ICHORA 2020, DAY 5: Ayantu Tibeso, “Resisting Symbolic Annihilation in Ethiopian Archives”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “What the Archives Can(t) Give Us: Thinking Through Archival Disturbances.”

Ayantu Tibeso (University of California, Los Angeles) presents findings from interviews of Oromo activists and activist scholars in “‘These Institutions Do Not Represent Us’: (Re) encountering and Resisting Symbolic Annihilation in Ethiopian Archives.” Tibeso’s findings indicate that silence, invisibility, and exclusion from majority historical narratives can be the catalysts for these activists to begin work to tell the story of the Oromo people through archival materials. To the participants, archives are not seen as repositories of resources, but as reminders of neglect and misrepresentations.

Tibeso explains how this case study is unique as one where both colonizers (Ethiopian state) and colonized (Oromo) are Black and African. The Oromo people are the largest indigenous nation in the Horn of Africa who are Kushitic-speaking. Their lands were conquered by the Ethiopian Empire in the late 19th century. Tibeso argues that the narrative of the colonial history of Ethiopia has been dominated by the dominant Orthodox Christian Abyssinian perspective. Archives in Ethiopia have been historically state-owned, such as the archive at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies.

The eleven participants that Tibeso interviewed all described their central mission as documenting marginalized groups in Ethiopia, specifically the Oromo. They described themselves as activists or activist scholars. The group includes two generations–those in their 60s and 70s who were the first to gain access to Western education and those who came of age after the 1995 federal system allowed communities to educate children in their native language. Tibeso notes the generational differences in experiences. Tibeso completed the interviews in person in Addis Ababa from July to August 2019. The known limitations of the study include a gender disproportion; only one of the eleven participants was female. (Participants’ names were changed in the study for security purposes.) 

Tibeso 1 (1)

Tibeso encounters frustration with the lack of representation of the diverse indigenous groups in archival materials, which have favored the history of the conquerors. If the Oromo are mentioned, it is in a negative way in the Abyssinian-centered histories. The participants stated that Oromo narratives were missing from the archival records, one of the major catalysts for their activism. Tibeso mentions that this lack of representation was a motive for one participant who stated an urge to show the present generation that there are Oromo heroes to venerate. 

Participants did not see a space within the official Ethiopian archives for Oromo culture, Tibeso explains. For example, a participant said the Oromo thanksgiving (Irreechaa) was spoken of as a “devil-worshiping ceremony.” Speaking with the participants, Tibeso reflects that the state-owned archives are not the primary place they go to find history and culture due to this erasure.

Tibeso finds that experiences of Oromo activists in the archives are accordant with other examples of symbolic annihilation. These experiences are also shaped by negative interactions in institutions and state agencies, which form a broader network of Oromo exclusion. Tibeso mentions future research opportunities to explore deeper into Ethiopian archives. 

Natalie Worsham, MLIS, MA

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