On Memorial Day, Oromo Minnesotans, early settlers of the land, congregated to reminisce and reflect on what has been an extraordinarily American experience. People lived in the territory today known as Minnesota starting in the last ice age (some 10,000 years ago). That said, the Oromos are not among the early settlers by any stretch of the imagination. But today the land of 10,000 lakes, as Minnesota is sometimes called, boasts the ninth largest population of African immigrants, of which an estimated 20,000 are Oromos. The state is also home to the largest Somali population in the United States.
The Memorial Day event was organized by Oromo pioneers. The event included an accentuated warm Minnesota welcome, a delicious barbeque, pictorial exhibition, videos from the “golden days,” and an affable chat with those who came before us. It is a known fact that the entire Oromo population in the states secretly curses these early-comers at the turn of each season. Minnesota’s weather is eerily unpredictable: winters and summers are extreme, spring and fall are reminders of tornadoes and severe weather warnings. Amid all these outlandishly severe weather conditions, the number of Oromo-Minnesotans continues to grow.
As the organizers anxiously awaited more spectators to fill the hall, I took up with Mr. Taye Silga the million dollar question, “Of all places God created, why Minnesota?” Taye spoke softly with very little emotion, but with a lot of command. He grinned a little and started recounting the reasons why early settlers chose Minnesota, despite the fact that California’s climate would have been the logical and ideal destination for an east African. Emigration is not a uniquely Oromo experience. Hence, the reasons that brought Oromos, who are tropical climate dwellers, to Minnesota are not exceptional. But those reasons have changed significantly over the years. Two of the known early settlers who arrived in early 1970s, Mr. Tafari Fufa and Dano Namara, came with a scholarship to study in Minnesota. Others, the likes of Mr. Tasisa Moti and Abraham Oluma, came by marrying Minnesotans. The majority of Oromo immigrants joined them later as political refugees and through family unification programs. A handful also came through diversionary visa lottery (DV).
Mr. Tafari and many of the early inhabitants now proudly profess to like the four season changes. Back then, however, they did not want to brave the bitter weather alone. They saw an opportunity to help their fellow Oromos who were trapped between home and exile in neighboring east African countries. That was why they started canvassing at various churches around the state to pull in more Oromos. Not only that–they also sought to lend moral and material support to the budding struggle for national self-determination.
The early 1970s marked the decline in the reign of Ethiopia’s last despotic king, Haile Silasie, as well as a euphoric time of revolution certain to erupt. It was also a time when the Oromo struggle for statehood culminated in the formation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). By all accounts, a time with no historical equivalent in the modern history of the Oromo people. Following a budding student movement and a national awakening that began a decade before, many Oromo elites and activists fled the country and were living in exile at refugee camps in Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti.
The pioneers sought to stretch their hands far to those refugees by squeezing their meager resources. Overcoming an unbearable communication hurdle was no easy task, Mr. Fufa said. A phone call to a friend in Africa was priced at $70 or more for ten minutes (a bare $2 today). Despite the odds, at the height of their campaign, this group of pioneers accomplished far more things than all of us combined but only with less than a dozen members. Their inadequately recognized but meticulously documented contributions included: a full cargo container shipment of clothing to Oromo refugees, numerous publications to spread the gospel of liberation, a band that performed Oromo folksongs at various festivals (Kiloolee Oromia – singing Flowers of Oromia), a choir that sang in Afan Oromo at various congregations around the Twin Cities, and securing sponsorship for those who were living at poorly kept camps in Sudan.
More Oromo refugees started coming to Minnesota through such sponsorships when the Dergue regime in Addis Ababa, the usurpers of the revolution, intensified its campaign against Oromo dissidents. Participants narrated their fond experiences of welcoming those refugees: every Oromo, young and old, anxiously waiting at the airport to receive someone they have never seen or known. Imagine a homecoming rite for a soldier returning home from a tour of duty. The only difference: some of those arriving were mistaken for locals and had to linger around the airport until approached by someone from the welcoming party. On one such occasion, a refugee arriving from Sudan was taken to baggage claim by his entourage and hours passed as they chatted away waiting for luggage he never had.
According to Mr. Taye, the role of church and the group’s non-Oromo friends in securing sponsorship for Oromos was instrumental. Regardless of their religious and geographic backgrounds, Oromos were welcomed with open arms. Even with lost mail correspondences and difficult phone connections, anyone with whom they had contact found a second home and family in Minnesota. Muslims went to church singing along with their Christian counterparts to solicit funds to help refugees left behind struggling under sordid conditions. A story of a Muslim Oromo man, one of the early comers, Mr. Madda, was perhaps the most telling of the group’s close-knit relationship. On one fateful weekend, Mr. Madda was taken to church by his friend and told to repeat a chorus from a song he had never heard. Their performance received a standing ovation and some cash towards their project, but Madda was not enchanted.
As to what has happened now when Oromos have their own churches and mosques, the answer rests on you, the reader – so ponder. Mr. Taye argues, “We are not as organized, we do not approach others with our issues, and have lost old contacts” – all of which contribute to the diminishing role of churches and other institutions, even though there is a more immediate need today. He cites an example of an Oromo support group made up of non-Oromos who were educated on Oromo issues that helped facilitate contact with others at the time.
Weekends meant a family reunion where all Oromos in the state would congregate at the living room of one of the few who owned a house. Others like Mr. Tafari shuttled those without cars to work, school, and hospitals. In those days, the social service system was not so elaborate. Interpreters were unpaid and patients have to provide their own. The taxi at home service was unheard of. Those who came first and were fairly established took on those responsibilities, sometimes even without the request of the party needing the assistance. It was communal living, akin to village life in the Oromo country. Mr. Taye tells me around 1983, that handful of individuals raised some 1.8 million dollars to sponsor refugees and support the struggle. Delegates travelled as far as western Oromia and neighboring countries to visit refugees. Some went to the field and came back with footages of Oromo soldiers preparing to engage the enemy; the videos were shown at the Minneapolis event.
Minnesota has a long tradition of accepting refugees. Today, there are close to a dozen voluntary agencies resettling refugees from around the world in the state. The first, perhaps largest group of Oromo refugees came in late 1980s through the most part of1990s. By then, Oromos already had a visible presence around the twin cities metropolitan area. The Oromo Student Union was formed at the University of Minnesota. The Singing Flowers of Oromia band, Kiloolee Oromia, had an unmistakable presence at the annual festival of nations – a tradition now taken up by the Oromo Community of Minnesota.
The Union of Oromo Students in North America (UOSNA) had periodic meetings, annual gatherings and numerous publications. The early publications, including those written by the Union of Oromo Students in Europe, focused on the man-made nature of famine where Oromos were deliberately starved, articulating the mission and vision of the OLF, rewriting the falsified history of Ethiopia from an Oromo perspective, and garnering support for organizations like the Oromo Relief Association. A quick glance through the delicate pages of those periodicals would show military communiqué from OLF, solidarity messages from various chapters of UOSNA, and assessments of the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a wave of Oromo publications. Today there is not one Oromo newsletter published in any language, anywhere, to the best of my knowledge. The Journal of the Oromo Studies Association is published once a year and is virtually inaccessible by non-members. Some of the publications dated between 1975 and early 1980s displayed at the event include: SAGALEE OROMO, OROMIA SPEAKS, WALDHAANSSO (the journal of UOSNA), OROMTITTI (an Afaan Oromo publication that highlighted the role of women and the double operation of Oromo women in Ethiopia), KARA WALLABUMAA, BAKKALCHA OROMO, AND BILISUMMAA KEENYAAF (an independent journal of Oromos abroad). This begs the question whether the Oromo has reverted back to the oral society mode at this heightened age of technology.
It is true when they say a picture speaks a thousand words. The pictures displayed on a table and a large collage next to it speaks volume to the relentless advocacy work of the group, not to mention it is unhappily revealing of their age. At the festival of nations, one of the largest cultural festivals in the nation, some of the men would dress in women’s garb and perform, since there was not a large Oromo female population in Minnesota at the time. They served Oromo food and their story was published in local newspapers. Their excellent performance won them awards two years in a row.
The Oromo Community of Minnesota was created as a nonprofit organization in 1985 to bring people together for cultural activities and ease the burden on individuals in resettling refugees. Many of the early Oromo settlers were among the founders of the organization. As the community grew, diverging needs and political views emerged. Mostly, the inability to differentiate between the people’s social and political lives made for an unhealthy competition between the two. Factions began to emerge. The Union of Oromos in North America (UONA), one of the early OLF support groups, disintegrated resulting in the formation of splinter groups. Every time one or the other group broke away from OLF, so did those once glorious relationships. Ultimately, we ended up with three OLFs as well as disfranchised human and material resources. As with a lot of things, when the number goes up, the frequency and quality of interaction goes down. The result? Relationships based on political allegiance are brittle.
The Memorial Day event was an opportunity to reflect on what can be done to bring back the love, unity and harmony that drive so many fond memories. The heartfelt suggestions heard at the event were very encouraging. At least it is clear that Oromos have begun to notice that something has gone terribly wrong between then and now. It remains to be seen whether or not a similar event geared towards nurturing Oromummaa and harmony between people will be held annually, as suggested over Memorial Day weekend. But the spirit of the attendants was high with abundant laughs about snow stories.
For my fellow Oromo-Minnesotans, now we know who the original culprits are. But I learned there are more reasons to thank and honor them than our snow hatemongering. These folks have loads of archival materials in their garages. We can help them sort through the memories as well as papers. Without a doubt, this is an extraordinary journey and one at the core of the history of Oromo immigration to Minnesota. Books, documentaries and many other projects can be made around it. And they don’t mind sharing. Lessons abound, the past cannot be conquered. Now the question is: where do we go from here?