Feasting and the politics of age: Tulama-Oromo Gadaa organisation

The planned research, an ethnographic case study of the Tulama-Oromo of Northeast Africa, aims at providing a paradigmatic example to discuss more generally some of the main issues connected to the problem of aging and status changes bound to different stages of life. The project intends to shed light on the correlations between age, social organisation, law, politics, and conflict (resolution) at a wider societal level.

In contrast to individual life-course projections prevalent in many Western societies, Northeast African age organisation makes male individuals as a group of age-mates pass through a defined sequence of age grades. The Gadaa organisation of the Oromo combines this type of age-grading with a generational mode of recruitment. A son is initiated into a specific generation set at the time his own father resumes from his public political functions and enters the stage of eldership. The new initiate subsequently changes his status every eight years as a member of his cohort, passing through a fixed number of cycles within the Gadaa system. The son’s set always remains at the same distance from his father’s set, which synchronically “moves”, always some distance ahead, from grade to grade, through the same life cycle.

Furthermore, there are timetables: a calendar prescribes the timing of the change marked every eight years by means of ritual performance thereby simultaneously setting the individual cohorts into a clearly identifiable historical frame. In the case of the Oromo, we are dealing not only with individual aging, familial cycles, or generalised generation sets, but with a whole administrative or governmental system based on age-grading and a deep regard for the generational cycle.

Such an idea requires closer inspection, as it supposes a stronger juridical and political component attached to the Gadaa organisation than is often assumed by those who claim that these functions were lost in the course of state incorporation and modernisation. Recent observations of assembly activities of the Tulama-Oromo in Central Ethiopia show that their age and generation organisation becomes increasingly involved in ethno-nationalist discourses and federal state-political activities. The working hypothesis that the Gadaa organisation is to be understood not only as a form of age-related, intergenerational organisation on the family level but also as an influential “state-like” order on the wider societal level, shall therefore be tested and validated in empirical field research in Ethiopia.

I plan to combine the observation of Gadaa events, which occur in fixed, calendar-based time intervals at ritually important places, with the documentation of extra-assembly, political as well as law-giving or conflict-settling activities of individual Gadaa leaders and traditional authorities. Methods of participant observation shall be combined here with in-depth interviews with Gadaa leaders, traditional law experts, and politicians as well as with “ordinary” set members also including their networks of companions, friends, and relatives. Further, more standardised demographic data concerning age-structures and pyramids, genealogical data, and topographic information shall be collected so as to complement the participant observation and narrative interview methods.

This project is carried out in cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. It is part of the Max Planck International Research Network on Aging (MaxNetAging).

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