By Meymuna Siraj Hussein*
Women throughout the region of Oromia have historically taken pride in their beauty and its presentation to the world. Although a large percentage live in poverty and make an annual income equivalent to $100 USD; their traditional garments, jewelry, facial markings, and hairstyles are a type of art unlike the rest of Africa. These women have given birth to the largest national group in Ethiopia and East Africa. Their language, Afaan Oromo, is the third largest indigenous African language both in terms of the number of speakers and geographical extent. Although their numbers are high, oppression within the context of Ethiopia has been a constant struggle for the Oromo.
According to Peri M. Klemm, Ph.D, “in Oromia a woman’s age, religion, political affiliation, marital status, or social status can be easily depicted in the clothing and jewelry she decides to wear”. During Dr. Klemm’s academic career, she has lived in Ethiopia and researched what she calls Oromo woman’s “body art”. She is currently working on a book pertaining to this historical and contemporary practice. She describes this art as an “aesthetic of accumulation” where there are visual layers and richness in a woman’s way of decorating her outer appearance.
Recently, on April 30th 2011, Dr. Klemm’s description was brought to life. Students from her exhibition design class organized an event at the Art Galleries at Cal State University, Northridge and created catalogues to celebrate Oromia’s women through the Bareedina: Women from Oromia art exhibit. Photos taken during Dr. Klemm’s journey decorated the walls with striking images of women from the eastern regions of Oromia wearing various types of fabrics and adornments.
The guest speaker for the afternoon was Mardaasa Addisu, an Oromo activist and grandson of Colonel Alemu Qixessa (the co-founder of Macha Tulama Self-Help Association, founded in June 1962). Addisu educated the audience about the role of Oromo women in the society. According to Addisu, “Oromo women are the peace-makers and play a valuable part in activism”. He also explained the dangers within their environment. Their water sources are slowly being contaminated with pollution. He further explained, “Many people have died as a result of pollution, with the majority being women and children.”
With the help of Dr. Klemm and Mr. Addisu, the diverse audience members were able to experience an afternoon of cultural awareness and greater insight into Oromia. “The Oromo are the ethnic majority within Ethiopia but they have lived under Ethiopian imperial rule,” Klemm said. “It is within this context, where issues of identity are crucial, that women’s costume in Oromia becomes especially important.”
About Peri M. Klemm, Ph.D: Peri M. Klemm, Ph.D. is an associate professor of African art history at California State University, Northridge. Her dissertation and published materials focus on art, performance, and identity in Oromia. A book on the historical and contemporary body art practices of Oromo women in Ethiopia and Kenya is forthcoming.
About Mardaasa Addisu: Mardaasa Addisu is a scientist residing in Southern California with is wife and children. Adissu is an active member of Macha Tulama Association and is the grandson of its co-founder Colonel Alemu Qixxessa. He is involved in projects such as assisting Oromo marathon runners in race registrations, self-sustainable shallow water wells and remediation efforts for polluted lakes in Oromia. His father, Dr. Addisu Tolesa was a professor of Oromo Studies at Indiana University who currently teaches at University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
*The writter, Meymuna Siraj Hussein, is an Oromo student activist and co-founder of The Tiyya Foundation Inc, a non-profit organzation that provides refugee resettlement services in California.