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  • At Issue:Learning Not to Become Oromo—Chasing the Ghosts Chasing John Sorenson
  • Martha Kuwee Kumsa

This essay critically reviews John Sorenson's works pertaining to Oromo national identity. Throughout his works on Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Oromo, Sorenson constructs dichotomies and mutually exclusive categories to make comparative analyses of the three nationalisms and national identities. He examines the forces that shape these national identities and nationalisms, but he neglects his own identities and claims. In deconstructing nationalist discourses, he avoids objectifying the subjective and deconstructing the narratives that shape his own analyses. In examining identities, I believe that the researcher's identity is as important a part of the equation as the identities of the researched. I take this narrative space to dispute Sorenson's claims and to provide a more complete picture of the territories that Sorenson neglects. To achieve this, I have organized this essay into two main parts. In the first part, I map out the ethical, methodological, and conceptual contours of the disputed territories and provide an alternative view to Sorenson's construction of Oromo national identity. In the second and concluding part, I pull together the themes of the discussion to facilitate a thorough examination of possiblereasons for Sorenson's distortions of Oromo identity and nationalism and to lay bare my own views on Oromo national liberation. [End Page 161]

Being and Becoming Oromo: Interrogating Sorenson's Onslaughts

Soon after its publication in Social Identities in 1996, Sorenson's "Learning to Be Oromo"1 sparked heated debates in Oromo communities. Before that, Sorenson's works were known only among a few Oromo academics and observers. Tired of seeing derogatory images of themselves in most Western writings, many Oromos welcomed Sorenson's work as a refreshing break with the past. They touted Sorenson for exposing Oromo oppression and degradation under Ethiopian colonial aggression. Beyond the enthusiastic first impressions, however, Oromo discourses also seethe with some deep concerns. After examining Sorenson's repeated attacks on Oromo national identity, one Oromo observed that "Sorenson's work is a sugarcoated poison that comes cloaked in radical progressive terms." Many Oromos came to see his work as bent on the demonization of Oromo nationalists and the vilification of Oromo national liberation. When his attacks culminated in Ghosts and Shadows,2 it was impossible for me to stay silent. I felt that Oromos needed to refuse to be battered at Sorenson's hands. It is this need to break the silence that prompted me to write this essay.

To his credit, Sorenson has been diligently and persistently presenting cogent arguments about Oromo oppression and degradation under what he calls Abyssinian fundamentalism in the Ethiopian empire. He has been deconstructing and expanding small transformative spaces in the discursive practices of Oromo nationalism. And this theme of righting the wrong and exposing injustice echoes through his writings. I have no doubt that Sorenson has made invaluable contributions to the scholarship on the construction of Oromo national identity. In this essay, however, I focus on the unflattering side of Sorenson's contribution, by critically engaging what he states boldly and what he leaves unstated. My object of pursuit is the ominous shadow that trails Sorenson's path as he prescribes the goal and the means for Oromo liberation. Indeed, as Oromo commentators have pointed out, two elusive strands run through Sorenson's works. On the one hand, he seems to criticize injustices whether they are against, by, or among Oromos. On the other, he seems to reproduce these same injustices. Perhaps this is [End Page 162] the apparent contradiction that evoked the metaphor of the sugarcoated poison. Here, I engage Sorenson's conceptual, methodological, epistemological, ontological, and ethical insensitivity under five headings.

The Positioning of Self

For ethically sensitive critical inquirers, the positioning of Self vis-à-vis the inquiry and the inquired into is a very important epistemological stance. Because knowledge is fluid and co-produced, objectivity is oftentimes rejected and the knower is viewed as deeply implicated in the process and product of what is known. Conveying this stance with clarity enables an equally positioned reader to see the writer's perspective and facilitates understanding.3 In some of his earlier writings...


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