On a recent Tuesday evening, Janet Curiel, 58, watched about 12 people rehearse for an upcoming play called ‘Oromiya’s Return’ at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis’ Cedar Riverside neighborhood.
Inspired by her book Once Upon a Time in Oromiya (Sheeko Sheeko): An East African Traditional Folktale, the play depicts a life of an ancient Oromo family back in their homeland.
Oromo people who hail from the Horn of Africa have a rich folklore and oral tradition. However, despite their majority status, the Oromo are a historically marginalized group in Ethiopia. Their language, Afaan Oromo, one of the five most widely spoken languages in Africa, has only been a written language since 1992. It was banned from official use during Haile Selassie’s reign, the last king of Ethiopia. As a result, much of their history and cultural edifices remain unwritten.
Curiel, a native of Minneapolis, Minn., who currently teaches English as a second language (ESL) at the Brain Cole Community Center, was first introduced to the Oromo people through students she had in her class more than 13 years ago.
“I got to know their family and they have told me lots of sheeko sheeko stories, and I just wanted to write them down,” Curiel recalled. Sheeko Sheeko is an Oromo for story story.
An estimated 20,000 Oromos live in Minnesota, earning the state an unofficial name, Little Oromia. Oromo-Minnesotans live scattered around the state including Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and suburban towns like Brooklyn Park. According to community members, the state is also home to the largest East African population. The Oromo, most of whom follow Islam, are often mistaken for other east Africans. That is in part what motivated Curiel to take up their cause.
“Everybody thinks they are Somalis, they are Oromo, they are different people,” said Curiel, who made a promise to her students more than a decade ago to help tell their stories. “I hope the play encourages the Oromo people to realize that they have so much to give.”
Curiel is using the platform to introduce the Oromo people to Americans while also showing the Oromos how Americans could be excited and interested in their culture.
Funded by a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society, as part of their neighborhood project for storytelling, the play would debut on April 29, 2012, 7:00 p.m. at the Mixed Blood Theatre.
Written by Jerrie Steele the 30-minute play is set long ago in the land of Kush, modern day Oromiyaa, in East Africa. In the play, after the death of Gadaa, one of the main characters, a wealthy Oromo family loses everything, including each other.
Later, a destitute father whose wife left him for a wealthy man jumps into a river to kill himself to only come out with a miraculous healing power. Using his newfound gift, he reunites the family.
The play highlights the Oromo way of life and one of their major inventions, the gadaa system –– a socio-political institution that governed the life of each Oromo from birth to death through a system of age grade. It also shows the connectedness Oromos have with each other and nature.
It is part drama and part a history of an ancient African nation whose culture and history is little know.
As to why she chose to write about Oromo, Curiel said, “ I just like Oromo people a lot, I don’t know why.”
“They are really nice, very warm and kind people.”
Reporting and photographs by Big Z Kadir. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook.