Senior Research Associate’s presentation unites Oromo people’s difficult past with a hopeful future

Prof Asafa Jalata, a Director of the Board of the OSA, Dr Sandy Shell, Senior Research Associate and Prof Asfaw Beyene, Chair of the Board of Directors of the OSA
Prof Asafa Jalata, a Director of the Board of the OSA, Dr Sandy Shell, Senior Research Associate and Prof Asfaw Beyene, Chair of the Board of Directors of the OSA

Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University’s Cory Library, Dr Sandra Rowoldt Shell, recently spoke at the 33rd annual Oromo Studies Association (OSA) conference, which was held on ‘home ground’ for the first time in history.

Dr Shell’s interest in the East Cushitic Oromo people led to her doctoral thesis topic: “From Slavery to Freedom: the Oromo Slave Children of Lovedale, Prosopography and Profiles”. This later culminated in her book, “Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa”, which was the basis of her OSA conference presentation.

Over the past two years, three editions of the book have been published in three different countries including a US (Ohio University Press) edition in 2018 and a South African edition (UCT Press/Juta), published earlier this year. Shama Books (Ethiopia) also published an edition this year with an initial print run of 1 000 copies.

“Shortly after registering for my doctoral thesis, I discovered the OSA through references to articles in the Association’s Journal of Oromo Studies, which kept cropping up in my readings. So I joined up and have been a member for more than 12 years,” Dr Shell explained.

She says the Association promotes research and scholarship across the full range of Oromo studies. “In all the 33 years of OSA’s existence, we had never been able to hold our annual general meeting (AGM) on home ground [Ethiopia]. Meetings were instead held in the diaspora, usually in the United States,” she said.

Despite being the most populous of all the groups in Ethiopia, the East Cushitic Oromo had been marginalised internally since the 1890s and suffered oppression as a political and economic minority. They were deprived not only of their expropriated lands, their freedom through enslavement and their identity, they were even deprived of the right to speak their own language. In Ethiopia, the history of the Oromo people was effectively written out of the national narrative.

“Under successive regimes, protesting Oromo people were increasingly subject to widespread repression, arbitrary arrests, detention without charge, enforced disappearance, torture and even death. Like all authoritarian regimes in the past and present, the authorities sought to silence protesters, initially targeting the intellectuals, the journalists and the students. And, of course, all exiles, international commentators, media representatives and human rights movements were denied entry to the country, including the OSA. Social media and the internet in general suffered almost total blackout to limit communication leaking to the international media. I was personally advised by the former Horn of Africa representative of Human Rights Watch that I would not be allowed to enter Ethiopia should I try to travel there for my research,” Dr Shell explained.

Dr Shell felt the steady intensification of the protests in Ethiopia were the start of big changes to come. The most significant change came in the form of the election of Dr Abiy Ahmed, himself an Oromo, to the position of Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018. “He opened the doors of Ethiopia to the Oromo in exile, some of whom had not seen their homeland for 40 years or more, and whose children had never been allowed to set foot on Ethiopian soil. Even the Oromo Liberation Front operatives were given the green light to fly back into the country and were able to march through the main streets of the capital Addis Ababa/Finfinnee to a rousing welcome,” Dr Shell said.

Although Dr Abiy Ahmed is a man of peace, Dr Shell believes he is still faced with the profoundly difficult task of uniting his own deeply-divided nation. "Despite his having made peace with Eritrea within weeks of his appointment and having been awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize recently, these are still early days. We know there are still rumblings and there have been some disturbing, major eruptions. Ethiopia is a large and complex country comprising many disparate peoples with long, jagged histories of enmity for one another. However, like the Oromo children of this study, we can but hope," she said.

“When I finished my presentation, there was dead silence followed by big applause, but when the Conference Chair and President of OSA, Dr Kulani Jalata, called for questions, she could not see any hands raised, even though there were 1 000 delegates present,” said Dr Shell.

Although she was initially distressed, thinking that her presentation may have been negatively received by her audience, she soon discovered this had not been the case at all. “Many people came up to me afterwards to hold my hand in both of theirs, or to take me in their arms in a tight embrace, with tears pouring down their cheeks,” she recalled. 

One delegate told her, “I couldn't ask a question as I was crying all through your presentation."

Another said, “I wanted not so much to ask you a question as to ask all present to join me in standing in appreciation of what you have done to forever destroy the denials and myths about the Oromo past, and to acknowledge what you have done to lay the foundation for our future. Our true history is in the public arena at last. The Oromo Children of Hope have spoken to us, the Oromo people, across the centuries!"

Following the conference, Dr Jalata wrote to Dr Shell: “Did you know that many people were emotional watching your talk and hearing the personal narratives? I heard this from many and also saw it in the audience faces. It was a moving historical and personal narration of the lives of two people forcibly detached from their motherland - a reminder of a nearly buried history, but also a comparison to current but different forms of forced detachment taking place. It really touched people.”

Dr Shell emphasised that without the archives of the Lovedale Institution (where the Oromo children were shipped for their welfare and education) held by the invaluable Cory Library for Humanities Research at Rhodes University, she would not have been able to write her book. “The Cory Library is where it all began,” she stated.