Oduu Haaraya

The ‘Nine Lives’ of Oromo Literacy: Qubee and the Birth of a Generation

Part I

Mekuria Bulcha

    The qubee [the Oromo alphabet], in providing an instrumental means to modern       communication, has itself become highly symbolic of the legitimacy and authority of Oromo in the modern learning environment.  Juxtaposed with the odaa tree [it], is a resonant symbol of the Oromo polity asserting the unity of all Oromo. It is a printed alphabet that is as much a celebration of Oromo cultures, traditions, and identities, and an assertion of their place in the world of modern literacy and learning (L. Towers 2009)[1] 

Introduction

The struggle of the Oromo to develop literacy in their mother tongue was part of the war against the Abyssinian state.  In turn Abyssinian clergy and scholars mounted opposition against Oromo literacy for more than a century.  From 1898 to 1991 Oromo attempts to write or use their language in religious and educational institutions were frustrated by consecutive Ethiopian regimes, first imperial and then a military regime. During the last 26 years the attitude of the Tigrayan ruling elite toward the Oromo language has been a mixture of nominal recognition or “strategic” tolerance. The recognition comes in the form of Article 39(2) of the Ethiopian Constitution which stipulates that “Every nation, nationality and people shall have the right to speak, write and develop its language and to promote its culture, help it grow and flourish, and preserve its historical heritage.”  Yet even the TPLF regime came to consider reading Oromo literature or listening to Oromo music and speaking the Oromo language in public as criminal and punishable behavior. Thus, Oromo students were arrested because they were members of Oromo language clubs; Oromo writers were harassed and arrested because of books or poems they had written. In short it was and is not safe to write, sing and even speak in Afaan Oromoo, in Ethiopia.  Living under the Orwellian rule of the Tigrayan regime for a quarter century, Oromo are certain that they will face danger at every turn in their dealings with its agents. The debate about the recent federal authorities meddling with the qubee alphabet system and the curriculum of the Oromo elementary schools should be seen in light of this uncertainty. The alleged appointment of non-Oromo speakers to different administrative posts, including lower ones where service receivers speak only Afaan Oromoo is seen as yet another sign of change of the TPLF regime’s policy regarding the Oromo language.[2] Regrettably, OPDO leaders are employees of the TPLF regime. The contradictory explanations they gave regarding the controversial changes in the qubee alphabet indicate that they are not decision makers but employees who carry out decisions made by their bosses. This shows that status of the Oromo language in general and qubeealphabet in particular is unsettled.

Having said the above, I will point out that the TPLF regime is not the only party that will interfere with the use of the Oromo qubee script. Although the choice of the qubee alphabet to write their language was made 26 years ago, there are groups who question the Oromo right to make such a choice even now and their propaganda may potentially create misunderstanding between the Oromo and their neighbors.  

This article has two parts. This first treats both the humble beginning of Oromo literacy and the repression with which it had been treated by the Ethiopian regimes from Menelik II to the present. It explores the search for the right script with which to write Afaan Oromoo and opposition encountered along the way. It reveals the incredible sacrifices made by Oromos who had, against all odds, promoted the development of the language paying a great price, living in refugee camps, sitting in the prisons and trying to work in hostile environments including Addis Ababa University in the 1970s and 1980s.  

The second part examines the skepticism and opposition which met the use of the qubee alphabet in the early 1990s when it appeared in Oromia.  It describes the spontaneous reception it was given by the Oromo nation giving birth to those we call now the qubee generation. In addition, it discusses how the anti-Afaan Oromoofeelings were reactivated by the November 2015 uprising revealing that it prevails today among sections of the Ethiopian diaspora, particularly scholars and political activists. It dissects and critiques the mindset which underpins numerous articles and commentaries that have been published or reported by Habesha media presenting the qubee alphabet as an instrument invented to disintegrate the Ethiopian state rather than regard it as a script chosen by the Oromo people to exercise a legitimate right to develop literacy in their own language. In this latter part the article attempts to expose misleading propaganda that wrongly interprets the Oromo choice of the qubee alphabet as forms of hatred against the Amhara people and also identify the features of political ideology and social identity of the anti-qubee front. 

Survival and revival in the face of vicious suppression

There are many nations who had to struggle to use their language. However, the remarkable tenacity of the struggle being conducted by the Oromo people for the survival and revival of their language and the enormous price they have been paying in human suffering and lives has, as far as I know, few parallels in modern history.  Parallels that come to mind are the efforts made by Hungarian intellectuals to elevate Hungarian to a national language dropping German, the works of Ukrainian writers to break loose from Russian and the Finnish struggle to use their own mother tongue instead of Swedish. The resistance of the Algerians against French linguistic domination is also a case in point. However, none of the languages of these peoples were treated by their former rulers with a hostility that can match the suppression and demonization of Afaan Oromoo by the Abyssinian ruling elite and clergy. None of the peoples were forced to conduct such a bitter struggle or were blocked by vicious cycles of suppressive regimes for such a long time as in the case of the Oromo. Death sentences were declared against Oromo literacy at least four times between 1906 and 1991.

To play an active role in the development of national consciousness, a language must be written. Consequently, homogenizing policies of states often target the written languages of subordinated groups. Two examples are Catalan under the late Spanish dictator General Franco and the Kurdish language which is still being supressed under Turkish rule. Non-literate vernaculars, spoken by rural populations do not usually attract the attention of rulers of such states. Thus, as long as Afaan Oromoo was not a written language the ruling Amhara elite and the Orthodox clergy were not bothered by it. Their opposition to its use began immediately after an Oromo missionary named Onesimos Nesib and his team came home from exile and began to work in 1905. That opposition which began more than hundred years ago hinders the development of Oromo literacy by means of using the qubee alphabet even today. However, it has survived these episodic forms of suppression meant to kill it and has come back to life with added vigor. 

Humble pioneers who laid a foundation for Oromo literature in exile

The work which Onesimos and his language team accomplished at Geleb in Eritrea can, without doubt, be seen as the first step towards creating an Oromo literature. These men and women were freed from the hands of slave-traders by humanitarian acts of a coalition of individuals, ironically, Italian colonialists and the British navy, supported by Swedish missionaries.  The former slaves, toiled in a foreign land to make Afaan Oromoo a written language. In the late 1880s they created a language team of some fifteen to twenty members with Onesimos as their leader and translated texts from various languages, collected oral histories and traditions, and taught the Oromo language to missionaries waiting on the Red Sea coast or the opening of the road to the Oromo country. The team produced a significant body of Oromo literature constituting more than half a dozen titles. It was through these works that Afaan Oromoo became a written language for the first time. Their hope was to return one day to their native land to launch an educational program among their people using the literature they have produced. They got that opportunity after several failed attempts and patient waiting more than a decade on the Red Sea coast.  Onesimos and his team finally got permission from Menelik and returned home to Oromia in 1904.  

Immediate popularity

Upon arrival in their country, Onesimos and his team travelled to western Oromia and were received by its governor Dajazmach Kumsa Moroda with open arms. He gave Onesimos a place of honor inviting him to sit beside him on public occasions and feasts. He built him a house and a school in Najjo.  Within four months after their arrival Onesimos and Aster Ganno had 68 students. The evangelists were also invited by leading personalities in Wallaga to open schools and build churches in their districts. Onesimos informed his colleagues in Eritrea and Sweden about the enthusiastic reception with which he and his team were received and the support the Oromo leaders were giving them. Onesimos wrote that “The master comes with his servant, the father with his son, brothers with brothers and friends and beg us to teach them.” The late pastor Idoosaa Gamamachis and grandson of Onesimos wrote that “Kumsa gave Onesimos between 30 and 50 youngsters to teach.”[3]

The Oromo Reader, which was prepared by him and Aster Ganno, became the main tool of spreading Oromo literacy.  In this manner literacy in the Oromo language started to expand quickly in western Oromia. The enthusiasm for Oromo literature was such the books were read aloud in public gatherings; and those who could not read listened.[4]  It is said the printed word, in the idiom they know best, creates awareness that often spurs people to collective action. The sort of collective action that began to take place within just a few years after the arrival of the evangelists became a sort of vernacular mobilization of silent resistance against both the religion and language that the conquerors were imposing on them. The Oromo nobility attended religious services given by both the evangelists and the Orthodox clergy, but sent their children to schools run by the former. The spontaneity with which the Oromo both accepted the education given by the evangelists and received Oromo literature was soon noticed and met with opposition from the ranks of Abyssinian naftanya (settler) community at large. This opposition reached the highest religious and political leaders of the empire.  

The opposition and first ‘death sentence’ against Oromo literacy

The immediate popularity of Oromo literature was particularly alarming to the Orthodox clergy. The enthusiasm with which the people received Oromo literature was seen as a threat and became the concern of even the agents of the imperial state. In 1906, the clergy brought complaints against Onesimos before Ras Demis Nasibu, the highest Abyssinian official in Wallaga at that time. The Ras saw the accusation against Onesimos as a religious case and passed it over to the Ethiopian Patriarch Abuna Matewos in Addis Ababa. Onesimos, accused as a “trouble maker” was called to Finfinnee and made to stand trial. The Abuna cursed and sentenced him to loss of property and imprisonment in heavy chains. The same sentence was meted out to his supporters, including Dajazmach Kumsa Moroda. This incident reveals that the Orthodox clergy, the Abuna had power to interfere in politics. The verdict he passed was political with religious backing.

However, a Swedish missionary, Karl Cederquist, appealed on behalf of Onesimos to Menelik and the case was brought before him. The Emperor changed the verdict to what I call here “the first death sentence on Oromo literacy.” Onesimos was prevented not only from preaching but also teaching even his own children.[5]He was exposed to all types of harassment that went as far as the burning down of his house in Naqamtee. In 1912, he was banished from Naqamtee to Finfinnee and lived for a year protected by Cederquist. Oromo leaders, including Kumsa Moroda were threatened with confiscation of their property and imprisonment if they continued their support for the work of the evangelists.[6] Kumsa was ordered to have copies of the Oromo Reader that had been distributed by Onesimos and his colleagues collected from their owners and destroyed. The verdict was a death sentence on Oromo literacy and on the form of education which was conducted by Onesimos and his colleagues for several years. To put this clearly, both Onesimos and Cederquist graduated from the same seminary in Stockholm in 1880 and belonged to the Swedish Evangelical Mission. However, Cederquist was preaching Lutheran evangelism and running a school in Finfinnee in English while Onesimos was persecuted for doing the same in Afaan Oromoo. In fact, Menelik had asked Cederquist to be principal for the first modern school he opened in Finfinnee in 1907. That means Menelik was not against education given by Lutheran evangelists. His verdict against Onesimos actually targeted Oromo literacy. 

Crises in the imperial court as respites for Oromo literacy: 1913 to 1941

The first crisis that gave Oromo literacy a chance to come back to life was caused by the death of architect of the empire Menelik II in 1913. Following his death, particularly from 1916 to 1930, the attention of the important Abyssinian leaders was occupied more with power struggles over succession to the throne and less with the conduct and activities of their subjects in the recently-annexed provinces. In 1916, Lij Iyasu gave permission for missionaries to carry out their work in the provinces. This gave the Oromo evangelists an opportunity to resume their educational activities using Oromo literature. Iyasu was deposed in 1916 by a palace coup and Tafari Makonnen (later crowned as Haile Selassie) emerged as a crown prince. He was lenient to foreign missionaries. However, that did not mean the Crown Prince was in favour of Oromo literacy. Nevertheless Oromo literacy continued to expand.  Nils Dahlberg who was in Naqamte and Najjo in 1923 wrote that “Onesimos did everything to make the Oromo interested in their own language. Whenever he met young people he did not wait to raise the subject and persuade them to learn the alphabet and read books in the language of their forefathers.”[7] The Phelps-Stokes Commission reported in 1924 that in some of the missionary schools in Wallaga, Afaan Oromoo was the only medium of instruction. As I have discussed at length elsewhere, the power struggle in Menelik’s palace continued for more than a decade, Oromo literacy also continue expand in western Oromia.[8]

Following his coronation as Emperor in 1930, Haile Selassie embarked on a policy of centralization and another attack on Afaan Oromoo loomed on the horizon. In December 1933 the Ministry of the Pen (Information) issued a memorandum suggesting linguistic homogenization and criticized foreign missions “for teaching in local languages since it creates obstacles to unity.” The memorandum stated: “to safeguard the ancient sovereignty of Ethiopia and to reinforce its unity, our language and our religion should be proclaimed over the whole of Ethiopia….Amharic and Ge’ez should be decreed official languages as well as religious affairs and all pagan languages should be banned.”[9]  However, in 1935 Haile Selassie’s attention soon diverted by another crisis which was more threatening than the cultural and linguistic heterogeneity of his subjects. The crisis was caused by a border conflict with Italy, then a colonial power in the Horn of Africa which controlled Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. The conflict developed into a full-fledged war and the Italian Fascists brought Ethiopia under their rule in 1936. Oromo literacy was saved from an impending demise. The Italian colonial administration allowed Afaan Oromoo and other languages for educational and administrative use. Indeed, as the American linguist has pointed out in 1982 “Given the adverse circumstances, a surprisingly high degree of Oromo literacy has existed there [in western Oromia] since the early decades of this century, owing in large part to the wide-spread use of Onesimos Nasib’s Oromo Bible translation”[10]and the numerous schools established by Oromo evangelists in cooperation with the people.

The darkest decades: 1943 to 1974

Upon his return from exile in England in 1941, Haile Selassie appointed Dejazmatch Mekonnen Desta as Minister of the Pen (Minister of Information). He took the lead in suppressing education in the Oromo language and through united action with the Orthodox Church he laid down a radical policy limiting the activities of foreign missionaries in the empire. After 1942, all the nationality vernaculars, including the Oromo language, were proscribed, and the use of Oromo literature for educational or religious purposes was banned. In 1942, he proclaimed Amharic the Official language of the Ethiopian empire.[11] The possession of Oromo literature including the Bible was declared illegal. The proclamation was supplemented by decrees such as Decree Number 3 of 1944, which specifically delineated linguistic restrictions in Ethiopian education. The restrictions concerned language use particularly by educational institutions run by foreign missionaries. As long as they used Amharic as a medium of communication they were allowed to carry out their activities. Article 13 of the decree stated that “the general language of instruction throughout Ethiopia shall be the Amharic language, which language all missionaries will be expected to learn.”[12] According to Fekadu Gurmessa, “Mekonnen Desta’s contempt and negative attitude became even greater when was appointed governor of Wallaga in 1949.  At that time he unleashed unprecedented persecution on leaders of the evangelistic …movement.”[13]  Mekonnen Desta was not only against education in Afaan Oromoo but also the use of the Ge’ez script to write it. Among others, his contemptuous statement that “the Ge’ez script should not be used to decipher a pagan language like [Oromo]”[14] is remembered by many Oromos still today. The distorted outcome of the blatant prejudices of the Abyssinian ruling elite as the one here was the ignorant belief that Afaan Oromoo was an inferior uncultivated language that cannot be deciphered and put to modern use.

The ban that the Ethiopian rulers placed on Afaan Oromoo made further development of the work started by them virtually impossible. Nevertheless, the efforts of Onesimos and his colleagues in the area of Oromo literacy remained productive despite the ban. They continued to influence Oromo consciousness and education which contributed to its rebirth in the creation of the modern Oromo diaspora in the late 1970s.

The search for an Oromo alphabet and the creation of the qubee

Against all the odds created by the language policies of the Ethiopian state, individual efforts were also made to preserve the Oromo culture and language. Among these individuals, Sheik Bakri Usman Odaa from the eastern region of Hararghe merits mention. Bakri was an Islamic scholar and teacher; he wrote several works dealing with secular as well as religious subjects both in Afaan Oromoo and Arabic.[15] In addition, Bakri made a remarkable effort to create an Oromo alphabet. Having realized that both the Arabic and Ge’ez (Ethiopic) orthographies were unsuitable to transcribe Oromo sound, he developed a script which gained popularity in the eastern Oromo regions in the 1950s and 1960s, before the Ethiopian authorities discovered and suppressed it. Haile Fida prepared Hirmata Dubbi (Oromo Grammar) which was published in 1973 in Europe. The work was based on research that adapted the Latin script to Oromo phonology. According to Feyisa Demie, the script was developed in the early 1970s by an Oromo Students’ Study Group in Europe which was specifically formed and led by Haile Fida to develop orthography for the Oromo language.[16] It is pertinent to note here that both Bakri and Haile Fida created scripts not with the intention of opposing the Ethiopian government or do harm to anybody but to decipher Oromo sounds and develop literature in their own language. However, they were persecuted and their effort to develop Oromo literacy was suppressed. Sheik Bakri was harassed by the Haile Selassie’s regime but survived. He was forced to flee the Red Terror of the Mengistu regime in 1978 and died in 1980 in a refugee camp in Somalia at the age 85. Haile Fida was imprisoned by the same regime in 1977 and was murdered in jail.

The betrayed promises of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution

One of the promises which the dergue military regime made when it took power in 1974 was that “each nationality will have inter alia the right to use its own language and elect its own leaders.”[17] Eagerly seizing the opportunity which the declaration purported to offer, the Oromo quickly organized cultural activities and worked out a literacy programme.  An Oromo language weekly, Barisaa, was launched and started to report on the problems of the day as well as longstanding Oromo grievances against the Ethiopian state and its ruling elite. The Swedish anthropologist Jan Hultin reported in 1996 the enthusiasm with which the revolutionary changes were received by a couple of thousand Oromos in western Oromia gathered to celebrate a buttaacultural festival in Inaango, in western Oromia. He noted that one of the speakers, a military officer and the governor of the province reminded his audience that it was one year since they were given back their land, and that a great victory was won now because “we have been able to re-establish our gadaa.” Stressing that that he was happy about this, the officer went on saying,

But this is not all … We were ashamed of using our own language. If we spoke in our own    language, we were regarded as criminals. This affair is now something of the past and when we   now come together, we speak in our beautiful language. Now, I regard every time that we speak in our language as a victory … If there is anyone who tries to deprive us of our language and our old culture, we will stand against him, even if it means that we will have to shed our blood.[18]

In 1977, a cultural show involving music and traditional dance groups from six Oromo regions was organized in Finfinnee. The show was a great success in many respects, turning into an overall assertion of Oromo national identity. The propensity of the Oromo people for vernacular mobilization was understood by the audience as well as by the military regime.

The linguistic and cultural freedom promised by the Dergue did not last long enough to allow the complete revival of Oromo literacy following the initial death sentence passed by the Haile Selassie in the early 1940s. The regime took what it gave with its left (revolutionary) hand with the right (reactionary) hand. Once it consolidated it power, it gave up its promises betraying the Oromo trust. The new cycle of repression of Oromo culture and language under the military regime became more brutal than that of the predecessor imperial regime. The use of the qubee alphabet was forbidden. Bariisaa was forbidden to use the qubee alphabet and was given the Ge’ez alphabet as an option to continue. The paper was later nationalized and was used to spread translations of the regime propaganda. Most of its reporters were jailed or fled the country.

In the past, the ruling Abyssinian elite could suppress Oromo literacy and reverse achievement made because the Oromo were not organized to resist.  Whenever the peaceful development of Oromo literacy is suppressed by a regime, they waited for a regime crisis that will enable to restart the revival their language. This time they did not wait for the fall of the Dergue to use the qubee alphabet or revive literacy in their language. They organized an armed struggle to bring about a regime crisis and also created activities that could bring to life Oromo literacy sentenced to death by Haile Selassie’s regime in the early 1940s. 

Oromo resistance in a new form and the sacrifices it demanded

The Oromo speaker cited above said “If there is anyone who tries to deprive us of our language and old culture, we will stand against him, even if it means that we will have to shed our blood.” The Oromo did that and more when the Dergue went back on its promises.  The program to develop the Oromo culture and language was implemented alongside armed struggle from the very beginning. The OLF adopted the Latin script, developed an alphabet appropriate to the transcription of Oromo sounds and began to publish various educational and political materials. By 1982, some basic literacy and primary school literature was published and put to use by the OLF in the liberated areas.[19] The anthropologist Thomas Zitelmann wrote that

     Although all Oromo organization shared in the notion of adopting the Roman script, it was only    the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the international diaspora linked to this organization that kept, from the late 1970s, constant records in using this medium for written Oromo. Within theOLF network the qubee script was used for administrative, technical, educational, artistic and propagandist activities. Linked with education, literacy became one of the symbolic hallmarks of OLF’s attempts to give a corporate identity to its followers.[20]

The OLF started armed struggled in eastern Oromia and it was also here where it also implemented first its literacy program. Its fighters had to produce rudimentary teaching materials and acted as teachers. Villagers participated in spreading Oromo literacy. The effort was partially successful. The western command zone was accessible from outside through Sudan and literacy produced in the diaspora were used. Those who were caught by the security forces of the military regime with Oromo literature written in qubee were brutally punished. A recent report about the experience a farmer reported on social media indicate the brutal punishment that awaited those who were caught with Oromo literature in the Latin alphabet. Taking great risks, villagers took part in spreading the literacy started by OLF fighters. Those who were caught were brutally tortured. This was the case of Robaa Mullataa who says in a video spread recently on Facebook, “qubee dubbanne quba nurra gurte dargiin, we read and were deprived fingers by the Dergue. He and his compatriots were successful in spreading literature in Afaan Oromoo over a large area in the eastern command zone when the security police caught up with them. Robaa was imprisoned and tortured. Suspected of spreading literature in Oromo in the qubee alphabet he was outrageously punished by the security of the Dergue regime; his finger nails were pulled out.[21]

Although a concerted attempt to revive and develop literacy in the Oromo language began with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the mid-1970s, no concrete steps were taken until the formation of an Oromo diaspora in the 1980s. Much of the work around literacy was conducted in refugee camps in the Horn of Africa and Oromo communities in Europe and North America in the 1970s and 1980s. Textbooks were written in Oromo and used in elementary schools and literacy programs run by the Oromo Relief Association (ORA), in the refugee camps in the Horn of Africa. Literacy in the Oromo language was also promoted by Oromo community organizations in Europe and North America.

Oromo scholars linked to the front took upon themselves the task of challenging a dominant imperial narrative that sought to obliterate the pre-conquest existence of the Oromo nation. The Oromo language, oral literature and history became the source of Oromo-centered knowledge. As the Kenyan linguist Thiong’o correctly put it “Each language, no matter how small, carries its memory of the world. Suppressing and diminishing the languages of the colonized also meant marginalizing the memory carried by the language of the conqueror.”[22] As Oromo scholars changed their epistemological approach their source of knowledge and method of knowledge production changed from what Habesha historians and the so-called Ethiopianist told us.  It turned to focus on what can be garnered from Oromo cultural archives such as the gadaa system and mined from collective memories stored in our mother tongue. In other words, many Oromo scholars and activists went back to their roots for usable knowledge. Here going back to roots or conducting a struggle for the Oromo culture and language must not be interpreted as indulging in a reactionary passion of cultural romanticism but, as stated in the political program of the OLF, as an effort to bring the Oromo language “out of the neglect that colonialism has imposed upon it.”[23] The struggle was to develop Oromo literacy and to de-colonize the Oromo mind using information retrieved from collective memory of the nation. Collective de-colonization can take place only as a result of effective communication through the medium of language. This is exactly what the Oromo experience of the last 26 years has proved.

A decade-long struggle for qubee at Addis Ababa University

In my opinion, the toughest struggle by an individual to promote Oromo literacy using the Latin script was waged by Prof. Tilahun Gamta between 1980 and 1990 at Addis Ababa University (AAU).  Since it is the Oromo struggle for Oromo literacy in miniature, based on his article “Politicization of my Oromo-English dictionary”,[24] I will discuss the story in some detail. Prof. Tilahun’s struggle to write and publish an Oromo-English Dictionary (OED) using qubee is remarkable for several reasons: (a) the time when it was conducted was a time when even conversation in Afaan Oromoo in public places was dangerous and (b) it was when using the Latin alphabet in writing was considered subversive to the unity of the “Ethiopian nation”.  (c) The decade-long ordeal he had to experience and the exemplary courage he had shown in order to publish his Oromo-English Dictionary (OED) tells a story about the sacrifices which the Oromo had to make in order to ensure the survival of their mother tongue.

What is also remarkable is also that the “fault” for which regime cadres and scholars at the AAU opposed the OED project and criticized Prof. Tilahun was the use of the Latin alphabet. A friend who was a philosophy student and later Assistant Lecturer at the AAU in the 1980s told me that, among the university staff Dr. Tilahun was a subject of pejorative Habesha jokes and his OED a target of their malice.  They labelled “the apolitical dictionary as an anti-Ethiopia unity” project. In fact, his colleagues at the Addis Ababa University were more obstructive to his work than the military regime itself. But being a proud man, Dr. Tilahun was not intimidated; he continued with his project amidst the hostile environment.

The malice which the Habesha scholars had against the OED project came to the open at the International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES) in Moscow in 1982.[25] Professor Tilahun notes that the obstruction started with an attempt to cancel the presentation of his paper at the conference. When that failed, the opposition was taken to the conference hall in Moscow. Regarding the incident he wrote that a group of four conservative Abyssinians who were occupying the first row “took it in turn to repeat the same timeworn question: ‘Why the Latin alphabet, when not the Amharic syllabary?’ One of them said with an air of authority ‘In making the decision to use the Latin alphabet you have taken only linguistic considerations into account, but what is more important to us is the political decision!” Dr. Tilahun was facing Habesha “scholars” whose insults and hostile insinuation he was enduring at home. Their attempt to politicize and distort his scholarly presentation in a foreign country was frustrating and painful. Dr. Tilahun writes that, while many questions flashed through his mind as he heard the frustrating words of the horde, he realized that the attempt being made to obstruct his work on a dictionary was a mere pinch compared to the plight of thousands of Oromos who were imprisoned, tortured and killed by the Mengistu regime. He writes that he was angry and sad at the same time with tears in his eyes.  The frustration felt by Professor Tilahun was perhaps relished as victory by critics of his OED who were in the hall not for a scholarly discussion but a political confrontation and provocation.

It seems that Prof. Tilahun and his colleges from AAU were separated by deep moral and political chasm over the language issue became clear to the scholars who were in the confessor hall. He wrote, “One of the participants, a Russian, grabbed the microphone, singled out the director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, and confronted him with a rhetorical question, “Being the Director of the IES, how come you don’t appreciate this work?”[26] Obviously the IES director and his group did not get support for their criticism of the draft OED as they expected from the audience. Unlike the AAU gang, the other participants had followed Prof. Tilahun’s presentation with scholarly attention and showed admiration for his OED project. This became even more obvious when the spokesman of the Linguistic Section of the Moscow conference announced at its Plenary Session that the committee for the section had voted the Oromo-English Dictionary to be cited as the magnum opus.

However, the enemies of Prof. Tilahun’s Oromo dictionary did not acknowledge defeat. Back in Finfinnee his name and presentation at the conference were omitted from the Addis Ababa University News and Events Bulletin report on the Moscow conference. In addition to the continued hostility of his colleagues at the AAU, the OED also became an issue in the Politburo of the military regime. An insider told Dr. Tilahun that the OED was termed by the Politburo a work written in “disguised OLF script.” He wrote that this was not without effect on him: he feared ban of the OED, loss of job, imprisonment and even death. However, he gathered courage and waited for eventualities. He was lucky. A regime crisis was in the making. The Dergue was losing the war against the national liberation fronts and was bothered more about its own survival than an alphabet used by an Oromo to decipher his language. Gradually, after years of threats by the authorities, nasty harassment from his “colleagues” and obstacles and delays by the bureaucracy of Addis Ababa University Press the OED was published in 1990

Afaan Oromo in Maikaalawi: writing in qubee sitting on a death row

To be a prisoner during the military junta’s rule was in the 1970s and 1980s to tantamount to sitting on a death. Prisoners were tortured daily and murdered routinely without trial. However, while Prof. Tilahun Gamta was battling on the campus of AAU and in the corridors of bureaucracy in Finfinnee, other Oromos were contributing to Oromo literature sitting on death row in the prisons of the Dergue. Ibsaa Guutama writes that started his dictionary in secret in the notorious Maikalaawi’s Prison Room Number One and compiled it in the qubeealphabet.[27] The draft was smuggled out with laundry before the author got the opportunity. Abiyu Gelata wrote an Oromo grammar in the same prison house.[28] Addisu Beyene also had compiled a dictionary.[29]Ibsaa Guutama and Abiyu Gelata have published their works in exile. A year after the Oromo language was adopted as the official language of education in the Oromia region, both men were forced to go into exile.

To conclude the first part of this article, the Abyssinian rulers declared several death sentences over Oromo literacy. Although the development of Oromo literacy was frustrated, it has survived.  Part of the story of the survival and revival of the Oromo language lies in the role of individuals, often those who came from humble backgrounds and made heroic and self-sacrificing contributions. As noted the evangelists were the beginners but not the only ones who made sacrifices to make Afaan Oromoo a written language. There were individuals such as Sheik Bakri about whom many Oromos did not hear until recently let alone non-Oromos. What is also remarkable is the resilience of the malicious anti-Oromo attitude of the Abyssinian ruling elite which had frustrated the development of Oromo language and culture. Today, it is free to do research about any people in Ethiopia. In practice the present regime, like its predecessors, is obstructing research on the Oromo society. Nevertheless, literature in Afaan Oromo has increased in volume during the last twenty-five years with amazing speed, in spite of political restriction and lack of resources. The qubee alphabet, which was opposed by successive Ethiopian regimes before 1991, is still opposed by Habesha politicians and scholars because it is seen as “un-Ethiopian.” As we will see in part two of the article, forces who wish to forbid the qubee alphabet and impose the Ge’ez script again in the name of “Ethiopian unity” are still around. However, given the determination of the qubee generation to defend Oromo rights such wishful thinking can hardly materialize.

[1]Towers, Lorraine. “Formal Schooling, Identity and Resistance in Ethiopia.” A theses submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, 2009, p. 262.

[2] OMN, News, July 4, 2017.

[3] Idoosaa Gamamachis, “Ye Onesimos Nasib Achir Yehiywot Tarik”, n. d.

[4] Terfasa Digga, “A Short Biography of Onesimos Nasib: Oromo Bible Translator, Evangelist and Teacher”, B. A. Thesis in History. Haile Selassie I University, Addis Ababa, 1973, p. 49. See also Nils Dahlberg, Onesimus: Från Slav till Bibel Översättare, Stockholm, 1932

[5] Aren, G. Evangelical Pioneers in Ethiopia: Origins of the Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, Stockholm: EFS Förlaget, 1978, p. 427.

[6] Aren, ibid. pp. 427-28.

[7] Dahlberg, Nils, Onesimus: From Slav till Bibel översöttare, 1932, p. 47.

[8] See Mekuria Bulcha, The Making of the Oromo Diaspora: A Historical Sociology of Forced Migration, Kirk House Publishers, Minneapolis, 2002.

[9] Tsedalu, Memorandum, Ministry of Pen, archive 29.11.25/ in Zewde, B. Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia, James Currey, 2002, p. 140.

[10] Gragg G. B. Oromo Dictionary, African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1982, p. xvi.

[11] (Negarit Gazeta 1942).

[12] Imperial Decree, No. 3, of 1944.

[13] Fekadu Gurmessa, Evangelical Faith Movement in Ethiopia: Origins and Establishment of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, Translated and edited by Ezekiel Gebissa, Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2009, p. 213

[14] Tilahun Gobana, Oromo oral historian to Mekuria by phone, July 6, 2017.

[15] Mohammed Hassen, “The Growth of written Oromo Literature”, in the proceedings Oromo Studies Association, University of Toronto, Canada, July 31-August 1, 1993, p. 79

[16] Feyisa Demie, “Historical Challenges in the Development of the Oromo Language and Some Agenda for Future Research” Journal of Oromo Studies, Vol. III, Nos. 1&2), 1996; Ibsaa Guutama notes that Mitiku Tarfaasaa was sent from home to Germany by an underground movement that evolved as the OLF later to participate in the project. See “Oromo shall defend the gains so far registered with their sweat and blood”, Oromia Today, 25 June 2017.

[17]See Programme of the national Democratic revolution (PNDR), POMOA, 1977: 13-14, italics mine

[18] Hultin, J. 2003: 419, italics mine.

[19] See for example Tarfa Dibaba, It is a Long Way: A Reflection on the History of the Oromo Relief Association (ORA, Nordsteds, 2011, pp. 150-155.

[20] Zitelmann, T. “The Return of the Devil’s Tongue: Polemics about the Choice of the Roman Alphabet for the Oromo Language.” The Oromo Commentary, IV (2) p. 25.

[21] I will like to thank Ammee Mumee, Sacramento, California, USA and Farahan Abdulsalam, OMN, London.

[22] Thiong’o, N. Wa. ”Europhone or African memory: the challenge of pan-Africanist intellectual in the era of globalization”, in African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development, T. Mkandawire, CODESRIA Books, Dakar, 22005, p. 158.

[23] Oromia Speaks, 1981 (3): 4.

[24] Tilahun Gamta, “Politicization of my Oromo-English dictionary”, Journal of Oromo Studies, vol. 7 no. 1&2, 2000

[25] Tilahun Gamta, ibid. p. 13.

[26] Ibid. p. 14

[27] Ibsaa Guutama, Special Oromo Dictionary, Gubirmans Publishers, New York, 2004, p. xxi

[28] Abiyu Gelata, Galma Afaan Oromoo, Washington DC, Private Printing, 1996.

[29] Addisu’s dictionary is not published. He was imprisoned in 1994 by the TPLF regime and left his manuscript with a friend. When Addis was released, his friend who had unfortunately misplaced the manuscript could not find it.

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