Today’s post is brought to you by Anywaa singer/songwriter, Medi Okello. Medi grew up in Gambella town and moved to Addis Ababa four years ago to study nursing (and is now about to graduate with his degree next month — congratulations! Or, beera mana min yi, as they say in Anywaa).
Medi started to become involved music at 14 years old and is self-taught, learning from listening and imitating what he heard, from hip-hop to cultural music. He plans to pursue his music and nursing careers simultaneously and has composed two albums already. He has done a bit of recording so far and hopes to do much more in the future. If he can get the equipment, he even plans to open a music studio in Gambella (right now, there are no good studios in the region, so artists must travel all the way to Addis Ababa to record–a two-day journey by bus).
In addition to his original songs, Medi is also familiar with some of the old Anywaa music. In fact, this first recording is a song that Medi heard from his grandfather. It’s called, “Dibwor,” which means approximately, “Our nation” (meaning the Anywaa people).
Medi isn’t sure who wrote this song or how old it is. My guess is that it was composed sometime during the latter half of the twentieth century, since it makes some indirect allusions to Christianity, which was not introduced until the 1950s. Today, most people are unfamiliar with this song, because, in Medi’s words, it’s “not on the market” (meaning, it’s not among the latest tunes being produced in the studios). Upon consulting with Apay and Ojho to attempt to translate it, we also discovered it contains a lot of slang and ambiguous cultural references, which might make it difficult for younger generations to understand (thus, we decided it best to abandon a complete translation for now so that we don’t put any inaccurate information out there and only include portions that we are sure about).
Broadly (and ironically), “Dibwor” laments that the Anywaa are forgetting their culture and failing to practice the traditions of their forefathers. The opening lines ask, “Oh, nation, what is wrong with you? This is something from our culture, from our past.” The song calls its listeners to remember the cultural dances done by their ancestors in Yokumatong, a village well-known for its dance gatherings. It admonishes the elders to teach their children these dances, saying, “Teaching children to get involved in an activity that leads to sinful acts…is foolishness.” I suspected, and Ojho confirmed, that this is possibly a reference to the abandonment of secular music and practices by Anywaa who had converted to Christianity. The song closes by saying, “Yes, elders, only destruction remains ahead of us. No matter what destruction looks like, it is still destruction. If we continue like this, there will be no hope for children.” Medi believes this song can be used to educate Anywaa people about their history and that it will help them in the future to remember their grandfathers’ time, when dancing was a means of unifying the people and cultivating a sense of community amongst participants.
The second song Medi sang for us is an original, written about a year ago, called, “Wuuo.”
“Wuuo” requires a bit of context to fully understand its significance. Gambella has its share of social issues, just like anywhere else in the world (*ahem*, mass shootings in the US). One of these issues is ethnic tensions, which periodically erupt into violent spats. We’re treading into sensitive territory here, and people feel very strongly on all sides. I’ll try to represent some of the issues as fairly as possible.
Ethnicity, of course, is a problematic concept: most scholars today, at least in the humanities, peg it as largely socially constructed. That’s not to say there aren’t some directly observable characteristics around which people construct ethnic boundaries. Generally, one defines ethnicity according to descent from a common ancestor, speaking a common language, and sharing certain social and cultural practices and values. While this seems simple enough, we have to take into account that people are always on the move: migrating, intermarrying, and intermingling, mixing genetic lineages, languages, and cultures. So, there still has to also be some conscious effort on everyone’s part to decide who is “in” and who is “out” of an ethnic group.
That being said, many people in Gambella (and Ethiopia in general, actually), consider their ethnic identity important, even primordial. The main ethnic groups that reside in Gambella are the Anywaa, the Nuer, Majanger, Opwoo, Komo, and “the highlanders” (which actually includes multiple ethnic groups who came from the high elevations in central and northern Ethiopia, such as the Amhara, the Oromo, the Tigrayans, et cetera. The term “highlanders,” by the way, varies depending on where you are and who you are talking to: in Addis Ababa, for example, “highlander” refers only to Amhara and Tigray people. In Gambella, “highlander” encompasses anyone with lighter skin color than the indigenous Gambellans and southern Sudanese peoples, such as the Oromo, Hadiya, et cetera).
The Anywaa have resided in Gambella area the longest. Some Nuer from the Jikany subgroup began to migrate into Ethiopia from southern Sudan during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but most Nuer started arriving from the 1960s onward (and are still arriving). Many have fled to Gambella as refugees due to the Sudanese Civil Wars, but Gambella has also served as a military base for Sudanese rebel groups at various points throughout the long series of conflicts following Sudan’s independence (we can thank Europe at least partly for starting that whole mess, by the way, since they drew a bunch of arbitrary lines dividing up sub-Saharan Africa without consulting the people who actually live there. Thanks, guys). Then, the Ethiopian government resettled many Amhara, Tigrayans, Oromo, and others from the Ethiopian highlands in Gambella in response to the famine in 1980s. In more recent times, highlanders have come to Gambella as traders and skilled workers. And that is more or less how we got the current demographic.
Of course, solidification of ethnic boundaries and ethnic tensions do not come out of nowhere. There are multiple layers of complicated issues that contribute. For example, indigenous Gambellans and refugees often equate the highlanders with the Ethiopian government, and the government has not always have good relations with these populations. In more recent decades, highlanders have also come as skilled workers and are more fluent in Amharic (the national working language of Ethiopia), meaning they dominate the more financially-lucrative positions and have a better edge on the job market. This can foster disillusionment from the local populations, especially since the local peoples have faced political marginalization and general discrimination when it comes to educational and business opportunities.
The main friction, however, is between the Nuer and the Anywaa. Gambella town is even divided into Nuer and Anywaa neighborhoods. The current ethnic federalist policy in the Ethiopian government (which divides the Ethiopian nation into states and regions based on the dominant ethnic groups that reside in these areas) does not help this issue. It institutionalizes ethnic designation and means that one’s ethnicity has implications for how much access one has to power: if the Nuer begin to outnumber the Anywaa and take over more territory, for example, the Nuer have more political clout. More generally, the incorporation of peripheral regions into the nation-state always has some complications, as government policies can undermine local sociopolitical arrangements and ways of life or transform them in unpredictable ways. The government also has a history of allying with or co-opting different local leadership structures at the exclusion of others, which can create division, bitterness, and overall complicate matters further. Of course, there is also competition for natural resources such as land and water, essential for the livelihood of any people group. In fact, several Anywaa I have spoken to point to land as the root cause of most of the conflict.
These are just a few reasons that scholars have postulated—all have argued for and against these theories. I posit that it is likely all of these factors plus others that have contributed to the current situation. Of course, I don’t meant to imply that all Nuer, Anywaa, Amhara, et cetera feel a certain way about other ethnic groups, either. All of those I met in Addis Ababa, for example, indicated to me that they desire peace and understanding amongst all groups in Gambella. Friend and research associate, Ojho Ojulu Othow, even participated in a peace choir that consisted of both Anywaa and Nuer singers, sang a mixed repertory of Anywaa and Nuer songs, and performed in both Anywaa and Nuer areas of Gambella.
Nonetheless, these issues are significant enough that tit-for-tat violence still arises, and such cycles of revenge killings leave deep wounds in individual and collective memories. Medi wrote “Wuuo” with this in mind, advising people to avoid discrimination and to live in peace and cooperation. “If we work together, we can do anything,” he explained in our interview.
Certainly, the people of Gambella are fortunate to have such a gifted artist offering such advice, and I believe all of us can benefit from Medi’s message (discrimination and conflict is not exclusive to Gambella, folks). We wish Medi all the best as he works on recording his albums so his songs can reach people both in and outside of his community.
*** Many thanks to Apay and Ojho for translating these songs! They especially put a lot of work into “Dibwor” and managed to translate a good portion of it.
Hagman, Tobias and Alemmaya Mulugeta. 2008. “Pastoral Conflicts and State-Building in the Ethiopian Lowlands.” Afrika Spectrum 43 (1): 19-38.
Feyissa, Dereje. 2009. “A National Perspective on the Conflict in Gambella.” In Proceedings of the 16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, edited by Svein Ege, Harald Aspen, Birhanu Teferra, and Shiferaw Bekele, 641-653. Trondheim.
Feyissa, Dereje. 2015. “Power and Its Discontents: Anywaa’s Reactions to the Expansion of the Ethiopian State, 1950-1991.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 48 (1): 31-49.