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Oromia

et-oromoOromia is one of the largest countries in Africa and yet few have heard of it – because it is inside another country, Ethiopia. Ethiopia was created as the empire of the Amhara. It is made up out of five or so other countries. The largest of these is the land of the Oromo, Oromia. It lies at the centre of Ethiopia and extends to the south and to the west. It is bigger than France but has only half as many people, about 30 million. In our own time it has become the scene of genocide.

OromiaRegionMapThe Oromo are much like the Somalis in language, custom and race. They speak Oromo, one of the top ten of the thousand languages of Africa. While the Somalis live in the eastern end of the Horn of Africa, the Oromo live just to the west of them in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. But while nearly all Somalis are Muslim, only half of the Oromo are: the other half are Christians, though some do still practise the native Oromo religion.

Most were herdsmen raising cows until the 1800s. Many still are, but now most are small-time farmers, a change that began in the 1800s. Trade also increased then. That gave great power and wealth to those who could control it, so in the early 1800s Oromia was ruled by warlords. Then in the late 1800s the Amhara took over and made Oromia a part of their country, Abyssinia, now called Ethiopia.

OromoWomanIt was not enough for the Amhara simply to rule, collect taxes and keep the peace. They went beyond that. They saw the Oromo as savages, as backwards and violent. They tried to make them into good Amharas, speaking the Amharic tongue and worshipping in Orthodox Christian churches. Amharic became the language that school was taught in (till 1995). Some Oromo were ordered to become Christians or lose their land. The Amhara outlawed the practice of the old Oromo religion. They also outlawed the Oromo flag of black, red and white (pictured above).

The Amhara broke down Oromo society to weaken it – although it had already been weakening under the warlords. They sent settlers to live on Oromo land and wrote in their history books that it was the Oromo, not they, who were the newcomers to the region.

Losing one’s Oromo ways and taking on Amhara ways became the way to get ahead. Most of those who did not remained poor – probably proof to some that Oromo ways are backward.

A third of Christians in Oromia are not Orthodox but Protestant. That is high for Ethiopia, but part of the appeal of Protestant Christianity is that it is not the Amhara sort of Christianity.

People like to point out how Ethiopia largely avoided becoming a colony of the European empires – it was ruled by Italy for only five years. But to the Oromo the black man merely took the place of the white man. And he is still there.

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imageDB“Betsey Brown” (1985) is a coming-of-age story by Ntozake Shange, who is best known for writing “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (1975). This book is based loosely on Shange’s own experiences as a 13-year-old black girl growing up in the middle of America in St Louis in 1959. That is just when the city started to send black children to white schools. Shange was one of them.

Betsey is like how I was at that age: reading books, her head in the clouds, full of wonder, feeling different from everyone else, being told how she should or should not be and, of course, wondering about the opposite sex. She feels inside more like me than the people I know. I felt that way when I was 13 and, to tell you the truth, I still feel that way. All of it.

So I had to read it.

The whites at school call her a nigger and keep away from her like there is something wrong with her, her mother asks why she has to like the most niggerish people, why she has to let everyone know what a niggah she is – when she is just being herself.

If she listened to all these people she would begin to believe there is something wrong with her. They want to shame her out of who she is deep down – which is far more beautiful than anything in their narrow, little minds. But when you are young it is hard to see that. The world is run by such people.

Betsey stays true to herself. She does not let the names get to her.

Shange makes this point by the English she wrote the book in.

She writes not in that particular kind of English you see in books that we all learned in school, what Shange has called White English, but in the English that blacks in St Louis in those days spoke and thought in. And there is not just one sort of Black English, but maybe four or five.

Her mother was careful to speak in White English but thought in an English that was blacker – but still much whiter than Betsey’s own English.

You are used to seeing Black English presented as bad and unlettered, close to broken. Shange presents it as something beautiful, almost like music, something more wonderful than White English, which by comparison seems stiff and ugly, like an old block of wood.

There is this particularly terrible form of White English that is the enemy of all thought and beauty, but if you do not write in it some important white people will think you lack intelligence and education. I have to hold my nose and write in it sometimes to be taken seriously. In fact, I am avoiding just such an unpleasant task right now.

Sorry, I just had to say that, but it is something this book made me see more clearly.

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I love this passage from “Betsey Brown” (1985) by Ntozake Shange. It is 1959 and Betsey Brown is the 13-year-old daughter of a black doctor in St Louis. She has been dancing to the blues, better than her sisters, Margot and Sharon. Their mother Jane told Betsey to turn off the music (that nasty coloured music). Her sister Margot tells her:

“Girl, you a niggah to your very soul.” Margot stopped, out of breath and envious. “I can’t imagine what a child like you is even doing in this house.”

Sharon grabbed Margot’s hand and said something Betsey couldn’t hear, but surely had to do with stealing from Vida’s cookie jar and messing with Betsey’s mind. They ran off to the pantry together mimicking Jane. “Turn that mess off, Betsey. Betsey that niggah noise is disturbing my rest.”

Betsey stopped dead in her tracks. She’d had enough of all of this. Every time she played music she was a niggah. If she mentioned Nasser, she was a communist. If she wanted to boycott her school, she was a rabble-rouser. If she wanted to eat at Howard Johnson’s, she was giving whites more than was their due. No matter what she said or did, it wasn’t right. In addition to the fact that she hadn’t been kissed since Eugene Boyd came calling that first evening. It was plain as could be to anyone with good sense, with the head God put on her shoulders, that the only reasonable thing to do was run away. That was clear as day.

Betsey Brown feels inside just the way I do. Not just here but also when she is in her tree looking up at the stars, when she is coming back home on the bus to her neighbourhood and at the beginning when the sun is coming up over the city. Shange seems more like me inside than the people I know.

Betsey likes the blues, but that is too black. She likes Howard Johnson’s, but that is too white. “Acting white”. “Too ghetto”. People try to shame us out of following what is deep inside us. They want us to act and think a certain way.

But if we listen to them we wind up narrowing ourselves to meet their tastes, becoming a flat, cardboard character in our own short lives. We lose our true selves.

Betsey did not listen to them.

Unlike most people in the story, Betsey has no shame about being black. She sees it as being all good – certainly as good as being white, if not better. It is the way God made her.

Shange shows she feels this way too by writing so much of the book in the English that black people spoke in St Louis back then. And it comes off not as an English that is bad, broken or unlettered but beautiful and natural.

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Ntozake Shange (1948- ) – her name sounds like “Ento Zocky Shongay” – is a great American writer who found herself growing up as a black woman. She is famous for writing the Broadway play “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (1975). Her writing is angry but beautiful, full of pain but full of joy too.

She writes the books she wished she could have read growing up as a black girl in America.

Her father was a doctor. They were rich. He taught her to be proud of being black. As a girl she met Josephine Baker, Dizzy Gillepsie, Chuck Berry, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and other famous black Americans. She learned to play the violin and to dance. She went to poetry readings. She loved to read. She read Melville, Langston Hughes, Dostoevsky and others. She read books in French and Spanish too.

In many ways she lived in a perfect world, but none of it prepared her for what would come next.

In those days in America – in the 1950s – white children went to white schools and black children went to black schools. Then the highest court in the land said that this broke the law: they had to go to the same schools.

Shange lived across the street from the all-black school where she went. They told her she now had to go to a white school.

She had to take three buses to go across town to get there. But that was the easy part. When she got there she found out that the white children hated her because she was black. She had no way to make sense of it. She wrote about it in “Betsey Brown” (1985), a book that took her ten years to write.

She did well at school and then went to Barnard College in New York and got married. But then her husband left her. She tried to kill herself four times. She stuck her head in an oven; she drank poison; she cut her wrist; she drove her car into the ocean. But none of it worked. So she wrote about it. She had to write about it – it was the only way she could live.

She wrote about it in 20 poems. That became the play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf”. It started out in the jazz lofts of Soho in New York. In time it made it to Broadway and then across the country.

The other day I read a poem of hers, “you are sucha fool”. It has been 15 years since I last read it, but it all came back to me and I loved it all over again. Few poets are that good.

In 1971 she got rid of her slave name, Paulette Williams, and named herself Ntozake Shange. It is a Zulu name, Xhosan in fact. Her last name means she walks like a lion.

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you are sucha fool/ i haveta love you
you decide to give me a poem/ intent on it/ actually
you pull/ kiss me from 125th to 72nd street/ on
the east side/ no less
you are sucha fool/ you gonna give me/ the poet/
the poem
insistin on proletarian images/ we buy okra/
3 lbs for $1/ & a pair of 98 cent shoes
we kiss
we wrestle
you make sure at east 110 street/ we have cognac
no beer all day
you are sucha fool/ you fall over my day like
a wash of azure

you take my tongue outta my mouth/
make me say foolish things
you take my tongue outta my mouth/ lay it on yr skin
like the dew between my legs
on this the first day of silver balloons
& lil girl’s braids undone
friendly savage skulls on bikes/ wish me good-day
you speak spanish like a german & ask puerto rican
market men on lexington if they are foreigners

oh you are sucha fool/ i cant help but love you
maybe it was something in the air
our memories
our first walk
our first…
yes/ alla that

where you poured wine down my throat in rooms
poets i dreamed abt seduced sound & made history/
you make me feel like a cheetah
a gazelle/ something fast & beautiful
you make me remember my animal sounds/
so while i am an antelope
ocelot & serpent speaking in tongues
my body loosens for/ you

you decide to give me the poem
you wet yr fingers/ lay it to my lips
that i might write some more abt you/
how you come into me
the way the blues jumps outta b.b.king/ how
david murray assaults a moon & takes her home/
like dyanne harvey invades the wind

oh you/ you are sucha fool/
you want me to write some more abt you
how you come into me like a rollercoaster in a
dip that swings
leaving me shattered/ glistening/ rich/ screeching
& fully clothed

you set me up to fall into yr dreams
like the sub-saharan animal i am/ in all this heat
wanting to be still
to be still with you
in the shadows
all those buildings
all those people/ celebrating/ sunlight & love/ you

you are sucha fool/ you spend all day piling up images
locations/ morsels of daydreams/ to give me a poem

just smile/ i’ll get it

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