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The Argobba
« on: November 30, 2010, 10:34:18 AM »
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Extracted From: Muslim Peoples : A World Ethnographic Survey, Greenwood Press
Edited by Richard V. Weekes, 1984 Author: Sidney R . Waldron

The Argobba

The cryptic Argobba, a Muslim people in Ethiopia now reduced to two small and separate populations, number less than 9,000. They pose some of the major historical and ethnological problems remaining among Ethiopia's Semitic-speaking peoples. Questions exist as to the very survival of the Argobba language, and no ethnography of the group has ever been carried out.
The two groups of Argobba are the Northern and the Southern. The former was carefully surveyed in 1973 by the late Volker Stitz, who located some 25 villages stretching 190 miles along the East African Rift escarpment, which defines the edge of the Ethiopian highlands from below Ankober to Dessie. Stitz reported:

The [Northern] Argobba today number some 6,000. They are living in a long chain of villages, some connected to each other, others isolated among different peoples. All of these villages are found in the hilly zone at the foot of the slopes of the Rift Valley. They are bordered in the west by Amharic-speaking Christians, in the east by Adal-speaking Muslims [usually referred to as Afar or Danakil]. The Argobba villages form the eastern fringe of the area of settled agriculturalists. They occupy the Wayna Ega zone (3,500 to 6,000 feet). Here the Argobba industriously till their own land and grow the lowland crops of sorghum and maize in addition to coffee, ch'at [a slightly narcotic leaf for chewing], cotton and tobacco as cash crops. Another important occupation is weaving. Some Argobba speakers are still occupied in short- and long-distance trade, especially in camels and cattle .... The long-distance trade to the east, which existed in the nineteenth century ... has ceased.

The Southern Argobba, who number about 3,000, undoubtedly derived from the Northern group, although the specifics of the historical connections are far from clear. In 1975 there were 20 named Southern Argobba settlements, ranging in size from Kurumi, which had about 500 residents, to clusters of a few houses, such as Gende Hullo. These villages are located on a ridge which forms an arc southeast of the old Muslim city of Harar, the radius of which is about 10 to 14 miles from that city (see Harari).

Ecologically these Southern villages are similar to their Northern counterparts, being located in a chain-like distribution on the edge of a projection of the Rift, some 3,500 to 6,000 feet in elevation. They are surrounded by Oromo agriculturalists and in contact with Somali pastoralists (see Oromo; Somalis). Like the Northern group, the Southern Argobba utilize terracing to maximize their marginal agricultural potential.
Most of the Southern Argobba locales are at the very edge of the cultivable zone, and in years of short rainfall and drought, hunger is readily apparent. Health conditions in the villages with the poorest water supplies further reflect the marginal position of these Argobba. Parasitic infestations and eye diseases such as trachoma are common among the young. In the 1960s, before the World Health Organization's successful campaign against the disease, smallpox regularly swept through the Southern Argobba villages, affecting primarily the young and killing about 20 percent of those infected.

The origins of the Argobba, according to oral traditions reported in both regions, trace to Arabia. The Harari say that the name "Argobba" is an elision of "Arab gaba," which means, "The Arabs came," in Harari. One version of this was recounted in 1963 by Baba Haji Mume Bashir, then 97 years old.

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"Long ago, before the Suez Canal was dug, a people called Beni Umayya were driven out of Arabia. They walked overland, coming south into Ethiopia and eventually to Harar. When people saw them, they said, 'Arab gaba,' and this became their name-Argobba. "

Historical linguistics provides a means of linking the Argobba language with other Ethiopian Semitic languages and by so doing provides a clue to the depth of time involved. Robert Hetzron, in his comprehensive analysis of the Ethiopian Semitic languages, classifies the Argobba language as a close relative of Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. Together, the two languages comprise one of the major subcategories of Transversal South Ethiopic. The other subcategory includes Harari and the Eastern Gurage languages (see Gurage). Argobba, then, is closely related to Amharic, but is distinct.

The language is disappearing. Among the Northern Argobba, it remains their first language, but most of the people are bilingual in Amharic and Oromo. Among the Southern Argobba, it is nearly extinct, having given way to Oromo ("Galla"). Although there is no current written literature in Argobba, there may be examples of written Argobba, which have yet to be identified. Further research may uncover more about written Argobba.

There are three explanations of the problem of Argobba distribution. The first is that, in accord with the origin tradition of a migration of the Beni Umayya from Arabia, a very early Argobba presence, ca. A.D. 750, was established in Ethiopia, probably in the northern region. A further development of this possibility would allow for a continuous population of Argobba, encompassing the present locations and intermediate points. There is evidence that Argobba were more widespread than at present.

A second explanation connects the migration of the Argobba to their southern range with the fortunes of the sultanates, which developed in the northern area. This hypothesis has strong circumstantial evidence in its favor, particularly if one connects the Argobba to the Walashima' dynasty.

In A.D. 1277 one Wali Asma' began the conquest of the Muslim state of Shawa, completing his task in 1285 and establishing 'Ifat as the dominant state of the region. 'Ifat itself was conquered by the armies of Christian Ethiopian kings Dawit I and Yeshaq in 1415, and the Walashima' were driven towards the Red Sea, finally establishing Adal, which was to become the most powerful of this succession of Muslim polities. This explanation of the origin of the Southern Argobba notes that the capital of Adal was near the site of Harar and the present Argobba villages. Although there is no direct evidence, this hypothesis suggests that the Southern Argobba accompanied the Walashima' leaders on their flight from 'Ifat in the early l400s. There is evidence to suggest that the Northern Argobba were the remaining population of 'Ifat after the conquest.

The third hypothesis for explaining the links between the Northern and Southern Argobba suggests relatively recent migration to the Harar region. Two major events in Ethiopian history affected the Adal kingdom. In 1529 Imam Ahmed Ibrahim al-Ghazi of Adal mounted a jihad from Harar, which swept throughout highland Ethiopia, where the Imam is still remembered with trepidation as Ahmed Gragn, "the left-handed." He was finally killed in 1549 by the Portuguese troops of Christopher de Gama, who had come to aid the Ethiopian king. In reaction to the jihad, the Christian Ethiopians counterattacked, crushing the Adal kingdom. At this point Adal retreated to an oasis in the Danakil desert, leaving the city of Harar as the last remnant of the once powerful Muslim principalities of Ethiopia. Immediately following the collapse of the jihad, a major population movement took place, which permanently altered the demographic and political balance of Ethiopia. This was the expansion of the Oromo from their homelands in southwestern Ethiopia northward until they occupied most of the Rift region, thus surrounding the Northern Argobba villages, and eastward until they isolated the city of Harar and occupied the environs of the Southern Argobba. The present Argobba villages in this
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region are, for the most part, situated on hilltops. The inhabitants explain that the sites were chosen to defend against the Oromo invaders. This would add plausibility to the second hypothesis, as would the mention of a still extant southern village, Afarduba, in the chronicles of the jihad, Futu al-Habasha, written by Shihabaddin Ahmed b. Abdalqadir Arabfuqih.

Just as the history of the Argobba presents more problems than solutions, so does consideration of Argobba society, as it exists today. All now speak the Oromo language, with the exception of the residents of the village of Kurumi, who speak Harari. This linguistic idiosyncrasy is particularly puzzling, as Kurumi is surrounded by Oromo-speaking Argobba villages.
The linguistic isolation of Kurumi indicates the degree of social isolation of the Argobba villages, not just from contiguous ethnic groups but from one another. Village endogamy is the preferred form of marriage, although as the village populations decrease, the number of exceptions increases. An Argobba man in Gende Adam explained the preference for endogamy as deriving from Muslim inheritance laws wherein males receive full shares and women receive half-shares. Among the Argobba, land is passed through the male line. "Since a girl gets a half-share from her father," he said, "it is best to marry a girl from your own village." A preferred type of wedding, called au aziza, is one in which two men of a village exchange closely related relatives as brides. These are designated "sisters" for the purpose of the wedding.

Beyond village endogamy, any marriage within the Argobba ethnic group is considered acceptable. Argobba men may marry Oromo women, although it is considered a disgrace to permit a daughter to marry an Oromo man. Occasionally the latter form of marriage occurs, but it is likely to provoke physical violence between friends of the Oromo groom and protectors of the bride.

The village of Umar Din typifies the defensive position of Southern Argobba villages, built atop a sheer-walled granite outcrop, which surveys the entire Bissidimo Valley. Even in 1975 lookouts watched for strangers and yodeled their approach to fellow villagers. Umar Din is laid out in an ascending spiral, with walls and fences enclosing the path which winds through it and through which one must pass to get to Kurumi and other Argobba villages. On both ends of the chain are villages (Umar Kuli and Atero, respectively) in which both Argobba and Oromo reside. Whether or not this co-residence indicates acculturation is not known. However, in these villages, Argobba women retain their visible identity by wearing the distinctive Argobba dress, a black-topped, dark brown robe.

Southern Argobba men are farmers who utilize both ox-drawn wooden plows and stone-weighted digging sticks to turn the soil, depending on its characteristics. The staple crop, sorghum, is stored in hidden underground pits within the village. Terracing is utilized as in the northern population and seems to be a distinctive and ancient Argobba practice, probably ultimately traceable to Yemeni agricultural traditions. Some men make wooden chairs with traditional carved designs, and pottery is made in some of the villages. Both occupations may carry a stigma, since Argobba would not discuss them. Unlike their Northern brethren, Southern Argobba men do not seem to be involved in trade. Women, who walk to Harar's markets, weave hairnets, which they sell to Harari women as an ethnic specialty.

The link between the Southern Argobba and the Harari is important and indicates a long-standing relationship. Indeed, one of the five gates of the city of Harar is called Argoberi, "Argobba Gate." Harari manuscripts and oral traditions include many citations of the Argobba; referring to a period of Argobba emirs which preceded those of the independent Harari emirate, which began in 1551. Probably this is the period of the Adal sultanate of the Walashima' dynasty.

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Harari children believe that the Argobba are were-hyenas and chant at Argobba women as they come to town, "Argobba, Argobba, nighttime hyena, daytime human!" Despite this stigma, Argobba women have an important ritual role in Harari weddings, that of officially confirming the virginity of the bride-to-be.

Evidence of the close link between Argobba and Harari is the similarity of their houses. Both are rectangular stone and mud-walled buildings, having raised earthen terraces for seating and many similar specifics in the interior. Stitz, who studied the Northern Argobba, pointed out that only the village of Shonke has Harari-style architecture, and he sees this as evidence of a return migration.

Certainly both the Northern and Southern Argobba deserve intensive study before they disappear. Acculturation to nearby ethnic groups is taking place, and changes in the nation of Ethiopia are also eradicating ethnic distinctions. Moreover, heavy fighting took place in the Southern Argobba range during the Ogaden War of 1978. The damage done to Argobba villages and the number of Argobba who fled as refugees has not yet been reckoned. Nonetheless, the chance to do significant research and thus solve some of the puzzles provided by the Argobba may still remain.

'Arabfuqih, Shihabaddin Ahmed b. 'Abdalqiidir. Futuh al-Habasha. Translated by Rene Basset as Histoire de la conquete de l'Abyssinie (XVI siecle). Paris: Publications de l'Ecole des Lettres d'Alger, 1897.
Cohen, Marcel. Etudes d'ethiopien me'ridional. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Beuuthnen, 1931.
---. Nouvelle etudes d'ethiopien me'ridional. Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honore Chammpion, 1939.
Hetzron, Robert. Ethiopian Semitic: Studies in Classification. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1972.
Huntingford, G.W.B. The Glorious Victories of 'Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.
Paulitsch1ce, Philipp. Harar: Forschungsreise nach den Somal-und Galla-landern. Leeipzig: F. A. Brickhaus, 1888.
Shack, William A. The Central Ethiopians: Amhara, Tigre and Related Peoples. London: International African Institute, 1974.
Stitz, Volker. "The Western Argobba of Yifat, Central Ethiopia. " In Proceedings of the United States Conference on Ethiopian Studies, 1973, edited by H. Marcus. East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1975.
Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam in Ethiopia. 2nd ed. London: Frank Cass, 1965.
Ullendorf, Edward. The Ethiopians. 3rd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. Wagner, Ewald. Legende und Geschichte der Fath Madinat Harar van Yahya Nasrallah, Wiesbaden: Komrnissionsverlag Franz Steiner GMBH, 1978.

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Braukamper, Ulrich. "Islamic Principalities in Southeast Ethiopia Between the Thirteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Pt. 1." Ethiopianist Notes 1: 1 (1977): 17-56.

Leslau, Wolf. "A Preliminary Description of Argobba." Annales d'Ethiopie 13: 1 (1959): 252-273.