Miktivism—the use of music for the purposes of activism and social change—has become a popular strategy of resistance among Ethiopian youth. I use the term miktivism to refer to the practice of employing music to advance causes of social justice by youth who do not claim to be activists, at least not openly. This blog explores an example of miktivism: young musicians deploying what they regard as their talents and resource—music and microphone—to highlight questions of land and identity in the Oromia region, Ethiopia.
Land grabbing in the Oromia region
The Oromia region is the largest of Ethiopia’s nine federal regions. Its inhabitants, the ethnic Oromo people, account for about 35% of the country’s population. Oromo people inhabit lands surrounding Addis Ababa and also in west, central, and south Ethiopia. Due to its proximity to Addis Ababa, the Oromia region has been subjected to continuous encroachment by industrial and real estate developments driven by Ethiopian and international investors and suffered from land grabbing driven by foreign agri-investments (e.g. Lavers 2012).
Maalan Jira? / Do I exist?
The struggle to retain agricultural land has been at the core of widespread youth protests in the Oromo region during the period 2015-2018. Music plays a key role in these protests and the song Maalan Jira by Oromo artist Hacaaluu Hundeessaa serves as a prime example.
Maalan Jira is a social-political song disguised by love lyrics in Affan Oromo language. The song was released in 2015, at the beginning phase of the youth protests and has had close to 6 million views on the YouTube.
Land grab as an existential threat
Maalan jiraa, maalan, jiraa, maalan jiraa, Yaa Gaa-laa-nee…
Maalan jiraa maalan, caccabsee na nyaatee jiraa
Ani hin jiruu… Ani hin jiruu, Ani hin jiruu… Yaa Ga-laa-ne, Ani hin jiruu Kukkutee na nyaate xurri
Do I exist Galaane? No Galaane I do not exist; they chopped and ate my liver [vital organs].
What is left of me Galaane? They broke up my bones and ate them.
Koo Galaanee tiyyaa, Sululta loon hin tiksuu darabaatti galchiisa,
My dear Galaane, Sululta cannot let the cattle to graze freely; they have to fence them.
The lyrics present contemporary land grabs as an existential threat. This is done by drawing an analogy between the human body/anatomy and land as a vital means of existence for the rural population. Hacaalu Hundessa repeatedly expresses that his ‘bones are broken up’, bit by bit, in order to exemplify how agricultural land is slowly becoming a scarce resource for farmers. Phrases like ‘vital organs chopped away’ and ‘eaten up’ represent first of all the grabbing and selling of rural land to investors. These existential metaphors also resonate with one of the most popular chants during the protests: ‘lafti keenya lafee keenya’ (‘our land is our bone’). Secondly, the music video and the lyrics refer to the need to fence cattle because of declining open pastures. Oromo people have a long tradition of letting their cattle unfettered in the field. Cattle is brought home only when they are to be milked or slaughtered. This is just one example of illustrating intensified land grab in the name of development, experienced by local population not as a mere change in livelihoods, but as a compromise to what it means to be Oromo.
Historical repetition of grabbing of Oromo lands
Laal Galoo-too, Gullalleen kan Tufaa, gaara Abbichuu turii, Galaan Finfinnee..see.
Laal Galoo-too, Silaa akka jaalalaa Laal Galoo-too, wal irraa hin fagaannuu Laal Galoo-too, Jarraa nu fageessee.
Look my Galoo, Gullallee belonged to Tufaa, Abbichuu was on the hills, Galaan farmed Finfinnee.
We, the lovers, should have never been separated, but those people separated us.
The main protagonist in the song is a woman named Gelaanee, who is affectionately referred to as ‘Galoo’. Gelaanee also refers to a queen of one of the Oromo clans which was conquered by Emperor Menellik II during his expansion in the 20th century. Following this conquest and resembling contemporary developments, queen Gelaanee’s land became incorporated into Ethiopia’s capital.
Malaan Jira recounts the violent expansion of Finfinnee into Addis Ababa through the gradual pushing away of indigenous Oromo clans. The song laments how—through land grabs—people are losing not just their land but also their rural mode of life. It refers to localities like Gullelle, Abbichuu, Galaan and, Sululta etc; places where Oromo clans lived for generations. These areas are now either part of Addis Ababa or suggested for incorporation into Addis Ababa’s Integrated Development Plan. This development plan, locally known as the master killer plan, is the main trigger for the ‘Ethiopian Spring’.
‘Separation of lovers’
Diiganii gaara sanaa, Gaara diigamuu hin-mallee,
Nu baasaan addaan baanee, nuu addaan bahuu hin-mallee.
Seeqanii sesseeqanii, kan gar gar nu baasan jaraa—yii
They dug that hill, a hill that should never have been dug/destroyed.
They separated us, the people who should never have been separated.
Little by little, they cut us apart [alienated us].
Maalan Jira effectively mobilizes a number of metaphors to express social critique in a guarded manner. For example, the phrase ‘Separation of lovers’ refers to the growing rift between Oromia region and Finfinnee brought about by the allocation of its land for the development of Addis Ababa. The metaphor also stands for the ethnic-based federalism pursued by the Ethiopian government, amplifying differences rather than shared interests. Both the song and music video tell stories of several generations of farmers who went on to cultivate vast areas of land, yet the present generation does not even have a ‘ground to sleep on.’ The music video alludes to systemic dispossession, i.e. the process of political economy altering the material grounds of life as well as the ways in which people struggle for control of social reproduction.
Maalan Jira is a prime example of the miktivism embraced by Oromo youth. It shows how youth mobilize historical references and powerful metaphors, describing the loss of identity, way of life, livelihoods and lands of Oromo people. Yet, by using ‘Galoo’ they can just claim it is an innocent love song. This strategy enables youth to elude the risks engendered by voicing political issues openly.
Lavers, T. (2012). ‘Land grab’ as development strategy? The political economy of agricultural investment in Ethiopia. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39 (1), 105-132.
This article is part of a series on Creative Development.
About the author:
Tatek Abebe is a professor at the Norwegian University of Sciences and Technology (NTNU) where he convenes the MPhil in childhood studies. His current research focuses on generational implications of development/poverty with an emphasis on young people’s lives and transitions into adulthood. He conducts ethnographic and participatory fieldwork in diverse African contexts.
AnonymousFebruary 15, 2022
The author presented his political stand in an academic format. I had the opportunity to read the full article DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2020.1789560
In the article, Tatek Abebe presents unfounded claims of Oromo activists. For instance, he claims (at least he doesn’t question) that Oromo clans were indigenous people in what’s today Addis Ababa. This claim is far from the truth. When was the earliest time Oromo clans live in today’s Addis Ababa? Which ethnic groups lived in Addis Ababa before the Oromos? He intentionally disregards these questions because the answers to these questions do not support his unfounded claims.
In short, I see his article as the summary of Oromo ethnonationalists’ agenda presented in an academic template.
AnonymousApril 29, 2022
I enjoyed reading this piece as well as the full article published by the author. He made a well informed analysis and brought to the light the significant role music plays among the Oromo. Maalan Jiraa is a manifestation of how the Oromo use tactical medium such as music to disguisedly communicate their cause so as to raise better awareness among themselves. Although scantly researched so far, the Oromo are deeply connected to music where they discuss social, cultural, economic, political, historical, spiritual as well as cosmological issues as a nation that remained oral until very recently. As someone with research interest in protest music and social movement in Africa particularly Ethiopia, I found the piece to be outstanding in every aspect.
AnonymousJune 24, 2019
Baay’ee Galatoomi barrefama nuuf hirteef. Well articulated
AnonymousJune 26, 2019
thank you for this comment.
GetanehJanuary 26, 2021
Hello my dear Tatek,
This is a Wonderfull work and am reading some of your academic works on the issue at hand. I need your contact to discuss more on similar issues.
F68.10June 21, 2019
One of the rare actors that voice concerns for what is happening in Ethiopia is the Oakland Institute.
The question to me is how random individuals can pressure decision makers to enforce development that benefits to local people and that is not done to their detriment. These kind of issues do not seem to be on the agenda in many countries.
AnonymousJune 26, 2019
Thanks for this note, yes, this is an interesting question that speaks to the issue of critical resistance. To me the question is also who ‘random’ citizen and what qualifies for an opinion to be ‘valid’. I think Ethiopian have the capacity and right to engage in questions of equality and social justice like they are doing now, and government has the responsbility to balance and move in ways that is responsive to their questions and engagements in ways that are inclusive and participatory.
AnonymousJune 20, 2019
Finfinnee and Addis Ababa are the same, in this article it is represented as different.
AnonymousJune 26, 2019
The article is about how the song captures the process of transformation of Finfinne and Addis Ababa.