Oromo people separated from their homeland are working to preserve their culture and values here in Minnesota.
Oromo people make up the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. There are more than 40,000 Oromo people living in the Twin Cities. They first started coming to Minnesota in the 1970s for educational opportunities. Then, as political tensions increased in Ethiopia, they fled to Minnesota as refugees.
Mustariha Webo is a student at the University of Minnesota whose artwork is on display in Coffman Memorial Union. Drawings of men and women in cultural clothes and people dancing with flags and sitting under the Odaa tree, or sycamore trees, adorn the walls of the small display.
“I think it's really important, especially considering what our ancestors went through, having to preserve their identity, or even having the Oromo language ban,” said Webo. “It's important that we preserve that identity still and also fight for what's happening. ‘Cause there still are continuous, ongoing human rights violations in Oromia by the [Ethiopian] government.”
Webo’s artwork is inspired by Oromummaa, an ideology that arose out of the need to preserve Oromo identity, culture, and values in the wake of invasions and historical erasure. Although it has different interpretations, the basic concept is that everyone is connected through being Oromo.
In 2020, prominent Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was shot and killed in Ethiopia, sparking protests across Ethiopia and here in the U-S. Hundeessaa was known for embodying Oromummaa in his music and work. For Webo, the protests changed how she thought of her culture.
“Prior to Haacaaluu’s death, I wasn't doing a lot of cultural art. I kind of was like playing around with it. But after, his death really well pushed me to learn more about my culture. I wasn't very familiar with culture growing up. I didn't grow up around any Oromo people. So like later in high school is when I started learning more about the culture and my heritage.”
Webo says the Ethiopian government has made it difficult for Oromos to preserve their history, allowing misinformation about Oromo people to spread easily. Embracing Oromummaa is a way to fight back and preserve Oromo culture and knowledge for future generations.
Webo’s exhibition is up at Coffman Memorial Union through March 12.