Irreecha 1903 at Lake Hora Bishoftu town. Thanksgiving, forgiving and forward looking expression day for Oromo.
Irreecha (also spellled Irreessa), the Oromo equivalent of Thanksgiving, was traditionally celebrated bi-annually in different parts of the Oromo country. The Irreecha Birra festival is celebrated in the month of September and Irreecha Arfaasaa in the month of April. Although it was a non-political festival, the irreecha was suppressed by Ethiopian regimes. Brought back to life by a struggle for cultural revival which the Oromo have waged during the last fifty, the festival is now playing a significant role in the manifestation and preservation of Oromo national identity. The festival in its traditional form is celebrated in different localities across Oromia. At the national level, it is an event that brings millions of Oromos from all over the Oromo country and non-Oromo visitors from other parts of the world to the shores of Hora (Lake) Arsadi in the city of Bishoftu in central Oromia. As such, it has no parallel in Africa. The festival is celebrated not only in Oromia, but has become an event which is observed transnationally by tens of thousands of Oromos settled in many countries around the world.
This paper aims to shed light on the role of the irreecha festival in the expression of Oromo unity and national identity. It is said that a collective identity is constructed not only in and of its present life, but also in reconstructing the collectivity’s earlier life. I will describe the role of numerous pan-Oromo socio-cultural and historical symbols and artefacts which the festival has brought to light, in awakening the Oromo sense of belonging to a community. The pan-Oromo democratic tradition is reflected in the artefacts displayed in the irreecha parade, in the blessings of elders who officiate it, in the environmental ethics articulated and in the performances of artist who entertain the celebrants.
Elements of a reviving culture packed up in a festival
In the pre-colonial past, the IrreechaBirra marked the end of the rainy season and the beginning of harvest season. It is an Oromo custom to gather on the river banks and the shores of lakes and give thanks to Waaqa (God) for all his bounty and pray for Nagaa (peace) and Araara (reconciliation) among humans and with God. Today, the festival has come to mark the end of the rainy season, andmore. It marks the end of the cultural trauma which had affected the Oromo for about a century. It heralds and confirms that the time when the Oromo culture was seen as “pagan and primitive” is gone for good. It denotes victory over a history of cultural denigration.
The elders of the nation, their counsel and benediction
Like in the past, the haayyuu (elders, wisemen, the learned – both singular and plural) thank God and bless the nation as their ancestors did. They bless the nation; they remind their audience to uphold the Oromo ethics of safuu and nagaa (respect and peace), reconcile among themselves and pray to God to reconcile with them. Although many of the Oromo concepts, vocabulary and semantics thehaayyuu use are archaic, the meanings of their blessing and sagacious counsel are comprehensible to their audience. The following is a rough translation of an excerpt from the counsel and blessing of a haayyuu who officiated an irreecha festival outside the city of Naqamtee in 2013.
Shall evil have no place amongst you? Shall hate have no place amongst you? Shall truth find you? Is this your testimony before God? Let peace be among all! Let peace be among adults! Let peace be among the youth! Let peace be with the livestock!
He reminded the participants the connection that the occasion has with the Oromo heritage and counsels and commands them to confirm the authenticity of the occasion. He asked them whether spirit of the celebration is aligned with the spirit of Oromo traditions as reflected in the laws of the five major Odaas: Odaa Nabee (in central Oromia), Odaa Bisil (in western Oromia), Odaa Bulluq (in north-western Oromia), Odaa Roobaa (in south-eastern Oromia) and Odaa Bultum (in eastern Oromia). He asked them whether the traditions of Madda Walaabuu are respected. The five Odaaswere centers of the ancient gadaa republics where the Oromo met and elected their leaders and reviewed their laws and made new ones every eight years according to the constitution of the nation, and Madda Walaabuu was the seat of Abba Muuda, the high priest of traditional Oromo religion Waaqefannaa. The response of the celebrants is in the affirmative. This was followed by another moment of blessing which, roughly translated, said the following
You shall not conspire against one another You shall not betray one another Let God be at peace with you Let the Earth be at peace with you
The significance of this ritual is not that the counsel of the haayyuu is translated into action, but the historical and cultural knowledge it conveys and the consciousness it raises in the minds of the audience. The past is memorized and communicated not only by the haayyuu but is also stored and reflected in the array of artefacts and costumes that decorate the irreecha parade. Combined with sagacious words of the haayyuu, the rich symbols of the Oromo gadaa culture – that attire the multitude who march in total harmony – reveal the dignity and pride with which the Oromo nation is re-asserting its culture and identity.
The poetic interpretations of artists
The collective memories of the nation, preserved in the ritual and symbols, then expressed in the words of the haayyuu, are supplemented by young artists who herald the revival of their heritage with songs and dances. Some of songs such as Galaanee Bulbulaa’s “Kottaa ni hirreefannaa, aadaa bade deeffannaa” which means (“Come let us celebrate Thanksgiving; Let us revive our banned culture”, Giftii Dhadhii’s Oromoon seera qabaa (“The Oromo have laws”), Abdoo Badhaasoo’s Irreecha irreeffanna (“We will celebrate Thanksgiving”), Gaaddisee Shamsadin’s Beenu Oromia, irreechi irree keenya (“Go on Oromia, irreecha is our power”) and Amartii Waarii’s Kottaa ni kabajna kuni aadaa keenyaa (“Come, let us celebrate our culture”), which were performed at the irreecha festivals and elsewhere, connect the Oromo present with the past. They herald the recovery, revival and survival of the Oromo culture from the destruction to which it was doomed by conquest and colonization. In short, they reflect the feelings which underpin the ongoing Oromo recovery from a century of cultural trauma. The “green” leitmotif of luxuriant vegetation and abundant water against which the artists perform, provides a symbolic connection with God and nature that suggest that the Oromo are and will be at peace, with God, and also with nature. Their lyrics imply that the earth, the forests, rivers, lakes, animals and all the other living things are both natural and divine. Their implicit message is that what hurts the eco-system hurts humans also.
The dynamics that are at work during the irreecha festivals and what the participants experience ismore than what the eye can see or the ear can hear. It is a joy and sense of belonging and experience of being part of a community that cannot be expressed fully in words. It is more. What the participants experience is a resurrection of a nation and a reconstruction of collective memory through the festival and the array of artefacts it displays. The occasion creates a collective “reality” and history. This collective reality connotes a state of being of the same mind, sharing a collective memory about a shared past and, just as importantly, an aspiration for a common future. This ismore than a product of individual perception or understanding. When asked by a journalist fromChina Central TV Africa (CCTV) what he was thinking about the irreecha celebration at the 2014 festival in Bishoftu, a young celebrants replied
I have don’t have a word to express what I see or feel. I believe that this is my culture and religion at the same time. This is what was forwarded to us by our ancestors; and it is what I will forward to my children.
This individual is not alone in having that “feeling” about the festival. His feeling is shared by other Oromo participants around him and those who watch the process on TV. They may or may not express what they see and feel with words, but most of them, share with him the experience that what they see is their culture symbolized in the festival. When human communities attach symbols to words, concepts and artefacts that signify their collective experience, they share a vision. A society cannot exist without a degree of this sort of vision shared by a majority of its members. The young respondent cited above says that what he sees is his culture and religion which was passed to him by his ancestors and which he will pass over to his children. In other words, what he sees reflects his identity and that of others around him. My point is that the irreecha festival is one of the ways in which the Oromo society “recognizes itself”, that is to say imagines, feels, experiences or knows about its own existence. As an occasion and venue for the symbolic expression of Oromo history and culture, the irreecha festival connects the Oromo to a common past through the tangible artefacts on displays in the massive parades.
It important to note here that the Oromo celebrate the irreecha irrespective of their religious backgrounds. Whether they are Waaqeffataa, Christians or Muslims they participate in the festival. The moral counsel and ideals officiated by the haayyuu do not contradict the essence of any of the three religions. In fact the haayyuu who officiate it are from all the three religions on most occasions. The festival unites the Oromo and harmonizes their thoughts and voices. It creates a “mental state” shared by the entire Oromo nation. Whether one interprets the occasion culturally or politically, the significance of the prayer, counsel and blessing of the haayyuu and the songs of the artists in raising Oromo consciousness and unifying the nation cannot be overlooked. It is important to stress, however, the fact that the aim of the counsel of the haayyuu and the songs of the artists is not to “mobilize” the participants for collective political action on the spot. The occasion is to celebrate a tradition and its revival. The traditional Oromo ethics of safuu and nagaa, or respect for and peace with God, humans and the natural world pervade the atmosphere in which the festival is conducted. As I will explain in more detail below, the tranquillity which the occasion demands is respected.
Tranquility underpinned by tension and ethically controlled anger
It is important to note here that the tranquillity that has characterized the Bishoftu irreecha parade of millions of men, women and children during the last few years is not a sign that the participants are satisfied with their situation or the status quo. The tranquility reflected in the massive annual parades should not give us the impression that Oromia is a peaceful territory and that Ethiopia is a stable polity. In fact, the benedictions of the haayyuu who officiate the festival are often underpinned by restrained feelings of dissatisfaction. The songs of the artists who entertain the participants contain anger felt against the prevailing political conditions. During the 2014 irreechafestival, for example, the prayers of the elders were marked by a feeling of grief for the Oromo students who had been cruelly killed by the agents of the regime because they were opposing the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan. The “crime” for which students were killed, as we all know, was participation in a peaceful protest against the eviction of the Oromo people from their land en masse. The haayyuu were not calling their audience to make war, but praying for the restoration of justice and for Oromo victory over all those who are harming or will harm them. Concern about human rights’ violations committed by the TPLF regime was also reflected through slogans which called for “Respect to Oromo humanity and sovereignty” and “Respect Oromo Rights to their Territory” from the crowd. In short, the bright colors, the melodious songs and entertaining dances we observe in the irreecha parades do not signify Oromo satisfaction with their present situation in Ethiopia. We cannot expect a people whose youth are killed cruelly by a dictatorial regime, or, a people who are evicted from their homes and land, or, a people who are rounded up routinely and are thrown into jail en masse without the rule of law, to be satisfied. The celebrants of the irreechafestival were immensely dissatisfied with the Tigrayan regime. But, as Asmarom Legesse has remarked, “among the Oromo, war is war and peace is immensely tranquil” (see Gadaa Democracy, 2000, p. 77). The irreecha festival is an occasion that requires such tranquility. To feel anger about the injustice is normal and expected, but to express it would violate the spirit of a sacred occasion that Oromos greatly value. As a journalist from CCTV Africa who visited the festival in 2014 described it “the irreecha is a sort of family gathering.” Indeed, the festival is a sacred come-together for the different branches of the Oromo nation. It would be considered immoral to disturb it. However, given that the ruling Tigrayan elite are nervous about every Oromo gathering and that they have shown unprecedented impunity against the Oromo people, the possibility of interference by itssecurity forces that can turn the tranquil “family gathering” into a bloody scene cannot be disregarded. During the last ten years the peace was disturbed by measures taken against participants of the festival: visitors were beaten, and many were imprisoned. Some of them were wounded by bullets fired by the police. During the 2010 festival 120 young participants were imprisoned accused of being “terrorists”; the gadaa cultural costume they wore was interpreted as a symbol of the Oromo Liberation Front (personal communication). Yet the Oromo have continued to come to Lake Arsadi in an ever increasing numbers to continue with the revival of their ancient culture.
Artefacts that symbolize the “staying power of Oromo institutions”
After decades of suppression, the spontaneity with which irreecha, and other Oromo traditions, have come back to life during the last two decades has proved the resilience of Oromo culture. This shows that the majority of the Oromo people have successfully maintained a collective identity different from an identity which the Ethiopian ruling elites have been trying to impose on them in an effort to create a people with “one culture (Abyssinian), one religion (Orthodox Christianity), one language (Amharic) and one nation (Ethiopia)” out of a colonial empire.
The symbols that the irreecha festival has brought together are ancient and pan-Oromo reflecting what Asmarom Legesse has famously referred to as the “staying power” of the gadaa cultural heritage (ibid. p. 103). They symbolize justice, peace, and sovereignty which the Oromo of the gadaarepublics enjoyed in the past. In fact, the bokkuu which are carried by men and siqqee carried by women, as well as a range of other pre-colonial pan-Oromo gadaa symbols which are lined-up prominently by participants in the irreecha parade, reinforce the memories and values shared by the multitude gathered at the festival sites as well as those who are following the event in the media from afar, whether in Oromia or in the diaspora. The bokkuu and siiqqee are the symbols of the democratic ethos of the gadaa system. The bokkuu, a scepter which is carried by elderly men, is the symbol of the gadaa system, signifying both power and justice. As a symbol of gadaa democracy thesiiqqee stood for the inalienable rights of Oromo women and the inviolability of their human dignity. It is a symbol for an institution within the gadaa system. A woman is “accepted” into such an institution on her marriage day and thenceforth she is protected by it against any violation of her rights or human dignity, be it by her husband or other men. The siiqqee entitles Oromo women to prticipate in many instances of decision making, in conflict resolution and other important matters that concern their society. The authenticity of the irreecha festival is reflected not only in the artefacts displayed in the parade or the blessings conducted by the hayyuu and songs sung by the artists, but is also in the amazing harmony which pervades the gathering of millions of people: the festival is serene; it proceeds peacefully and ends without incidents.
To go back to symbols, nations need symbols to frame their self-identification: that is symbols which help them to recognize themselves as collectivities, or that they exist as a “We”. Those who claim belongingness to such a collectivity share a culture, the elements of which are given significance in ritual practice. Thus, the array of symbols, such as the ones displayed in in the irreecha parades, constructs a narrative which holds together the imagination of a people and provides bases of harmonious thought and collective action. Nations around the world organize parades for different reasons. Some organize them to commemorate historical events such as their victories in battles or day of national independence. Others use parades to exhibit their cultural achievements or display technological progress. The irreecha festival, in the form it takes in Bishoftu today is, by and large, a national parade organized to celebrate the revival of Oromo culture. It heralds Oromo victory over ethnocide, or the attempted destruction of their culture by Ethiopian regimes. The costumes which the majority in the parade wear and the artefacts they carry reflect the culture and history which the different branches of the Oromo nation had shared and preserved. It is a history and culture which they rejoice with pride and will revive and defend. For the Oromo people, the consequences of the Abyssinian conquest was prolonged cultural trauma. The irreecha festival heralds that the Oromo are now leaving behind that trauma.
The irreecha is taking the place of the ancient muudaa pilgrimage
What is very significant about the festival is that the multitude of men and women who converge on Bishoftu city from all over the Oromo country celebrate a culture that was denigrated, despised and suppressed for about a century. Such a massive gathering is reminiscent of another aspect of Oromo culture. The spontaneous pan-Oromo participation in the festival suggests the manner in which the ancient pilgrimage to Abbaa Muuda was undertaken by thousands of jila (pilgrims) from the different gadaa federations. The pilgrimage to the holy muuda shrines attracted every eighth year tens of thousands of men who represented every Oromo clan from every corner of the Oromo country. Today, the irreecha festival celebrated on the shores of Lake Arsadi is playing a similar role.
The jila pilgrimage was both a religious and a political undertaking. Those who traveled on foot for months every eight years to the muuda shrines from regions which are far apart, were drawn together by a myth of origin from one ancestor, Orma. This was reinforced by a common language, a common religion through a strong attachment to their spiritual leader Abba Muuda, a common system of law, a shared attitude toward the natural world as well as their democratic character – all gave the Oromo who lived in different gadaa republics a sense of a single nation. The muudainstitution maintained the moral unity of the Oromo nation until it was banned in 1900 by Emperor Menelik. The ban exacerbated the traumatic disruption of Oromo culture which I have mentioned above. The revival of the irreecha festival is a major step in dispelling the distortion of Oromo self-perception as a nation that was created by the disruption of conquest and colonization.
It is important to recollect here that it was the Macca Tuulama Association (MTA) that paved the way to take the Oromo nation into the present phase of their history. It is a well known fact that the activities of the MTA launched the recovery of the Oromo nation from the cultural and political traumas of conquest and colonization. It became the first forum to gather members of the Oromo branches from different parts of their country for a common purpose decades after the jilapilgrimages were banned by the imperial Ethiopian government. The MTA itself was banned by a successor of Menelik in 1968; but its work was resumed by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) beginning in the mid-1970s. It was also by the initiative of the MTA members that the Lake Arsadiirreecha festival was revived in the mid-1990s overcoming the restrictive surveillance of the present Ethiopian regime. The MTA was banned and its leaders were imprisoned for the second time in 2004, but the irreversible work of Oromo cultural revival that had started fifty years ago has continued on a large scale as reflected in the Irreecha festival.
Although the aim of the journey taken by Oromo masses to Lake Arsadi today is not exactly the same as those which stimulated the pilgrimage to the muuda shrines in the past, the effects are similar. It brings people from every corner of the Oromo country to one place. The irreecha festivals have re-established the sense of belonging to a single nation by the different branches of the Oromo nation in the way that the jila pilgrimage did in the past. The national consciousness created by the irreecha festival may be even deeper than the awareness that was created by the muudapilgrimages and kept the Oromo nation intact in the past. Covered by mass media which takes the festival home to millions of Oromos at home and transnationally, the annual event makes Oromo imagination of their national community more vivid, immediate and real than it had ever been in the past.
For the Oromo their land is holy to all religions
As a cultural and religious site Lake Arsadi is located in a district which, de facto, was a holy land for the Oromo. Odaa Nabee, one of the oldest and most historic and ritually significant sites of thegadaa assemblies, is located about 15 km north of the lake. Tulluu (Mount) Cuqqaalaa (Ziquala in Amharic), Tulluu Erer, Tulluu Bosati, Tulluu Furii, Tulluu Eegduu, Tuluu Foyataa, Tullu Galaan and TulluWaatoo Daalachaa which were called Saddetan Tulluu Waaqayoo (the eight mountains of God) in Oromo tradition are also located in the district within less than 30 km distance from the lake. Scholars of Oromo studies have argued that mountains were seen as ceremonial grounds in the past and that the tops of the mountains mentioned here were used for that purpose. In fact, the shores of a crater lake on Mt. Cuqqaalaa was a site for the irreecha festival for centuries. In short, the proliferation of ritual sites indicates the importance which the region has in the religious and political lives of the Oromo.
It is well known that Abyssinian kings and Orthodox clergy built churches in the lands they conquered to serve their soldiers and settlers, and in some cases also to Christianize the conquerd peoples. It seems that the Oromo region of Ada’a in which Bishoftu city is located was given moreattention in this respect than normal. The conquerors did not stop with building churches and converting the indigenous population; the intention seems to have been Christianizing the land and changing its Oromo identity as well. Biblical names such as Debre Zeit to Bishfotu and Nazret (Nazreth) to Adama. Farther south, two islands in Lake Zway were also called Galila Daseet (Galilee Island) and Debre Sina. The change of these place names in a region which is seen as sacred by the Oromo to Semitic Biblical names is perhaps to “Semiticize and Abyssinize” the region, deny its idigenous Oromo identity and claim it as a “holy” land proclaiming that it belonged to their Christian empire since ancient times. However, the policy did not succeed; the place names were reversed back to Oromo names in the 1970s, and now the irreecha festival is reviving the cultural identity of the district. Waqeffannaa, the traditional Oromo religion, with which the irreecha is culturally aligned, is also reviving. This does not meant there is no opposition to the re-instution of the Oromo heritage. According interviews given by Abba Abdiisaa Dhaabaa, Hunddataa Waqwayyaa and Kaasaa Balchaa to a journalist from the Oromia Media Network recently (OMN TV, September 13, 2015), the opposition of the Orthodox clergy against the Bishoftu irreecha festival is still persistent. The denigration of the Oromo religious festival has not stopped.
The opposition of the Orthodox clergy seems to be even more marked against the celebration of the Spring irreecha on the shores of the crater lake on Mount Cuqqalaa. As mentioned above, the shores of that crater lake is an ancient site where the Oromo festival was celebrated for centuries. A monastery run by Orthodox Christians had also existed since the twelvth century on the same mountain. Its clergy had co-existed with the Oromo who follow their own religious tradition and celebrated irreecha festival on the shores of the crater lake. On the part of the Oromo, who do not see the co-existence of the different religions as a problem, this is not surprising. What is remarkable is the decision of the Orthodox clergy to share the shores of a small lake for ritual purposes with a people their church considers as heathen. According to oral tradition the remarkable co-existence was a result of an agreement made with the Oromo by a bishop who founded the monastery. The condition which forced the bishop to accept the coexistence of the two religion is not clear. Ironically, the tolerance which the Orthodox clergy have shown over the centuries has changed into irrational opposition in recent years and the co-existance between the two religious communities is distrubed. According to my informant, the Oromo have been forbidden to celebrate the irreecha festival on Mount Cuqqaalaa since 2010. It is reported that a stelae calledsida Nabee (Nabee’s statue) which stood for centuries and was associated with Oromo traditions was also destroyed recently. According to the same source, the resistance of the clergy is against the revival of the Oromo religious culture. However, given the number of people of Oromo “pilgrims” who visit the irreecha celebrations, it is plausible to suggest that the revival of Oromo religious and cultural traditions is unstoppable. Above all, based on the religious backgrounds of the millions of people who participate in the irreecha festival and the haayyyuu who officiate it, one can say that today Bishoftu is a sacred place not only for Waaqeffataa (followers of the traditional Oromo religion), but also for Christians and Muslims. That shows that in Oromia people from all religious background are welcome. But, religious fanaticism is not. It is detested.
Refutation of Oromo misrepresentations and misconceptions
The festival refutes many of the misconceptions which are created by Ethiopianist narratives. As I have pointed out my recent book The Contours of the Ancient and Emergent Oromo Nation (see Bulcha, 2011, Chapter 8), there are Ethiopianist writers who posit that the Oromo “have never had a sense of collective identity based on popular memory,” that the Oromo have no common historical symbols that are emotionally appealing to them or which could serve as primary symbols of their national identity and that they do not have a collective consciousness “rooted in myths and symbols.” The range of pan-Oromo symbols and artefacts, which are mentioned above, refute these propositions. They contradict the argument, which says the Oromo “do not possess a sense of belonging to a single societal community who shared important past experience and a common historic destiny.” The enthusiasm with which the Oromo are reviving the irreecha shows not only the resilience of this element of their traditional culture but also the revival of Oromummaa (being Oromo) in contradiction to the imposed culture of Ethiopiyawinet (Ethiopian-ness) with unexpected speed and vibrancy. Contradicting the picture of a “chaotic” people depicted in the Ethiopianist discourse, the festival also proves that the Oromo are a people who have a culture capable of bringing together millions of men, women and children from different religious backgrounds in one place to celebrate their ancient traditions with utmost harmony and peace. The revival of theirreecha festival in such a manner and on such a scale confirms, among others, that time when the Oromo were made to feel shame about their history, culture and identity; and the time when they strived to behave like or speak the language of their conquerors in order to be taken as Ethiopians is gone.
It is also interesting to note here the profound refutation the festival offers to the Ethiopianistmisconception of Oromo history, culture and identity. It refutes the misconception that the Oromo are a mixed bag of different tribes who do not share a common past or have a collective identity. As I have discussed at length elsewhere (see above), literature on Ethiopia – still in use – asserts the ‘fragility’ of Oromo socio-cultural features in contrast to the ‘tenacity’ of Abyssinian traditions. It has been argued by Ethiopianist historians that the Oromo lack a sense of community and solidarity and possess no collective memory or corporate history. For those who will understand Oromo culture and history it suffices to watch the irreecha festival. It narrates a cultural history shared by an entire nation. It does not narrate stories about kings and emperors who conquered and subjugated other people; it mirrors a heritage that is different from the Abyssinian heritage which the Ethiopianist historiographers have in mind when they talk about peoples “who lack history”.
Given what is said about the irreecha in this article, the following can be concluded. From the historical point of view, a recent and clear manifestation of the resilience of Oromo cultural heritage is that the Oromo have, in the face of a vicious colonial repression, preserved the irreecha. This achievement shall be added to the preservation of important aspects of the Oromo gadaa system and the traditional Oromo religion, Waaqefannaa.Indeed, this confirms that time when the Oromo were made to feel shame about their culture is gone for good, and the time has arrived when the Oromo culture assumes the place it deserves as a noteworthy cultural heritage of Africa and a significant contribution to global culture.
Taking into account the colorful costumes of its celebrants, it is clear that the festival has brought out expressions, colors, and art forms that are uniquely Oromo but which were hidden from public sight in the past. It is incumbent on Oromo artists, designers, scholars and organizers of festivals and Oromo events to polish and create quality out of the treasure of Oromo arts, artefacts and narratives that have been preserved by their people and are now manifested in abundance in Oromo oral literature and cultural traditions, including in the irreecha festival. In short, the festival is an occasion that can be used by the Oromo to introduce themselves and their unique African culture to the world community.
As a parting word, I would like to point out that as an event which attracts millions of participants from near and far, the Bishoftu irreecha festival is becoming a major income generating event. Unfortunately, most of the beneficiaries are not Oromo. Frantz Fanon has reminded us that the poverty of a colonized people, national oppression and the inhibition of their culture are one and the same thing (see his Wretched of the Earth). This has been the fate of the Oromo. Because of the policy of the previous Ethiopian regimes, the majority of property owners in and around the city of Bishoftu are no longer Oromo. The present regime’s land policy which is encroaching on the district and displacing the Oromo from the area and is worsening their predicament. The income generated by the lease or sale of their land to local and international contractors along with the value generated by their cultural significance is not benefiting the Oromo. For the irreecha festival to benefit them, the displacement of the Oromo should cease, and the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (AAMP), which is encroaching on the district from the north, should be stopped. If the Plan continues, the irreecha festival will soon end up celebrated in a territory bereft of its Oromo inhabitants and culture.
Mekuria Bulcha, PhD and Professor of Sociology, is an author of widely read books and articles. His most recent book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, was published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999). He is an active member of the OLF and has served in the different branches of the national movement since the 1970s.
Many of the Ethiopian runners belong to the Oromo ethnic group, which accounts for morethan one-third of the country’s population, according to the most recent census, making it by far the most populous ethnic group. “Oromo is no good to them,” explained one runner, who was detained three times but never faced charges.
By Rick Maese
Fleeing persecution in their native country, Ethiopians such as 18-year-old Genet Lire put promising track careers on hold to take refuge in Washington
(The Washington Post) — Genet Lire locked herself in a bathroom stall at Dulles International Airport and hid. The clock was ticking. If she was found, she would have to get on the plane and eventually return home. She feared she surely would be locked up again, probably beaten, and her family terrorized.
The time passed slowly: five minutes, 10, 15, 20. Feet tapped on the tile floor. Doors opened and closed. Every noise and shuffle made Lire’s chest tighten.
This was supposed to be a quick layover. Lire was a 17-year-old sprinter from Ethiopia, here to compete in the junior world championships in Eugene, Ore. But she had no intention of ever reaching the starting line. She and her teammates flew in from Addis Ababa. They rushed to their gate, watched their bags board the big jet, and that’s when Lire saw her chance, slipping away to the bathroom as the flight began to board.
Fleeing persecution in their native country, Ethiopians put promising track careers on hold to take refuge in Washington. Genet Lire cries while looking through an album containing photos of family and friends she left behind in Ethiopia. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
She didn’t know it at the time, but not far from Dulles, in and around the Washington area, there was an entire community of Ethiopian runners in similar situations. They were beaten and persecuted back home, almost all of them for political reasons. They feared for their lives and sought asylum in the United States, most putting their promising running careers on hold for the chance at stable and safe lives.
About three dozen Ethiopian runners have congregated in the Washington area, many in just the past three years, and 12 agreed to share their stories with The Post. Some requested their full names not be used, fearful that their families in Ethiopia would face retribution. The details vary, but some threads are consistent: They all had been imprisoned but never charged with crimes; most used visas they’d received through their track careers to flee; they were all beaten to some degree; and many have struggled to acclimate to a new life, far from family and lacking the time and resources to continue running competitively.
Ethiopian runner Genet Lire’s father and mother, center, surrounded by her seven brothers and sisters in front of the family house. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
“They get here and they are physically and emotionally traumatized,” said Kate Sugarman, a Washington physician who has treated many of the runners. “Some of them can’t even run because of the injuries they suffered during their beatings. I think they’ve lost their confidence and arrive here without a lot of hope.”
The runners have varying skill levels, but most are long-distance specialists, having competed in marathons from New York to China. They’ve won big races in Europe and North America and claimed titles across Africa. One man in his mid-20s once completed a marathon in 2 hours 8 minutes. Only two American-born distance runners have ever run faster.
Genet Lire, right, says she misses her friends, seen here, and her family, but she feels that she will have a better life in the United States. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
Lire was a rising star back in Ethiopia, a promising sprinter in a nation of distance runners. Less than a month earlier, she had won the national title in the 400 meters, setting an Ethiopian record. A strong showing at the junior world championships last July would’ve been an important stepping stone to representing Ethiopia in the 2016 Olympics.
Instead she sat in the Dulles bathroom, half-scared she would be spotted and half-scared she wouldn’t. All she had were the clothes on her back and a red Adidas backpack. Inside were photos of her family, friends and the life she was escaping. Lire felt she had no choice. She had spent several weeks discussing the trip to America at length with her family, and they all urged her to flee at the first opportunity.
After 30 minutes, Lire cautiously opened the bathroom door. The plane was gone, with her teammates and coaches aboard. She looked around and approached a man with a friendly face.
Genet Lire, holding medal on the right, poses for a photo with her track club. Less than a month before fleeing Ethiopia, she set a national record in the 400 meters. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
In her native Amharic, she said, “Please help me.”
‘You’ll never go anywhere’
In Addis Ababa, Haile Mengasha refused to join the nation’s ruling political coalition — the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) — and said he was detained for a week in 2012. His interrogators repeatedly struck him in the head and held a flame to his feet. It took 11/2 years to raise enough money, but he finally was able to fly to the United States for a half-marathon with no intentions of returning home. The 25-year-old now works in a Washington liquor store and runs when his aching back allows. Mengasha said many days are “dark” and his future uncertain, but that it beats the alternative.
“I’d rather commit suicide in America than return to Ethiopia,” he said.
Lire smiles as she unpacks groceries delivered to her by another Ethiopian runner in Washington. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
Others share similar stories. Authorities accused them of spreading propaganda or conspiring against the EPRDF. Most of the runners now living in Washington say they were never politically active back in Ethiopia. They simply refused to join the EPRDF. In some cases, their biggest offense was having relatives who refused to join.
“I told them I don’t support any other government. I just wanted to live by myself,” said one runner who was imprisoned for a week in 2010. “I didn’t have any politics.”
Once detained, most were beaten for days on end. For Tesfaye Dube, it was 10.
“They were coming every single day, beating me, saying, ‘We know what you are doing. You are sabotaging, you’re helping the opposition parties. You have to stop doing that or we’ll kill you,’” Dube recalled.
Genet Lire stretches before training on the track at Sidwell Friends. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
For Taddase Hailu, it was seven.
“In the morning, they’d come to take me to a dark place to beat me,” he said. “I’m never sure I’d live the next day.”
Hailu suffered a stab wound in his lower back, was beaten with a baton and kicked with heavy boots. Worst of all, they targeted his back and Achilles’, which two years later still prevents him from running at peak form.
“They told me, ‘If you can’t run, you’ll never go anywhere,’ ” he said.
Most detainments lasted only a few days or weeks. There were never criminal charges, no due process, attorneys or visitors. Often families were unaware their loved ones had even been imprisoned at all.
Many of the Ethiopian runners belong to the Oromo ethnic group, which accounts for more than one-third of the country’s population, according to the most recent census, making it by far the most populous ethnic group. “Oromo is no good to them,” explained one runner, who was detained three times but never faced charges.
Geent Lire recently had to leave a room she was renting because she couldn’t afford the $400 monthly fee. She’s temporarily living on a pullout sofa in the apartment of her imigration lawyer. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
Oromos hold few positions of power in Ethiopia, and the EPRDF has governed the nation for morethan two decades. In May, Ethiopia held its most recent national election, and the EPRDF and its allies swept every one of the 547 parliamentary seats.
“Most of the stories you hear now out of Ethiopia are about this sort of economic growth and development happening,” said Felix Horne, a researcher with the Human Rights Watch, the international watchdog and advocacy group. “But there are real stories about people who aren’t part of that success, who question the government and suffer pain and torture because of it.”
A new, and different, home
Lire left the airport with a sympathetic man, who happened to be from Botswana, and began trying to navigate her new life. She was quickly connected with some fellow Ethiopians, nonprofit organizations and a church that offered help.
Ethiopian runner Genet Lire fingers a scar left from a spear thrown by a policeman who had come to arrest her father when she was 8 years-old. Lire did not see a doctor after being hit, but was treated by her mom with herbal medicines. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
For Lire, Washington was nothing like her home, a rural farming community outside a city called Hosaena where her father grew rice and beans. He was part of an opposition party called the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Coalition and faced overt pressure and persecution for years.
Lire remembers one of the first times authorities came for her father. She was just 8, and the entire family was fleeing theirhome on foot. She sprinted, trying to keep up with her father, and remembers a sudden burst of pain shooting through her body. A spear barely missed her father but struck Lire in the right arm, where a decade later she still bears a scar the size of a tennis ball. She tumbled and became entangled in barbed wire, the metal spikes tearing into her scalp. Her father was carrying Lire’s 3-month-old brother when he tripped and fell. The baby was crushed and died. Lire’s father was taken into custody. He was released after one week but detained many more times in the ensuing years.
Genet Lire filed for asylum six months ago and is still waiting for a response. The process can take months, sometimes more than a year. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
That was around the time Lire started running. Always barefoot, she sprinted everywhere — to school, for chores, around the fields near her home. She won early races wearing flats and a dress and began catching the eyes of local running clubs.
Her running career began garnering attention, and last June, despite being younger than others in the starting blocks, Lire set a national record, running the 400 meters in 51.44 seconds. Her track career was taking off just as she was approaching voting age in Ethiopia. Because she would turn 18 before the national election, she’d been feeling pressure for several months to join the EPRDF. Just like her father, she refused.
“The party is not for the people,” she said.
About three dozen Ethiopian runners have congregated in the Washington area, many in just the past three years. Many ask that their full names not be used, fearful that their families in Ethiopia would face retribution. Here, EB runs in Rock Creek Park. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
She and her family decided that she’d flee Ethiopia at the first opportunity. She won $250 in prize money last May competing at the African Youth Games in Botswana, and she spent half of it on a camera, intent on capturing every facet of her life in Ethiopia. “My history,” she calls it.
Lire didn’t have much time. Last June, just two weeks before the junior world championships in Oregon, she was detained. She recalls a small room, packed with too many people to count — too crowded for everyone to lie down at the same time. Even as plain-clothes security officers made threats about her running career, she knew she was given preferential treatment because of her potential. She was allowed to train in the mornings but was locked up each night, never certain what the next day held, when she’d see her family again or whether she’d be allowed to compete.
Of the Ethiopian runners living in Washington, The Ethipian runners living in Washington have varying skill levels but most are long-distance specialists and have competed in marathons around the world. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
Lire made no promises and refused to pledge loyalty to any political party. After 10 days, she was finally released. Three days later, she said goodbye to her family, stuffed her photo album in the red backpack and boarded a plane for the United States.
‘Still happening in my mind’
The transition is never easy. Arriving in the United States might mitigate some fears, but many other issues quickly surface: a complicated legal system, housing, employment, separation from loved ones. It’s no wonder some runners say they dream of being back home.
“My heart is still always with my family,” said Hussen Betusa, 37, who left his wife in Ethiopia after authorities there detained him for 15 days in 2012. “I’d love to go back, but I cannot. They’d kill me.”
After leaving Ethiopia, EB received regular reports from back home that authorities were looking for him and were regularly harassing his family. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
The transplanted Ethiopian runners abscond to the United States for safety more than opportunity. When they arrive, many struggle to assimilate, often navigating a legal maze to seek asylum as they desperately search for day-to-day normalcy.
EB is one of several runners who’s fearful his family will face retribution if he revealed his full name. The 35-year-old was an accomplished runner who raced in the United States, Europe, plus all over Africa. He’d posted impressive wins over competitive fields and cracked 2:15 on his best marathon days. In 2013, EB had just finished a training run in Addis Ababa when he was stopped and beaten on the street. He went to a police station to file a complaint and that’s when he was arrested. He was detained for 10 days — hitting, slapping, yelling.
“The memories — it’s still happening in my mind,” he said.
EB was released and felt he had no choice: He had to leave Addis Ababa as quickly as possible. “If I stay there, maybe I don’t live much longer,” he said.
So he moved to the United States in the summer of 2013 and slowly started adjusting to his new life. He even entered — and won — an East Coast marathon later that year.
But EB felt like he was living in two places: his body in Washington, his heart and mind some 7,100 miles away. He received reports from back home that authorities were looking for him and were regularly harassing his family. They’d visit his younger sister at school, asking, Where is your brother? Are you talking to him? What is he doing?
This 31-year-old marathoner left his oldest child and wife in Ethiopia when he first fled and was able to bring them to the U.S. one year later. ‘I get here, and everything is different. It’s not like what I wished in my mind,’ he said. ‘I thought it’d change my life. It’s not happening. The opportunity is not like that.’ Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
In early 2014, he learned that his younger sister had hanged herself, and he blamed the political tormenters for her death. He also blamed himself. “If I was just man enough to face that,” he said, “my sister would still be alive. It was because of me being here.”
He stopped running. He stopped doing much of anything. EB felt hopeless and spent his days contemplating suicide.
EB met with psychologist Sheetal Patel, who specializes in working with torture survivors. He was barely a shadow then. Patel saw a man who wasn’t living and a runner who wasn’t running.
“There were just so many barriers,” Patel said. “He’d said he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t run. He could barely breathe.”
While the trauma is very real and still very present, Patel said some of EB’s wounds were somatic — his quiet voice became almost muted, the words unable to pass through his throat. Slowly, Patel and the physician Sugarman worked with him, encouraging him to talk, to open up, to lace up his running shoes. Sugarman invited him in January to join her running group for a five-kilometer fun run. And then he did 10k, followed by a half-marathon.
An Ethiopian marathoner helps his oldest child learn with his reading. The child, who spoke no English when he arrived, is now the most fluent in his family. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
It’s a slow, difficult process, EB said. He learned long ago something every good marathon runner must accept: there are points along the course where the pain seems unbearable, where every step feels like it’s surely the last. A marathon is about surviving, enduring agony and somehow finding the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“Even if there’s pain, you learn to keep going,” EB said.
Saying goodbye to family is perhaps the toughest part for the Ethiopians runners. Many were married back home, some had children. One runner, a 31-year-old marathoner, for example, left behind a wife and 16-month-old son.
“I get here, and everything is different. It’s not like what I wished in my mind,” he said. “I thought it’d change my life. It’s not happening. The opportunity is not like that.”
As Ethiopian runners in D.C. learned, even after filing for asylum, a person must wait 150 days before applying for employment in the United States. That amounts to five months of scrounging for food and shelter. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
The distance from his family resulted in depression. He struggled finding work and steady housing. Like many of the runners, he found some assistance from a nonprofit called Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), which provides transitional housing, legal assistance, health services, counseling and job placement. The organization serves over 300 survivors annually, about 80 percent of whom are Ethiopian.
“Some people are literally coming to us straight from the shelter or from the street,” said Gizachew Emiru, TASSC’s executive director. “When they come, most of them come with just the clothes they’re wearing. So when they get here, they’re desperate for everything.”
Even after filing for asylum, a person must wait 150 days before applying for employment in the United States. That amounts to five months of scrounging for food, shelter and under-the-table work. The 31-year-old runner, who had competed in Poland, Germany, Austria and Greece, arrived here in 2010 and cleaned houses and worked in hotels.
His asylum was eventually granted, he was permitted to work legally and after three years apart, his family was allowed to join him in the United States. He’s now a line cook at a Marriott hotel and runs nearly six miles to and from his job each day. That 16-month-old baby is now 5 years old and last month attended his first day of kindergarten.
The path ahead
On a recent warm summer morning, Lire, EB and several other Ethiopian runners gathered in Northwest Washington for a short training session behind Coolidge High School. The Black Lion Athletics Club meets several times a week. Founded by Alan Parra, a local immigration attorney who has represented several of the runners, it operates on a shoestring budget and has become a refuge and meeting place for many of the transplanted Ethiopians.
Their coach stood inside the track with a stopwatch and after just a couple of laps, most of the seasoned runners broke into a sweat. As the others slowed, EB kept moving around the track, his gait smooth, graceful and long. He seemed to be smiling, too, looking every bit like a man who could run forever.
He still speaks just a half-notch above a whisper and is still worried about the harassment his family faces back home. But he’s running again and even has plans to compete in a marathon next spring, which would be his first in more than two years.
“Now I am doing okay,” he said.
Her hair tied in a ponytail, Lire was bent at the waist with hands on her knees as she looked down on her shadow and caught her breath. The sweat made the scar on her arm glisten under the sun.
She is now 18 and still adjusting to her new life. Those early days were difficult. Lire bounced among Ethiopian families and even spent a couple of nights sleeping outdoors. She recently had to leave a room she was renting because she couldn’t afford the $400 monthly fee. She’s now temporarily living with Parra, who’s handling her case, sleeping on a pullout sofa in his one-bedroom apartment.
Lire filed for asylum six months ago and is still waiting for a response. The process can take months, sometimes more than a year. Since 2010 the United States has granted asylum status to at least 8,500 immigrants each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. An average of 388 asylum cases were granted from Ethiopia each year, second only to China.
Lire is slowly piecing together her new life. She’s much younger than many of the other relocated torture survivors, so she has few friends here. She misses her family and tears up flipping through her photo album, her “history.” Lire is learning English by watching YouTube videos and listening to Christian radio. Back in Ethiopia, she’d finished the equivalent of the 10th grade, and Parra is trying to place her in school here. He hopes she might soon be able to run track in college, and beyond that, who knows?
“My goal is Olympics,” she said.
Many of the Ethiopian runners circling the Coolidge track have a similar dream — if not Lire’s talent and potential — but no country to represent. The International Association of Athletics Federation, the governing body for track and field, requires athletes to be citizens of a country in order to represent it in competition. If the athlete changes citizenship, there’s typically a one-year waiting period. The runners who’ve been granted asylum fall into a gray area and must wait for five years before they can apply for U.S. citizenship, a lifetime for an elite athlete.
For now, Lire continues training, her immediate and long-term future equally uncertain. She said she’s both grateful and sad to be here. She tries to chat on the telephone with her family once every couple of weeks but doesn’t know when — or if — she’ll see them again. For now, Lire figures, the best she can do is honor their wishes and keep running as fast as she can.