Being Oromo in the United States

By Oromsis Adula

For the sake of average “Joe the Plumber” readers, allow me to start this entry with a brief introduction of Oromo people, their country, culture and struggle. This post is inspired by a conversation I had with my colleagues in Minnesota couple of days ago.

Oromos are Cushitic speaking ethno-national group that inhabit most of south-central Ethiopia – an empire turned fake federal state. Although reliable census is not available, numerous writers and researchers argue that Oromos make up for more than half of Ethiopian population–an estimated 40 million. Oromo is the people and their language is called Afaan Oromo or Oromo language. Oromos call their country Oromia, variably Oromiya – currently a pseudo regional state with no autonomy ruled by opportunists and impostors.

Despite a century old repression by Abyssinian and Ethiopian rulers, number of evidences including famous archeological findings point to the fact that Oromos are indigenous to the region now called Horn of Africa. There are often questionable and falsified accounts about the origin of Oromo people. For so long, Abyssinian court historians tried to point the origin of Oromo people elsewhere while tracing their roots back to Jerusalem, through the myth of Queen Sheba and King Solomon. That is an ongoing historical contention beyond the scope of this blog and one that needs a lot of patience and studying of history. But it is important to point out that as in any traditional society most of Oromo history is unwritten and it is often said that every time an elderly dies in Oromo society, a “library is lost”.

Many Oromo elites and nationalists concerned about the reconstruction of Oromo history, identity and culture and deconstruction of Abyssinian falsified historical accounts have written numerous texts on the subject. For recommended reading a list will be included at the end of the post.

Oromos have rich cultural values deeply rooted in their egalitarian socio-political institution called the Gadaa system. Before the colonization of Oromia by Abyssinian northerners (sometime around 1880s), Gadaa was the way of life. Every Oromo goes through a set of age grades each one with unique responsibilities and attributes. Successive Abyssinian and later Ethiopian rulers have attempted to uproot the Oromo and its culture. With immense sacrifices of gallant Oromo heroes and heroines, every attempt at destroying Oromo culture deemed futile. The torch that was lit by pioneers that courageously resisted the modern Abyssinian army with spears has passed onto generations. Oromos continue to resist systematic oppression by Abyssinian and Ethiopian rulers to this date.

Oromia with approximately 600,000 square kilometers is the largest and richest region in Ethiopia. Endowed with green grass and beautiful temperature, Oromia has abundance of livestock, original home to coffee (the second widely traded commodity on the world market), oil seeds, spices, rivers, mineral resources and diverse wildlife. Oromia is also home to world renowned athletes.

Being Oromo in Ethiopia:
For well over a century now, Oromos have been treated as second class citizens in their own country. Their language, culture and identity were repressed. Oromo history was falsified, minerals resources were loot and Oromos were forced to accept a culture, religion and language that were imposed upon them.

At the end of the cold-war era, when the autocratic communist dictator was ousted, a transitional government of Ethiopia was setup. Participants in the TGE were among others the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a political organization that was established in 1973 to fight against Abyssinian colonization in a coordinated manner. At that point, many hoped that the much needed reform that has been a long time coming has finally arrived. Contrary to that public optimism and the popularity of OLF among all Oromos, OLF withdrew itself and took up the armed struggle against the current terrorist regime.

Back in the days of the imperial rule and the communist regime, Oromos were referred to by a derogatory term that I can’t dare to repeat here. Oromo language was banned from media and use in government. Students were compelled to learn Amharic the language of domination at every corner of the country. Most Oromos were denied access to educational and employment opportunities by the virtue of being Oromo. Thousands of Oromos changed their names in order to fit in. Oromos were relegated to second class citizen’s status.

Comparatively speaking, after the down fall of the communist regime commonly referred to as the Dergue, few things have improved. For instance; within the brief time that OLF was party in the TGE, Oromo language was instituted as the official language for the state of Oromia and schools in Oromia adopted Afan Oromo as a language of instruction. The record and sale of Oromo music and other arts skyrocketed. Even the state run TV and Radio programs started giving lip-service in Afan Oromo. However, when OLF withdrew itself from TGE, most of those gains were reversed. Most Oromo arts and books were banned, Oromo nationalists were rounded up in sheer numbers and the public broadcast services were diminished to mere propaganda. Once more, being Oromo virtually became a crime and millions of Oromos fled the country to escape torture, imprisonment and extrajudicial killings.

That emigration which can well be recorded in history books as the largest exodus in Oromo history took thousands of Oromos to far and remotely known places such as North America, Western Europe, Scandinavia and Australia. Their geographic areas of resettlements might be far apart, but the stories of Oromo immigrants across the globe uniquely remain the same. I met young Oromos from Denmark, Norway, England, Canada and Australia. They told me similar anecdotes of being Oromo in ferenji land that is shared by my friends in the states.

Being Oromo in the States
I don’t have the strongest of social networks but my public service work had led me to discover that there are large numbers of Oromo immigrants/refugees in almost every state in the US. But Minnesota tops the list of states largely populated by Oromos. Despite its bitter cold and forbidding weather Oromos often refer to the state as little Oromia. And it has been a popular destination for Oromo refugees in the last decade. The local Oromo community organization estimates the number of Oromos in MN to be about 20,000.

First when refugees and immigrants come to this great land, they are often required to learn new language and orient to their new way of life and culture. If one left Oromia with little or no education, the challenges are often far greater. But with the close knit community and since most new comers have relatives/friends, many people pull it off just easily. Those who spent years in refugee camps waiting to be resettled with no formal education accept low wage and labor jobs that doesn’t require a lot of skills.

It is mostly at those work places and schools, that being Oromo starts to take five minutes to explain. Oromo being a colonized group of people for over a century, even many fellow Africans don’t know about Oromo people or Oromia. In America, every time they notice your accent which many immigrants and refugees speak, they ask you where you are from. It is a simple question per say. But when asked that question, I often have to struggle with how to respond. With the brief time that is allotted in small group rounds or in a class rooms, it is easier to say Ethiopia and get over with it. But Ethiopia being the very nation that I run away from, it makes my heart ache to claim it as my country. If it was indeed my country as many Ethiopianists fondly claim or suggest, I didn’t have to suffer for mere being of Oromo.

So I have no choice but to say Oromia and deal with the follow up questions such as where is that? Is that a country? Is that in Asia? As years pass by and I get more nostalgic, I am getting used to style shift depending on the environment/situation. If it’s a government center or legal papers; Ethiopia is the only viable option. At schools and work places, Oromos have learnt to explain where they are from no matter how long it takes them to do so. I hope someday Oromia will also be independent and sovereign country known to the rest of the world. Till that dream is achieved; you know you are Oromo if it takes you 5 minutes to explain.

Recommended Reading available on Amazon:

– The Oromo of Ethiopia: A History 1570-1860 by Mohammed Hassan
– Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System by Asmarom Legesse
– Oromia: An Introduction to the History of the Oromo People by Gadaa Melba
– Oromo: An Ancient People, Great African Nation written by De Salviac, Martial and Translated by Ayalew Kano (East Lansing, Michigan, 2005).

* Picture courtesy www.Gadaa.com



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