The Need for Art and Literature Revolution in the Oromo Society

By Boruu Barraaqaa

It is obvious that art and literature are the corner stone for a society’s general development and civilization. The Period of Renaissance in Europe (14th-16th C.), which was based on classic forms of art had paved the way for the succession of political and industrial revolutions that took place in the 17th and 18th century respectively. The literatures produced in Europe from the mid 14th to the end of the 16th century also played an important role. Marked by a revival in classical values and learning, the period witnessed an outburst of creative activity unmatched in the history of western culture.  Next to Renaissance, the 18th Century Enlightenment played a significant role in seeking a remedy for injustice. It was an intellectual movement that sought the perfection of human society through applied reason. It was from these two glorious historical movements that the leading figures and influential thinkers like William Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Miguel de Cervantes, Francois Rabelais, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau emerged. 

The prime attention of this article is not discussing the history of European Renaissance or the age of Enlightenment. As the title implies, it is an attempt to remind all concerned a severe challenge we are facing today as Oromo nation.

When we talk about art, most people understand it to be just music, due to lack of percipience to the term. Of course, music is one of the main branches of art; however, it doesn’t mean music alone can represent art. At the moment, the Oromo music industry is enjoying a better development. We have hundreds of singers; dozens of famous stars in the industry. The Oromo music industry is advancing both in traditional and modern songs with artful video clips. Positive competition among the singers as well as between the Oromo and other artists’ in the country is bringing the musical art to a higher standard. Despite political oppression, Oromo musicians, both at home and abroad, are working hard to entertain and enlighten their nation.

 We can now mention music as our merit in the art life. However, an evaluation of our activities in other branches of art and literary work, there is an alarming weakness that should serve as a reminder that we are not moving forward as fast as needed. How many filmmakers and actors do we have today? How many famous painters do we have besides artist Lemma Guyyaa? Where are our comedians, except Artist Admasu, Artist Oli and very few others? Are there Oromo theaters? Where are our fashion designers except a few traditional garment makers? Can we see some modern architectures of our own? Where are our fiction and non fiction publications in Afan Oromo? Are such publications sponsored enough? Is there any mood of inspiration in such works?

No one can give adequate positive answers for these questions. We are witnessing at least couple of Amharic film inaugurations every week. But not a single standardized Oromo film years. I know of only a single, well produced and standardized Oromo film known as EELAA. Why no more EELAAs? The author and director of this film can say a lot about the problem we are facing. We are observing art exhibitions focused on introducing the Northerners’ civilization to the foreigners by young Amharic or Tigrigna speaking artists. But, there is no single art exhibition by Oromo artists even on annual basis. Institutions like Faya Promotion, Boku Promotion and Subi Promotion, all of them based in in Shagar under the oppressive regime, have not produced a meaningful Oromo work of art yet. The same is true for Oromo literature. There are neither sufficient fictions nor non-fictions publications. Simply, we are not working enough in every aspect despite our number and rich cultural locale.

So, who is to blame for these weaknesses? I have no doubt that some of my readers might simply accuse the Ethiopian oppressive regime for the setbacks. But it is my understanding that  the regime alone is not responsible for our weaknesses although it is one of the main factors.

First of all, we have to blame ourselves for inattentiveness that can widely be observed in our society. We have a lot of areas where we have to do much more, just like music. I am not criticizing others because I’m a novelist that is stultified due to lack of a deserved book sale. My appearance here is just to awaken the Oromo intelligentsia in the field of literature and artistic developments. A society that is alienated and subjected to political injustice like Oromo should work hard in all aspects of life to regain sustainable liberty, equality and justice. Towards that end, the role of art and literature is decisive.

Some time in 1990s, Meles Zenawi told one of his affiliated media outlets that his government was under heavy offensive from Oromo and Amhara intelligentsias. He said in Amharic: Oromon be kaset, Amharan be metsihet mequaquam kebad sira yiteyiqal–roughly translated, ‘To combat the propaganda works of Oromo and Amhara in songs and magazines respectively, requires hard work.’ His statement confirms that Oromo’s strength in music industry posed a greater threat to the regime. The question is, why only in music? Why does our strength have to be limited just to music for two decades? Why not in books, in magazines, in newspapers, in films, in dramas, in comedies, in theatres, in painting, in fashion design, etc? Don’t we have influential artists and writers in such fields? Are the qualities of Oromo art just singing songs and geerarsaa alone? Can only dancing Shaggooyyee, Ragadaa, Tirrii, Dhiichisaa, Dalagaa… be our only art forms? Similar questions can be raised in the case of literature. Are the qualities of our literature, expressed only by articles written by few in the cyber world, enough? Are qualities of Oromo literature evaluated by cheap propagandas that focus on individuals and political groups? Whether we like or not, these are timely questions that we ought to answer promptly.

I believe Oromo people have had numerous important artists, writers, and scholars, but not organized. Moreover, we have contributed so many great writers like Tsegaye G/ Medhin Qawweessaa, the only poet laureate and the father of theatre in Ethiopia and Bealu Girma, the legend modern novelist of all time. No one can deny that these two writers were pioneers in the history of Amharic literature. Some may criticize them for their significant contribution in the development of Amharic literature and theatre at the cost of Afan Oromo, but I don’t fully share such criticisms.

These pioneers lived in the time when there was no official qubee script to write with. The political culture in which they were born and raised is also another big factor. Their only option was to reach the broader Amharic speaking audience (not just the Amhara, but all Amharic speakers) by using Amharic. In the case of Laureate Tsegaye, he was known more for his Cushitic philosophy and anthropology. As the only Ethiopian writer who inserted Oromo words widely in his Amharic literature and theatre, Tsegaye broke the taboo of the Abyssinian language.

Among Oromo writers who focused solely on the Oromo issues the likes of Moti Biyya stand tall. He was well-known for his spectacular qualities of Amharic articles and critical books like Oromiyan Be Fereqaa and Oromiyaa: Yetedebeqew Ye Gif Tarik (in collaboration with Welde Yohanes Werkneh). I remember, most of my friends who regularly purchased private news papers like Urjii and Minilik did so primarily to read Moti Biyya’s addictive essay series. His readers and fans were not only Oromos but also from other ethnic groups including Amharas and Eritreans. I also appreciate the works of Dhaabaa Wayyeessaa in Oromo theatre and literature; he is without a doubt an important figure in the field. Next to Dhaabaa, the contributions of Asefa Tefera Dibaba, Gaaddisaa Birruu, Hinsene Mekuria, Daraaraa Maatii and the likes to Oromo literature should never be undermined. However, still the question remains, how can we successfully push forward on this track?

Although there have been few private Oromo news papers, magazines, and books in Amharic beginning in 1990s, the development of such works in Afan Oromo have never gone forward. Oromo literary publications and theatre that flourished in early 1990s failed following the withdrawal of OLF from the TGE. The aroma of Oromo art and literature was weakened as soon as the suitable political atmosphere changed. The music industry continued its endeavor in entertaining and enlightening people despite dangerous threats and harassments that brought life sacrifices of some singers.

What are the main factors for underdevelopment of our art and literature? Can we solely blame the regime? If so, why couldn’t we do well in the Diaspora, where there are full rights of self expression? I think these are few, but important questions that deserve answers bearing subtle analysis. Here is my take.



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