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


The 1894 Oromo Reader. The title in Oromo is “Jalqaba Barsiisaa”

The Oromo Reader (1894), compiled by Aster Ganno and Onesimo Nasib, was one of the most significant texts ever published in Oromo folklore studies. For the Reader, Aster wrote down from memory a collection of five hundred Oromo songs, proverbs, riddles, fables and stories. Here I will translate two nuptial songs included in the Oromo Reader. The two songs recall slavery, but also narrate how the former slaves did not remain in lifeless silence and emptiness, but, in Paul Valery’s words, lived in “the active presence of absent things”:

Yammuu gaara baate,

maaf na hin waamin maaloo?

Yammuu gargar baanee

yammuu “Macca” taanee

maaf na hin nyaatin Baaro!

When way up the hill you hurried,

why did you leave me in despair?

Or when we parted for good,

and became alien,

Oh! Had I drowned in the Baro River!

In the second song, Onesimos lashes out at those raiders who heartlessly caught and sold him seven times before he was freed in Massawa:

Utuu jirbii footanii

bubbuuttuu akkam gootanii?

Ofii “Galla” teessanii

Moxuwwaa na buuftanii

guungumtuu na gootanii,

guumgumtuu akka ilmoo dhabaa

As you spin and turn a spindle,

where did you hide the spinning machine?

Now you settled as if calm at home,

but you flung me away to Massawa

and I became a moaner, whiner,

like the only begotten naughty child!

Onesimos and Aster adapt the genre of the nuptial song for their own poetic ends. The songs are simple in both form and style, eliciting an immediate emotional response on the part of the audience. Oromo nuptial songs often overlap with faaruu gaddaa, the songs of sorrowIn nuptial songs, the bride mentions important places and people of her youth. She memorializes in the lyrics the places where she harvested, where she fetched firewood and water, where she danced, and where she played with her peers. She remembers the love and care of her family, that she has left when she got married. Now, she laments in the song, she is living among strangers, in a village far away from home. Onesimos takes this tradition to mention important places in his life, in his journey from slavery to exile. Just like the bride misses her family, and Onesimos uses the same nostalgic tone to express the longing for the motherland. The passage from childhood and adulthood is marked by the sadness of diaspora and constant feelings of homesickness.

Weedduu Jaalalaa,mat-duree kitaaba aaddee Aster fa keessaa tokko

Weedduu or Oromo Maiden Songs by Aster Ganno Salban. The Monkullo team wrote Oromo using the Ethiopic script

The place names Macca, Baro, Galla, and Moxuwwa (Massawa) have a toponymic and a symbolic function at the same time. From a toponymic point of view, they give information about the place of origin of both the song and the singer. Macca has a literal referent, as it designates one of the two Oromo branches in the western part of Oromoland. Most of the former Oromo slaves were captured from here, Onesimos included. Baro is a river in the same area. Symbolically, Macca, just like marriage, stands for “estrangement”, “aliens”, and “others”. Onesimos and Aster used “Macca” interchangeably with “Cush” in the Bible they translated. Massawa is another important place in the life of many former slaves. It was there that Hiika, as Onesimos was called at birth, was rescued by Werner Munzinger, a Swiss scholar and adventurer who worked as a consular agent for the French, British and Egyptians in Massawa. Munzinger renamed him Onesimos and handed him over to the Swedish missionaries in 1870.

In the Oromo Reader, Aster and Onesimos changed some details from the original lyrics, using the lamentation to express their love and longing for their motherland. In the second song, place names are changed from the original, and the name of the bride’s village becomes “Galla”, the term by which the Ethiopians called Oromoland (now considered pejorative). With the substitution, the song expresses the sorrow, distance, banishment, and the overwhelming feeling of nostalgia, not only for the singer’s own birthplace, but for Oromoland as a whole. This was a way to overcome the heterotopic “otherness” of exile, and reinforce the common vision of the Monkullo team to “produce effects”, to borrow Greg Dening’s phrase, and make history.

Related image

Onesimos, his wife Mihret (died 1888) and their children in Eritrea.

Thus, the collection of folksongs and stories in the Oromo Reader are metadata. First, they represent the life experience of the evangelists at Munkullo, the “other space”; second, they express the living memory of “home”, from which they had been banished. Stuck in “betwixt and between” of a heterotopic space, Aster and Onesimos vowed to “produce effects”. Through the act of reading, writing, translating, and collecting folklore, the Oromo team exercised agency under disempowering circumstances. They refused to succumb to the stultifying trauma of slavery and, instead, re-enacted their nostalgia and made a living museum of heritage to be preserved in history. The Munkullo team were separated from home at childhood and enslaved, then freed and put into a condition of liminality, far from home, until in adulthood they created a realm of cultural possibilities and cultural empowerment for other Oromos then and now.