Oromummaa and Evangelical Christianity in Oromia: A Rejoinder - Etana Habte

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Oromummaa and Evangelical Christianity in Oromia: A Rejoinder

Etana Habte

 This brief account is a rejoinder to Birhanu M Lenjiso’s “Protestanitization and Deethnicization of the Oromo. Initially authored in 2012, the piece was posted on the author’s Facebook Timeline on Sunday June 11, 2017. After it was posted in 2012, Birhanu claims, he “...received a lot of unpleasant comments” from readers. And these comments, according to Birhanu, were “rudimentary” emanating from “prejudice” and are levelled against his post by “…people from this particular [protestant] sect,” a reference to Oromo evangelical Christians. But he does not give any reason what necessitated reposting on Sunday a five years old piece again. 

I presume that it is posted again because of a video featuring a certain Surafel Demisse performing miracle healing to a woman while blurting out anti-Irreechaa statements. Surafel’s video went viral on social media after June 06, 2017 and received sharp criticisms and denunciations. Surafel deserves all forms of criticisms for his profound ignorance, which includes a question during the ministry, “…what is Irreecha?” I have made my own position clear regarding Surafel’s offensive remarks in a posting dated June 06, 2017. I rejected the minister as irresponsible and stated my hope that he will take personal responsibility for what he did against Irreecha in public —and by extension, against the Oromo public. At this time in history, only less than a year since the 2016 Irreecha festival where more than 600 Oromo lives were lost on a day viewed as an unmistakable expression of Oromo national unity, any act that denigrates Irreecha, in my view, is tantamount to opposing the very essence of the Oromo national struggle and taking a side in support of its historical and current enemies. 

In response to a public outburst on social media, Surafel Demisse reportedly removed from his Presence TV website the video that outraged the Oromo social media public. The reaction is, however, not limited to Surafel blurting nonsense. Social media campaign against him took a very unwise turn to extrapolating Surafel’s offense to all services in all evangelical churches and generalising his ill-advised remarks at his healing program to similar Christian institutions. Some seized the opportunity to cast evangelical services as a project driven by deep-seated prejudice against Oromo national identity (Oromummaa/Oromoness). I believe this kind of extrapolation and projection is without merit. The vast majority of evangelical churches are communities of believers and Christian services are genuine rituals of worship designed to have communion with the divine. I reject the effort to reduce a specific community of believers to a bunch of infiltrators whose secret mission is diluting Oromo culture and identity.  

This said it is imperative to reflect on Birhanu’s post where I was tagged on Facebook along with 13 other people. Birhanu’s piece starts with description of the Oromo as Ethiopia’s numerical majority presenting the nation as “…an amazingly unified group with strong ethno-nationalism based on one culture … one language…and one religion.” It notes that the Oromo nation and Oromummaa survived Ethiopia’s policy of assimilation whose purpose was to create a single dominant cultural core, “safeguard[ing] its major culture, belief and language.”Although under continuous attacks,” Birhanu argues, “the Oromo still practice Gadaa, Waqqefaana [Waaqeffannaa], Ireecha [Irreecha], Boranticha [Booranticha] and many other rituals.” Accordingly, gadaa is for the Oromo nation “…a religion…polity” and the best symbolization of Oromummaa. Birhanu contends that evangelical Christianity has now spread all over Oromia and its converts “…are busy identifying themselves…” with evangelical Christianity than Oromummaa. “I lost many friends,” Birhanu laments, “whose languages were changed automatically and start [sic] to interact on the bases of the new identity, their common church than common culture…” 

He shared with us his experiences as a university student and argued that evangelical Christianity “is constructing itself by deconstructing the ethnic symbols of the Oromo society,” a perception he linked to his discernment that the evangelical Oromo converts have been “ashamed of their culture and cultural symbols … .” More interestingly, Birhanu states that he wished to have known how other religions that had centuries of interaction with the Oromo, i.e. Islam and Waaqeffannaa, might have treated Oromo cultural values. However, “[r]eligion cannot speak,” Birhanu regrets, apparently unaware of the voluminous literature speaking to his plea.  

Finally, Birhanu’s anecdotal piece asserts that evangelical Christianity “is smoothly constructing itself in Oromia in particular and Ethiopia in general…” and “by deconstructing the ethnic symbols of the Oromo society,” at that. Birhanu’s parody quickly concluded that evangelical Christianity has made “the Oromo people ashamed of their culture and cultural symbols,” and Oromo evangelical Christians are themselves “…far from stopping belittling the Oromo people and their culture.” Birhanu’s astonishing skit ends with two questions, “…is that not possible to be a protestant [and] being an Oromo?” “Does becoming a protestant or Protestantism necessarily incompatible with being an Oromo?”

At first sight, more than anything else in Birhanu’s parody, I found these questions quite intriguing because I saw them as a starting point to genuine contributions to healthy debate on religious diversity. But dealing with them may not be as easy as they seem because evangelical Christianity has a long history among the Oromo and other peoples of Ethiopia. Yet, we may not be able to understand the relations between evangelical Christianity and Oromummaa in isolation from Ethiopia’s historical experiences, notably, and, as Birhanu noted, imperial Ethiopia’s attempt at assimilating Oromo identity into the Habesha identity in the name of political integration and state building. All forms of major religions in Ethiopia—Christianity and Islam as well as indigenous belief systems—have shaped vital parts of the society. They invariably informed the value systems, culture, social organizations, even the means of survival and politics of diverse communities in Ethiopia. So is evangelical Christianity. They have all been contributing to shaping Oromummaa in their own ways; they are playing similar roles even today and will continue to do so.

In the last few decades, a few historical and religious studies have formed a cache of literature on their roles and significantly pushed the horizons of our knowledge. It is not my intention to rehearse the history of such complex and sophisticated interaction. Nor will I be tempted to prepare an outline of evangelical Christianity’s contributions to the Oromo nation. By design, it is not something a rejoinder like this can achieve. My intention is to give an elaborate response to Birhanu’s anecdotal piece by highlighting some of the major points of his argument. I argue that we cannot isolate evangelical Christianity from all other religions which the Oromo nation have long embraced and try to show the nature of interaction between—and the consequences of— evangelical Christianity and Oromummaa. If we seek dealing with it we try it in a serious scholarly venture that is able to effectively employ existing and fresh body of knowledge, rely on primary data drawn from at least some parts of Oromia and reams of archival collections available not only in Ethiopia but also in many parts of our world, compare them with circumstances with Ethiopia’s south and contextualise the analyses in continental scene. Serious analysis requires engaging the available literature. Anything less runs the risk of being too simplistic and reductionist. This tendency of argument-by-anecdotes is not just a vice of the past; it is indeed a plague of the present as well. 

The fact that the Oromo nation embraced both Christianity (various denominations) and Islam (different sects) is not the only kind of internal diversity we have among the Oromo. In rural Oromia, one can clearly observe various forms of social organisations, diverse historical and regional patterns. So are economic activities and the ecology. Looking at these realities and describing the strengths of narratives of Oromo nationalism drawn from the gadaa system, especially since the 1960s, and attempting to show the basic pillars of unity of the Oromo nation is a laudable effort. Presenting the Oromo as “…an amazingly unified group with strong ethno-nationalism based on one culture … one language…and one religion” is nothing more than seeing a mirage. It is as unrealistic as it is inexistent. Birhanu is not incorrect to state that “the Oromo still practice Waqqefaana [Waaqeffannaa].” In fact, Waaqeffannaa is resurgent in the oppressive environment wrought by the Ethiopian regime’s unwillingness to recognise its existence. It just belies reality and ignores the obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of the Oromo are adherents to Christianity and Islam. The basic challenge of Birhanu’s post starts from this very shaky premise.

A broader look at the history of evangelical Christianity among the Oromo shows considerable promotion of Afaan Oromoo (Gustave Aren, 1999: 211-217, 301-302, 328, 384-85), which, as Birhanu stated, imperial Ethiopia was resolute to destroy. The project of evangelization was largely Oromo-friendly and was committed to the upkeep and preservation of “the customs and the ethos of the Oromo people” (Ibid, 432, 440-441, 448-449). Oromo evangelical Christian proselytizers were “endowed with considerable mental gifts and possessed a real feeling for the Oromo language” (Ibid, 1978:383). Evangelical Christianity was to the Oromo an effective instrument of countering Amhara hegemony (Ibid, 427-29). It has opened up for the Oromo an enormous opportunity of education (S. Bergsma, 1932:274; G. Aren, 1999: 167; K. Boro, 2009:202), including Oromo girls (G. Aren, 1978: 217). Beginning with the early twentieth century this career had over the following decades proved to be a political eye-opener, creating a generation that confronted imperial Ethiopia with skills obtained in the course of evangelism. The political consciousness created in the process was local, but it played considerable role in the Oromo national struggle (Ø. Eide, 2000:205).

The Amhara attitude towards the Oromo subjects largely encouraged the process. The Amhara arrogantly looked down on the local Oromo ‘as backward, heathen, filthy, deceitful, lazyand evenstupid’ (G. Tareke, 1991:71). Stories of stereotyping were strengthened by various cultural and psychological barriers that divided the conquerorsfrom the conquered.This strain between local agents of the state (the Amhara functionaries and their Oromo allies) and the local Oromo subjects became solidified as the latter grew more conscious of and created awareness about their dignity through basic Biblical teaching that every human is equal in the eyes of God. Oromo evangelicals’ self-awareness or political consciousness was reinforced in the 1950s by persecution and mistreatments of their relatives, friends, church elders and pastors were treated in the hands of Amhara police officers and judges, and how the visitors themselves were ridiculed (K.Boro, 2009:149-216).

In the period after 1941 in particular, the relations between evangelical Christianity and the Oromo people involved the fashioning out conduits of resistance for the upkeep of the people’s ethno-cultural identity, the sharp opposite of what Birhanu claimed. Evangelical Christianity was instrumental in the production of intellectual elites who would eventually play key roles in the process and progress of Oromo nationalism. The presence of evangelical Christianity among the Oromo did not impede Oromo nationalism. In fact, it fostered it. The latest research on this subject shows the process of building evangelical Christianity among the Oromo “has largely fostered Oromo nationalism since the 1960s, providing it with political weapons to oppose the … Habesha hegemony. Without any doubt, the early work of Christian missionaries constitutes one of the … influences and references of Oromo ethno-nationalist rhetoric” (Osmond, 2012:195). And this is the main reason why many Ethiopianist authors bemoaned the growth of evangelical Christianity as having injected centrifugal forces into “the Ethiopian national unity” (Getachew et al, 1998). Contrary to the unfounded assertions, evangelical Christianity, both in the past and at the present, encouraged the Oromo to take pride in their ethno-cultural identity, fostered political consciousness, and equipped them morally to confront their oppressors. Protestant Christianity, as the very name indicates, is rooted in the tradition of protest against injustice, silencing of dissent and absolutist earthly authority. To suggest the opposite, as Birhanu does, is a clear misreading of history, both in general and in the Oromo case.   

To argue that Oromummaa itself is a thing that is unresponsive to internal dynamics and external interaction is a thought that fits into the straightjacket of essentialism or the very definition of primordialism.But this does not mean Oromo national identity is so mushy and malleable that takes any form with different religions. Oromummaa has elements that have remained strong against external forces of change. That is why we have a resurgent nation. A longer look at history of the evolution of Oromummaa suggests Oromo internal diversity and national identity (Oromummaa) can coexist. There have not been major and general fights between values of the gadaa system and major religions in Oromia. An observant eye discerns:  

The values and principles that produced Gada in a different era have peacefully interacted with Islam and Christianity for several centuries to date. Several elaborate mechanisms operated effectively to ensure that peace. There is every reason to presume that an approach to social and political organisation grounded in the wisdom and experience of an ancient philosophy represented in Oromummaa will continue to be compatible with both religious systems in this era as well. Events have demonstrated that the Oromo still have access to this set of principles through their shared language, history and culture and that it impacts on their thought and behaviour (B. Holcomb, 2004:159). 

Making use of three or four years of stay on a university campus as the sole evidentiary base to isolate evangelical Christianity from the broader contours of developments and portraying it as a religious category that has made “the Oromo people ashamed of their culture and cultural symbols,” is delusional at best and dangerous at worst. Targeting a religious community as a whole to assign culpability for cultural change has only had negative consequences for the whole in the past. It is the same in the present. Such a drastic conclusion as Birhanu’s should have come after years of serious study of the available literature, participant-observation, thorough analyses, and comparison with national and continental experiences. Anything less must be dismissed as pedestrian in observation and prosaic in expression.

I do not think there is a need to state the fact that countless Oromo evangelical Christians were active participants in the Oromo protests of 2014-16. After prevailing throughout central Oromia, the latest break out in November 2015, for example, quickly spread as far west as Oromia’s outer margins neighbouring with the Sudan, where many of those who sacrificed their lives were evangelical Christians. Whilst continued unabated in the west the protests swiftly engulfed the eastern Oromo provinces before it reached southern Oromia. In short, the protests engulfed nearly the entire Oromia region, in merely less than four weeks. This record does not suggest a century old career of evangelical Christianity as standing against Oromo cultural identity and political projects. Oromo converts do not seem to have been “…busy identifying themselves…” with evangelical Christianity than Oromummaa. Both the historical and current trends seem to sharply contradict the notion that Oromo converts “changed automatically and start to interact on the bases of the new identity, their common church than common culture…” They have been active in the promotion of their Oromummaa as they have their faith. 

The circumstances within Oromo churches throughout Oromia now indicate how important the evangelical churches are in the promotion of Oromo cultural values. Oromo cultural dresses, traditional songs and all sorts Oromo of cultural revivals are now taking over many Oromo churches, including in Finfinnee. In fact, one challenge of church leadership in the present setting is saving the spiritual institution from becoming full-fledged centres of cultural renaissance. To claim evangelical Christianity “is constructing itself by deconstructing the ethnic symbols of the Oromo society” ignores its relations to the Oromo cultural identity and its roles in the process of growth of Oromo national struggle. The past and the present of evangelicals in Oromia does not show profiles of Oromo youth “whose languages were changed automatically.” The truth is indeed the opposite. More to the point, it is possible to be an evangelical Oromo, nationalist. This is an inalterable fact, no matter how hard one tries to conjure up the demons of division to act out one’s preordained prejudices.

It is irrefutable history that Protestant churches built schools in peasant villages, taught peasant pupils and preached Bible lessons in Afaan Oromoo.  As students expressed a lack of interest in using Amharic, Amhara clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) on a number of occasions complained that the people were leaving the beautiful and ornate buildings of the EOC to go to scruffy grass huts in great numbers.  Because of evangelical Christianity’s growing influence among the mass of peasants, the imperial Ethiopian government, on a number occasions, resorted to all-out state campaigns to stop their rapid spread. Although Birhanu complains that Oromo evangelical Christians are “…far from stopping belittling the Oromo people and their culture,” the historical trajectory of the interaction between Oromo culture and the evangelical faith proves the opposite. Evangelical Christians not only challenged an oppressive imperial state, they became a threat to its survival. For evidence, ask the imperial regime that devised a policy of “closed areas” to the regions of Oromia that embraced Christianity and the military regime that hauled thousands of Oromo evangelical Christians into prison and closed down their churches accusing them of being agents of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) (Ø. Eide, 2000:175-229, 232-234).  

If evangelical Christianity fostered and helped growth of Oromo nationalism, Islam played a very similar role. However, no self-respecting scholar attempts to portray that such an interaction leaves both sides unaltered. A number of Oromo cultural symbols were negotiated and renegotiated in the course of the interaction with Islam and Christianity and vice versa. Evangelical Christianity is not different. But this does not mean that Oromo nationalism was created by Christianity and Islam. A wise historian observes:   

Oromo nationalism was not inspired by two monotheist religions, Christianity and Islam. This is mainly because Oromo nationalists are aware of the role … history and cultural heritage can play for the present generation and for generations to come. Politically speaking, the use of specific religious ideology is susceptible of dividing and excluding the Oromo who follow different religions. That is why nationalists tend to focus on what unites them than what divides them…However, Muslim Oromos, Christians and traditional Oromo religion believers have proved time and again that religious differences cannot prevent them from uniting on common goals. The Matcha-Tulama Association and the Oromo Liberation Front and many other nationalist movements which were created since the 1970s are not founded on religious agendas. Thus, they received support and sympathy from all Oromo groups regardless of their religious affiliations, Islam, Christianity or traditional believers (Waaqafataa) (A. Gnamo, 2012:204). 


It is no secret that the Oromo nation has historically embraced both Christianity and Islam. Both have left their mark on Oromo culture. To isolate evangelical Christianity and portray it as a destructive social force “which in the long run can … threaten…” Oromummaa and one that can impede Oromo cultural symbols is as unfounded as it unscrupulous. It is more so when we judge on the basis of a small circle of friends and a very small setting. Having based oneself on such small setting and asking if it is really possible to be evangelical Christian and Oromo at the same time might be genuine and a right question that needs answer. But having centred oneself on such small scenery and judging evangelical Christianity as a religion “constructing itself by deconstructing the ethnic symbols of the Oromo society,” is an invalid conclusion that doesn’t flow even from the anecdote that Birhanu used as his premise.

A convincing debate does not try to explain general trends with isolated anecdotes and mundane personal experiences. If we are to explain social transformations, in the final analysis, general trends should override anomalies and exceptions. The anecdotes presented in Birhanu’s post cannot survive a mere mention of, for instance, roles played by giant Oromo evangelical Christians whose dramatic historical role in the development of Afaan Oromoo literature and the progress of Oromo national liberation struggle remain irreplaceable. The list is long, but suffice it to mention here Aleqa Zeneb, an Oromo from Ifat, Shawa, Emperor Tewodros’ chronicler whose name remain inseparably linked to translation into Afaan Oromoo of the New Testament (1868), and the famous Onesimos Nesib (Hiikaa Awaajii), who, “[c]ompleting the work Zeneb started … translated the entire Bible into Oromo” (E. Gebissa, trans & ed, 2009:153). The case of Oromo Bible translators in general and Onesimos Nesib’s—and his assistant, Aster Ganno—in particular navigates far beyond their impact on evangelism. “Beyond his [Onesimos Nesib’s] obviously significant contribution to evangelistic work among the Western Oromo, Onesimos Nesib’s role in the development of Oromo written literature was immense” (Ibid). When they reached out to their people with Afaan Oromoo the Amhara clergy was furious, so much so that they labelled the book as “dangerous in the hands of the common [Oromo] man” (Ibid)

Similarly, Rev. Guddinaa Tumsaa, a charismatic church leader and a martyr for freedom and justice, is another example. For me and for millions, Rev. Guddinaa embodied the possibility of the compatibility between Oromummaa and evangelical Christianity. From the humble perspectives of lived reality, we are able to see the harmonious co-existence of both identities – without deconstruction of one or the other. On balance, as can be substantiated by contributions of seasoned scholars, evangelical Christianity has contributed to the reaffirmation of Oromummaa and the advancement of Oromo struggle for God-given rights and freedom. We would be self-respecting if we respect their gallant deeds.

Finally, Birhanu is perhaps provoked, as I stated at the beginning of this rejoinder, by a kind of a church service where Irreecha was negatively depicted. This is completely unacceptable. To lump together evangelical Christians who are genuine seekers of divine truth with religious imposters who parade themselves as miracle healers and label them as cultural iconoclasts and identity wreckers is equally unacceptable, especially when the superfluous commentary is cloaked in vacuous intellectual jargons.  

Regardless, it is possible to be Oromo, both individually and collectively, and evangelical Christian at the same time. There have been  millions of Oromos who were proud of their ethno-cultural identity throughout the presence in Oromia of evangelical Christianity for over a century. Yes, it is possible because we have in Oromia millions of Oromo youth who are proud evangelical Christians. Yes, it is possible, because Oromo evangelical Christians are struggling to achieve goals of Oromo national struggle. Yes, it is possible, because as many Oromo evangelical Christians were killed, wounded and jailed over the last two years fighting for the freedom of their land Oromia. Yes, it is possible, because as many Oromo evangelical Christians attended Irreecha festival in October 2016 and shared all of the costs it required them to pay, including their lives.   


June 17, 2017


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  • Muse

    He just did what his owners assigned to him, nothing more.

  • Sorsa

    I have not read Birhanu's articles. But from your desription and quotations he made the right observation.
    Hagemony is hagemoney. It doesn't matter whether it comes from evangilicals, islam or habeshas as they all flourished by destroying oromo culture and identity. None of them did any good for oromos since antiquity. Onesimos was a slave bought by Evagelists, but later used as "pastor" to ensalave and evangelize more oromos. There is nothing more to it.
    The myth of evangelists treated oromos better is joke.
    Even traditional Oromo songs and weddings are vorbidden by evangelists as insulting to their "gofta" while the white men's evangelical pastors can dance to rock and pop music!

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