I left Oromia just before turning two years old and I grew up among the first Oromo people to call Melbourne home. I vividly remember the days when we were so few that, in Clayton South, the suburb in which I spent 16 years of my life, there was an Oromo family on almost every block. Being such a small community, we didn’t scatter across the breadth of the city but huddled together in a small enclave for safety, support, and the comfort of familiarity. In those days, weddings, birthday parties, funerals, and other community events were attended by people from all the regions of Oromia who made up our little community.
But as our community grew in number, and as the number of people from every region of Oromia grew, I started to see a divide in how we congregated. By my mid-teens, I was almost completely disconnected from the spaces and networks that included Oromo people from outside the Arsi region, where I come from. Naturally, as I reached adulthood, I attended cultural and community events on my own initiative rather than at the invitation of my family. I started to learn about my community all over again. And in the course of this experience, I was never directly and deliberately taught who the Oromo are, who I was as an Oromo, and how and why other Oromo people were different, or the same, to my family.
Whereas this learning is experiential for one growing up in Oromia, there are gaps when this way of learning is transferred to the diaspora, or even to urban areas in Oromia, and so more recent generations are developing different tools and spaces for learning Oromo identity, culture, and history. What I did learn experientially though, were the nuances that make one a person from Wallaga, another from Haararge, Shewa, Arsi, etc.
Still, l had little knowledge regarding the Borana Oromo. As one who developed Oromomumma (Oromo identity) in the diaspora, and as someone who has spent over a year and a half living in the homes of Borana and Orma Oromo in Kenya, my relationship with this part of my community has developed in an intriguing and adventurous way, and it holds a special place in my heart.
I met Addee Jiloo, a Borana woman, in my early twenties. Each time I had attended Irreechaa (an Oromo thanksgiving festival), it was Addee Jiloo that led the procession to the water. If a woman needed her Gutino (Borana cultural dress) tied at an event, we would frantically search for Addee Jiloo. If we had public events, she would be the one conducting the coffee ceremonies. In many ways, she was collectively identified as a keeper of cultural knowledge, a leader of cultural practice, and an advisor on cultural affairs.
Over the years, I remember repeatedly hearing that “Borannii Hangafaa Oromo”, that the Borana are the oldest of the Oromo. This refers to the position Borana and Bareentu, as the first sons of Oromo, hold as the moieties of the Oromo nation. I had also come to learn that the Borana were among the few Oromo to still practice the Gadaa system, one of the greatest cultural assets of the Oromo nation. To me, the Borana felt almost like a thing of legend, a mystery to be revered and respected. They seemed to know things about being an Oromo that others didn’t. They seemed to have succeeded in preserving practices that the rest of us were no longer connected to. They seemed to be Oromo with the kind of defiance, resilience, and resistance that I wanted to embody. Although, from what I could see, it seemed like the Borana did so without the existential effort I sometimes felt it took to embody Oromummaa.
I stayed with a Borana family for a few months when I first moved to Nairobi, but for the first few weeks of my stay, I had almost no idea what anybody was saying. I was used to most Afaan Oromoo dialects and Addee Jiloo’s dialect never sounded very different from anybody else’s, so my Kenyan experience sent me into a state of severe culture shock. With time, however, I became used to the difference in dialect and was able to improve my communication and now you can probably detect the influence of the Borana dialect in my spoken Afaan Oromoo.
In many ways, she was collectively identified as a keeper of cultural knowledge, a leader of cultural practice, and an advisor on cultural affairs.
Almost simultaneously with this sense of shock came a sense of overwhelming awe and admiration. Afaan Oromoo is a language that you feel. It is poetry in motion. Intimate, alive, revealing. I found this exemplified in the Borana dialect.
When I first heard my host answer the phone and greet the person on the other line with, “Qileensii urgooftuu?” Is the air fragrant? I almost wept. Welcoming a guest, the Orma of Tana River along the northern Kenyan coast, say “Diyaadhaa”, come closer, be close. This is a common saying among the Borana and Orma people, and I experienced it frequently during my stay in Tana River. If language is supposed to connect us, I think that the breadth of the Oromo language does so profoundly, and the dialect spoken amongst the Borana and Orma achieves this objective to grand effect.
Traveling up north
When I travelled to northern Kenya, I was bubbling with expectation. I remember sitting at a small shop trying to recover from the long journey, and striking up a conversation in Afaan Oromoo with the shop owner. He responded in a mix of Swahili and Afaan Oromoo. We continued talking and I told him that I was an Oromo from the other side of the border. This meant, well, not much at all to him.
I had expected a dramatic reunion. What I got was a shopkeeper who was not surprised or touched in any way by my presence. The cultural and linguistic relationship that we shared, despite the borders, was not profound for him. The reason that this surprised me was that, when I visited Tana River, there was a palpable sense of connection with everyone I met, for the very reason that we had a shared identity across borders.
Given that I was closer to the border of Oromia and I was in a place that was, in many ways, more engaged with the Oromo cultural and political identity, I think I expected this sense of connection to be amplified. What I experienced after leaving this shop showed me that it was actually because of the consequence of this proximity to Oromia’s border and the political landscape of the area at large, that meant that Oromos connecting and sharing experiences across borders was no special occurrence.
I sat for lunch in the compound of an ordinary looking house. As we ate, a friend, someone who had grown up in the town we were in, began to tell me stories about where we were. In 2002, the house we were in was the target of a bombing by Ethiopian government forces. Luckily, nobody was home. Chief Ibrahim Abdi Dido and his family lived in the house at the time. In the same year, Chief Buke Liban, Chief Taro Sora, Chief Denge Okotu, Chief Huqa Guled, Boru Jiloo, Sheikh Hassan (Moyale), Qasim Abdi and many others were similarly targeted by Ethiopian government forces and in most cases, these community leaders, and oftentimes, their families, did not survive. Although I knew a little about how the Ethiopian government targeted Oromo people across the border in Kenya, including the kidnapping and assassination of political refugees in urban centres, the arrest and extrajudicial killing of young people, and the displacement of communities, in the months that followed, I learned that the extent and severity of this persecution was far greater than I had first understood.
When I first heard my host answer the phone and greet the person on the other line with, “Qileensii urgooftuu?” Is the air fragrant? I almost wept.
Through listening to the stories of the many people I met on my travels, I also learned that local cultural leaders played and continue to play a role in this persecution by collaborating with the Ethiopian security forces. This was sobering to understand because it resembled the dynamic that’s been at play across Oromia since the onset of Abyssinian colonisation, whereby Oromo people, including local leaders, have opted to participate in the violence perpetrated against their own people.
My experience in northern Kenya brought me back down to earth regarding the way I viewed the Borana Oromo. I was in a place where the people were living with the challenges and consequences of choosing to live their Oromoness every day. Just as it would be incredibly weird for me to go to Wallaga or somewhere in Eastern Haragee or Balee and start wandering around asking people if they thought it was wonderful that we share a language, culture, and political reality (which I have never done), it was weird for me to do so in northern Kenya too.
The Oromo of Ethiopia and the Oromo of Kenya are, in many ways, fighting the same fight. Both make huge sacrifices for the political struggle, and suffer the consequences of this, along with enduring the consequences of simply being an Oromo in relation to the Ethiopian state, political activity or not. The indifference of the shopkeeper I met at the beginning of my travels makes sense. He experienced the same, if not more, breadth and depth of Oromummaa as I did; there was nothing novel I offered him in being an Oromo from the other side of the border.
The Borana-Gabra conflict
When I arrived in northern Kenya, I remember getting off the bus from Nairobi and wondering why on earth it had dropped me so far away from the town I was going to, only to learn that it was an Orma-owned bus company, and they were careful about infringing on the territory of the Borana. The same person who told me the story about the house in which we ate lunch has lost family to protracted conflict between the Borana and Gabra people. When I asked him what the root cause of the conflict was, he said, “It just started a long time ago. We speak the same language, we are the same people, but a feud that started between a few, a long time ago, has continued on.” I didn’t know if the origins of the conflict were as vague as my friend described them to be, or if his description is just how the existence of the conflict feels to someone who has suffered because of it, but I did come to learn that access to resources like water and land between nomadic pastoralists (Borana) and settled subsistence farmers (Gabra) and ongoing political power struggles play a huge role in the enduring and deadly conflict.
Many years ago I spent some time in Lamu and I met two Orma people on the Island. At the time I thought that it was just a bizarre coincidence that they were there but I now know that the Orma have been living in the northern coastal region of Kenya since the late 1800s.
Being from the Ethiopian side of the border, a landlocked country, it is very interesting for me to think that I share a language, history and, even if only in small ways, a culture with a people that have lived along the coast for over a century. The Oromo worldview places great emphasis on our relationship with and duty towards land. As one develops the essence of Oromummaa, I believe that a person intuitively connects with this worldview. From this perspective, learning that we are connected to a people whose relationship to land is connected to the ocean — there is just something about that that stirs something in me.
I was in a place where the people were living with the challenges and consequences of choosing to live their Oromoness every day.
Who we are as a people is infinitely complex. I am talking about the Oromo, of course, but I think I’m also talking about us all. If I have learned anything over the past year and seven months, it is that I will only ever keep living and reliving this one truth: people, their stories, and their lived realities are not linear, rigid, or made to be easily and simply comprehended. Life exists on a continuum of relationships and storytelling. I want to remain willing to relate to who people are, as they are, rather than clinging onto what I have constructed of a people through imagination, hearsay, and the effects of groupthink. I want my analysis of the world to shift and change as I learn and grow, and I want my posture of service to people to also shift and change as I learn anew. Getting to know my people on the other side of the border has taught me that state violence is pervasive, unconfined by borders, and resistances adapt accordingly. I also learned that I can do little to effect real and lasting change if I do not cultivate my ability to meet the complexity in individuals and in communities with a willingness to learn and an openness of heart and mind.