Within minutes of arriving at the Oromo Exhibit Booth at the 79th Festival of Nations, I heard the question, “Where is Oromo?” more than I have in the past eight years combined.
The Festival of Nations is an annual carnival and cultural celebration, organized by the International Institute of Minnesota. The event takes place each year in early May at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul.
Different communities from around the state of Minnesota take part in an international shopping bazaar, sample delicious ethnic foods, experience fascinating cultural exhibits and colorful folk dances. Without a question, the event is an inter-cultural adventure into Minnesota’s increasingly diverse communities.
At this year’s celebration, the aforementioned question was answered precisely by members of the Oromia Youth Association (OYA) dance troupe. The Oromo folk dancers performed three traditional songs in front of about 2000 cultural enthusiasts at the “World Stage” setup inside the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. At the start of the show, the announcer noted that the Oromo group represent “one of the most numerous nations in Africa,” a line that was endlessly repeated at the Oromo booth.
To answer the question of where Oromos are from, different volunteers at the Oromo booth including the writer offered slightly different, but similar answers. From “the Oromo are a group of people from Oromia in East Africa” to “the Oromo are the largest ethnic group living mostly in south-central Ethiopia” and anywhere in between, the volunteers educated curious visitors without hesitation. Some focused on cultural explanations, using the many artifacts displayed at the Oromo booth. Others went directly into politics recounting a harrowing history of Ethiopia and how the Oromos, despite their majority status, were relegated to a minority status in years past.
According to tradition, exhibit-goers buy a passport and make their way around the festival, each country (booth) stamping their passport with the equivalent of an unofficial visa. The Oromo visa, which I was proudly stamping all day, was green with an Odaa (sycamore) tree in the middle, and read “Oromo.” It is like traveling the world in one day.
Enthusiastic families brought their kids and asked curious questions to learn about the world. It is not an exaggeration to say the experience is truly a world history crash course. Mubarek Lolo, Oromo community board member said, “People genuinely wanted to find out more, and many had never heard of Oromo before. They ask questions of whether Oromo is a country or not.”
Other frequently asked questions included: what brought you here, where can one learn more about Oromo, what are cultural items displayed made of/used for, and what is special about Oromo. The Oromo exhibit booth was setup and staffed by the Oromo Community of Minnesota (OCM). Established in 1985, OCM is one of the largest non-profit organizations outside of Oromia, Ethiopia.
OYA embodies the beauty and diversity of Oromo culture. The 99% non-Oromo audience got to see a glimpse of Oromo cultural dancing. The festival’s official website describes the event as “the largest and longest running multicultural festival in Minnesota.” The diversity of Minnesota is celebrated with food, music, folk art demonstrations, cultural exhibits and dance. This year’s event ran from May 5-8, 2011.
Oromo people make up more than half of Ethiopia’s 82 million people. There is also a sizable Oromo presence in the neighboring countries of East Africa (Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan). The Oromo language is the third most widely spoken in the continent. One of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the Midwest, the Oromo population in Minnesota is estimated to surpass 20,000.
Themed “Marketplaces of the World,” this year’s festival featured 52 cultural exhibits and an international bazaar. The bazaar featured unique imported goods and treasures. One of the more striking goods was a collection of bracelets and other items handmade by Ugandan women from recycled newspapers.
The festival’s experience amounts to a fine world dining, a leisurely walk down global supermarket, and a seat at an international concert. Many thanks to my Egyptian friend, Mohamed, the owner of Big Marina restaurant for the free food without which this report would have been impossible. This year’s sponsors include Byerly’s, Plaza TV & Appliance, Inc, Sunrise Community Banks, Saint Paul Star Program and DHL Express.
Here is a video of OYA Performance shot with my BlackBerry.
See a slide show at: http://www.opride.com/oromsis/oromo/919-where-is-oromo.html