I grew up in an area where industry [sugar factory] thrives. People come to work from all over Ethiopia and my family is no exception. My father had run away from his birth place in West Showa and found his way to this sugar factory establishment. As you can imagine, all kinds of languages are spoken within the sugar factory complex. Following the installment of the current education system that some call ‘mess’ in 1994, who I in turn call idiots, parents had to choose from two instructional languages for their kids: Afaan Oromo or Amharic. Most went on to study in Amharic but I was among some who pioneered to study in Afaan Oromo right from the first cycle and went on for 10 years.
Some of the families were alarmed as there were rumours that Afaan Oromo was going to be the only instructional languages in schools. I always wonder what could have happened if that was true indeed.
I specially taught about our close neighbour of many years. This is a family that does not even get one single word in Afaan Oromo. I remember my brother and I used to deal with the local Oromos to buy firewood and charcoal for them. Then the family had already lived in the area for 10 years. Surprisingly, after additional 20 years, the family still does not know single word. Maybe, if Afaan Oromo was in place as a sole language in schools, this family could have learned some key words and buy itself charcoal and firewood. Let me make one important observation before jumping to another point. Human curiosity dictates people tend to be flexible to adapt to local socioeconomic conditions. An Italian learns some English before he hops-on a plane to London. Same is true for German or Turkish. This makes sense in a lot of ways, be it economic, cultural or just for fun, however one hates to learn language. As a matter of fact, Ethiopians coming to Europe, study European languages even before leaving Ethiopia. On the contrary, it is very distressing to hear about what is happening in Oromia and other member of the federation as we speak. As an official language for the federal government, Amharic stands out as probably the most common language for many people, but to show up somewhere and expect the locals speak it, is condescending and dump. Sometimes people are insulted and humiliated for not knowing Amharic, even these days way away from imperial era. This has to end. If you don’t speak local, just don’t bother! Try to learn some words for your next visit. It is not too late.
Let me tell you an opposite story. We have another neighbour from South of Ethiopia, a non-Oromo family. This family has the same open interaction with the wider world around same way the former family I mentioned earlier. They hear the locals speak, sell livestock and forest products and go among the neighbourhood to drink the local Areke or chew the infamous socializer, Khat. The parents of this family preferred to send their kids to Afaan Oromo classes. They are not prophets but had probably taught about the future. Look now, their son, an acquaintance of mine, not only mastered and speaks the language flawlessly but also leads the bureaucracy being a head of an agriculture desk at a Woreda. This family fascinates me so much. It is an example of thinking beyond the ethnic divide. Oromia enjoys the highest capital flow, investment and employment and it is totally understandable if one decides to learn Oromo language. The bottom line is: language can be an expression of ethnic identity but non-member can perfectly master it for socioeconomic and cultural reasons and this makes assimilation and integration efficient. So if you want to have a job in Oromia, which you blame for not allowing you to work, just learn some Oromo language and serve as an Ethiopian and Oromo-speaker non-Oromo work force. Same applies if you want to work in Tigray or Somali regions. Yet this linguistic dilemma will continue to bother because its root cause is within the educational policy that lacks rigidity.
A policy statement ‘a child should be taught in his native language’ is very much a blunder. There are not two native languages in Oromia; there is one or there are many. Urban Oromia is home for as many minority ethnicities as probably in Ethiopia itself. Afaan Oromo is the only native language, by far the largest; or if many then be it all the languages of Ethiopia applying which is a logistic nightmare. Unless the country wishes to abandon a language as wide and big as Afaan Oromo, its citizens, at least within Oromia, should take it compulsory to learn Afaan Oromo and there is no doubt schools are instrumental tool. Amharic, having less number of native speakers, shall not be an alternative instructional language within Oromia in schools or meant disfavouring Afaan Oromo. It does not absolutely hurt to learn Amharic. As a matter of fact, some of the brightest poets and novel writers such as Baalu Girma and Tsegaye G/Medihin happen to be Oromos who did not have a chance to study Afaan Oromo but Amharic. Amharic has flourished, relative to other languages, because it was exclusively favoured by former policies; it was imposed to be taught all over Ethiopia. Even these days some might presume encouraging the development of Amharic is vital to form united Ethiopia but this is utterly wrong. At a federal level languages shall have perfectly economic and communicative role with no ethnic extension. However, this is not true because Amharic is widely learned with its embedded culture of the Abyssinian people. The media and entertainment is completely skewed to Amharic in an excuse to create ‘unity’ among Ethiopians. An objective value based assessment of the language based on its geographic distribution, number of native speakers and access to professional support base makes it a federal official language or not. This makes Afaan Oromo the perfect candidate to be an official language. This should not alarm anyone because there are healthy and vibrant countries, one third of the world actually, that keep two and more official federal languages and live in harmony.
There has been some development of Afaan Oromo language particularly in public administration, education and mass media, which can be related with the struggle of OLF since 1973 and its role during the transitional government following downfall of Derg in 1991. Still the development of the language is widely politicized and censored. Popular art work in Afaan Oromo remains scares. Print media suffers the most. There are only two state sponsored newspapers [no private at all] in the language with limited readership. Books might be written but don’t get mass-published in the scale of the population and reach readers’ hand. Motion pictures don’t get sponsors and post production suffers from lack of venues.
One might ask, if the private sector is not as active as it should be on developing the language, why not the state of Oromia, based on the power given by the constitution, allocate resource to build some sort of Hollywood of Oromo people? The answer is simple. As art creates and relies on stories and history, which is apparently all about the struggle for freedom and liberty from the hegemony of the Abyssinians, it is considered threats to the existence of Ethiopia. The whole idea ofOrommummaa is frustrating and a threat. The state is unlikely to sponsor a blockbuster motion picture for example about Waaqoo Gutu or Eebbissaa Adugnaa or Bakri Sapalo. The problem of distancing, as it has been, Ethiopiawinet from Afaan Oromo and Oromo people and failing to build Oromummaa on Ethiopiawinet or whichever way, is diverging one from the other. This is hurting Ethiopia as a country because as the Oromos are not heard and their questions not answered, Oromummaa strengths and Ethiopiawinet weakens while in practice both should have fairly equivalent weight.
Let me take you back to my two neighbours. Our first neighbour lack curiosity and ingenuity and tops in ignorance and arrogance. These pair of attributes are at odds. If you fail to learn a language in 28 years, it is a possibility either (1) you are suffering from some serious head injuries or (2) you have preferred not to listen at all. Of course the answer being (1) seek medical attention or (2) please listen to people. If you fail to get medical attention then you will lose your mind and end up marrying your own daughter. If you fail to listen to people then you are officially arrogant. Arrogant people are dangerous. They are rigid and uncompromising. When arrogance meets access and power, it goes against reality and it reinforces inequality and fosters supremacy and oppression over coexistence. The only way to curb it is to neutralize it through curiosity from within and ingenuity of the oppressed.