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Northeast African Studies 7.3 (2000) 163-188

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Clans, Kingdoms, and "Cultural Diversity" in Southern Ethiopia:

The Case of Omotic Speakers

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany


The region currently addressed in the academic literature as well as in political discourse in Ethiopia as "Omotic speaking groups" is a relatively recent construct first used by linguists towards the end of the 1960s. The dominant image of this region, and of southern Ethiopia at large, is diversity: ethnic, linguistic, and cultural. Ever since the southern region was incorporated into Ethiopia towards the end of the nineteenth century, the question of how to administer (in reality, how to control) these "disparate peoples" of the south has engaged the various agents of the central government. Since the early 1990s these "peoples" of southern Ethiopia are being administered under a hierarchical political construct referred to as the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS). Beneath the politico-administrative category SNNPRS lies an assumption that this is a region of disparate groups of people where geography is the apparent unifying factor.

In academic research undertaken on southern Ethiopia so far, some aspects of the diversity of the communities and "cultures" of this region have been documented as ethnographies, histories, studies of local cultural or knowledge systems, and so on. There is not point in denying the importance of such documentation. In fact, there is not enough documentation (ethnographic or otherwise) on all the societies of southern Ethiopia, nor on all the important aspects of most of these societies. However, what has been critically missing is comparative analysis. [End Page 163] Typically in the ethnographic monographs (like is the case in the rest of Africa, as Wendy James once remarked), attention to substantive differences between tribal groups seemed to take priority over fluidity of interconnections, movement, circulation, or exchange of language, goods, ideas, marriage, and other human interactions, which underlie the formation, transmission, and transformation of patterned social life on the ground.

Though it largely went unanalyzed, the fact that the "Omotic-speaking groups" of southwestern Ethiopia, for instance, do share at least what Leach (1954) calls a common ritual language or common "cultural grammar," was noted by many observers (Haberland 1959; Straube 1959; Donham 1985). For instance, Donham (1985, 38) wrote: "From Kaffa on the west to Wolayta on the east to Banna and Hammar on the south the prosperity of peoples, the fertility of their lands, and the multiplication of their cattle and goats were said to depend on the vitalizing presence of divine kings." Though he did not provide the actual data, the late Jacques Bureau (1990, 5) put forth that "we have to stress that the same patrilineal clans criss-cross the whole area [Ometo] and that all these 'nationalities' [of Ometo] have close historical links; the proof for this are the oral traditions, the toponymy, and the anthroponomy of the whole Ometo region." Such interconnections at the level of the deepest and most fundamental aspects of the values of these communities cannot be explained by mere geographical juxtaposition. How could it then be analyzed in order to be explained?

From both of the observations just cited we need to ask: to what extent does this "imagined interconnectedness" of a kind in the "cultural universe" of these communities of Omotic-speaking groups relate to the actual social interactions among living persons doing ordinary things? Without answering this question, terms such as southern Ethiopia, Omotic-speaking peoples, and Ometo1 appear to be at best mere linguistic constructs and at worst unappealing geographic labels sustained by "top-down" politico-administrative means. The dynamics of actual and/or imagined interconnections between people across the variously defined boundaries in this region and the patterns of change in such interconnections in response to macro-political changes pose an interesting challenge awaiting in-depth comparative analysis. [End Page 164]

In this paper I attempt to show how the perspective of variation may help to understand the nature of interconnection between the apparently diverse yet deeply...


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