Names and Identity: The case of Oromo names cultural genocide
By Hawi Chala | September 8, 2013
Our names distinguish us from billions of people in this world. To many of us names, the most fundamental part of a human being, gives us a sense of identity and belonging to a given society. Because names are part of every culture of a given society, they often put a strong connection between the individual who receive the name and the society that give the name. By giving a name the society acknowledges the personal existence in that society and simultaneously the society confirms its own responsibility towards that person. In other words, names are preliminary prove whether a person belongs to a given society. If we take these names Megersa, and Abreha, we can identify that the former belongs to Oromo identity and the latter belongs to Tigrean identity. Therefore, We are able to identify their identity just only by looking their names because we know that these names only belong to that community.
By carrying that particular name, the individual share the history of his society and become part of the nation. Since that particular name differentiate that child from others, the society will foster and socialize the child with needs and feelings different from those of others. That is why many of us own different feeling and needs depends on where we came from and the ethnic group we have been socialized with. Because of that name his /her needs and feeling will exist different from others. For instance, an Oromo child born and grown up in Norway will remain an Oromo, and have different feeling and needs from his/her Norwegian friends.
Having an Oromo name by itself will make her/him able to feel a sense of attachment to his/her Oromo heritage and culture.
There are different ways of naming a child in Oromo culture. When families give names to their children, they have usually, if not always, put a reason behind that, such as for example religion, specific situation the family find itself, places, hopes they have for the child and etc.
Religion plays a significant role in names.
A religious family usually names their child from their religious perspective. A Christian family may either give a baptismal name or after people in the bible; while a Muslim family give a name after people in Quran or from Quran perspective. The same applies in other religion too. By doing so, each family need to assert that the child belongs to their respective religion. These names given after people in Bible or Quran helps the person to have the attachment to the faith and to feel that they are part of the faith.
In Oromo culture when a woman get married, she is given a new name in addition to her previous name to indicate that the woman now onwards belongs to her husband family. Women from the western culture are not required to change their name but they instead change their family name to their husband family name. The logic behind the new name in both cultures is to indicate that the woman will belong to her husband kinship family and the new name indicates her new identity.
Influence of ‘famous individual & literature on name choice
In this modern world media and literature play important role in choosing names. The more medias cover about models, artists, influential people, the more we became familiar with their names and the more we became inspired by them and their names..
Names like Tilahun (after the singer Tilahun Gessese, Mengistu after X-president Mengistu H/Mariam, Aster (after singer Aster Awoke), Tewodros (after king Tewodros).etc , have been commonly used among many Ethiopian.
Historically since Oromo people have been denied any government key positions, and since the Oromo literature have been weakened purposely by government, since our talented artists were unable to shine out due to oppression and limited opportunities given, it has been a big challenge for Oromo names to get promotion opportunity through Ethiopian medias and literature. Due to this, their popularity of Oromo names couldn’t shine out rather remained mired in rural setting of Oromia.
Our names make the core of our identity.
The link between personal identity and a given name is at the heart of this article wants to discuss thoroughly.
As we have discussed above, many scientific studies confirmed also that there is a strong link between a given name, identity and personality.
The link between a name and identity happens in our daily life starting from when we introduce our selves to a new friend, to various daily events. If I tell you that my name is Roberto, you can easily distinguish me that I might be an Italian, or if your name is called “Hawi” I can easily guess that you are an Oromo. If your friends hold the name Abrehet, we can guess that she is Tigrean and if the other friend also has the name Wi Hu Zhao we might guess that he/she is a Chinese. More than their metaphorical usage. these names help us to distinguish the person identity, where he is from and the society she/he belongs to.
When people have odd names, names that don’t explain his/her identity, it would make hard for others to easily distinguish who is he/she and to whom she/he belongs. In other word through his/her given name, the name is unable to explain his/her identity.
During the colonial period, many of African indigenous names were changed to the colonizer interest names to indirectly change their mind to loose their identity. If you travel to Nigeria today you hardly find indigenous names among the new generation instead people are favoring British names.
During the slave trade times when Africans left the continent, they left also their names, culture and all of their identity, where they were in return given new slavery names with new identity. They lost their identity and their roots. This is a proof why these days the Caribbean and many black Americans have lost the feeling of African identity. In resistant to this identity crisis many black American civil right activist marched various movement condemning their cultural genocide. One of the prominent activist was Malcolm who refused the name given by white imperialists and changed his name to Malcolm X , which became later one of the cause for his assassination. . He chose the new surname “ X” to signify his lost tribal name and identity.
The same cultural genocide has happened in Ethiopia against Oromo people names. In Oromo people culture, names represent an important part of life and have been a pillar of our identity. Since Oromos population largely surpasses other ethnic group in number, there has been groundless fear among successive Ethiopian leaders to be overwhelmed by this majority groups. In response to this, one of the strategies used by these successive repressive regimes has been to make the Oromo people systematically loose their identity through developing a feeling of proud Ethiopianism while feeling embarrassed with Oromuma identity. To ensure the domination of Abyssinians culture over the Oromo people and to strength their assimilation policy, these successive governments have banned the Oromo language, culture and names. Speaker of Afan Oromo language and holders of Oromo names were privately and publicly ridiculed and embarrassed.
Following the victory of Minilik on the war with Oromo, between 1868 and 1900, where more than 5 million Oromos were killed, hundred and thousand of Habesha settlers were dispatched in to fortified settlements across Oromia. These Habesha settlers didn’t only take away the vast land of Oromia, but also changed Oromo place name to Amharic names and banned Oromo cultural practice. Classic example of this names genocide is the name of the following Oromoia cities: Addis Ababa (Finfinne ), Nazret (Adama), Debrezeit (Bishoftu), Zeway (Batu), Asebe Teferi (Chiro), Hageremariam (Bole-Bora ) ….etc were the victim of the eradication policy of Oromo names.
During various resettlement program in the country history, many Oromos , who has lost their own land by the government to give to multinational cooperation, were also resettled in different parts of the country including Gojjam and Gonder. Even today if you travel around Gojjam and Gonder you will surprisingly hear a lot of indigenous Oromo names. This was one of government strategy to silently kill the booming of Oromo culture through the assimilation policy at the back of the settlement program. These Amharized oromos have Oromo roots but baptized under Amhara culture. Holding surnames may keep the attachment with Oromo people, but that alone wouldn’t make them proud of Oromumma since they have lost the feeling and the culture of Oromo people.
Now we came across two paradoxes. In one hand we have said that there are few indigenous Oromo names in Gojjam and other parts of the Amhara region while in other hand we know that there are millions of Amharic names among Oromo people.
Let me stop you here and give you two minutes break while thinking your friends or families who is holding Amhara names.
Roughly 2 out of 3 Oromos have an Amharic names.
Then my big question is :
Why Oromo families name their children by Amharic names instead of Oromo names? Or why the name Adane is preferred than Feyisa among Oromo families?
Well, It undeniable fact that from our grand –grand fathers to the present Qube generation, having an Oromo names make us embarrassed and feel less valued. It was not a hidden history that many Oromo families changed their names in to Amharic names when they moved to towns in order to escape from discrimination and easily integrate in to the dominant Habesha culture.
Until recently it has been regarded that holding Oromo names was perceived as foolish, ruralist, impulsive, not moody, “geja” and many more abusive words. They made us feel that an Oromo names is less valued over Habesha names. Take for instance these names, Tolesa, Kiros, Gezahegn, Megertu, Hiwot ? Which name is better off the other ? Names are names. Every name is beautiful to the society it belongs. But the successive Ethiopian brutal governments make us feel down with our names, made us feel embarrassed with our beautiful Oromo names, made us feel that our names is backward, regressive & unmodernised, made us feel that our Oromo names has negative implication rather than its identity justification. They ridiculed and insulted us for we are holding Oromo names.
Many Oromo children change their name when they start school because they inherited that embarrassing feeling with holding Oromo name at school. The Habeshas used to insult and made jokes on our Oromo names. This inhuman mistreatment made our Oromo families feel ashamed with their names and their children names. These insults and discrimination made by Habeshas forced many Oromo familes to give Amharic names to their children.
They changed in to the Amharic names not because they changed their oromuma identity but only because they need to protect the psychology of their children not to feel embarrassed and ashamed with Oromo names.
Until recently many Oromo job-seekers are forced to change their Oromo names and hide their Oromuma to increase chances of being hired by employers.
This cultural genocide against Oromo names by successive Ethiopian government was supposed to bury our Oromo identity. I am not going to naysay the very fact that we have been affected by identity crisis. But at the same time we could survive the name genocide and regained our Oromo identity. Thanks to those who have fought and sacrificed their life, we are now able to feel proud with our survived identity and names. But the scarce of our name genocide will never be forgotten.
Names build a nation
The connection between names and identity does not only affect people. Names and naming also constitute an important part of the work of the building of a nation. This becomes quite evident if we take a look at the history of Norway and Eritrea during the period following the independence of Norway from Denmark in 1814 and Eritrea from Ethiopia 20 years ago. After the end of 400 years of Denmark rule, the Norwegian people gained a new feeling of freedom and independence which provoked a strong wave of National Romanticism, and this, among many other things, also called forth a strong agitation to bring back the Old Norwegians names and put them to use instead of imported, foreign colonial names. This revival of the so-called national names has later become known as the Nordic Name Renaissance. The same history has recently happened in Eritrea. As a consequence of National Romanticism, Eritrean government has implicitly prohibited Ethiopian music, language and names in Eritrea so as to boom Eritrean own culture, than imported names and cultures.
The same logic should work for Oromo cultural revival. By giving Oromo names to our children, we should play important part of building greater Oromia. We should provoke a strong wave of OROMIA ROMANTICISM and RENAISSANCE. In fact many Oromo youngsters, especially the Qubee generation has showed their resistance to the system by changing their Amharized name in to the beautiful Oromo names. To continuously pass our identity from generation to generation and attach the feeling of Oromo identity, we should name our children with our beautiful Oromo name. We have cultural responsibility to stop this cultural genocide of our identity names by making our self and our children feel proud of Oromumma by naming with indigenous Oromo names. Through naming of Oromo names, each of us has a responsibility to build a nation that feels proud of its identity, a nation that struggle for its freedom and a nation that proudly say I am a Oromo first and no more Amharic names!
Adler, Peter (2002) : Beyond cultural identity : Reflections on multiculturalism , Pepperdin University, school of Law, USA.
Benedicta, Windt, (2012) : Names and personal identity in Literary context, Oslo studies in language. Vol 4, No 2 (2012), Oslo , Norway.
Taylor, Paul et al (2012): When Labels don’t fit: Hispanics and their views of identity. Pew Research center´s Hispanic Trends project, USA.