Chaltu as Helen: an everyday story of Oromos traumatic identity change

Chaltu midhaksaby Tigist Geme

(OPride) – Author and novelist Tesfaye Gebreab released his eighth book “Ye 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 Oromo.

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 “Chaltu as Helen”, which is based on a novelized story of Chaltu 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, Chaltu led an exuberant childhood. Raised by her grandmother’s sister Gode, a traditional storyteller who lived over 100 years, the impressionable Chaltu mastered the history and tradition of Tulama Oromos at a very young age.

Chaltu’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, Chaltu won the competition by resoundingly answering eleven of the twelve questions she was asked.

Guraacha, her pride and constant companion, became Chaltu’s best friend and she took a good care of him. Gurraacha was a strong horse; his jumps were high, and Chaltu understood his pace and style.

A masterful rider and an envy to even her male contemporaries, Chaltu 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.

Chaltu 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!” – Chaltu of the Galan, and “Caaltuu Haadha Gurraacha!” – Chaltu the mother of Gurraacha.

Chaltu’s disarming beauty, elegance, charisma, and intelligence coupled with her witty personality added to her popularity. Chaltu’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 words).

As per Tesfaye’s account, there wasn’t a parent among the well-to-do Oromos of the area who did not wish Chaltu betrothed to their son. At 14, Chaltu escaped a bride-kidnapping attempt by outracing her abductors.

Chaltu’s grandfather Banti Daamo, a well-known warrior and respected elder, had a big family. Growing up in Koftu, Chaltu enjoyed being surrounded by a large network of extended family, although she was the only child for her parents.

Recognizing Chaltu’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, Chaltu’s father arranged her marriage to a man of Ada’aa family from Dire when she turned 15.

Locals likened Chaltu’s mannerism to her grandfather Banti Daamo, earning her yet another nickname as “Caaltuu warra Bantii Daamo” – Chaltu 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 Banti Daamo.

Others began to call her Akkoo [sic] Xinnoo, drawing a comparison between Chaltu and a legendary Karrayu Oromo woman leader after whom Ankobar was named.

Chaltu’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 Chaltu 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, Chaltu, 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.

Trouble ensues.

In Addis Ababa, her aunt Mulumebet’s family welcomed Chaltu. Like Chaltu, 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 Chaltu to provide guidance and advice on urban [Amhara] ways.

“Learning the Amharic language is mandatory for your future life,” Mulumebet told Chaltu. “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 Chaltu 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 Helen Getachew.

Chaltu understood little of the dramatic twists in her life. She wished the conversation with her aunt were a dream. First, her name Chaltu 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 it means?”

Of course she had no answers for these perennial questions. Most of all, her new last name Getachew discomforted her. But she was given no option.

The indomitable Chaltu 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. Chaltu mastered Amharic in a matter of weeks. Learning math was no problem either, because Chaltu grew up solving math problems through oral Oromo folktale and children’s games like Takkeen Takkitumaa.

Chaltu’s quick mastery amazed Dr. Getachew, Mulumebet’s husband. This also made her aunt proud and she decided to enroll Chaltu in an evening school. The school matched Chaltu, 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 Chaltu 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 Chaltu 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 educated husband.”

Chaltu knew Mulumebet had her best interest at heart. And as a result never questioned her counsel. But her unsolicited advises centered mostly on erasing Chaltu’s fond childhood memories and making her lose touch with Oromummaa – and essentially become an Amhara.

Chaltu 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, Chaltu repeatedly sang her favorite Atetee – Oromo women’s song of fertility – in front of the kids.

That night, to Chaltu’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 witchcraft?”

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?” Chaltu 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?”

Chaltu 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 Chaltu that her mistake would be forgiven.

Chaltu 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, Chaltu 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 Chaltu,” strangers and classmates, even those who knew her only as Helen, would tell her. Others would say to Chaltu, 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 Chaltu from discrimination, blatant racism, hate speech, and ethnic slurs. As if the loss of self was not enough, seventh grade was painfully challenging for Chaltu. 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 Chaltu 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 Chaltu and asked, “Helen, tell me who drew this picture?”

She replied, “I don’t know teacher, but Samson always called me Nikise Gala.”

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, Chaltu 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, Chaltu could not fully express feelings like sorrow, regrets, fear and happiness in Amharic. To the extent that Mulumebet wished Chaltu would stop thinking in Oromo, in one instance, she asked Chaltu to go into her bedroom to lament the death of a relative by singing honorific praise as per Oromo custom. Chaltu’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 Chaltu with joy, even if for that moment.

Chaltu anxiously looked forward to her summer vacation and a much-needed visit to Koftu. But before she left, Mulumebet warned Chaltu not to speak Afaan Oromo during her stay in Koftu. Mulumebet told Chaltu, “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 Chaltu knew she has to oblige. On her way to Koftu, Chaltu 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. Chaltu’s parents were dismayed that her name was changed and that she no longer spoke their language.

A disgruntled and traumatized Chaltu 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 Chaltu’s husband got caught up in a political crosshair following Derg’s downfall in 1991. Chaltu was in financial crisis. She refused an advice from acquintances to work as a prostitute.

At 24, the once vibrant Chaltu looked frail and exhausted. The regime change brought some welcome news. Chaltu 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.”

Chaltu 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 Chaltu. She felt empty. She was neither Helen nor Chaltu.

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, Chaltu briefly dated a college student who was in Koftu for a winter vacation. When he left, Chaltu 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 Chaltu warra Galaan took a nap after a coffee break and never woke up. She was 25.

The bottom line: Fictionalized or not, Chaltu’s is a truly Oromo story. Chaltu is a single character in Tesfaye’s book but lest we forget, in imperial Ethiopia, generations of Chaltu’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 Ethiopia 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 Ethiopianist storyline.

So much has changed since Chaltu’s tragic death a little over a decade ago, yet, clearly, much remains the same in Ethiopia. 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 stories.

Try, as they might, the ever-vibrant Qubee generation will never be silenced, again.


*The writer, Tigist Geme, is a DC-based citizen journalist and an Oromo rights activist. Editor’s note: the above cover photo by William Palank is not in any way related to Chaltu or Geme’s story. It is used here only as a place holder.

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