Hegemony and Negotiation in Pluralist Ethiopia: The Zay Language Story


Wednesday 6 November, 14.00-14.30, E0103

It is a truism for a culturally and linguistically diverse society that, questions of power, equity, and representation/recognition are recurrent issues. The global trend of praising humanistic plurality with all its features and constituents is an advent towards an aspired freedom that was constrained by cultural and political hegemony. In the Ethiopian context where language and cultural diversity has gained momentum after the coming to power of the EPRDF regime in 1991, language as an important constituent of cultural identity became a primary tool for legitimizing political power and group rights have become the venue through which local communities enter the state and claim political space. Such a linguistic and cultural revival and ‘politics of recognition’ has helped on the one hand to cultivate, develop, and promote ones own culture, language, identity while on the other hand it led to, as Gayatri Spivak contends, the marginalization and subalternization of minority groups. This later aspect of cultural and linguistic revival (as institutionalized in an ethnic federal arrangement in the Ethiopian case) as a cause for marginalization of minorities living among majority groups is the subject of this research. 

Zay is a language that is spoken on the islands of Lake Zway and the surrounding villages by about 2500 people in Southern Ethiopia in the Oromia region. The Zay community has a long history of settlement in the region and their cultural and religious make up demonstrate the marginal position they occupied over the centuries as a minority group living amongst a dominant ethnic group, the Oromo. Following the establishment of an ethnic federal structure in Ethiopia their position and cultural identity have seen major changes. Even though ethnic federalism generally celebrates cultural diversity and expression of cultural identity the Zay have seen their language repressed and have been unable to secure the venue like getting primary education in their mother tongue and parliamentary representation. Although it is not unnatural for languages and cultural identities to be in competition for relevance and dominance in any setting the epistemic marginalization that the Zay as a community and as a language are witnessing is an interesting case for the discussion of power relations. Disparity in terms of access to social services and political positions are among the most important challenges facing minority groups such as the Zay and social castes like artisan groups. Ethnic federalism by raising the position of dominant ethnic groups it relegated and further marginalized the position of ethnic and social minorities. 

Despite this however the Zay have continued to negotiate their cultural and political space in different ways. By identifying themselves with dominant groups, language shift and assertion of their cultural and linguistic identity they have been claiming a more elaborate and conducive political space. Cultural imposition and loss of political space has been instrumental in turning the society into “shadows”. The interplay of social, political and economic factors greatly impacted the endangerment of the language and is threatening the viability of the ethnic group. This study attempts to show that language endangerment is a function of political, economic and cultural and historical factors. In relation to this I will argue in this study that the social and political practice of the Zay and their political practices such as language shift (using the language of the dominant group), identification with the dominant ethnic group and such practices should be seen in the context of the political, economic and cultural realities facing the group. The project therefore attempts to problematize and place the issue of power relations as central to language endangerment and marginalization in heterogeneous and multi cultural societies like Ethiopia.