Globalizing Literary Study: Dialogues with the Oromo in Minneapolis

By: Steven W. Thomas

Do literature and art really matter? This is a question that gets raised from time to time, not always sincerely, and often by people who don't especially take literature seriously or by politicians and administrators who want to cut the budgets for public libraries or literature departments at universities, but I really believe it is a question that we literature teachers also ought to ask so that we remind ourselves why we do what we do. 

      Try to imagine if literature and art in your own language suddenly vanished. You could still buy books, listen to the radio, and go to the movies; entertainment was all around you, but none of it was in your language and none of it reflected who you are or what you aspire to become. That was the case for millions of Oromo people living in Ethiopia for almost a century until quite recently. In Ethiopia, the two Semitic ethnic groups-the Amhara and Tigray-have ruled with the support of aid and weapons from Europe and the United States since the building of the Suez Canal in 1869. To maintain their power and legitimate their rule, they have violently suppressed other ethnic groups, especially the Cushitic Oromo and Somali whose population actually outnumbers the Amhara and Tigray. Although the government has loosened restrictions in 1991, still today the Oromo lack access to the means of cultural production. Many Oromo have fled to the United States, Canada, Sweden, and elsewhere, and it may interest you to know that the largest population of Oromo outside of Ethiopia live in Minneapolis.

     Since coming to CSB/SJU last year, I have been working closely with young Oromo men and women who are torn between two cultural locations: America and Oromia. For the past year, I have helped edit a new on-line magazine of Oromo Arts in Disapora On October 25th, 2008, in Minneapolis, I participated in a fundraiser for the playwright and independent filmmaker Dhaba Wayessa. Several people and I gave short speeches celebrating and encouraging what Dhaba and I call the "Oromo Renaissance." My speech was the only one in English, as the others spoke primarily in Afan Oromo.

     All of the people in the audience are dedicated to the political liberation of the Oromo people, but some remain unconvinced about the power of art and remain uncertain about what their art should be. Consequently, my speech was not only celebratory but also analytical of their situation. My thesis is that Oromo literature ought to go global-a thesis I suspected that some in the audience would agree with but some would not.

The English Web has graciously offered to make a recording of my speech available. Click here for the sound file and click here for the Powerpoint slideshow that goes with it.

     As a brief postscript, as you listen to my argument for why Oromo culture should go global, it is worth considering that literature published in English has long ago been globalized alongside the economic and political power of Great Britain and the United States, but it is often difficult to persuade teachers of literature to recognize that fact. I could have been making the same argument to literature professors about how we teach culture as I made to the Oromo about how they make culture.