2011. Vol.1, No.2, 55-64
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.12007
Colonialism of Mind: Deterrent of Social Transformation
——The Experiences of Oromo People in Ethiopia
Begna F. Dugassa
Toronto Public Health, Toronto, Canada
Received January 31st, 2011; revised February 22nd, 2011; accepted March 14th, 2011.
An educational system and its curricula are shaped by the culture and epistemology in which it is embedded. It is
influenced by the societal knowledge, but it also instrumental in shaping the knowledge of the society. Culture
influences learning style. Based on cultural diversities and social needs, different societies have distinct curricula.
As such, Oromo students ought to be taught now to interrogate the colonial epistemology and ideology as well
schooled in the ways of dismantling the hegemony. However, in many cases, they are simply taught to repro-
duce the knowledge, culture, power structure, thinking and the worldview of colonizers. This means that educa-
tion, which is supposed to be about critical inquiry and social transformation has been used to indoctrinate or
brainwash some students. Such colonial educational curricula have invalidated the knowledge of indigenous
Oromo people and compromised their needs. This type of education system, instead of empowering the students
and their society, has incapacitated them. For the Oromo people, such curricula have distorted their history, im-
age, identity, and damaged their social fabric. In this paper I argue that, colonial knowledge and education sys-
tem is not in a position to bring about social transformation among Oromo people; on the contrary it disrupts
their peace (nagaa), health (fayya) and (tasgabii) social order.
Keywords: Colonial education, Colonial Knowledge, Empowering Education, Disempowering Education and
Theories and practices are intertwined. Theory guides prac-
tice, and in turn, practice informs theory. The connections be-
tween theories and practices suggest the colonial knowledge
influenced(s) the colonial agenda and practice. This suggests
that the colonial education is geared in solving the so-
cial,economic, health and environmental problems of the colo-
nizers rather than the need of the colonized peoples. The colo-
nial educational curricula are designed to give pupils skills and
attitudes that seem desirable to the colonizers (Altbach, 1995).
If the colonial knowledge influences colonial agenda and teach-
ing/learning is facilitating knowledge construction, it is impor-
tant to ask several key questions. What are the objectives of the
Ethiopian education system in Oromia? Is it to empower the
Oromo people? Is it to ensure that the Oromo people solve their
own social problems? Is it to enhance problem-solving skills of
the Oromo people? Is it designed to teach the Oromo students
to think intensively and critically? Are the Oromo students
trained to solve the social, economic and political problems of
the Oromo people or are they indoctrinated to think from the
Abyssinian perspectives? If that is so, in what ways do colonial
education contribute to the social conditions in which the
Oromo people live? Clarifying the intent of colonial education
makes it more likely to challenge the colonial education and to
redesign empowering education. Education is one of the deter-
minants of health. Hence, the major objective of this paper is to
examine the impacts of teaching the colonial theories and prac-
tices upon the Oromo people.
According to Webster’s English Dictionary (1968), the word
“colony” is derived from the Latin word for farmer, cultivator,
planter, or settler in a new country. Thus the word colonial has
the sense of ‘farm,’ ‘landed estate,’ ‘settlement’ and was espe-
cially the proper term used for the public settlement of Roman
citizens in hostile or newly conquered country, while retaining
their Roman citizenship, they acquired land, and acted as a
garrison, mostly formed of veteran soldiers who had served
their time. The term was applied to the place so occupied, or
towns that were raised to the same rank and privileges. Follow-
ing this definition, decolonizing might suggest the sending back
home of the newly arrived settlers. However, the assumption
that colonialism would be over once the colonial masters physi-
cally left have not come true in many African countries and
colonialism still operates in the daily lives of many Africans.
Knowledge is essential in the social transformation, important
in maintaining and disrupting the colonial power relations and
it is implicated to the socio-economic status of people. Hence,
knowledge and education is about power. This makes examin-
ing the relationships between knowledge and colonialism a
necessity and duty.
In Oromia schools are a direct copy of colonial models.
Oromo children are mainly taught in Amharic and English.
However, because of the intensification of the Oromo national
struggle, the current Ethiopian government has adjusted the
policy of using the Oromo language in schools. They are still
thought the history, geography, and the values of their coloniz-
ers rather than their own. If they are thought any thing about the
Oromo people they are instructed to look down their ancestral
culture. Many Oromos are realizing that education is part of the
Ethiopian colonial system. Education that ought to be about
choice, judgment and social transformation actually turns out to
be about reproducing the old colonial hierarchical system.
Euro-Ethiopian curricula in Oromian schools totally ignore
the past experiences and formal and informal teachings of in-
B. F. DUGASSA
digenous Oromo people. As a result, students depend on West-
ern information instead of searching out and developing their
own (local) knowledge. Knowledge is power (Foucault, 1972)
and it can be used to maintain the colonial power relations or to
empower the people. It can be used solve the social problems
that are relevant to the dominant groups and leave issues that
are relevant to the marginalized groups. In my view unless the
Oromos are empowered on their affairs and closely look at the
techniques of manipulation that are employed against them
through the educational system, they can never reassess and
re-evaluate the Euro-Ethiopian curricula, business affairs and
diplomatic relations. They need to filter colonial educational
ideas and identify what is relevant, and what is less relevant and
what is totally irrelevant before adopting any of the curricula of
In this paper, after a brief introduction, I critically examine
the essence of the Euro-Ethiopian educational curricula in O-
romia. I argue that taboos against questioning these curricula
undermine the very nature of Oromo indigenous knowledge and
identity. Finally, I suggest a way out of the one-sided construc-
tions of neo-colonial education. In part two, I will go in details
and bring into light specific examples and show the ways the
formal and informal Ethiopian school system works to silence
the voice of Oromo people. Then, I will highlight the impacts
of such schooling.
Who am I to Write about Colonialism of Mind?
I am not coming to the discussion of the colonial nature of
education from a disinterested or politically neutral position.
The reasons that drive my interest to this topic are my personal
experience in the Ethiopian school system. First, I was born in a
family of indigenous Oromo religion followers “Waqefaata”.
While I pursuing education, I was exposed to two antagonistic
discourses: the colonial and the anti-colonial. Formal schooling
was practiced with colonial discourses. The purpose of such
education was to brainwash (indoctrinate) Oromo students in
order to disrupt family and community relations, undermine
ancestral heritage and knowledge and distort their identities. On
the other hand, informal Oromo teaching was founded upon
discourses of de-colonialism intended to maintain and, if nec-
essary, to regain the Oromo identity and ways of knowing.
These two antagonistic discourses made my ears, heart, mind
and of all my soul a battlefield. Because of these conditions for
many Oromos the Ethiopian school system is perceived to be a
colonial tool used to assimilate Oromo students.
The colonial education attacks the Oromo worldviews and at-
tempts to dismantle it. In the colonial education, I learned that
the Oromo theology is superstitious, whereas the Euro-Ethio-
pian-Arab ones are valid and superior. Waaqa Guracha (Black
God) that represents holiness and purity in Indigenous Oromo
religion was categorized as the subject of paganism and super-
stitions in the colonial education. In the colonial education I
learned that the Oromo language that my people have been
using for centuries and functioned as lingua francia in the Horn
of Africa was categorized “backward”. To borrow Fanon’s
(1963) words the Oromo culture and worldviews are “disfig-
Secondly, as a young Oromo student I was caught in a strug-
gle between the informal education of the Oromo people and
the formal colonial education. I regularly witnessed human
rights violations and observed that Oromo children and family
were powerless to change their social, economic and health
Third, in my elementary school years and for half of my jun-
ior secondary school, colonial discourses somewhat absorbed
me. I started to discord the validity of Oromo knowledge. It is
evident to me that education is one of the tools that can be used
to conquer, indoctrinate and silence. It is self-evident to me that
education can be used as a colonial tool. During the other half
of junior high school and for high school, I was a different per-
son. Again, it is equally evident to me that education could be a
tool that could empower and liberate children and societies by
dignifying and empowering them. I belong to a generation of
Oromo students who in the protest against the Ethiopian lan-
guage policy collected their own foreign language dictionaries
and buried them.
Fourth, although I was able to attend school, many children
of my age in my village could not do so. Many of the few chil-
dren who started school dropped out before they finished ele-
mentary school due to a lack of financial support and the dis-
criminatory nature of the language of instruction – the official
language being Amharic. The school curricula were designed to
absorb and assimilate the Oromo students and encourage them
to accept the colonial power relation between the Ethiopians
and Oromo people as a natural reality. Obviously, if the Oro-
mos were an independent people and empowered in their affairs
they would have made the Oromo language the language of
instruction and they would have now higher literacy rates.
Fifth, in the course of my studies in knowledge construction
in human rights and public health over the past few years, I
have learned how human rights are violated at a systemic level;
how and why human rights violations are deliberately and/or
haphazardly perpetrated; what forms of human rights violations
are internalized by colonized peoples and how they get inter-
nalized; and who internalizes or, to use Freire’s (2002) term,
‘house the oppressor’. I have also become convinced of the
importance of education in averting and/or perpetuating human
Why I Write about Colonialism of Mind?
An anti-colonialist discourse has long provided the theoreti-
cal foundations for my work. I am convinced that colonial edu-
cation is not in a position to fix the social problems that coloni-
alism has created. To borrow Battiste’s (2005:121) words, im-
perialism or colonialism “can’t be the global doctor”, in stead it
is “the colonial disease”. This article is part of my current
thinking in education and public health. Thus, I write about
colonialism of mind for the following reasons. First, knowledge
is a social construct (Berger and Luckman, 1966); (Hacking,
2001) and its validity is based on the socio-cultural, environ-
mental conditions and experience of the group (Mercer, 1995).
No knowledge is more valid than the other (Dei, 1999). In addi-
tion, as Foucault put it knowledge is a power (During, 1992).
Validating the dominant knowledge over the other is legitimiz-
ing the colonial or oppressive power relations. Thus, validating
one knowledge over the others has material consequences and
thus, limits choice in life. This changes the role of education
from being empowering (Freire, 1973) and promoting social
changes to the tool of indoctrination, which Freire called “bak-
B. F. DUGASSA 57
Second, validating the dominant knowledge makes the power
relations between the colonized and the colonizers natural phe-
nomena. This in turn makes the social conditions such as pov-
erty and disease, which the colonial power relations created an
in evitable and even desirable. In addition, validation of once
knowledge over the others creates a false consciousness and
present as if one group of people is superior to others. This
creates social reasoning for racist ideologies or acts as opposing
the anti-racist or anti-colonial education.
Third, at subtitle level, validation of colonial knowledge
works as indoctrination. This makes the colonized people to
understand their social problems in the views of the colonizers
and accept their powerless, helpless, poverty and disease as a
given and natural reality. This prevents the colonized people
from making any effort to change their social realities.
Colonial Education - Brainwashing Tool
Nothing is more damaging to successful social, political and
economic development than this brainwashing or indoctrination.
Albert Memmi (1957) argues that European colonizers as “dis-
figured” even “diseased” and caused disease by their role in
colonial society. Curtin and colleagues (1978) label this process
“imperialism of the mind”. “The European imperialists in Af-
rica justified their presence by a self-imposed task, a civilizing
mission…to improve the moral, intellectual, and industrial
condition of the country or people. To improve means. To re-
make in the European mold. The imperialism of the mind was
no less than political or economic imperialism.”
Through indoctrination the colonial education validates the
knowledge and worldviews of the colonizers and irrationalized
the experience of the indigenous people. As Shor (1980) de-
scribed it this type of education “conditions people to police
themselves by internalizing the ideas of the ruling elites” Colo-
nial education explains the cause for social problem that the
colonized people face as either human nature or the will of
super natural power. Such teachings frees individuals and
groups from taking responsibility for the ill planned social poli-
cies; and simply promote blind faith and blind obedience. This
is the phenomenon that I call colonialism of mind.
Critical scholars see that colonial education denies intellec-
tual autonomy to students. In their view indoctrination is pur-
poseful inculcation of beliefs, attitudes, values, ideas, and loy-
alties in student (Siegel, 1988). As such the colonial education
suffocates the voice of the indigenous people and prevents in-
dividuals from taking initiatives to shape their history and
change things for better. It prevents the students from under-
stand rationally how social, natural environment works. This
averts students shaping their social and natural environments.
Brainwashing is defined as a deliberate manipulation of peo-
ple’s minds in an attempt to change and control their opinions
(Arnold, 1992). Brainwashing and indoctrination are the tech-
niques of stifling creative capacity to think beyond formula.
Such schooling influences people to be back away from
non-preferred ways of thinking (Schreiber, 2000). In deed, it is
a very destructive practice and may potentially cause irreversi-
ble damage to mental vitality. In the context of colonialism, in
its many forms, brainwashing is concerned with replacing past
historical experiences with new and alien concepts. Brain-
washing could result in the impairment of critical judgment,
changes in behaviour, personality disintegration and even adop-
tion of a different set of values and beliefs (Kazdin, 2000).
There is much writing about how Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse
Tung dealt with their citizens and prisoners of war. Westerners
are aware of the extent to which communists in Russia and
China attempted mind control. In fact, such beliefs about the
communists fed into polarization during the Cold War; the Cold
War generation in the West believed that such activities be-
longed to “them” - our ideological enemies in the cold war –
but not to “us.”
Western school children are not introduced to literature that
documents how European and American colonizers still con-
tinue to brainwash the people of Africa, Asia and Latin Amer-
ica. It is not mentioned that the West was and is doing exactly
the same thing to indigenous peoples as they said communists
were doing. For example, western aid exploits the willingness
of local elites to maneuver and control the masses. Through
so-called humanitarian assistance, individuals and institutions
of former colonies are rewarded when they think as the colo-
nizers think and behave exactly like them. When individuals
and institutions reject these alien influences, they are penalized,
laughed at for their “folly” or treated as if their behaviour is an
outrage to the moral code.
Historically, the rhetoric of religious missionaries was part of
the brainwashing of the people, leading them to abandon their
cultures, and turn their face to Western (Vatican, Jerusalem) or
Eastern holy places (Mecca and Medina). Explaining the case
of Ethiopia, Ruda (1993) put it this way: “Religious syncretism
occurred mainly through conquest. By overcoming a people by
force of arms and with superior military technology, the con-
querors championed a Euro-Ethiopian [or Arab] God providing
that the God of the victims was incapable of coming to their
help, thus breaking the moral resistance to the new religion that
represented an aspect of the colonial structure.” The indigenous
people practised traditional beliefs for centuries, but they were
forced by colonizers to adopt foreign gods once they lost their
national sovereignty. As a result of colonialism, some of them
converted to Christianity and others to Islam. A foreigner who
observed the conversion of these people to Christianity and
Islam, Marcel Reyescortez (1994), noticed the dissatisfaction of
the Oromo people with foreign gods: “The Boorana [Oromo]
have lost their Nagaa, their peace. Many of them feel it is be-
cause they have strayed away from the path of their God
Artificial geographical boundaries were drawn at the con-
venience of Europeans and many African societies found them-
selves divided among several colonial powers and their educa-
tional curricula. Somali is divided among three colonial territo-
ries: French, Italian and British Somaliland. As if that were not
enough, when the British left the Horn of Africa, they let a part
of British Somaliland to be incorporated into Ethiopia (Hol-
comb & Ibsa, 1990). The Azane people were divided among
three colonial territories (Belgian, British, and French).
The Oromo people were divided between Ethiopian and
British territories (Jalata, 2005), (Bulcha, 2002), (Holcomb and
Ibsa, 1990). The people from the Eastern part of the country
adopted Islam, while the Western parts were converted to Prot-
estant church groups (Lutherans, Adventists, Presbyterians and
Mennonites). The southern region resisted all colonial world-
views and kept their Indigenous beliefs. Ethiopian colonizers
B. F. DUGASSA
have encouraged, fostered and used these artificial divisions to
their advantage in their agenda of divide and rule. According to
Zoga (1993), General Taddessee Birru, an Oromo with an
Ethiopian name, challenged these artificial divisions imposed
on the Oromo.
For example, General Taddessee Birru brought Oromo elders
from different regions and faiths together and encouraged them
to return to their pre-colonial customs. He also trained many
African guerrilla leaders, including Nelson Mandela (1994,
265). Although the Ethiopian government eventually executed
him, he became a martyr for the Oromo and other colonized
In each of their colonies, Europeans supported that group of
people who endorsed their system. For instance, Belgians in
Rwanda and Burundi chose to rule through an ethnic group they
believed to be elite and almost aristocratic in a European sense
- the Tutsi. They were established as the ruling class over the
Hutu majority (Mamdani, 2001). Across the border in Uganda,
the British selected the Baganda as the preferred ruling group
while clearly marginalizing other ethnic groups (Anthony,
1991). In the Sudan, the British showed a high regard for the
Moslems of the North as compared with the indigenous believ-
ers of black Africans of the south. Therefore, without the con-
sent of the southern Sudanese people, as the British departed,
they facilitated control by the Arabs over unrelated adjacent
territories. In Chad, the French initially showed a respect for the
Moslem north, allowing them run their daily activities using
their traditional system of administration. When they were
about to leave Chad, they changed their minds, and favoured
the south, as they had already converted a significant portion of
southern people to their worldviews. This was also the case in
Ethiopia, where Europeans favoured the Abyssinian minority
over the Oromo majority (Holcolm and Ibssa, 1990) since their
worldview was consistent with that of the Europeans. In the
Ethiopian case, the West supplied military hardware and advi-
sors so that the Abyssinians got the upper hand over the other
nations in the Ethiopian empire.
The colonial discriminatory social policy that is driven by the
claims of racial and religious superiority (Jalata, 2005) fa-
voured one group of people caused power struggles between
the groups, leading to violence, war, starvation, disease, and
social, political and economic instability in these regions. Civil
wars and genocide in Rwanda as well as war and famine in
Burundi (Mamdani, 2001), Chad, Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia
are the result of colonial practices that blindly mimic European
forms of domination.
Obliterating, Fragmenting and Colonizing Oromo
Colonizing through Banning Indigenous Songs, Prayers and
Ali Mazrui (1978) has pointed out that dances and songs are
central in an oral society. In fact, for the Oromo people, song is
the pedagogy by which the young are taught the human quali-
ties necessary for the survival of the society, and the skills by
which these virtues underlie the need to serve. For example,
Oromo songs are used to praise heroes both in the past and the
present, so that the younger generation values bravery and
heroism. Through songs, the beauties of nature such as rivers,
mountains, valleys and forests are appreciated, so that the
younger generation will care and love for nature. Through
songs, the beauty and qualities of partners, children and parents
are admired in order to foster care and love for loved ones. In
addition, songs express good wishes for the community and
dissatisfaction with injustice.
These songs, considered backward, were prohibited or dis-
couraged by Islamic and Protestant church groups alike. To
counter Oromo teachings, church groups quote from the Bible.
They teach, for example, that there is no bravery that can be
compared with that of Jesus Christ, who saved the world with
his blood, so praise him. They suggest that there is no need to
appreciate nature, but only to appreciate the one who made it,
so praise him. No need to appreciate your mother and father but
only the Father of all human beings. No need to express your
wishes to the community, but just wait for the will of God and
so praise him. Above all, they advise praising God for all the
bad and all the good.
The Ethiopians physically dismantled Galma, a place equi-
valent to the church or mosque where Waaqa is worshipped,
confiscated the property and built their own church on the same
site. They intended that the younger Oromo generation would
forget about their indigenous religion over time (Biyya, 1996).
Menilik II, the founder of the Ethiopian State (Holcomb and
Ibsaa 1990) decided to abandon the indigenous name Abyssinia
and adopt “Ethiopia.” The word Ethiopia is derived from two
Greek words “ethios” (burnt) and “ops” (face) (see, Catholic
encyclopaedia). Therefore, Ethiopia means “the land of burned
face people” (Dugassa, 2006. The very country’s name de-
scribes the people in derogatory terms at least from the per-
spective of its oppressors.
As part of colonization, King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia
changed the names of cities from indigenous Oromo names to
colonial ones: Hadama to Nazareth, Bishoftu to Debrezeit and
Waliso to Gion (Zion) and others (Biyya, 1996). Haile Selassie
changed not only the names of places but also his own identity.
Sandford (1955) has referred to the former king of Ethiopia as
“king of kings” and “Lion of Judah.” A victim of Western edu-
cation, after he was crowned Emperor, he took the baptismal
name, Haile Selassie, which means “The Power of Trinity.”
Historical records show that he has Oromo ancestry (Starrett,
1976) although he kept it as a secret.
The Oromos are descended from ancient Nubians and their
language, classified in the group of Cush languages along with
the languages of ancient Nubia, present-day Somalia, Afar and
Sidama (Bulcha, 2002), is the second largest African language,
Hawusa from West Africa having more speakers (Gamta, 1999).
It was the policy of Haile Selassie’s government that no African
languages would be taught in school except Amaharic. Students
were forced to learn foreign languages such as English, French,
German and Arabic in addition to Amaharic (Hameso, 1997).
Ethiopian leaders before and after Selassie have so repressed
Ethiopia’s indigenous languages until recently, no African lan-
guages were used in instruction, neither in elementary schools
and high schools nor at the college and university level. Even
the Oromo language - one of the most popular languages in the
Horn of Africa, spoken by over 40 million people as a mother
tongue and 10 million people as their second and/or third lan-
guage (Bitimaa, 1999), was not allowed even to be spoken in
Suppression of indigenous languages has occurred in several
African countries. As Mazrui (1978) points out, citing the work
B. F. DUGASSA 59
of Okot P’Bittek, African parliaments have insisted on compe-
tence in either English or French before an African could be-
come a member. A candidate could speak 10 African languages
and still be ineligible for membership in parliament if he did
not speak the imported colonial language. Conversely, a candi-
date could speak only English or French, and no African lan-
guage, even those of his or her immediate constituents, and still
be eligible for membership in the parliament. This is an aston-
ishing situation. Thus Africans can celebrate Independence Day
on the one hand and have no protection for their languages,
cultures and worldviews on the other. Those who enforce these
self-obliterating rules were exposed to Euro-centric curricula
and so they were molded to reproduce the colonial system,
rather than create an autonomous state. And students who
graduate after studying foreign school curricula are prime
agents of colonialism.
Those committed to fostering indigenous languages do so at
their peril. Ngugi Wa Thiongo, a Kenyan literary critic, writes
about his experience of learning English during colonial times:
“The one most humiliating experience was to be caught speak-
ing Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given
corporal punishment...or was made to carry a metal plate
around the neck with inscriptions such as I am STUPID or I am
a DONKEY” (Thiongo, 1986). This is an everyday occurrence
for the Oromo. One of my personal experiences was that a fel-
low student was caught speaking the Oromo language in class.
The student was given corporal punishment and made to say in
Amaharic 10 times a day for two weeks, “Almelesim huletenya,
honyalehu tifatenya” (“I am guilty and I will never repeat that
again”) in class. In addition, the student was assigned to write
the phrase 10 times a day as homework for the same period of
Colonizing Through Education
Colonizers had imposed their languages, cultures and world-
views on colonized peoples in Africa in various ways. Accord-
ing to Bunyi (1997/8), France and Portugal (and I might add
Abyssinia) adopted the principle of cultural assimilation, while
the British adopted a separatist philosophy in their colonies.
The assimilation principle espoused the idea that, ultimately,
those colonized people who could achieve a certain level of
cultural similarity with the colonizers would be integrated into
the culture of the colonizers. The British separatist philosophy
espoused the idea that the colonizer and colonized would pro-
ceed along different development paths; therefore, there would
always be gaps between the two. Indeed, both cases were de-
signed to transform the colonized people into colonizers
through an imposed culture and language. When individuals
were molded enough and demonstrated affinity with the colo-
nizers, they were recognized as having reached the highest level
of being. Language and education are important vehicles
through which power is wielded by colonizers and neo-colo-
nizers to hold the soul of prisoner and subjugate the spirit.
While the bullet was the colonial means of physical subjugation,
to me it is obvious that the objective of neo-colonial education
According to Harris and Bell (1994), learning can be envis-
aged through four theories of teaching. The first one is “transfer
theory:” knowledge is treated as a commodity to be transferred
from one person to another. The second is the “shaping theory”
where the learner is assumed to be shaped or molded to a
pre-determined pattern (the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s
“banking model” has elements of these two). The third, “trav-
eling theory,” assumes that the subject is a terrain to be ex-
plored; the more difficult hills and mountains help to give a
better viewpoint and the teacher is like a traveling companion
or guide. The fourth is “growing theory,” where the intellectual
and emotional developments of the learner are the focus. Fri-
ere’s vision of emancipatory education has elements of the last
two, but is more revolutionary in conception than theories listed
by Bell. I am arguing here that Euro-Ethiopian curricula em-
ployed “shaping theory” in the suppression of Oromo indige-
nous languages and in the forcing of Oromo children into
pre-determined Euro-Ethiopian molds.
Williams (1992), writing on higher education and society,
comments: “Higher education influences and is influenced by
the culture in which it is embedded. It is shaped by society and
it helps to shape society. It requires resources and it contributes
resources - in the form of qualified members of the work force,
better citizens, and the discovery of useful and other worth-
while knowledge. It is an important guardian of a nation’s cul-
tural tradition and it is among the strongest critics. It must re-
spond to the demands of society and it must stand aloof from
the whims of current fashion.” Further, William argues, for
centuries, higher educational institutions in France and Ger-
many have been, in effect, public corporations, and higher edu-
cation has existed to serve the state. The students in this version
of the university became junior cadres or apprentice servants of
According to Williams (1992) to a very considerable extent,
the models of higher education, which have been developed, by
the French, the German, the Spanish, and the British were
adopted by newly independent African states as consequences
of imperial colonial relationships. Thus the newly independent
countries retain many of the features of the higher education
systems that the colonial powers left behind, unaware that co-
lonial education was the source of many of their economic and
political ideas. Forty years later, Europeans are still using the
same institution to Europeanize Africa and this neo-colonialism
has had a devastating impact on African heritages, cultures,
languages and values. University graduates imitate Europeans
when indoctrinated by their curricula. Speaking the colonial
language and having goods manufactured in Europe are con-
sidered symbols of civilization and prestige.
Ali Mazrui (1978) argues that:
The cultural goods sold to a new African clientele did not
necessarily bear relevance to the real needs of the African mar-
ket. Skills were transferred without adequate consideration for
their value in Africa; other skills were withheld because they
did not conform to world criteria of excellence as defined by
the parent body. African universities moved in the direction of
creating an institution of higher education based overwhelm-
ingly on colonial state standards and values. During the colonial
period the most immediate goal for Western education in Africa
was to produce culturally relevant manpower. But at least as
important an enterprise was to expand a culturally relevant
market for Western consumer goods, ranging from toothpaste
to automobiles, from ready made western shirts to canned tuna
Mazrui (1978) suggests that there are three forms of libera-
tion: political, economic and cultural. In Mazrui’s view at the
present time, Africa is politically but not economically and
B. F. DUGASSA
culturally liberated, as economic and cultural domination of the
West persists. I believe that the foundation for liberation should
not be just political, economic or cultural but also epistemo-
logical and spiritual. Epistemological and spiritual liberation
can successfully foster political, economic, cultural and social
liberation from all forms of hegemony. It seems to me that Af-
rican leaders have been slow to realize that the colonizers left
behind their ideologies and epistemologies within the hearts
and minds of millions of Africans, including the leaders of
liberation movements, and that the colonizers continue to ex-
port their colonial agendas in various forms.
Mazrui points out that university graduates in Africa have
not been among the major cultural revivalists, nor have they
shown respect for indigenous political institutions or sympathy
for indigenous political institutions or for indigenous belief
systems and modes of entertainment and aesthetic experience.
University graduates in Africa, precisely by being the most
deeply westernized, have been the most culturally dependent on
the West. The same educational institutions that produced na-
tionalists eager to end colonial rule and establish African self-
government also have embodied insensitivity to indigenous
Constructing a Racist History: The Case of
I argue that the knowledges used by colonizers indoctrinate
colonized peoples while claiming to bring “enlightenment.”
Colonizers reconstruct history so that the present can be under-
stood from their perspective and the future re-ordered and con-
trolled by them (Said, 1994). For example, one contentious
event in Oromo history occurred around the fifteenth century. A
monk known as Abba Bahrey, visited the Oromo country and
observed people celebrating around Lake Rudolf. With curios-
ity and the mind of a missionary, he approached them to ask
why they were gathered around the lake. He understood that
they were celebrating a thanksgiving holiday and further that
they believed that Mother Creator, whom they call, “Ayyo
Uume,” created life in water. Lake Walabu is still considered a
Holy Place for pilgrims. The monk offered these people his
package of faith, as an alternative, advising them to turn their
faces to the East to seek help and give thanksgiving. The people
rejected the offer. Returning to his home, Abba Bahrey wrote a
book on the people with whom he had lived for several years
(Beckingham and Huntingford, 1954). He started his book by
saying; “I have begun to write the history of the Galla in order
to make known … the brutality of their manner.” (1954). Be-
cause he found that their manner is different from his people, he
coined the word “Galla” to refer to the Oromo.
There are several hypotheses to explain why the word Galla
was coined as a name for the Oromo people. One group of
scholars makes the case that Bahrey derived the word from the
Oromo word “Galaana” which used to mean “lake or sea.”
Others argue that the word “Galla” came from the Arabic word
“qaala laa,” meaning refusal or to refuse, as the people refused
both Christianity and Islam. A third group of scholars argues
that the word Galla is derived from the Greek word gala -
meaning milk - implying that this was their main food. The
third group rejects the notion that the word Galla was given by
Bahrey. They point out that the word Galla was derived from a
Greek word, as are Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia (Dugassa, 2006).
Regardless of the reason, as soon as Bahrey’s book appeared,
the word Galla entered Western vocabulary as the designation
for the Oromo people, serving to humiliate them.
Blundell (1900) claims that “the word Galla itself means
‘emigrants’ and their natural traditions bring them from a great
sea toward the tenth century”. The natural tradition that Blun-
dell refers to as the Oromo worldview incorrectly concludes
that the Oromo people migrated from a great Sea. Possibly it
was from such understanding the identity known as “Galla”
was framed. But all four cases presented in framing the word
“Galla” as a legitimate identity for the Oromo are examples of
misrepresentations that many colonised peoples have experi-
enced. Since, as Blundell himself witnessed the people called
themselves, as he put it, “Ilmormo” Ilmaan Oromoo or sons and
daughters of Oromo or Oromo citizen.
A second missionary, an Abyssinian Coptic/Orthodox Chris-
tian priest named Aleqa Taye (1948), and Asme Giyorgis (1987)
also painted a dehumanized picture of the Oromo people after
they failed to convert them to Christianity. Based on Bahrey’s
book and their observations, they stated that the “Gallas” came
out of the Galana River. In each case, the word “Galla” was
used to mean savage, uncivilized and pagan.
Krapf (1968), a European missionary who traveled in the
Horn of Africa region in the mid-1800s, predicted that Euro-
pean attention would be directed toward the Oromo, enabling
them to play a central role in the region and beyond. He antici-
pated that the Oromo would naturally take a large and strategic
place on the new map of Africa. Krapf went on to predict that
the Oromo could well be considered the “Germans of Africa” if
they were converted to Christianity. De Silviac (1901), a
French missionary, also foresaw that the Oromo could be like
“French of Africa, if they would be converted to Christianity.”
Kraft’s (1968) and De Silviac’s (1901) view about the Oromo
people was typical attitude of many Europeans toward non-
chrstians. European empire builders only recognized the brav-
ery and success of Christians.
During in the scramble for Africa that was planned at a Ber-
lin conference in 1884-85 (Harlow and Carter, 2003), European
colonizers decided to divide up Oromia (Oromo country) be-
tween Abyssinia and the British (Holcomb and Ibssa, 1990).
Later, they incorporated part of Oromo land into Kenya and the
rest into the present state of Ethiopia. To implement the agree-
ment, the European colonizers supplied the Abyssinians with
military hardware and advisors, which Abyssinians agreed to
pay back in the form of slaves (Bulcha, 2002). Abyssinia was one
of the suppliers of slaves to the world slave market. Between the
years 1800 and 1850, Abyssinia supplied over 1 250 000 slaves
to the world market. In 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, the
Italians claimed to abolish slavery and reported that 125 000
were freed and placed in the village of Liberty (Prouty and
When Abyssinia engaged in the slave trade, European trav-
elers documented that Oromo offered asylum for refugees who
were neighbouring peoples, such as the Dinka and Anuak who
thereby escaped enslavement. Describing the situation, Bauman
(Ayana, 1999) has testified that the refugees were virtually free
and lived in a condition of liberty. Some of the refugees were
even recruited into the national infantry. Thus Abyssinia, which
had adopted European worldviews, was actively involved in the
slave trade while the Oromo people sheltered refugees. Given
B. F. DUGASSA 61
that the Oromo people refused to adopt the Euro-Abyssinian
and Arab worldviews and possibly for not evolving in slave
trade they were penalized.
Abyssinians who are predominantly Coptic/Orthodox Chris-
tians and others who were recently converted to Islam and have
established contact with the Arab world actively involved in
slave trade than the indigenous people. Christians did not en-
slave Christians as the Moslem did not enslave the Moslem, yet
both religious groups enslaved one another (Bulcha, 2002).
When it comes to the indigenous people both the Christians and
the Moslems targeted the indigenous people. In fact, the Abys-
sinian/Ethiopian slave traders to identify who was entitled to
slavery looked for the sign of cross on the front head for
women and cross on the neck of men. In several Oromia re-
gions adjacent to Abyssinia, to protect their children from slave
hunters Oromos adopted tattooing their young girls cross on
their front head and young men to carry cross on their neck
before they were converted to Christianity
The Ethiopian scholars’ racist attitude toward the Oromo
people and their worldview remain unchanged from the past.
For example, in 2005 a professor at the Mekele University in
Ethiopia, Sintayehu Kassaye wrote a textbook Hist.102 for
freshman students in which he manifested his deep-rooted racist
attitude toward the Oromo people and their worldviews. Not
only the university allowed such racist research and publication
of such literature but also it was to be used as a textbook to
teach the Ethiopian and Oromo students for which the Oromo
Studies Association (OSA) wrote a protest letter to the Univer-
sity. Let me cite from the OSA newsletter few of the phrases
the author used to describe the Oromo people:
Considered uncivilized and inferior, even compared to the
plateau’s Muslims… Inevitably, the pagan Galla [Oromo] he-
roes … when they began their great migration to the plateau
seemed even more inferior in the eyes of semetized Christian
elites than the Somalis and Danakils. Page 145 lines 1-5.
… of the kings mistaken sequence of priorities and distorted
perception of the Galla migration and the contempt in which he
and Ethiopian society in general held these “uncouth and wild”
pastoralists (page 153, par 1, lines 3-7).
(See OSA, Newsletter No. 10, 2006)
The Hidden Curriculum of Colonialism
Purdy argues that “[t]here is a war on over the curriculum in
higher education and scholarship that supports it. It is an im-
portant war because curricular decisions define in large part
what educated people will know and think, and that in turn
makes a significant difference in how we all live.” (1994:236).
Many scholars have argued that the picture of the world pre-
sented by much of the traditional euro-centric curriculum, by
failing to take into account such categories of analysis as gen-
der, race, and class, is seriously biased. A so-called transforma-
tive learning approach recognizes the potential for learning in
every individual. However, euro-centric educational curricula
do not recognize knowledges of indigenous peoples; specifi-
cally I have argued here that euro-centric curricula undermine
the very nature of African identity. This in turn can affect the
learning aspirations in African children as well as emotional,
social, spiritual, physical and cognitive aspects of their devel-
Describing the curriculum, Popkewitz has said that “curricu-
lum [i]s particular, historically formed knowledge that inscribes
rules and standards by which we reason about the world and
our self as a productive member of that world. The rules for
telling the truth in curriculum, however, are not only about the
construction of objects for our scrutiny and observations. Cur-
riculum is disciplining technology that directs how the individ-
ual is to act, feel, talk, and see the world and self. As such,
curriculum is a form of social regulation” (1997:131). Dei
similarly describes the situated nature of knowledge construc-
tion: “I am not coming to the discussion of race and equity in
the academy from a disinterested or politically neutral position.
(Who does by the way?) The politics that drive my position are
anchored in a concern about the denial and erasure of race and
difference in the academy to present knowledge as a legitimate
search for one prevailing truth” (1999:80).
Both authors are in agreement that curricula involve proce-
dures that construct objects through conceptual lenses. Reason
and rationality are central to social efforts to improve the hu-
man condition, but no one can assume that reason and rational-
ity are a unified and universal system by which we can talk
about what is true and false. According to Popkewitz et al.
(2001), knowledge provides the values through which choices
are made, social realities are understood, and solutions are con-
sidered as acceptable and effective. This means the content of
knowledge represents the social interest of a group. Thus,
schooling is practically seen as shaping students’ views and
producing ways of thinking, acting and feeling. For example,
courses on World Geography based on euro-centric curricula
teach the names of several geographical locations as they ap-
pear to ethnocentric Europeans.
The New World refers to North and South America as if Na-
tive Americans did not exist before Columbus or, even if they
existed, that their existence is not important. The same litera-
ture refers to Africa as a Dark Continent, as if the intensity of
light is less there than in Europe. Furthermore, the same litera-
ture refers to geographical locations as the Middle East and Far
East, as if the center of the world was Europe. In fact, the name
“New World” suggests that if Europeans do not know the
landmass, it is not known. Regarding the use of “dark” to refer
to Africa, this also implies that if Europeans do not know the
continent, it cannot be known. The terms Far East and Middle
East signify land in the middle of European colonial empires or
the far east of these empires.
In the thirteenth century, European cartographers believed
that the world was flat with the holy city of Jerusalem at its
heart and they developed maps accordingly, rendering invisible
the presence of civilizations in the rest of the world. In my
opinion, the central problem here is that European society has
been unwilling to see non-Europeans as people with their own
different legitimate interests, including social values and spiri-
tuality. Hence, the battle is about the legitimacy of indigenous
knowledges. In fact, Popkewitz (1997) points out that curricu-
lum are a form of social regulation is not totally a new one:
For example, since at least the Protestant Reformation, it has
been accepted that schools have been institutions that relate
state, civil and religious authority and moral discipline. The
reforms introduced by Martin Luther made education a disci-
plining mechanism important to the reformation.
The German reformers of the sixteenth century were at-
tempting to educate the masses along humanistic principles.
Curriculum inscribed certain rules through which the individual
B. F. DUGASSA
should reason about the self and discipline the actions. The
inscriptions were not done through brute force, but through the
principles that ordered the symbolic systems by which one is to
interpret, organize and act in the world. According to Pop-
kewitz (1997), childhood literacy became institutionalized as a
strategy to confront social disorder through honouring religious
standards and moral values. The Jesuits of the sixteenth century
recognized the disciplining qualities of pedagogy as part of the
Counter Reformation, developing classroom practices that re-
interpreted the humanist and secular literature of the counter-
reformation to assert the value of the Catholic Church. Their
strategy was to read texts without historical contexts so as to
insert Catholic moral percept into non-Catholic literature.
Reasoning embodied a new epistemological space that view-
ed the world as organized structures that have links and func-
tions related to one another in an emergence of successions.
The changes in the meaning of history are changes in the prin-
ciple of classification – which means that reasoning is socially
constructed. In Popkewitz’ (1997) views, the “linguistic turn”
in social science and history can be viewed as a recasting of
modernist doctrines associated with the enlightenment project.
It decentred the actor and the agency from the center-stage of
interpretation. The movement to discourse considers language
as systems of ideas and rules of reasoning that organize and
direct an individual’s participation in the world. The languages
of schooling are not just words and sayings. The rules and
standards of speech are social practices.
Historical attention must be given to how the categories, dis-
tinctions and differentiation of systems of ideas change over
time to construct the subjects of our practices. For example, for
most European languages, black and blackness are used in a
negative sense. Black is symbolized as mourning, sorrow, bad
luck and evil. European languages suggest that white represent
purity, holiness and peace. That is why we encounter in litera-
ture phrases such as blacklist, black market, Black Death, black
future and dark day. Contrary to Euro-Abyssinian languages, in
the Oromo languages black and blackness are either neutral or
positive. According to Gada Melba (1988), for the Oromo,
Black represents purity, holiness and future. For example,
“bishaan guracha” is translated “pure water” and “Waaqa Gu-
racha” is translated “Black God,” that is, Holy God.
In informal and formal euro-centered curricula, it is beyond
comprehension that black could represent holiness and purity.
One should not be surprised about this, since beauty is different
in the eyes of different people. Clearly, distinction in the way
Oromos value particular colours as compared to Euro-Abys-
sinians may be related to different valuations of white and
black-related categories. In tropical regions of Africa, the main
source of water is rain. During the rainy season, two to three
hours before the rainfall, one can observe deep dark clouds in
the sky; when rain falls it is truly pure water. Looking from a
distance, deep and large lakes or, for that matter, seas and
oceans, appear a deep blue dark color. Oromos believe that the
God “Waaqa” lives up high in the universe in the dark blue sky.
Our ways of knowing are dependent upon our culture, relig-
ion, social class, ethno-nation group, sex, physical ability and
age. Stereotypes, or unduly fixed concepts about those who are
different from us, may lead us to believe that people with these
characteristics are naturally “good” or “bad,” “strong” or
“weak,” “a hard worker” or “lazy,” “smart” or “idiotic.” Ste-
reotypes told about the Black people in euro-centered formal
and informal curricula are examples of such discriminatory
ways of thinking. Askew and Carnell (1998), elaborating on the
impact of stereotypes on students’ learning skills, stated that
“girls are told they are good at languages; they believe they are
good at languages and so, they became “good at languages.”
Paulo Freire also described this phenomenon when he pointed
out that self-depreciation is another characteristic of the op-
pressed, deriving from their internalization of the opinion the
oppressors hold of them. Research documents the failure of
many children of African descent in school, but no one at-
tempted to determine to what extent “imperialism of mind” or
the hidden curriculum of neo-colonialism is responsible.
As Said (1994) illustrates, colonialism and imperialism are
interwoven with the practice, theory and attitude of dominating
a distant territory; hence, the struggle against it is not only
about the soldiers and cannons but is also about ideas, forms,
images and imaginings. In other words, the basis of imperial
and colonial authority is that the mental attitude of the colo-
nized is molded, shaped and reshaped by colonial education.
Similarly, Fanon (1963) argues that colonialism is not satisfied
merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the na-
tive's brain of all forms and contents of indigenous knowledge.
It turns to the past of the oppressed people to distort and disfig-
ure and destroy their history as well as their knowledge. This
work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical
Knowledge is a social construct and it reflects the lived ex-
periences of people (Berger and Luckman, 1966). In fact, very
often the knowledges of different groups of people are incom-
patible with one another. The incompatibility of knowledge
between dominant and indigenous people prompted the invali-
dation of Afro-centric ways of knowing and validated euro-
centricity. From the Oromo people’s perspective, the Ethiopian
education curricula are about the validation of the Euro-Ethio-
pian ways of knowing. Validation of such ways of knowing
legitimizes the colonial and neo-colonial agenda. This in turn
incapacitates the Oromo people and affects their social fabric.
For many Oromo students the Ethiopian educational curric-
ula inform them that the Euro-Abyssinia ways of knowing
represents the only valid knowledge. Euro-centric knowledge
suggests that in order to learn and know one needs to think
within the euro-centric gaze. Such curricula invalidate Oromo
ways of knowing and destabilize their social norms and sig-
nificantly affect the students’ epistemological curiosity. Based
on the cultural diversity and social needs, different societies
clearly ought to have separate educational curricula. Leave
alone allowing the Oromo people to control their educational
curricula, the very name Oromo had only recently become a
standard in the Ethiopian government documents and in con-
temporary literature. Until mid 1970’s the derogatory name
“Galla” was used in reference to the Oromo people (Baxter,
1998). Indeed the emergence of the Oromo Studies Association
(OSA) is to challenge the validity of the Euro-American-
Ethiopian racist theories about the Oromo people and their
racist social policies in Oromia, and reclaim as well as recon-
struct the Oromo centric knowledge (Jalata, 1996).
From the Oromo people’s perspective, peace (nagaa) and
B. F. DUGASSA 63
health (fayya) are interwoven and the system of reasoning that
affect their practice and thinking changes these relationships.
For example, an educational curriculum that separates the rela-
tionship between peace and health and medicalizes social prob-
lems invalidates the Oromo ways of knowing. Such knowledge
not only disrupts the Oromo people’s peace but also affects
their social fabric and causes dysfunction in their community
Let me end my arguments with a quote from UNESCO con-
stitution, which states, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it
is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be con-
structed” (See, UNESCO). In same analogy to regain and nour-
ish the nagaa (peace), fayya (health) and (tasgabii) social order
that the Oromo people have lost under the colonial rule it is
essential for them to reclaim and control their education system
I would like to thank Dr. Linda Muzzin for reading the first
and the second draft of this paper and gave me very valuable
feedbacks. I also, like to extend my thanks to Professor As-
safa Jalata-an expert in Oromo studies for reading and giving
me feedbacks on the final copy.
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