The Ethiopians changing their names as a show of pride

By Berhanu Gemechu
BBC News Afaan Oromoo

Published
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Pride in Oromo culture has grown over the last few decades

A surge in ethnic pride among Ethiopia's Oromo community, the country's largest ethnic group, is leading some, like Moti Begi, to change their names.

The 40-year-old used to be known at Dereje Begi.

But he ditched "Dereje", an Amharic word meaning "augmented" in favour of "Moti", an Afaan Oromoo word meaning "king".

In Ethiopia, first names are all-important - the second part of a person's name is not a family surname, usually it is their father's first name.

Mr Moti, an engineer by profession, is not alone in this name-changing trend - and seven of his friends have recently flexed their Oromo pride with new names.

For centuries, the Oromo community has been made to feel ashamed of their language - Afaan Ormooo - by the country's rulers, in particular the emperors who hailed from the Amhara-speaking north.

Moti Begi
Moti Begi
The easiest thing I can do to reclaim my identity as an Oromo is through changing my name"
Moti Begi

As part of efforts to unite their empire, these monarchs made Amharic the language of state.

Many chose Amharic names to fit in, but with changing political regimes since 1991, attitudes have changed - especially among the younger generation that helped Abiy Ahmed become prime minister.

He came to power in 2018 and is the country's first Oromo prime minister.

"The easiest thing I can do to reclaim my identity as an Oromo is through changing my name," Mr Moti told the BBC.

What spurred him into action was an advert in the Oromia region, where most Oromos live as the country is divided into ethnically based states.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Ethiopian emperors through the ages encouraged people to speak Amharic and adopt Amhara culture

The regional health authorities ran a campaign to recruit 2,000 doctors and other health workers - and stipulated they be able to speak Afaan Oromoo.

But there were objections by non-Afaan Oromoo speakers.

For Mr Moti, this hit a nerve - as many of those objecting had grown up in Oromia but had made no effort to learn the language spoken by the majority living there.

He found such attitudes narrow-minded and prejudiced.

"This is what caused me to re-name myself," he said.

Nurse refused to write Oromo name

For many Oromo children growing up over the last 30 years - following the fall of the Marxist regime - there has been a hybrid form of naming.

Researchers put this down to the new government recognising the country's ethnic diversity and allowing children to be taught in their mother tongue - although Amharic remained the official working language.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There are around 40 million Oromos out of Ethiopia's population of 115 million

Oromo children started getting an Afaan Oromoo name as well as an Amharic one.

Thirty-two-year-old Abdi Gamachu, had the Amharic name "Girma", meaning "grace", which he used to use officially until he changed it in 2005.

His mother chose it under pressure when a nurse objected to writing "Abdi" (meaning "hope" in Afaan Oromoo) in the official records when he was taken as a baby to be vaccinated.

But he was always known at home and by all his friends as Abdi.

"I am now happy to get the name I like on all my essential documents. The name represents my true Oromo identity.

"Above all, the name is given to me on purpose by my family out of their aspiration and hope for regime-change at the time."

The same was the case for Ebisa Bayissa, who has written many books in Afaan Oromoo.

One of his first titles, Miiltoo - a psychology text - was published under his Amharic name Endalkachew Bayisa, even though it was written in Afaan Oromoo.

Ebisa Bayissa
Ebisa Bayissa/Instagram
I wanted an Oromo name that showed my true identity"
Ebisa Bayissa, author

The name "Endalkachew", meaning "as dictated to" in Amharic, was chosen by a teaching colleague of his father's who was a fan of a prime minster under Emperor Haile Selassie with the same name.

So as a child he officially became Endalkachew, but everywhere else he was called "Ebisa", an Oromo name meaning approval or blessings.

As he gained popularity and published more books, the writer, who is in his late thirties, wanted to be recognised for who he was: "I wanted an Oromo name that showed my true identity."

For Mr Moti, the easiest way to erode a community's identity is to remove its language and naming culture - it's like removing their tongue.

He feels that by completely abandoning his Amharic name, he and many others are getting their cultural voice back - a stand he hopes others will make.

More on Oromos in Ethiopia:

Media caption,
The BBC's Catherine Byaruhanga gains special access to Ethiopia's Oromo Liberation Army, a secretive armed group

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