Onesimos Nasib’s Pioneering Contributions to Oromo Writing*


University of Uppsala, Sweden


Onesimos, whose birth name was Hiikaa, was born sometime in the middle of the 1850s in the region  of  Ilu  Abba  Bor  in  the  western  part  of  Oromo land.  In his writings Onesimos refers to himself consistently as nama biyya Oromoo or “a man from  the  country  of  the  Oromo”.  When he was about  four  years  old  he  was  kidnapped and separated from his widowed mother by slave-traffickers. He was freed from  slavery  by  Werner  Munzinger,  a  Swiss  scholar  and  adventurer  who  worked as a consular agent of the French, British and Egyptians at the Red Sea port of Massawa.

Before that Onesimos was sold four times and given the name Nasib by one of the persons who bought and sold him. Since Munzinger bought slaves to set themfree, he handed Onesimos over to the Swedish missionary station in Massawa in 1870. Then Onesimos was about 16 years old. In Massawa he started as a servant with  one  of  the  missionaries.  He  was  the  first  Oromo  to  be  converted  to  the  protestant Christian religion. Onesimos was his baptismal name.

The  aim  of  the  Swedish  Evangelical  Mission  when  it  arrived  in  1865  in  Northeast Africa was to convert the Oromo people to Christianity. However, as the way  to  the  Oromo  country  was  closed  in  the  north  by  Abyssinian  kings  and  warlords, the Swedish missionaries stayed at Massawa waiting for the opportunity to penetrate the interior and reach the Oromo country. Meanwhile the missionaries were gathering, educating and converting Oromos who came to Massawa as victims of the slaved-trade that plagued Northeast Africa at that time. Onesimos was the first  pupil  at  the  school  opened  by  the  Swedish  Evangelical  Mission  for  that  purpose (Dahlberg 1932: 16).

From the very beginning Onesimos showed an insatiable thirst for knowledge. At  the  school  Onesimos  studied  religion,  history,  geography,  arithmetic  and  languages. Soon  after  he  completed  his  education  at  the  Massawa  school  the  missionaries who were impressed by his capacity and interest to learn sent him to the  Johannelund  Missionary  Training  Institute  in  Stockholm.  Onesimos  left  Massawa  for  Europe  in  June  1876  (Dahlberg  1932:  18).  He  studied  at  the  Johannelund Institute for the next five years and graduated with a teacher’s diploma in 1881. He was also commissioned as a missionary (Dahberg 1932).

Immediately after his graduation he left Sweden and came back to Massawa in October 1881. Back in Africa he started to teach at his former school which was moved to Munkullo outside of Massawa town while he was in Sweden. At that time preparation for an expedition to Oromoland was underway at the mission station. Onesimos joined the expedition to realize his greatest wish and dream of returning to his native land to teach his people what he had learnt.

Since  a  previous  attempt  to  reach  Oromoland through Abyssinia had proved unsuccessful, the 1881 attempt or the so-called second Oromo expedition was made through the Sudan to Wallaga. The expedition set off from Massawa in November that year and reached the borders of the Oromo country after a journey that took two months on the Red Sea, through the Nubian Desert and on the River Nile. On their  arrival  at  the  frontier  of  Oromoland,  Onesimos  and  his  colleagues  were  misinformed  about  the  security  situation on the road to the Oromo country and were persuaded to go back by a European called Marno Bey who was an agent of the Egyptian Khedive at the Sudanese border post of Famaka (Dahberg 1932: 29; Aren 1977: 252-254).

The return journey was arduous and disastrous. Two members of the expedition, G.E. Arrhenius, a Swedish missionary and leader of the expedition, and a young Oromo named Filipos, died and were buried on the way (Dahlberg 1932: 30-31). Mighty sandstorms, lack of water and several attacks of fever had to be endured in the Nubian Desert. Onesimos and the rest of the expedition returned to Munkullo in the middle of 1882 after about eight months of a gruelling journey (Dahlberg 1932: 31).

Back in Munkullo Onesimos resumed his teaching duties. In addition he also “set about the most important part of his life-work: that of creating an Oromo literature” (emphasis added , Aren 1977: 262). Onesimos started his literary work as a translator of short religious books. The first two religious works he translated were John Bunyan’s Man’s Heart and a book of religious songs. In 1883, Onesimos had to stop his translation work to once again join another expedition, the third Oromo expedition, to his native land. The missionaries had through correspondence managed to get permission from Menelik, the then king of Shoa, to pass through his country to the Oromo kingdom of Jimma. According to the information that the missionaries had  received  through  traders  coming  from  his  land,  Abba  Jifaar  II  (1861-1932), the young Mooti (king) of Jimma, was eager to introduce modern education to his people and was interested in receiving missionaries as teachers (Aren 1977: 259).

The third Oromo expedition consisting of Onesimos, his wife Mihret, a young Oromo named Petros and the two Swedish evangelists Pahlman and Bergman left Massawa during the latter part of 1884 and arrived in Shoa via Tajoura (Djibouti) and Harar early in April the same year. On their arrival at Entoto, the new seat of Menelik in an Oromo territory conquered about a decade earlier, the Shoan King denied  that  he  promised  them  passage  through  his  land  and  ordered  them  to  immediately return to the coast. Onesimos commented about this incident in a letter dated 23 June, 1886: 

It is saddening that even this time we had to be chased away as if we were instigators of rebellion. … We hoped and enjoyed to come to our land which we missed for such a long time (Dahlberg 1932: 34).

Menelik’s  behavior  towards  Onesimos  and  his  colleagues  was  related  by  some  observers with the awaj (decrees) of his suzerain, Emperor Yohannes IV who ruled Abyssinia from Tigray, regarding religion and missionary activities in his empire. However, the reason behind Menelik’s refusal to allow the expedition to the interior of Oromo land seems to be more than that.

To  begin  with,  it  is  doubtful  whether  Menelik  who  was  in  the  middle  of  his  conquest of Oromo land was happy to have in that territory educated and conscious Oromos  like  Onesimos  who  aspired  to  teach  the  Oromo  people  in  their  own  language. It was also unlikely that Europeans who showed interest mainly in the Oromo, as the Swedish missionaries did at that time, were tolerated by his court. In order  to  prevent  European  weapons  from  reaching  them,  Menelik,  in  fact,  was  trying to isolate from the outside world the numerically superior Oromo he was conquering or was planning to conquer. And he was successful in doing so.


Having  failed  to  reach  its  destination,  the  third  Oromo  expedition  returned  to  Massawa  in  April  1886.  Onesimos  started  once  again  to  teach  and  translate.  Meanwhile the number of Oromo slaves reaching Massawa and other coastal towns was  increasing  partly  because  of  Menelik’s  conquest  of  Oromoland  and,  as  the  life-histories of some of the slaves freed and brought to the mission station show, his direct involvement in the slave trade. However, the Italians who were in the process of colonising the Red Sea littoral of what was later to be named Eritrea combated, with some vigour, the freight of slaves across the sea to Arabia. This meant that more and more Oromo youth of both sexes (most slaves reaching the Red Sea coast were between the ages of 13 and 15) were liberated and sent to the Swedish Mission for support and education.

In addition to translating the Scriptures, which he now considered as the mission of his life, Onesimos found much joy in teaching these boys and girls. Together with  him,  these  victims  of  the  slave  trade  were,  as  will  be  discussed  latter  on,  destined to play important roles in the laying the foundations of Oromo literature and the introduction of modern education and missionary work in the western parts of Oromo land

Onesimos  Nasib’s  literary  works  were  both  religious  and  secular.  He  wrote  and/or  translated  most  of  them  between  1885  and  1898.  During  those  thirteen  intensively active years he translated seven books, two of them with Aster Ganno, one of the young girls liberated and brought to the missionaries in 1886. Some of the books were short volumes. He wrote an Oromo-Swedish Dictionary of some 6000 words (Nordfelt 1947: 1). As the leader of an Oromo language team, to be discussed in a latter section of this paper, he also contributed to other linguistic works.

The first work (translation) by Onesimos was  . This was a small book of religious songs published in 1886 at the mission’s printing press in Munkullo. The book was revised and published in 1894. Several editions of Galata Waaqayoo Gofta Maccaa  have  appeared  since  then  and  it  is  still  in  use  today. The next work translated by Onesimos was The New Testament or Kaku Haaraa which was completed and published in 1893. Together with Aster Ganno he completed and published Jalqaba Barsiisaa or the Oromo Reader in 1894. The 174 pages long reader contains a collection of 3600 words and 79 short stories most of which were collected from Oromo oral literature.

Onesimos Nasib’s most significant contribution was the complete translation of The Holy Bible or Macafa Qulqulluu which was printed in 1899 at St. Chrischona in  Switzerland.  Onesimos  travelled  to  Europe  and  stayed  about  nine  months  in  Switzerland to assist with proof-reading and personally supervise the printing. He made  also  his  second  and  last  visit  to  Sweden  while  printing  was  in  progress.  Onesimos’ translation of the Bible has been described by historians and linguists as a great intellectual feat. Dr. Gustav Aren wrote that “the Oromo version of the Holy Scripture is a remarkable achievement, it was to all intents the fruit of the dedicated labour of one man, Onesimos Nesib” (Aren 1977: 385). Onesimos was quite happy about the result of his labour. Although he

foresaw  that  scholars  in  Europe  would  criticize  him  for  having  not  used  the  Greek  and  Hebrew  texts,  …  he  was  not  worried  about  their  censure.  He  was  confident  that  his  translation  represented  pure  and  idiomatic  Oromo.  He  remarked that it would take trained philologists many years to produce a better version (Aren 1977: 385).

Indeed, ninety years have passed since Onesimos translated the Scriptures and no new translation of the complete Oromo Bible has yet been made primarily due to the  ban  imposed  upon  the  Oromo  language  during this period by the Ethiopian Government.

In  the  same  year  as  the  complete  Oromo  Bible  came  out,  two  other  works  translated  by  Onesimos,  Katekismos  which  is  the  Oromo  version  of  Luther’s  Catechism and John Bunyan’s Mans Heart bearing the Oromo title Garaan Namaa Mana Waaqayo yookiis Iddo Bultii Seetana,  were  published.  The  translation  of  Birth’s Bible Stories entitled Si’a Lama Oduu Shantami-Lama by Aster Ganno and Onesimos was printed at the same time.


Onesimos was assisted by a team of Oromos liberated from slavery and sheltered at the Swedish Mission station of Geleb in the highland of Mensa in Eritrea. Dr. Fride Hylander wrote about the team that,

As the interior of the country seemed to be closed, the pioneers in Eritrea made  themselves  ready  for  a  future  advance  by  gathering  a  group  of  intelligent and promising Gallas13 and giving some a refuge at Geleb, in the province of Mensa. Here they were engaged in education and translation and formed  a  “Galla-speaking  colony”,  the  leader  of  which  was  Onesimus  (Hylander 1969: 83).

The Oromo language team which was organized about 1890 consisted 15 to 20 members. However, besides Onesimos and Aster, Lidia Dimbo, Stefanos Bonaya who  was  originally  from  Lamu  in  present  day  Kenya,  Natnael,  and  Roro  were  among the active members of the team. Nils Hylander, a Swede and close friend of Onesimos from his school days in Stockholm, joined them in 1891. The available sources indicate that Hylander had a very genuine affection for the Oromo and their language about which he wrote to his colleagues in Sweden in this enthusiastic manner:

The beauty of the Galla language cannot be exaggerated. Italian and Galla are…the most beautiful languages in the world. It is a pleasure to read and study them.

He learnt it very quickly and contributed to the work of the team enormously. However, Hylander and Stefanos Bonaya left the team in 1893 to go to Lamu, Zeila and Harar to once again try to reach the Oromo country from that direction. The attempt was in vain. Natnael died of tuberculosis the same year. The rest continued the work with zeal and dedication.

The members of the team contributed in different ways in the preparation of the background literature for the educational and missionary work to be launched in Oromoland. A vocabulary of about 15000 words were collected with the aim of compiling a dictionary, facilitating the translation of the Scriptures, and preparation of educational literature. Aster Ganno, linguistically the most gifted member of the team, wrote down from memory a collection of five hundred Oromo songs, fables and stories. Some of the stories were included in the Oromo Reader mentioned above. A comprehensive grammar  of  the  Oromo  language  was  also  prepared.  These works were left unpublished.

The work that Onesimos and his language team had accomplished at Geleb can, without  doubt,  be  seen  as  the  first  and  so  far  the  only  significant  step  towards  creating an Oromo literature. These men and women, freed from the cruel grips of Abyssinian  and  Arab  slave-traders  by  the  humanitarian  acts  of  individuals  and  ironically Italian colonialists and supported by the Swedish missionaries, toiled in a foreign land to make afaan Oromoo a written language with the hope of returning one day to their native land and spread literacy among their people. These hopes were only partially fulfilled.

When the members of the Oromo language team finally returned home, they found conditions in their country radically and negatively changed. Oromoland was conquered and colonised by the Amhara between 1875 and 1900 and the Oromo had lost their freedom. The conquerors were in the process of imposing their own language, Amharic, and their version of Christianity on the Oromo. Therefore, the efforts that these pioneers made to develop Oromo literature and teach the Oromo to read and write in their own language were frustrated by the Imperial Ethiopian government and its partner the Coptic Church.

The ban that the Ethiopian rulers placed on afaan Oromoo during the past 90 years made further development of the work started by them virtually impossible. Nevertheless,  the  efforts  of  Onesimos  and  his  colleagues  in  the  area  of  Oromo  literacy were not fruitless. As will be discussed further on, they had, and continue to have, influence on Oromo consciousness and education.

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