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Oromo rights champion, Virginia Luling, dies at 73

virginialulingby Mohammed Ademo

Social anthropologist, human rights activist, and a much-loved friend of Oromo and other Horn of Africa immigrants, Virginia Rose Luling, died of lung cancer at her home in London on Jan. 7, 2013. She was 73.

Luling, who grew up in wartime Europe, studied Social Anthropology at London School of Economics and Oxford University where she completed a thesis on Government and Social Control among peoples of the Horn of Africa, in particular the Oromo people, according to an obituary written by a family friend. Author of many books and numerous scholarly articles on Somali tradition and descent system, most of Dr. Luling’s later work and life was inspired by her initial field research in 1960s in the village of Afgooye, Somalia where she spent three years.

After briefly teaching at Open University, Luling joined Survival International, a nonprofit that promotes the rights of tribal people worldwide, first as a volunteer — later as editor of the Survival International News, and most recently as Africa Campaigns Officer. Her treasured editing gig took Luling to remote areas across Africa, an experience which she documented “in long and vivid letters home, and numerous field reports.”

After retiring from Survival in 2004, Luling was employed by UK’s Home Office as case specialist and expert witness for Somali asylum seekers, a position she held until shortly before her death.


‘Oromo heroine’

Dr. Luling’s first contact with Oromo people came in the mid-1960s when she studied the Oromo Gadaa system under the guidance of renowned anthropologist Paul Baxter. But it was a meeting in 1977 with Oromo scholar, Dr. Mohammed Hassan, Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University in Atlanta, that catapulted Luling to the center of Oromo advocacy.

Five years after their meeting, Luling joined Hassan and others as a founding member for the Oromo Relief Association (ORA), a humanitarian organization that works for the relief and support of Oromo refugees in the Horn of Africa. “She remained a stalwart supporter of ORA throughout her life” despite demanding academic career and the need to care for her nieces, according her obits.

Under Luling’s guidance, both as a board member and Chair, ORA worked with other NGOs to send “health professionals to train Oromo health workers and midwives among refugee populations in Sudan and within areas of Oromia region before and after the regime changed in 1991.”  

A passionate and relentless advocate of justice, Ginnie as she was called by her family, didn’t give up on ORA when many others, including Oromos, did. A true friend and champion of Oromo rights, Luling forged new alliances with other charitable organizations while also investing in and spearheading ORA’s many fundraising campaigns.  

“In April 2010, when ORA was on the verge of insolvency,  Dr. Virginia almost single-handedly persuaded Oromo friends, and her own friends and family, to rescue ORA and commit to regular contributions to keep the organisation afloat in the future,” the family friend said in a statement. “Because of her leadership, the management committee is now able to envisage an expanding role for ORA again.”

She was also instrumental in the establishment of a secondary school education programme for teenage Oromo refugee girls in Nairobi. Luling remained active in the organization until her death by “personally funding one of the students [at the Nairobi school] in the last year,” the statement noted.

In honor of Luling’s three decades of involvement “in Survival’s work as a volunteer, fundraiser, editor, researcher and campaigner”, the UK-based NGO has named an internship in her name.

She leaves behind a remarkable legacy that touched many lives across several continents.