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Preserving the History of Ethiopia’s Oromo People

A new book by Brian Yates, Ph.D., associate professor of history, explores the critical role that the Oromo people have played in the history of Ethiopia.

A modern map of Ethiopia

Published: February 21, 2020

Total reading time: 4 minutes

Keys to the Article

The Oromo people are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. But despite their large numbers, the Oromo’s history in Ethiopia is largely ignored and skewed in favor of narratives that focuses solely on another ethnic group, the Amhara, or that argue they should create a new state, Oromia.

This lack of knowledge about the group is one thing Brian Yates, Ph.D., associate professor of history, hopes to change with his new book, The Other Abyssinians: The Northern Oromo and the Creation of Modern Ethiopia.

Many Oromo settled in what became Ethiopia in the 16th century, displacing some populations, especially in the country’s northern highlands. Because the Oromo historically did not record their histories in written form, much of what is known of the time is gathered from histories that label them as the “Galla,” specifically in the 1593 work “Ya Galla Tarik” (The History of the Oromo) by an Ethipoian monk named Abba Bahrey.

Brian Yates

“It has connotations that mean ‘God’s Rejects,’” Yates says. “Early studies on the Oromo understand them as non-Ethiopians. It gives them a negative connotation before even beginning to tell their story”

“The Oromo people are just completely integral to Ethiopian society,” says Yates. “It’s similar to how a great deal of American groups have been written out of American history. It’s why I came to this project. In a lot of ways, there are parallels between Oromo and black Americans. Both are essential to their countries. There isn’t an America without people of color; there isn’t an Ethiopia without the Oromo.”

Yates’ book isn’t about the Oromo people’s struggles but about their role in one of Africa’s greatest modern success stories. According to him, there is already enough written about the problems African groups face.

“I was frustrated with most things written about Africa, as most things only discussed the problems and failure they had. There was very little written on the successes of Africa,” says Yates. “People refuse to see Africa as a place where civilization came. The people who were ethnocentrists both outside of and within Ethiopia that imagined the Oromo as the enemy of Ethiopia –– when in fact, they were a key part of preserving it.”

Yates explains that much of the image we traditionally see of the Oromo was crafted by outsiders.

In a lot of ways, there are parallels between Oromo and black Americans. There isn’t an America without people of color; there isn’t an Ethiopia without the Oromo.

Brian J. Yates, Ph.D.

“It was an attempt at colonialism,” he says. “In order for colonialists to rationalize British rule, they had to invest in the colonial ideology that some groups of people are inherently uncivilized. Some authors argue [Mordecai Abir and Edward Ullendorf] that when the Oromo were in charge, the empire declined because they were uncivilized. They invented the uncivilized ”Galla”, and this trend continues: there have been decades of research arguing that the Oromo and the Amhara cannot live in the same state.

Yates takes a new perspective in The Other Abyssinians. “This is a story about inclusivity. It’s a new way of looking at relations with the Oromo, fundamentally reconceptualizing relationships between groups of people.”

“Identity and national integration are two threads in the book,” he says. “I spent a decade researching Oromo contributions. Instead of being exclusive like in America, where by law different races could not marry, live near each other, go to same hospitals, schools etc., in Ethiopia, it’s reversed. There are so many examples, like the national cuisine, which reflects the diversity of the nation, of people being included and bringing in all the diverse elements of Ethiopia into the national culture.”

Another example, Yates points out, is in Ethiopia’s resistance to speak just one language. “The trend in many other African countries has been to push towards using one language, generally the language of the colonizer, similar to the way America has historically pushed everyone towards speaking English, but that push has been largely absent in Ethiopia,” Yates explains. “So many things we find natural about identity are contradicted by Ethiopian experiences.”

It’s something Yates thinks America can learn from. “In America, we live in a very segregated society that discourages different groups working together. Ethiopia shows that there are so many benefits to increasing diversity and coming together.”