Lake Qooqa as a Narrative: Finding Meanings in Social Memory

Lake Qooqa as a Narrative: Finding Meanings in Social Memory (A Narrative Inquiry)

By Assefa Tefera Dibaba
Department of Oromo Language, Literature, and Folklore, College of Humanities, Language Studies, Journalism, and Communication, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa 1176, Ethiopia

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Academic Editor: Poul Holm

Humanities 202110(2), 77; (registering DOI)

Received: 25 February 2021 / Revised: 21 April 2021 / Accepted: 24 April 2021 / Published: 18 May 2021

(This article belongs to the Special Issue Social Memory: The Poetics and Politics of Remembering and Forgetting)


Lake Qooqa in Oromia/Ethiopia started out as a man-made lake back in the 1960s, formed by the damming of the Awash River and other rivers for a practical function, i.e., for hydroelectric power. The lake flooded over the surrounding picturesque landscape, shattered sacred sites and the livelihoods of the Siiba Oromo, and damaged the ecosystem in the area, which was later resuscitated to have an aesthetic function for tourists. Available sources showed that people used the lake for irrigation, washing, fishing, and drinking, while tanneries, flower farms, and manufacturing facilities for soap and plastic products were set up along the banks without enough environmental impact assessment and virtually with no regulations on how to get rid of their effluents, which contained dangerous chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, lead, and cadmium, giving the lake a blue and green color locally called bulee; hence, the name the “Green Lake”. In the present study, following a string of “narrative turns” in other disciplinary fields of humanities and social sciences (folklore, history, and anthropology), I use social memory and life hi/story narratives from Amudde, Arsi, Oromia/Ethiopia, to consider a few methodological and theoretical questions of folkloric and ecological nature in doing a narrative study: What is social memory? What does social memory reveal about the people and the environment in which they live? Is a personal narrative story folklore? Where do stories come from? What should the researcher do with the stories s/he collected? Hence, this study aims to tackle two objectives: first, using social memory data as a means to connect social identity and historical memory set in a social context in which people shape their group identity and debate conflicting views of the past, I explore the Green Lake as a narrative, which is, in its current situation, a prototypical image of degradation and anthropogenic impacts, and trace trajectories and meanings of social memory about the shared past, i.e., the historical grief of loss that people in the study area carry in their memory pool. Second, toward this end, I use people’s stories from the research site, particularly Amina’s story about the loss of seven members of her family from complications related to drinking the polluted water, as evidence to show, sharing Sandra Dolby Stahl’s claim, that the narrative of personal experience belongs in folklore studies to the established genre of the family story.
bishaaniifi haati xuurii malee xurii hin qaban.
there is nothing dirt about water and mother but guilt (when gone).
 Oromo proverb. Amudde

1. Introduction

The purpose of the present study is to explore contested social memory narratives about the unsettled human–ecology relationship in Amudde, using “narrative” methods of “temporality”, “sociality”, and “place” (Connelly and Clandinin 1990). People’s narrated life experience directs attention toward the past, present, and future (temporality) of places, events, and things in the area of study (place), which affects the personal and social conditions of the participants understood in terms of cultural, institutional, social, and linguistic narratives. A narrative approach “is closely linked to life history, because it involves telling stories, recounting—accounting for—how individuals make sense of events and actions in their lives with themselves as the agents of their lives” (McAlpine 2016).
In the present study, following a string of “narrative turns” in other fields of folkloric/literary studies, ethnoecology, environmental history, and anthropology, I use “social memory” and “life hi/story narratives” from Amudde, Arsi, Oromia/Ethiopia, to trigger a few rather broad methodological and theoretical questions of a folkloric and ecological nature: What is a social memory narrative? What does a social memory reveal about the people and the environment in which they live? Is a personal narrative story folklore? Where do stories come from? What should the researcher do with the stories s/he collected?
Thus, focusing on the Amudde people’s narrative of the Qooqa Lake and using social memory data from the area, this research project deals with issues of the politics of resources and trajectories of lives and local knowledge/poetics about social–ecological systems in the study area. Among the myriad of other cycles of chaos and renewals in social–ecological systems and problems facing Oromia and its people to date, the political paralysis, economic inequality, and cultural cultural and social injustices, while inseparably interlinked, exacerbated the “wicked problem”, namely, the social–ecological crises (for example, the case of the Qooqa Lake), which largely stems, as will be discussed shortly, from the denial of agency and humanity to the vast poor and resilient struggling segments of the society. While African ruling elites, for the most part, are the major players and surrogates of Western-led environmental and economic policies, this elemental human and ecological dimension has not received sufficient academic attention yet.
By linking the two dimensions of the stated problem, in this project, using the social memory and narrative inquiry method, I gathered evidence from across interdisciplinary fields of ecological humanities, folklore, and social sciences and from the social memory of people in Amudde in January, March, and April 2020 through interviews and observations to determine,
  1. how local institutions, ecological knowledge, and indigenous practices work with the mainstream environmental conservation strategies to enhance cultural resilience and what strategies are socially and culturally acceptable;
  2. what conflicting views and contested narratives are carried in the people’s social memory;
  3. what scientific conservation plans and local water harvesting methods are used; and
  4. what strategies the people use to recount the humanitarian and ecological crisis in the area and to envision the prospect of ethnoecological approach to solve the problem.

1.1. Background

When social capital is weakened, diversity is disregarded, and the local people are not consulted in decision making about their lives and the environment in which they live, governance is dysfunctional and resentment and fierce resistance become obvious (Krasny and Tidball 2015). Currently, the Oromo are in some debate about what constitutes the human good when things fall apart and how to endure life in adverse conditions as the socio-political and ecological crisis is unfolding in Ethiopia.

1.1.1. The Oromo People and Oromia

The Oromo are the most populous single ethno-nation in Northeast Africa, and they constitute the larger portion of the inhabitants of Ethiopia (Central Statistical Agency 2010). They speak Afaan Oromoo (Oromo Language), a Cushitic branch, which is spoken in Ethiopia and Kenya and is the fourth most widely spoken language in Africa after Arabic, Swahili, and Hausa (Lodhi 1993). Until they were colonized by Abyssinia, another African nation, with the help of the European colonial powers of the day, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (1870–1900), the Oromo developed their own socio-political and cultural system called the Gadaa system, a uniquely democratic institution of paramount human and ecological significance (Luling 1965Harris 1884Hassen 1992). To find out how the local ecological knowledge and local institutions address the major challenges of eco-colonialism (Cox and Elmqvist 1997) in Oromia, which has imposed immense human dislocation, environmental degradation, violations of land property rights (land grab) and equity, and compensational injustices, the life histories of the people are a reliable source (Hassen 1992Jalata 2012Jackson 2002Gedicks 1993). The case of the historical forceful eviction of Siiba, the Jiille branch of Tulama Oromo, in the previous Qooqa plain, is no exception. In this study, the life experience narratives of informants and social memory from Amudde, East Arsi, Oromia, and Amina’s story in particular, are to be analyzed from the people’s perspective. In so doing, the end goal of this research, in the long-run, is to seek out ways in the local culture to support the involvement/empowerment of the public through their active participation in community decision making about social–ecological services (sound human–environment relationships) and to work on better cultural ecology practices in the face of rapid socio-economic changes and ecological dynamism (Sheridan 2008).

1.1.2. The Research Setting

The environmental resources in Finfinne, the capital (Addis Ababa), and in its localities are threatened by severe pollution due to population growth, unplanned urbanization and less or no attention given to developing an ecocity, inconsiderate human (anthropogenic) activities, and incongruous industrial effluents and dry wastes that contaminate river waters (Qabbana River, the two Aqaqi Rivers, and Mojo River, among other tributaries of Hawas River) and lakes (Qooqa Lake and others) southeast of the capital (Kottak 1999). Since its foundation in 1887 by removing the Oromo natives of Galan, Yekka, and Gullalle of the Torban Oboo lineages, Finfinne (Addis Ababa) has grown from sparse settlements to an expansive and highly populated city to date, causing waterbodies and ecosystems southeast of its vicinity to suffer immeasurable crises. Its recent unplanned urban development and industrialization has caused considerable internal displacements and environmental degradation and, consequently, the encroachment has been met by furious protests over the last few years.

Lake Qooqa

The Aqaqi–Qooqa wetlands (Figure 1) are part of the Awash River catchment, about 30 miles southeast of Finfinne/Addis Ababa, the capital. The Qooqa reservoir catchment area is 1495 km², and originally it had an area of 12,068 km², but the catchment has suffered much erosion resulting in sediments in the reservoir (Ferezer Eshetu 2012). The fringe of the marsh has some tall sedge, grasses, and reeds, while the rest of the area is a farmland and grassland with a few scattered trees, mostly figs (Degefu et al. 2011a2011b). Studies show that the Qooqa Reservoir and other shallow water bodies are “of high ecological and socioeconomic importance”, and this importance has been “compromised by nutrient enrichment that resulted in turbid, algae-dominated waters associated with animal communities… the changes to aqua-system that lead to loss of biodiversity and pose a serious threat to public health” (Yeshiemebet 2016, citing Perrow et al. 1999).
Lake Qooqa
Figure 1. Qooqa Lake, southeast of Finfinne. Courtesy of
The Mojo River is another tributary of the Awash River with its own two tributaries, the Wadecha and Balbala. The river is also vital for numerous bird species. Birdlife International identified the Aqaaqi–Qooqa wetlands as a crucial staging ground for winter migratory bird species. According to laboratory analyses of toxic industrial chemicals in the river waters, and by available clinical data from people in the watershed, there is evidence that the Mojo River is one of the two most polluted rivers in Ethiopia. The rivers feed into the Qooqa Lake with their contamitants and wastes out of Finfinne, the capital.

The Pollution Problem

Ethiopia is considered the water tower of east Africa because of its great resource of surface and groundwater. However, in spite of its available water, the country is unable to provide access to clean water in either rural or urban areas. With the growth of unplanned urbanization and industrialization in the capital, Finfinee (Addis Ababa), humanity faces many “wicked problems”. Rural water pollution is one grave danger that necessitates a long-lasting solution and action. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.58 million people die every year from water-related diseases. In the Oromia Region, the under age five mortality rate is 193 per 1000.
In central Oromia, around the Qooqa Lake, Mojo River, and the Aqaqi River, pollution has been putting tremendous pressure on both social and natural capital. This includes solid and liquid wastes recklessly dumped in the rivers and streams. Solid wastes are not recycled. Studies show that the practice of recycling solid wastes such as composting and biomass is at its experimental stage in the country (Ademe and Alemayehu 2014). The liquid waste management is also at its rudimental stage, and there is no binding rule implemented for industries regarding how to dispose of their wastes without affecting the environment and the society (Yeshiemebet 2016).
According to available data, the crucial environmental problems within and around the capital are caused by human (anthropogenic) factors and poor industrial waste disposals, which include the following: car washing, garages, petrol stations, chemical factories, paint factories, tanneries, slaughterhouses, market centers, breweries, textile factories, hospitals, tire factories, thread and garment factories, oil mills, flour mills, steel factories, tobacco factories, and pharmaceutical factories. Furthermore, most houses (residential or business) have no connection to the municipal sewer line; the majority of industries are located in the capital, industries are established close to rivers and discharge wastes into the waterways, and the people have no awareness of sustainable waste management or education about waste reduction, recycling, composting, or energy generation. The majority of industries were planted without practical environmental enforcement before delivery of the land.
The major wastewaters that drain industrial disposals into the Qooqa reservoir include the Aqaqi River (great and little Aqaqi), the tributary of Awash River, Mojo River, which in turn takes the raw effluent directly from the Mojo mill factory and from the butter houses and poultry farms, and the Shoa and Ethio-tanneries, which discharge their effluent into Lake Qooqa (Yeshiemebet 2016; Fasil Degefu et al. 2013). Social memory narratives and personal experience stories about the social–ecological crisis caused by industrial wastes discharged into the rivers and lakes, particularly the Qooqa Lake, will be collected to determine the people’s resilient reintegration process (Norris et al. 2008).

1.2. Purpose

Research into the meanings of social memory and narratives that come from folkloric and ecocultural data about Lake Qooqa and other humanitarian and ecological crises in the area is thin on the ground. By applying folkloric, historical, and ethnoecological methods, the present study is hoped to have the potential to advance the frontier of knowledge in the field of social memory research by introducing interdisciplinary approaches to the “wicked problem”, namely, a recurring ecological crisis in Amudde, and in so doing, it lays a fertile ground for further research into indigenous practices used to balance human and ecological solidarity at risk. As part of the impact activities, in collaboration with local institutions, custodians, and environmental education workers, a narrative-based ecological study can engage individuals and families in awareness raising tasks and empower the community to become more resilient and restore healthy ecosystems (Mowo et al. 2011). Witnessing the interdisciplinary understanding of “oral history”, Della Pollock (2005) writes in Remembering, “the performance of oral history is itself a transformational process. At the very least, it translates subjectively remembered events into embodied memory acts, moving memory into re-membering” (p. 2). Thus, the lasting impact of the present study is hoped to be that local institutional custodians and environmental (education) agents will work jointly and act together to challenge the top-down policies that violate human rights to live in a safe environment and disregard the local institutions and community’s role in decision-making processes from the ground up (Ruíz-Mallén et al. 2012).

1.3. Objectives

Using the social memory and narrative inquiry method, the objective of this interdisciplinary research is to explore the politics of resources in the study area, to identify strategies used to recount the historical humanitarian and environmental crisis, to consider the parameters and limits of the cultural resilience of the people, and, in so doing, to envision a reconstructive and transformative outlook on social–ecological issues in Amudde. Thus, the basic assumption here is that the social memory narrative is informative about the historical grief of loss and the local ethnoecological knowledge that are understudied in Amudde and its surroundings, and it plays a significant role in sustaining indigenous social–ecological practices and informing policies.
Toward that end, the present study looks forward to a youth- and women-focused social–ecological skill learning (eco-literacy) based on the local ecological practices and environmental education to maintain a healthy human–nature nexus and to enhance ecocultural resilience (Rappaport 1971). I collected relevant data through interviews and observation in Amudde to analyze using cultural, folkloric, and historical trend analyses. Examining closely the belief system of the people was helpful to find out the underlying values of the culture, uncertainties, fears, ambitions, taboos, and morals that constitute an ethical human–nature nexus. Studies show that the performances of rituals, personal life histories, festivals, and coronation of sacred trees/sites have considerable effects on environmental attitudes and can play a major role in revitalizing the ecological practices changed over time (Gumo et al. 2012Ingold 2003).

1.4. Rationale

My interest in the present research and collecting available relevant documents about the Qooqa-Lake-related human and environmental crisis in Amudde started five years ago, when I was attending “Civic Ecology” courses at Cornell University, NY, after my PhD in Folklore and Anthropology from Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. It was at that time that I encountered the Al Jazeera BBC Documentary titled “People and Power/The Price of Development”, based on Amina’s narrative from Amudde, Arsi, about the tragic death of seven members of her family due to the Qooqa Lake water-pollution-related complications. Two major reasons make the current study compelling: first, the magnitude of human and environmental damages that people in the study area have suffered over the last sixty years, and second, the lack of studies conducted with significant paid attention to the problem from the people’s perspective using the social memory method and the people’s life experience narratives by focusing on indigenous ecological practices in the area.

1.5. Organization of the Study

This paper is organized into five sections. The first section deals with the objectives, purpose, and background of the study and a brief history of the Oromo people. In the second section, a review of literature on the social memory and narrative method and religious and socio-cultural pressures that led to the erosion of local knowledge and contamination of the lake is presented. Section three discusses discourses on the social memory method, followed by section four, where I interpretatively explore empirical examples of social memory narratives built around Lake Qooqa: its use, perceptions about the use, i.e., subjective perceptions of the reality (reality as witnessed) and their objective representations (reality as objectively practiced and described), and implications of the use as recounted by the people in Amudde (reflexivity) through interviews, group discussions, and observations of reality as agreed upon (intersubjective dimension). Social memory, personal stories, and their narrative repertoires are reconstructed, analyzed, and relocated by means of the contextualization of the stories within the broader meta-narrative of Oromo (macro-)history. Section five concludes that beyond the knowledge to be obtained from a modest contribution made by the present research into meanings of social memory, from related future research into ecological crisis and indigenous practices from the people’s perspective/s, it is hoped, some societally important and positive outcomes can be anticipated.

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