Oromo Fashion by Dr Peri Klemm / go back to Issue 5 

This article appears as “Oromo Fashion: Three Contemporary Body Art Practices among Afran Qallo Women” in  African Arts. vol. 42, no. 1 2009.  All photographs are the property of the author and may only be reproduced with the author’s written consent.  For access to the longer version and a list of full citations and bibliographical information, please contact

In 1998, when I first visited Harar a town in eastern Ethiopia, I was traveling with a young Muslim Oromo-American woman.  Wherever we ventured in and around the old walled city, people stopped dead in their tracks and stared.  Not at me, per se, although my light skin and hair color certainly attract attention, but at my traveling companion.  She looked Ethiopian, certainly, and even Oromo.  Her headscarf indicated her faith in the devoutly Islamic region of Harar and though I also covered my head as a sign of respect, for her it was culturally and religiously motivated.  Unlike Oromo women in Harar, however, she usually wore the clothes of an American college student and she appeared heavier than most Ethiopian women in her t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.  In Harar, those bold enough, usually men, stopped her on the street to ask her with some insistence: What is your father’s name?  Where is your family’s house? Why do you dress this way?  Those living in and near Harar, we learned, were particularly curious about my friend because she could not easily be identified.  I, on the other hand, as a white foreigner, was either classified as part of the growing tourist presence in Harar or as an NGO worker on temporary leave.

Categorizing people by ethnicity, religion, marital status, social and economic class, and occupations is by no means limited to the inhabitants of eastern Ethiopia.  Throughout Africa, one could argue, those not easily deposited into recognized and accepted expressions of personhood, are suspect and afforded considerable attention.  In Harar, however, where four major ethnicities live and work within close proximity to one another, identifying and categorizing others through visual signifiers such as clothing, hairstyle, and body markings is crucial to formulating all future modes of interaction.  This is particularly overt for women.  Men from all local ethnicities- Harari, Argobba, Somali, and Oromo- wear similar types of clothing, including waist wraps made of imported Indonesian textiles or pants with t-shirts, dress shirts, and jackets, which render them virtually indistinguishable from one another.  Women, on the other hand, clearly differentiate themselves through specific dress ensembles that convey their regional ties, clan affiliation, class, and life cycle stage.  This information is clearly communicated to individuals who understand the complex language of dress in eastern Ethiopia.  Beyond the immediate visual correspondences more subversive political references also exist, many of which have developed during the last generation.  This paper examines three body arts created and worn by Oromo women and explores how each communicates ethnic and politically seditious codes.  Each is a relatively new art form created within the last fifty years, easily situated within the framework of fashion.  In the following three examples- qarma, ambarka, and kula- Oromo women have adapted wearable, imported commodities in ways that render them culturally appropriate and politically meaningful.  In doing so, they claim a place for themselves in a rapidly changing and increasingly modern Ethiopian economy, while still maintaining ties to indigenous practices.

Oromo Aesthetics and Women’s Dress

Rural Oromo women are constantly on the move.  As traders they haul heavy bundles of wood, coal, produce, and water along the main thoroughfare to and from local markets in the city of Harar and in surrounding communities.  Oromo women in this Eastern Ethiopia are currently facing a debilitating drought that is affecting livestock and crops and sending many to seek aid in urban centers in Jijiga, Dire Dawa, and Hargeisa and refugee camps near the border with Somalia.  In addition, hunger, malaria, cholera, dysentery, and infectious diseases are a constant battle.  Yet even in the face of these challenges, these same women, both young and old, are deeply invested in fashion.  Oromo woman interviewed throughout Eastern Hararghe confessed that they take fashion very seriously for it provides them access to specific kinds of modernity.  Through contemporary costume women reconfigure and make relevant the markers that connect them to their cultural, religious, and familial heritage.  They also use dress to make sense of their current situations and to create visual networks to distant, and often unfamiliar Oromo communities in the Diaspora, many of which are inscribed in a current struggle for nationalism and self-determination.  Creating conscious connections to a larger Oromo identity is achieved through personal expressions found on the body, particularly around the neck, on the face, and in the hair.  Herein I will discuss three parts of this ensemble of bodily embellishments used by unmarried, rural Oromo women in order to emphasize the importance of transnational fashion as a pliable medium used to communicate a political voice.  These three body arts are: a beaded necklace called ambarka, a beaded headband called qarma, and temporary facial markings known as kula, literally ‘to color the face’.  Each of these items is constructed with newly imported materials that travel from ports along the Somali coast to local markets in Ethiopia’s eastern Highlands.  Each item is also filtered through specific design strategies that either copy directly or visually reference dress styles of the past.  While Oromo women today are constantly redefining their individual tastes and priorities, they are collectively rooted in an indigenous aesthetic system and governed by culturally endorsed prescriptions surrounding the degree to which innovation is encouraged or discouraged in their personal arts.  Within these prescriptions, fashion in the form of constantly changing, imported commodities can be manipulated to reflect meaningful connections to indigenous notions of family, individuality, value and memory.

What is worn is largely dictated by what is considered to be appropriate, financially viable, and above all, beautiful.  But due to the limited repertoire of materials available for purchase in the urban markets, which are visited by the various ethnic groups who rely on these centers for their outfits, many of the same articles are incorporated into costumes across ethnic lines.  Yet, Oromo dress is distinctly Oromo in several ways.  For example, women’s body arts are rendered uniquely Oromo through the specific design and color choices that women make; these rely heavily on stylistic conventions, durability, financial restraints, and material availability in the production of textiles, leather, bead, and metalwork.  In addition, items that may appear similar to another ethnic group’s body art are encoded with Oromo folklore and historical narratives.  They thus become wearable markers that constantly refer backward in time to a distinctly Oromo heritage much in the same way that the past is evoked today through women’s songs and dance gestures.

As objects and bodies change through time and place, meaning also fluctuates and shifts.  An object worn on the body is as much noted for the act of its placement and for the relationship it holds to the body and other objects as for its ability to beautify.  The Oromo manage this negotiation through their categorization and placement of dress.  Oromo aesthetic of dress arrangement is dependent on two competing concepts within wider Oromo society.  On the one hand, sacred objects and acts should be kept hidden.  In this sense, the most spiritually or socially powerful body art practices should not be perceptibly pronounced.  On the other hand, women should be recognized first and foremost for their ethnic distinction, a process that is only possible by drawing attention to the ensemble of things with which they decorated their bodies.  These two ideals between hiding that which is most value-laden and making available the visual symbols of Oromo identity are brought into dialogue on the body through an aesthetic of accumulation that mixes the textures and colors of various body modifications and supplements.  At an Oromo woman’s head, for example, she layers fiber, cloth, and beaded bands over and under a hairnet or headscarf that may be further ornamented with modern accessories like butterfly hairclips while more potent medicines and amulets remain invisible, tucked under her hair.  The layering effect both disguises the clarity of individual objects and brings them into a relational patterning with other similar and different items.  As objects shift in position or as they are replaced with items of more modern appeal, such as temporary pink nail polish dabbed onto the face instead of permanently tattooed marks, they continue to be arranged appropriately, through an aesthetic of accumulation. 

The Afran Qallo Oromo of Eastern Hararghe

The Oromo population resides primarily in Ethiopia but also in Somalia, Kenya, and abroad.  Within Ethiopia, they number close to thirty million people or forty percent of the population.  The Oromo in Ethiopia recognize their nation as Oromia, extending 600,000 square kilometers from the Nile River in the north to the Hararghe Plateau in the southeast.  After Arabic and Hausa, the Oromo language, Afaan Oromo, is the most extensively spoken language on the African continent.  Despite the wide use of the language, until the 1990’s, Afaan Oromo was only formally recognized and taught in schools during Ethiopia’s brief Italian Occupation (1936-41) and only under the present government has any significant progress been made in the development of the Oromo language at the national level, including the publication of the first texts exclusively in Afaan Oromo using the Latin script rather than the established Amharic Sabean syllabary.

While the Oromo constitute the ethnic majority within Ethiopia, they have historically been marginalized politically, economically, and socially within the Ethiopian state.  The Eastern Oromo, for example, lived under Ethiopian imperial rule most of the last century and intermittent conditions of subordination within the region of Harar since the eighteenth century.  Today, they live within a nation-state that is built upon the recognition of ethnic diversity.  It is within these contexts, where issues of identity are crucial, that women’s costume in eastern Ethiopia becomes especially telling.

When and from where the Oromo first appeared in present-day Ethiopia is a contentious issue that precipitates controversy about land use and indigineity and that continues to be heavily debated among Oromo and non-Oromo populations alike.  Most scholarship characterizes Oromo movement into Ethiopia as a single wave of migration from either the Somali coast in the east or Lake Turkana in the south, or from the northern Highlands near present-day Bale spurred by pressures from Somali herders during the sixteenth century.  These accounts rely heavily on a highly biased and propagandistic account written by a monk named Bahrey who lived in southern Ethiopia in 1593.  More recent revisionist scholarship challenges the claim that the Oromo fled in mass exodus into the Ethiopian interior.  Since the existence of nomadic pastoralist bands has been verified by archaeological evidence several centuries earlier (especially in the eastern regions of Ethiopia) it is possible that the Oromo migration and their subsequent assimilation was, in fact, a gradual transition that happened at various moments in different places.

The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in the central eastern region of the country.  They are organized through a segmentary patrilineal structure.  They come from the Barentuma branch or eastern division of the great Oromo confederacy which was born out of the union of Xabboo and Haromeetu, the original Oromo father and mother and propagated through their two sons Barentuma (also known as Barentu) and Boran (also known as Borana).  Those descendants of the Barentuma lineage near to Harar, the Ala, Oborra, Baabbile, and Daga, are known as the Afran Qallo, literally ‘the four sons of Qallo.’  Oromo clan, or gosa, traces its line of descent to Ala, Oborra, Baabbile, or Daga.  Thirty years ago, the Oromo of the former Eastern Hararghe province were conservatively estimated to number one and one half million although it is likely to be closer to four million today.  The Afran Qallo Oromo have largely given up pastoralism and RabaDori, their traditional governance system known among other Oromo groups as the gada system.  Referred to as Qottu or ‘those that dig’ in the past, the Afran Qallo are principally rural agriculturalists today.  The fact that they have remained settled in communities for the past century has meant that the Afran Qallo Oromo have had increasingly better access to markets and trade goods.  This access is reflected in the types of materials incorporated into Oromo women’s dress.

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Dr. Peri Klemm is an African art historian at California State University, Northridge.  She is currently working on a book about dress throughout Oromia.  Any information or suggestions you would like to share are welcome at