Oromo find their voice amid racial prejudice — in Minnesota and Ethiopia

By  Eamon Whalen, August 5, 2020

racial prejudice
Mahdi Moussa leads a march of the Oromo people, who have faced persecution in their native Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Moussa.

(Minnesota Reformer) — When Amina Dedefo was going through a rough time, like during final exams at Hamline University, she would turn to the song Jirra, by the Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa. 

“The song means we are here, we exist, we matter,” said Dedefo. “It reminded me that I have to keep going. I have to keep fighting because somebody is fighting for me.”

On June 29th, the 34-year-old Hundessa was murdered by gunmen in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia where he lived with his wife and two children, in what is widely believed to have been a politically motivated assassination. 

For weeks after, protests around the Twin Cities have been a mournful celebration of the artist and his political message of liberation of the Oromo people. Despite comprising the most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia, they have long been persecuted in Ethiopian society. Their language Afaan Oromo, along with other forms of cultural expression were banned until the early 1990s. For decades, to assert Oromo self-determination was grounds for government persecution, imprisonment and death. 

Because of her father’s political involvement, Dedefo’s family fled Ethiopia when she was 10 years old, as Oromo have done since the 1970s, many settling in the Twin Cities, which is home to the largest population of Oromo outside Ethiopia. 

Younger Minnesota Oromo have been mobilized this summer by the assassination of Hundessa and the police killing of George Floyd. They’ve married the tactics they’ve learned from Black Lives Matter to lead protests here of Oromo oppression back home, even as they confront prejudice on two fronts — both in the old country, and the new. 

“The common thread between them is simply that there is no respect for the sacredness of life,” said Abdulrahman Wako, who has been involved in organizing the local Oromo protests. At the first vigil on the day of Hundessa’s death, Wako encouraged the audience to connect their movement with Black Lives Matter.

Another Oromo youth organizer, Mahdi Moussa said they’ve borrowed chants, signs, organizational strategies and tactics like shutting down traffic on the freeway from their experience with Black Lives Matter. 

In recent years, they could turn to Hundessa’s music for solidarity. “Hachalu was a voice for the deliberately silenced,” said Dedefo. “A majority of Oromo people don’t have education or access to education. They’re not able to articulate their struggles, but he did it for them through his music.”

Hundessa’s lyrics are defiantly political, and his public criticism of the Ethiopian government — including an interview a week before his death with the Oromia Media Network —  are thought to have led to his killing.

Hundessa’s music served as the soundtrack to the Oromo-led social movement that defined the country’s politics from 2014 to 2018. Initially driven by opposition to state policy that would displace Oromo farmers from their land, the protests grew and culminated in the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the appointment of now-Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to finish out Desalegn’s remaining term. 

Though he was appointed, not elected, Ahmed was cautiously embraced by Oromos because his father was Oromo and Ahmed had promised to unite Ethiopia, empower Oromos and bring long-awaited democracy to the country. The historic nationwide elections, originally set for this month, have been indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hundessa’s killing has reignited protests across the Oromia region, and they’ve been met with brutal suppression by Ethiopian security forces. 

Amnesty International reports that at least 5,000 people have been arrested in the protests, including American citizen and former Minneapolis resident Micah Chiri, and several Oromo political opposition leaders including a former Minneapolis resident named Jawar Mohammed, founder of the Oromia Media Network who is considered to be a formidable future candidate for prime minister. 

Hundessa’s death reverberated far outside the borders of Ethiopia and has inspired solidarity demonstrations throughout the Oromo diaspora, most acutely in the Twin Cities.

racial prejudice
Oromo protesters call on the Ethiopian government to free Oromo political prisoners. Photo courtesy of Mahdi Moussa.

“We call Minnesota Little Oromia,” said Girma Hassen, the board chair of the Oromo Cultural Institute of Minnesota, which he helped found in 2013. State demographers estimate Minnesota is home to 10,000 Oromo people, but a 2016 survey conducted by the Oromo Cultural Institute and Wilder Research reports over 40,000 people. 

That same survey noted that the vast majority of Oromos in Minnesota feel culturally invisible, and that they are subsumed into the Somali community or broader Ethiopian community. 

Hundessa helped them seize their own identity. “Hachalu’s songs resonated in the soul of every Oromo person,” Hussen said. “That’s why we’re seeing this outcry.” 

At a recent barbecue and fundraiser for Hundessa’s family put on by the local chapter of the Oromo Youth Association, Hussen said Hachulu was particularly important for young people. “Hachalu made it cool to be Oromo and to be proud of it,” he said.“Especially for us in the diaspora, we don’t have the same connection to home.” 

Moussa said Hundessa was a unifying figure. “Hachalu bridged the gap between the younger people and the older generation,” 

Ayantu Ayana, an Oromo Ph.D. history student who lives in Los Angeles and is a member of the Oromo Advocacy Alliance, interviewed Hundessa for her research on historical preservation. She likened Hundessa to a living, breathing historical archive for a group of people whose cultural ways have been continually endangered.

“From the very beginning of the Ethiopian state-building process the Oromo people were deliberately left out of the state narratives. Our choice was either cultural elimination or assimilation,” said Ayana. “We don’t have a lot of institutions, and so he was our institution.” 

Hundessa was born and raised in the town of Ambo outside of Addis Ababa, and spent five years in prison for his activism as a young man, where he wrote many of his early songs. Some of his best known songs like Maalan Jira directly address the preservation of Oromo land and culture in the face of the central government’s program of land dispossession. 

Upon taking office, Ahmed, the prime minister, did make strides to live up to his promises of peace and justice. He ended the criminalization of opposition parties, released imprisoned journalists and activists and brokered a historic peace deal with neighboring country of Eritrea after decades of conflict. 

These achievements, particularly the deal with Eritrea, earned Ahmed the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. The same year the organization Reporters Without Borders moved Ethiopia up 40 spots on their World Press Freedom Index, the largest jump of any country at the time. 

Hassen helped organize Ahmed’s visit to Minneapolis in August 2018, when he spoke to an ecstatic crowd of thousands at the Target Center. “I had never seen such a unique moment in my life. Every Oromo in the state came out, but also Amharas and Tigrays,” said Hassen.

In the intervening years since he was appointed, however, Ahmed has turned his back on the movement that helped bring him to power, Oromo activists say.

“The Oromo people have been suffering for so long and here was a leader that said, ‘I will give you the change that you need,’” Dedefo said. 

For Moussa, the unity on display during Ahmed’s visit was fleeting. “I was so happy to see everyone had come together as one, but we got tricked,” he said. 

Before Hundessa’s death, there were warning signs about Ahmed. A report from Amnesty International earlier this year detailed callous human rights abuses by Ethiopian security forces, including extrajudicial executions and rape. 

For the Oromo youth in Minnesota, Hundessa’s death is an incalculable loss. But it comes at a moment that they feel more resolute than ever. Partly because the elders in the community are encouraging them to lead. 

“Our kids have a different perception of America than us. Physically we are here, but mentally, we are back home,” Hassen said. “These kids are born and raised here. They want to create a better country. As parents and elders, we need to support them,” he said. 

“Being Oromo is something I used to run away from, honestly,” Wako said. “But when I saw Oromo youth peacefully protesting against the Goliath that is the Ethiopian government, I felt closer to what my dad and grandfather had to go through,” he said.

Dedefo borrowed a line from Hundessa’s song Waa’ee Keenya to describe how she thinks of the role of her generation of the Oromo diaspora, especially in the light of such a profound loss to the Oromo movement.

Waa’ee keenya yoo Otto dhissan silaa nama hin dhiisu.” 

Or in English, “Even if we left our struggle, our struggle won’t leave us.” 

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