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Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 14:46 GMT
Do you speak Wogagoda?

The Walyita people of southern Ethiopia were angered when a bureaucratic decision made their language officially non-existent. Nita Bhalla reports on the battle not to speak Wogagoda.

In a country with over 80 ethnic groups, Ethiopia has more than its fair share of cultural differences. The Walyita people are no exception.

With a population of approximately 1.1 million in the south of the country, for the past two years the Walyita have been struggling to keep their own identity because the local government had banned their language and replaced with a hybrid called "Wogagoda".

But last week, after years of protests and riots which have culminated in arrests and even death, the local government re-instated Walyita as the 'working and school language' for the Walyita people.

Walyita-Doso town is situated about 350 km (200 miles) from the capital, Addis Ababa, and the people from the town say that their culture and tradition are centuries old. They have continually protested against the banning of their language, claiming the Walyita language was an integral part of their tradition.

Multi-ethnic area

The regional government, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS) said that the official status of the Walyita language did not take into the account the other three ethnic groups - the Gamo, Gofa and Dawro people - who also live in the area. They therefore decided to remove it as an official language and create a new one.

Mr Wandemo, the head official of the North Omo Zone, which is responsible for Walyita-Doso, says that a decision was made, eight years ago, by all the ethnic groups to change the language.

"It was decided that since the Walyita, Gamo, Gofa and Dawro languages were so similar, a new language, encompassing all, should be made," he said.

Dissenting voices

But one of the Walyita elders, Mr Takiso Tekle, says it is not true that everyone endorsed the decision.

"No Walyita, Dawro, Gamo or Gofa people discussed this," he says. "It's only the local authorities of the area who got together and discussed this secretly and came to decide on this particular point."

Despite the protests of the Walyita, the Regional Administration consulted with language experts to bring Wogagoda into being. Wogagoda is an Esperanto-type synthesis of the four languages previously in use - Gamo, Gofa, Dawro and Walyita.

Wogagoda was implemented two years ago and was greeted by protests in the area. Just two weeks before the decision was reversed, at least two people were shot dead by local police, when riots broke out after two teachers at the local elementary school refused to teach in Wogagoda.

Not just about language

But even now, local authorities say only a selected few were against its usage. Mr Wandemo believes that the protests are about politics not about preserving culture.

"These few people who are protesting and causing trouble, do not really care about the language. They think that since they are a majority in the area and have their own language, they should have a separate zone for only the Walyita people. I think they are using this as an excuse to get their own zonal government," Mr Wandemo said.

The Walyita elders do not deny they want self-administration at zonal level. One elder said recently he was happy that the government had reinstated the Walyita language, but wanted to press on with the claim for self-administration.

"We were forced to accept Wogagoda which was an insult to our culture," the elder said. "Why should we accept being administered by a group of people we didn't elect?"
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