A shared concern among many immigrant groups is how to preserve their culture across generations. For many parents, passing on language and customs to their children is a huge concern. Like many first generation children, I remember my parents setting aside time for me to learn their languages, and my personal favorite, to hear my father tell stories about his own childhood growing up in the Wellega province of the Oromia region in Ethiopia. In the 1990s, there were few materials to assist my weekly lessons, and at the time, few additional stories about Wellega besides my father’s.
Unfortunately, my name is one of the few words that I understand in my father’s first language of Afaan Oromo. I took to my mother’s language of Amharic more easily since her language was better represented in our local community. When working as an educator in the diverse neighborhoods of Northwest Washington, D.C., I gained an appreciation for the challenges that my parents, and other immigrant families face in preserving language while supporting their children’s social integration. Afaan Publications is a new initiative dedicated to creating high quality educational tools for children in the Oromo language, which will be an invaluable tool for the many families — like mine — who can benefit from additional language and cultural resources.
“Afaan Oromo” roughly translates to “Oromo language.” It is the fourth most widely-spoken language in Africa, with over 40 million native speakers. The Oromo people mostly live in Ethiopia — where they comprise the majority of the population. There are also communities in neighboring Kenya and Somalia. Outside of the Horn of Africa, the Oromo people are not a widely known group, even though they are the largest ethnic group in the region. There are historical reasons for this relative anonymity.
The modern country of Ethiopia was created in the latter half of the 18th century. By the end of the century, the kingdom of Abyssinia (another name for ancient Ethiopia) expanded its power and territory beyond the northern highlands through sometimes brutal wars of conquest to gain control over a multi-ethnic state, twice the size of Texas.
This new state of Ethiopia, like many countries, tied its national and political identity to the ethnic group in power. It has to be transparently acknowledged that the governments in Ethiopia for the majority of the 20th century were highly discriminatory towards ethnic groups outside of the ruling Amhara ethnicity, which became the de facto national culture and language. There are many complexities in this history, but regardless, the Oromo language was especially repressed throughout this time period. Through the reign of Haile Selassie and the Communist Derg dictatorship, it was illegal to teach Afaan Oromo in schools, and remained so until the end of the dictatorship in 1991.
Afaan Publications was created by Toltu Tufa, an Oromo educator living in Melbourne, Australia. She has over 10 years of experience teaching the language in her local community, and has organized a team of 12 to develop a curriculum. I was able to speak with Toltu recently about the history of and goals of the project:
How did the Afaan Publications project start?
(Toltu): I actually didn’t set out to create a curriculum. It was a natural process, because I thought: “So many Africans are multi-lingual,” and it is common for many to speak two or three languages, so we should work to be multilingual in the Diaspora also.
I’m also working towards a PhD in Psychology, and know that in social psychology, it is accepted that language informs identity. I was working on the weekend teaching Afaan Oromo, and I found that there was such little instructional material for the language. So I understood that we had a huge need in our community for high quality teaching materials.
What are your goals for Afaan Publications?
We want to increase access to the Oromo language, but we also wanted to create something beautiful. We paid attention to not only the language content, but also brought in staff that specialized in graphics and printing to develop stand-out materials. I think that every culture has stories to tell, and this was our way of helping to share our stories as Oromos, and using our language.
We focused the textbooks and materials primarily on the family unit as instructors, but the materials can also be used in other settings. The Oromo language is currently taught through rote memorization, and I wanted to incorporate more contemporary learning strategies and curriculum.
How has the feedback been so far?
Our team was able to visit nine different Oromo communities around the world, including both the Oromia region and in the Diaspora in Europe, Australia and the Middle East. A big concern was that the books would not be relevant to our diverse communities, but the feedback from the trips has been positive. We were also able to develop relationships with organizations and individuals in the different countries to ensure that Afaan products are available locally in each of these areas.
For some of the older generations, the response has been emotional at times. I think they see it as tool to continue to keep the language fresh and for young people outside of Oromia to connect with their culture, and to begin to share their own stories in Afaan Oromo.
We also wanted to get an idea of the right cost for the textbooks and materials to make sure that this is something that is accessible for families. We currently have a crowdfundingdrive through Pozible to cover production and shipping costs to ensure that it is affordable for families.
The Afaan Publications project, in my opinion, shows some of the best qualities of the African Diaspora and what we can achieve. Toltu and her team have been able to leverage their skills and resources to provide a meaningful product that is not only a relevant to the Oromo community, but also serves as a positive example to anyone with an interest in revitalizing language and culture across generations and spatial separation. Furthermore, their work is focused on the family, which is the ultimately the main institution that defines our community.