Theory Teacher's Blog

The Oromo Renaissance

There is one thing I want to emphasize in this post, as the end of the semester approaches. It is something we have been discussing all semester in various ways, but I hope it will appear especially meaningful now. It is the many inter-connections among literature, socio-economic conditions, the many different spaces in which we live our daily lives, and politics. Similar to Michel Foucault, Slavoj Zizek, and Jacques Derrida whom you read earlier in the semester, Naomi Klein and Jane Juffer, whom you are reading now, focus on the enormous complexity and incredible density of these things, as well as the way such things are not always “innate” or “natural” but rather change over time and therefore can be changed.

I want to give you a real world example, a project that I am currently in the middle of working on, a project whose success and outcome is entirely indeterminate — and that project is the Oromo Renaissance.

Most of you do not know who the Oromo are. They are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and have been violently oppressed for the past 150 years by another ethnic group who was only able to dominate the region by means of military support provided by commercial interests in Europe and the United States. So, in this blog, I want to share with you the rough draft of an essay I am writing and planning to publish in the first issue of an on-line magazine of literature and culture, which I am also helping to edit. I hope, as you read this draft, you will notice the different social spaces, institutions, legal structures, activist movements, and history — as well as the literature — which all overlap and interconnect in complex ways. Anyway, here it is… 

In July 2007 in Minneapolis, the Oromo Youth Leadership Conference discussed how to promote Oromo cultural identity. After the conference, several of the participants—including myself—proposed the creation of a new Oromo webzine that would feature poetry, fiction, visual arts, fashion, interviews with musicians, essays on culture, and more. As we first imagined it, the goal of our webzine was to contribute to an event that hasn’t fully happened yet—the Oromo Renaissance. Coincidentally, unknown to us when we began our project, the Oromo playwright Dhaba Wayessa was thinking along similar lines. He recently wrote, “As we all aspire to participate in the Oromo cultural renaissance, we need to nurture and develop our magnificent cultural traditions so that our children may embrace and carry them forward as an essential part of their lives,” and this March, he began raising money in Washington D.C. and Minneapolis for a new film project, Halkan Dorrobaa. Also unknown to us when we began, yet another Oromo intellectual, Asafa Jalata, concluded his new book Oromummaa with an essay that encourages the Oromo to learn from the political projects of other black communities, namely the Harlem Renaissance.[1]

Clearly, something is in the air. And something important is on the horizon. But what? What will an Oromo Renaissance look like? It is difficult to write about the future, especially from the perspective of an outsider—as I am obviously not an Oromo—but that is precisely the task of my essay. To accomplish this task, I will raise three questions: (1) What is the meaning of the word “renaissance” and what sort of project does it entail? (2) What is the usefulness of comparing one cultural renaissance such as the Oromo Renaissance to another such as the Harlem Renaissance? and (3) Is there something new about the twenty-first century that would make the formation of a cultural renaissance today different from earlier ones? To put it another way, since I am not myself an Oromo, I can only offer the readers of this new webzine my expertise as a professor of English and American literature.Hence, like the English, American, and Harlem renaissances before it, the Oromo Renaissance today will have two different audiences. One will be the Oromo community itself, but the other will be the international community. Therefore, just as within their ethnic community, Oromo artists adapt non-Oromo art forms, so too, beyond their community, artists hope to secure a place for themselves in a global culture. This attention to the “cultures of globalization” and the multinational publishing corporations that produce “world literature,” however, presents us with a paradox.  And the paradox is this: in order to achieve their cultural integrity, the Oromo are finding that they must look outside their own culture and work closely not only with people of other cultures but also with other cultural forms, such as the modern cafe and multinational networks of distribution and consumption.

I raise these three questions—and I emphasize that they are open-ended questions to which I have no answers—in part because of a vague uneasiness I observed being expressed at the OYLC. Many of the Oromo living in Diaspora feel disconnected from their cultural roots and have developed attachments to other forms of culture (e.g., American hip hop, American consumer culture, western universities, Lutheran churches, and Muslim mosques.) However, there is a deep desire to reconnect creatively and imaginatively. For instance, around the same time that the editors of Ogina were thinking about creating this webzine, two other individuals—Roba Geleto and Gity Teressa—created an “Oromo Art and Poetry” group on the on-line networking tool FaceBook to “unleash the beauty of Oromia throughout our imaginations” in a way that would transcend the political and religious differences within the Oromo community. The FaceBook group includes poetry written in both English and Afan Oromo as well as links to YouTube videos of hip hop by the Oromo artist Epidemic the Virus who lives in Toronto. What is notable here is how young Oromo are already exploring their cultural identity through a hybrid of American and Oromo poetic forms. At the same time, many Oromo youth have been long dissatisfied with the political rhetoric of their elders who assert a simplistic and often jingoistic image of Oromo-ness, or Oromummaa. The editors of this new webzine Ogina want to follow the advice of scholars such as Mekuria Bulcha and Asafa Jalata by not simply asserting a nostalgic sense of what it means to be Oromo. Instead, they want to honestly and courageously explore the strange paradoxes and deeply felt contradictions of real, lived experience—their culture in a globalized world.

With the goals of the editors of Ogina in mind, I want to mention something I noticed when I first mentioned “Oromo literature” to the several of the older generation of Oromo scholars and journalists. They seemed to think that I was interested in old Oromo folk tales, when what I was really interested in was the possibility of something new—an Oromo novel set in the present. And I mention these divergent senses of the word “literature” because there is more at stake in these two very different emphases than mere idle speculation. There is money and the question of what to use it for. The Oromo community financially supports scholars at universities both in Oromia and in the U.S., Sweden, and elsewhere who research and recuperate the cultural and political history of the Oromo, but as far as I could tell, no money was being used to support young literary talent. This, of course, is important to me not just because I am a teacher of literature, but also because it is well known to historians that the African-American literature in the 1920s significantly helped to enable the Civil Rights movement. That the literature, music, and art of the Harlem Renaissance were important to the Civil Rights movement is obvious. Both of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson—were also novelists.  And we also know that much of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance could not have been written without a significant injection of capital from various organizations, such as the Communist Party of the U.S.A. Theorists and scholars of civil rights movements all over the world have long appreciated the role of magazines, novels, poetry, and theater not only for galvanizing a political community but also for exploring the ethical dilemmas and problems faced by that community. So, at first, I thought that the Oromo living in Diaspora should really be using their limited financial resources to focus on the present and the future, not the past.

 But when I thought further, I began to think about it differently. Literally, the word “renaissance” means “rebirth,” and so one of the peculiar aspects of a renaissance—any renaissance—is that it is simultaneously a looking back and a looking forward. For example, at the time of the English Renaissance in the 16th century, England was not yet a “nation” in the modern sense of what a nation is. Looking ahead to England’s new imperial future, poets such as Edmund Spenser invented a mythic past dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. In other words, England’s “rebirth” was not just about becoming something new or different, but a metaphorical renewal of the past. The same is true of the American Renaissance in the early 19th century following the Revolutionary War. And likewise, many writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s recuperated an African-American folk tradition. So, this renewal of the past—based partly on truth, but also imaginatively invented out of scarce archival resources—was important for the African-American project of self-liberation.[2] Likewise, their children, growing up in the U.S.A., Canada, England,  Australia, Sweden, Kenya, and Somalia, struggle to understand their cultural roots, a culture that sometimes even their parents have difficulty articulating except through other institutions such as the church or the mosque.here].)

Not only did these three renaissances re-imagine their cultural history, but their poets and scholars worked hard to institutionalize a national language. Alongside the English Renaissance came the first Bible in English and the first English dictionary. When one looks at the spellings of words and names in English before 17th century, there seems to be no consistency to them. Even the famous playwright William Shakespeare spelled his own name different ways. Similarly, we have all noticed how some words in Qubbee seem to have several spellings. And the institutionalization of a national language and culture was not unique to the English Renaissance. Alongside the American Renaissance came the first American-English dictionary and a state sponsored elementary education system. And though the Harlem Renaissance did not produce a “dictionary” in the usual sense of that word, its writers experimented with how to represent the uniqueness of “black” English, and linguists later developed something called Ebonics. The Oromo today find themselves in a similar situation as the English in the 17th century, the Americans in the 19th century, and the African-Americans in the 20th century.  For almost one hundred years, the Ethiopian state made it illegal to publish or teach in Qubbee. Only since 1991 have people in Oromia been able to publish books and go to school in their own language. And, among the children growing up in Diaspora, there is a powerful desire to learn their own language. For instance, a young man in Norway is currently busy trying to program iPods in Afan-Oromo.

And so, obviously, what motivates the Oromo elders to recuperate their cultural history is the fact that not just their culture but even their very language had been suppressed for so long. I will not spend time in this essay on that history as many Oromo scholars have already described it in considerable detail. I assume that all readers of this essay know already (far better than I do) the effects of Ethiopian state violence on Oromo language, culture, and sense of self.

However, no renaissance can simply be a nostalgic looking back at a past only dimly recollected. And so, the novelists, poets, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance also dramatized their present condition as well as imagined a brighter future. They invented the new musical form of jazz by blending together musical forms from Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Their writers borrowed the traditional European forms of prose and poetry but changed them in order to express their own way of speaking, feeling, and thinking. They were inventive, playful, and experimental.

Thus, the second question of this essay is a comparative one. The Italian and English Renaissance writers looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration and even imagined direct cultural linkages, and likewise, the Harlem Renaissance looked everywhere for inspiration, from German philosophy and literature to French modernist art to ancient African traditions. At the same time, of course, these renaissances also paid attention to how they differed from all other cultural traditions and trajectories—above all, they asserted their uniqueness. And what made them unique was their heritage, the heritage that we call Oromummaa. Interestingly, if one reads carefully Jalata’s book Oromummaa and Legesse’s book Oromo Democracy, one notices that they are describing two things at once. They are describing the unique heritage of the Oromo people, but they are describing it in the universal terms of democracy and human rights. So, just as a renaissance is simultaneously a looking back and a looking forward, it is also simultaneously a celebration of its uniqueness and its universality.

Today, no Oromo man or woman can help but notice the globalized nature of his or her own culture. Musicians have adopted western electronic instruments. Hip hop is popular not only among Oromo youth in the United States but also in Oromia. And this cultural hybridity is nothing new. Not only did the revolutionary culture of Ethiopia in the 1960s and 70s borrowed heavily from Russian and Chinese Marxism, but so too were its popular music and even the hairstyles (e.g., the Afro) a mixture of local and global cultural forms. Moreover, the Oromo know that their future has been—and continues to be—affected by the politics of the United Nations and other global institutions as well as the economics of multinational corporations. And so, the Oromo have always deeply understood the necessity of making connections to people and cultures outside their own community. In other words, they have always understood that to achieve political freedom and to end the injustice of their oppression, they have felt the need to demonstrate the injustice of their situation to a world audience. One important example of how they have done so is to link their interests with the fair trade coffee movement, as much of the world’s coffee is produced by impoverished Oromo farmers. A Minnesota coffee roaster has recently created a new blend of coffee called “Organic Oromian” to increase awareness of the Oromo contributions to a global economy and world culture. (For more on that story, and to find out how you can buy Organic Oromian Coffee, click [

 

And this paradox leads to the third question of this essay, and that is the question of the 21st century. What is novel about the Oromo Renaissance—and perhaps any cultural renaissance of the 21st century—is its location. Unlike the renaissances of Europe, America, and Harlem, the Oromo Renaissance is happening not just in one location, but in a state of Diaspora. Although all renaissances have historically emerged out of a dialogue between a local culture and a world culture, in the past they have typically been rooted in metropolitan centers such as Venice, London, and New York. In contrast, the Oromo Renaissance is an event that has no single center but is happening everywhere. It is happening in the U.S.A., Canada, England, Australia, Kenya, Somalia, Sweden, Norway, and even in Cyberspace as well as within the political state of Ethiopia. Therefore, the artists of the Oromo Renaissance, both young and old, are paying close attention to something truly wonderful—just how profoundly new their situation actually is.

___________

NOTES

[1] Dhaba Wayessa, Halkan Dorrobaa. http://boornagaa.com/; Asafa Jalata, Oromummaa (Atlanta, GA: Oromia Publishing, 2007): 272. See also Jalata’s “The Place of the Oromo Diaspora in the Oromo National Movement: Lessons from the Agency of the “Old” African Diaspora in the United States,” Northeast African Studies 9:3 (2002): 133-60.

[2] To name just a few of the books on this subject: Bonnie K. Holcomb and Sisai Ibssa, The Invention of Ethiopia (Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1990); Asafa Jalata, Oromia and Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict, 1868-2004, 2nd ed. (Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 2005); Mekuria Bulcha, The Making of the Oromo Diaspora (Minneapolis, MN: Kirk House, 2002); Asmarom Legesse, Oromo Democracy (Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 2006).

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April 17, 2008 - Posted by | Oromia

7 Comments »

  1. […] steventhomas sure knows how to captivate the audience. A recent post was published on The Oromo RenaissanceHere’s a brief excerpt of what was written: […]

    Pingback by The Oromo Renaissance · Atlanta Senior Community Living and Retirement Homes | April 17, 2008 | Reply

  2. I think the most interesting thing about this renaissance is something you mentioned in the last paragraph; it’s happening all over the world, all at once. This is the first renaissance (is it?) that has happened in the age of email and blogs. Instantaneous mass communication (and not just TV and radio, I mean things that are available to almost everyone) allows the word of the renaissance to spread. The Oromo have been able to find space for their renaissance in cyberspace. Proof: Me- I would never have known about the Oromo renaissance if it weren’t for this blog.

    Comment by Steve P | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  3. However, wouldn’t the fact that it has no one center or a focal point, if you will, has a dire consequence on the development of Oromo renaissance? All the examples of renaissance that Steve gives all occurred within a context of a formation of a modern nation. More or less they were supported by the emerging state machinery. The Oromo renaissance does not have that support and it is occurring outside the context of a state. Wouldn’t this result in fractured development?

    Comment by Abba Gomol | August 12, 2008 | Reply

  4. I agree with you in part, Abba Gomol, and the last paragraph of my essay points out precisely the problem of developing a dislocated literary renaissance that lacks the support of a state machinery. And I agree with you that the devopment may be fragmented and diffuse (though not fractured, which implies a broken-ness.) I disagree with you that the consequences for a dispersed people such as the Oromo is “dire” however. That kind of attitude is self-defeating, and I think you are overstating your case for two reasons.

    First reason — the world is different now, as hundreds of “globalization” theorists have pointed out. If you go to any African country today, you will find youth listening to hip hop, talking on cell phones, etc. Probably the most powerful force in the political state of Ethiopia is not the Ethiopian government but the U.S. government and corporations such as Proctor & Gamble. The de-regulation of the coffee trade has had “dire” consequences and deserves more attention from Oromo scholars and activists. In my own opinion, I have noticed that many scholars at OSA and also members of the OLF repeatedly avoid confronting the reality of global commerce and geopolitics and instead persist in focusing their energies on national politics. This focus often essentially devolves into the unsuccessful strategy of “accuse-the-Habesha-government.” It is naive to discuss Oromo politics without also addressing global trade and geopolitics. Likewise with culture.

    Second, it’s not true that all renaissances had the backing of national governments. Case-in-point is the Harlem Renaissance. African Americans were persecuted and even murdered by the U.S. government, and their literary endeavors were supported by a diffuse array of organizations. Many of the early African American poets and novelists made trips to France, Russia, and China because they received more support there than in their own country. I suspect the non-state character of the Harlem Renaissance is why Asafa Jalata encourages young Oromo to learn about from Harlem Renaissance. This does not mean that the Oromo Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance are the same; they aren’t.

    The two biggest problems facing the Oromo Renaissance are (1) lack of access to the internet within Oromia and (2) famine and disease.

    Meanwhile, I hope you will check out the new on-line magazine of Oromo Arts in Diaspora. http://www.ogina.org. I think it is a good start, though I would agree with you that it doesn’t adequately address the political situation within Oromia.

    Comment by steventhomas | August 12, 2008 | Reply

  5. […] It is perhaps worth noting that Obama’s ability to symbolize all these things goes far beyong the borders of America, as politicians world-wide celebrate him. Here, for instance, is a speech by an Oromo politician (and I have blogged on the Oromo desire for cultural and political independence from Ethiopia earlier here.) […]

    Pingback by Obama/McCain: speculations on the psychology of symbols « Theory Teacher’s Blog | September 28, 2008 | Reply

  6. […] notice the difference in preposition) the Oromo, whom I’ve blogged about before here and here  — a people who suffer because Ethiopia’s political alliance with the United States […]

    Pingback by Theorizing Spaces and the ICC « Theory Teacher’s Blog | April 8, 2009 | Reply

  7. […] to Oromo Arts in Diaspora. I have previously posted on Oromo issues in this blog here and here. Those who don’t know who the Oromo people are, see here. One of the basic tenants of the […]

    Pingback by Oromo Arts in Diaspora vs. HIV/AIDS « Theory Teacher’s Blog | May 5, 2009 | Reply


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