As a child, I would sit on our living room couch for hours listening to my father tell stories from back home. Despite being miles away from Oromia, he carried their oral storytelling traditions with him. It was through these stories I was first introduced to the rich and complex history and culture of my people. For centuries storytelling served as the vehicle to pass down knowledge, culture, history, and experiences from one generation to the next. In addition to these lessons I might learn, my father made it his duty that I knew and remembered the names of our ancestors he referenced in these stories.
Every so often he would test me. Enyuu – who.
What is your name?
And so by the time I entered my first grade of school, I came to learn my lineage eleven generations back.My forefather’s names didn’t just become names I remembered, they became part of my identity. To this day I’ve never forgotten it. For the Oromo people of Ethiopia, this is an incredibly important tradition designed to preserve the history and culture of our people; and the inception of this tradition can be traced back to a critical set of prerequisites that take place during a pre-marital ceremony.
While many cultures around the world practice(d) arranged marriages, the methods and requirements of these arrangements differ widely by the society it takes place in. The Oromo had their own unique process. Marriage negotiations would typically begin with the parents of the potential groom initiating the search of a bride for their son. In their attempt to find a woman for their son to marry, they would approach the parents of the potential bride-to-be equipped with a list of questions and requirements to determine suitability.
On the very top of that list, before any other questions or further plans can follow, the groom’s parents will ask the parents of the bride to reveal their family names counting back seven generations.
The bride’s family will then recite back seven generations (from their father’s side) to determine if the two families have a common ancestor. If they share a familial commonality within the nearest seven generations of lineage, the two are not suitable to marry, and the potential marriage is immediately called off. Only after it has been determined that the families don’t share a common patriarch within the closest seven generations, can any marriage negotiations proceed.
For the Oromos, this was a strictly observed policy that left very little room for exceptions and even less patience for rule-breakers. Abiding by this social contract was not a choice so much as it was the expectation, and any deviation from this understanding was considered taboo. Insofar as if families were caught intentionally breaking this rule, it was not uncommon to be banished. In Oromo culture, evidence of ancestry was particularly important during marriage negotiations, but oral genealogy was also kept for a variety of social, economic, and historical reasons.
Up until the late 16th century, the majority of Oromos were a nomadic people that pursued agro-pastoralism as a way of life. A characteristic consistent with the Cushitic people inhabiting the North and Eastern parts of Africa by which the Oromo are indigenous to. Pastoralism was at the centrepiece of self-sustainment, and this lifestyle required continuous travel to locate new and fresh pastures on which their livestock could graze. Centuries of moving and settling in vast areas of land conditioned them to establish oral traditions to ensure records, including records of genealogy were kept.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about this centuries-old Oromo tradition of prohibiting close family marriages is how it is consistent with the modern scientific understanding of consanguinity. We know, through developments in research on human genetics, that children born into close family marriages have a significantly increased risk of developing health complications. In addition to that, close family marriages specifically lead to the increased likelihood of a child inheriting a defective gene from a common ancestor that would otherwise be recessive if not for consanguinity. In other words, the risk of health complications passed down genetically becomes more significant when the parents are close relatives, and dramatically reduced the further they’re apart.
In saying that, it appears to be that one way or another, this reality was known and understood by the Oromos centuries ago. From the very existence of the rule, to how strictly it was both followed and enforced, as well as the guideline of seven generations, all demonstrate the awareness of consanguinity complications and the recognition to take initiatives to avoid them. This is another example, among countless others, of knowledge systems indigenous to African peoples.
Today, this pre-marital tradition is still common among Oromos, not so much as to avoid common ancestry (although that is still a main reason), but as an opportunity to get to know the other person’s family background and history. Qerroos and Qaarrees (young, unmarried men and women) today will typically bypass their parents’ inquiries of seeking genealogical information, in favour of just asking each other themselves.
Everyone has a couple of jokes or stories they carry with them on dates or when they are getting to know someone for the first time. So many have fallen into the eternal resting place between “we are just friends” to “talking” to “what are we”. I think i am really just curious to know how many dates do you go on before you pop the question, “hey, i just met you, and this is you know, but enyuu, who are your ancestors ?”