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LOCATION: Ethiopia; Kenya; Somalia

POPULATION: 28 million

LANGUAGE: Afaan Oromoo

RELIGION: Original Oromo religion (Waaqa); Islam; Christianity


Although Oromos have their own unique culture, history, language, and civilization, they are culturally related to Afars, Somalis, Sidamas, Agaws, Bilens, Bejas, Kunamas, and other groups. In the past, Oromos had an egalitarian social system known as gada. Their military organization made them one of the strongest ethnic groups in the Horn of Africa between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries. Gada was a form of constitutional government and also a social system. Political leaders were elected by the men of the community every eight years. Corrupt or dictatorial leaders would be removed from power through buqisu (recall) before the official end of their term. Oromo women had a parallel institution known as siqqee. This institution promoted gender equality in Oromo society.

Gada closely connected the social and political structures. Male Oromos were organized according to age and generation for both social and political activities. The gada government was based on democratic principles. The abba boku was an elected "chairman" who presided over the chaffee (assembly) and proclaimed the laws. The abba dula (defense minister) was a government leader who directed the army. A council known as shanee or salgee and retired gada officials also helped the abba boku to run the government.

All gada officials were elected for eight years. The main qualifications for election included bravery, knowledge, honesty, demonstrated ability, and courage. The gada government worked on local, regional, and central levels. The political philosophy of the gada system was embodied in three main principles: terms of eight years, balanced opposition between parties, and power sharing between higher and lower levels. These checks and balances were created to prevent misuse of power. The goverment's independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches also were a way of balancing power. Some elements of gada are still practiced in southern Oromia.

The gada system was the basis of Oromo culture and civilization. It helped Oromos maintain democratic political, economic, social, and religious institutions for many centuries. The gada political system and military organization enabled Oromos defend themselves against enemies who were competing with them for land, water, and power. Today, Oromos are engaged in a national liberation movement. Under the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) they work to achieve self-determination. Most Oromos support this liberation organization and its army, the Oromo Liberation Army. There are many Oromo organizations in North America, Europe, and Africa that support the Oromo national movement. Oromos are struggling for the opportunity to rule themselves and reinvent an Oromian state that will reflect the gada system.


Oromos call their nation and country Oromia. They have been living in the Horn of Africa for all of their known history. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, with a population estimated at 28 million people in the mid-1990s. Oromia is located mainly within Ethiopia and covers an area of about 232,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers). The 3.5 million-year-old fossilized human skeleton known as "Lucy" (or "Chaltu" in Oromo) was found by archaeologists in Oromia. Present-day Oromos also live in Kenya and Somalia. In the late nineteenth century, Oromos were colonized and mainly joined with- Ethiopia. They lost their independent institutional and cultural development. Great Britain, France, and Italy supported the Ethiopian colonization of Oromos.

Oromia is considered the richest region of the Horn of Africa because of its agricultural and natural resources. It is considered by many to be the "breadbasket" of the Horn. Farm products, including barley, wheat, sorghum, xafi (a grain), maize, coffee, oil seeds, chat (a stimulant leaf), oranges, and cattle are raised in abundance in Oromia. Oromia is also rich in gold, silver, platinum, marble, uranium, nickel, natural gas, and other mineral resources. It has several large and small rivers used for agriculture and for producing hydroelectric power.


The Oromo language is called Afaan Oromoo. Afaan Oromoo has more than thirty million speakers. Ethnic groups such as the Sidama, Berta, Adare, Annuak, Koma, Kulo, Kaficho, and Guraghe speak the Oromo language in addition to their own languages. Afaan Oromoo is the third most widely spoken language in Africa, after Arabic and Hausa. It is the second most widely spoken indigenous language in Africa south of the Sahara.

In spite of attempts by Ethiopian regimes to destroy the Afaan Oromoo language, it has continued to exist and flourish in rural areas. Until recently, Oromos were denied the right to develop their language, literature, and alphabet. For almost a century, it was a crime to write in this language. With the rise of the Oromo national movement, Oromo scholars adopted Latin script (the alphabet used for English and most other European languages) in the early 1970s. The OLF adopted this alphabet and began to teach reading and writing in Afaan Oromoo.


Oromos believe that Waaqa Tokkicha (the one God) created the world, including them. They call this supreme being Waaqa Guuracha (the Black God). Most Oromos still believe that it was this God who created heaven and earth and other living and non-living things. Waaqa also created ayaana (spiritual connection), through which he connects himself to his creatures. The Oromo story of creation starts with the element of water, since it was the only element that existed before other elements.

Oromos believed that Waaqa created the sky and earth from water. He also created dry land out of water, and bakkalcha (a star) to provide light. With the rise of bakkalcha, ayaana (spiritual connection) emerged. With this star, sunlight also appeared. The movement of this sunlight created day and night. Using the light of bakkalcha, Waaqa created all other stars, animals, plants, and other creatures that live on the land, in air, and in water. When an Oromo dies, he or she will become spirit.

Some Oromos still believe in the existence of ancestors' spirits. They attempt to contact them through ceremonies. These ancestral spirits appear to relatives in the form of flying animals.

Original Oromo religion does not believe in hell and heaven. If a person commits a sin by disturbing the balance of nature or mis-treating others, the society imposes punishment while the person is alive.

Oromo heroes and heroines are the people who have done something important for the community. Thinkers who invented the gada system, raagas (prophets), and military leaders, for example, are considered heroes and heroines. Today, those who have contributed to the Oromo national movement are considered heroes and heroines.


Oromos recognize the existence of a supreme being or Creator that they call Waaqa. They have three major religions: original Oromo religion (Waaqa), Islam, and Christianity.

The original religion sees the human, spiritual, and physical worlds as interconnected, with their existence and functions ruled by Waaqa. Through each person's ayaana (spiritual connection), Waaqa acts in the person's life. Three Oromo concepts explain the organization and connection of human, spiritual, and physical worlds: ayaana, uuma (nature), and saffu (the ethical and moral code).

Uuma includes everything created by Waaqa, including ayaana. Saffu is a moral and ethical code that Oromos use to tell bad from good and wrong from right. The Oromo religious institution, or qallu, is the center of the Oromo religion. Qallu leaders traditionally played important religious roles in Oromo society. The Ethiopian colonizers tried to ban the Oromo system of thought by eliminating Oromo cultural experts such as the raagas (Oromo prophets), the ayaantus (time reckoners), and oral historians.

Today, Islam and Christianity are the major religions in Oromo society. In some Oromo regions, Eastern Orthodox Christianity was introduced by the Ethiopian colonizers. In other areas, Oromos accepted Protestant Christianity in order to resist Orthodox Christianity. Some Oromos accepted Islam in order to resist Ethiopian control and Orthodox Christianity. Islam was imposed on other Oromos by Turkish and Egyptian colonizers. However, some Oromos have continued to practice their original religion. Both Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia have been greatly influenced by Oromo religion.


The Oromo celebrate ceremonial rites of passage known as ireecha or buuta, as well as Islamic and Christian holidays. The Oromos have also begun celebrating an Oromo national day to remember their heroines and heroes who have sacrificed their lives trying to free their people from Ethiopian rule.


Since children are seen as having great value, most Oromo families are large. The birth of a child is celebrated because each newborn child will some day become a worker. Marriage is celebrated since it is the time when boys and girls enter adulthood. Death is marked as an important event; it brings members of the community together to say goodbye.

Traditionally Oromos had five gada (grades) or parties. The names of these grades varied from place to place. In one area, these grades were dabalee (ages one to eight), rogge (ages eight to sixteen), follee (ages sixteen to twenty-four), qondaala (ages twenty-four to thirty-two), and dorri (ages thirty-two to forty). There were rites of passages when males passed from one gada to another. These rites of passages were called ireecha or buuta.

Between the ages of one and eight, Oromo male children did not participate in politics and had little responsibility. When they were between eight and sixteen years old, they were not yet allowed to take full responsibility and marry. Between ages sixteen and twenty-four, they took on the responsibilities of hard work. They learned about war tactics, politics, law and management, culture and history, and hunting big animals. When young men were between twenty-four and thirty-two years of age, they served as soldiers and prepared to take over the responsibilities of leadership, in peace and war. Men thirty-two to forty years old had important roles. They shared their knowledge with the qondaala group and carried out their leadership responsibilities.

Nowadays, those who can afford it send their children to school. These children complete their teenage years in school. Children and teenagers participate in agriculture and other activities needed for survival. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, young Oromos marry and start the lifecycle of adulthood.


Oromos are friendly people, and they express their feelings openly. Oromos greet one another by shaking hands; they talk to one another warmly. Asahama? (How are you?) , Fayaadha? (Are you healthy?), and Matinkee atam? (Is your family well?) are common greeting phrases or questions. The other person answers, Ani fayaadha (I am fine), Matinkos nagadha (My family is o.k.), and Ati fayaadha? (What about you, are you fine?).

When Oromos visit other families, they are provided with something to drink or eat. It is expected that visitors will eat or drink what is offered. People can drop by and visit friends or relatives without letting them know ahead of time.

Dating is an important step for a boy and a girl. Usually a young boy begins by expressing his love for a girl whom he wants to date. When a girl agrees that she loves him, too, they start dating. Premarital sex is not accepted, but kissing and dancing are acceptable. Parents are not usually told about a dating relationship. Dating may or may not lead to marriage. Having girlfriends and boyfriends gains young people social status and respect from others.


Since Oromos are colonial subjects, their natural resources are extracted mainly by wealthy and powerful Ethiopians and their supporters. Most Oromos are rural people who lack basic services such as electricity, clean water, adequate housing, reliable transportation, clinics, and hospitals. Electricity that is produced by Oromian rivers is used mainly by Amhara and Tigrayans.

Hunger is a problem among the Oromo and many attribute it to exploitation by the Ethiopian government. Since Oromos have been denied education by a successive series of Ethiopian regimes, the Oromo middle class is very small. The living conditions of this class, however, are better than those of most Oromos. Members of this class mainly live in cities and towns.

Because of the military conflict between the Oromo Liberation Front army and the Ethiopian government army, Oromo peasants are constantly threatened, murdered, or imprisoned by the government. The Ethiopian government takes their property, claiming that the Oromo are hiding guerrilla fighters. Because of poverty, war, lack of modern farming methods, lack of education, and exploitation, the living standard of the Oromo people is very low. They live in overcrowded dwellings, which often house large extended families.

Oromos use human labor and animals such as donkeys and horses for transportation in rural areas. They use cars, wagons, buses, and trucks for transportation in cities and towns.


The basic unit of a household is the patrilineal (male-headed) extended family. Neighborhoods and communities are important social networks connected to the extended family. A man, as head of the family, has authority over his wife (or wives) and unmarried sons and daughters. The typical Oromo man has one wife. But because of religious conversion to Islam and other cultural influences, some Oromo men marry more than one wife (a practice known as polygyny). Divorce is discouraged in Oromo society. Oromo women have begun to resist polygyny.

Because of patriarchy and sexism, Oromo women are treated as inferior to men and have little power. Oromo women live under triple oppression: class, gender, and ethnic/racial oppression. Before colonization, Oromo women had an institution known as siqqee to help them oppose male domination and oppression. Although there are Oromo women fighters and military leaders in the liberation struggle, the status of Oromo women has not changed.


Some Oromo men wear woya (toga-like robes), and some women wear wandabiti (skirts). Others wear leather garments or animal skin robes, and some women wear qollo and sadetta (women's cloth made of cotton).

Modern garments from around the world are also worn. In cash-producing areas and cities, Oromos wear modern Western-style clothes. Oromos have clothes designated for special days. They call the clothes that they wear on holidays or other important days kitii and the clothes that they wear on working days lago.


The main foods of Oromos are animal products including foon (meat), anan (milk), badu (cheese), dhadha (butter), and cereals that are eaten as marqa (porridge) and bideena (bread). Oromos drink coffee, dhadhi (honey wine), and faarso (beer). Some Oromos chew chat (a stimulant leaf).

The special dish of Oromos is itoo (made with meat or chicken, spices, hot pepper, and other ingredients) and bideena bread (made from xafi or millet). Sometimes mariqa or qincee (made from barley) is eaten for breakfast. Ancootee (a food made from the roots of certain plants) is a special food in some parts of western Oromia.

All members of the family eat together. Members of the family sit on stools, eat off wooden platters or dishes, use wooden spoons for liquids, and use washed hands to pick up solid foods. The majority of Oromos eat twice a day, in the morning and at night. Muslim Oromos do not eat pork for religious reasons.


Literacy (the ability to read and write) is very low among Oromos, probably less than 5 percent of the group. Oromos depend mainly on family and community education to transmit knowledge to the younger generation. Older family and community members have a responsibility to teach children about Oromo culture, history, tradition, and values. When children go to colonial schools, the Oromo oral historians and cultural experts make sure that these children also learn about Oromo society.

Although their numbers are very limited, there are three kinds of schools in Oromia: missionary, madarasa (Islamic), and government schools. Islamic schools teach classes through the sixth grade, and the other schools go through grade twelve. Oromos do not have control over these schools. Oromo culture and values are constantly attacked in them. Despite all these problems, Oromo parents have very high expectations for education. If they can afford it, they do not hesitate to send their children to school.


Oromos respect their elders and value social responsibility, helping others, bravery, and hard work. Knowledge of history and culture is admired. Oromos can count their family trees through ten generations or more. These values are expressed in geerarsa or mirisa (singing), storytelling, poems, and proverbs. Geerarsa is used to praise good behavior and discourage inappropriate behavior.

Oromo cultural heritage is expressed through mirisa, weedu, and different cultural activities. There are different kinds of weedu, such as weedu fuudha (a marriage song), weedu lola (a war song), and weedu hoji (a work song). Oromo women have their own song, called helee, that they use to express their love for their country, children, and husbands. Young boys invite girls to marriage ceremonies by singing hurmiso. Men do dhichisa (a dance to celebrate the marriage ceremony) and women do shagayoo (singing and dancing) during marriage ceremonies. There are prayer songs called shubisu and deedisu.


Oromos are mainly farmers and pastoralists (herders). Young educated Oromos move to cities to look for jobs. There are also a small number of merchants in Oromo society, as well as weavers, goldsmiths, potters, and woodworkers.


Hunting and practicing military skills were important sports in Oromia before it was colonized. Oromo men used to hunt large animals as a test of manhood. They used hides, ivory, and horns in their arts and crafts. Hunting was seen as training for warfare for young Oromos. It helped them learn how to handle their weapons and prepare themselves for difficult conditions.

Popular sports among children and young adults in Oromo society include gugssa (horseback riding), qillee (field hockey), darboo (throwing spears), waldhaansso (wrestling), utaalu (jumping), and swimming. Oromo society has produced athletes who have competed and won in international sports events. In 1956, Wami Biratu, an Oromo soldier serving in the Ethiopian colonial army, was the first Oromo athlete to participate in the Olympic Games. He became a source of inspiration for other Oromo athletes. Ababa Biqila, another Oromo soldier, won the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon and set a new world record, running barefoot. Another Oromo soldier, Mamo Wolde, became the 1968 Olympic Marathon champion. Other Oromo soldiers have succeeded in international competitions as well.

In 1988, Ababa Makonnen (Ababa Biqila's nephew) won the Tokyo Marathon, and Wadajo Bulti and Kabada Balcha came in second and third. Daraje Nadhi and Kalacha Mataferia won first and second place, respectively, in the World Cup marathon in 1989. In 1992, Daraartu Tullu (1969), an Oromo woman, won the gold medal for her victory in the 10,000-meter race in the Barcelona Olympic Games. In 1996, another Oromo woman, Fatuma Roba, became a women's marathon gold medalist. She was the first from Africa to win this kind of race, and she was the fastest marathon runner in the world. The successes of these Oromo athletes demonstrate the rich cultural heritage of athletic ability in Oromo society. The victories of these athletes went to Ethiopia.


Oromos gather and enjoy themselves during ceremonies such as weddings, holidays, and harvest festivals. At these events they eat, drink, sing, dance, and talk together. Jumping, running, swimming, wrestling, and other sports activities are recreation for boys and young adults. Oromo adults like to sit and chat during weekends, after work, and on holidays.


There are Oromos who specialize in making musical instruments such as the kirar (five-stringed bowl-lyre), masanqo (one-stringed fiddle), and drums. Iron tools such as swords, spears, hoes, axes, and knives have been important for farming, fighting, and hunting. There is a long tradition of woodworking in this society. Carpenters make such objects as platters, stools, spades, tables, plows, bows and arrows, wooden forks, and honey barrels.

Goldwork has been practiced in some parts of Oromia. Goldsmiths specialize in making earrings, necklaces, and other gold objects. There are Oromos who specialize in making other utensils from horn, pottery, and leather. Mugs, spoons, and containers for honey wine are made from horn. Basins, dishes, water jars, and vessels are made from pottery. Various kinds of bags to hold milk are made from leather.


Oromo's human rights and civil rights have been violated by one Ethiopian government after another. Oromos do not have control over their lives, lands, other properties, or country. They do not have a voice in the government, and they are not allowed to support independent Oromo political organizations. Oromos have been threatened, murdered, or imprisoned for sympathizing with the Oromo national movement, especially the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front). Oromos are not treated according to the rule of law.

Today thousands of Oromos are kept in secret concentration camps and jails just for being Oromo. Some Oromo activists or suspected activists are killed by Ethiopian soldiers. Their bodies are thrown into the streets to terrorize the Oromo people and to prevent them from supporting the Oromo national movement. Human rights organizations such as Africa Watch, the Oromia Support Group, and Amnesty International have witnessed many contracts aimed at reducing human rights abuses.


Abebe, Daniel. Ethiopia in Pictures. Minneapoli, Minn.s: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.

Fradin, D. Ethiopia. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.

Gerster, Georg. Churches in Stone: Early Christian Art in Ethiopia. New York: Phaidon, 1970.


Internet Africa Ltd. Ethiopia. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide, Ethiopia. [Online] Available, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: In the past, particularly during the colonial period, outsiders referred to the Oromo as "the Galla of Ethiopia." The Oromo dislike this name and see themselves as a trans-national ethnic and linguistic group.


Identification and Location. Oromo-speaking communities live in the highlands of Ethiopia to the north, the Ogaden and Somalia to the east, near the Sudanese border to the west, and their homelands in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya up to the Tana River to the south. As a result of the politics of Abyssinian centralization during the twentieth century and political unrest after 1974, thousands of Oromo moved to Europe, North America, and Australia.

Demography. The Oromo constitute half the population of Ethiopia. A round population figure, including Oromo exiles, was estimated at 25 million at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Oromo language (Afaan Oromo) is a Cushitic language (Afar-Saho, Beja, Sidama, Somali), a branch of the Afro-Asiatic or Hamito-Semitic language family. There are minor variations in usage by Oromo within Ethiopia and Kenya, but it is possible for all Oromo speakers to understand each other.

History and Cultural Relations

The Oromo originated in southern Ethiopia, together with the Somalis, around the tenth century and remained within southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya till migrations took place around 1530. In 1537 they occupied lands in the southeastern Ethiopian province of Bali, 310 miles (500 kilometers) from their homelands, after successful military campaigns against the Ethiopian kings. However, Hassen (1990) has suggested that there may have been groups of agriculturalist Oromo in the Ethiopian region of Shawa, south of Addis Ababa, in the fourteenth century.

All Oromo consider themselves descendants of the Boorana and therefore trace their origins to the Boorana region in southern Ethiopia, particularly to the Boorana homelands of Dirre and Liban. The Boorana are pastoralists, and their patterns of migration and conquest are determined by ongoing searches for water and grazing for their cattle.

Further migrations into northern Kenya took place during the nineteenth century and were halted by the arrival of Europeans in Ethiopia and Kenya in the 1880s. Migrations became more localized and dependent on relations with the Somalis in the southeast and the Abyssinians in Ethiopia. In 1896 the Oromo became subjects of the Abyssinian king Menelik II after the defeat of the Italian forces at the battle of Adwa. By 1904 diplomatic treaties between Britain and Ethiopia had fixed the political boundaries, and the Oromo became residents of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Cultural relations of economic exchange and ethnic hostility between Oromo and Somalis remained the norm during the twentieth century in northern Kenya. However, in Ethiopia the Oromo were colonized by the Abyssinian imperial army, their language was banned, and their children were forced to learn Amharic. After the collapse of the Ethiopian monarchy in the 1970s the Oromo organized themselves into a nationalistic movement that included thousands of Oromo in North America, Europe, and Australia. At the beginning of the twenty-first century nationalistic Oromo groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front were continuing an armed struggle against the centralized Ethiopian government.


Oromo settlements consist of several houses that are independent of each other and are articulated socially by a group of men, either leaders of different age sets or senior representatives of clans and lineages. A single settement is known as manyatta, and the houses within such a settlement also are referred to as manyatta.

The traditional Boorana house is built by women, particularly friends and affines of the bride, using clay and wooden sticks, shortly before the wedding ceremony. By the end of the colonial period, particularly in Kenya, other kinds of houses also were built. The materials used include timber, cement, rubber, and plastic. Regardless of their style or the materials used for their construction, all those houses are considered part of a single settlement: a manyatta. If European-style houses are built within a town, the Oromo settlement tends to be called "manyatta."

An Oromo settlement also includes enclosures for animals and sacred enclosures for prayer, divination, and meetings (chaffe, guumi). During times of pastoral movement and particularly when grazing and water are not available close to the settlements, women, children, the ill, and the old, together with a few men, remain in the settlement. They take care of a herd that includes pregnant, old, and young animals (hawicha), while the healthy cattle are kept nearer the grazing areas in a separate herd (fora).


Subsistence. The ideal type of economic subsistence involves cattle herding and pastoral activities that provide meat and milk. However, many Oromo-speaking groups live on agricultural products and cultivate the land, allowing them to sell products and generate a small amount of cash to buy items such as sugar, coffee beans, rice, and flour. Those who live in the wetter areas, such as Marsabit in northern Kenya and the southern Ethiopian highlands, cultivate and eat maize, millet, and wheat. Agricultural activities are complementary to their pastoral economy based on fresh or sour milk and their secondary products, butter and ghee. Long-term subsistence does not rely on annual crops but on the possession of as many animals as possible.

Commerical Activities. Most social, ritual, and economic activities involve the domestic exchange of cattle and other animals. Milk and vegetables also constitute part of a more localized trade conducted by women in local markets.

Industrial Arts. Some Oromo women sell artifacts such as bowls, wooden cups, and woven mats to tourists and foreign buyers. Other traditional arts include ceramics, hairstyling materials, necklaces, beads, cowry shells, collars, and head adornments.

Trade. Before the colonial period and the introduction of money, cowry shells and salt were used to buy, sell, and trade. Cattle and their products are still the most important means of trading and exchanging property, services, and wives.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, men looked after cattle and the public social sphere and women built houses, owned them, and directed home activities in the domestic sphere. Some of those roles have changed, and some men and women have become medical doctors, teachers, clerks, and civil servants.

Land Tenure. Land is shared and used communally, particularly grazing areas, which are used by all herds and shepherds. Settlements expand according to the amount of land available and the number of people who join a particular settlement. In very few cases individual or family ownership of land has been provided for Oromo. In those cases settlements have recognized the individual ownership of houses but not of land. However, the Oromo consider their places of grazing and burial "their land."


Kin Groups and Descent. Oromo kinship is patrilineal, and descent is reckoned through men. All Oromo belong to two moietiesGohna and Sabboand must marry somebody from the opposite moiety because members of the same moiety are considered brothers and sisters. Within localized kin groups all males who are related by kinship, together with their wives and children, constitute a kin group.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Every Oromo is expected to marry, and marriage is indissoluble. After marriage wives become affines of all their husbands' affines. Men can marry after their circumcision, and girls can be betrothed at an early age to their future husbands without joining their families before the wedding ceremony. Marriage negotiations between clans and families can take a long time, and a payment in cattle from the groom's family is expected by the bride's family (bride-wealth). A married couple initially lives close to the husband's family, and the bride's sisters and cousins build their new house close to the bridegroom's extended family.

Divorce was uncommon within Oromo society and could be requested only when a woman was infertile or a male child had not been born. In those cases children could be adopted, and therefore divorce was rare. Within Oromo groups that converted to Islam, up to four wives are permitted and divorce has become more common. That is the norm among Oromo in eastern Kenya and southeastern Ethiopia but does not constitute a norm for most of the Oromo.

Domestic Unit. An Oromo household is constituted by all those who are directly dependent on a single male who is considered the father of the family. His wife and children are central to the domestic unit, but other older women such as his mother and the younger children of other relatives who have died can be included in the unit. Those belonging to a domestic unit eat together, and the central role in unit is allocated to the father's wife because women own houses and their contents.

Inheritance. If the father of the house dies, his wife, children, and cattle are inherited by a brother. Children born from the union of his widow and his brother belong to his brother but bear the name of the deceased husband. As all children are allocated cattle at birth, circumcision, and marriage, all the descendants of the deceased father bring their own cattle into the new domestic unit.

Socialization. Boys join other boys of the same age as soon as they can walk. They spend the day playing or hunting lizards, mice, and insects. They receive a young cow from the father or maternal uncle after they catch the first mouse or butterfly. Girls do not hunt but build miniature huts and make human figures with clay or wood. As children grow older, boys look after cattle and girls help their female relatives with domestic chores. Before reaching their fifteenth year boys and girls are circumcised.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Oromo organize themselves in clusters of households attached to the father of the house that have constant interaction with other households and their leaders. Within a network of households older men play a central role in leading prayers and helping make consensus decisions formulated by all household leaders. The communal assembly is the larger social organization that can make communal decisions and implement them in case of a national emergency or social disputes and conflict. Men lead the assembly, and all decisions are made by communal consensus. Women and children can attend assemblies, but their decision-making sphere of influence is limited. All men enter the Oromo age system (Gada) forty years after their fathers and serve as leaders for a period of eight years. Therefore, Oromo social organization, while strictly hierarchical and maleoriented, is informed by a democratic principle of community inclusion.

Political Organization. The Gada system traditionally provided different age sets constituted by males who fulfilled different social roles in the Oromo nation and its localized communities. One set was always in office for eight years and secured the political leadership needed for social welfare and the maintenance of peace. Some scholars have called this system "an Oromo democracy" because the succession of age sets every eight years provided the possibility of political and leadership service to all age sets in turn. Even when the Gada rituals are not celebrated as often as they were in the past, the names of officers are commonly used, such as Senior Chief (Haiyu gudda), Owner of the Sceptre (Abu Bokuu) and Chief of the War (Haiyu A'Duulla).

Social Control. Traditionally and in the Gada system, social control was exercised by a gerontocracy in which older age sets had enormous influence in the communal assembly. Contemporary political changes in Ethiopia and Kenya have allowed for localized communal assemblies in which the older generations (gadamoji in the Gada system) have the social wisdom of old age but also have the power to bless or curse their children and every member of the community. Within daily life blessings ordinarily are given by long greetings that are exchanged throughout the day. Somebody who does not comply with social rules and agreements eventually is considered a social outcast and has to leave his village, community, or extended family.

Conflict. Individual and social conflicts are solved through a public discussion with appointed leaders in every community that has the social power to express legal opinions and mediate between litigating parties, whether they are individuals or groups within the community or husbands and wives. More serious conflicts with other ethnic groups have included resistance to the Abbysinian conquest in western and central Ethiopia and the ongoing conflict for water rights between Oromo and Somalis in southeastern Ethiopia and eastern Kenya.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Oromo are monotheistic and believe that the world was created by God (Waqqa), who lives in the skies (waqqa) and sends rains to the earth so that grass can grow. Waqqa makes possible the growth of cattle by providing grass and water and in doing so looks after all the Oromo. God's gift is expressed through a peaceful relationship between the skies and the earth and among God, human beings, animals, and nature. Peace (nagaa) is the central philosophical paradigm of existence and is expressed in daily life as the Peace of the Boorana (nagaa Boorana) through ordinary greetings, blessings, and prayers. War and strife with other ethnic groups are necessary to preserve and sustain the nagaa Boorana and the blessings of God that are requested through daily greetings and prayers. Through interaction with other groups, significant numbers of Oromo have expressed public allegiance to Islam and Christianity while remaining loyal to their traditional beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. At a national level the two hereditary Boorana priests (Kallu) are considered sacred priests and leaders. The Kallu reside in a particular area, and the Oromo regularly bring their families and cattle for them to bless. In the past and before the Abyssinian conquest of the Oromo homelands the Kallu dominated Oromo national life. By the mid-twentieth century the Kallu had sent messengers to different locations in Ethiopia and Kenya to remind people of the need to observe the festivals (jila). In the case of localized festivals the members of the oldest age sets (gadamoji) organize the jila, and within the Oromo national ritual structure senior councillors and ritual officiants (Wayyu) lead specific communal festivals for different age sets.

Ceremonies. All national ritual celebrations are linked to the Gada system. Gada is an age system whose membership is solely male; thus, every male enters the system through an initiation ceremony forty years after the entry of his father into the system. All the males who are initiated in a particular year constitute an age set that moves up the age system when the national festivals are celebrated every eight years. As the age sets move up to another age grade every eight years, they assume a different social role and have different responsibilities within the community.

Arts. Mat weaving and pottery making are common among different groups of Oromo, but domestic artifacts constitute forms of art made by all men and women. Men use wood, leather, and metal to produce material objects, and women use leaves, roots, and the bark from stems.

Medicine. The knowledge of herbs is central to medicine and curing in Oromo communities. In the case of a long illness, the cause of the condition is presumed to be supernatural and possession rituals are performed to find the spirits that have caused the condition. Ritual specialists conduct these rituals, but prayers by older men also are used to heal the sick.

Death and Afterlife. The Oromo believe in an afterlife and suggest that at the moment of death all Oromo are reunited themselves with Waqqa. Funeral rites have been diversified to express conversions to Islam and Christianity and constitute an important communal event.

For other cultures in Ethiopia, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Aguilar, Mario I. (1998). Being Oromo in Kenya. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Bartels, Lambert (1983). Oromo Religion: Myths and Rites of the Western Oromo of EthiopiaAn Attempt to Understand. Collectanea Instituti Anthropos 8. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.

Baxter, P. T. W. (1978). "Boran Age-Sets and Generation-Sets: Gada, a Puzzle or a Maze?" In Age, Generation and Time: Some Features of East African Age Organisations, edited by P. T. W. Baxter and Uri Almagor. 151-182. London: Hurst. Baxter, P. T. W., Jan Hultin, and Alessandro Triulzi, editors (1996). Being and Becoming Oromo: Historical and Anthropological Enquiries. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet and Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.

Dahl, Gudrun (1979). Suffering Grass: Subsistence and Society of Waso Borana. Stockholm Studies in Social Anthropology. Stockholm: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Stockholm.

Hassen, Mohammed (1990). The Oromo of Ethiopia: A History 1570-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jalata, Asafa (1993). Oromia & Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict, 1868-1992. Boulder, CO, and London: Lynne Rienner.

Legesse, Asmarom (1973). Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society. New York: Free Press.

(2001). Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.

Van de Loo, Joseph (1991). Guji Oromo Culture in Southern Ethiopia: Religious Capabilities in Rituals and Songs. Collectanea Instituti Anthropos 39. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.


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Oromo (ōrō´mō) or Galla (găl´ə), traditionally pastoral tribes who live in W and S Ethiopia and part of Kenya. They number about 20 million and are largely Muslim. Originally from N Somalia, they later migrated to the region of Lake Turkana (Lake Rudolf). In the mid-16th cent. they began to move into the Ethiopian highlands. Never a united group, they were not a serious threat to the Ethiopian state. Their raids, however, were a considerable nuisance, and they were able to establish small states in many areas nominally controlled by the Ethiopian emperor. They were used as mercenary soldiers by the Ethiopians. Oromo separatist guerrillas have campaigned against Ethiopian rule since the 1990s without any significant results. The government has responded by repressing its opponents, occasionally prompting antigovernment demonstrations. Oromo separatists have mounted occasional raids into neighboring Kenya.

See G. W. B. Huntingford, The Galla of Ethiopia (1955, repr. 1969); H. S. Lewis, A Galla Monarchy (1965).

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