The Argobba: visiting a little-known African tribe

Argobba, argobba
Ethiopia is home to dozens of different ethnic groups and tribes. Some have populations numbering in the millions, while others have only a few thousand. One of the smallest tribes is the Argobba, a Muslim people scattered in villages across eastern Ethiopia. The Argobba number only about 10,000, yet they’re determined to be counted in Ethiopia´s government and are fighting to preserve their heritage.

The closest Argobba village to Harar is Koromi, and is one of the easiest and most enjoyable day trips from Harar. This village of about 700 people is an hour’s drive through rugged mountains south of Harar. I went with Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com), a local historian and guide who wrote a government report on the Argobba back in 1997. Each ethnic group and tribe is guaranteed a seat in the Ethiopian legislature, but before Mohammed’s report the Argobba were lumped in with the Harari and had no separate representation. His report proved they were a distinct culture and ensured them a seat in the legislature.

It’s easy to understand the government’s mistake, however. The Argobba and the Hararis share a lot of culture and history, as I was to learn when I visited Koromi.

We set out in a Landcruiser early in the morning, taking the road towards Ethiopia’s Somali region before heading onto a dirt track leading uphill. As we trundle along we pass villages of the Oromo, the region´s largest ethnic group, and big fields of qat plants the size of trees. Qat and groundnuts are the main sources of income for Argobba farmers. They’re especially good at growing qat and make lots of money selling it to qat-loving Hararis. We passed several lines of women walking to market. Considering that a trip from Harari to Koromi takes an hour by car, these women must walk most of the day.

%Gallery-120765%We continue up the dirt road, constantly gaining altitude and getting sweeping views of the surrounding countryside as we pass herds of donkeys and camels bringing water in bright yellow plastic jugs from the area’s rare springs to distant villages.

A good stop on the way is Aw Sofi, an important shrine to a Muslim saint. Shrines to Muslim saints dot the countryside around Harar and there are dozens within the walled city. Legend says Sofi was one of the 44 original saints who founded Harar. While others developed the city and its unique way of life, Sofi stayed in the countryside teaching Islam and founded the first madrasa of Harar. The shrine is within a walled enclosure and is a tall, whitewashed dome gleaming in the sun.

Koromi is about a half hour further along the road atop a narrow ridge surrounded by terraced farmland. The low, flat-topped houses blend into the pale brown of the rock and only the brightly colored front doors stand out.

As we pull into town our vehicle is immediately surrounded by a crowd of children. The men are all out in the fields working and the village is left to the women, children, and one old man. As we walk down the main street, a dusty trail between clusters of houses, we’re followed by almost fifty kids and a couple of curious women. Most women keep an aloof distance, looking at us with only mild interest or ignoring us completely.

Nobody speaks English so it’s up to Mohammed to translate for me. The Argobba say they arrived in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago, just about the same time Harar was being founded. They originally lived well to the north, where some Argobba villages remain, but when the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes tried to force them to convert to Christianity in the 17th century, most fled to the Muslim enclave of Harar and its surrounding countryside.

This is the Argobba version of events. Scholars differ as to where they came from. Some say they were simply rural Harari whose ways changed over time from the city dwellers. Others say the Argobba are more recent arrivals. In fact, nobody knows, and the Argobba’s own story is probably the most accurate.

We are invited into a home and I immediately feel like I’m back in Harar. Once my eyes adjust from the glare of the sun to the dim interior I see it looks like a traditional Harari home. Only the colorful baskets that adorn Harari walls are missing; stainless steel cookware hang from the walls instead.

This blend of cultures is typical of the Argobba. The women wear traditional Argobba jewelry but otherwise dress like the Oromo, the main ethnic group in this region. Also, while the Argobba have gained political representation, they’re still struggling to preserve their language. Most of those who live near Harar speak Oromo, yet in Koromi they speak Harari mixed with a bit of Amharic, the national language. Only a few villages in the north still speak the Argobba language. Hopefully the Argobba will fight to preserve their heritage and keep their language from going extinct.

As we continue to explore the village I feel a bit frustrated. The children are too excited to have a serious conversation, and most of the women get shy after a few questions. This is not how I like to travel. I prefer what I have back in town–hanging out with Hararis all day getting into deep conversations about their history and culture. Here in the village I feel like both visitor and locals are on display. I’m wandering around taking pictures while being an object of entertainment and fascination for all the local kids. Fun, but not too informative.

What I do learn, though, is that Ethiopia is more than just the main ethnic groups that get represented in the media. The Amhara, Oromo, Tigrinya, Harari, and Somali that I and other visitors spend most of the time with are only a fraction of the rich diversity of Ethiopia. After four months I’ve only scratched the surface of what this county has to offer.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Hyenas in Harar: a strange relationship between beast and man!

Oromo villagers fight to preserve their heritage

Oromo, oromo, Harar, Harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, archeology
A week ago I talked about exploring the ancient civilization of Harla near Harar, eastern Ethiopia. The modern Oromo village of the same name sits on the site and of course farmers come across ancient artifacts as they work in the fields. Harla ruins are scattered in between modern buildings and even the favorite tree for kids to climb is growing out of an ancient ruin.

While this makes for a picturesque village, it’s also dangerous for the ruins. There isn’t much knowledge of historic preservation or archaeology here and heritage is always in danger of new development. A Muslim shrine was destroyed in 2004 when the Chinese put a new highway through the area.

The villagers of modern Harla, however, want to protect their past. They trace their lineage to the ancient Harla people and they want to honor their ancestors by preserving their remains. A few days ago Sheikh Omar of Harla visited Harar to talk with historian and Harar tour guide Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) and discuss how best to protect the artifacts they have. I got to meet him and interview him about what they’re doing.The Sheikh already has a locked cabinet in his house filled with artifacts the farmers have turned up-pots, bits of jewelry, and small silver coins with mysterious designs on them. They’ve also stopped a local farmer who was selling artifacts to antiquities dealers. They’ve isolated him in the community. In a small village like that, being socially spurned is a big punishment. The Sheikh’s cabinet isn’t big enough for all the artifacts that have turned up and so the villagers reburied many of them. He says he has enough to fill a large room with displays.

Now Sheikh Omar is trying to raise funds to build a small museum in Harla to attract tourists. Mohammed is acting as an adviser and there’s at least one European investor who has expressed interest in funding the project.

It’s great to see these Oromo villagers taking interest in preserving their heritage. I worked as an archaeologist for ten years and I saw way too many cases of locals ignoring or even deliberately destroying archaeological remains. I’ve also seen way too many villagers selling artifacts to antiquities dealers who illegally export them to sell on the international market. The villagers get very little money for these artifacts and they permanently lose their past and the possible tourism development they could earn from it. I hope Mohammed and Sheikh Omar manage to get funding for a museum and develop Harla as an interesting day trip from Harar.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Qat culture in Harar!