No Social Theory and Archeological Evidence Repudiate the Entitlement of Oromo People to their Capital Finfinne (Addis Ababa)

Title: No Social Theory and Archeological Evidence Repudiate the Entitlement of Oromo People to their Capital Finfinne (Addis Ababa)

Dear Kichuu and Ayyaantuu Readers:

Recently Mr. Paul Schemm’s wrote an article published on Washington Post. The author is motivated to search for social theory and archeological evidence to deny the entitlement of Oromo people to their Capital Finfinne (Addis Ababa). In response, I wrote a paper and sent it to publish on the Washington Post.

Deja vu: The 21st Century Epistemic Violence- article in the Washington Post

Begna Dugassa, Ph.D

Dear Washington Post Editor:

I am writing this paper in response to Mr. Paul Schemm’s recent controversial and biased article titled ‘How Ethiopia’s medieval ruins inform its modern-day ethnic strife’. Making prejudiced analyses, providing racist theoretical reasons and undermining the rights and the needs of a group of people (in this case the Oromo) to benefit another (the Amhara), the author is perpetuating epistemological violence. The article is based on the simple observation of two archeologists: Samuel Walker, and Ayele Tarekegn. These archeologists noticed in the woodhill of Finfinne (Addis Ababa) area buried stones arranged in a line. With no substantial evidence, they concluded that the rocks are the ruin walls of a church and a medieval city. Schemm claimed the finding would help to resolve the dispute whether or not Finfinne belongs to the Oromo people or the Amhara. To validate his ignorance, he cited the 1450 map and the Portuguese travelers’ written records. By that, the author has allowed the 15th century Portuguese biased assumptions to be reproduced and sustained in the twenty-first century. The article is written geared to search for social theory and archeological evidence to deny the entitlement of Oromo people to their Capital Finfinne (Addis Ababa).

I am aware that theories inform practice and practices inform theories. The theory the author presented can have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. It is clear that Mr. Ayele Tarekegn intended to protect the privileges that the eviction of Oromo people and ethnic cleansing have offered to the Abyssinian settlers. However, I am not sure about the motives of Paul Schemm and the archeologist Samuel Walker. The article started from the wrong premise. From the onset, instead of referring to the place by its Oromo name Ejjeree, the author referred to it as Menagesha (crowning place) in Amharic. This proves the article is biased. If such mindsets are not challenged, other writers might come up with more violent theories in the name of science.

Two years ago I wrote an article on the political issue surrounding Finfinne (Addis Ababa) and offered a workable solution I identified the wrongs that had been committed against the Oromo people for over a century and named those wrongs. Some of those who had perpetrated those crimes are not alive today and we cannot make them accountable. However, their children and grandchildren are harvesting the privileges that came from the eviction of the Oromo people. In understanding those issues, I suggested the solution should be correcting the wrongs. I was cognizant that unless the wrongs are righted, they might become routine. However, if the wrongs are corrected, society can forgive and forget. Many of those who have been enjoying the privileges are denying the occurrence of those crimes. Instead, they are engaged in trying to find theoretical reasons to undermine the demands of the Oromo people. The work of Mr. Paul Schemm contributes to that effort.

Why am I responding to this unsubstantiated story? First, I am a public health practitioner and researcher, and for over a decade, I have been trying to uncover the causes of public health problems in Oromia. I have carefully studied the ways that European empire builders provided epistemic racist theoretical reasons to the Abyssinian elites to dehumanize and colonize the Oromo people and perpetuate collective violence. Under consecutive Abyssinian regimes, the social, economic, political, cultural and environmental institutions of Oromo people were attacked. Oromo knowledge has been invalidated, Oromos were forced to accept Orthodox Christianity, and their identity was twisted. Attacks on their institutions hindered the development of the social, economic, political, cultural and environmental capacity of the Oromo people. Public health developments are dependent on the sum of those capacities. I have a moral duty and responsibility to challenge ideas and ideologies that provide theoretical reasons for violence.

Second, I have been researching and writing on the public health impacts of widespread evictions of the Oromo from the Finfinne area. For over a century, the Oromo people have been systematically evicted from Finfinne and surrounding regions. Initially, those who have been ousted were outright sold into the global slave market or enslaved locally. Others were conditioned to live in poverty and misery. In the last fifteen years alone, over three hundred thousand people have been evicted from their homes. Now the Oromo people are reclaiming the lands they have lost to evictions, and want to rebuild their social, economic, political and cultural institutions. The Oromo people’s demand is to ease their suffering. It is about alleviating the century-old backward ideology that allowed slavery, eviction, and ethnic cleansing. They are demanding respect for human dignity a universally agreed human right. The demands of the Oromo people focus on contemporary issues, and do not require archeological evidence about current problems. If the writer wanted to produce evidence he could have interviewed young and old men and women. Instead, he offered archeology.

To begin with, who asked him to produce archeological evidence? It is clear to me that the author wanted to provide reasons to deny the Oromo people’s entitlement to Finfinne. If archeological research were to be objectively conducted, I have no doubt that it would favor the Oromo people; because they are indigenous to the Horn of Africa. However, there are historical and linguistic evidences that link Abyssinians to Southwester Asia – more specifically to Yemen. For example, Queen Sheba was born, raised and ruled Yemen and surrounding regions. No historical evidence hints she ever crossed the Red Sea. When the Abyssinians claim that Queen Sheba was their empress they are referring to the time when they were still in Yemen.

Third, I have studied the way that European racist theory contributed to genocide in Rwanda. In Rwanda, based on pseudo-science, the colonizers’ provided theories of racial hierarchy, to the Tutsi and Hutu. These racist theories are the sole cause of genocide. From the experience of Rwanda, the Euro-American researchers supposed to learn be cognoscenti to their deeply seated racist assumptions and carefully use the empire builders’ records as sources. However, when Mr. Paul Schemm concludes from scratch of lined stones Portuguese documents the site to be ruins of a church or medieval city he exposes himself that he knows nothing about African colonial history. Not only that, the writer made his prior racist assumption to guide the data collection and analyses. This is the real character of the twenty-first century epistemic violence. People benefit from peace and regard for human rights and a racist episteme has no place in today’s world.

Fourth, the author cited the fifteen-century map and the Portuguese travelers and empire builder’s notes. Portuguese travelers deeply functioned in their episteme. Indeed, their desire to visit the Horn of Africa came from a myth about Prester John, inspired from the circle of the clergy. The Prester John myth suggested that he controlled a big empire in the east. Even then, the Portuguese were confused when they wrongfully identified Abyssinia as if it were the empire of Prester John. Their cartographers offered the Abyssinian king Libene Dengil and Abyssinian clergy a map drawn based on the myth. On the map, the Abyssinian territory was over- exaggerated, and it stretched from the south of Egypt to present- day South Africa. The Portuguese travelers’ map offered Abyssinian elite the basis theoretical reasons to claim all lands from the South of Egypt to South Africa. The Portuguese travelers assumed people in those vast territories were Abyssinian subjects. When they noticed other people in competition with Abyssinians, they never questioned the validity of their assumption. Instead, they taught that these people were resisting taxation. The Portuguese never questioned the validity of the myth, because their sources were the clergy who possessed “the Divine knowledge.” The tale about the empire of Prester John presented the Oromo people migrant outsiders and provided theoretical reasons to Abyssinia to enslave, colonize and dehumanize the Oromo people. It was epistemological violence of the time.

Fig. 1 The Map of Presten John’s Empire (Abyssinian Empire)

Source: World Digital Library

As you can see, the map reasonably captured the names of different Abyssinian regions such as Amhara, Tigre, Begemidir. However, it has over exaggerated it and made the lands south of Egypt to South Africa as part of the Abyssinian Empire. For example, on the map Begamidir borders with Congo and Angola and it is not far away from the Atlantic Ocean. Certainly the map represents both the Portuguese cartographers’ confusion and the epistemic violence of the time. Citing the Portuguese sources and the 15th-century map as a reference is no more than attempting to legitimize ignorance.

Fifth, for centuries the Oromo people have been agro-pastoralists. They moved from place to place with their cattle in search of water and grass. They still do. When the Portuguese saw conflicts between the Oromo people and the Abyssinians, they registered it as if it was a new phenomenon. As the Oromo and Abyssinians have settled in adjacent territories, there have been conflicts on resources and for centuries before that. The myth about the Prester John did not mention about the Oromo people. Based on such a wrong assumption, the Portuguese portrayed the Oromo people as invaders and newcomers. In the minds of the Portuguese travelers, the history of the Horn of Africa started soon after they arrived in the 15th century. The document justifies the long-standing assumption that if the Europeans did not know something then it was unknown. They made us believe the history of the Horn of Africa started from the day the Portuguese arrived. It is for the same reason that Mr. Paul Schemm cites the Portuguese map and notes instead of referring to the resources produced by Oromo scholars.

Sixth, knowledge is socially constructed. All knowledge is valid in the culture, experience, in the type of reasoning with which it was created. For this reason, what is right for one may be no good for another. That is why knowledge is regarded as a point of view. For centuries people fought and killed each other, claiming that theirs was the only valid knowledge. Historically people cheerfully killed and died to protect their experience and in other cases to impose their view upon the others. Killing and dying in such battles was seen as a moral duty. Mr. Paul Schemm convinced himself he knew the nature of political question about the ownership of Finfinne and offered his solution. Unfortunately, he was not aware that the racist episteme guided his point of view.

Seventh, knowledge and power are intertwined. Colonizers used their power to validate their experiences and employed their authority to prove their knowledge. Empire builders used their knowledge/power to perpetuate harm on the colonized people, undermine the needs of the subjects, and invalidate their experiences. They also used those tools to twist the identity, aspirations, and culture of the colonized people as well as legitimized colonial occupation and exploitation. In doing that they perpetuated violence. The irony in this case is when the author decided to write the article, he cited the 1450 Portuguese map without substantiating it with sources written by Oromo scholars, validating only the Portuguese sources. He thereby validated his ignorance in the name of science. It never came to his mind whether or not Oromo scholars refuted such racist myths. That is the very typical self-righteous attitude that is responsible for conflicts.

Eighth, when colonizers invaded the land and people who were culturally different from them, they justified it in positive terms. Although they have been killing, dispossessing people of their lands and dehumanizing them, they framed their evil actions as a “civilizing mission.” Why did they justify unjustifiable criminal actions? The ways in which different groups of peoples use land resources are different. Some use their land for hunting and gathering. For them, there is no need for farming and raising domestic animals. Their vast land provided them the foods and clothing they needed. The second group is nomadic, and they move from place to place with their cattle. Their cattle, fruits, and vegetables provided them the foods and clothing they need. Most Europeans were settled agriculturalists. They raised cattle, farmed grain and fruits and vegetables. All those people developed the skills necessary to fit their social realities. However, the European empire builders claimed that their experiences were the only valid ones and that the experiences of others are void. It is from this view we have terms like “black continent referring to Africa,” New World – North-South America, Far East, Middle-East, terranullia – the land no one owns. Those terms are framed to provide theoretical reasons for the empire builders to legitimize their illegitimate actions. It is a racist mindset that is responsible. They all are consistent with the theoretical reasons that Mr. Paul Schemm offered.

Ninth, racism can be personal, institutional, cultural and epistemological. Anti-colonial, anti-racist and human right activists effectively challenged personal and institutional racism. However, cultural and epistemological racism is deeply rooted in the contemporary legal system, academic discourses and in our daily lives. Euro-centric knowledge is not value free. Individuals like Mr. Paul Schemm are using Eurocentric knowledge to understand and solve the social and political problem surrounding Finfinne. Schemm is using his expertise and lived experiences to prescribe solutions for others. Given that knowledge is socially constructed, what is right for one could be void for others. However, the author does not realize he cannot fully understand the social problems of others and offer solutions. A limited understanding leads to ineffective or harmful solutions. The work of Paul Schemm is a prime example.

Tenth, the issue of epistemological racism and its long term and short- term implications are well known. Unless we challenge Eurocentric knowledge and allow diverse groups to participate in knowledge construction, the dominant groups will continue to perpetrate damage on the marginalized. To promote peace, equity and social justice we need to challenge epistemic racism and expose researchers like Mr. Paul Schemm.

Finally, I am aware that archaeology is a useful tool to answer past historical phenomena. It can create attractive tourist sites for curious minded people. For those reasons, I encourage you to explore it further. However, it is not a tool that will bring justice and promote human rights. The stones you noted could be merely the site of Oromo villages and Oromo religious sites (Galma), Gada center, their burial sites or the building of Akko Manoe =Grandmother Manoe which the European literature describe as Maroe kingdom. Blindly believing that it is a church building and a medieval Abyssinian city is the manifestation of a deeply seated racist mindset.


Although I am fully responsible for any error and shortfalls in the paper, I have made use of Professor Guluma Gamada’s valuable comments.

Begna Dugassa, PhD


1 Comment

  1. The Agow or Awi people and Somalis used have border, before Europians arived and Agow people and their land were overrun, and Somalis were pushed to east.
    the Agow language is very close to Somali language as well.

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