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Connected through her absence: The journey of an Oromo woman to keep high the language dear to her and forty million others

Now in her late twenties, Toltu Tufa specializes in connecting with diverse communities. As the recipient of numerous international awards, Toltu’s passion for community advocacy and leadership resulted in becoming the first female chairperson of Australia’s vibrant Oromo community in 2011. She has also been active as an Australian television show host, while using her graduate studies in Psychology and Education to work as a volunteer teacher for 10 years. Toltu’s most recent efforts sparked a viral social media campaign to revitalize Africa’s fourth most widely spoken language, Afaan Oromo, banned in parts of Africa for more than 100 years. As part of its attempt to recognize a woman of excellence for the month of March and in connection with march 8th Addis Standard spoke to Toltu on a range of topics from her efforts to launch Afaan Publications to her challenges and opportunities. Excerpts:


Addis Standard – You are the person behind the creation of “Afaan Publications”. Tell us briefly about the initiative? It is a non-for-profit initiative or one that plans to sustain its continuity via commercial ends?


Toltu Tufa – That’s right, I am the person who founded Afaan Publications. My particular interest surrounds creating attractive ways for children to maintain their mother tongue languages. As a company, I chose to focus on my father’s native tongue, Afaan Oromo; the fourth most widely spoken language in Africa.


When was the first time when you’ve decided to pursue this as part of your life’s journey?

I guess it happened quite naturally. Growing up in Australia as a child from a multi-racial household, I learnt many languages with the aid of practical resources. It was only when I tried to learn my father’s language that I struggled. When I volunteered as a community school teacher for over 10 years in Melbourne, I realized the problem was more widespread than my own household – so I decided to do something about it for my local school. I started with something small – educational posters – and shared this with my school, which then shared it with the other local Oromo schools, which in turn spread the word to international Oromo community schools. It seemed like everyone wanted a copy of the resources. So I wrote up my ideas, and the plan took off with massive success.



Since you have created the first textbook and poster series in 2012, you have continued lobbying and campaigning to do more and many believe you have succeeded in many ways. But is it safe to say that it has now become something that defines Toltu today?



Wow, that’s really generous of you to define me with success. Personally I think success is relative and popularity comes and goes with time and there are many facets to who I am. When I am not working on Afaan, I am a healthcare executive at an Australian hospital striving to complete post graduate studies and actively facilitate other initiatives in non-Oromo communities. I think it’s more meaningful for me to fill a void both appropriately and completely.



As someone who was not born in Ethiopia, a country where the Oromo language is predominantly spoken and its culture is widely practiced (if not effortlessly), how challenging was it to get connected to the livid history of the Oromo to the point that you have now taken the responsibility to teach Oromo children of their mother tongue?



Well I think the answer to your question is really a matter of perspective. I was born at a time when the use and teaching of the Oromo language was considered a punishable crime in Ethiopia. Although it was not banned in my home country Australia, I certainly felt the ramifications of the ban. After a language has been forcefully silenced for more than 100 years, believe me, there are many people who have a lot to say, regardless of where they are in the world. I don’t think distance equals a complete lack of connection as there are new generations of children who are open to learning their mother tongue. The onus is on the previous generation to pass the knowledge on in meaningful ways and I have studied three degrees to know that ‘one person shows’ are not reflective or sustainable. No one person can [assume] the responsibility for an entire population: I prefer to facilitate teaching others what I know and what others have taught me – it’s not as complicated as you might think.




Tell us about the response from the Oromo community, especially those whose children had no access to learn the language?



I would say excitement is the most common reaction presented to me in different ways. Many older parents just look at the books in wonder and some cry tears of joy. Younger generations are more inquisitive about my choice of artwork, content and language style. The youngest children however, light up with delight. “Ooooh, she/he looks like me!”, “Oh these are just like the books at school!”, “Wow, is this really in Afaan Oromo? Is this really for us?” are the most common responses I hear.



How do you answer to criticisms from parts of the Oromo community in Melbourne and elsewhere that you’ve commercialized your campaign? You managed to raise about a US$150, 000 and yet Afaan publications are not being distributed for free, as you promised during the initial period of your campaign?



I think it’s really important to keep promises made to people and I am happy to say that I fulfilled every one of my promises to completion. My initial crowd funding campaign on was specifically aimed at creating “…high quality educational books at affordable prices… for every Oromo child in every family in every home”. If someone promised to make and distribute products for free, they are lucky. I think the best response to critique is to make sure the criticism comes from a direct source, so I am not sure how much weight to give to critiques that come from ‘some parts’ and ‘elsewhere’. I also think the currency and the amount quoted in your question are grossly misrepresented. It’s not $USD150 000, it’s actually in AUD and its $125 000.



You speak of your vision to make Afaan Publications available for “every Oromo child, in every family, in every home.” In the likely event that Afaan publications manage to reach out to Oromo children in Ethiopia, do you think you have created publications that they can easily identify with?



Each publication is beautifully drawn, infused with cultural inheritance and collated with curriculum expertise. Compared to the market research I conducted before production, I’d like to think that Oromo children can relate to my publications, regardless of where they live. As they say in English, the proof is in the pudding.



Let’s talk about the motto of your campaign itself. “Afaan” is an initiative which is, in your own expression, a “bold, new way of storytelling”. But Afaan Oromo is an ancient language that has been around for thousands of years and rich in storytelling. And yet you branded Afaan Publications as a “new way of storytelling.” Do you agree with those who say that the words in your campaign are bigger than what would have otherwise been achievable?



Story telling is in the blood of Oromo culture. Afaan is a new way of storytelling, because we are using a collective combination of hardcopy media, multimedia and social media to tell the story of Afaan from all over the world. Given that I’ve also travelled to nine countries around the world to interview Oromo people and communities, gather diverse ideas for the books and release them into YouTube vignettes [as well as] create sample cartoons and release 17 products in less than 12 months, I think that is a bold move, for any company.



Indulge me if I am wrong, but it may be safe to assume that your upbringing compels you to a certain or limited exposure to the otherwise rich and complex nature of the Oromo culture. What benchmarks did you use to create educational publications that can be, if you will, used as tailor-made quality educational materials reflecting the Oromo culture to the Oromo children worldwide?



I don’t think it’s safe to assume anything about anyone’s upbringing. Afaan Publications are tailor made with tailored considerations of Oromo culture, dress, food, terminology and environment found in our published literature and artwork. I think children will take different lessons from the same content, depending on their level of understanding. Something like coffee, for example, can be understood and taught with differing levels of complexity depending on children’s level of understanding. Thankfully, I have had a team of professionals from educational, linguistic, cultural , academic and artistic collaboration who are from both Oromo and non-Oromo background.



Speaking of whom, tell us about team “Afaan Publication”. Many people seldom hear about the team at the back. How would you attribute the success to your team?



What am I without my team? I wish I could tell you that I am a linguist, a graphic designer, an illustrator, an animator, lawyer, printer, web developer, logistics expert and accountant all at once, but I am not. Only a few of my key contributors are featured on my website and I am looking to increase team growth more strategically this year.



In the conversation hour with Jon Faine of Australia’s ABC radio, while talking about the difficulties Afaan Oromo was subjected to in East Africa (and I am assuming that’s mostly in Ethiopia), you said, and I quote “my personal experience wasn’t so much about the politics; it was more the language side of things”. Is it possible to separate what happened to the language, which as you know was officially banned until 1991, from the politics?



My interview on live-to-air radio was to talk about my experiences of learning Afaan Oromo while growing up in Australia. While I acknowledge that the Oromo language has experienced a painful political past, my initiative has been focused on healing and positive language revival among children, specifically around maintaining mother tongue languages.



In the same interview, Jon Faine referred to Afaan Oromo as a language that was facing “absolute extinction”. Many among the Oromo community were not happy about that. This magazine also believes it was wrong to speak of a language spoken by, in your own account, 40 million people, as facing “absolute extinction.” How do you reflect on that?



I guess that’s the nature of live-to-air radio – there is no time to edit. For what it’s worth, I actually know of Jon Faine as a huge advocate for multiculturalism and social cohesion. Perhaps he was driven to think of absolute extinction as a logical aim or consequence of the Oromo language being banned as a punishable crime by [successive] Ethiopian governments for over 100 years? I don’t know. The great thing about ABC radio is they are really open to taking feedback, which everyone is free to do.



Are you aware that Oromo children in Ethiopia can make a good use of Afaan Publications as much as Oromo children abroad? What are you doing to reach out to these children?



I started with diaspora populations because, as I mentioned before, my original intent was to cater for my local community school only. I am only too pleased to support interest anywhere that children find benefit from Afaan Publications – that is not a point of discrimination for me and it’s interesting you raised this question.I am in negotiations with a few small organizations to begin trial runs.



This magazine believes you’ve achieved a lot, and have done a remarkable job in reaching out to families who would otherwise found it hard to find children publications in their mother tongue. But what’s next for “Afaan”? Where to from here?



Thank you. I think the first step is to acknowledge how far we have come in a short period of time. I can rattle off an impressive list of achievements and future ambitions but to quote a Nigerian proverb, “Alone we move fast, but together we move far”. I feel that the Oromo community is moving forward together, and that’s an achievement that’s bigger than any publication.



In the next few months, the official online store will be revealed, releases will begin in all continents, a feedback campaign will ensue and a few other exciting surprises in store. Not bad for a company that has released 17 products and toured seven international cities in seven weeks since Christmas 2014 – don’t you think?


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