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Northeast African Studies 7.3 (2000) 35-57

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The Generation of Difference:

Initiations in Gamo, Sidamo, and Borana (Oromo)

Cambridge University


The people of the Gamo highlands are unusual in that they are the only Ometo-speaking people that carry out initiations. Moreover, initiatory systems are not found as part of the cultural fabric of any other highland Omotic-speaking people at all.1 Where we do find initiatory systems, however, is amongst the Cushitic-speaking pastoralists who live in the lowland areas throughout much of south and southwest Ethiopia. How, then, can we explain the presence of initiatory systems among the farmers of the Gamo highlands?

At first sight the Gamo initiations look very different from the initiations of the Cushitic-speakers, and one might be tempted to argue that they are something quite different altogether. Indeed, previous scholars have treated them as entirely unrelated phenomena, writing about the Gamo "halak'as" on the one hand, and the lowland Cushitic "Gaada system" on the other. In this paper I argue that if we broaden our analytic gaze to consider the region in general, instead of focusing on individual groups, then we can clearly see that these cultural phenomena are variations of the same thing.

There is considerable variation in the form of the initiations throughout the Gamo highlands, and there is also considerable variation in the form of the initiations amongst the Cushitic-speakers. By analyzing the [End Page 35] patterns in these variations, it is possible to see that the Gamo initiations fit neatly at one end of the spectrum of larger-scale variation across the whole region. Furthermore, it is my contention that this variation is the result of a historical transformation brought about by the events and movements of people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This paper thus highlights the interconnections between different peoples in southern Ethiopia and might call us to question the depth and importance of the current political focus on separate "ethnicities."

I will begin by briefly describing the form of the Gamo initiations. Since there is a great deal of variation between the form of the initiations in different parts of the highlands, I will give two specific examples from the northern part of the highlands where I carried out my fieldwork. Having outlined these versions of the Gamo initiations, I will then present a quick sketch of the Boran initiations, drawing on the detailed ethnography of Asmarom Legesse (1973). These initiations are right at the other end of the spectrum, but although there are significant differences it should be possible to see some continuities. These continuities, however, will become clearer when we add the case of the Sidamo, a Cushitic-speaking group who live between lowland and highland, and who practice both agriculture and pastoralism to significant degrees. Using the ethnographies of John Hamer (1970) and Jan Brøgger (1986), I will show that the form of their initiations will be seen to be mid-way between that of the Borana and that of the Gamo. Furthermore, if we add some more ethnography from other communities in the northern parts of the Gamo highlands, we can begin to fill out the picture even further, so that the pattern of variations from Borana to Sidamo to Gamo comes into relief. Having presented and analyzed all this ethnography, the paper will conclude with a short discussion of the historical events that most likely brought about this state of affairs.

Gamo Initiations

Throughout the Gamo highlands people live in scattered settlements and are organized into many different communities, known as dere.Each community has its own sacrificers (ek'k'a), its own initiates (halak'a), and its own assemblies and assembly places (dubusha), where disputes are solved and communal decisions are made. Halak'as are said [End Page 36] to "herd" the community (dere hemo). A halak'a who does this well is thought to cause the community (both the people and the land) to be fertile. If he has "good shoulders," the crops will grow, cows will...


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