What is Ogina?
by Maya Tessema
This past March, I attended a fundraiser for Dhaba Wayessa’s current film project Halkan Dorrobaa. As a family friend of Dhaba’s, it was only right and proper to go in support of his endeavor. But, at the time, very few of the people there knew I went with an ulterior motive: to investigate the recent Oromo arts movement. I noticed that there were probably 150 bodies at the site, making the chilly Sunday evening decidedly warmer inside. The large turnout must have been a surprise, because there were too few seats in this mauve penthouse party room in Silver Spring, Maryland. Outside the windows, a sign declaring the border into Northwest DC rested atop a modest boulder in the middle of a nearby traffic circle. Inside there was a familiar face adjusting a projector so that it faced a screen in the corner of the room.
Many of the people there were fixtures in the DC metro area Oromo community. These are the kind of people that are often seen at such events. They are even the kind of people who take on leading roles. But it was really my surprise and my treat to see those who often only do their work in their church (as they might have earlier that day) coming in support of an artist. My surprise certainly did not end there.
The event began with a moving poem in Afaan Oromo. Silent tears fell as the poet recounted the experiences of a man imprisoned for his political beliefs, juxtaposing the violence of the man’s torture in prison against the peace of his home-life in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. The close-to-home-feeling sank heavily and acutely onto the audience as they recognized and faced that which they ran from years or months ago. As the poem faded, the pastor rose to the joy of those who were to receive him. As a leader of the Oromo Church in the United States, his words have often catalyzed change in thought, but there was a different tenor to his words for this particular occasion. He might as well have sent a mini-shockwave via electricity when he actively declared the arts were inextricable from the past, present and future of Oromo experience. His words challenged the conservative movement that has recently prevailed across the Oromo churches in the United States. That movement has led some to denounce artists’ cultural expression as antithetical to the mission of the church.
I came to the fundraiser not only as a supporter of the event, but also as an opportunist. As a member of the new-ish Arts and Culture committee of the International Oromo Youth Association, I was in search of what Oromo arts are and what they have the potential to be. We were the process of creating an Oromo web-zine which would feature art and conversation from Oromo artists, especially from young, nascent talent that might help to reveal some of the beauty and tension of their current diasporic state. When it came to naming this ’zine, we met, deliberated, joked and pored over many name options, until the idea of finding out how to say “art” in Afaan Oromo came to a committee member during one of our weekly meetings. How elegant, we thought. It would be straightforward, and easy to recognize.
Except that wasn’t the case. Moments after the idea came, we all realized with great discomfort that we did not know what the Oromo word for “art” was. I felt the familiar shame of not having made the effort to speak the language I have heard my entire life set in, and my ability to understand Oromo in conversationswt would be of no use. Other committee members were either native speakers, had learned the language in diaspora, or were recently finding an ear for Afaan Oromo’s hard k’s, multiple a’s, guttural vowels and barely-there d’s. So, in the course of our meeting, one of the members consulted the Oromo-English dictionary.
We found the word in the dictionary. It was ogina. None of us had ever seen or heard that word before.
We were disturbed by our lack of knowledge. Our immediate reaction was to pin this lack back onto ourselves, stating that we were the ignorant youth who did not pay the same level of attention to our culture as we would for the details of would our next outing, or friends’ Facebook statuses. We, as Oromo-identifying children in diaspora, were doomed by our self-importance and fickleness. Our sympathetic friends of other nationalities would surely frown upon our cluelessness.
Nevertheless, the members of the committee were struck by the simple charm of the word ogina. We rolled the word around in our mouths, trying to predict which syllable would receive the blessing or curse of the emphasis. It was just so arresting and African! Without furtherswt hesitation, we declared that this was the new name of our webzine.
However, a few committee members brought our wriggling tongues to rest when they mentioned that we had a new task ahead of us – we had to place this lovely, round word squarely in some context so that we could move forward with our collective project.
So we came to a decision: we must go to our friends, family and local experts in search of the meaning of ogina. We would report back our findings, and then make decisions based on those findings. Because we’re a committee and that’s what committees do.
Luckily, I knew some people who have near legendary command of the Oromo language, who could tell me the Oromo word for “field where the yield of crop was only 2/3’s of what was expected that leap year” without a moment’s hesitation. My uncle was the obvious choice for help. He was, by the way, the reason why my cousins are named after essential parts of the Gada System, a traditional mode of governance for Oromo states. My cousin’s names roughly translate into “witness” and “agreement.” Enough said. So I decided to ask him my burning question. “What is ogina?”
“I don’t know,” he said. This is was not the answer I expected to hear. Nor was it the only time one of our committee members had heard it: the rest of the committee experienced similar confusion and bewilderment from their knowledgeable elders. At least we could no longer blame ourselves for our ignorance.
Our committee continued to meet and discuss our new problem. How could it be that no one knew what this word meant? We wondered how the word could be in the dictionary yet be so unknown. Some of our elders suggested that the author of the dictionary might have taken liberties with another word to invent ogina.
There is a similar sounding word that is often traded and bartered or meaning among Oromos: ogumma. At its simplest, it means skills – like those skills it takes to raise entire villages of family, or to weave baskets of into bending complexity. Or to freestyle gererso – the flowing, singsong poetry sung in aching minor chords and rhythmic unpredictability. We took this derivative word, our precious ogina, and saw it for what it was: a recent creation. And so, we concluded, it is our task to continue creating it.
So if it is our task, it is our responsibility to continue to define it. We cannot lead ourselves to believe that this word was created out of a lack of art, or art informing the Oromo identity. There are already contemporary transnational Oromo pop artists whose gyrations stir us to dance our way out of a century of oppression. Not to mention that they are continuing to entertain even us when the mere mention of our ethnic heritage could ignite retaliation in Ethiopia, where our language was effectively banned from public use, where our vowel-heavy alphabet is but a generation created. Who knows, there may already have been the long dead poet, whose words may never be known since becoming a victim of the ethnic violence, who we may be echoing in our seemingly new creations. We already know of the basket-weavers who earn their living making beauty durable, or more recently, the rapper who becomes a sensation among young people in search of cultural tools such as hip hop to navigate the terrain of their identity in diaspora. And now, there are those of us who will be willing to challenge all the assumptions about ourselves, including Oromo identity itself, as an act of pure agape and ineffable respect.
If anything else, we discovered that ogina is not static because of our task of creating it. Like the townspeople of Passaic, NJ, in Michel Gondry’s recent film, Be Kind, Rewind, we actively participate in the creation and re-creation of our past. We take myths and legends and investigate them, or enlarge them to epic proportions. We also have the space to remix. In the film, people claiming to be from different backgrounds are making a film about their city’s past. In our case, as young Oromo people bound by a common experience we are labeling ‘culture,’ we are spread throughout the world but continue to find ways to come together and create a future we could not imagine individually.
So in our first issue of Ogina, each of the contributions has taken on the task of creating art and conversation that looks both forward and backward. We look backward by drawing on the history we know to be painfully present, and look forward by finding new ways to understand and think about our situation. Through the interview with Joe Riemann of Equal Exchange, Steven Thomas’s essay on an Oromo Renaissance, the poetry of Efrata Obsa, Ziyad Kadir, and Hana Tesfaye, we are teaching each other to discuss Oromo-ness in new and challenging ways. The visual art of the Rammy Mohammed and Abdiwak Dawit Yohannes help us to see our situation in a new light. Siraj K. of Norway has helped us to navigate the growing complexity of Oromo identity in an unlikely way – by reprogramming an Iphone in Afan Oromo and by contributing to the nascent Oromo Wikipedia.
But of course, this “new” art must have had some precedent, so we at Ogina would like to extend gratitude to Dhaba Wayessa for helping to create a pathway of Oromo art through his literature, and for allowing us to show his film The Fallen Beats in our inaugural issue.
As we are creating, questioning, and sharing our work, I remember what Pastor Gemechis Buba talked about at the fundraiser in March. He spoke of translating our “orality into literality” so that we may document and disseminate our world to others and to ourselves. This may be the first time many in the audience had been forced to consider that art is not merely ornamental or a display of cultural pride, but a medium where we figure things out as a community: speaking, responding and participating in the world as we have never done before.