Not much is known as to when the Oromo stopped using written language. But their oral tradition is known by scholars for its depth and breadth. Knowledge was passed orally to the young through consistent formal and informal education. Society was divided into peer groups. On this divisions, depend the nation’s political, social and economic activities. By law in all grades some one had something to learn. There was no branch of knowledge left out of the menu. For all there were traditional custodians in charge. After colonization the whole system was disrupted. Only informal transmission of that used to be, and knowledge of them was transmitted from parents to offspring. The first invader disrupted almost all Oromo had. He outlawed the Gadaa system which was a standard reference for all nationals in all their practices. All their symbols and sanctuaries were burned down. Patriotic leaders were wiped out. This article is stimulated by recent discussions about Oromiyaa education over the media. Its purpose is to bring to attention of all concerned the worrisome situation Oromo education finds itself today. And also to nudge educators if they could survey into traditional education and the education hurdles that Oromo children passed through from first occupation to this day and look for solution for the future.
The occupiers hammered into the minds of the people the invincibility of their force and unearthliness of their emperor. Children were brainwashed to be loyal to new rulers who are assumed to be next to only God. Traditional teaching was outlawed. Cultural and religious practices were condemned as satanic. All gatherings were declared conspiratorial. The symbols callee, caaccuu, kallacha, bokkuu and faajjii etc. went underground. What followed since was an era of confusion and ignorance, the Oromo dark ages. For the Habashaa it was their golden age.
Successor of the first colonizers had nothing to introduce in terms of modern education. Lately missionaries came and opened modern schools to train preachers fit for their own mission. Lessons were given in Afaan Oromoo until they were forbidden. Some used Oromo Bible and hymn which were later outlawed and burned. Mass meetings and all courts were not permitted to be conducted in other languages except Amharic. Public schools started to appear in the colonies during the Italian occupation. Habashaa commoners, up to recently use the Italian word for school, “scuola”, to distinguish it from traditional priests’ “tamari bet”. Italians disrupted the practice of primitive colonial system. They opened the way for vernaculars to be used for education and work.
After the Italians were gone the British helped establish a modern government bureaucracy. The bureaucracy needed very many learned persons to replace the expatriates and also run the nascent system. Schools were opened at best in provincial centers, and so can expect only those in the vicinity. Majority were left out. Though children of Habashaa and collaborators were the favorite many others also got the chance to be enrolled for it was urgent to overcome shortage of man power when the British go. Even then only few kids could come. School systems and the curriculum of education was copycat from Britain and reflected that need. English was emphasized in the curriculum, such that an eighth grade student could speak and writes English. Afaan Oromo was no more there. Educators and text books came from different countries, especially former British colonies.
Most students were children of dignitaries. The Emperor also ordered clan chiefs (baalabbat) to send their children to Finfinnee. It was meant to create new class out of an egalitarian society. A school known as Baalabbat School was exclusively opened for them in Gullallee. Students to initial grades in all schools were mostly teenagers. Speaking and writing Amharic was enough for a job but for foreign services modern schools make no difference for them. There are many church schools that qualify for that in Habashaa land. Therefore Habashaa children had more opportunity to be recruited to government offices.
From grade one Amharic and English were taught. All subjects except “morals” were given in English. Afaan Oromo was unthinkable. Without knowing any word of Amharic they were put in the same class with Amaara children whose mother tongue is Amharic. Therefore the competition was unbalanced. Orthodox Christian clergies used to teach Amharic and morals. Students from other religions and sects can choose not to attend “morals” but at the expense of forfeiting the grades, which can affect their ranking in class.
English was foreign for both colonizer and colonized. That is where Oromo students used to show their excellence. Priority for scholarship was given for Habashaa students despite others’ better grade points. Many took Habashaa names to dodge this. That was how some Oromo took names like Asbixee and Gonnixee seen today. Number of students started to exceed the empires bureaucracy demand for educated manpower. In the 60s the system changed to Amaaraanization from that of manpower development. The 8+4 school year became 6+2+4. 7th and 8th grades became junior secondary schools. In the new setup English as a subject was given from third grade onwards. All other subjects up to 6th grade started to be taught in Amharic. Oromo children were placed in the same class with Habashaa children without prior preparatory lessons in Amharic language. That gave the colonizers undeniable advantage over the colonies.
Starting from 7th grade all subjects were given in English while Amharic continued as a subject. Still Afaan Oromo was not envisaged. Because of the language Habashaa students were in a position to do better in elementary school. Oromo students pass by cramming like parrots without comprehending the gist of the subjects. From then on that became the way of learning because of deficiency in English. In general learning all subjects in English was difficult for all students. Teachers had to translate into Amharic what they are teaching. It is then that Ethiopian education system took the worst nosedive and started to rust. When older teachers started to retire those who were educated under this broken system came back to teach English and all subjects. There were also the irregulars known as “diggomaa” (support) taken without training from multitudes of twelfth grade failures. Most were poorly paid and so had no incentive to work hard.
With time, schools got more crowded because families started to see light through education tunnel. The practice was not more than thirty four students for one class room. But now it started to swell up to hundred if not more. In most cases makeshift structures like blocks of stone and logs are used for furniture. Teachers could not sift weak students from the strong and pay different attention where needed. Children of peasants had other ordeals. Most of them come from long distance and stay at school the whole day without food. They cannot afford enough school supplies and government does not help. Yet they are expected to cope with the haves under such gruesome circumstance. Problems like these are keeping majority Oromo youth out of school but authorities never considered them as problems to be alleviated.
During those times the privileged used to send their children to private and special public schools. Those have better facilities, sufficient teaching aids and qualified teachers. They can also maintain discipline and instill in students high class values. Government schools were it seems neglected in education and discipline purposely. Every thing was designed to assure the flow of constant working force for farming and intended industrial development. At the same time attention was given to make Amharic the sole language of such a force. Rulers never dreamt of upheaval in land holding system and in structure of society would come soon. But they are aware it may come in the distant future and hoped to thwart it before it happens. To execute this, a secret plan, known as “Sector Review” was prepared. But it leaked before it was officiated. It could have limited education of peasant children to literacy level. Furious protest by parents, teachers and students ignited from corner to corner and sounded the death knell of the monarchy.
The dictator that followed the emperor emphasized adult education and skill training for the peasantry. Literacy materials prepared in non Amharic languages in Amaara alphabet were never saw day light in most stations. Even if they learn, it would be of no benefit except for reading propaganda of the rulers. To have benefited fundamental change is required.
Once, Darg members who supposedly were political leaders of the empire refused to take action for literacy campaign to run in Afaan Oromo. Students who were sent for development campaign (Zamachaa) locked Afaan Oromo text and deserted their camps. The Governor of the area asked the touring Darg members to permit them to use the books. One of them replied “Geetaye polotikaa ayaannagrun” (Sir, do not involve us in politics). This exposed that their sole aim was Amaaraanization of the empire not entertaining competitors.
During the Darg the school system was the means to keep youth out of the streets. So there was no failing in class. Already unemployment has skyrocketed. Periodically “development” campaigns were organized in addition to military ones to keep them off streets. Children of officials and the privileged go to private schools or sent to socialist countries to prepare future leaders of the empire. Officially public education was free. But de facto parents were asked to contribute for several school activities. Over and above that they were expected to provide school supplies for their children, which were exorbitantly expensive. Therefore very few peasants could afford to send all their children to school. Sector Review could not have done more damage. To add insult to injury preparations had passed the planning stage to teach all subjects in Amharic at all levels including the university. That was one of the offensives aimed at Oromummaa. But it was dismissed with the Darg.
In 1991 several factors contributed to the overthrow of the Darg by rebels. One of the rebels was Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). To use and develop ones language and culture were among the demands Oromo struggled for very many years. It was a blood letting struggle. OLF with other rebels formed a transitional government. The language question was given priority and by it the transitional government adopted a new languages policy for education.
Initially English and vernaculars were to start in first grade. All subjects were to be taught in vernaculars in elementary schools. After that vernaculars would go as single subjects, while all subjects were to be given in English. The curriculum was drawn by central government and had uniformity for all states. Oromo, Sidamaa and Wala’ita were the first who came forward to implement it. After derailing the transitional arrangement the new rulers designated their puppets as regional (state) rulers. They are these rulers that became scapegoats for all the sinister machinations engineered by the so called federal government. It must be noted that each succeeding regime had made instrument of suppression more subtle than its predecessors.
Tenth grade has been a terminal from where the gifted and privileged are separated from majority downtrodden supposedly destined for vocational school. Without enough preparation this project is launched. Vocational schools require infrastructure commensurate with their mission. For the poorest country in the world to lay down infrastructure for such a venture will not be that easy. This has been seen from the previous ill equipped comprehensive schools. But, as a make-believe project it does not require availability of all that custom requires. The few training institution could not absorb more than probably 5% of tenth grade graduates. The remaining 95% has no where to go except back to the farm or militia. The few lucky would go to preparatory class. The mother country is an exception. Now it has several institutions and infrastructures it had never had before its force controlled the rich resources of the colonies.
By limiting high school to tenth grade Sector Review is kept alive. The Emperor’s plan, for releasing majority for menial labor is getting fulfilled. Now learning for majority Oromiyaans that go to school will be limited to tenth grade. That will allow them to read labels. It is a bonanza for land grabbers. They grabbed Oromo land at the cheapest price. They have ample idle Oromo labor with the cheapest wage in the world. Not only its coconspirators but the cartelist ruling party also shares the benefit of the cheap labor.
A safety valve is created to trickle down some gifted and lucky ones to pass through the education sieve. Yet, the background in knowledge of English remains as handicap in the next level as well. “Invite him so that he doesn’t hold grudge, push him that he doesn’t eat,” is an old Habashaa saying. People are complaining of “their” government’s unfairness. They say all states contribute to its running unfailingly. So expect fair treatment in getting access to all benefits it provides in ratio of their contribution. They also complain about lack of uniformity in introduction to English despite all appearing for the same matriculation. But what they did not know is that purposely government did not invest enough in English learning. Otherwise eight years of learning English as a subject would have been enough to prepare students for high school. Well trained instructors and sufficient teaching materials could have solved the problem.
The short coming is part of the bigger scheme that is aimed at keeping Oromiyaan children at bay and preparing them for servitude. To expect fairness from occupiers is naiveté. To expect the fake Oromiyaa administrators which are incarnated puppets to act is undermining the puppeteer’s grand plan. It was not the TPLF but Oscar Wilde in one of his essays that first said “There are many advantages in puppets. They never argue. They have no crude views about art. They have no private lives. … They are admirably docile, and have no personalities at all.”
These people cannot even choose the food they eat. They are daily under surveillance of “gimgamaa” (TPLF’s excuse for purging the “untrustworthy” in the name of performance evaluation). For this reason present deficiency in “federal” education system should not be blamed on them as if they were not animations. Education is the tool for those in power. They make it in a way that fits their outlook. As the maxim goes, “knowledge is power”. As a source of knowledge those in power cannot leave education uncontrolled. Therefore they will make it or break it as it fits them. In history all colonial education were geared towards results that contribute in sustaining the colonial system. Is there a reason for it to be otherwise with Ethiopia?
As long as one is dependent ones education is going to be held hostage by the colonizer. Even under the circumstance, pressure must be kept on by parents, students and teachers for more educational rights. This should never stop until better days come. It is only then that national aspirations are fully realized. Then, learning foreign language could continue in depth and with better quality depending on benefits they could generate. Science and mathematics are universal languages. So it needs more focus than every subject.
Oromo are people with proud history and tradition of pedagogy. But that was disrupted and access to new one is suppressed by the colonial regimes. To destroy tradition, culture and language further, Oromoo children were denied sufficient access to knowledge and when given little outlet they were subjected to unfair competition. Limiting the sphere of Oromo knowledge and their freedom of assembly and expression is not something causal but ingredient part of the colonial genetic makeup that has been running from beginning to this day. Oromiyaans will never stop demanding for better treatment and access to knowledge until they take their destiny into their own hands. The colonizers will continue designing school systems that put children of Oromiyaa at the tail of colonial order. Conspiracy to keep them in disarray and darkness is working towards that end. It is not with tears and lamentation that one breaks out from the siege but with sweat and blood. For Oromo nationalists that is not a separate episode but part of a package of their struggle. The struggle will certainly continue and come out victorious, however long time it may take and however much sacrifice it may require, until injustice and humiliation is brought to an end. Oromiya will have own education system in accordance with its national and international needs using pedagogic principles of its distant past.
Honor and glory for the fallen heroines and heroes; liberty equality and freedom for the living and nagaa and araaraa for the Ayyaanaa of our fore parents!
Ibsaa Guutama is a member of the generation that drew the first Political program of the OLF.