Theory Teacher's Blog

Oromo Identity and “Culture” from Ethiopia to America

I am so happy to be writing about the fifth issue of the on-line webzine Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora, released just in time for the new year. This is perhaps its best issue ever, with the widest array of genres (including poetry, short story, film, essay, art, cultural study, book review, and an interview with a film actor) and is the most geographically diverse  (including contributors living in Finland, Australia, Canada, United States, and Somaliland.) I think it’s really cool. And of course, for me, as a teacher of cultural theory, it raises some questions about the concepts “culture” and “ethnic identity.” So, what I’d like to do in my blog post today is think about what “Oromo culture” is by looking at four examples: the recent issue of Ogina, an Oromo culture night in Minneapolis last summer, a New Years Eve concert in St. Paul, and the performance of the Vagina Monologues in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last spring.

But before I get on with that, I want to raise the question of my own position as a theorist and critic, so before I start talking about the webzine and the question of cultural identity, I want to critically reflect on my own cultural identity. Something I have been self-conscious about for a long time is my relationship to the Oromo community and the possibility of my having any role in its liberation struggle. In general, there are a lot of ways to think about an outsider’s relationship to an ethnic community, and I obviously don’t have time to talk about them all here, so I’ll just focus on one conceptual distinction. Back in the 1920s, political theorist Antonio Gramsci made the distinction between the traditional intellectual and the organic intellectual. The traditional intellectual works within the state institutions that serve the interests of the dominant socio-economic class (e.g., universities, bureaucracies, etc.) So far as world cultures is concerned, such traditional intellectuals tend to operate in “area studies” programs (e.g., Asian studies, African studies, Latin American studies, etc.), and their interest in analyzing other cultures is to focus on the what makes those cultures different or unique — to gain an understanding of the “Chinese mind” or the “African character.”

The worst case scenario is that such studies are simply racist, and the knowledge they generate is meant to serve the interests of the politically powerful who desire to economically dominate those “other cultures.” The best case scenario is that such studies genuinely admire the “other” but neglect the history of political and economic relations between cultures. (In other words, it’s obviously silly to study various African cultures today without recognizing the legacy of European colonialism, and it’s actually just as silly to study European cultures without recognizing how they were in turn impacted by the people they colonized — consider how much tea and sugar is a part of “English” culture, when tea came from India and sugar from the Caribbean. Likewise, the Beatles were largely inspired by African-American and Caribbean music.) Hence, one of the funny things about “area studies” programs is that they may have been created to study the “other” but if the scholars are the least bit honest, they usually end up questioning their own scholarly perspective and their own cultural location…. as I am doing now. For example, all scholars of Ethiopia know (or ought to know) about Ethiopia’s strategic importance during the peak of European imperialism in Africa in the late 19th-century and its strategic importance for the United States during the Cold War. And just as the influences of pan-African anti-colonialist political movements and jazz music travelled back and forth across the globe in the 1950s and 60s, so also today do the influences of global and anti-globalization movements and world music (especially hip hop). Even the traditional “area studies” intellectuals themselves travel back and forth, and I sometimes find that I have more to talk about with a fellow scholar from Addis Ababa or Calcutta than I do with the people from the neighborhood where I grew up or even my own family. Culture and identity are funny things.

In contrast to the traditional intellectual, Gramsci theorized the “organic intellectual” which is a scholar rooted in the community he or she studies and serves. Whereas traditional intellectuals falsely believe that they are objective and neutral, even though their work usually serves the project of imperial domination, organic intellectuals see their work as part of a complex network of political and social relations. So, in my own case, I feel that one of my jobs as a cultural critic is not really to study Oromo culture. There are already a number of brilliant Oromo scholars who write about their own culture (e.g., Asmarom Legesse, Gadaa Melbaa, Mohammed Hassen, Mekuria Bulcha, Asafa Jalata, Ezekiel Gebissa, and many others) and some brilliant American scholars who do this work too (e.g., Harold Marcus, Bonnie Holcomb, Peri Klemm, and many others.) Rather, I think of other ways I can be an organic intellectual and use my skills and resources to serve the Oromo community. For instance, instead of analyzing Oromo culture, I analyze how my own American culture has for centuries wrongly understood Ethiopia’s many peoples. Alongside that project is for me to simply act as a relay — assisting in the dissemination of Oromo scholarship, art, and culture. Culture is always a power game, as anyone who works in the Hollywood movie industry knows full well, and so by acting as a “relay” I am in a sense empowering a cultural identity.

But I don’t see my job to simply be a cheerleader on behalf of Oromo culture or a critic of my own American culture. And so, the point of my blog today is to actually serve the Oromo community by thinking critically about its culture…. Hence, this blog post.

I will begin with a very eloquent speech delivered at the Oromo Youth Association’s cultural night last July in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a teenage girl about the meaning behind the traditional dancing always performed at these events.

She explained that they are an expression of cultural memory, political solidarity, and the power of the Oromo ethnic group to survive and resist oppression. They connect the Oromo living in the United States to their family members who still live in Ethiopia as well as with Oromo around the world (many of whom were forced to flee oppressive and dangerous situations in their home country.) And through technologies such as YouTube, they also connect and empower the Oromo living in the United States with each other. It was an impressive speech.

However, when I travelled through Ethiopia last summer, what I noticed is that people tended to drink coca cola and Italian-style espresso more than traditional Ethiopian coffee, that the movie theaters showed Hollywood movies, that the young people prefered the television broadcast from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (which includes American programs) over the television broadcast by Ethiopian stations, that most young men wore the international young-man’s outfit (blue jeans and untucked button-down shirt), that most women either straightened their hair in European styles or covered their hair in Islamic styles, that the Ethiopian fashion magazines looked almost exactly the same as the fashion magazines I am used to seeing in supermarkets in the United States, and that American hip hop was blasting out of bars, cafés, and nightclubs, one of which was named after the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, etc., etc., etc.

In particular, the June 2010 issue of the Ethiopian fashion magazine Zoma had an article about “breaking the silence” about “violence against women” and “genital mutilation” — in particular, a celebration of V-Day 2010 in Addis Ababa with a performance of The Vagina Monologues. Originally composed and performed by Eve Ensler in New York City in 1996, The Vagina Monologues have been quite controversial in the United States, even banned by some universities. And of course, it’s controversial in Ethiopia as well, whose dominant cultural institutions include a repressive and patriarchal Orthodox Christian church. What do we make of its performance in Ethiopia and many other countries around the world?

Of course, I am juxtaposing two very contrasting instances of “culture” to make a point. The Oromo Cultural night in Minneapolis that I attended happened just a few months after the performance of the Vagina Monologues in Addis Ababa. Both of these events could be called “counter-hegemonic” because they assert a political identity against the dominant institutions (the cultural night asserts a minority culture inside the United States that has resisted oppressive state institutions in Ethiopia, and the Vagina Monologues opposes a repressive Ethiopian culture dominated by powerful religious and other institutions.) Obviously, it would be silly to argue that one is a more “authentic” expression of culture than the other. Cultures are dynamic, complex, innovative, and developing.

So, considering these two cultural events, I’d like to make two theoretical points about the nature of culture itself. First, culture is often considered to be an expression of identity (political identity, ethnic identity, etc.), but in my opinion, such an understanding of culture is incomplete because often culture is an expression of fantasy and desire. Also, sometimes a cultural identity is expressed negatively — not who you are, but who you are not. Hence, as novelist Toni Morrison argues in her brilliant book Playing in the Dark, white American culture understands itself against a racist caricature of black people. Likewise, three of the most classic and often read English novels are Thomas More’s Utopia, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, all of which are about non-existent spaces outside of England. And in the case of the Oromo cultural night and the Vagina Monologues, the Oromo in Minnesota look far away to their cultural roots in Ethiopia to express their counter-hegemonic cultural identity while at the same time inside Ethiopia young people look far away in the other direction to articulate their counter-hegemonic cultural identity.

In a sense, this illustrates a point made by Jacque Lacan in his lecture “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” that analyzes the relationship between individual selves and language. In one section of that lecture, he thinks about the famous philosophical statement by Rene Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” One of the implications of this universalizing, humanist ideal is that no matter what culture we come from, we are all rational individuals with brains. Lacan’s critique is that we are not actually all that rational most of the time and our brains require language to think with… and language is cultural. So, Lacan then considers another phrase, “I think where I am.” The implication behind this statement is culturally deterministic and suggests that Americans inevitably think American thoughts, Oromos think Oromo thoughts, etc. Lacan dismisses this formulation as well, and instead proposes the very complex phrase, “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.” The main idea here is that when we think, we use language, symbols, and ideas that are outside of us. We imagine ourselves in other spaces (fantasy novels or the future, e.g., the novels Utopia, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels), and we understand our identity by exaggerating contrasts with other cultures and by inventing mythological pasts.

The critical point I’m trying to make here about Oromo culture is that it is not simply an expression of cultural identity. It is an expression of desire, anxiety, loss, and language. It is just as much an expression of what is lacked or lost as it is an expression of what is there.

Now for theoretical point number two. Critical of Lacanian psychoanalysis, theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari suggest that culture is not simply about desire, fantasy, and lack. It is also about assemblages, connections, linkages, and productivity. Hence, a cultural night or a magazine like Zoma are sites where connections are made between American, Ethiopian, and Oromo cultural elements. Deleuze and Guattari — and also the Afro-British theorist Paul Gilroy and the Caribbean theorist Edouard Glissant — argue that culture works like a “rhizome” or network. If you remember your high school biology class, you might recall that a rhizome is an underground root structure for some kinds of plants and fungi. When I teach this idea in class I usually talk about mushrooms which typically grow in rings. The mushroom is what we see, and it may look like each mushroom is distinct, each with its own root, but underground they are all connected by a more complex root structure. In other words, there is one amorphous root structure that produces all the individual mushrooms. If we think of this as a metaphor for culture, then each ethnic or national culture is a mushroom, and the complex network of social, economic, and fantasy relations are the rhizome. In other words, we’re all connected in some way underneath. Instead of thinking about culture in terms of roots (each ethnic culture having its own distinct root like a tree), we might think of it in terms of rhizomatic routes — the movement of culture in time and space and its many connections that cross national borders and institutions (the way a mushroom has a myriad of roots connected to other mushrooms.)

So, in conclusion, what I personally believe is admirable about Ogina is that it enacts this rhizomorphic sense of culture. It is a site that brings traditional Oromo cultures (e.g., poetry in the Oromo language about nineteenth-century chiefs and anthropological articles about traditional clothing) together with “modern” activities (e.g., films about “night driving” and interviews with film actors). It includes an article about both traditional and new uses of the plant khat and how the culture around khat use has been affected by globalization. In sum, it projects a desire for Oromo cultural development and its many international connections.

Likewise, also check out this awesome transnational musical New Years Eve celebration sponsored by the International Oromo Youth Association that links up American jazz (Rick DellaRatta) with Oromo pop. And notice the variety of sponsors. It too enacts a beautiful, rhizomatic, and counter-hegemonic sense of culture that theorists such as Paul Gilroy would applaud.


January 3, 2011 - Posted by | Oromia, Theory--capital T


  1. Professor Thomas,
    Thank you for your very interesting and profound article. You are really an organic and revolutionary intellectual. Your piece demonstrates the complexity and dynamism of culture by addressing the material and non-material and idealist aspects of culture in general and that of the Oromo in particular. I have enjoyed reading this piece.

    I encourage every Oromo to read this article and comment on it.

    Comment by Asafa Jalata | January 4, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks Dr. Jalata. Your comment means a lot to me since I have admired your books.

      Comment by steventhomas | January 4, 2011 | Reply

  2. I am Oromo of Oromia with BA and MA with Afan Oromo & Literature. But I confined here in Ambo University, Ethiopia.
    I am aman with big Vision. But How can I further my Education and serve my people Oromo in this generation. Maaloo mala qabduu laata? mee naaf barreessa.

    Comment by Misganu Guluma | February 15, 2011 | Reply

  3. Thanks Dr Thomas for your amazing and intelectual analysis of the Oromo culture, you are a very liberal scholar who emphasized on reality than on psodo abyssinian information to study the oromo culture

    Thanks again!

    Comment by Yadessa Bedassa | March 22, 2012 | Reply

  4. men’s role in oromo culture in brining up children

    Comment by katebu | October 5, 2014 | Reply

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