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Helen: an everyday story of Oromos traumatic identity change
by Tigist Geme
(OPride) – Author and novelist Tesfaye Gebreab released his eighth
Sidetengaw Mastawesha” – an
immigrant's memoir – online, as a free PDF, after an alleged
fallout with his publisher,
Netsanet Publishing Agency (NPA).
The dramatic decision to distribute the book for free – at an
estimated loss of $30,000 – came, according to Tesfaye's people,
after NPA leaked a doctored copy of the book following the author's
refusal to omit two controversial chapters, one of which is about
Tesfaye is not new to controversy, especially one involving the
divergent Oromo and Ethiopian narratives. His well-received book, YeBurqa
Zimita – the
silence of Burqa – is the first major work of contemporary Amharic
fiction with main Oromo characters based on a true story.
Tesfaye, who is of an Eritrean descent, grew up in Bishoftu in
Oromia, central Ethiopia. He
identifies himself as "Ijjoollee
Bushooftu" meaning a proud Bishoftu native. His third
major novel "Ye
Bishoftu Qorxoch" and two subsequent memoirs, although
less controversial, dealt with the plight of Oromo people under
successive Ethiopian regimes.
Suffice to say, over the years, Tesfaye had distinguished himself as
a controversial, introspective, and critical novelist by going
against the tide of mainstream Ethiopianist narrative. For this,
he’s been accused of many things, like being a paid Eritrean spy.
In the latest disputed book, one of the chapters that the publishers
allegedly sought to censor was “Caaltuu as Helen”, which is based on
a novelized story of Caaltuu Midhaksa, a young Oromo girl from Ada'aa
Barga district, also in central Oromia.
Born to a farming family in Koftu, a small village south of Addis Ababa near Akaki, Caaltuu led an
exuberant childhood. Raised by her grandmother's sister Gode, a
traditional storyteller who lived over 100 years, the impressionable
Caaltuu mastered the history and tradition of Tulama Oromos at a very
Caaltuu’s captivating and fairytale like story, as retold by Tesfaye,
begins when she was awarded a horse named Gurraacha as a prize for
winning a Tulama history contest. Though she maybe the first and
only female contestant, Caaltuu won the competition by resoundingly
answering eleven of the twelve questions she was asked.
Guraacha, her pride and constant companion, became Caaltuu's best
friend and she took a good care of him. Gurraacha was a strong
horse; his jumps were high, and Caaltuu understood his pace and
A masterful rider and an envy to even her male contemporaries,
Caaltuu soon distinguished herself as bold, confident,
outspoken, assertive, and
courageous. For this, she quickly became a household name among the
Oromo from Wajitu to Walmara, Sera to Dawara, Bacho to Cuqala, and
Dire to Gimbichu, according to Tesfaye.
Caaltuu traces her lineage to the Galan, one of the six clans of
Tulama Oromo tribe. At the height of her fame, admirers – young and
old – addressed her out of respect as “Caaltuu Warra Galaan!" –
Caaltuu of the Galan, and "Caaltuu Haadha Gurraacha!" – Caaltuu the
mother of Gurraacha.
Caaltuu's disarming beauty, elegance, charisma, and intelligence
coupled with her witty personality added to her popularity. Caaltuu's
tattoos from her chin to her chest, easily noticeable from her light
skin, made her look like of a “Red Indian descent” (Tesfaye's
As per Tesfaye's account, there wasn’t a parent among the well-to-do
Oromos of the area who did not wish Caaltuu betrothed to their son.
At 14, Caaltuu escaped a bride-kidnapping attempt by outracing her
Caaltuu's grandfather Banti Daamo, a well-known warrior and
respected elder, had a big family. Growing up in Koftu, Caaltuu
enjoyed being surrounded by a large network of extended family,
although she was the only child for her parents.
Recognizing Caaltuu's potential, her relatives suggested that she
goes to school, which was not available in the area at the time.
However, fearing that she would be abducted, Caaltuu's father
arranged her marriage to a man of Ada’aa family from Dire when she
Locals likened Caaltuu's mannerism to her grandfather Banti Daamo,
earning her yet another nickname as "Caaltuu warra Bantii Daamo" –
Caaltuu of Banti Daamo. She embraced the namesake because many saw
her as an heir to Banti Daamo's legacy, a role usually preserved for
the oldest male in the family. Well-wishers blessed her: prosper
like your grandparents. She embraced and proudly boasted about
continuing her grandfather's heritage calling herself Chaltu
Others began to call her Akkoo [sic]
Xinnoo, drawing a comparison between Caaltuu and a legendary Karrayu
Oromo woman leader after whom Ankobar was
Caaltuu's eccentric life took on a different trajectory soon after
her marriage. She could not be a good wife as the local tradition
and custom demanded; she could not get along with an alcoholic
husband who came home drunk and abused her.
When Caaltuu threatened to dissolve the marriage, as per Oromo
culture, elders intervened and advised her to tolerate and reconcile
with her husband. Rebellious and nonconformist by nature, Caaltuu,
who's known for challenging old biases and practices, protested "an
alcoholic cannot be a husband for Banti Daamo’s daughter!”
Soon she left her husband and moved to
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's
capital, to attend formal education and start a new chapter in life.
In Addis Ababa, her aunt
Mulumebet's family welcomed Caaltuu. Like Caaltuu, Mulumebet grew up
in Koftu but later moved to
Addis Ababa, and changed her given name from
Gadise in order to ‘fit’ into the city life.
Subsequently, Mulumebet sat down with Caaltuu to provide guidance
and advice on urban [Amhara] ways.
“Learning the Amharic language is mandatory for your future life,"
Mulumebet told Caaltuu. "If you want to go to school, first you have
to speak the language; in order to learn Amharic, you must stop
speaking Afaan Oromo immediately; besides, your name Caaltuu
Midhaksa doesn’t match your beauty and elegance."
"I wish they did not mess you up with these tattoos," Mulumebet
continued, "but there is nothing I could do about that...however, we
have to give you a new name."
Just like that, on her second day in Addis, Caaltuu
warra Galaan became
Caaltuu understood little of the dramatic twists in her life. She
wished the conversation with her aunt were a dream. First, her name
Caaltuu means the
better one, her tattoos beauty marks.
She quietly wondered, “what is wrong with my name and my tattoos?
How can I be better off with a new name that I don’t even know what
Of course she had no answers for these perennial questions. Most of
all, her new last name Getachew discomforted her. But she was given
The indomitable Caaltuu had a lot to learn.
A new name, new language, new family, and a whole new way of life,
the way of civilized Amhara people. Caaltuu mastered Amharic in a
matter of weeks. Learning math was no problem either, because
Caaltuu grew up solving math problems through oral Oromo folktale
and children's games like Takkeen Takkitumaa.
Caaltuu's quick mastery amazed Dr. Getachew, Mulumebet's husband.
This also made her aunt proud and she decided to enroll Caaltuu in
an evening school. The school matched Caaltuu, who's never set foot
in school, for fourth grade. In a year, she skipped a grade and was
placed in sixth grade. That year Caaltuu passed the national exit
exam, given to all sixth graders in the country, with distinction.
But her achievements in school were clouded by a life filled with
disappointments, questions, and loss of identity. Much of her
troubles came from Mulumebet packaged as life advice.
“Helen darling, all our neighbors love and admire you a lot,"
Mulumebet told Caaltuu one Sunday morning as they made their way
into the local Orthodox Church. "There is not a single person on
this block who is not mesmerized by your beauty...you have a bright
future ahead of you as long as you work on your Amharic and get rid
of your Oromo accent...once you do that, we will find you a rich and
Caaltuu knew Mulumebet had her best interest at heart. And as a
result never questioned her counsel. But her unsolicited advises
centered mostly on erasing Caaltuu's fond childhood memories and
making her lose touch with Oromummaa – and essentially become an
Caaltuu spent most of her free time babysitting Mulumebet's
children, aged 6 and 8. She took care of them and the kids loved
her. One day, while the parents were away, lost in her own thoughts,
Caaltuu repeatedly sang her favorite Atetee – Oromo women's song of
fertility – in front of the kids.
That night, to Caaltuu's wild surprise, the boys performed the song
for their parents at the dinner table. Stunned by the revelation,
Mulumebet went ballistic and shouted, “Are you teaching my children
Mulumebet continued, "Don’t you ever dare do such a thing in this
house again. I told you to forget everything you do not need. Helen,
let me tell you for the last time, everything you knew from Koftu is
now erased…forget it all! No Irreechaa, no Waaree, no Okolee, no
Ibsaa, No Atetee, and no Wadaajaa."
Amused by his wife's dramatic reaction, Getachew inquired, “what
does the song mean, Helen?" Caaltuu told him she could not explain
it in Amharic. He added, “If it is indeed about witchcraft, we do
not need a devil in this house...Helen, praise Jesus and his mother,
Mary, from now on."
"Wait," Getachew continued, "did you ever go to church when you were
in Koftu? What do they teach you there?”
Caaltuu acknowledged that she’s been to a church but never
understood the sermons, conducted in Amharic, a language foreign to
her until now. "Getachew couldn’t believe his ears," writes Tesfaye.
But Getachew maintained his cool and assured Caaltuu that her
mistake would be forgiven.
Caaltuu knew Atetee was not a witchcraft but a women's spiritual
song of fertility and safety. All Oromo women had their own Atetee.
Now in her third year since moving to Addis, Caaltuu spoke fluent
Amharic. But at school, in the market, and around the neighborhood,
children bullied her daily. It was as if they were all given the
same course on how to disgrace, intimidate, and humiliate her.
“You would have been beautiful if your name was not Caaltuu,"
strangers and classmates, even those who knew her only as Helen,
would tell her. Others would say to Caaltuu, as if in compliment,
"if you were not Geja (an Amharic for uncivilized), you would
actually win a beauty pageant...they messed you up with these
tattoos, damn Gallas!"
Her adopted name and mastery of Amharic did not save Caaltuu from
discrimination, blatant racism, hate speech, and ethnic slurs. As if
the loss of self was not enough, seventh grade was painfully
challenging for Caaltuu. One day when the students returned from
recess to their assigned classes, to her classmate's collective
amusement, there was a drawing of a girl with long tattooed neck on
the blackboard with a caption: Helen
Nikise Gala – Helen, the tattooed Gala. Gala is a
disparaging term akin to a Nigger used in reference to Oromos. As
Caaltuu sobbed quietly, their
English teacher Tsige walked in and
the students' laughter came to a sudden halt. Tsige asked the
classroom monitor to identity the insulting graffiti's artist. No
one answered. He turned to Caaltuu and asked, “Helen, tell me who
drew this picture?"
She replied, “I don't know teacher, but Samson always called me Nikise
Tsige was furious. Samson initially denied but eventually admitted
fearing corporal punishment. Tsige gave Samson a lesson of a
lifetime: “Helen speaks two language: her native Afaan Oromo and
your language Amharic, and of course she is learning the third one.
She is one of the top three students in the class. You speak one
language and you ranked 41 out of 53 students. I have to speak to
your parents tomorrow."
Athletic and well-mannered, Caaltuu was one of the best students in
the entire school. But she could not fathom why people gossiped
about her and hurled insults at her.
Banned from speaking Afaan Oromo, Caaltuu could not fully express
feelings like sorrow, regrets, fear and happiness in Amharic. To the
extent that Mulumebet wished Caaltuu would stop thinking in Oromo,
in one instance, she asked Caaltuu to go into her bedroom to lament
the death of a relative by singing honorific praise as per Oromo
custom. Caaltuu’s break came one afternoon when the sport teacher
began speaking to her in Afaan Oromo, for the first time in three
years. She sobbed from a deep sense of loss as she uttered the
words: “I am from Koftu, the daughter of Banti Daamo." Saying those
words alone, which were once a source of her pride, filled Caaltuu
with joy, even if for that moment.
Caaltuu anxiously looked forward to her summer vacation and a
much-needed visit to Koftu. But before she left, Mulumebet warned
Caaltuu not to speak Afaan Oromo during her stay in Koftu. Mulumebet
told Caaltuu, “Tell them that you forgot how to speak Afaan Oromo.
If they talk to you in Oromo, respond only in Amharic. Also, tell
them that you are no longer Chaltu. Your name is Helen.”
Getachew disagreed with his wife. But Caaltuu knew she has to
oblige. On her way to Koftu, Caaltuu thought about her once golden
life; the time she won Gurracha in what was only a boys'
competition, and how the entire village of Koftu
sang her praises.
Her short stay in Koftu was dismal. Gurraacha was sold for 700 birr
and she did not get to see him again. Caaltuu's parents
were dismayed that her name was changed and that she no longer spoke
A disgruntled and traumatized Caaltuu returns to Addis Ababa and enrolls in 9th grade. She then
marries a government official and move away from her aunt's
protective shield. The marriage ends shortly thereafter when
Caaltuu's husband got caught up in a political crosshair following
Derg's downfall in 1991. Caaltuu was in financial crisis. She
refused an advice from acquintances to work as a prostitute.
At 24, the once vibrant Caaltuu looked frail and exhausted. The
regime change brought some welcome news. Caaltuu was fascinated and
surprised to watch TV programs in Afaan Oromo or hear concepts like
“Oromo people's liberation, the right to speak one's own language,
and that Amharas were feudalists.”
Caaltuu did not fully grasp the systematic violence for which was
very much a victim. She detested how she lost her values and ways.
She despised Helen and what it was meant to represent. But it was
also too late to get back to being Caaltuu. She felt empty. She was
neither Helen nor Caaltuu.
She eventually left Addis for Koftu and asked her parents for
forgiveness. She lived a few months hiding in her parent's home. She
avoided going to the market and public squares.
In a rare sign of recovery from her trauma, Caaltuu briefly dated a
college student who was in Koftu for a winter vacation. When he
left, Caaltuu lapsed back into her self-imposed loneliness and state
of depression. She barely ate and refused interacting with or
talking to anyone except her mother.
One afternoon, the once celebrated Caaltuu
warra Galaan took
a nap after a coffee break and never woke up. She was 25.
The bottom line: Fictionalized
or not, Chaltuu’s is a truly Oromo story. Caaltuu is a single
character in Tesfaye’s book but lest we forget, in imperial
Ethiopia, generations of Caaltuu’s had to change their names and
identity in order to fit in and be “genuine Ethiopians.” Until
recently, one has to wear an Amhara mask in order to be beautiful,
or gain access to educational and employment opportunities.
Likewise, in the
of today’s “freedom of expression advocates” – who allegedly sought
to censor Tesfaye – it appears that a story, even a work of fiction,
is fit to print only when it conforms to the much-romanticized
So much has changed since
Caaltuu’s tragic death a little over a decade ago, yet,
clearly, much remains the same in
Honor and glory to Oromo martyrs, whose selfless sacrifices had
allowed for me to transcribe this story, the Oromo today – a whole
generation of Caaltuus – are ready to own, reclaim, and tell their
Try, as they might, the ever-vibrant Qubee generation will never be
*The writer, Tigist Geme, is a DC-based citizen journalist and an
Oromo rights activist. Editor's
note: the above cover photo by William
not in any way related to Caaltuu or Geme's story. It is
used here only as a place holder.
Link: Tesfaye Gebreab ‘ye Sidatanawu Mastawasha”