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

The stylistic choices of diamonds and horizontal bands are also significant in this discussion of nationalism and Oromo identity.  Certainly women are drawing on basketry as a model in their ambarka beading through the same concerns with containment of shapes, the repetition of form and pattern and the use of primary color sets of stripes and diamonds.  We know from Phillip Paulitschke, the Viennese ethnographer who visited Harar in the 1880’s, that 120 years ago, the rhombus was the most reproduced figure in dress and jewelry designs and on the flat expanses of everyday objects. This shape is still visible on the incised gourds made by Oromo men.  Yet, a review of the ambarka reveals that ambarka diamonds are further divided into four by two strong diagonals.  When I asked what this division of the diamond was called, women told me it was simply known as ‘Afran Qallo’ and I dismissed the divided diamond design as nothing more than a genealogical identifier. In hindsight, however, I believe that there is more to it.  This divided diamond pattern is unique to the ambarka and is a very recent bead pattern.  It emerged at a time when the EPRDF government was attempting to suppress all forms of Oromo nationalism.  In this context, this divided diamond pattern may directly represent the Afran Qallo or more specifically 'the four sons of Qallo.'  The larger diamond is Afran Qallo and the four smaller diamonds are his four sons from which all Afran Qallo trace their genealogy: Ala, Oborraa, Baabbile, and Daga.  Each of these clan names is thought of as a large shade tree, the symbolic location for traditional worship, court counsel, and business matters for the Oromo, and today a metaphor of cultural vitality and unity.

Kula: Color

Throw up your head in the air,
tilt it and lay your naannoo in harmony
Shaggee of straight nose
black edged eyelids and close eye brows
that look as if they are carved
“your kula and qarma
faroora  and  kulkultaa
I saw, they look as if they are flawlessly created”
-From the song Mari Mee, recorded in 1994

In the song Mari Mee above, the singer compliments the decorated space between the young Oromo woman’s eyes, the central focus for cosmetics.  Adorning the eye area and the cheeks with colored pigment known as kula is a recent phenomenon.  Today, women no longer utilize natural mineral pigments on the face but instead, invest in more fashionable and easily applicable substances: bottles of nail polish.  Nail polish is today applied to the bridge of the nose, between the eyebrows, and to the cheeks.  Nail polish decoration, which either exists side by side with tattooing and scarification on young women’s faces or has replaced them entirely, falls along a continuum in the indigenous practice of facial alteration.  Historically, an Oromo woman’s face became a canvas for subtle tattoo marks, tumtuu, applied in conjunction with scarification, haaxixa (Fig. 20).

Scars are usually incised with a sharp thorn or razor that lacerate the first few layers of skin above the eyebrow, along the bridge of the nose, and on the cheeks and that heal in a recessive dell.  These marks, which are usually made at the onset of puberty, become meaningful on several levels: when those above the eye are cut, the blood is allowed to drip down and cleanse the eyeball, which is believed to free it from disease; the mark along the nose is intended to visually lengthen the nose and enhance its appeal; the marks on the cheeks further beautify a woman’s face and can suggest geographical identity.  Often haaxixa are enhanced with tumtuu, in which a green black paste made of soot and plant extract is applied with thorns pricked under the skin.  Today, the process of scarification and tattooing is usually discussed as a feature-enhancing cosmetic that, like dots of polish, adds to a woman’s attractiveness.  Haaxixa placed above the eyebrow, along the bridge of the nose, and on the cheeks are intended to heal, protect, and beautify.  But marks around the eyes are also meant to divert the gaze of strangers who could potentially inflict harm through attack with the evil eye.  The evil eye as a pan-Ethiopian phenomenon is most widely known as buda, a term which references both the inherent eye power and the individuals who possess it; usually castes that smelt iron, tan leather, and fashion pots as their primary means of livelihood.  The practice of scarring the face is also reported to have been used specifically during the first reign of Haile Selassie I to make ugly, rather than to beautify. 

The Oromo speak of a turbulent time in the 1920’s when young men and women began disappearing in great number.  As most Afran Qallo Oromo had had little exposure to Ethiopia’s government or state-sponsored education at this period, an uncertainty grew concerning the motivations of a distant leader called Haile Selassie I.  Severe changes to land use policy, the complete eradication of the traditional socio-political governing institutions, and new demands for labor and a national militia, created mounting distrust toward the Ethiopian state.  Informants state that in the 1930’s it was confirmed by a famous Oromo mantiyya, a jarrii spirit expert, that Haile Selassie was himself possessed by a jarrii spirit.  This spirit was said to inhabit his dog, a Chihuahua breed with bulging eyes that often appeared with his master in official photographs and news broadcasts.  Afran Qallo Oromo feared that the small dog was masterfully controlling Haile Selassie to tour the country to collect and consume the most attractive people.  As a result, people believed that the most beautiful Oromo men and women were being confiscated by government troops and eaten by this insatiable ruler.  Mothers began to hide their children and disfigure their faces to keep them from abduction.

In this sense, excessive haaxixa was used as a means of marring beauty and keeping young men and women safe.  While haaxixa was practiced much earlier than this, it was because of the harshness of the Amhara administration, especially from 1887 to 1936, that Oromo tradition emphasized the importance of heavy haaxixa in the 1930’s.  This visual and oral evidence suggests that fear of buda and the foreign administration of the imperial Ethiopian governments was not prevalent in Oromo belief until the first reign of Haile Selassie- a time when the wearing of scars was on the increase.   

Nail polish operates both within this belief system as a way of diverting the gaze from the eye area but also as a beautifying agent intended to harness visual attention.  Adorning the body to invite the attention of mates or to hide from those with buda speaks to issues of disclosure and concealment inherent in all of the body arts used by Oromo women.

Women say they like nail polish for its impermanence, its color variety, and its foreign manufacture.  While permanent scars and tattoos bleed, fade, and shift over time, nail polish can be applied quickly and painlessly, then scraped off and reapplied again. Applied polish also promotes personal expression.  Dabs of polish allow a young woman creative space to articulate an individual style that will catch the attention of potential suitors she might meet on her way to and from market or on wood gathering excursions.  Decorating with polish also suggests a high economic status.  The price of an imported bottle of polish fetches the equivalent of four days work for a wood or coal seller.  Despite the cost, women are reluctant to collectively buy a bottle together since styles copied in a communal color from one face to another would not give the woman her unique look and promote her individual appeal. 

Polish is rarely wasted on the fingernails since it is not an area that traditionally gets painted and thus, not a candidate for the dissemination of cultural meaning.  Young men, however, who travel broader distances than women and come into contact with nail salons or fashion magazines, commonly wear polish on their nails.  This again suggests women’s astute decision to limit cosmetics to places on the body that continue to be decorated in traditional ways and whose decoration conveys important cultural meaning.  Even though kula made with bright pink and red polish is becoming increasingly popular the practices of scarring and tattooing persist.  As a personal art, polish can literally exist alongside or on top of other kinds of markings that make resonant connections with collective Oromo values and belief systems.                                                                                                                                     

Women’s Participation in Oromo Nationalism

Among the Afran Qallo Oromo, a series of moral codes shaped through a shared past, common religious belief, and conditions of subordination dictate bodily restraints and determines which collective physical representations are withheld or reproduced at particular moments and within specific contexts.  The collective presentation of the Afran Qallo female body runs parallel today to the emergence of an Oromo national consciousness, one that extends beyond the borders of present-day Ethiopia into the surrounding nation-states that are also home to large Oromo populations.  This consciousness is largely informed by a debate centered on whether the Oromo in their nation of Oromia should attempt to secede from the Ethiopian state or rally for equal treatment and self-determination as members of a unified Ethiopia.

The cultural glue of this nationalist movement within Oromia, which is the Oromo regional state within Ethiopia, and the Oromo Diaspora is largely founded on the shared experience of language, history, and political domination.  The historic gada or RabaDori system, common to all Oromo, is often promoted as a socio-political organizing ideology through which to mold an independent Oromo nation.  While both Oromo men and women throughout Oromia can lay claim to a shared experience, including the move from the stratified grades of the RabaDori institution to the court system enforced by the Ethiopian state, the loss of rights to grazing and farm lands, and increased state-sponsored violence, Oromo nationalism has been most publicly formulated and articulated by educated Oromo men in a male-centered paradigm.  Kuwee Kumsa reports that Oromo national movements, particularly the Oromo Liberation Front, have not adequately acknowledged the role of women in its formation and struggle nor has the organization included a women’s voice.  Further, the place of women and the roles played by women’s arts have not been formally acknowledged as a relevant component of nationalist sentiment. 

Yet, as these three examples have shown, women’s bodies and their personal arts are instrumental in the production, albeit subtle and symbolic, of Oromo identity and Oromo consciousness.  Further, Oromo society views women as the dominant creators and assimilators of cultural symbols.  The reason the decorated body is left out of this debate has much to do with the ways in which Oromo nationalism was first conceptualized as an abstract ideal.  The establishment of the Macha-Tuluma self-help organization among western Oromo in Ethiopia in the 1960’s and the participation in government sponsored programs under the Derg regime in the late 1970’s coupled with an increased exposure to secondary education and urban jobs, created a uniquely modern Oromo consciousness for young men as Mekuria Bulcha has written.  In this male-centered political climate, the expressions of rural women in localized areas went largely unnoticed.  At this time, however, women were independently creating their own material expressions based on the emerging nationalist consciousness sweeping the Oromo countryside, and these practices continue today through the manipulation of new materials in the production of upper torso body art.   

Oromo women’s dress is most closely associated with the lower body and its association with procreation.  For the Oromo, the lower body is connected to the past through its link to the ground, to birthing, and to containment.  This is a space where loose, layered skirts and a tight, cloth belt become metaphors for the opening and closing of the body.  The upper body, on the other hand, is where the future rests and a whole host of objects, including amulets, beadwork, and face paint, are brought together here to assert a national identity in anticipation of future encounters.


I have introduced three body art practices that underscore how fashion can be manipulated to resonate meaningful connections to indigenous notions of individuality, community, and memory.  These beaded bands and color swatches celebrate the individual style of each young woman and therefore, no two should look identical.  Yet, in this multiethnic environment, these body arts are clearly a communal Oromo visual expression.  The beaded ambarka necklace and the beaded qarma headband are both patterned with the diamond - a shape that dominates older basket forms while the kula face paint is modeled after older permanent facial markings.  To be fashionable among the Oromo, then, carries with it the limitations imposed by a bounded aesthetic system, one that Afran Qallo women are largely responsible for generating, maintaining, and communicating both as objects and as subjects. This system requires the layering of old and new forms, intended to both catch and confuse the eye, simultaneously revealing and concealing; beautifying and repelling; personalizing and unifying to those that understand the language of dress. 

Throughout the historical period discussed, Oromo women have developed a clear, cultivated fashion sense that connects them to peoples and places beyond their region.  As increasingly active agents, Afran Qallo women are creating new looks that draw from and resonate with historically relevant body art practices and which link them to a wider global world.  Further, contemporary dress is a symbolic means through which Afran Qallo women come to understand and make sense of their socio-political and economic experiences and their identity as Oromo within the Ethiopian state today.

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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