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Oromo Cultural Profile

Author(s): Susan Omura, MD
Reviewer(s): Mama Argo, Oromo Community Organization
Contributor(s): Mama Argo; Teshome Bayu; Almaz Duressa; Sheiko Nagawo; Taha Roba
Date Authored: February 01, 1994
Date Last Reviewed: March 01, 2003

Oromia, Ethiopia, Kenya

Geography

The Oromo people constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, or about 30 million people out of a total population of 60 million. Their original homeland, Oromia, included most of what is now Ethiopia and stretched into northern Kenya, where some Oromos still live.

History and Politics

During the early twentieth century Oromos lost their sovereignty to the government of Abyssinia and suffered unrelenting political, economic, and social oppression. For close to 400 years Oromos suffered under the occupation of consecutive Ethiopian regimes. In spite of centuries of suffering Oromo cultural identity remained strong. So much so, that Oromos never felt comfortable calling themselves Abyssinians, or Ethiopians, or totally abandoning their culture for that of Abyssinian culture. Many Oromos perceive that the Ethiopians never tried to allow Oromos to feel that they were part and parcel of the Ethiopian empire. Oromos were not allowed to be part of the ruling class. Some Oromos essentially became Ethiopians, changing their names and other pieces of their cultural identity in order to live among the dominant culture with less discrimination. For example, some Oromos changed their names to Amharic names to increase their chances of being hired by employers who normally discriminated against hiring Oromos.

Oppression was especially harsh and brutal under the imperial rule of Haile Silassie, of the Amhara ethnic group. During the reign of Haile Silassie the Oromo language was banned and speakers were privately and publicly ridiculed. The government did every thing in its power to ensure the domination of the Abyssinian language and cultures over the Oromo people. In early 1974, a grass roots Oromo resistance movement along with other movements made it possible for the military government to overthrow Haile Silassie. Soon after, the new Communist Military Government, led by strongman Mengistu Hailemariam, resumed the persecution of Oromo nationals.

The United States began accepting refugees from Ethiopia in the late 1970's, when the military dictatorship was receiving political, military, and financial support from the former Soviet Union. It was during the reign of the military regime known as "Derge", that Oromos were severely persecuted for their nationality and perceived threat to the minority dictatorial government. The United States granted refugee status to Oromos working or associated with Oromo liberation fronts, on the basis of risk of imprisonment or death for their activities.

In the early 1990's, with the aid of the United States' government, the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated the ruling government of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic (EPRDF), and joined with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in co-authoring a democratic charter. Subsequently, the TPLF, with support from the United States, consolidated its grip of power and further continued to deny Oromos their political autonomy. Like its predecessors, the government dominated by the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front was vicious in its brutality against the Oromo people. As a consequence, Oromo refugees and asylum seekers are still coming to the United States from refugee camps in Kenya and elsewhere.

(The following paragraph was revised April 2010, to reflect language that is spoken in schools)

Until several years ago, Oromo children were still not allowed to study in the Oromo language, despite promises made by the "New Ethiopian Democracy" of the early 1990's.  That has changed within the last several years, and primary schooling up to grade 8 is now taught in Oromiffa in most of Oromia. Oromos continue to suffer brutal political, social, and economic suppression under the Meles regime. Unemployment, loss of land, on-going armed incursion and occupation into Oromia regions to murder, imprison, torture, intimidate, and terrorize the Oromo population is ongoing. A true profile of ethnic cleansing can be seen in Ethiopia today.

Language

The traditional Oromo language is Oromiffa, the written form of which has recently changed to use the Roman alphabet. Oromiffa was banned during the regime of Haile Selassie, and Amharic was the only language taught in schools or used in the public sphere for decades. Thus Oromos who had formal education or grew up in urban areas can speak and write Amharic, while people in the countryside who were isolated from educational campaigns have continued to speak Oromiffa. Some Oromos may also speak Tigrigna, Somali, Arabic, or Swahili, but most Oromo refugees prefer to speak Oromiffa as a matter of cultural pride. Literacy in English is limited but growing as more people take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Additional article on Alphabets and Sounds by Taha Roba, December 2002

Interpersonal Relationships

Naming

Each person has one main name, their given name. They are often given other personal "love names" by family members. Their second name is the main name of their father. A third name is usually the name of their paternal grandfather.

Additional comments, May 2003
Traditionally, the father picks Oromo children's names but the mother has great influence in naming the daughter of the family. It must also be said that Oromo names have meanings as if to convey wishes of success, wisdom, and prosperity through generations. For instance, the most popular Oromo names are Ibsaa for males and Ibsituu for females, both meaning "light".

Status, Role, Prestige

Added, May 2003
Oromos view advance in age with great respect. The "Gadaa system", an Oromo traditional government, is based on age grade system. For instance, to take full responsibility for a nation or society "Abbaa Gadaa" (the leader/President) reaches full leadership only at age 40 or on eighth Gadaa. (The Oromo people use base eight as opposed to the traditional Western base ten.)

Oromos have a tradition of viewing long age as accumulation of wisdom gained from experience. Therefore, Oromos approach elders as students would professors, ready to learn. The elder of the village or the household is a leader of a given domain and perhaps beyond. Responsibilities, light or heavy, are assigned to persons according to how old the person is. The older the person, the less physical responsibilities, such as farming, heavy lifting, etc. are given. Physical responsibilities are usually assigned to the young, physically strong and able. Elders are given the task of thinking, conveying and radiating wisdom as needed.

When issues such as weddings, death, or disputes arise, the most able and senior of elders are assembled. Issues can be won or lost on the credibility and ability of the elders, much like the quality of counsel defending or prosecuting legal cases in Western cultures.

Greetings

The traditional greeting used by men and women is called "salamatta". They grasp each other's hands and kiss the top of the other person's hands. If they are related or close friends, they would kiss each other. In the US they often shake hands in the western manner. When meeting a person on the road or street they say, "Did you have a peaceful night or day?" Children are commonly hugged when greeted. "Galla" is a derogatory term used in the past for Oromos by the ruling groups in Ethiopia. It is considered a very insulting term.

Added, May 2003

  • Good morning - "Akkam bultan"
  • Good afternoon - "Akkam ooltan"

The Oromo language tends to be more formal than English language in their social exchange. Oromo are formal with everyone except family, close friends, classmates and young children. Compare the following dialogues:

Informal

Roba meets Galgale in a store
Galgale: akkam bulte
Roba: nagaya bulte...ati akkam...
Galgalee: Nagaya fayya waaqa galanni haagayu
Roba: Nagayaatti Galgalee
Galgalee: nagayaan jiraadhu

Formal

Mr. Leenjisoo meets his neighbor Mr. Leenco on street.
Obbo Leenjiso: akkam bultaan obbo Leenco
ObboLeenco: nagaya isin akkam jirtan
Obbo Leenjiso: waaqa galanni haagayouu fayya
Obbo Leenco: nagayaan jiraadha
Obbo Leenjiso: nagayaan galaa

Greetings - Gulantaa Ul'finnaa

In Oromo, women are greeted as "aaddee". Good morning would sound like "akkam bulte aaddee!" If the woman has children, she may be called "haadha" plus her oldest child's name. For instance, if a woman's oldest child is called "Rooba" people may call the woman "haadha Rooba". Another woman, whose child is named "Caaltu", may be called "haadha Caaltu".

In Oromo, civilian men are greeted as "obbo". Military men are greeted as "jaalle". If a man has a child, he will be called "abba" plus the name of the child. For example a man whose son is "Bunna" will be called "abba bunna".

New 2014: Phrases of Courtesy in Nine Languages: A Tool for Medical Providers 

This language learning tool features videos of native speakers saying phrases of courtesy in nine languages, including Oromo. Phrases of greeting, introduction, acknowledgment, departure and for emergency situations in a clinical setting can be played at a normal speed and at a learning speed. The goal of this tool is to provide a jumping-off point for developing rapport in the interpreted health encounter. Read more about the tool...  | View Oromo videos 

Social Distance

At meetings or social gatherings, Oromos commonly sit in a circle. The space between people who are speaking to each other in informal settings is commonly the same as in Western cultures.

Displays of Respect

"Obbo" is the Oromiffa equivalent to "Mister", for a married woman the term is "Ayo", and for a young woman "Addee". Elders are generally given great respect within their communities. Within the language there is a formal for of "you" which is used to address respected persons. Persons who are older are addressed as "mother" and "father".

General Etiquette/Social Distance

Added May 2003
At meetings or gatherings Oromos normally reserve the most comfortable area for the elderly and the seniors of the group. Displays of respect for age and wisdom is expected from the audience. Respect for the start time of the meeting is also important. If a person does not respect the set time, his ideas and contribution to the group will have cold reception or he will be reminded of his/her offense from this and previous experiences. Depending on the subject matter, the young are encouraged to attend meetings as a way to teach the social etiquette and pass it on to the next generation.

Marriage, Family and Kinship

Marriage

Added, May 2003

Marriage is one of the most important rituals in the Oromo culture. There are three things Oromos talk about in life: birth, marriage, and death. These are the events that add to or take away from the family. Before the onset of foreign religions, namely Christianity and Islam, Oromo marriage rituals included exchange of gifts, mainly by the bride to be.

The ritual of courting begins a long time before the marriage date. It may entail encounters at events, mainly at weddings, or the courting may stem from understanding between the families. Once the boy has demonstrated responsibilities, not only for his own livelihood but also for the society in which he lives, he picks the girl he is interested in. He will inform a family member, usually his father, who then contacts the family of the girl. Usually the girl knows of the boy's intent and, in many instances, she encourages him to pursue her in this way. There are mediators, such as the girl's best friends, who convey the girl's wishes to the boy.

The first visit to the girl from the family of the groom-to-be involves other elders from his village. Special clothing is worn to underscore the importance of the meeting. A stick called "siinqee" is carried to the bride-to-be's house and left at the door to indicate to her parents that the process of courting their daughter has begun in earnest. On the second visit, the "siinqee" may come in with the groom's party indicating the girl's family has accepted the gesture. Visits by the groom's party may continue over the course of two years. The visits will prepare the way for acceptance of the young man, not only by the girl's immediate family, but by her relatives as well. It may also happen that the future son-in-law must till the land of his future in-laws - the idea is to make parents' sure that their daughter is marrying into a family who can support their daughter and her needs.

Once the needs of all relatives are satisfied, the actual date for a marriage will be set. On the date of the wedding, gifts for the bride's family are brought by an assembly of well-respected elders who join the wedding party. Bringing home the new bride is an all day process. Without the presence of knowledgeable elders, the marriage can be delayed. Once the groom is home with his new bride, the wedding party may take another three or more days to complete. This is a period when the groom's family and relatives bring presents. In old days, Oromos never married within their immediate clans, and today some Oromos continue to abide by that restriction. However, with the introduction of foreign religions and influences, times are changing the marriage traditions of the Oromo people and many Oromo marriages resemble marriages of Western or Middle Eastern cultures.

Since girls have to marry into different clans in traditional Oromo society, their relatives are almost always some distance away. Traditional Oromo wedding rituals fostered understanding and interconnectedness between different societies as well shattering a stereotypical myth that African societies were at war with one another before the arrival of foreigners, mainly Europeans and Arabs.

Gender Roles

Expanded, May 2003
In Oromia, children are trained to do specific family tasks at certain age, starting at age three. Girls and boys have different roles depending on the composition of the family. Girls are taught cooking, cattle tending and gathering of firewood while boys are thought horse riding, spear throwing, hunting, farming, cattle tending and survival techniques. The Oromo culture expects men to feed, shelter, cloth and protect the family while women are expected to rear children and care for the whole family from home. Women marry starting about fifteen years of age and are expected to be virgins until then. During "Gadaa" tradition however, a young man may not marry until the age of 28, a practice that is considered "built-in" family planning.

Family and Kinship Structure

Added May 2003
In Oromo culture, the father is the head of the household but the true leader of the family is the mother. The day-to-day life of the family is dependent on the mother. The family may live in close proximity with other family members and relatives.

Extended Families

Updated, May 2003
In Oromia, living in extended family households is the norm. In Seattle, Oromo family households include one to eight persons on average, and nearly half of those people are children under 12 years of age. As the refugee and immigrant Oromo population grows in the United States, attracting relatives in one area or town for support will become common.

Reproduction

Pregnancy

Child Birth

In Oromia, women are helped through pregnancy and childbirth by female neighbors or female elders in the community. Formal prenatal care may be unfamiliar, but women traditionally increase the amount of meat in their diet and pay special attention to nutrition. If a woman was ready to deliver in Oromia, she might notify a female friend but not her husband. Men are not supposed to participate at all, and many women here are still reluctant to have their husbands involved in the birthing process. Oromo women in Seattle have several concerns with childbirth: they are uncomfortable with male doctors and medical students, as well as with the standard American high-tech approach to anesthesia, fetal monitoring, and augmenting delivery. Many women think that American doctors are too quick to perform Cesarean sections for what the women consider normal variations, such as post-term gestational age, and they may wait at home until they are well into labor to try to avoid unwanted procedures. After delivery, a woman is supposed to rest in bed for forty days attended by the other women of the community, who cook special foods for her and tend her other children while she regains her strength. Unfortunately, women have been unable to do that here because of school, work, and logistical problems.

Post Partum Practices

See Infant Feeding below.

Infancy, Childhood and Socialization

Ceremonials During Infancy and Childhood

Infant Feeding, Care

In Oromia, the newborn infant's first feedings are water for twenty-four hours, after which the baby is given fresh butter as a laxative to expel meconium and then begins to breastfeed. In Oromia, breastfeeding in public is perfectly acceptable, and the vast majority of women do breastfeed. Here, women worry that nursing in public is inappropriate, and work or school may interrupt the feeding schedule, so they are having trouble maintaining breastfeeding as long as they would like. They are unfamiliar with pumping and storing milk, but some working women may be interested in that option.

Traditionally, mothers introduced other foods at about six months of age and continued nursing until they were ready to bear another child or up to three years of age. In fact, breastfeeding was the most common means of family planning, and the shortened or incomplete breastfeeding here is contributing to a high fertility rate in Seattle's Oromo community which taxes already stretched resources. Women may not take oral contraceptive pills correctly and dislike the spotting and subsequent amenorrhea from progesterone injections, so alternative methods of family planning are not widely practiced.

Children are considered full members of the family and of the community and are appreciated for their ability to keep their parents' spirit present in the community even after the parents' death. Unlike other cultural groups from Ethiopia, Oromos allow children to eat at the same table with adults and participate in discussions of significance as soon as they are old enough to talk and understand.

Child Rearing Practices

Updated, May 2003
Discipline is achieved by teaching respect for elders from an early age, by correcting bad behavior verbally, and occasionally spanking. The fear of child protection services involvement in family affairs has made many Oromo families stop spanking or correcting their children's unwanted and more often counter productive behavior. Many in the Seattle's Oromo community are unsure of other methods, aside from winning and enforcing respect, to manage unwelcome behaviors.

The community as a whole is concerned about their children surviving adolescence in the United States of America without getting involved in drugs and violence. Over the years, the local Community Organization has worked on involving kids in physical activities such as running, soccer and basketball in the spring and summer, and academic support in order to occupy the times and energy of young people.

Even though many now understand and grudgingly accept teenage dating, this is a new practice to many Oromo families. In Oromia, pre-arranged marriage is the norm and many Oromo immigrants still prefer old tradition to new.

Rites of Passage and Life Stages

Updated, May 2003
In contrast to other peoples of Africa, Oromos did not have a tribal chieftan structure. They had a democratic system of government called the "gadda". There were 5 political groupings and each group governed for 8 years in turn taking 40 years to complete the cycle. A person who proved himself for the five stages would become the father of the country, if given the majority vote. Democratic meetings where all speak out and where the selection of local leaders are made continue today in local Oromo groups. Women were traditionally given great respect and had a particular role in resolving conflicts respect and a prominent role in electing leaders. Physical beating of a woman by her husband was forbidden by Oromo law and a man who did this would be publicly shamed by powerful women. In Seattle, Oromo women commonly participate in discussion in community meetings and until recently, they sat mixed with men. Elders within the community are respected as counselors and advisors to the community and for resolving family disputes.

Nutrition and Food

Buddeenaa, (or bideenna, several spellings have been suggested), is a fermented flat bread made from teff flour and is commonly eaten by Oromos. A spicy barley dish mixed with butter is a special delicacy. Butter is added to most porridge and stew or soup dishes. Meat is an important part of the diet, both smoked and fresh, but pork is not eaten. Milk and coffee mixed with milk are common drinks. Traditionally food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand. Western utensils may now be used in Oromo homes in Seattle.

Drinks, Drugs, and Indulgences

New, May 2003
Back home many Oromos drink homemade bear called "farsoo" or "daadhi"(alcoholic) and "qaribo" (non-alcoholic version). Other harmful drugs common in Western cultures were historically unknown to Oromos.

Religious Life

Updated, May 2003
Traditional Oromo religious belief centers around one God, Waaqa, who is responsible for everything that happens to human beings. As Oromos adopted Islam or Christianity, they maintained the concept of Waaqa and incorporated their beliefs into the new religions. The majority of Oromos in Seattle practice Islam, reflecting a Muslim majority within Ethiopia, and they have had some difficulty maintaining their traditions in the U.S. For instance, during the month-long holiday of Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to fast all day, eat most of the night, and pay special attention to prayer, but American public schools and work places are not set up to accommodate such a schedule. Another large percentage of Oromos are Christian. Christians are primarily Catholic or Adventist rather than Orthodox, as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is associated with the dominant Amhara cultural group. Within the Oromo nation, Muslims and Christians have mingled peacefully, as they do in the community here. Oromo Christians are less restricted in their abilities to worship as they see fit because the dominant religion in America is Christianity. Those Oromos whose traditions still mirror the traditions of "Waaqefataa" are less organized, less visible and therefore less understood.

Death

New, May 2003
In Oromia, when a household is faced with the reality of death, community support is given in the form of money, time, and physical labor. In Seattle, this tradition continues, as it is the only way to support the grieving families.

Traditional Medical Practices

Traditional Oromo healers are skilled at bone-setting, cautery, minor surgical procedures such as tonsillectomy or uvulectomy for throat infections and drainage of abscesses, and treating many illnesses with medicines made from local plants.   Individuals were also accustomed to using plants for home remedies for minor illnesses, but of course many familiar herbs are not found growing in Western Washington.

See also EthnoMed article: Ethiopian Traditional and Herbal Medications and their Interactions with Conventional Drugs by A. Gall and Z. Shenkute.

Hygiene is known to be important, and many diseases are recognized to be contagious, but many diverse forces are thought capable of affecting health. Illness and misfortune in general is often considered a punishment from Waaqa for sins a person has committed, and the "evil eye" is a malevolent influence from other people that can cause disease, especially in vulnerable young infants.

Endemic diseases in Oromia are similar to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and include Hepatitis A and B, tuberculosis, falciparum malaria, syphilis, schistosomiasis and other tropical infectious diseases. AIDS is emerging as a significant problem, complicated by a social reluctance to discuss extramarital sexual activity, especially among teenagers.

Added, May 2003
Some members of the Seattle Oromo Community believe the Ethiopian government is purposely ignoring and under-funding disease control, particularly for HIV/AIDS, in Oromia regions as a political tool to either eliminate as many Oromos as possible or to further control Oromo lives.

Circumcision

In Oromia, circumcision is performed on both boys and girls either in early infancy or at the time of marriage. Female circumcision is desirable but optional, while male circumcision is considered mandatory for reasons of health/hygiene and social acceptance, as well as religious law for Muslims. The community is very concerned that some of their boys who were born in refugee camps still have not been circumcised, as the Department of Health and Social Service pays for them in older children only if medically indicated, and the cost for a routine procedure with general anesthesia is over two thousand dollars. The urologists at Children's Hospital in Seattle may be willing to do the procedure with just local anesthetics in a cooperative patient but would need a special referral.

Experience with Western Medicine

In Country of Origin

Oromo refugees from urban centers in Ethiopia have some experience with Western-style medicine, but rural people may have trouble understanding our concepts of disease causation and our practice of withholding symptomatic treatment until a diagnostic workup is done. Back home, effective herbal medicines were available to treat respiratory and gastrointestinal viral syndromes, and antibiotics were used rather indiscriminately in cities and refugee camps, so Oromos expect to receive medications for every illness. Therefore, our failure to prescribe medicines for self-limited illnesses makes some people feel it is a waste of time to go to the doctor and is a common point of dissatisfaction.

Experience with Western Medicine in the United States

Most Oromos in Seattle come to Harborview Medical Center for care.

People tend to be nervous about venous blood draws because they worry that the lost blood will not be replaced (and the traditional method of replacing lost blood - drinking fresh blood from a sheep or cow - is not possible here), so finger pokes for lab tests are much more acceptable. Blood transfusions also generate fear and concern, although there is no specific cultural proscription against them. As in any area of potential misunderstanding, taking the time to explain our reasoning and answer questions can go a long way toward improving a doctor-patient interaction.

Women are generally reluctant to discuss gynecologic issues, especially with a male provider or male interpreter, and especially on a first visit before a relationship has been established with the provider. The words used for parts of the body vary in different dialects, so an Oromo interpreter may not know the right term to use with a particular woman. Also the idea of a pelvic exam may be completely foreign and unacceptable if a woman is not familiar with western medicine, as there is no tradition of such a thing in Oromo culture. After about age ten, Oromos would much prefer a same-sex health-care provider.

See a Seattle Times article about efforts in the Seattle area to help African immigrants learn to talk openly about HIV/AIDS. The article includes information about a trend toward higher rates of disease in African immigrant women compared to African immigrant males.

Community Structure

Seattle Community Life

Expanded, May 2003
After leaving their country, most people spent some time in refugee camps in Kenya, Sudan or Somalia. Refugee arrival in the United States began in the early 1980s and peaked in 1989-90, with the largest numbers of people settling in Seattle in 1989-93. The total population in the greater Seattle area numbers about 3000 and is growing, mainly with new babies but also with a few family members still emigrating from refugee camps in Kenya.

The Oromo Community Organization was founded by members of the community to help each other build new lives in Seattle, and a main focus of the Organization right now is education and job training so that Oromos can support themselves independently without needing public assistance. The Organization is especially interested in promoting education for its women as a way of improving the health and welfare of women, children and the community as a whole.

See article about Seattle Oromo soccer team

Local Community Resources

Oromo Community Resource List

Neighborhoods

Most of Seattle's Oromo population lives in south Seattle (Rainier Valley and Holly Park), but some families have also settled in Ballard, West Seattle, Kent, Redmond, and Bellevue.

Common Acculturation Issues

Most of the community comes from rural areas within Ethiopia and may have had little formal education, but many urban Oromos are well-educated and worked in nursing, teaching, or other professional fields before coming here. Oromos are working in a variety of capacities in Seattle, but unemployment and underemployment are problems for many heads of households.

Many familiar practices will be changing in the new American cultural milieu, but Oromos hope to celebrate and strengthen their own culture as they build a community here.