With a new political wind blowing through Ethiopia, the hitherto exiled Oromo Studies Association was able to return to home soil after four decades. Their conference produced gems of wisdom that cast the African experience in a new light, writes Kalundi Serumaga Serumaga.
The new political dispensation in Ethiopia, following the election of Abiy Ahmed and the earlier recognition of the various ethnicities that make up the country, is generating exciting new discoveries.
For example, the 33rd conference of the Oromo Studies Association (OSA), held for the first time on Ethiopian soil, unleashed an avalanche of new information that could very well change many of the perceptions we hold about ancient Africa.
For example, we learn about the Ayyaantuu, Oromian scientists and philosophers who developed a complex system of numerology and astronomy to predict everything from weather patterns for agricultural planning, to moments of societal upheaval.
In their antiquity, they built a series of astral observatories all along the length of the eastern Rift Valley, through which they mapped the visible universe, named stars and planets, and developed a calendar system that recycles itself every 365 years. Among the tools they used was a forked sighting staff, still carried by Oromo herdsman today.
Perhaps the last of these observatories has been finally located at Namoratunga in northern Kenya, with most of the star-aligned stone pillars still intact.
Using their calculations, the Ayyaantuu had observed the movements of a comet, and predicted that it was set to return every 75 years. In 1682, the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742), using Newtonian laws of motion to compute its overall trajectory even after it has departed, came to the same conclusion. The comet is now named after him, except in Oromo, where it is called Gaalessa.
Gems like this were part of a veritable treasure-trove of hitherto little documented information that came flooding out during and after the OSA conference.
Out of over 100 papers submitted, there were some 56 presentations covering topics ranging from ecological management to history, constitutionalism, culture and economics.
OSA was founded by a group of exiled activists in 1986 in response to a crackdown that had led to those campaigning for greater recognition of the Oromo people and their culture being murdered, tortured, jailed or driven out of the country.
The Oromo number over 35m in all directions from Addis Ababa, which was part of Oromo territory before the founding of the modern Ethiopian state. They form a third of the country’s overall population.
In most of the rest of Africa, all ethnicities were subjugated to the concept of the single nation, defined by borders drawn by the former colonial powers.
Ethiopia, which was never really colonised, despite a brief period of Italian suzerainty, took a different path. Emperor Menelik (1889-1911) decreed that all of Ethiopia was to be assimilated into one Amharic-speaking Orthodox Christian culture. His successor Emperor Haile Selassie (19301974) and later Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam (1974-1991) consolidated the concept.
Following considerable political agitation, the 1995 Constitution recognised the ethnic composition of its nine provinces although real power resided mainly with the Amharic-speaking elite. Following massive and sustained protests and demonstrations, PM Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe resigned, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, to succeed him.
From its founding, OSA has functioned as a de facto think tank, policy forum and perhaps virtual parliament for the aspired-for Oromiyya nation-state.
With this ‘homecoming’ conference, the many who had been forced into the diaspora were able to return and inter-relate with those who had never left home, and many in between.
Oromo point of view
The Oromo point of view is very straightforward: they say they are the largest colony in the Empire set in motion by Emperor Sahle Selassie in the 1840s, expanded massively by Emperor Menelik II and then consolidated through a series of treaties with the European powers.
Assimilation and ‘cultural era- sure’ were the principal pillars of this process. The Oromo therefore say they have been struggling for effective decolonisation. At the very least, they argue, this should mean the actual implementation of the 1995 Constitution while at most, it could mean secession (an option also provided for in the same constitution).
Much of the history of the Oromo struggle for cultural and political independence is not widely known even among the current younger generations of Oromos themselves.
This is where OSA comes in. The first goal was to set the historical record straight, whatever the potential outcomes. But it is simply not possible to tell that half of the story if it has never been documented, and those carrying it in their hearts and memories are dismissed as unreliable, inauthentic sources, because they do not speak the language of academia.
OSA was thus stablished to carry out an ‘engaged scholarship’ aimed at telling the full story, recovering and conserving the embattled indigenous knowledge, and researching the continued effects of what they see as a sustained colonial occupation aimed at erasing them.
It held a triple significance for the American researcher, activist and academic Bonnie Holcomb, author of the 1991 book, The Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of a Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa, who was arrested and eventually banned from the country back in the 1970s, for documenting the Oromo experience that informed the work.
She was able to finally return through this conference – and see the organisation she co-founded finally make its way home to discover and connect with two generations of home-based activism.
Resetting human relationships
A second major OSA goal was to generate reflection on what contemporary thinking on ‘development’ means for the Oromo people. This is partly because Oromo areas of Ethiopia constitute the breadbasket of the country and as such, any objections to further development (read ‘eviction’ and environmental destruction) projects were deemed as ‘the thoughts of a backward people’. Many native peoples can learn from this.
The Oromo believe a new approach is needed to get beyond the crisis that 500 or more years of dominant Western thought has now imposed upon the planet.
Key to this new approach will be resetting humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature. For that to happen, humanity will have to reach deep into those areas of human knowledge hitherto marginalised and downgraded by the great White experiment. Only those peoples who, despite colonialisms and attempted genocides, still held on to their knowledge systems or have the means of reconstructing them, can help.
The Oromo are a prime example of this. In their book Sacred Knowledge Traditions of the Oromo of the Horn of Africa, researched over a period of three decades, Dr Gemetchu Megerssa and Dr Aneesa Kassam have finally managed to capture the detailed outline of this thought system, aspects of which have been recognised by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as part of the intangible human cultural heritage.
Apart from astronomy and numerology, the Oromo offer much to learn regarding autonomous governance, democratic governance and the management of power (political authority is handed to a new age-set through elections every eight years), organic agriculture (the world-renowned Boran bull species is a product of the indigenous breeding knowledge of the Boran branch of Oromo) and spiritual care.
Furthermore, the recovered Oromo story also offers the foundation for a greater study of the Kushite civilisation that gave rise to the black civilisation of Khemet, better known as Ancient Egypt.
With the Oromo story, OSA may have found the place where the proper historical reconstruction of the actual African story may begin.