Hawecha, the Oromo dreamer
By Jayne Rose Gacheri

Hawecha [Google, Utamanduni wetu, Meet the people of Kenya]

Folklores are great. They tell a community’s customs, beliefs, myths, traditions, and culture. Folktales are usually unwritten and passed down orally from generation to generation through storytelling sessions. Through folkloric accounts, information about origins and way of life of a community is preserved. Such is the legend of one of the greatest Oromo Prophetess.

Unto the Oromos, a great dreamer is born

Two hundred years ago, a girl was born to the Oromo tribe, which occupies the land of southern Ethiopia and the far north of Kenya. The girl, Hawecha, was born at a time when women had no power. As fate would have it, however, she was destined for leadership duties in a largely patriarchal community, where women were to be seen and not heard. An oracle who saved her tribe from great calamities – famine, pestilence, war, and death, Hawecha became a part of the Oromo oral history.

Modern-day Oromo people [Facebook]

Humble beginnings

Hawecha was born to a beautiful mother. Even with her mother’s face crinkled with lines of grief and worry, she was still the most beautiful woman around. She radiated joy around her. His father Dhaki, was handsome too, stern tall and proud. It is creative to imagine how beautiful Hawecha was. Google’s Arts & Culture Hawecha: the story of the Oromo dreamer describes her exceptional beauty thus: “high cheekbones, long nose, wavy soft silken hair, and a scarf rustling in the wind”.

The folklore has it that Hawecha was born into a small Oromo family – her father was of the Gono half of the Oromo tribe, and she, as tradition dictated, was expected to be married by a man from the Sabba half of the Oromo tribe. Her father would proudly marry her off when the time came. That was not going to be the case, however. She lost her father at the tender age of seven.

Even before her mother’s grieving tears could dry, the grim reaper struck again. This time his cruel hand claimed her baby sister who “cooed and gurgled” at everyone and who she loved so much. Now, Hawecha was lost in wanderings about death and wondered why people had to die anyway.

The Oromo are a spiritual community. They have a day set aside for prayers for the mothers of the tribe conducted in a sacred shrine. This shrine has five entrances in honour of the five high priests of the Oromo people. Hawecha dutifully attended to these special prayer days. While here, she heard from Gababa Halakhe (priest) about Suleh, a woman high in the ranks of women who lived a long time ago.

Hawecha learned that Suleh went against the Oromo law and refused to get married. She said she had a dream where she saw a lion mauling her. She interpreted this to mean that marriage was not for her and that if she married, she would die. Her parents would hear none of this, but eventually listened to her after she went on a hunger strike and a "seer" prophesied her death if she got married. According to the priest, Suleh still assisted those who looked upon her – she was a star among those other stars who were her companions. Her dwelling place was Venus. Hawecha took note of all this.

Hawecha the Oromo dreamer

Maybe because of her encounter with death so young, Hawecha was pensive, quiet, introverted and habitually lost in a world of her own. Because of these musings, villagers nicknamed her “Hawecha the dreamer” and rarely interrupted her stupor. Her mother, nonetheless, never tired from admonishing her, always encouraging her to come out of the “daydreams and be brighter”.

Just when she thought life was getting fairer, she lost her mother, leaving her in the hands of her uncle. At age 18, her uncle, as custom dictated, found her a suitor and soon Hawecha was married to Juldess. Hers was a difficult marriage. Despite her beauty, Juldess set his eyes on other women. To add to her tribulations, for seven years, she could not conceive and when she finally did, she lost her son during his birth. The marriage broke down.

Such was the background setting that introduced Hawecha to her legendary journey of being the Oromo dreamer. The legend of Suleh had advanced the thought that should a child show promise of a higher purpose, then the child needed guidance to pursue this call and help her people. Maybe like Suleh (who appeared to her in her dreams often), she should not have been married and should have followed her destiny – foretelling dreams. That is what a seer named Gababa Halakhe, who was in search of an apprentice, has seen in Hawecha’s perspective eyes.

Great prophetess

According to the Oromo folklore, Hawecha was the greatest prophet of her time. The first dream of note was a warning about an impending catastrophe caused by disease that would befall her people. This came to pass. Then again, she foresaw a protracted drought and famine, which too, happened. Accounts say Hawecha’s visions that came with complete solutions saved her people from war, devastation, and death on several occasions.

Modern-day Oromo women celebrating their culture in diaspora [Courtesy]

Hawecha: A woman for all times

While her folktale is mostly passed down orally from one generation to the next author, Rhodia Mann has documented the story of Hawecha in her book, Hawecha: A Woman for All Times. Today, the story of Hawecha encourages parents to take their daughters to school.

In 1986 in commemoration of Hawecha, the Comboni Missionaries founded Hawecha Girls Primary School in northeastern Kenya. The priests made rounds to Oromo homesteads with an irresistible offer of free education to a son in exchange for allowing a girl to go to school. The school opened with 12 young girls.

In 1994, the first Borana girl attended the University of Nairobi and by 1995, there were 200 girls at the Hawecha Girls’ Primary School. In 1998, three girls joined a Nairobi commercial college and in this unexpected way, the Hawecha legend lives on!

Fact file – who are the Oromo?

They are an Eastern Cushitic ethnic group, a sub-group of the Galla people inhabiting Ethiopia. They were pushed southwards by the Somalis, perhaps as long ago as the tenth century. After several hundred years, they migrated even further south into the southern part of what is now Ethiopia. Sometime around the middle of the 16th century, another subgroup of the Galla, the Borana occupied the land originally inhabited by the Oromo.

There are an estimated 23 million Oromo, making them one of the most numerous people in Africa. From the 18th to the 19th century, the Oromo were the dominant influence in northern Ethiopia. Both the Borana and the Oromo share a common political-legal system and customs. They also share the same spiritual beliefs and the same spiritual leadership. The separation is mainly one of the national boundaries. One of the legends they share is Hawecha, the Oromo dreamer.