January 09, 2014 (GSN) - The Anuak people of Western Ethiopia, is one of the sects of the big family of the Lou of Eastern Africa. Like their kin and kiths in Kenya, Uganda and the South Sudan, Anuaks are the people who like to settle and dwell along the rivers.
As the sources of the water they drink and the food they eat, it can be said that their lives are closely attached to the rivers on which they are living. It is because of this secret of their lives that the Anuaks have the great deal of love to their rivers. They adore them through songs and give them the names that show their daily connection to them in so meaningful ways.
I can say that I was one of the privileged Anuak boys who had the opportunity to join school at early stage of age because of the presence of the American Missionaries who opened a primary school in Aganga, Pignudo where I started my education. It was really an interesting moment to start learning how to pronounce the letters in Amharic and English which were considered as foreign languages in Anuak land at those days. I was very curious to know more about the characters of the letters of these foreign languages and that curiosity might have helped me to succeed in my learning process all the way to the university level.
When I grew up a
s a small kid in the village where I was born, I knew all the names of the main rivers found in the Anuak land. I knew that all the names were the words originated from the Anuak language until one day I came across something which surprised me the most in all my life. At that particular day, our Geography Teacher was giving us a lesson about the rivers of Ethiopia and the places where they were located. What had surprised me the most was that looking at an alien name (word) given to the river which was clearly pointed out on the map to be located in Gambella. As I said, I knew very well all the names of the main rivers which were located in Anuak land. But here, our teacher was telling us that there was a river in Gambella by the name called “Baro”. I really could not believe what I was hearing at that moment. When I composed myself and came back to my senses, I realized that the river that was labeled by the name “Baro” was the river I used to know by the very name “Openo” since my childhood. I think what I felt at that moment must be the same feeling with other Anuak boys who came across to learn about this alien word given by a strange person to their biggest and the most important river in their land.
I said it is the most important river in the sense of its economical aspect. This river used to be a connection line between Gambella and Khartoum through which the manufacture goods like salt, sugar, textiles and other goods were transported to Anuak land during the navigation periods in the rainy seasons. Here, the teacher should not be blamed as he was taught in that way.
To give answers to the questions of “Who gave the name Baro to the river Openo” and “Why he did so ‘’, let’s look at the history of Ethiopia during the eras of Emperor Minilik and Emperor Haile Sellassie very briefly. As we all know, before Emperor Minilik came to power, the span of the administration areas of those rulers who called themselves as king of kings in Ethiopia was mainly limited to the place used to be called Abyssinia which comprises the Northern part of the present Ethiopia particularly the regions of Tigray, Gondar (Begemedir), Wollo, Gojam and some parts of the Northern Shoa. After becoming Emperor and knowing that no other king in Abyssinia land that seemed to challenge him, Minilik started expanding his kingdom by moving South and West wards where different kingdoms and chieftains were still ruling their respective localities in their own ways of administration. The move which was initiated by Minilik did not go through easily as it was thought. Along the way, he was confronted by many resistances from different kingdoms and chieftains and during these confrontations many lives were lost and properties were destroyed as history can witnesses.
In the case of Gambella, even though many lives were also lost, the adventure of Emperor Minilik could not materialize on the ground in establishing his administration like what he did in other places. He was, of course, challenged by the Anuak Traditional kings and Chiefs. During those confrontations, I suspect, the natural environment might have played great roles against his armies which means that the weather condition of the area might have played positive roles in favor of the kings and chiefs of the area. When Minilik passed away, Lij Eyasu took over as the leader in Ethiopia. In his turn, Lij Eyasu wanted to finish the job which was started by Minilik in Gambella. In the same way, Lij Eyasu did not succeed in the effort he made to conquer the area until a warrior from Syria called Majid who was living in Gore area came to his assistance and helped him to fight against the Anuak Chiefs along the river Openo. Majid had briefly succeeded in defeating some Anuak Chiefs though. But, this didn’t stay longer as he was pushed back and forced to retreat to his base called Lo-Majid in the present day town of Gambella. Finally, he returned back to Gore without bearing any fruit of success in the effort he had made. As many of my readers may recall, it was only during the era of Emperor Haile Sellassie when some parts of Gambella came under the direct control of the central administration in Addis Ababa.
From this short historical narration, we can deduce that Minilik had faced a lot of challenges and resistances in the process of expanding his kingdom. Haile Sellassie followed his footsteps for the same reason with lesser confrontations in magnitude. Having these points in mind, let’s see the main point of this article.
To my understanding, Minilik and Haile Sellassie had many similarities than their differences. They looked alike in the ways they imposed their kingdoms on others by force. Both of them did not give any piece of dime in terms of respecting the values, norms and cultures of the people they had invaded. They wanted to Amharize the whole country and let all ethnic groups of Ethiopia speak only one language, practice only Amhara culture and follow only one religion (Orthodox Christianity). In general speaking, they wanted to put all Ethiopians in one jacket that they had sewn according to their own tastes. The differences they had were very few. For example, they were slightly different in the way they gave names to the places and ethnic groups they invaded. Most of the names given by Minilik were derogative in their very nature. You can easily understand what I am talking about here by recalling the names given to some ethnic groups which were still in use in the country few years ago. The name “Addis Ababa” which was given by his wife to replace the Oromo word “Finfine” can be taken as exceptional case here. This case by itself needs other explanation which I am not going to deal with it here.
In contrast, when we try to examine some names of the places that were given by Haile Sellassie such as Nazerat (Adama), Debre-Zeit (Bishoftu), Hossana (Wachemo), and Berhane-Selam (a small village near Edeni in Gambella), we can sense that these names had religious backgrounds. Haile Sallassie used to impose his kingdom making sure that three pillars of his administration were in place in the first days or weeks he occupied certain places. These pillars (Administration office, Police Station, and Orthodox Church) were playing great roles in paralyzing the physical, psychological, and emotional strengths of the invaded people very seriously.
It can be said that it is a natural behavior of human kind to show bad feelings and react unfriendly to whoever giving back some sort of challenges in one way or the other. The fact that Minilik faced strong and fierce resistances from the people he invaded and this, in turn, incurred many lives to his armies, it can be said that it was natural for him to behave and treat the people who fought against him in a cruel way like he did at those days. But, this should not be taken as an excuse as he had committed heinous and inhuman atrocities on many innocent individuals and ethnic groups in Ethiopia which cannot be denied by anybody in any way.
Many of you may agree with me that the atrocities that were committed by the above mentioned two Emperors at those days are still serving as sources of the hatreds and mistrusts which are manifesting in different forms even in the contemporary Ethiopian politics. This is my personal understanding and I am ready to hear from anybody who may have intention to convince me otherwise.
As it was already mentioned above, Minilik was given hard time by Anuak Traditional kings and Chiefs in Gambella. Knowing that those who gave him challenges were the indigenous Anuak people with dark skins, the only thing he could do was to insult them and gave a derogative name to their beautiful river that flows throughout the year into the swamps of South Sudan. He had nothing to do then, but to rename the graceful river that used to embody an Anuak name “Openo” by an alien word “Baro”. Without any ambiguity, it was Minilik who gave the word “Baro” as a name to river Openo because of the deep hatred against the Anuak people who did nothing wrong, but to protect themselves and their territory against the invader. The meaning of “Baro” was, therefore, originated from an Amharic word “Bariya” which means slave. For the sake of information, there are still some people in Ethiopia, as we speak today, who call any person with dark skin as bariya (slave) as if they were white people. For me, these types of people are sick with a disease called “Ignorance”. They don’t know that slavery has nothing to do with the colors of the skins of individuals. Had they known that the activities of slavery had started within the white societies in Europe before even the slave trade had emerged on the soils of Africa, these ignorant people would have thought twice whenever they want to use that word.
As a concluding remark, I have the following few words to say. For many years the word “Baro” has been used as a name for river Openo which is a derogatory word in its meaning and it is an insult to the people of Gambella without any reasonable doubt. I know that the damage was made many years ago, but I think it is not too late to fix it. This is not the first incident in its kind and will not be the last evil thing to be committed against other people on this planet of ours. It is, therefore, a high time for the Regional Assembly of Gambella to put this very important issue on top of its agenda. The Regional Assembly or Regional Government has to start consulting the stake holders to pave a way that will enable to bring back the original name “Openo” which was labeled with a derogatory word “Baro’’ without the will of the people. Let the Regional Government prepares various forums where it can consult with the people of the region to figure out what their feelings look like and what action should be taken in a civilized way.
Another assignment that the Regional Government of Gambella has to do is to give a proper name to the Airport. There is no reason in any way to call an Airport after the construction company that constructed it. It is a laughable matter to stay this long calling it MECOD (Mekelakiya Construction Dergit) which was the Defense Forces Construction Company during the Dergue regime. In my candid opinion, it should be called after the name of the place on which this Airport was constructed. The name of that place is called Namakuo. Therefore, the proper name should be “Namakuo Airport”.
To support this argument, many Regional States in Ethiopia had already taken measures by bringing back the original names of many places which were replaced by the two Emperors mentioned earlier in this article. Across the border, there were countries in Africa which were called by the names given by colonial powers like Gold Coast and Rhodesia which were renamed as Ghana and Zimbabwe respectively after independent. The Government of South Africa has renamed the city of Johannesburg to its original name and the Government of Zimbabwe has decided recently to bring back the original name for Victoria Falls on the river Zambezi. These are few examples that I can give at this moment in order to show you that what you are going to do is not a crime. Rather, it is a noble thing that you can do for your people and region at this historical moment. I wish all my readers a “Happy New Year’’.