Theory Teacher's Blog

Ethiopia and Oromo History: Recommended Reading

A few days ago, I gave a lecture entitled “Ethiopia in the American Literary Imagination” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of California at Irvine. OLLI is a nation-wide organization that gives actively intellectual adults access to professors. I don’t think I have ever had a more lively and engaged audience, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. At the end of the talk, several of my audience said they wished I had provided a handout with a recommended reading list. So this blog post will be a better-late-than-never supplement to my talk.

There are a few categories of stuff to read. The first category is the new Ethiopian-American literature, all of which is written either by the immigrants or by the children of immigrants who fled Ethiopia after its revolution in 1974. My favorite works are Dinaw Mengestu’s two novels, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (published in 2007) and How to Read the Air (published in 2010). Both received very positive reviews — including my own [click here], which includes hyperlinks to other reviews. I also strongly recommend Nega Mezlekia’s somewhat controversial but also positively reviewed memoir Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, published in 2000. Those are the three I like the most, and they have received the most acclaim, but there are others. Nega Mezlekia has published two novels, The God Who Begat a Jackal (2003) and The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades (2006). There are also the novels Beneath the Lions Gaze (2010) by Maaza Mengiste and Riding the Whirlwind (1993) by Bereket Habte Selassie and the memoir Held at a Distance (2007) by Rebecca Haile. In addition, there are several movies by Ethiopian-American directer Haile Gerima.

All of these authors have two things in common: all of them are ethnically Amhara, and all of them focus on the 1974 revolution and its aftermath in their first books. If we consider that the Amhara are only 30% of Ethiopia’s population, the Oromo are 35%, and the other seventy or more ethnic groups (Tigray, Somali, Gurage, Afar, Sidamo, among others) add up to 35%, we ought to raise the question why all the Ethiopian-American literature comes from just the one Amharic ethnic group. And if we consider the diversity of stories and experiences that could be written about, we might also wonder why the 1974 Revolution is the only topic that American and European publishers seem interested in. In addition to asking ourselves why this is the case, we ought to ask what’s being left out or lost?

To correct the situation, several young Oromo and I began a website called Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora, which features creative new work by Oromos in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere around the world. I have also blogged about this topic and about my own travels through Ethiopia extensively [click here].

The second category of reading is about the Oromo people in Ethiopia. Probably the most famous historian is Harold Marcus, and his History of Ethiopia gives an overview of the whole country and is a good place to start. My impression is that both Amhara scholars and Oromo scholars generally respect Marcus’s objectivity. Beyond that, two books that argue for a more multiethnic understanding of Ethiopian history are Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society by Donald Levine and The Invention of Ethiopia by Bonnie Holcomb and Sisai Ibsaa. Books specifically about Oromo history in Ethiopia include The Oromo of Ethiopia: a History 1570–1860 by Mohammed Hassen and Oromia and Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict, 1868–2004 by Asafa Jalata. Books on Oromo culture include Oromo Democracy by Asmarom Legesse. For a more economic analysis, an interesting new book is Taking the Place of Food: Khat in Ethiopia by Ezekiel Gebissa, and the documentary Black Gold is an excellent movie about coffee. Most of these books have been reprinted so if the original editions are not in the university library, then the reprints can be ordered through bookstores or the internet. But a quicker way to learn about the Oromo of Ethiopia would be the website Gadaa.com.

So, if the reality of Ethiopia is richly multiethnic, why do Americans continue to have such a singular and incorrect view of that country? This is complicated, but one of the reasons is Ethiopia’s unique place in literary history — from the Bible and classical Greek literature through American literature. Whether you’re reading seventeenth-century Puritans such as Cotton Mather, nineteenth-century poets such as Walt Whitman and Paul Dunbar, twentieth-century novelists such as Richard Wright and Alice Walker, or hip hop artists such as Lauryn Hill and Nas, Ethiopia figures prominently as a symbol of an ancient, religiously Christian black civilization and a symbol of liberation from slavery and oppression. This is especially true in nineteenth-century abolitionist literature such as Frederick Douglass’s newspaper and during the Harlem Renaissance (notably the pageant “Star of Ethiopia” by W.E.B. Du Bois.) If you pick up any college-classroom anthology of American literature (I would recommend the Heath Anthology) or an anthology of African-American Literature, you will see examples of what I’m talking about simply by glancing through the table of contents. The scholars that have already analyzed this history of “Ethiopianism” in African-American literature include Tony Martin, Wilson Jeremiah Moses, John Gruesser, Aric Putnam, and Ivy Wilson, among others.

There are a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations dedicated to encouraging a more progressive and developed media culture. The Ethiopian government has recently built museums and cultural centers that celebrate its multiethnic history. Primary schools in Ethiopia now include instruction in local languages, and national universities now have professors who research ethnic histories. Organizations such as the one I work with — Sandscribe Communications — look ahead to a future of film and television media that celebrates a dynamic and creative cultural pluralism and that addresses difficult issues such as HIV-AIDS, women’s rights, land scarcity, deforestation, climate change, etc.

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January 8, 2011 - Posted by | Oromia

1 Comment »

  1. Couldn’t attend the lecture –especially wanted to, because I had read a novel “Cutting for Stone” about an Ethiopian surgeon and it got me interested in that country. I the novel could have been edited a bit tighter, but still good enough to recommend if you haven’t yet read it. I will track down the ones you recommend. Thanks. Hope you can do another presentation for Olli –maybe a series of lectures on Ethiopia?? That would be wonderful.

    Comment by Betts Harley | January 13, 2011 | Reply


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