UNESCO has finally decided to recognize the rich Oromo Gaada system, which is one of the world’s unique societal organizational systems, and as such a treasure with intangible global heritage value. I cannot and will not claim to have adequate authority to call myself a historian on this subject but I am a great observer of the system.
After having a conversation with friends and adversaries, seeing how some are confusing the Irrecha celebration with the Gaada system, I feel obliged to clear the air. I want to share my wisdom on the subject. I have had a privilege of being exposed to this unique culture for many years.
I remember a particular afternoon spent at the Arat Kilo campus as a student. We were waiting anxiously knowing our lecturer was late. At last, to the relief of many of us, the door opened and the slim big headed professor slowly entered the class. His grief showing on his face, announced that he cannot teach us on that day. He apologized and told us he would rather adjourn the lecture.
Professor Asmerom Legesse, the foremost authority on the Gaada system, an Emeritus Professor from Harvard, had just been informed that his friend, Yohannes Menkir (PhD), the only nuclear physics in the country, if not in Africa at the time, had passed away. Our professor had to attend the funeral ceremony.
It was to take place at the Trinity Cathedral just around the corner. I too was not only touched by the death of such a national treasure, as he was, but also felt sympathy to his younger brother, Admassu Menkir. He was my Boy Scout Troop 56 member, at the (former) Tafari Makonnen School.
I was also affected as a close friend of laureate Tsegaye G/Medhin, As my association began in my role as Aba Bokuleka, in one of his plays entitled “Abo Gida Keyisso” – a masterpiece he wrote after he went to Brena, in the Southern part of Ethiopia bordering Kenya.
In fact, according to Asmerom’s anthropological research findings, the Gaada System, is linked with the trans-boundary lines which included Kenya, before colonization. Many linguistic scholars would argue the name “Kenya” originates from the Oromiffa, meaning “kengna”, which simply means “ours.” I accept Asmerom’s assertion that Borena included parts of Kenya.
By the way, it was not just Professor Asmerom who did exhaustive anthropological research on the Oromo Gaada system but many others who have also carried out research work. For the purpose of this article, however, there is no need to delve into trans-boundary issues and fall off into political deep waters.
By the same token, it can also be argued that the Oromo Gaada System is a more complex cultural, historical, political and economical system. The system is based on the ladder of age group hierarchy, with an 8 years difference between each strand of the ladder. Perhaps, the following groupings and the corresponding responsibilities assigned to each group may help to explain the system better.
In this unique system, a young child, until the age of eight, is called Dabballee, anyone between eight years old to 16 is a Folle or a Gaummetitigaa, anyone from 16 to 32 is a Quondalla, anyone until 32 is a Kookusa and anyone until the age of 40 is Rabba Turra and so on. Very interesting concept!
This system is not just created to classify the Oromo population into age groups only and it goes deeper than that.
The vital issue to note here carefully is that it is almost a holistic arrangement of a life-long organization of a society from birth to death. The life of people in the Oromo cultural classification is segmented into age groups with a remarkable exactness of period recording or time-tables.
Perhaps an easier or a more simplified expression of assignment deployment of responsibilities could be seen as follows: Aba Bokkus as President , 1st Vice President, 2nd vice President – Aba Chaffee = Chairman of the Assembly and Aba Dubbi as speaker.
There were other writers or searchers the like Prof. Hizkel Gabissa, the late Donald Levin, Obo, Jaffero, Jolleta and some critics of the system who wrote about the lack of gender parity within the system.
The Gaada leader reaches that age level, after going through trainings and exercises. As the boys grow older and are expected to go far away from home and transitions to demanding responsibilities, their status changes.
The Gujjui Gaada system is also in the same pattern. The Oromo settlement in the country is wide and large in coverage. It was developed earlier and stronger than many so called democratic societies. For instance, a boy in Tigre, Aba in Oromiffa, Abat in Amharic, AB in Geez, Aboo in Arabic have the sound ‘Ab’ in one way or other.
Finally I would like to share with my readers what I experienced with the Oromos conducting an election process. They assemble under a large oak tree, massively listening to campaign speeches and exercise their right to vote. The oak tree, which is also the emblem on the Oromia flag, is used as a symbol of witnessing, not only the fertility of the Oromo land but also the harmony between them and nature and the environment.
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