When we come to Oromo origin, we come to a place built on Oromo history, on the core Oromo values that have guided Oromos throughout history and, in particular, on the history of every Oromo being responsible for one another.
The Oromo people constitute the largest nation in East Africa, or about 45 million people out of a total population of 80 million. Their original homeland, Oromia, included most of what is now Ethiopia and stretched into northern Kenya, where some Oromos still live.
History and Politics
During the early twentieth century Oromos lost their sovereignty to the government of Abyssinia and suffered unrelenting political, economic, and social oppression. For close to 400 years Oromos suffered under the occupation of consecutive Ethiopian regimes. In spite of centuries of suffering Oromo cultural identity remained strong. So much so, that Oromos never felt comfortable calling themselves Abyssinians, or Ethiopians, or totally abandoning their culture for that of Abyssinian culture. Many Oromos perceive that the Ethiopians never tried to allow Oromos to feel that they were part and parcel of the Ethiopian empire. Oromos were not allowed to be part of the ruling class. Some Oromos essentially became Ethiopians, changing their names and other pieces of their cultural identity in order to live among the dominant culture with less discrimination. For example, some Oromos changed their names to Amharic names to increase their chances of being hired by employers who normally discriminated against hiring Oromos.
Oppression was especially harsh and brutal under the imperial rule of Haile Silassie, of the Amhara ethnic group. During the reign of Haile Silassie the Oromo language was banned and speakers were privately and publicly ridiculed. The government did every thing in its power to ensure the domination of the Abyssinian language and cultures over the Oromo people. In early 1974, a grass roots Oromo resistance movement along with other movements made it possible for the military government to overthrow Haile Silassie. Soon after, the new Communist Military Government, led by strongman Mengistu Hailemariam, resumed the persecution of Oromo nationals.
The United States began accepting refugees from Ethiopia in the late 1970’s, when the military dictatorship was receiving political, military, and financial support from the former Soviet Union. It was during the reign of the military regime known as “Derge”, that Oromos were severely persecuted for their nationality and perceived threat to the minority dictatorial government. The United States granted refugee status to Oromos working or associated with Oromo liberation fronts, on the basis of risk of imprisonment or death for their activities.
In the early 1990’s, with the aid of the United States’ government, the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated the ruling government of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic (EPRDF), and joined with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in co-authoring a democratic charter. Subsequently, the TPLF, with support from the United States, consolidated its grip of power and further continued to deny Oromos their political autonomy. Like its predecessors, the government dominated by the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front was vicious in its brutality against the Oromo people. As a consequence, Oromo refugees and asylum seekers are still coming to Australia from refugee camps in Kenya, Sudan, Egypt and elsewhere.
Oromos continue to suffer brutal political, social, and economic suppression under the current Ethiopian regime. Unemployment, loss of land, on-going armed incursion and occupation into Oromia regions to murder, imprison, torture, intimidate, and terrorize the Oromo population is ongoing. A true profile of ethnic cleansing can be seen in Ethiopia today.
After leaving their country, most people spent some time in refugee camps in Kenya, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen or Somalia. Refugee arrival in Australia began in the early 1980s and peaked in 2006-9, with the largest numbers of people settling in Australia in 2008. The total population in the Victoria numbers about 5000 and is growing, mainly with new babies but also with a few family members still emigrating from refugee camps in Kenya.
The Oromo Association and other community Organisation were founded by members of the community to help each other build new lives in Victoria Australia, and a main focus of the association right now is education, social services, cultural maintenance and job training so that Oromos can support themselves independently without needing public assistance. The association is especially interested in promoting education for its women as a way of improving the health and welfare of women, children and the community as a whole.
Family is the centre of Oromo culture and clan allegiance is strong. The father is the head of the household, but the mother has much authority and leadership in family matters. It is typical of Oromo households to include extended families in the same home. Children depend on their family until they have their own job or get married, and even then maintain strong feelings of responsibility for relatives. Immigrants may be separated from family members who remain in refugee camps or in danger in Ethiopia. Their families may have been subjected to torture or imprisonment. This is very stressful, especially for children who immigrate alone.
Traditional Oromo society was based on Gadaa, a democratic system of societal law, a system that has declined with their loss of freedom. Members of a Gadaa gained seniority as they aged, taking new responsibilities every eight years. Elders, considered to be wiser, were responsible for teaching, resolving conflicts, and nurturing Oromo culture. Seniority is thus an important factor in Oromo relationships.
Children were taught respect for elders, and disciplined by a combination of familial pressure and occasional spanking. In Australia, the fear of child protection services can lead to a fear of correcting their child’s behaviours. In addition, children may learn an independence from family in Australia that is unfamiliar and stressful to parents, making discipline more difficult.
Education has been limited for Oromos due to marginalization in Ethiopia and as resources are limited in refugee camps. Many children arrive in Australia far behind their Australian classmates, and they may also need to work to support their families. This can create great stress and loss of confidence for the children. For this reason, and possibly due to the frightening results of speaking out in Ethiopia, children may not ask for help when they need it. Parents often don’t understand the Australian educational system, and in addition, the demands of multiple jobs may make parents unable to be involved in their child’s schooling.
Islam, Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, or occasionally Ethiopian Orthodox), or the traditional Oromo monotheistic belief (Waaqeffannaa) in Waaqaa, or God. Traditional Oromo religious belief centres around one God, Waaqaa, who is responsible for everything that happens to human beings. As Oromos adopted Islam or Christianity, they maintained the concept of Waaqaa and incorporated their beliefs into the new religions. The majority of Oromos in Victoria practice Islam. Another large percentage of Oromos are Christian. Christians are primarily Catholic or Adventist rather than Orthodox, as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is associated with the dominant Amhara cultural group. Within the Oromo nation, Waaqeffannaa followers, Muslims and Christians have mingled peacefully, as they do in the community here. Those Oromos whose traditions still mirror the traditions of Waaqeffannaa are less organised, less visible and therefore less understood.
Holidays generally follow either the traditional Oromo style, Christian or Muslim holiday schedule. Traditional Oromo religion celebrates a thanksgiving festival in fall, Irreechaa. New Year’s Day (January 1) is also an important family holiday, and there are also several holidays like the Oromian Civil Resistance Day, and the Oromo Martyrs Day in remembrance of people who have died.
Marriage is one of the most important rituals in the Oromo culture. There are three things Oromos talk about in life: birth, marriage, and death. These are the events that add to or take away from the family. Before the onset of foreign religions, namely Christianity and Islam, Oromo marriage rituals included exchange of gifts, mainly by the bride to be.
The ritual of courting begins a long time before the marriage date. It may entail encounters at events, mainly at weddings, or the courting may stem from understanding between the families. Once the boy has demonstrated responsibilities, not only for his own livelihood but also for the society in which he lives, he picks the girl he is interested in. He will inform a family member, usually his father, who then contacts the family of the girl. Usually the girl knows of the boy’s intent and, in many instances, she encourages him to pursue her in this way. There are mediators, such as the girl’s best friends, who convey the girl’s wishes to the boy.
The first visit to the girl from the family of the groom-to-be involves other elders from his village. Special clothing is worn to underscore the importance of the meeting. A stick called “siinqee” is carried to the bride-to-be’s house and left at the door to indicate to her parents that the process of courting their daughter has begun in earnest. On the second visit, the “siinqee” may come in with the groom’s party indicating the girl’s family has accepted the gesture. Visits by the groom’s party may continue over the course of two years. The visits will prepare the way for acceptance of the young man, not only by the girl’s immediate family, but by her relatives as well. It may also happen that the future son-in-law must till the land of his future in-laws – the idea is to make parents’ sure that their daughter is marrying into a family who can support their daughter and her needs.
Once the needs of all relatives are satisfied, the actual date for a marriage will be set. On the date of the wedding, gifts for the bride’s family are brought by an assembly of well-respected elders who join the wedding party. Bringing home the new bride is an all day process. Without the presence of knowledgeable elders, the marriage can be delayed. Once the groom is home with his new bride, the wedding party may take another three or more days to complete. This is a period when the groom’s family and relatives bring presents. In old days, Oromos never married within their immediate clans, and today some Oromos continue to abide by that restriction. However, with the introduction of foreign religions and influences, times are changing the marriage traditions of the Oromo people and many Oromo marriages resemble marriages of Western or Middle Eastern cultures. Since girls have to marry into different clans in traditional Oromo society, their relatives are almost always some distance away. Traditional Oromo wedding rituals fostered understanding and interconnectedness between different societies.
In Oromia, women are helped through pregnancy and childbirth by female neighbours or female elders in the community. Formal prenatal care may be unfamiliar, but women traditionally increase the amount of meat in their diet and pay special attention to nutrition. If a woman was ready to deliver in Oromia, she might notify a female friend but not her husband. Men are not supposed to participate at all, and many women here are still reluctant to have their husbands involved in the birthing process. After delivery, a woman is supposed to rest in bed for forty days attended by the other women of the community, who cook special foods for her and tend her other children while she regains her strength. Unfortunately, women have been unable to do that here because of school, work, and logistical problems.
Naming and Names
Each person has one main name, their given name. A person’s first name is their personal name, followed by the names of their father, grandfather, and so on. “Last” name is a funny concept to many Oromo people. They are often given other personal “love names” by family members. Their second name is the main name of their father. A third name is usually the name of their paternal grandfather.
Traditionally, the father picks Oromo children’s names but the mother has great influence in naming the daughter of the family. It must also be said that Oromo names have meanings as if to convey wishes of success, wisdom, and prosperity through generations. For instance, the most popular Oromo names are Ibsaa for males and Ibsituu for females, both meaning “light”. Popular Names for Males: Gemechu (Geh –meh’ –choo), Challa (Chah – lah’). Popular Names for Females: Lensa (Len’ – sah), Chaltu (Chahl’ – too).
In Oromia, when a household is faced with the reality of death, community support is given in the form of money, time, and physical labor. In Australia, this tradition continues, as it is the only way to support the grieving families.