Excerpts from a Speech made by the Outgoing Chair of OSA Board of Directors, Prof. Mekuria Bulcha, at the Opening of the 31st OSA Annual Conference on July 28, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen,
On behalf of OSA Board of Directors and its Executive Committee, I want to welcome you all to this evening’s events. It is with a great sense of satisfaction that I stand before you to open the 31st Annual OSA conference. The first time I came to Washington was 33 years ago in 1984 to attend the annual conference of Oromo Union in North America. In early July the same year, we had also an international Oromo conference in Berlin organized by the Union of Oromo Students in Europe. Bonnie Holcomb and the late Mammo Dibaabaa attended the conference from the US. The late Sisai Ibssa sent a paper to be read at the conference. It was then that we started to think about organizing an Oromo studies association. Few years later, OSA was formally organized. Since then, I have been coming almost every year, sometimes twice a year, to this country because of Oromo studies.
By and large, we have been conducting Oromo studies for more than three decades without financial support or institutional backing. Given the circumstances, I never imagined that we could write so many articles and books on Oromo history, culture, and language. When I say many books and articles, I am talking in relative terms reflecting on the knowledge that existed about the Oromo people when we started. If we take the gadaa system, for example, we had only Professor Asmerom Legesse’s classic book, Gadaa: Three Approaches to African Society published in 1973. Today, we have several books, doctoral dissertations, and journal articles on the gadaa system and many other topics concerning the Oromo society. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were very few articles published on Oromo history in international journals. Today, there are many books on the subject, most of them written by Oromos themselves. New ones keep on coming.
Although what has been achieved is what we had never imagined, what we have done so far is not more than a scratch on the surface. There are great gaps in our knowledge about Oromo history, Oromo language, and Oromo culture that are waiting to be filled. Without adequate knowledge about our past, we cannot make an adequate assessment of our present concerns, or have a clear vision of our future as a nation.
That said, Oromo studies should not limit itself to Oromia or the Ethiopian region. It must go beyond the present Ethiopian borders, look into the cultural and historical affinities the Oromo seem to have, particularly with the peoples of Nubia and ancient Egypt. It is interesting to note that culturally, significant similarities in hair style, dress, etc. that resemble Egyptian hieroglyphics motifs are still found among the Oromo. There are many artifacts and outfits used by Oromo abba gadaas and qaalluus which resemble the outfits that decorate the statues of Egyptian pharaohs. The resemblance between the ancient Egyptian concept of maat and Oromo concept of nagaa, both of which reflect ethics that regulate order and harmony provide execiting area for scholarly investigation regarding the probable affinity between the philosophies and cultures of the two peoples.
In addition, there are intriguing linguistic elements that indicated similarities between Afaan Oromoo and the ancient language of the Berbers of North Africa. In short, there are historical, cultural, and linguistic factors which suggest Oromo affinity with the ancient peoples of Northeast Africa, countering the controversial theory about Oromo migration from the south in the sixteenth century in Ethiopia.
When we turn south, the interaction of the Oromo people with the inhabitants of East Africa is not less interesting. As brilliantly presented in Professor Gufu Oba’s new book, Herder Warfare in East Africa, the Oromo influence in the region from 1300 to 1900 seems to have been very substantial. Starting from Jubaland in southern Somalia and stretching south to Tanzania, the Oromo role in the history of the region was very significant.
That colonialism alienates the colonized from their true history is well-known among scholars. Hence, it is needless to stress here that distortion of history and suppression of information about Oromo society has been the policy of Ethiopian regimes for more than a century. Ethiopianist scholars have also contributed much to the distortion and cover ups. Consequently, there are important areas in Oromo culture and history that remain barely touched by researchers to this day. For example, very little study is done on Oromo social and environmental ethics. The Oromo moral and philosophical principles of Safuu and Nagaa which offer a unique model for passing over life on to future generations are waiting for exploration by scholars. The usefulness of Oromo philosophies, eco-knowledge, and social ethics in these times of glaring lack of environmental ethics, religious fanaticism, right wing political extremism, and lack of respect for human lives should be appreciated and mediated to the rest of the world. The recognition of the gadaa system and the irreecha festival by UNESCO as intangible heritages of humanity in 2017 can be used as an opportunity to share with the world from the pool of traditional Oromo knowledge mentioned above.
In short, opportunities are abound for those who are interested in Oromo studies. As indicated above, there are numerous untouched areas to investigate. However, there are many challenges to be confronted as well. Acquisition of institutional and financial support requires hard work from OSA members.
The future of Oromo studies depends on our ability to recruit young scholars for research in Oromo language, history, and society. Therefore, building networks with researchers at home is very important. Our cooperation with non-Oromo scholars engaged in African studies is also crucial. As a diaspora organization, OSA cannot do everything, but a lot more can be done.
Much more can be said about available research opportunities that OSA has as well as challenges that are confronting it. But, since we have many panels and round table discussions on dozens of topics in the next two days, I will not take more of your time with what should be done, I will use the few minutes I have to thank those who have been working hard to discharge their duties as members of the Board of Directors and OSA Executive Committee since August last year. ….. Last, but not least, I would also like to thank the local organizing committee who made this splendid evening possible.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention and please enjoy your dinner and the rest of the evening.