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Deepening Cultural Integration among the Cushitic Peoples in Ethiopia

By: Wolassa L. Kumo

  1. Introduction

Culture can be defined as the totality of thought processes, experiences and behaviour that bind certain groups of people together. Cultures are guided by certain value systems, norms and rules. Societies that conform to a particular value system, norms and rules often constitute a particular cultural identity. Human societies are dynamic and so are their cultures. The Cushitic peoples, who are indigenous inhabitants of northeast Africa stretching from today's southern Egypt to northern Tanzania for at least the past 10,000 years, dispersed from a single Cush family in the Horn millennia ago and evolved into multiple Cushitic cultural sub groups. Therefore, today we talk of the Nubian culture in Egypt and Sudan; the Beja culture in Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea; the Agew, Saho, Afar, Oromo, Somali, Sidama cultures in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya. The Cushites have dispersed into over 47 different languages and cultural groups in the Horn. In addition to the major groups mentioned earlier, we have several smaller groups including Halaba, Xambaro, Qewena, Maraqo, Hadiya, Kambata, Gedeo, and Burji often regarded as the Sidama sub groups; Konso, Daasanach, Darashe, Arbore, Bayso of Ethiopia more affiliated to the lowland Oromo culture and language; Borana, Orma, Gabra, Waata (the Kenyan Oromo) and Rendile, Sakuye, Boni (Aweer), El Molo of Kenya; and the isolated southern Cushites of Iraqw, Burunge, Gorowa, and Alagwa of Tanzania. 

Our ancestors were referred to as Cushites by the ancient people of Kemet (ancient Egyptians) and Aithiopians (people with burned faces) by theancient Greeks. The oldest civilization in Africa was the civilisation of the Nubian Cushites around the Nile valley in the present day northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Historical and archeological evidences indicate that the ancient Cushitic civilization was one of the four oldest civilizations in the World that sprang around the four fertile river valleys including the Cushitic and Egyptian civilisations of the Nile valley, the Harappancivilisation around the Indus river valley, the Mesopotamian civilisation around the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys and the ancient Chinesecivilisation on the Huang He (Yellow) River valley. History is important. As the Confucian saying goes "we must study the past to define our future." 

The Nubian civilisation predates the Kemetian (Egyptian) civilisation. Archeological records point to artifacts as old as 300,000 years in Nubian lands. Archeological evidences of Nubian pottery dates back to 5000 BC. The Cushitic civilisation of Kerma four and a half millennia ago, the Napata-Meroetic civilisation dating back to the beginning of first Millennium BC, the Agew civilisation of 922-1270 AD are of epic significance in Cushitic history and culture. 

Historical evidences also indicate that the Cushites and the Omotic peoples were the first to domesticate plants and animals in ancient northeast Africa in particular, the ancient Cush land or the present day Ethiopia. Two prominent endemic crops in Ethiopia today, Teff and Enset, were first domesticated by the ancient Cushites (Aithiopians). The Cushites have been pastoralists, semi-pastoralists, and sedentary agriculturalists for at least the past seven millennia and this has significant bearing on the evolution of their cultures.

2. Cushitic Peoples in Ethiopia 

The Cushitic and Omotic language speaking peoples inhabited the Cush land or the present-day Ethiopia at least by 7000 BC. The history of Cush (Aithiopia) goes therefore as far back as 9000 years. While the Nubians settled around the Nile valley, the Beja, Oromo, Sidama, Agew, Somali, Afar, Saho and many other Cushitic groups dispersed from the early Cush lands in northern Sudan and southern Egypt and inhabited the Horn as far south as northern Tanzania. The Cushites had settled in northern Tanzania at least by 500 BC. 

In Aithiopia, the Agew and the Sidama (including the ancient Sidama sub groups) settled in the present day Eritrean and Ethiopian highlands while the Oromo, Beja, Saho Afar, Somali occupied the lowlands (hence the name low land Cushites) since at least 7000 BC. The Oromo inhabited the vast territory from northern Aithiopian lowlands to southern Aithiopia since antiquity. In this regard, Tesema Ta'a (2004 ) quotes Christopher Ehret (2002) who "clearly indicates that the period between 3500 and 1000 BC was marked by a continuous expansion of the Kushitic population in Northeastern Africa in general, and the Ethiopian Highlands, in particular. He further explains that the plains and grasslands along the Ethiopian Rift Valley floor and the southern edge of the Ethiopian Highlands became the domain of the two groups of Lowland Eastern Kushitic peoples, namely the Konsoromo and the OmoTana". Like all other Cushites, the Oromo are the indigenous inhabitants of the Horn of Africa who had developed their own distinct identity in the first millennium BC. This rich history of the Oromo society has often been distorted in modern Ethiopian literature. The most cynical of this distortions is the so called "history of the Oromo migration of the 15th and 16th centuries". The Oromo had never migrated anywhere. Like all other Cushites, the Oromo people had always moved from one corner of Cush land to another since antiquity. The Sidama and its sub groups had moved from what was known as the Lake Hayq region in today's northern Ethiopia to south central highlands towards the end of the Aksumite period. There was nothing unique about the movement of the Oromo people from one territory of Cush land to another in the 15th and 16th century or today. Any attempt to indicate otherwise would amount to a fabrication of history to denigrate a society. 

Instead it were the Agazian and the Habshat tribes of southern Arabia who migrated to the Cush land in Horn of Africa beginning around 1000 BC. They settled initially as traders. Gradually they succeeded in subduing the indigenous Cushitic peoples and assimilate them into the Semitic culture in northern Cush highlands. This led to evolution of ancient hybrid civilizations such as Aksum from which mixed Cushito-Semitic tribes developed. In spite of their mixed origins these tribes became linguistically and culturally Semitic. These tribes later created what was known as the Agazian kingdom by the people themselves and the Abyssinian kingdom by the foreigners. Therefore, the 3000 year history of Ethiopia we were taught at schools refers only to the history of the Agazian kingdom not of the Cushitic kingdoms, which, as we have seen earlier, were much older. The Agazian kingdom did not succeed in subduing all the Cushites in the vast territory in the Horn. It was only King Menelik II who for the first time in 1880s and 1890s conquered and subdued the vast majority of the indigenous Cushitic and other inhabitants of northeast Africa creating a new empire state of Ethiopia. Indisputably therefore the history of today's Ethiopia (Imperial Ethiopia) is only 120 years old. It is important therefore to understand that the Biblical Ethiopia does not refer to the Imperial Ethiopia of 120 years. The Biblical Ethiopia refers to the ancient Cush-Aithiopia of 9000 years.

 Most of the Cushitic peoples of northeast Africa live in modern Ethiopia today. As indicated earlier, these include Oromo, Somali, Sidama, Afar, Agew, Hadiya, Maraqo, Kambata, Halaba, Xambaro, Qewena, Konso, Burji, Gedeo, Saho, Darashe, Daasanach, Arbore and Bayso of the Giddicho island on Lake Abbaya. The Oromo people are the single largest Cushitic group and ethnic group in Ethiopia. According to the 2015 population estimate by the Central Statistical Agency, the population of Oromia was 33.7 million accounting for 37.4% of the total population of the country. The Somali are the second largest Kushitic group in Ethiopia with 5.4 million people in 2015 followed by Sidama with the population of nearly 4 million in 2015. Afar, Hadiya, Agew and Gedeo each has population above 1 million while the remaining Kushitic nations have population as small as 5500 (Bayso) and 10,000 (Arbore) and as big as 856,167 (Kambata) (See Table 1). [ Table 1: The Cushitic Peoples of Ethiopia 2015 ]

The Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia reports the population of the Hawassa town separately from the population of Sidama. The Hawassa town is the administrative capital of Sidama as well as the Southern Region. Where on planet earth would the population of the administrative capital of a society be deducted from the population of the society? Hawassa has been inhabited by the Sidama people for at least the past 1000 years; since the time the ancient Sidama people moved from northern highlands to the south central part of the country. It was inhabited by the semi-pastoral Sidama population. In the same manner the history of the Oromo people has been distorted, we observe today, in the 21st century, an attempt to distort the history of Sidama and its land, Hawassa. Hawassa was founded just in 1960, 55 years ago, by the feudal regime. The space for urban buildings were acquired by dismantling the Sidama farms and cattle enclosures known in Sidama language as Hoowe. Today, some attempt to hoodwink us that Hawassa was built on a barren land and "no one settled on the land 55 years ago". Come on! Time to fabricate history to denigrate societies is over. Hawassa, also known as Adaare, has been a Sidama settlement for over a millennia and will remain the Sidama land for ever. Since time immemorial when a Sidama child cries for milk, the mother would sooth the child by saying: "Ado lali Adaare no", meaning, "The milk cows are in Adaare (Hawassa), my baby." The fact that the Sidama people have welcomed people from different ethnic groups to live in the land peacefully has been misconstrued as giving up the right, which would not benefit any one ultimately. 

In Ethiopia, the Cushitic population inhabits 64.7% of the total land area and accounted for 55% of the total population according to the 2007 population census and 56% of the total population of 90 million according to the 2015 population estimate by the Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency. The Semitic language speaking groups, Omotic language speaking groups and the Nilo-Sahara language speaking groups together accounted for 44% of the total population in 2015.

Nonetheless, the Cushitic groups have been politically and economically marginalized since the creation of the Ethiopian Empire at the end of the 19th century. The Cushitic peoples of Ethiopia are numerical majority but are cultural and political minority in their own ancient homelands. They are what I call a silent and invisible majority. Moreover, underdeveloped literary culture and dependence on oral history may have contributed to fading memory of ancient and glorious common heritage. This has often led to artificial rivalry between the various Cushitic groups for grazing lands and artificial territories. In addition to the assimilationist strategies, the politically dominant Semitic groups have employed the friction amongst the majority indigenous Cushitic population in the country to further divide and weaken them. The Agew reasserted Cushitic hegemony for 375 years between 1922-1270 AD. Nonetheless, they were ambushed alone for more than 2000 years and were defeated and almost entirely assimilated into the Tigray and Amhara population. This was partly because the Agew, who were politically more advanced ancient Cushites, were unable to conquer and unite the Beja, the Afar, the Oromo and the Sidama Cushites.

3. The Linguistic interconnections of the Cushitic Peoples 

There are about 47 different Cushitic language and cultural groups in northeast Africa today. A prominent linguist Joseph Greenberg (1966) classifies Cushitic languages into four major subgroups. These include: (1) Northern Cushitic (Beja Language); (2) Central Cushitic (Agew languages); (3) East Cushitic (Oromo, Sidama, Somali, and Afar); and (4) South Cushitic (the Cushites in Kenya and Tanzania). In this article, our focus will be on the languages of central Cushites and East Cushites.

 The Central Cushitic (Agew) languages are spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia by the various subgroups of the Agew people. The Central Cushitic includes: (1) Blin in Eritrea with about 100,000 speakers; (2) Awngi in the Amhara region of Ethiopia with about 500,000 speakers; (3) Khamta (Xamtanga) in the same region with about 230,000 speakers and (4) Kemant (Qimant) in the same region with over 1,700 speakers. The Qwara Agew has become extinct due to the migration of the entire speakers of this dialect to Israel. Most of the Agew are also bilingual and speak both Amharic and Agew. The total population of the Agew speakers in Ethiopia is over one million people. 

The East Cushitic languages are by far the most diverse and are spoken in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya. This sub group is in turn further divided into two, namely, (i) the Highland East Cushitic also known as Sidamic and (ii) the Lowland East Cushitic. The Highland East Cushitic languages are described in 
Table 2 Below: 

[ Table 2: The Highland East Cushitic (Sidamic) Languages ]

The Highland East Cushitic languages are spoken mostly by the ancient Sidama group with the exception of Gedeo and Burji who fall into this category. Some linguists miss Qewena and Xambaro when classifying the Highland East Kushitic (Sidamic) languages. The Sidamic Cushitic languages are spoken today by over 8 million people. 

Within the East Cushitic Language groups, the Lowland East Cushitic languages are the most diverse and are spoken in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. 
Table 3 provides the list of the Lowland East Cushitic languages spoken in Ethiopia. 

[ Table 3: The Lowland East Cushitic Languages in Ethiopia ]

The Lowland East Cushitic languages are spoken by over 41 million people in Ethiopia in 2015. Afan Oromo speakers constitutes about 81% of the Lowland East Cushitic languages speakers and 67% of all Cushitic languages speakers in Ethiopia.

 The seven largest East Cushitic language speakers in Ethiopia are, Oromo, Somali, Sidama, Afar, Hadiya, Gedeo and Kambata. Most other languages are spoken by few hundred thousand people or less. Most East Cushitic languages are spoken in Ethiopia. Others are spoken in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea.

 4. Afaan Oromoo as a driving force of cultural integration of the Cushites in Ethiopia

Afaan Oromoo is spoken by over 33 million people in Oromia, over half a million people in Amhara and Tigray regions and similar numbers in Kenya and Somalia. Afaan Oromoo is also spoken by Sidama, Afar and Somali as well as other Cushites who border the Oromia region. In addition, the Sidama people sing war songs "Geerarsha" only in Afaan Oromoo whether they are Afaan Oromoo speakers or not. Individuals learn "Geerarsha" in Afaan Oromoo by heart to sing them to signify the common bond and heritage of the two societies. The Sidama Luwa and the Oromo Gada systems are two sides of the same coin: the indigenous traditional democratic and egalitarian systems of socio-political administration. The Oromo language and culture is therefore embodied in the cultures and languages of the vast majority of the Ethiopian Cushites. Afaan Oromoo is the Lingua Franca of the Cushites of Ethiopia. Amharic has become lingua franca in Ethiopia as an administrative language. On the other hand, Afaan Oromoo was not forced onto any society. It has become a common language of many Cushites as part and parcel of their common cultural heritage.

 Therefore, Afaan Oromoo provides a unique opportunity to deepen cultural integration among the Cushites of Ethiopia. The most important question that follows is the modality of the implementation. The first plausible approach would be to conduct further studies to determine the current state of cultural and linguistic integration among the Cushites of Ethiopia. This could be achieved in either of two ways: by creating a new forum for study of Cushitic languages and cultures by independent Cushitic scholars or by utilizing the existing Oromo studies institutions. The studies will identify gaps and propose methods of intervention and resources required to address these gaps. While this is a more formal and sustainable approach to tackling a fundamental socio-cultural development problem, it requires prolonged consultations and consensus building which by their very nature can only be achieved in the long run. Nonetheless, as a famous macroeconomist, John Maynard Keynes, once said: "In the long run, we are all dead."

 The most pragmatic approach would rather be to use a combination of formal and informal channels to sensitize the Cushitic societies about the importance of deepening cultural integration among various Cushitic groups in the country. The process could begin with the Cushitic quartet: Oromo, Sidama, Somali and Afar, who not only share significant cultural and language heritage but also long common geographic borders. The cultural sensitization could begin, for instance, with formal or informal exchange visits of cultural groups among the four societies. This could include exchange visits of drama groups, music bands, from the four groups as well as Gadaa and Luwa heritages leaders from Oromia and Sidama. 

The Cushitic music is one of the most adored music in Horn of Africa and a music tour by an Oromo, Somali or Afar artists to Sidama would without doubt galvanize a large section of the Sidama society at any given point in time. The iconic Oromo artists, Ali Birra and Abitew and the young and rising star Haacaaluu Hundeessaa are as popular in Sidama, Somali and Afar societies as they are in Oromo society. They are equally loved and adored in these societies. Who would not want to quench the thirst of Cushitic music with Gashaw Adal's Afar bit and Amey by Macammad Kasim and associates. Equally impressive are Abdirahman Koronto's traditional Somali Dhaanto music, and of course Aduyna Duumo's Sidama traditional hits. Nonetheless, due to limited opportunities for cultural sharing, none of the veteran as well as young singers had any opportunity to share their songs with any of the other Cushitic societies other than their own. Nor did they have any opportunity to sing in any other Cushitic languages other than in their mother tongue. For instance, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa's most recent hit "Maalan Jira" is an epic personification of the Cushitic societies and their ways of life in a beautiful 5 minute song. Kudos to the rising star! Music is a universal language. It breaks any language barrier. But when languages and cultures are bound a common heritage, music breaks not only language barriers but also cultural, social and psychological barriers. It is therefore time to dismantle a Cushitic cultural silo.

 Another more formal mode of cultural integration would be through the education system. This will entail the introduction of Cushitic languages in all schools in Cushitic language speaking regions and zones in Ethiopia as additional language courses. Since it would be impractical to introduce all the 18 Cushitic languages as additional languages courses in all schools in Cushitic language speaking regions and zones in Ethiopia in the short to medium term, Afaan Oromoo would be an obvious choice.

5. Afaan Oromoo as a language course in all schools in Cushitic language speaking Regions and Zones in Ethiopia

Education is by far the most effective and sustainable tool for advancing socio-economic and socio-cultural development. Educating a child is educating the future leader of society. Deeper cultural integration will not be realized without enabling the current generation of our peoples to understand and speak our languages. There is no better way to achieve this than introducing major Cushitic languages as additional language courses in primary and secondary schools across all Cushitic language speaking regions and zones. As the most widely spoken Cushitic language across the Horn, Afaan Oromoo is an obvious choice as additional language course in Sidama, Afar, Somali and other Cushitic language speaking territories in the country. Once this has been successfully implemented, other major Cushitic languages such as Somali, Sidama, Afar and Hadiya could be gradually included as additional courses outside of their native areas.

 This is not an unrealistic proposal. The major Cushitic language speaker in particular Oromo, Somali and Sidama, adopted Latin Scripts decades ago. This was made official following the 1991 change in government. Since the Latin Scripts more accurately capture the morphology, phonology and syntax of all Cushitic languages, teaching any Cushitic language to any Cushitic language speaking child would not cause an additional burden. Cushitic children will understand any Cushitic language faster and easily. 

The most important constrain would rather be resources to implement the programme. Both financial and human resources are always in short supply and this may remain a significant bottleneck. To address the resource constraint, my proposal would be to create a Cushitic Culture Development Trust Fund which will benefit from export revenues of the most abundant resource produced in the Cushitic language speaking regions. Among these, obviously coffee will stand out. Oromia supplies 60% of coffee exported and Sidama supplies 30% of coffee exported from Ethiopia. Sidama and Oromo supplely 90% of coffee for export market. If just 5% of the annual coffee export earnings are dedicated to this Fund it would suffice to implement the cultural integration programme. One would then ask why we should spend scarce resources on cultural integration while millions do not have enough to feed themselves. The fact of the matter is that culture is the backbone of social and economic development and its enrichment would significantly assist to tackle poverty. Culturally integrated societies trade easily with each other, they travel within the cultural boundary with a relative ease fostering tourism. New ideas and innovations are shared and adopted faster in culturally integrated societies than societies with language and culturally barriers. These are instrumental in tackling poverty and underdevelopment in poor societies like ours. 

Whether the government would be willing to support these kinds of initiatives is another matter. The onus is on those who claim to be the respective representatives of the Cushitic peoples in the country today. 

6. Afaan Oromoo as a second official and national language of Ethiopia 

Introducing Afaan Oromoo as an additional language course in primary and secondary schools in Cushitic language speaking regions would not only ensure deeper cultural integration among the Cushites but also the entire country. It is an affront to our conscious that the language spoken by over 40% of the population in Ethiopia is not recognized as official and national language in the country. Adopting Afaan Oromo as a second official and national language would not only benefit the Oromo and other Cushitic peoples but the entire country. The Amhara and Tigray people would benefit by learning Afaan Oromoo and the undistorted history and culture of the Cushites. Regardless of the manner in which the Cushites learned the Amharic language, the knowledge of the Amharic language and the Amhara culture is beneficial to the Cushitic peoples.

 History of human societies has shown that it is impossible to unite a country by a barrel of gun forever. That is why empires crumbled throughout human history. Nonetheless, it is possible to unit a country through the will of the people who live in it. That will can only be there when there is a level playing field for everyone to take part in the building of a particular territory. Today, in Africa we have dozens of countries where more than two official and national languages have been adopted. In South Africa, all eleven languages in the country are official languages. Did South Africa disintegrate because it adopted eleven official languages? Far from it. One of the most celebrated achievements of South Africa's democracy is the adoption of all the languages in the country as official languages. A country of eighty ethnic groups can learn a lesson or two from South Africa and many other African countries. 


   Ehret, Christopher. 2002. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
   Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Central Statistical Agency. 2013. 
   Population Projection of Ethiopia for all Regions at Wereda Level from 2014 - 2017, August 2013, Addis Ababa.
   Greenberg, Joseph Harold. 1966. The Languages of Africa. Second edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 
   Ta'a, Tesema. 2004. "The Place of Oromo in Ethiopian History: 2003 OSA Conference Keynote Address." Journal of Oromo Studies 11 (1-2):1-11.

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