Tesfaye Gebreab: The man who created the first Oromo main character in the history of the vast Amharic literature
Author/Journalist Tesfaye Gebreab
By Hunde Dhugassa*
Many individuals, journalists, politicians, historians, academicians and leaders from Ethiopia and neighbouring countries, and from different corners of the world have written about the Oromo. This includes its history, politics, ability, value and nature. The time, objective, nature and fact differ from person to person. The objective of this brief note is not to give analysis on the subject matter, but rather to summarize an hour presentation of one of the most famous and controversial writers on the issue of the Oromo.
Any ordinary Oromo from Ethiopia can, without difficulty, name two important non-Oromo authors from its neighbours – who have had a positive contribution on the history and visibility of the Oromo nation: Professor Asmerom Legesse, and author/jounalist Tesfaye Gebreab. Both are Eritrean by birth, but hardly know the effort of one another until recently. The work of Professor Asmerom started almost half a century ago in the Borana region of Oromiya, while that of Tesfaye started after the fall of the Derg military junta. It is by chance that the professor started his most celebrated research on Gadaa democracy of the Oromo people, but Tesfaye’s historical and artistic contributionshave grown up in and with him in the beautiful city of Bishoftu.
Prof. Asmerom Legesse, Chairman & Research Director for the Citizens for Peace in Eritrea (CPE)
Asmarom Legesse is an anthropologist, Ph.D. Harvard, Emeritus Professor, formerly of Boston and Northwestern Universities, and Swarthmore College. He has conducted many years of field research among the Oromo in Ethiopia and Kenya. He is the author of several books, including, Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System. He also wrote Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society (1973). He is one of the few non-Oromo heroes of the Oromo people. We have dozens of articles, high-level speeches and even songs (listen to one below) to honour his outstanding contributions.
Professor Asmerom Legesse on the Oromo Gadaa System and Borana Calendar:
After three decades, a young enthusiastic writer Tesfaye Gebreab emerged with “Yeburqa Zimita,” a semi-historical novel surrounding the reflection and reaction of the Oromo people on the century-old marginalization, discrimination and suppression, which date back to the annexation of the Oromo land by King Minilik II in the late 1890’s with the advice and logistical support of the then European leaders. The book in general has resulted in at least three opinion groups as far as audiences are concerned in Ethiopia: the majority, which thinks he did what he had to do as a responsible author; the second group, which thinks the book is correct in all aspect, but fear the detailed revelation of the facts might hinder future and continued coexistence. There is also a minority third group, which think he is a destabilizing agent, commissioned by those who do not like the Ethiopian unity.
Tesfaye describes himself in almost all opportunities as “Ijollee Bishoftu,” literally to mean the Child of Bishoftu. An Eritrean by birth, but an Oromo by experience and attachment, Tesfaye has developed a strong sense or Oromo value. Bishoftu city, his birth place, is located 47km south of Finfinnee, the capital city of Oromiya. But he clearly underlines he is not a man to compromise his profession by any attachment or fear. He firmly believes his works are only the products of historical facts, observations of the ongoing Oromo people’s struggle, and channelling of these into his professional commitment and responsibility.
At an Oromo community event, organized in Harlem, The Netherlands, on 14th of July 2012, Tesfaye was invited to give a brief presentation on his works and his experiences on the Oromo issues. He had also answered several questions from the audience. He specifically started by asking, if anyone knows any Amharic literature that has an Oromo main character at its centre. After he had observed a complete silence in the room, he said none had done so – except his book, “Ye Burqa Zimita.” That could be one of the reasons that explain partly the enormous, but contradictory opinions with regards to the book. Even though many authors have tried to insert Oromo characters in their works, none has had the courage to put them at the helm of their efforts. Tesfaye admits that the time has also played a great role. He noted famous authors, including the works of Baalu Girma and Laureate Tsegaye Gebremedin. Baalu has named the most beautiful character with a typical Amharic name Lulit Tadesse at the centre of his book called “Ke Admas Bashager,” which he later revealed her with her real name, Chaltu Tolasa. Lulit’s self-description in the book points to the highly touching fact that, from the peer pressure, she thought her sensational beauty and glamour go only with the then kings’ language’s name Lulit, rather than Chaltu. That is why she calls herself Lulit hiding her identity instilled in Chaltu. Additionally, in his most read book, “Oromay”, Baalu Girma introduced another Oromo character called Tadese Qoricha. Oromay has unfortunately resulted in his murder by the Derg military junta. Laureate Tsegaye Gebremedin had also described the Oromo invisibly relating it to the Awash River in his work known by “Awash.” He looked talking to the river itself, but a closer look revealed that he was referring to the Oromo as a nation. Both Baalu and Laureate Tsegaye are thought to be an Oromo in one of the other links of their family composition. The later was heard speaking fluent Afan Oromo on one of his interviews with the VOA Afan Oromo Service.
Tesfaye said he was thinking about Leenco Lata while he was framing Anole Waqo as a main Character of his book, Ye Burqa Zimita. Leenco, an outspoken veteran Oromo politician at the center of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), was known in the events leading up to the formation of the Transitional Government of Ethiopian (TGE) in 1991. Leenco has authored several books, and remains a very influential and controversial figure for his role in OLF joining and leaving of the TGE.
At the Harlem event, Aster Gemeda, an Oromo heroine for her unreserved contributions to the Oromo people’s struggle for the last three decades, described her experience of Ye Burqa Zimita, “as the only Amharic novel she finished reading,” and recommended that Tesfaye be called “Obbo” Tesfaye, the Oromo equal word for “Sir” Tesfaye.
* The writer, Hunde Dhugassa, is a Lawyer and a Human Rights Activist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org