Oduu Haaraya

“Chaltu as Helen,” and Oromophobia

By: Laalo Guduru | Onkoloolessa

Two remarkable Oromo episodes dominated the Ethiopian diaspora blogosphere and social media over the last few months: the episode of Jawar Mohammed and the Tesfaye Gebre-ab phenomenon. Here, I will only focus on Tesfaye Gebre-ab.

Lest Tesfaye’s newest book, the YeSidetegnaw Mastawesha, see the light of the day, the most vicious campaign of mediaeval inquisitorial proportion was launched against Tesfaye, ironically utilizing the most modern instrument, the Internet. If truth to be told, the purpose of the campaign was not so much as to attack Tesfaye, as to combat a heresy of talking in open about the trials and tribulation the Oromos endured in the hands of the successive Ethiopian governments. Thus, a retrograde movement was born to kill a book from being published in this the 21st century. The would-be publisher was pressured, threatened and cajoled not to publish the book. In turn, succumbing to pressure, the publisher tried to pressurize Tesfaye to at least expunge one section, Chaltu as Helen, from the book. Rumor has it that Tesfaye was as mad as hell for being asked this. He found this to be degrading. Rather than taking a single leaf of the book to appease these backward chauvinist gangs, who were trying to use the ax of censorship to silence him at this day and age, he preferred forfeiting any monetary value he may have procured out of it.

Rather than conceding to their indecent proposal, he published the book on the web for the whole world to get it for free. When you think valor is dead and no more, you see courageous men as Tesfaye – appearing from time to time and gracing the world scene, and this restores the hope you have in the human spirit. To paraphrase a section of John F. Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, Tesfaye did what he must — in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures. In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices, Tesfaye faced it following his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — all these did not matter and did not veer him from what he believed.

Within few days of posting the book on the Internet, more than a dozen articles, if they deserve to be called that, mushroomed on the Internet condemning the writer, asking for his flesh and blood or to banish him from the face of the earth. I tried to read all of them, including the one by an ex-judge posted before the book was published; and this one in particular went on and on ad nauseam without saying much. I really read them very carefully, I tried to understand them, and I wanted to know where they come from, and how they can harbor such a fear against a work of literature. Why was such a campaign conducted against the publishing of this book?

I can’t say I was successful in disentangling their thinking. However, in their entire writings, one thing was very clear. Tesfaye embodies the two twin evils that the Ethiopia chauvinist elites abhor: Oromo and Eritrea, and they could not tolerate this “dangerous” phenomenon fused in one person. And it’s also evident that they could not forgive Tesfaye for writing Ye Burka Zimita. In every one of their comment, you see them again and again coming to his most popular book. In fact, the so-called judge states after he read Ye Burka Zimita, he did not want to set his eyes on Tesfaye. His crime, they all agreed, “he tried to sow seeds of discord between Oromos and Amhara.” Little did they know that the Oromos did not need Tesfaye’s book to know the historical crimes the Amhara ruling class perpetrated against the Oromos. It is beyond comprehension when one tries to condemn a historical novel that clearly depicts the past conflict. Had it been for the current Amhara elites, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and multiple other novels dealing with slavery and colonialism would not have been published because, according to them, they disseminate seed of discord between whites and blacks. You can’t achieve peace and reconciliation by hiding past deeds, but by openly talking about them.

Finally, there was a reason why in particular Chaltu Inde Helen in Ye Sidetegnaw Mastawesha drove the chauvinist camp crazy. To some extent, through time, some have reluctantly started to recognize that the Oromos were treated unfairly in the distance past. But they always tried to belittle even this by saying, “it happened in the remote past by the ruling group and that present generation had nothing to do with it.” However, the settings in Chaltu Inde Helen discredit this apologist argument. It depicted a picture of what relatively recently occurred in the center of Addis Ababa in the middle class environment. In tackling the twin issues of ethnicity and urban versus countryside conflicts, the writer hit a raw nerve with many elites who grew up in Addis Ababa, and who used to falsely portray themselves as if they were above the so-called ethnic strife that besieged the country. Tesfaye’s book is a mirror reflection of the childhood that most Addis Ababan elites passed through. It is a book about them. In this book, most of them see their ugly selves – what they had done when they were young – how they grew up bullying, harassing and bashing Oromos and others, or – how they were harassed and then lost their identity and assimilated; they have always wanted to repress this memory; they did not want this to come into light of the day because, not only does it show their hypocrisy, but because it is also a constant reminder of their guilt. At least for those who moved to the West, it’s also painful because they now know what it means to be on the receiving end of discrimination. It is also a painful memory for those non-Amharas, who through severe harassment were forced to assimilate, and forget and deny their true selves and identity, and lived as Addis Ababans. To claim an Addis Ababan identity, the book showed to this group, means nothing, but self-denial and acquiring a thinly veiled Amhara identity. Some at least do not want to revisit this stage of their history.

The Addis Ababan elites, who are predominantly Amahras or forcefully assimilated others, always tried to portray themselves as if they were non-ethnic. However, Chaltu Inde Helen exposed that they were just as bad as any chauvinist Abyssinian. In addition, Chaltu Inde Helen cut the ground out from under the Amharas who always blamed the past discrimination only on the system and failed taking person responsibility that they were part and parcel of the system. And so, they came in drove to condemn Tesfaye for he rudely put a mirror in their face and forced them to meet their other selves, and see glaringly their past deeds which they did not want to see. The tolerant and accommodative metropolitan lives they claimed they led, this book showed, were nonexistent, false and only lived on their minds.

After Tesfaye released his book on the Internet, the campaign to stop its publication became mute, and now the attack shifted towards discrediting the quality and the substance of the book itself. This attack obviously targeted Chaltu Inde Helen. As if reading from the same page, all of them started singing the same chorus. They declared that the conflict in the book, that is the bullying, tormenting, mental harassment and forced assimilation that Chaltu underwent in the hand of Addis Abbabans was a predicament that everyone who moves from the countryside to Addis Ababa endured and nothing to do with her ethnicity. I don’t know which “genius” first came up with this point, but you could almost see their elation when they found this argument, because they believed this would poke a hole in the central point of Chaltu Inde Helen, and emasculate the potency of the message thereby also delivering them from their pain, and the embarrassment the book caused them. So, every one of them repeated this self-delusional argument with a glee.

Their line of argument is that Chaltu came from countryside to Addis and any balager Menze, who comes from Menz to Addis Ababa, would have faced the same situation to adjust to city life. Their conclusion was that Chaltu did not suffer because she was an Oromo. The problem is the suffering that Chaltu had to endure is not equivalent with harassment a person coming from Amhara area to Addis Ababa had to endure. This kind of argument is very common in politics and it’s called equivalence fallacy in logic. The pattern of this fallacy is usually explained using this formula:

A is the set of c and d

B is the set of d and e

A and B both contain d

Thus, A and B are equal

If we use this formula to depict the argument against Chaltu Inde Helen, we can come up with several scenarios, but let’s just take one simple example and dismantle their argument. Here is one scenario:

Chaltu (A), an Oromo does not speak Amharic (c) and has a tattoo in her neck areas (d), which connotes she is from the countryside and thereby exposing her to ridicule.

Assegedech (B), an Amhara from Menz speaking Amharic with accent (e) and has a tattoo in her neck areas (d), which connotes she is from the countryside and thereby exposing her to ridicule.

Conclusion: Chaltu and Assegedech both have tattoo in their neck areas and both are harassed in Addis Ababa for this reason. Therefore, Chaltu’s harassment has nothing to do with her Ormoness.

Just because both are ridiculed and laughed at because of their niqisat, the writers want us to believe that both are equally situated and the ultimate consequence they face as a result of their situation is similar. This is a typical false equivalence and a logical fallacy – which describes a situation as apparent equivalence, when in fact, there is none. It is often used by apologists attempting to justify or excuse certain discrimination and disparate treatments.

The other way of perpetuating this fallacy is to present as equivalent one shared trait between the two subjects. For example if both are teased because of language related issues (Chaltu because she is Oromo and spoke Amharic with Oromo accent, and Assegedech because she had Menze accent), our apologist conclude equivalence between these two situations. The magnitude of the teasing, and most importantly, the consequence of “changing” as a result of the harassment, is not considered by them. But, if you go a little deep, there is no equivalence between the two conditions at all. Leaving aside the incomparable magnitude of teasing that Chaltu as an Oromo has to endure compared with Assegedech who comes to Addis from Menz, the consequence is dramatically dissimilar. Assegedech by changing her accent to conform to Addis Ababa accent will not have to change her language. She is not forced to change her culture and way of life, and most of all her identity and ethnicity, will still remain Amhara. The change she is asked to make pales in comparison to the metamorphosis Chaltu is required to undergo to conform. Chaltu, through the harassment, is forced to forget her language, culture, and way of life, and hate her identity. Because identity is one of several fundamental human needs, Chaltu, through this forced assimilation, is losing who she is by and large. Assegedech is asked to make changes on the periphery, while Chaltu is asked to change her core – who she is. Therefore, there is no equivalency between the two.

It’s so sad that most of these apologist writers, due to the role they assigned for themselves as protectors of the legacy of the Amahra domination, failed to sympathize with a human misery. The system of domination, the bullying and harassment of the students at school and society killed this once promising, vivacious beautiful girl. The story is even beyond the depiction of the Oromos forced assimilation, it is also on different level about the story of an individual’s suffering and struggle – a story about an individual who is caught between two systems and does not know how to cop. Because they were blinded by the defense of the old order, they could not even for a moment empathize with Chaltu’s agony as a person. What makes these people so callous and indifferent to such sad story? I have no clear answer, but to surmise that the fear of the Oromo, or Oromo phobia, a term popularize by Jawar, has something to do with it.

* Laalo Guduru can be reached at “laaloguduru@gmail.com”

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