sublime Ethiopian singer who inspired the protesters of the Oromo struggle

I talk to myself in a whisper
Our situation has defied resolution, our misery is not improving
We are desperate and idle, that’s why I whisper.

So Haacaaluu Hundeessaa sings to his people, the Oromo, in the song Waa’ee Keenya (Our Struggle), calling them to action against centuries of oppression in Ethiopia.

The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and make up well over a third of Ethiopia’s estimated 120 million people, residing primarily in the federal state of Oromia. Historically, the Oromos have been subject to persecution and marginalization, which has led them to live on the periphery of Ethiopia’s political and social life.

The Oromo people’s decades-long struggle for political and cultural independence came to a head in 2014 when the government proposed a development plan to expand the boundaries of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, to villages and towns. Oromo neighbors. It was feared that the move would hasten the evictions of ethnic Oromos from their ancestral lands.

The new documentary Spear Through The Heart tells the tragic story of Hundeessa and how he inspired a revolution. Sublime singer-songwriter, Hundeessaa was a fervent militant of the Oromo Struggle and his songs became the anthems of the revolution. It is believed that for this he was murdered in 2020.

Inspired to Action

At the age of 17, Hundeessaa was imprisoned for five years for his political activities. It was during this time that he learned the history of Ethiopia and the Oromo, as well as how to make music. In the film, we are told, “a storyteller has emerged from prison capable of awakening pride in all of us”.

In 2009, a year after his release from prison, he released his first album Sanyii Mootii (Race of the King). His songs about Oromo rights quickly made him a star and a political symbol of the Oromo struggle.

Hundeessa’s songs do not shy away from documenting the brutal history of the Oromo people. In perhaps his most famous song Maalan Jira (What existence is mine?), he sings of the beautiful Oromo lands that have been taken. It is a song of exile, of sadness and of challenge.

My beloved Galoo Gullaallee belonged to Tufaa
The mountains belonged to Abbichuu
The Galaan surrounded Finfinnee
If it was for love
We wouldn’t be apart
They separated us
They exiled us, we separated

(Translated by Bonnie Holcomb)

For decades, the Oromo language and culture have been marginalized in the same way as many indigenous languages ​​around the world. Hundeessaa songs, sung in Oromo, gave a voice and a sense of pride to a people and a language that many were trying to silence. “Something about Haacaaluu spoke to the youth here, he was the cornerstone of pride, of being Oromo”, underlines an activist interviewed in the documentary.

A unifier

Hundeessaa’s songs are provocative and questioning and feature memorable lines that created both a language of protest and hope, which was previously absent. In this, people spoke of him as a great unifier. His songs made people aware of how history was repeating itself – how the same tactics used in the past were again being used to divide and conquer people in Ethiopia. For example, in the song Waa’ee Keenya (Our struggle), he sings:

Who is to blame, the intellectuals or the ignorant?
We are still unaware of what causes us deep sadness
Though we’ve grown adept at sabotaging and deceiving ourselves
Our misery stayed with us even though we wore each other down

(Translated by Ezekiel Gebissa)

Unsurprisingly, criticism from the powerful and his ability to unite people made him unpopular with the government. But he was never afraid to raise his voice, which is documented in the film through footage of him performing in front of an audience of senior government officials.

His songs were directly critical of their actions and the officials are stone-faced as the crowd celebrates and sings. Giving an interview later, Hundeessaa said, “It’s not a civil servant or a government official who chooses what I sing.

As a result of the struggle, a new leader was elected in 2018 – Abiy Ahmed, of Oromo and Amhara origin (another of the dominant ethnic groups in Ethiopia). There was hope for Ahmed’s initial program to liberalize and unify action among the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia. However, his tenure has since led to a brutal civil war in Oromia and has been strongly condemned by international human rights organizations.

In 2020, Hundeessaa was shot and killed in Addis Ababa. It is widely believed that he was killed for his politics and in interviews before his death he said he had received death threats.

Hundeessaa’s death sparked weeks of violence and unrest in Oromia. The struggle continues and people continue to protest for Oromo rights. There are also 4.5 million internally displaced Ethiopians, mostly from Tigray and Oromia.

Spear Through The Heart is an important cultural artifact, documenting past and present Oromo struggle while celebrating the generosity of spirit of one man who embodied the movement and gave it a powerful voice. His wife said at his funeral: “Haacaaluu is not dead. He will forever remain in my heart and in the hearts of millions of Oromo. »

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