About Zelealem Aberra and His Poem / go back to Issue 5

by the Editors of Ogina

Zelealem Aberra is a poet, translator, and developer of the Oromoo language. In addition to publishing a book of his poems called Walaloota (Poems), he has made four audio CDs of his own poetry and a CD of translations of poetry from America and Europe into the Oromoo language. He has also put together an illustrated textbook for children to help them learn the Oromoo language entitled Afaan Oromoo Haabarannu! (Let Us Learn the Oromoo Language!). One of the Ogina editors had the opportunity to interview Zelealem when he visited the United States this summer.

Born and raised in Naqamtee in the Wallaggaa province of Oromia, Zelealem graduated from Awaasa Community Development College. After working for a few years in Kafaa, Wallaggaa, and Baale, he got the chance to study in the Soviet Union. In 1989, after spending a few months in a Russian language preparatory course, he sought asylum in neighbouring Finland, where he completed his masters degree in Journalism and Mass Communication in University of Tampere in 1996.  Zelealem now lives in Helsinki, Finland with his wife and children.

Zelealem draws upon his knowledge of five languages (Oromoo, Amharic, Russian, English, and Finnish) to compose thematically complex and culturally rich poetry. He understands all languages to be living, growing things, and therefore one of his goals is to enrich the Oromoo language through his poetry and through his translations of world literature.

In addition to developing the Oromoo language through poetry, he also enables young Oromoos to learn it through his illustrated textbook. The organization of his book is based on a sophisticated and sensitive understanding of how people actually learn and experience language. In the future, he hopes to someday make a DVD with cartoons that can help Oromoos learn the language much the same way that the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States made so many educational programs for children such as Sesame Street. Zelealem has made a significant contribution to Oromoo culture and political identity. He is an inspiration to future generations.

The poem “Jedhe Diggaa Saqoo…!” (…Thus Spoke Diggaa Saqoo!) is from his CD #4. The editors of Ogina have included both the text and the audio recording of this poem so that you can read along while you listen. The poem is about a legendary Oromoo chief named Diggaa Saqoo who is compelled to sacrifice himself. In the poem, he and another chief quarrel over ownership of a special mineral water (horaa) for their cattle. Because one chief bribes the elected elders, they can’t make a clear decision, so they decide that whoever first spills blood in the area of the horaa will have the right to it. One chief was given advanced warning of the decision and already kept a bull in hiding nearby, which was brought to be slaughtered immediately after the decision was announced. Not wanting to lose the contest, the other chief sacrifices himself as a bull, and before he dies, he says, “Korma hinqabu, morma hindhabu” (“I don’t have a bull, but I have a neck”)a neck to be slit, like that of a bull.  In the Oromoo culture, the word korma (bull) carries the connotation of manliness. In this clever wordplay lies the sophisticated irony of the poem and the selflessness of the legendary hero—Diggaa Saqooo.