Every time I hear that an historical work on Ethiopia (or any other country of northeast Africa for that matter) has appeared in print, I wait anxiously until I get a copy. When the news of the book in question reached me toward the end of October, my enthusiasm to get the monograph and read it was high. At long last a friend brought me a copy. But when I had read it from cover to cover, I was perplexed wondering whether it was the work I had expected: Its title, the structure of the text, the kind of sources used, the arguments applied and the conclusions drawn at the end of each section could not be reconciled with my historiographical knowledge, i.e. “the narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria,” as the standard English dictionaries define it. Several colleagues and friends have now reviewed various aspects of the monograph and I do not intend to repeat what they have written. I should like to concentrate on some points which have more or less impaired the value of the book. Let us begin with the title.
In his recent review of the book in question, Professor Daniel Ayana has kindly translated the main title as “The True Origin of the Oromo and Amara”. But what does ‘true’ mean in this context? Could it be that the key word of the title of the original was ‘a story’? If the book was an historical work, such an adjective would have been irrelevant. History, whose basis is the established fact, is by implication truthful. If mistakes creep in, they are usually printing errors or results of the carelessness of the author. I wonder if the equivalent of ‘ewneteña’ has appeared in the original. According to the preliminary pages of the monograph, the Amharic version is a translation from an unnamed language: the original could be in Russian, as the author studied in Russia, or German, in whose land he worked, or English, the official language of the country where he still lives.
More confusing is the subtitle which may be translated as “The contribution of the Oromo to Ethiopian civilisation”. Now what purpose does this subtitle serve? Normally a subtitle either explains the main title or at least by implication extends the significance of the work in which case it should be worded carefully. As it stands, it sounds as if it intended to correct the main title and wanted to confirm: “Sorry! Only about the Oromo.” The way it is, one can understand it to mean: “The Amara did not contribute to Ethiopian civilisation.” Precisely this subtitle is the name of the first chapter or section (pp. 15-36), at least two-thirds of which praise only one ethnic group. The book is full of statements which can be easily and unintentionally misunderstood. The dates of the historical events mentioned and the criticisms directed against Ethiopian and foreign scholars are unjustifiably arbitrary. But I will not dwell on such shortcomings. They are in any case too many to comment on in a review. Instead, I should like to concentrate on the thesis of the book and the sources from which a great deal has been borrowed, almost word for word, but by no means acknowledged. Compare, for example, the story of the Queen of Sheba (pp.207 ff.) to that of Nebure’ed Ermias Kebede’s Ityopya enna Ityopyawinnet (1996, pp. 258-63).
The book contains a collection of articles, some of which were written at different times and published in various journals. Some of them have nothing to do with the main title. This is briefly discussed by the author himself in the introduction (pp 7-13). Each article is described as ‘part’. If we regard parts one and two (pp. 15-58) as introductory, which refer to some cultural themes and intermittently to the expected topic, we come at long last to the discussion of the main thesis of the work, namely, the origin of the Oromo and the Amara (pp. 59-92). All the rest thereafter concern irrelevant themes – what kind of alphabet the Oromo should use, conflicts of the author with some compatriots, the question of the Queen of Sheba, the ‘conclusions’, and the so-called “partial” bibliography.
According to the author, the Oromo and the Amara originated from a single family whose head was named Deshet/Deset, who lived in the neighbourhood of Lake Tana which he governed around 3500 years ago. This is roughly the main thesis of the book. The author rejects the traditional theory that the Oromo came from outside Ethiopia, but the abusive descriptions he attaches to it are not true. The thesis was originally based on a tradition of the Oromo themselves who claimed to have come via ‘Bobasa’ which some writers of the nineteenth century interpreted as ‘Mombasa’. Others speculated that the Oromo must have lived in the Ogaden or in the highlands of Bale. But that is also a theory. As far as I know, no writer has believed that the Oromo were foreigners. In his own right the author could have a theory when and where the Oromo appeared in history. But he must at least have some evidence to do so.
Let us examine his theory given at the beginning of the above paragraph. First of all, what kind of people inhabited the region around Lake Tana at the time Deshet governed it? Why did the descendants of Deshet speak different languages although the distance of the regions they chose to live in could not be regarded as too great? As to the date of ‘3500 years ago’, it belongs to prehistory as far as Ethiopian history is concerned. One can only hope that one day archaeology will find material to expand the existing period so far back. Prof. Fikre himself admits that he has no evidence for the ‘3500’ and in fact uses it alternately with 4000 and 5500 years ago.
As far as the alleged venue is concerned, the book lacks originality. The author does not say why he selected Gojjam as the centre of origin. It is up to the reader to accept or reject it. But we know other publications had long ago glorified the region. About 23 years ago, an Ethiopian by the name of Mussie described Gojjam as the cradle of Ethiopian civilisation (cf Muse [sic] Tegegne, “Gojjam” the Stigma. The Abyssinian Pariah – Sociology of Hope (Geneva, Guihon books, 1993). I doubt that Prof. Fikre could have missed this book. What about the greatness of the ancient Ethiopian empire, the origin of Ethiop, Abemelek, Barok, the Queen of Sheba, etc. which our author describes extensively without any footnote? Have not the books of Nebura’ed Ermias Kebede and Abraham Kinfe told the same stories in almost the same wording years ago? Unfortunately I do not find their names in the so-called sources.
In short, the book must be corrected and revised if it should help the Ethiopian youth in their knowledge of their country’s past. At the moment, the book is merely a propagandistic monograph launched for a purpose known to the author himself alone.
Prof. Bairu Tafla
University of Hamburg (Germany)