“Talking to God: Neville Alexander’s Oromo heritage”

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Dr Sandra Rowoldt Shell was born in Zimbabwe. She worked as a professional academic research librarian and archivist in African Studies, first at the Cory Library for Humanities Research (Rhodes University, Makhanda) and later at the African Studies Library (University of Cape Town). She was awarded her Masters degree (2006) followed by her Doctoral degree (2013), both in history at the University of Cape Town. She was also a recipient of the Ernest Oppenheimer Trust Scholarship for Eastern Cape History, has published twenty-four articles, has chapters in ten books, has co-edited eleven books, and most recently is the author of Protean Paradox: George Edward Cory (1862-1935): Navigating Life and South African History (Grahamstown: Rhodes University, 2017); Children of Hope: The Odyssey of The Oromo Slave Children from Ethiopia to South Africa (Ohio, OH: Ohio University Press, 2018; Cape Town: UCT Press/Juta, 2019) and Indoda Ebisithanda (“The Man who Loved Us”: The Reverend James Laing among the amaXhosa 1831-1836 (Cape Town: Historical Publications Southern African 2019). She is presently Senior Research Associate (Cory Library), Rhodes University, South Africa. In April 2021, she was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Book Award for 2020 for Children of Hope.

 

 

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Date: Sunday 6 June, 2021

Time: 11am EST (5pm South African time)

In the late 19th century, British warships liberated two consignments of Oromo slave children in the Red Sea and took them to Aden. At Aden the children were taken to a Scottish mission at Sheikh Othman north of Aden for safe-keeping. At Sheikh Othman the missionaries interviewed the children about their experiences from cradle to the coast, using a structured set of questions and resulting in 64 rare first passage narratives. Many children died from debilitation and illness and the missionaries had to select a healthier institution for their care, well-being and education: Lovedale Institution in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. One of these Oromo children at Lovedale was Bisho Jarsa whose eldest grandson was Neville Edward Alexander, an intellectual, outspoken radical and political activist. 

Background to the Oromo people in Ethiopia

In the 1880s, the East Cushitic Oromo people dwelt in a plurality of principalities situated to the south and south-west of old Abyssinia. The Oromo were united in language, religion and political culture, most notably their unique democratic system of gadaa. There had long been enmity between the Oromo people and old Abyssinia. In his pursuit of the Abyssinian imperial throne, the King of Shewa, Sahlé Mariam (later Emperor Menelik II) expropriated the lands of the Oromo and raided them for livestock and enslaved people.

With his increased territorial hegemony and the monies accrued from the profits of this slave trade, which enabled him to purchase arms, Sahlé Mariam was able to entrench himself as the most powerful figure in Abyssinia and was crowned Emperor Menelik II in 1889. Many of the children’s narratives reflect his role in their capture and enslavement. Since their effective colonisation by Menelik II, the Oromo (the largest ethnic group in modern Ethiopia) have remained marginalised as a political and economic minority.

When the Oromo children arrived at Lovedale in 1890, they were no longer enslaved, but theirs was, nonetheless, a form of forced migration.

2 reviews for “Talking to God: Neville Alexander’s Oromo heritage”

  1. Dr Colin L Soskolne (verified owner)

    Thank you, Joline, for hosting this remarkable piece of research by Sandra Shell. I believe that her work should be made into a full feature docudrama. The facts were riveting, demonstrating that slavery is not a monopoly of European culture. The quality of images from the 1880s was no less than remarkable. A depressing inference from the research is that, when one takes a magnifying glass to most parts of the world, discord and injustice are exposed.

  2. Michael Power

    Joline, thank you for arranging the webinar with Dr Sandra Rowoldt Shell.

    Sandy, thank you very much for sharing this important snippet of history, and bringing its current relevance alive.
    The personal history of Neville Alexander and his Oromo heritage through his grandmother is fascinating, and the stories of the Oromo children brought to the Eastern Cape are truly moving. As the previous reviewer suggests, these stories deserve to be told on film.

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