Theory Teacher's Blog

Oromo Arts in Diaspora vs. HIV/AIDS

As the semester comes to an end, and my theory students put their books away, I’m proud to announce the the new issue of Ogina, an on-line webzine devoted to Oromo Arts in Diaspora. 

cover art for Ogina issue 2:1 by Zakia Posey

cover art for Ogina issue 2:1 by Zakia Posey

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 Ogina webzine is that art can effect positive social change, and it is a tenant that it shares with another new Oromo organization Sandscribe Communications, which aims to build a media and arts school in Ethiopia.

So, the questions for this post are these: can art really effect positive change? If so, how?

The new issue of Ogina is dedicated to the topic of HIV/AIDS, a disease that has struck very hard both inside and outside of Ethiopia. As the excellent documentary All of Us demonstrates in its transnational exploration of HIV among women of color in the Bronx and in Ethiopia, fighting the disease is not simply a matter of knowledge, medical technology, or morality. It is also a matter of power relations and of will. And everyone knows that will and power are intimately — and very complexly — related on both the political and psychological levels.

Art and imaginative literature, I think, can expose not just ignorance but also disparities in power in a very special way — a special way that helps the disempowered discover both the psychological sources of empowerment and the political resources of will in order to change their lives for the better. Hence, in some ways, art and imaginative literature are superior to theory and political science which may analyze power relations and prescribe solutions, but don’t inspire, raise consciousness,  or lead an individual to a personal epiphany and ethical transformation. But of course, art alone will not solve the AIDS epidemic. Critical theory and political organization each have their role to play, as all three work in concert to illuminate and transform the world.


May 5, 2009 - Posted by | Oromia


  1. This reminds me of Carolyn Forche and her work on “poetry of witness”. I think art can most definitely effect positive change and in many instances is the only way to tug at our empathetic core, that is, the element that (I hope) makes us “human”. The American/Western media culture is built around quick facts and cut and dry reporting, designed to keep us distanced from any sort of emotion that might evoke us to act. A blaring example of this is page 2 of the New York Times. Daily, I turn the front cover to find in two by two inch taglines, a summary of what is happening in the world. With this plethora of information at my disposal, I am free to pick and choose my reading material for the morning, not feeling a twinge of guilt for skipping past the 4 sentence column informing me of the hundreds lost to war, famine, natural disaster, etc. In stark contrast, and perhaps a bit late in my long winded response, visual art, poetry, prose, interactive media, etc, have the power to effect response due to the nature of their being, that is the purpose and intentional foundation they are built upon, to illicit response and evoke feeling.

    Comment by apjohnson | May 5, 2009 | Reply

  2. In response to APJohnson, I don’t know Carolyn Forche, but I’ll have to check her out. Thanks for the reference. And I agree, evoking empathy is one of the most powerful things literature can do, in contrast to news media which often has the opposite effect. But I am hesitant to say that this is due to the “nature of their being,” because that nature is so various and sometimes depends on context, and because not all literature does what you and I are talking about — sometimes even literature can be ignorant, racist, and chauvenistic.

    Meanwhile, alongside the nature of it’s being, there is the important question of distribution (as Foucault mentions in What is an Author?) and how it reachers the readers (who may have different emotional responses depending on their social positions.) So, with that in mind, I’m happy to say that sampled the new issue already!

    One thing we are worried about in this issue is a conservative backlash from a vocal minority within the Oromo community, so there were some things that we would have liked to say but didn’t in order to maintain good relations with our target audience. As it is, we are still crossing some boundaries with this issue — boundaries that only Oromo would notice, such as our challenges to church leaders, our featuring a short story by a Kenyan (not an Oromo), and our discussion of a movie featuring a Habesha woman.

    Comment by steventhomas | May 5, 2009 | Reply

  3. Hi Steve –

    I just saw this BBC article today, and was wondering if the Oromo youth you’ve worked with had any interest in developing a version of Facebook in Oromo…? Especially since you mentioned ‘the important question of distribution.’

    Check it out.

    Comment by Megan Vetsch | June 15, 2009 | Reply

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