The Cultural Heritage of the Oromo
By Omowale Jabali
Oromo have a very rich culture, fostered by the size of the population and large land areas with diverse climatic conditions. One highly developed self-sufficient system which has influenced every aspect of Oromo life is the Gadaa system. It is a system that organizes the Oromo society into groups or sets (about 7-11) that assume different responsibilities in the society every eight years. It has guided the religious, social, political and economic life of Oromo for many years, and also their philosophy, art, history and method of time-keeping.
The activities and life of each and every member of the society are guided by Gadaa. It is the law of the society, a system by which Oromo administer, defend their territory and rights, maintain and guard their economy and through which all their aspirations are fulfilled.
The Gadaa system has served as the basis of democratic and egalitarian political system. Under it the power to administer the affairs of the nation and the power to make laws belong to the people. Every male member of the society who is of age and of Gadaa grade has full rights to elect and to be elected. All the people have the right to air their views in any public gathering without fear.
There follows a brief description of how the Gadaa system works: there are two well-defined ways of classifying male members of the society, that is the hiriyya (members of an age-set all born within the period of one Gadaa rule of eight years) and Gadaa grade. The Gadaa grades (stages of development through which a Gadaa class passes) differ in number (7-11) and name in different parts of Oromia although the functions are the same. The following are the Gadaa grades:-
1. Dabballee (0-8 years of age)
2. Folle or Gamme Titiqaa (8-16 years of age)
3. Qondaaia or Gamme Gurgudaa (16-24 years of age)
4. Kuusa (24-32 years of age)
5. Raaba Doorii (32-40 years of age)
6. Gadaa (40-48 years of age)
7. Yuba I (48-56 years of age)
8. Yuba II (56-64 years of age)
9. Yuba III (64-72 years of age)
10. Gadamojjii (72-80 years of age)
11. Jaarsa (80 and above years of age)
We will briefly describe the duties of a Gadaa class as it passes through the above grades.
The Dabballee are sons of the Gadaa class who are in power, the Luba. They are boys up to 8 years of age. Thus this is a stage of childhood. Upon reaching their eighth year, they enter the Folle grade. At this age they are allowed to go further away from their villages and to perform light work.
In the Kuusa grade, the previously elected leaders are formally installed in office, although they do not yet assume full authority except in their own group. This is one of the most important events in the life of the individual and the Gadaa system over all. In the next grade, Raaba Doorii, members are allowed to marry. This and the Kuusa grade constitute a period of preparation for the assumption of full authority. At the end of this period the class members enter Luba or Gadaa, the most important class of the whole system, attain full status, and take up their position as the ruling Gadaa class. At this stage the system comes to a stop momentarily and all men move to the proceeding class vacating the last class which is the immediately occupied by a new class of youth who thus begin their ascent of the system's ladder.
The former ruling class, the Luba, now becomes Yuba. The Yubas, after passing through three separate eight-year periods, are transferred to the Gadamojjii class. Then they enter the final grade called Jaarsa and retire completely.
As described briefly above, when the Oromo man passes from one stage to the next, his duties and way of life in society change. For instance, during the grades of Qondaala, Kuusa and Raaba Doorii, the individuals learn war tactics , Oromo history, politics, ritual, law and administration over a period of 24 years. When they enter the Gadaa class or Luba at the age of about 40 years, they have already acquired all the necessary knowledge to handle the responsibility of administering the country and the celebration of rituals. It ends with partial retirement of the whole, group of elders to an advisory and judiciary capacity.
The following are the Gadaa officials and their duties according to the Tuullama Gadaa practice:
1. Abbaa Bokku - President
2. Abbaa Bokku - First Vice-President
3. Abbaa Bokku - Second Vice-President
4. Abbaa Chaffe - Chairman of the Assembly (Chaffe)
5. Abbaa Dubbi - Speaker who presents the decision of the presidium to the Assembly
6. Abbaa Seera - Memoriser of the laws and the results of the Assembly's deliberations.
7. Abbaa Alanga - Judge who executes the decision
8. Abbaa Duula - In charge of the army
9. Abbaa Sa'a - In charge of the economy
Thus, the entire presidium consists of nine members, called "Salgan Yaa'ii Borana" (nine of the Borana assembly). The Abbaa Bokkus are the chief officials. (Bokku is a wooden or metal scepter, a sign of authority kept by the Abbaa Bokku, the president). The Abbaa Bokkus have counselors and assistants called Hayyus who are delegated from the lower assemblies.
The holders of these responsible posts can remain in office for eight years only, in normal times, and are then replaced by a new group of officers. The power is handed over at a special ceremony at a special place and time. The office-holders conduct government - political, economic, social, ritual and military - affairs of the entire nation for this period. During war time all capable men fight under the leadership of the group in office. During the eight year period the officials live together in a village (yaa'aa village) and when necessary travel together.
There are five Gadaas in a cycle of 40 years. If a man enters office (becomes Luba) now, his sons will become Luba 40 years from now. The five Gadaa (sometimes called Buttaa) in the cycle have names, which vary slightly from region to region. Among some Oromo communities, the sets of five Gadaa names used by the sons are different from those of the fathers. Whereas among other communities, the same set of Gadaa names are used for both fathers and sons. For instance, the Gadaa practiced in the Borana community uses the following different sets of names for the five Gadaa. (Could be likened to five parties who take power in turns).
1. Birmajii Aldada
2. Melba Horota
3. Muudana Bifoole
4. Roobale Sabaqa
5. Duuloo Kiloolee
In this manner, a given name repeats itself every 80 years. This is in fact the complete Gadaa cycle divided into two semi-cycles of 40 years each. The first 40 years is the Gadaa of the fathers and the second is the Gadaa of the sons.
Although it is not known with any degree of certainty where and when the Gadaa system started, it is known and documented that the Oromo have been practicing it for well over 500 years. However, according to oral Oromo historians, the Gadaa system has been in practice for several centuries. "Their (Borana Oromo) noted historian, Arero Rammata, was able to recount, in 1969, an oral history covering four thousand years", (Prouty et al, 1981). Today Gadaa experts easily recall fifty-seven Abbaa Gadaas with important events. Of course, this highly sophisticated system cannot have appeared without having been based on something earlier. Therefore, further study and analysis is required to know more about its origin and development.
Social scientists of diverse backgrounds at different times have studied the Gadaa system. Many of them have testified that it is uniquely democratic. Among those authorities, Plowden (1868), stated, "among republican systems, Gadaa is superior." Asmarom Legesse (1973) described the Gadaa system: "one of the most astonishing and instructive turns the evolution of human society has taken." Indeed, it is one of the most fascinating sociopolitical structure of Africa that even influenced the lives of other peoples. Several neighboring peoples have practiced a sort of the Gadaa. Among these are Sidama, Walayita, Konso, Darasa, Nyika, Nabdi, Maasai, etc., (Beckingham et al, 1954).
Like living organism, cultures undergo evolution in order to adapt to changing conditions. The Gadaa system has thus been undergoing evolutionary changes since its inception so as to serve better a continually developing society. However, the fundamental that occurred in the Gadaa system, starting around the end of the eighteenth century, were brought about mainly by events set in motion from outside the Oromo society. Therefore, it was not fully a normal or natural development.
In most communities suddenly and in a few cases gradually, the usefulness of the Gadaa system declined. Among the factors that had contributed to this decline were: firstly, the protracted wars that preceded the onset of colonization. The end of the eighteenth century was marked by constant wars and skirmishes, particularly in the north and north-eastern Oromia against the encroachment of the Abyssinians. Because of the insecurity imposed by such wars coupled with the distances involved to go to the Gadaa ceremonies to change the leadership, the Abbaa Duulas (fathers of war) stayed on their post for much longer period than required by the Gadaa rules. This gave these war leaders a mandatory power, because they were forced or encouraged by the society and existing circumstances, such as the continuous wars, to hang on to power. This weakened one of the outstanding features of the Gadaa system, the built-in checks and balances mechanism of political power. This in turn weakened the ideology by which the Oromo nation was successfully led for several centuries.
In addition to the protracted wars, the passing of major trade routes through the area and the subsequent expansion of trade gained the war leaders more wealth. Thus the wealth, fame and power they gradually gained enabled them to command a larger number of followers in the area they were defending. Thus they usurped the political power that belonged to the Gadaa officials and the people and finally some of them declared themselves "mootii" (kings).
The second important factor that contributed to this decline was the coming of new beliefs and religions. The politico-religious aggression that took place in the expansion of Islam and Christianity has affected the culture of the Oromo people very much. The invasion of Oromo land by Muslims in the east and south and by Christians in the north have left their mark on the Oromo culture.
Thirdly, the changes in the mode of living of several Oromo communities was probably one of the important factors that led to the decline of Gadaa. As the Oromo society developed, there was a gradual change in the social, economic and political life of the people. For instance, in many parts of Oromia, a settled agrarian mode of life developed fast and the people practiced both mixed agriculture - raised crops and animals - and nomadic pastoralism. The latter was the dominant mode of life before this time, although Oromo have practiced cultivation for a long time and have made significant contribution to agriculture by domesticating plants and rearing rare varieties of crop plants. The introduction and expansion of trade had significant contribution also. These and other related factors led to the emergence of a new social system, which created a significant pressure on the Gadaa system and brought about a modification or change in the Gadaa practices.
Finally, the onset of colonization had tremendously reduced the political and usefulness of Gadaa system as the administrative affairs and management of the national economy were taken over by the colonizers except in remote regions. Atseme noted, "Menilek outlawed the major chaffe meetings in the Oromo areas he conquered." Bartels (1983) also noted, "Gadaa ... was gradually deprived by Amharas of most of its political and judicial powers and reduced to merely ritual institution." Even the social aspects, that is the ritual and ceremonial aspects, have not been left to the people. The observance of Gadaa ceremonies has been prohibited by proclamation.
The Oromo people also have a rich folklore, oral tradition, music and art. For example, it is believed that the Oromo are responsible for the invention and use of phallic stones (Wainwright, 1949 and Greenfield, 1965). Decorations of stone bowls from Zimbabwe include pictures of cattle with long "lyre-shaped" horns such as raised by Oromo. According to these scholars, this and the phallic stones found in Zimbabwe are traced directly to Oromo and linked to their early settlements there and to the Zimbabwe civilization. Wainwright (1949) argued that these were founded by the Oromo. He wrote: "Waqlimi and his people came from Galla land and its neighborhood, and were already installed in southern Rhodesia before A.D. 900." (Waqlimi is an Oromo name). This date coincides with the date of the erection of some of the famous buildings there which Wainwright says were built by "Galla." This appears to be part of the spread of Cushitic civilization.
Although much of this culture and these traditions have survived harsh suppression, much has been forgotten and lost, artifacts have been destroyed and Oromo are discouraged from developing their culture and art.