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The Oromo Concept of Reality or Dhugaa-Ganama


By Yoseph Mulugeta Baba (Ph.D.)

Part I

The first condition necessary in order to understand about “the” Dhugaa-Ganama (i.e. “the” Absolute Truth) is to refer to the Oromo concept of jireenya, that is, existence or the fact that things exist. (Note that the Afan Oromo terms, le’ii and leetoo, are roughly equivalent tojireenya both in meaning and content). In the Oromo system of knowledge, theunderstanding and interpretation of the world, of oneself, and other people essentially take as their starting point the concept of jireenya — existence — with reference to jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama — ontological characteristic of human being. As such, the Oromo concept ofReality can best be subsumed under three broad concepts (a) Uumaa (Cosmology); (b)Waaqa (Undifferentiated-Being); and (c) Saffu (Human Ontology).

(A) The Concept of Uumaa — Cosmology

Uumaa is the totality of the created universe. The very term Uumaa, which derives from the verb uumuu, literally meaning “to create”, refers to all that is created — non-living things, living entities, and spiritual beings. Yet, the Oromo notion of Uumaa is not something static, but a continuous process. In order to understand, one needs first to grasp the way the concept ofWaaqa has an inextricable link to the dynamic notion of Uumaa.

(B) The Concept of Waaqa — Undifferentiated-Being

The Oromo concept of Waaqa is crystal clear: The first Being was Waaqa. It must be noted that the very term Waaqa, with a capital W, should not be mistaken for waaqa, with a small w. As opposed to the former, which is under discussion, the latter simply means sky or heaven. Unlike Waaqa, waaqa is necessarily synonymous with samii, that is, heaven. (Bartles, 1990, pp. 89-111; Knutson, 1967, pp. 47-48; Geleta Koro, 2008, pp. 407, 449, 925) He continues to exist and is absolute, eternal, and infinite. Waaqa is the sustaining power of all that is. However, although Waaqa is often conceived of as the absolute unity, He is also many. (Bartles, 1990, p. 114) This is due to the notion of Ayyaanaa — the immaterial principle which determines the essence of all individual entities. In Oromo philosophical thought, everything emanates from Waaqa in the form of Ayyaanaa. Ayyaanaa can loosely be defined as an immaterial principle that underliesUumaa and determines the essence of all individual entities as well as their common properties. As G. Dahl argues, as immaterial principle,Ayyaanaa “is decisive for the character and fate of … [every]entity.” (Dahl, 1996, p. 167) Therefore, Bartle’s critical observation is correct in that “Mountains and trees, days, months and seasons, every man and his lineage –all have their own ayana. These ayana rule our lives; they make us what we are – ayana are conceived of as beings.” (Bartles, 1990, p. 113) Joseph van de Loo also affirms this depiction when he defines Ayyaanaa as the “invisible part of being, the spirit.” (Joseph van de, 1991, p. 141).

The main implication of these contentions is that everything that exists, whether as material entity or as abstract value, has its ownAyyaanaa. Accordingly, in the Oromo concept of Reality, it would be absurd to make a complete distinction between a thing and its character. Every existent being, whether actual or abstract, cannot be conceptualized without Ayyaanaa. Whatever exists has this property called Ayyaanaa. Ayyaanaa is inherent in every created individual entity. All created things are distinguished from each other by means ofAyyaanaa. From what Dahl points out it is thus justifiable that:

The traditional [sic] cosmology of the Oromo is built around a “quasi-platonic” division between the real world and the world of ideas or principles. Everything that exists in the material world as well as in the form of abstract values, has its correspondence in the form of an immaterial principle (ayaana) which is decisive for the character and fate of that entity. (Dahl, 1996, p. 167)

Yet, the philosophical question is: How can one explain the problem of one-many or the question of change-permanence, especially as this relates to the philosophical question of existence-freedom, if Ayyaanaa is conceived of as some-thing that determines the essence of every individual entity? To properly answer this question, we need to have a clear understanding of the Oromo concepts of Waaqa andSaffu, respectively.

Waaqa is the ultimate source of all that is. It is essential to note, as Bartles suggests, that the very term Waaqa would better be rendered as Divinity rather than what is meant by the English word ‘Supreme Being,’ ‘God,’ or ‘Creator.’ The main reason, he argues:

It comprises more, since it includes countless particular manifestations of Waqa in this world, particularizations of his creative work which are conceived as beings. Hence the word ‘divinity’ will often be a better translation than ‘God’. “Divinity … can be used to convey to the mind at once a being, a kind of nature or existence, and a quality of that kind of being; it can be made to appear more substantive or qualitative, more personal or general, in connotation, according to the context … (Bartles, 1990, p. 89)

In a similar vein, Knutsson himself points out the epistemological difficulty inherent in the Oromo concept of Waaqa. “It is inadvisable to translate waka by the word God, which in most western theological traditions connotes ideas of unity and independence.” (Knutsson, 1967, p. 49) Thus, he also suggests the use of the term Divinity instead of God.

Without demeaning Bartles and Knutsson’s respected contentions, however, I would like to offer a philosophical explanation of the reason why the term Undifferentiated-Being conveys a better translation than the term Divinity. First, what must be borne in mind is that the way the very term Waaqa itself is often qualified by the adjective guraacha, literally meaning “black”. In the Oromo view, the term “black” adds the notion of originality. It shows the unknown origin of Waaqa. As Dahl affirms, Waaqa “is black, gura’acha, an expression that essentially summarizes the notions of uninterferedness, originality and lack of distinction. ‘Everything flows out of this undifferentiated state in the form of ayaana.’” (Dhal, 1996, p. 169) Therefore, unlike other thinkers, I am forced to render the word Waaqa as Undifferentiated-Being instead of Divinity. (In the works of Knutsson, Bartles, and Dahl, there is a tendency to render the term Waaqa as Divinity. This is due to the influence of G. Lienhardt’s work, Divinity and Experience, on the Dinka religion and in which Lienhardt “met with similar difficulties in translation” for the word nihalic. For more detail, see Bartles, 1990, p. 89; Knutson, 1967, pp. 47-53; Dahl, 1996, p. 170)

Second, it would be absurd to separate the notion of Ayyaanaa from the concept of Undifferentiated-Being. This is mainly due to the Oromo’s concept of creation. As Dahl argues, the Oromo view of “cosmology, ecology and human ontology is one of the flow of life emanating from Divinity [i.e. Undifferentiated-Being].” (Dahl, 1996, p. 167) This contention has one important implication: The Dynamicaspect of Oromo’s view of creation. As I have stated above, the Oromo notion of creation is that it is not static, but a continuous process. “It would be wrong to regard creation as something which for Oromo was a matter of once and for all. With their conception of time, the act of creation (umaa) is still there: it continues as characteristic of the agent of creation.” (Dahl, 1996, p. 167)

Accordingly, the Undifferentiated-Being is not only the Uumaa’s ratio d’être, but also that ofAyyaanaa’s; despite the fact that the character and fate of everything is determined by the latter ― Ayyaanaa. Therefore, it would be wrong to mistake the reality conceived of the author is calling the Undifferentiated-Being for Ayyaanaa, although the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. It must be remembered that the latter is always conceived of as some-thing of the former. As Bartles points out, Ayyaanaa is Undifferentiated-Being, but it cannot be said that the reverse is true. He argues:

The crucial difference is that Waqa is invoked by everyone universally since he is concerned with all, while an ayana, linked as it is to a particular person, animal or plant, is only invoked and feared by those who linked to it either by nature or free choice. It is ‘something of Waqa’ in a person, an animal or plant making them the way they are: a particular manifestation of the divine, of Waqa as creator and as source of all life.We see the ayana as flowing out of Waqa in a way, filling the whole of creation, filling every creature whose ayana they are, making them the way they are, both inside and outside. But the ayana remain invisible to human eyes. What is visible in man is not his ayana. This visible aspect of man is rather formed and conditioned by his ayana: his ayana manifests itself in it. (Bartles, 1990, pp. 115, 118-19; Also see Sumner, 1995, p. 33)

In a similar vein, Knutson argues that “waka is the most comprehensive … It Includes ayana.” (Knutson, 1967, p. 48)

One important thing must be noted from the above contentions. Ayyaanaa, unlike Uumaa, is not necessarily subject to the idea oftemporality. Rather, it may also characterized by non-spatio-temporal reality by virtue of having the character of Undifferentiated-Being. Therefore, in contradistinction to Uumaa, Ayyaanaa exists before and after the thing it causes comes into being. Everything that exists is thus exclusively attributed to Ayyaanaa, whose act of creation has its ultimate source in Undifferentiated-Being. Hence, the Oromo conception of Reality implies a world-process or dynamic universe that has come to be by virtue of Ayyaanaa. In this manner, Ayyaanaaencompasses Uumaa, just as Uumaa embraces Ayyaanaa.

However, the incommensurability of the concepts of Uumaa versus Ayyaanaa poses the philosophical question of existence-freedom to human reason. As a result of this philosophical problem, the Oromo have adopted and developed the concept of Saffu — Human Ontology.

(C) The Concept of Saffu — Human Ontology

As Gemetchu M. argues the:

Oral tradition [sic] offered each generation words that became the vehicle of their hopes and aspirations. Each generation found its own meaning in the words in relation to its particular historical situation. This relationship between the terms of the tradition and the particular meaning of these terms in specific circumstances gives the Oromo tradition its historical character. As the result of this historical character of the tradition, early in Oromo tradition, there developed a tension between Uumaa (literally “creation”) and ayyaana as the will of Waaqa [or Undifferentiated-Being]. It is perhaps this contradiction that gave rise to the concept ofSaffu (mutual relationship between elements of the social and cosmic orders) which maintains practice obligatory through ethical conduct. (Gemetchu, 1996, p. 97)

Of this mutual relationship, Bartles has it that Saffu is “the mutual relationship (rights and duties) between individual creatures or groups of creatures according to their place in the cosmic and social order on the basis of ayana.” (Bartles, 1990, p. 373) It “is about mutual relation amongst things. Every creature should live in harmony, without inflicting harm on each other.” (Dirribi Demisse Bokku, 2011, p. 80) It must be remembered that the whole concept of Saffu derives from there being a need for such a philosophical explanation of human “existence.”

As I have stated at the beginning of this article, in the Oromo system of knowledge, the understanding and interpretation of the world, of oneself, and of the other people takes as its starting point a thought concerning jireenya — existence. This conceptual starting point constitutes the principal point of difference between my thinking and that of those who have written on Oromo ideas and way of thinking individuals who tend to identify the concept of Saffu with moral philosophy alone rather than exploring its epistemological significance. To begin with, in the Oromo system of knowledge, the concept of Reality per se stems from a distinct view of jireenya. The main implication is that, for the Oromo people, their concept of jireenya serves as a useful starting point for the understanding and interpretation of Uumaa, Waaqa, and Saffu. The philosophical thought Oromo have in this regard is a rich source of ideas that can provide an epistemological justification for the Oromo concept of Reality as a whole. The noun jireenya derives from the root jir — to be, to exist. (Knutsson, 1967, p. 59) Here, it is important to stress that the whole concept of jireenya implies everything that exists. In Oromo philosophy, the idea of jireenyais inclusive of everything there is within the cosmos.

However, one important distinction concerning this idea must be stated right away. The term jireenya refers to the existence of every individual entity. But when it is used for human “existence”, it has quite a different connotation. The English terms, human and man, are typically rendered as nama in the language of Oromo [Afan Oromo]. In Oromo philosophy, however, there is no such thing as jireenya-nama, but rather we find jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama. The point is that whenever the concept of jireenya is used with reference to nama or the human being, it must be preceded by a noun jiruu — “activity” and a conjunction fi ― and. This name, in terms of philosophical thought, has two main implications: First, in Oromo philosophical thought, it would be absurd to totally identify human “existence” with that of the existence of other entities. The very assertion, jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama, makes the concept crystal clear that human beings have a character that is in contradistinction to the existence of, for instance, saree — dog, muka — tree, dhakaa — stone, or minjaala — table. As such, there is nothing like jiruu-fi-jireenya-saree, so to compare human existence with that of a dog, for example, would be self-contradiction. On the contrary, phrases like jireenya-saree — the life/existence of dog or jireenya-muka — the life/existence of tree – in accord with human reason, suggest some degrees of communality among all other entities in contradistinction to human “existence”.

Second, the difference between man’s “existence” and that of other entities stems from the element of human “activity” — jiruu. In Oromo philosophy, despite the fact that man exists the way other things do, his very existence, however, differs by virtue of his or her jiruu — “activity”. Human “existence” must be characterized by this very jiruu — “activity”. Essentially, the very conjunction fi ― which is necessarily used alongside the noun jiruu — “activity” suggests that human “existence”, unlike other things, is intrinsically linked with such “activity”.

Accordingly, in the indigenous Oromo system of knowledge, Saffu is used as the generic name for such various “activities” of individual wo/man. As we have stated above, the incompatibility that stems from the view of Uumaa versus Ayyaanaa has resulted in the construction of the concept of Saffu. Stated otherwise, the need for the construction of the concept of Saffu is due to paradoxes of bothmetaphysical and epistemological, that have resulted from existence of the concepts of Uumaa and Ayyaanaa. On the one hand, the Oromo view of Undifferentiated-Being is a representation of an ideal world or the universe of thought. This thought has its roots in thephilosophical question concerning the beginning of the universe. As a response to this fundamental question, Waaqa is often conceived of as the ultimate source of all that is, and consequently, as the universe of thought. However, the Oromo do not take a precise categoricalphilosophical position on whether Waaqa produces the world out of nothing or out of His own substance. Thanks to the concept of Saffu, which I shall explicate further, the radical philosophical position just discussed, has been overlooked due to there being an epistemological difficulty in coming to a human understanding of the true nature of Undifferentiated-Being.

(to be continued)

Part II

(In my previous article, I elucidated the way in which the Oromo system of knowledge essentially takes its starting point from the concept of jireenya — existence — with reference to jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama — ontological characteristic of human being; for the understandingand interpretation of the world, of oneself, and of other people. In doing so, I clearly indicated how Oromo’s concept of Reality can best be subsumed under three broad concepts: (a)Uumaa (Cosmology); (b) Waaqa (Undifferentiated-Being); and (c) Saffu (Human Ontology). The present article is a continuation of previous one.)

The Oromo mode of thought “denies” any distinction between thought and things. As a consequence, Waaqa is conceived of as being both transcendent and immanent. This is due to the Oromo concept of Uumaa — creation. Uumaa is a world-of-process. This act of creation — Uumaa — signifies Waaqa’s presence as a natural part of the entire created natural world in the form of Ayyaanaa, which, in turn, is responsible for the emergence of new creatures — uumama — at different epochsof human history. Ayyaanaa is thus something of Waaqa. In other words, Waaqa is at the same time one and many. In Oromo philosophical thought, therefore, a distinction between the universe of thought and the universe of nature is untenable.

In the absence of such distinctions, however, how to define human nature remains problematic. Such a philosophical question sets the scene for the concept of Saffu. This concept has its origin in the description of human “existence” as being related to one or another kind of human “activity”. As I argued in my pervious article, unlike other things, human “existence” is intrinsically linked to jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama — ontological characteristic of human being. This “activity” can best be a result of having a knowledge of things in accordance with the place assigned to each of them by Waaqa. The Oromo notion of jireenya includes the idea that everything relates to nature outside of itself. As it would be absurd to have this notion about human reason, however, the concept of jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama was developed which enables one to interpret and balance the “paradox” posed by Uumaa versus Ayyaanaa.

Therefore, the concept of Saffu — human ontology — is not only about the Oromo’s moral philosophy, as some scholars have tended to argue. But, it is also an epistemological notion founded on the idea of the jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama — ontological characteristic of human being. The jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama essentially relates to the physical world as well as human society. The concept of Saffu — human ontology — is thus nothing other than a proper understanding and interpretation of one’s state of “existence” as s/he radically relates to both aspects of nature — physical world and human society. It is a critical reflection upon a relationship that ought to exist between each human being and Uumaa as well as Ayyaanaa, on the one hand, and between an individual and human society, on the other. (Raayyaa Horoo, 2008, p. 13)

The above epistemological assertion has two philosophical foundations: (a) seera Waaqa — the laws of Undifferentiated-Being and (b)seera Nama — the laws of human being. The former is not a complete form of knowledge. As I have already argued, the origin ofUndifferentiated-Being is wholly “unknown” to the human mind. Yet, coming to some sort of such knowledge is not impossible. This is due to the Oromo’s notion of Ayyaanaa. Ayyaanaa can be “thought of as fractions of Divinity [Undifferentiated-Being]: fractions which arise from the continuous Creation [Uumaa] by which God expresses himself and imposes structure on the world.” (Gudrun Dahl, 1996, p. 170) Hence, knowledge gained concerning the laws of “nature,” for instance, is attributed to Ayyaanaa. These laws are conceived of as fixedand eternal. They are thus immutable.

Seera Nama — the laws of human being —, on the other hand, are subject to change in the context of jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama —human “existence”. Although the seera Waaqa — the laws of Undifferentiated-Being — underlie every jiruu-fi-jireenya-nama — at different epochs of human history, yet; the understanding and interpretation of the seera Nama — the laws of human being — may differ considerably between individuals. In the Oromo concept of Reality, however, this difference need not be seen as a “contradiction”; unless such an interpretation goes against the concept of Saffu — human ontology. That is to say, the denial of Saffu is the failure of the individual to keep a balance between seera Waaqa  Ayyaanaa — and seera Nama  Uumaa. This “activity,” as indicated already, is generally called thejiruu-fi-jireenya-nama. The clear assumption is that, although one has a considerable difficulty (in) overcoming this “contradiction,” there is always room for the interpretation and understanding of the case in question to keep a balance between all things: Saffu, which finally leads, to pluralistic interpretations of the universe, despite the fact that there is just one universe.

Accordingly, the Oromo have adopted and developed a philosophic method of enquiry to identify and determine the tenable form of interpretation whenever various competing interpretations arise. This mode of investigation is called an ilaa-fi-ilaamee — philosophic-mode-of-thought. With such foundations in mind, let us, in the following subsection explore the justification of this form of enquiry. In order to do so, I would single out Gumii Gaayo as justification of the case in point.

(to be continued)

Note: The responsibility for the article is entirely mine.




– Baxter, P. T. W., Hultin, J., and Triulzi, A. eds. Being and Becoming Oromo: Historical and Anthropological Enquires. Asmara: The Red Sea Press, Inc., 1996.

– Dirribi D. B. Oromo Wisdom In Black Civilization. Finfinnee: Finfinne Printing and Publishing S. C., 2011.

– Geleta K. Hirkoo: English-Afan Oromo-Amharic Dictionary. Aster Nega Publishing Enterprise, 2008.

– Knutson, K. E. Authority and Change: A Study of the Kallu Institution Among the Macha Galla of Ethiopia. Gӧteborg: Etnografiska Museet, 1967.

– Lambert, B. Oromo Religion: Myths and Rites of the Western Oromo of Ethiopia: An Attempt to Understand. Berlin, 1990.

– Leus, Ton. Aadaa Boraanaa: A Dictionary of Borana Culture. Addis Ababa: Shama Books, 2006.

– Loo, J. V. D. The Religious Practices of the Guji Oromo. Addis Ababa, 1991.

– Raayyaa Horoo, Waaqeffannaa. Finfinnee, 2008.

– Sumner, Claude, Oromo Wisdom Literature. Vol.1 Addis Ababa: Gudina Tumsa Foundation, 1995.


* Yoseph Mulugeta Baba received his B.A; M.A; and Ph.D. degrees in Philosophy from the CUEA. His research areas include Metaphilosophy, Oromo Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, Post-colonial African Political Philosophy, Postmodernism, and Ethiopian historiography. Currently, he is completing his forthcoming book (CUEA PRESS) — on ‘The Ilaa-fi-Ilaamee Philosophical Method of Enquiry.’ He can be reached at



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