Dube Nationality, Balé Lowlands


Dube Nationality and their Neighbors:

Identity and Interrelationships of Peoples and Polities in Balé Lowlands

ca. 1880s-1990s

by Kefyalew Tessema Semu


Kefyalew Tessema is lecturer at Madda Walabu University, Bale-Robe and a doctoral student in History at Addis Ababa University. His research focuses on an ethnic group from the Balé lowlands, the Dube. He presents here the results of his research conducted with the support of a CFEE field grant in 2017.

The social landscape of Balé has always been diversified with early settlement, late immigrations, social fusions and fissions. The Dube and Waata were among the earliest settlers of the Wabé-Shaballé and Gannalé Rivers of Ethiopia, while that last two lived along the same rivers in southern Somalia (Cerulli 1922: 206; Trimingham 1952: 5).

Balé, the former province between the Wabé-Shaballé and Gannalé Rivers, is a land of social heterogeneity, a hub of social interactions and endowed with natural resources. It was reincorporated into the Ethiopian Empire in 1892. But, existing studies on Balé, particularly studies by students, who wrote theses and dissertations on the post conquest period, have focused on themes like impacts of the conquest, urbanization, land tenure, modern social institutions focused on Balé highlands. The lowlands have remained the periphery of a peripheral region. Critics have attributed these features of literature on Balé to the limitations from which Ethiopian studies have suffered namely centralist discourse, elitist politics, misrepresentations, omissions and ethnocentric views (Truilzi, 1984; Clapham, 2002; Donham, 2002; Ezekiel, 2014). This could be ascribed among others to the limited number of scholars on the area, the challenge of harsh environment and scarcity of written sources. But, a big factor is also due to the historians’ orthodox fidelity to written sources and persistent downplaying of oral sources, which had left historical study for the borderlands at its infancy. Thus, most studies are carried out by other social scientists than by historians. Yet, Europeans such as Donaldson Smith (1897), Enrico Cerulli (1922) and Hudson Arnold (1927), who had visited and studied Balé, some of whom had mentioned the Dube Nationality.

Therefore, “Dube Nationality and their Neighbors…” is a dissertation envisaged as historical study of internal narratives of the Dube peripheral minorities in the hinterlands of comparative disadvantages by focusing on identities and interrelationships of societies and states. Toward this end, the collection of oral sources such as oral traditions, genealogical data, lived experiences and eyewitness accounts, observation of cultural events, settlement sites and various rituals as well surveying of written primary sources in various depositories have been the most important techniques and tools of data acquisitions. To seek answers to key questions regarding the origin of the Dube people, how they managed to sustain their ethnic and linguistic identities amidst their powerful neighbors and so on, intensive fieldwork in their settlements were vital. Moreover, it is in the priority of this historical study to incorporate the social memory of neighbors of the Dube regarding the whereabouts and the past of relations of the latter with them among others. This makes the research task both laborious and costly (Henige, 1982: 45; Vansina, 1985: 153).

Preliminary findings show that the Dube are riverine cultivators who inhabited dispersed pocket areas along the Wabe Shaballé River and few offshoots sites in the Oromia and Ethiopian Somali Regions. The Dube are endogamous communities of over a hundred thousand comprising four clans. They speak a language that resembles the Somali language but with significant percentage of lexicographical difference. They claim to be of Bantu origin from Western Africa many generations ago, due to population pressure and to have entered their present habitat one group through southern Somalia while the other might had taken the route from Blue Nile Valley across the south-central Ethiopia into the Wabe Shaballé Valley. Yet, the existing written sources converge to concluding the Dube origin from societies of slave descent, who either runaway from their masters form plantations along the Wabe Shaballé and Juba Rivers as well as from urban entrepreneurs in coastal towns of the Indian Ocean or from freed slave in the same region (Declich, 1995: 95).

Figure 1: Dube girls in their typical dressing styles on the occasion of their weekly market visit to Gassara town, Bale Zone, 2016 (Photo by the author).

Neighbors of the Dube are the Oromo and Somali pastoralist who inhabited the lowlands of Balé. They have experienced major wars against the agrarian Ethiopian state twice in the 1960s and 1970s and an international conflict when the Somalia invaded Ethiopian in 1977/78. Pastoralists of the region moved across the border into Ethiopia and Somalia in line with their economic interests and often found themselves disadvantaged by the policies and corrupted governors of the governments based in Addis Ababa and Mogadishu (Belete, 2008: 286). This led them into incessant resource-based conflicts and proxy wars of their external sponsors, who had political and religious interests in the region. These intertwined factors led to continuous conflicts, which the societies of the region fond of narrating as “the struggle”. This “struggle” and the increase of population of the region had made and still making the lives of these minorities from worse to the worst. Moreover, the fertile floodplains, which the Dube cultivated for centuries, became a bone of contention between them and pastoralists. Thus, survival of Dube livelihood, identity and culture, which was achieved by strategies of settlement separation, endogamy and successful exploitation of their marginal ecology, seem to be at a stake (Cassanelli, 1982: 77). See sites cultivated by the Dube in the following pictures.

Figure 2: A typical River side preferred by the Dube, Wabe Qilisa village, Robe District of Arsi Zone, 2016 (photo by the author). Such places are vulnerable for flooding during seasons of heavy rainfall in the upstream.
Figure 3: A maize farm of the Dube on floodplain of Wabe River in Wabe Oda Dima village, Seru District of Arsi Zone, 2017 (Photo by the author).

The fieldwork among the Dube in their rugged rangelands along the Wabe Shaballé River with hostile climate was an exhilarating experience for the researcher. The Dube are welcoming to a non-Somali stranger who visits them taking him/her for an agent of the government. This is because it has been nearly two decades since the Dube started litigation to be recognized as independent ethnic identity, which would grant them with the right of self-rule with implications of access to national budget though never materialized so far. But, they never yielded. So, in about a decade long study among the Dube, researcher experienced recurrent revisions of Dube narratives by informants (Henige, 1982: 45). Among areas of this changing narrative are their ethnohistory that makes them different from the Somali, their population size and their role during the anti-government struggle in Bale lowlands (Belete, 2008: 290). The Dube might not rise the issues of slave origin or Bantu descent had it not been their difference from the Somali was not important to justify their separate identity. Similarly, as most of the Somali and Oromo rebels were fighting against the Ethiopian state since the 1960s, the Dube sought to capitalize on their pro-Ethiopian position under various regimes, which the Dube elites sought would help them to win the favor of the incumbent regime. This has a grain of truth. But, relative small size of their population and the strategic importance of the majority Ethiopian Somali for the Ethiopian government in deterring Jihadists groups based in Somalia from getting grounds on Ethiopian soil, seem to have made the request of the Dube to wait. The Somali regional state rejected Dube’s request as groundless claim of one of Somali clans, as it success would lead to territorial divisibility to their region. On the top of this, the recent conflict along common borders of the Ethiopian Somali and Oromia Regional States in Balé, where many Dube live, has changed the fieldwork from a tough task into mission impossible. There was serious security problem for the researcher to visit to the Dube settlements in Imie, a significant town in the Ethiopian Somali region. Nonetheless, the researcher managed to conduct telephone interviews with notable elders and met few of them in Addis Ababa. Thus, the researcher has concluded over three-fourth of the fieldwork and nearly all of the archival and library surveys.[1]

Figure 4: A typical offshoot settlement of the Dube near Yadot River at Haya Oda village in Dallo Manna District, Bale Zone, 2017 (Photo by the author).

The CFEE fieldwork grant helped the researcher to spend more time in the field to substantiate vague narratives and observe live cultural events like weddings, funerals and council of elders resolving disputes (Henige, 1982: 63). The work among the Dube and their neighbors is costly due to communal use of any income they receive, and thus would have be difficult without the assistance of the CFEE. The researcher was able to find answers for many research questions in the statement of the problem of this dissertation. He is closer to understanding of many historical developments that led to the social configuration of Balé in the last century. Therefore, he is deeply grateful to the CFEE for the financial assistance and for facilitating the progress of this dissertation[2].

[1] These issues made the fieldwork among the Dubé methodologically challenging and risky in terms of security.

[2] The author also acknowledges support from Dr. Belete Bizuneh, his supervisor.


Belete Bizuneh. 2008. An Agrarian Polity and Its Pastoral Periphery: State and Pastoralism in the Borana Borderlands (Southern Ethiopia), 1897-1991. Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston University, Graduate School of Arts and Science.

Cassanelli, Lee V. 1982. The Shaping of Somali Society: Restructuring the History of Pastoral People, 1600-1900, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press.

Cerulli, Enrico. 1922. Folk–Literature of the Galla of Southern Abyssinia, Harvard African Studies III: Cambridge.

Clapham, Christopher. 2002. “Rewriting Ethiopian History.” Annales d’Ethiopie, Vol. XVIII.

Declich, Francesca. 1995. “ »Gendered Narratives, » History, and Identity: Two Centuries along the Juba River among the Zigula and Shanbara.” History in Africa, Vol. XXII, 93-122.

Donaldson, Smith A. 1896. Expedition through Somaliland to Lake Rudolf. Paper Read at Royal Geographical Society, 120-37.

Donham, Donald. 2002. “Old Abyssinia and the New Ethiopian: Themes in Social History.” In Donham, D. and James, W. (eds.). the Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia: Essays in History and Social Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3-50.

Ezekiel Gebissa. 2014. “The Oromo and Ethiopian Studies” In Ezekiel Gebissa (ed.). Contested Terrain: The Oromo and Ethiopian Studies. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 8-32.

Hadson, A. Wienholt. 1927. Seven Years in Southern Abyssinia. Westport: Negro University Press.

Henige, David. 1982. Oral Historiography. London: Longman Group Ltd.

Trimingham, Spencer. 1952. Islam in Ethiopia. London and Liverpool: Oxford University Press.

Truilzi Alessandro. 1984. “Competing Views of National Identity in Ethiopia.” In Lewis, I. M. (ed.). Nationalism and Self Determination in the Horn Africa. London: Ithaca Press, 111-128.

Vanaina, Jan. 1985. Oral Tradition as History. The University of Wisconsin Press: Wisconsin.

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