Harmony in Africa
My favourite part of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom is his childhood in a traditional rural community with culturally diverse neighbours. The boy sat in on meetings during which all had a voice when making decisions. They listened without interjection and would reach consensus, however long it took. This was 100 years ago in South Africa. Ethiopian cultural groups traditionally meet at landmarks: shola trees for Amhara; the Oda or sycamore for Oromo people.
Africa is home to harmony. Here is a sculpture of an Ethiopian harp or begenna. Its sound reflects its size.
Ethnic harmony in Ethiopia could be as old as Lucy, the famous humanoid fossil from the Rift Valley – who knows? How else would 86 different cultural groups, with 83 languages, get along? Recent genocidal TPLF wars and Shene insurgency are the exception.
Adam is my brother; Hewan is my sister.—Tariku Gankisu in “Dishta Gina”, translated by Mesfin
This contemporary song epitomises social harmony. “Dishta Gina” by Tariku Gankisu means Happy New Year in Dinka, which is western Ethiopian. In 2022, Tariku donated enormously to help Ethiopians displaced by violence.
Oromo and Amhara Harmony
For me to talk about ethnicity is impolite. Still, I want to pay tribute to true Oromo people, who have nothing to do with Shene and obstructive bureaucracies.
Here is a taste of Mesfin’s experiences of ethnic harmony, as practised by Oromo people during his youth. Extracts are from Lucy’s People: An Ethiopian Memoir © Mesfin Tadesse with Ianet Bastyan 2021.
—Student Mesfin in Bale Mountains
- “We asked them for water; they gave us milk.”
2. “From 1978, the Derg sent young teenagers to battlefronts. It was the first modern government to do so. In Addis Ababa, soldiers stopped minibuses to look for conscripts. Oromo mothers would call, ‘Quick! Come here!’ They hid boys under long dresses. Countless times they saved my brothers and me.
Youths ran up to them in Piassa. ‘Maye, thank you for saving me last week on the transport.’ The woman had saved so many that she could not remember each boy. The Derg took years to find out. Security forces apprehending buses said, ‘All mothers, stand.’”
—Conscription by communist Derg
3. “Oromo people near Addis Ababa refused to kill Amhara people. Italians incited them to hatred: ‘They took your land.’ An elder said, ‘We are from both regions. My wife is from Menz in Amhara and I am Oromo. We will not kill any Ethiopian.’
‘Give us your answer in 3 days.’
The Oromo people brought a bullock hide and 2 buckets of fine grain teff. One contained white teff; the other had brown. They spread the hide on the ground. Then they poured and mixed the grains. ‘Separate the colours. We will return to see if you have done it in 3 days.’
For 2 days, 100 then 200 … 300 … 1,000 soldiers tried to separate the colours. On the 3rd day the community still refused to kill its neighbours. The Italians loaded everybody into aeroplanes and flew them 1,000 metres above Addis Ababa. They pushed them all out.”
—During Mussolini’s occupation 1936–41
Mesfin’s Muger Recount
In the 1980s, I constructed part of Muger (Mugher) Cement Factory, 105 kilometres west of Addis Ababa. It was a pristine southern wilderness on Oromo land: Gindi-Brrte or cattle country, the size of a small county. Fruit ripened several times per year; horses slept under mango and tringu trees. (Tringu is also a girl’s name.) Fish jumped from the Brrte River and stranded themselves on rocks.
While working at Muger, I was one of 5 engineers invited to a remote Oromo village. We were all from the city and our ancestry included Amhara, but was most likely diverse. The invitation came about because I had respected local elders and their land management. Their support of butterflies’ lifecycles also supported bees. Honey production flourished at Muger despite the 24/7 factory operation.
As site engineer, I built to support the local environment. To green the whole area, I incorporated a canal. In 2021, I drove past; where were the trees from the mid-1980s? Some 20 years later, TPLF profiteers had sold a large river tract to foreign investors. However, the best custodians had been the rightful land owners: skilled Oromo.
While studying in Egypt, I had seen dam breaks that destroyed livestock and farms. During construction of the Muger factory dam, I made safety my business. I was there for formwork stripping after each concrete pour, to check for cracks during drying. Locals said, ‘The site engineering office lights are on until late at night.’
They invited us to their village. We went on Saturday and stayed 5 nights. I took a Maz jeep, but parked it 3 kilometres from the village. The last kilometre was steep, originally to discourage Italians. Hostile bees and dogs came, stinging our friend Aberra and ripping his jeans. His eye closed, so the elders sent him to the Hakim (healer) at the next village. He returned only with bruising under his left eye.
Our hosts slaughtered a sheep. They thought we were ill because we took only 1 plate each of barbecue. For the rest of the visit, the mothers all but breastfed us, starting with milk-cooked porridge. We slept on mud beds piled with sheepskins, although I was used to an animal gut or tendon bed.
In the mornings, we fed carrots to their horses. The people could tell how kind we were by how the animals received the food – except that Oromo people did not refer to horses as animals.
Amhara and Oromo owners were closely bonded with their horses. During World War II, my patriot cousin was wounded in the legs. His 3-year-old battle horse stayed with him for 3 days, licking wounds until bullets came out. After the war, the horse lived until the age of 15. My cousin visited his grave daily and, when he died, was buried with him.
To integrate us with the community, our hosts betrothed us to village daughters. During a long ceremony, we held hands a while. When the girls’ faces were briefly uncovered, I glimpsed long straight hair. The Gadaa elders gave us butter to put on top of our heads.
Friend Getahun decided to go ahead with marriage. We participated as observers in a fola ceremony for elders. This was a ritual milk bath with butter placed on the head. Then Getahun was adopted, with more butter on his head. Oromo were the adopters of the land. First, they would exhaust the possibility that any orphan had a living relative. They would send Orthodox children to traditional yeneta schools. Their own religion could be Animism, Islam, Christianity or ‘non-religion’.
Concerned that the young women were teenagers, I spoke with the elders, who said, ‘We are not foolish. You’re not obligated to marry, and you do not sleep together for 2 years. Stay.’ However, I had work to finish. When we left, the whole village came, spitting on our heads. This signified, ‘You are one of us.’ Co-worker Aberra cut off his Afro afterward.
Each week, villagers came to the factory with cows, goats, sheep, chickens and eggs. I ended up with 3 cows. We said, ‘They cook for us at the work camp mess. Take them to the village and give milk and eggs to your children.’ Then we pooled money to send the villagers soap, salt, lamp oil and exercise books.
Bonds strengthened. I donated corrugated iron and Getahun—renamed Gugsa—built a house in the village.
My betrothed’s family’s cow got pregnant, which signalled an auspicious future union for us. The girl asked for me, so elders came to my worksite. I said, ‘I must build Ethiopia; I cannot marry.’ The Derg then sent me to work at Gouder 180 km away. I gave a chunk of my salary to the village and to the family of the girl for her to finish her education.
We city youth—mostly Amhara—were given a huge welcome by traditional Oromo people in the Muger region. It was enough to want to stay there forever.
© Mesfin Tadesse 2023
Donald Levine claims that diverse Ethiopian groups have much in common; they share profound values. In all 83 Ethiopian languages, people greet and farewell one another with, ‘Selam,’ which literally means peace.
Another shared ethic is neighbourliness. During the current massacres by Shene in Amhara regions, Oromo residents sometimes shelter their Amhara neighbours. Sadly, Shene murders them for that.
This 2nd recount by Mesfin comes from the Muger elders. Sites of massacres are respected by all except the foolish.
Mesfin’s Kilinto Recount
During Mussolini’s occupation, fascists fomented discord between Oromo people and Orit Orthodox followers. They labelled it “ethnic violence”. Inhabitants saw through this and pretended to leave, but the fascists imprisoned local monks. Then they dug a hole the size of a village, told them to get in and surrounded it with police. Bulldozers buried them alive.
Locals told of the dead speaking long afterwards: ‘You’re crushing me,’ and, ‘Do not do this,’ when the ground was filled with grazing cattle or weeds were pulled. Babies’ cries also came from the ground.
The communist Derg party men planned a new road to Muger Cement Factory. It involved a shortcut near the future Gebriel Monastery. A monk warned the cadre against this. ‘Don’t build the road here.’ They said, ‘Bah, stop being superstitious.’ The communists did not heed history.
The road went ahead, graders and dozers spiralling out of control and crashing. A bus with 84 people—50 of them communist cadre—turned over, killing passengers. Nobody used the shortcut from then on.
The TPLF government imprisoned the innocent in Western funded prisons. Recycled communist Derg monsters tormented them psychologically and physically. Foreigners laughed when victims begged for help.
At Kilinto in the Rift Valley, prisoners had no chairs upon which to sit. They could barely squat in the overcrowding. 85 per cent were under 25 and most were under 16. They did not have the dignity of choice of manner of death.
Orthodox clergy approached TPLF administrators of Kilinto Prison. ‘You most likely spend a lot of money on guards and torture equipment. Let us pay you by taking prisoners to work for us. You can give us any number… thousands.’
‘You will pay us and not the prisoners? You will not waste money on food for them?’
‘We will pay you, and not the prisoners, for their work.’
The Orit Orthodox monks took prisoners from Kilinto, fed them and trained them in traditional building techniques. People of diverse and unknown backgrounds built Gebriel Monastery in the same valley. This prolonged their lifespans.
For me to talk about ethnicity is impolite. Still, I want to pay tribute to true Oromo people, who have nothing to do with Shene and obstructive bureaucracies. Ethiopians are Ethiopians first and their ancestry is their business. This counters European divide and rule tactics or tribalism. Never ask, ‘Where are you from? What is your ethnicity?’
Be dazzled by Oromo creations. Watch this virtuoso head twisting dancer. Listen to music by Ethiojazz exponent Mulatu Astatke.
Kindness to People
While in Ethiopia, I learned the background of some locals. There was the Oromo security officer, who rescued my fedora after I hurled it off a balcony – Immigration and the Australian Embassy do that to me. He gave us farm eggs and kibbe (clarified herbal butter), and expertly corrected my Fidal; I practised the national writing system on everybody.
Oromo, Amhara, everybody invited us to stay… or to dinner at Orthodox Easter, even if they were Protestant (none of my business what they were). Young women travelling from market along a rocky route saluted me. I wore traditional dress; an Amhara design. How not to fall in love with Oromo generosity of spirit?
In 2022, Orthodox monasteries sheltered tens of thousands displaced by Shene and TPLF. Regardless of their own religion, Oromo locals helped. Silently, they would leave a milking cow, a small flock of ewes, berbere (peri peri), grain or stew. They did not knock on the gate to receive thanks; monks were busy saving lives.
In summer, I admired hardy wildflowers outside an urban bank. Guards said, ‘She’s my itete (big sister) and loves Ethiopia. Come home with us and we’ll give her a horse.’ ‘How many do you have?’ we asked. They said, ‘We never count, for that might cause one to die, but we know them all and each has a name.’
A horse! Nothing more graceful than bareback Oromo riders, their brumbies decorated with ribbons and embroidery. Brumby is an Oromo word and the mountain horses are Ethiopian in origin.
Kindness to Animals
Do you judge people by how they care for animals? I do.
In the Rift Valley, I said in halting Amharic to a farmer, ‘Ethiopian goats and sheep are pretty.’ It was before COVID 19, so the stranger crossed the track and kissed me on the cheek.
Oromo—or were they?—walked behind livestock while playing the bamboo flute. Their animal handling looked effortless. Other cultural groups also revered animals; this included Gambella athletes from west of Addis Ababa.
In Australia, a single glance from my friend would put my elderly dog on her back, tummy offered for a rub. Another healed his dog of a dangerous tumour humanely and permanently. Both were city sophisticates; I believe that they were also Oromo.
- Begenna Sculpture © Ianet Bastyan 2021 by kind permission of Ethiopian National Theatre
- Muger Cement Factory Workers © Mesfin Tadesse 198-
- Gash Mulatu at Ghion Hotel 2016 © Mesfin Tadesse
- Brumby Foal at Entoto © Mesfin Tadesse 2021
Shola at Lake Tana © ianet Bastyan 2020