Dr Assefa (aka Asafa) Tefera Dibaba is a poet, educator and researcher. He is the author of anthologies of poems in English and Oromo including
Anaany’aa (1998, 2006), Edas-Edanas (1997), Finfi (Ilyaada) (2014), Decorous Decorum (2006), and The Hug (2011), and has published works of prose including Danaa (2000), Eela (2009), Theorizing the Present (2004, reprinted as Beyond Adversities, 2010). He first moved to the United States in July 2010 after receiving the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund for the persecution he was facing in Ethiopia. He stayed in the United States to pursue a PhD at Indiana University (2011-2015). His recent research has focused on ethnoecology and ecopoetics, and his latest poetry collection is Symposia (2018).

Dr Assefa Tefera Dibaba
, SOAS University of London
Photo of author

This is the first of a two blog post series on the history of Oromo folklore studies. Read the second one here.

Munkullo is an inland village in today’s Eritrea, 5.6 kilometers from the coastal city of Massawa, from where civets, gold, ivory, and slaves were exported, and spices, silk, garments, carpets and weapons imported. Possibly founded in the early period of Ottoman rule, Munkullo developed in the first decade of the nineteenth-century as a satellite of Massawa. The town was the main source of drinking water for Massawa and a place of refuge for wealthy families from the hot and stifling climate of the coast. Wealthy people from Massawa moved there with their cattle and their slaves to enjoy the cooler weather and greener landscape, and to stock up on good drinking water, which was then carried back to the coast by slaves and donkeys.

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Aster Ganno

It was in Monkullo that the Swedish Missionary School opened in 1866. The missionaries trained Oromo speakers, who often were emancipated slaves, to act as language informants for future missions in Oromo-speaking regions. The former slaves were very young, around 13-15 years old when they joined the mission school, but soon turned into formidable scholars in their own right, who between 1885 and 1898 pioneered the study of Oromo folklore, linguistics, and lexicography. Onesimos Nasib (c.1856-1931) and Aster Ganno Salban (c.1872–1964) were the leading intellectual figures of this “miniature Oromo academy in exile”, in Mekuria Bulcha’s words. The team consisted of fifteen to twenty members. Besides Onesimos and Aster, other Oromo youth on the team were Lidia Dimbo, Stefanos Bonaya (from Lamu in present-day Kenya), Natnael, and Roro.

Onesimos Nasib

At various points in the 1880s, the team attempted to re-enter the Ethiopian empire in order to reach the Oromo-speaking areas south of it, but Ethiopian authorities prevented them from doing so. As the attempts failed one by one, the Oromo-language team settled more stably in Monkullo. The Monkullo team published short religious books, a collection of folksongs and stories in the Oromo Reader by Onesimos Nasib and Aster Ganno Salban, Weedduu or Oromo Maiden Songs by Aster Ganno Salban, a comprehensive grammar of the Oromo language, an Oromo dictionary with more than 15,000 entries, and Oromo translations of John Bunyan’s Man’s Heart, Luther’s Catechism, and Karl Barth’s Bible Stories. Crowning achievement was the Oromo translation of the Bible, published in 1899. The team wrote the Oromo language using the Geez (or Ethiopic) script, and relied heavily on the personal memories of the young evangelists, Aster Ganno Salban in particular. The Oromo Reader, filled with songs, stories, riddles and proverbs written down from memory, was another impressive achievement of the Monkullo team; Enrico Cerulli translated it into English with the help of his informant Lorensiyos Wolde Iyasus.  

In Monkullo, the young Oromo evangelists lived in a space of crisis, a liminal space. They were freed from slavery but not free to go home, since the Ethiopian authorities banned them from re-entry. Hence, they had to create a heterotopia where, as converts, they could make “history” and experience “truth” in exile. They formed a small heterotopic society, an “Oromo-speaking colony” as a means of escaping from the disempowering situation they were put in. Munkullo represented for the Oromo scholars a “home far from home”. In this new home, the displaced Oromo youth allowed themselves to dream, and perhaps told stories and sang songs about their people, rivers, mountains and hills, plains and trees, and grasses, and animals in whose form the spirit of the home dwells.  Far from home and estranged from their people, they compensated for their uprooting by evoking a space/place that could not immediately come to the eye, namely, “Biyya Oromo” (Oromoland), the “heimat”. Munkullo became a heterotopic compensation for Oromoland, an idea that back then was not real, a perfected version of an Oromo-speaking society, an approximation of a utopia. Through collection, documentation, and performances, Munkullo served as an oasis for Oromo scholars to mediate “otherness” and alienation.