadaa class as it passes through the above grades.

The Dabballee are sons of the Gadaa class who are in power, the Luba. They are boys up to 8 years of age. Thus this is a stage of childhood. Upon reaching their eighth year, they enter the Folle grade. At this age they are allowed to go further away from their villages and to perform light work.

Horsemen in TouramentAt 16 years old, they enter the Qondaala. They may now go long distances to hunt and perform heavy work. Three years before the Qondaala ends, those of the Gadaa class come together and nominate the future group leaders (hayyu council) who eventually will constitute its presidium and thereby the executive, judicial and ritual authorities. The final election is preceded by an often lengthy campaign of negotiations. After nomination, the candidates tour the region accompanied by their supporters to win the backing of the people before election, The individuals will be elected on the basis of wisdom, bravery, health and physical fitness.

In the Kuusa grade, the previously elected leaders are formally installed in office, although they do not yet assume full authority except in their own group. This is one of the most important events in the life of the individual and the Gadaa system over all. In the next grade, Raaba Doorii, members are allowed to marry. This and the Kuusa grade constitute a period of preparation for the assumption of full authority. At the end of this period the class members enter Luba or Gadaa, the most important class of the whole system, attain full status, and take up their position as the ruling Gadaa class. At this stage the system comes to a stop momentarily and all men move to the proceeding class vacating the last class which is the immediately occupied by a new class of youth who thus begin their ascent of the system’s ladder.

The former ruling class, the Luba, now becomes Yuba. The Yubas, after passing through three separate eight-year periods, are transferred to the Gadamojjii class. Then they enter the final grade called Jaarsa and retire completely.

As described briefly above, when the Oromo man passes from one stage to the next, his duties and way of life in society change. For instance, during the grades of Qondaala, Kuusa and Raaba Doorii, the individuals learn war tactics , Oromo history, politics, ritual, law and administration over a period of 24 years. When they enter theGadaa class or Luba at the age of about 40 years, they have already acquired all the necessary knowledge to handle the responsibility of administering the country and the celebration of rituals. It ends with partial retirement of the whole, group of elders to an advisory and judiciary capacity.

The following are the Gadaa officials and their duties according to the Tuullama Gadaa practice:

1. Abbaa Bokku – President

2. Abbaa Bokku – First Vice-President

3. Abbaa Bokku – Second Vice-President

4. Abbaa Chaffe – Chairman of the Assembly (Chaffe)

5. Abbaa Dubbi – Speaker who presents the decision of the presidium to the Assembly

6. Abbaa Seera – Memoriser of the laws and the results of the Assembly’s deliberations.

7. Abbaa Alanga – Judge who executes the decision

8. Abbaa Duula – In charge of the army

9. Abbaa Sa’a – In charge of the economy

 

Thus, the entire presidium consists of nine members, called “Salgan Yaa’ii Borana” (nine of the Borana assembly). The Abbaa Bokkus are the chief officials. (Bokku is a wooden or metal scepter, a sign of authority kept by the Abbaa Bokku, the president). The Abbaa Bokkus have counselors and assistants called Hayyus who are delegated from the lower assemblies.

OdaaThere are three level of assembly – inter-clan, clan and local chaffes, chaffe being the Oromo version of parliament. The chaffe assembly was held in the open air in a meadow under the odaa (sycamore) tree. The chaffe made and declared common laws and was source of the accumulated legal knowledge and customs. In the hierarchy of Gadaa chaffes, the assembly of the entire presidium of the ruling – Gadaa Class – is the highest body whose decision is final. It is the assembly at which representatives of the entire population come together, at predetermined times, to evaluate among other things, the work of those in power. If those in power have failed to accomplish what is expected of them, the assembly has the power to replace them by another group elected from among the same Gadaa class or Luba. And this was one of the methods of checking and balancing political power in the Oromo society. The second highest Gadaa assembly is the clan chaffe. It is from these assemblies that special delegates to the higher assembly are elected. The lowest Gadaa chaffe is the local chaffe. This is made up of local members of the Luba from among whom representatives to clan chaffes are elected.

The holders of these responsible posts can remain in office for eight years only, in normal times, and are then replaced by a new group of officers. The power is handed over at a special ceremony at a special place and time. The office-holders conduct government – political, economic, social, ritual and military – affairs of the entire nation for this period. During war time all capable men fight under the leadership of the group in office. During the eight year period the officials live together in a village (yaa’aa village) and when necessary travel together.

There are five Gadaas in a cycle of 40 years. If a man enters office (becomes Luba) now, his sons will become Luba 40 years from now. The fiveGadaa (sometimes called Buttaa) in the cycle have names, which vary slightly from region to region. Among some Oromo communities, the sets of fiveGadaa names used by the sons are different from those of the fathers. Whereas among other communities, the same set of Gadaa names are used for both fathers and sons. For instance, theGadaa practiced in the Borana community uses the following different sets of names for the five Gadaa. (Could be likened to five parties who take power in turns).

Fathers               Sons

1. Birmajii          Aldada

2. Melba           Horota

3. Muudana       Bifoole

4. Roobale         Sabaqa

5. Duuloo          Kiloolee

 

In this manner, a given name repeats itself every 80 years. This is in fact the complete Gadaa cycle divided into two semi-cycles of 40 years each. The first 40 years is the Gadaa of the fathers and the second is the Gadaa of the sons.

Although it is not known with any degree of certainty where and when the Gadaa system started, it is known and documented that the Oromo have been practicing it for well over 500 years. However, according to oral Oromo historians, the Gadaa system has been in practice for several centuries. “Their (Borana Oromo) noted historian, Arero Rammata, was able to recount, in 1969, an oral history covering four thousand years”, (Prouty et al, 1981). Today Gadaa experts easily recall fifty-seven Abbaa Gadaas with important events. Of course, this highly sophisticated system cannot have appeared without having been based on something earlier. Therefore, further study and analysis is required to know more about its origin and development.

Social scientists of diverse backgrounds at different times have studied the Gadaa system. Many of them have testified that it is uniquely democratic. Among those authorities, Plowden (1868), stated, “among republican systems, Gadaa is superior.” Asmarom Legesse (1973) described the Gadaa system: “one of the most astonishing and instructive turns the evolution of human society has taken.” Indeed, it is one of the most fascinating sociopolitical structure of Africa that even influenced the lives of other peoples. Several neighboring peoples have practiced a sort of the Gadaa. Among these are Sidama, Walayita, Konso, Darasa, Nyika, Nabdi, Maasai, etc., (Beckingham et al, 1954).

Like living organism, cultures undergo evolution in order to adapt to changing conditions. The Gadaa system has thus been undergoing evolutionary changes since its inception so as to serve better a continually developing society. However, the fundamental that occurred in the Gadaa system, starting around the end of the eighteenth century, were brought about mainly by events set in motion from outside the Oromo society. Therefore, it was not fully a normal or natural development.

In most communities suddenly and in a few cases gradually, the usefulness of the Gadaa system declined. Among the factors that had contributed to this decline were: firstly, the protracted wars that preceded the onset of colonization. The end of the eighteenth century was marked by constant wars and skirmishes, particularly in the north and north-eastern Oromia against the encroachment of the Abyssinians. Because of the insecurity imposed by such wars coupled with the distances involved to go to the Gadaa ceremonies to change the leadership, the Abbaa Duulas (fathers of war) stayed on their post for much longer period than required by the Gadaa rules. This gave these war leaders a mandatory power, because they were forced or encouraged by the society and existing circumstances, such as the continuous wars, to hang on to power. This weakened one of the outstanding features of the Gadaa system, the built-in checks and balances mechanism of political power. This in turn weakened the ideology by which the Oromo nation was successfully led for several centuries.

In addition to the protracted wars, the passing of major trade routes through the area and the subsequent expansion of trade gained the war leaders more wealth. Thus the wealth, fame and power they gradually gained enabled them to command a larger number of followers in the area they were defending. Thus they usurped the political power that belonged to the Gadaa officials and the people and finally some of them declared themselves “mootii” (kings).

The second important factor that contributed to this decline was the coming of new beliefs and religions. The politico-religious aggression that took place in the expansion of Islam and Christianity has affected the culture of the Oromo people very much. The invasion of Oromo land by Muslims in the east and south and by Christians in the north have left their mark on the Oromo culture.

Thirdly, the changes in the mode of living of several Oromo communities was probably one of the important factors that led to the decline of Gadaa. As the Oromo society developed, there was a gradual change in the social, economic and political life of the people. For instance, in many parts of Oromia, a settled agrarian mode of life developed fast and the people practiced both mixed agriculture – raised crops and animals – and nomadic pastoralism. The latter was the dominant mode of life before this time, although Oromo have practiced cultivation for a long time and have made significant contribution to agriculture by domesticating plants and rearing rare varieties of crop plants. The introduction and expansion of trade had significant contribution also. These and other related factors led to the emergence of a new social system, which created a significant pressure on theGadaa system and brought about a modification or change in the Gadaa practices.

Finally, the onset of colonization had tremendously reduced the political and usefulness of Gadaa system as the administrative affairs and management of the national economy were taken over by the colonizers except in remote regions. Atseme noted, “Menilek outlawed the major chaffe meetings in the Oromo areas he conquered.” Bartels (1983) also noted, “Gadaa … was gradually deprived by Amharas of most of its political and judicial powers and reduced to merely ritual institution.” Even the social aspects, that is the ritual and ceremonial aspects, have not been left to the people. The observance of Gadaa ceremonies has been prohibited by proclamation.

The Oromo people also have a rich folklore, oral tradition, music and art. For example, it is believed that the Oromo are responsible for the invention and use of phallic stones (Wainwright, 1949 and Greenfield, 1965). Decorations of stone bowls from Zimbabwe include pictures of cattle with long “lyre-shaped” horns such as raised by Oromo. According to these scholars, this and the phallic stones found in Zimbabwe are traced directly to Oromo and linked to their early settlements there and to the Zimbabwe civilization. Wainwright (1949) argued that these were founded by the Oromo. He wrote: “Waqlimi and his people came from Galla land and its neighborhood, and were already installed in southern Rhodesia before A.D. 900.” (Waqlimi is an Oromo name). This date coincides with the date of the erection of some of the famous buildings there which Wainwright says were built by “Galla.” This appears to be part of the spread of Cushitic civilization.

Although much of this culture and these traditions have survived harsh suppression, much has been forgotten and lost, artifacts have been destroyed and Oromo are discouraged from developing their culture and art.

 

People: Oromo

OVERVIEW

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People: Oromo

Country: Oromia (also phonetically spelled as Oromiyaa)

Area: 600,000 sq.km approx.

Capital: Finfinnee (also called Addis Ababa)

Population: 30 million (1995 estimate)

Language: Oromo, also called Afan Oromo or Oromiffa

Economy: Mainly agriculture (coffee, several crops, spices, vegetables) and animal husbandry; mining industry; tourism trade; medium and small-scale industries (textiles, refineries, meat packaging, etc)

Religions: Waaqqefata (the traditional belief in Waaqa or God), Islam, and Christian (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant)

 

The Oromo make up a significant portion of the population occupying the Horn of Africa. In the Ethiopian Empire alone, Oromo constitute about ~50% inhabitants of the Ethiopian Empire. In fact, the Oromo nation, as one of the most numerous nations in Africa, enjoys homogeneous culture and shares a common language, history and descent, and once shared common political, religious and legal institutions. During their long history, the Oromo developed their own cultural, social and political system known as the Gadaa system. It was a uniquely democratic political and social institution that governed the life of every individual in the society from birth to death.

Ecologically and agriculturally, Oromia (Oromo country) is the richest region in the Horn of Africa. Livestock products, coffee, oil seeds, spices, mineral resources and wild life are all diverse and abundant. In spite of all these advantages, a century of colonization by Abyssinia (Ethiopia), a backward nation itself, has meant that the Oromo people have endured a stagnant existence where ignorance and famine have been coupled with ruthless oppression, subjugation, exploitation and above all, extermination. Thus, for the last one hundred years under the Ethiopian rule, the Oromo have gained very little, if anything, in the way of political, social and economic progress.

The Oromo were colonized during the last quarter of the nineteenth century by a black African nation – Abyssinia – with the help of the European colonial powers of the day. During the same period, of course, the Somalis, Kenyans, Sudanese and others were colonized by European powers. The fact that the Oromo were colonized by another black African nation makes their case quite special.

During the process of colonization, between 1870 and 1900, the Oromo population was reduced from ten to five millions. This period coincides with the occupation of Oromo land by the Abyssinian emperors Yohannes andMenilek. After colonization, these emperors and their successors continued to treat Oromo with utmost cruelty. Many Oromo were killed by the colonial army and settlers, others died of famine and epidemics of various diseases or were sold off as slaves. Those who remained on the land were reduced to the status of gabbar (a peasant from whom labor and produce were exacted, and the gabbar system is a crude form of serfdom).

Haile Selassie consolidated Yohannes and Menilek’s gains, and with the use of violence, Haile Selassie obstructed the process of natural and historical development of the Oromo society – political, economic and social. In all spheres of life, discrimination, subjugation, repression and exploitation of all forms were applied. Everything possible was done to destroy Oromo identity – culture, language, custom, tradition, name and origin. In short, Haile Selassie maintained the general policy of genocide against the Oromo.

The 1974 revolution was brought about by the relentless struggle over several years by, among others, the Oromo peasants. The military junta, headed by Mengistu Haile-Mariam, usurped power and took over the revolution. This regime continued on the path of emperors Yohannes, Menilek and Haile Selassie in the oppression, subjugation and exploitation of Oromo, the settlement of Abyssinians on Oromo land and the policy of genocide.

Forced to fight against Eritreans, the Somalis and others, many Oromo have fallen in battles. Many others died on the streets of cities and towns during the so-called “Red Terror” period, and in a similar program that expanded in the countryside thereafter. Massacres in towns and villages coupled with bombing and search-and-destroy programs have caused the destruction of human lives, crops, animals and property, have driven Oromo from their land, and have forced them to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Not surprisingly, this ruthless oppression and persecution of peoples has resulted in the largest flight of refugees in Africa. A very large proportion of the refugees in the Horn of Africa are Oromo.

In its attempt to oppress and eliminate the essential elements of Oromo culture, the present regime has used cover-up words such as ‘development, relief, settlement, villagization and literacy campaign’ to mislead the world. In fact, most of these programs and projects have been aimed at displacing Oromo people and denying them freedom, justice, human dignity and peace, thereby hastening the process of de-Oromization.

The struggle of the Oromo people, then, is nothing more than an attempt to affirm their own place in history. It seeks equality, human dignity, democracy, freedom and peace. It is not directed against the masses of a particular nation or nationality, nor against individuals, but rather against Ethiopian colonialism led by the Abyssinian ruling class. Thus, it is the Ethiopian colonial system, and not the Amhara/Tigrean masses or individuals, which is under critical consideration.

Today when nearly all of the African peoples have won independence, the Oromo continue to suffer under the most backward and savage Ethiopian settler colonialism. All genuinely democratic and progressive individuals and groups, believing in peace, human dignity and liberty should support the Oromo struggle for liberation.

Although the Oromo nation is one of the largest in Africa, it is forgotten by or still unknown to the majority of the world today. Unfortunately, even the name Oromo is unknown to many, and this should not be allowed to continue.