The Kindling Point was an occasional magazine that was launched in the 1980s to be a voice for historically marginalized people in the Horn of Africa. In the below article, H. Q. Loltu reflects on what “Ethiopia” means as and to the Oromo.
For most of my life, I have called myself an “Ethiopian” without giving it too much thought. Actually, I have been a better example of the “successful Ethiopian” than most people from that area. I have a good job in the United States; I am known as a sharp dresser and have a reputation in my own circle for being the owner of a fine car (something I have always been proud of.) I have thought of myself to be as well off as any African in this country.
Some time ago an Ethiopian visiting my house who turned out to be an Oromo nationalist told me that I was a colonial subject. I had been talking about my hatred for Mengistu and what he did to our country. “What do you mean, ‘our country’?” he asked. “Of course I mean Ethiopia,” I answered him. “What makes you an Ethiopian?” he asked. “Everything. If I am not an Ethiopian, then who would be?” I responded. This is when he told me that I was a colonial subject. I simply laughed at him. “No one in this universe is more of a free man than I am,” I said.
“Is that so?” he asked me. “You are not even free to tell people who you really are. If you say ‘Oromo,’ what do you think will happen? Abyssinians will be insulted because you have rejected the label that they forced on your parents and on you. Americans will be confused because the outside world has never even heard the name of your nation, even though it is one of the biggest in Africa, and other Africans will be unhappy that you have chosen to expose a problem that they do not really understand. You have so far to go that you would rather live with the illusion that you are a free man. You only got where you are today by giving up everything your people stand for including democracy when you began to climb the ladder to success. Almost everything you are proud of about Ethiopia has been taken from Oromia and used by others. You may be benefitting from that now, but you are not truly an Ethiopian; you are a subject.”
I looked at him as if he was crazy and told him that I was not really interested to discuss the matter much more. “Remember,” he said to me, “though you think highly of yourself, and think that you are a free man with your good job and comfortable life, you are just a slave like the rest of us until your nation is free.” I looked at him and felt sorry for him. We had a long discussion but I pushed away everything he said because I felt that it did not apply to me.
About three of four months later, the person I work with invited me to dinner at his home together with several other guests. He introduced me as Mr, So-and-so from Ethiopia. As the evening went on, the hostess announced that she had bought Ethiopian coffee in my honor, and the topic of conversation went to Ethiopia. People asked the typical questions, “What language is spoken in Ethiopia?”
I answered, “Amharic.”
“What is the Ethiopian religion?” “Christian,” I answered.
“What is the national food?” “Ingerra, a flat pancake-like bread and wat, a spicy meat stew.”
Finally one of the guests asked me how many languages are spoken in Ethiopia, I said, “Several; there are about five major languages.”
“Does everyone speak all five?” “No.”
“How many do you speak?” “Two.”
“Which ones are those?” “Amharic and Oromo”
“Which one is your mother tongue?”
Although I did not like the question, I answered, “Oromo.”
After that party, while I was driving home, many things were running through my mind. I asked myself why I did not like that question; why did I hesitate to respond? The words of the Oromo who had made me so mad jumped into my mind, (…” you are not even free to tell people who you really are…”).
I really did some soul-searching that night thanks to that Oromo who I laughed at. I realized that it was true: I did not have a point of reference, one of the things that gives people identity and makes them human. I reached my own personal kindling point, the point when something bursts into flame. All at once, that issue seemed like the most important thing in the world! I myself did not have an identity. When I thought about it, I realized that I had never even heard the word “Ethiopia” until I left the Oromo countryside and went to the city when I was 11 or 12 years old. Why was that so? Then it became clear to me that everything that was truly Oromo to start with (including myself) and everything that Oromos have produced has been taken away from the people and renamed and nationalized with the brand “Ethiopian.” What Oromos have is not ours, because we do not control it. This is why even the most privileged Oromo individuals (maybe especially the privileged individuals) have a hard time answering a simple question like who we are and where we come from. Had our nation been free, a participating partner with the others in the community of nations, we would not have that trouble identifying ourselves, we have been denied as a people the right to claim what is ours. Only the individuals who allowed themselves to be alienated from their people and take on the label of “Ethiopian,” (like I used to do) are acceptable to the Abyssinians. This has been the dilemma of all colonial technocrats. This is exactly what that Oromo had said to me, and it applied to myself. I could now see the truth in it when I tried to figure out what really had been keeping my mouth shut. That night was the beginning of the change in my perspective.
When I think about how I used to give Oromo nationalists a hard time, I have to laugh, but I must have been listening to them in some way because I remembered many of their points later when I began to take these things seriously. Many of my answers and my challenges were basically thrown at them out of a fear of facing reality.
When I talked to anyone who called himself an Oromo, I would say, “You are an Ethiopian; you look and act just like everybody else from that area. You guys are just lazy. Aren’t you just trying to get power like everyone else? You don’t have any other platform to stand on since you do not have a good job or good connections so you are creating this thing out of nowhere to get recognition.”
“Then what are the Oromo farmers and countryside people fighting for?” they would respond.
I challenged them, “Go to school as I did and then get power. You are choosing the shortest way to get to the top.”
They answered saying, “Doesn’t your training just make it possible for the Ethiopian penetration to go deeper and hand over more Oromo products into the hands of others and make the exploitation of the Oromos more efficient?” and “Isn’t your best qualification that you can act as a go-between for outsiders to enter Oromia and to diffuse the opposition and even the potential opposition? What did your education benefit the Oromos?” and “If you have so much power, why don’t you go there and help the Oromos now? Why do you remain behind?”
I appealed to them, “Why are you always talking about the poor exploited Oromos? Amharas are also poor and exploited.”
“We are not talking about the Amharas,” they replied. “We are talking about the settlers, the neftengas, who made a way of life out of living off of the Oromos and created a government whose main objective was to back them up. These together took everything from us, stamped it “Ethiopian” and told us that Oromos are poor savages. Someday our children will be proud to be from Oromia. “
“Leave this “Oromia” business and call yourselves Ethiopians! Let’s all work together with all the others from that area to build a better society. You are simply trying to tear this country into pieces. Doesn’t it have enough problems already?” I shouted in frustration.
Their response was, “Our position is this: ‘We will not take from others; we will not allow what is ours to be taken.’ If anyone comes armed to rob you by force, aren’t you justified to protect yourself and what belongs to you with everything necessary to prevent it? Isn’t that what the Oromos are doing?”
On the matter of calling themselves “Ethiopian,” one man pointed out to me, “You yourself were branded “Ethiopian” when they stamped your passport just like the Oromo coffee is stamped “Ethiopian” at the dock before export. If you accept that, they love you. If you don’t, they reject you, even call you the worst names, such as ‘rebel,’ ‘separatist,’ or ‘terrorist.’ Isn’t that what you are afraid of? But I ask you, who is a terrorist, the one who draws his sword first to take others’ property or the one who protects his family and possessions?”
One Oromo said to me, “Why do the Ethiopians hate the name Oromo and refuse to use it, insisting on the name Ethiopian? As for myself, if someone refuses to work with me by calling me by my own name, I know something is wrong with the basis for the relationship.”
Finally, one person asked me a simple question, “Aren’t you just worried that you will have to change everything in your own life? Isn’t that what you are resisting? (If you feel that way having been under the shadow of Ethiopia, imagine how much the settlers are resisting who built up their whole way of life on the backs of the Oromos. All colonial settlers who try to hold an empire together have faced this problem until they are forced to accept reality.) You are simply terrifying yourself by taking the Ethiopian fables and myths seriously. You are an intelligent man, you must not underestimate the power of illusions. Illusions can and do shape people’s lives. They are shaping yours as long as you act based on what you are afraid will happen. The first change that has to come is in ourselves.”
At the time I heard this, I thought it was absurd. Now, I think it is absolutely correct. For many months since that night, I have been reading everything I can find, but with an entirely different view. The difference is in me. To prove my point, let me tell you about my experience. In 1984 I was invited to a Christmas party where I am invited every year at the home of an American friend. Everything was the same this year as in the past except me–the same house, the same hostess, even the same questions were asked of me: “Where are you from?” “What is going on in Ethiopia now?” etc. (The news media had uncovered a small portion of the problems existing in my area, so people were aware enough to ask about current issues.) There was a difference, however, in me. In the past, when people asked, “Where are you from?” I would always answer, “Ethiopia. ” I was not ready within myself to deal with the confusion, the disappointment, and the long discussion that would come. This past Christmas, 1984, I answered with full confidence, “Oromia,” ready to take on all the possible questions that would follow: “Where is that? Is it somewhere in the Caribbean?” “How is that different from Ethiopia?” “Are you one of those against the unity of Africa?” etc.
It has been a difficult process for me to be willing to come out from under the shadow of wishful thinking about who I am and about what “Ethiopia” is. The hardest part has been to examine one by one and to reject explanations about “Ethiopia,” that I myself used and defended without understanding, explanations about its history, its unity, etc. Now I understand that the term “Ethiopian” is merely a label, a patent registered with the international community by Abyssinian plunderers who coveted the sources of wealth in the Oromo lands to the east and south of them and conspired to seize them. “Ethiopian” is stamped on all products coming out of that region to show ownership. Those who benefit from that arrangement are the ones who call themselves “Ethiopian,” knowingly or unknowingly participating in the injustice upon which the whole arrangement is built. This is true not only of the past but of today.
I would like to add one footnote to show you how that is the case. The attempt to hold the Oromo lands (Oromia) and the people in a tighter grip is being continued this very day as truckloads and planeloads of new Ethiopian settlers arrive daily to seize Oromo lands with the help of the international community in the name of the ‘Resettlement of Famine Victims.’ The term “Ethiopian” only took on its current meaning when the Europeans assisted the Abyssinians to possess Oromo lands with arms and advisors and modern equipment. International help is and has always been an essential ingredient in the very definition of “Ethiopia.” Without international aid “Ethiopia” as a unit has no meaning. “Ethiopia” has only held together over time because of outside aid. What we see reported today in the newspaper headlines and the evening news is the desperate attempt to “Ethiopianize” lands and people who have resisted the patent until now. Without the assistance of the international community, the effort cannot be successful and the emptiness of the term “Ethiopian” will be exposed. I appeal to all those who would assist the people who are suffering in that area to give help in the peoples’ own name, not to the patent-holder.