August 07, 2007

The Run for Oromia

By Steven W. Thomas
5. August 2007

Last Sunday (July 29) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, there was the first ever Run for Oromia, sponsored by the Oliquaa Foundation, a foundation established by Mike Abebe in 2006 to promote Oromo business and culture. The goal of the race was to raise awareness about Oromia, honor Oromia's athletic heroes, and thank the city of Minneapolis for being the home away from home for so many Oromo people who have settled there after fleeing persecution in Ethiopia. The race happened on the day after the last day of the Oromo Soccer Federation in North America tournament, and so the few soccer players who weren't too exhausted from the tournament joined the race.

I also joined the race, and my Sunday morning was perhaps typical of the average participant who may not be a good runner but enjoyed the event. I had spent the previous day at the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) conference and that night at one of the evening parties. After my alarm clock woke me up bright and early, I drove from my hotel to the race location - Lake Calhoun, a lovely lake on the edge of the city. Like many of the participants, I was a stranger to Minneapolis and took a while to park my car and walk to the starting line a mile away. By the time I got there at 8:40 am, the 10 kilometer race (two times around the lake) was just finishing. I registered for the 5 kilometer and began my stretches, while Oromo pop music played on the loudspeakers.

About half of the runners were Oromo. Some were locals from Minneapolis, but others were from Toronto, Washington D.C., Knoxville, and other cities of North America. They had been participating in the many events promoting Oromo solidarity that began with the Oromo Youth Leadership Conference on July 16th and ended with this race and the OSA conference. In addition to the many Oromo, there were people like me, who became sympathetic to the Oromo cause after making friends with them and learning about their history. For instance, standing next to me at the starting line was one woman whose job was to provide support services to political refugees and victims of torture from all over the world. In addition to all of these people, there were of course people who just liked to run races. The youngest runner was 15 years old, and the oldest was 76, and their ancestors came to the United States from the continents of Europe, Asia, and South America as well as Africa. Hopefully, these people learned a little about Oromo culture and politics too.

As I ran around the lake, I saw several runners wearing the OLF flag, and when I got to the finish line, I saw a crowd of people in traditional Oromo clothing cheering for me. They were cheering for everyone of course; the atmosphere was happy and positive. After I rested, drank some water, and chatted with some friends, I hurried back to my car because I did not want to be late for the Sunday morning sessions of the OSA conference. Unfortunately, this was not actually necessary, because unlike the race which began on time, the OSA conference began two hours behind schedule. As a result, I missed the award ceremony, when the race's primary sponsor Mike Abebe handed out the generous cash prizes to the winners.

For the women's 10K, Yimenashu Taye, Aziza Aliyu, and Alemsteshay Misganaio took first, second, and third place. For the men's, Mathew Chesang, Wegayehu Tefera, and Jason Lehimkukle.

For the women's 5K, Atalelech Ketema, Amy Lyons, and Emily Brown took first, second, and third. For the men's, Brad Lowery, Jason Lehimkukle, and Mathew Cheserg.

Distance races have become a common tool for charities and human rights organizations in America to raise awareness and money for their cause. The Run for Oromia was sponsored in part by Peace Coffee, a company that buys its coffee for a fair price directly from Oromo Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. I think the run achieved its goal to raise awareness and promote solidarity, and I hope it happens again next year, but in the future I urge Mr. Abebe to be more frugal and careful with his money - the prize money doesn't need to be that big and it doesn't need to be in cash. Something else for the Oliquaa Foundation to consider: many other human rights organizations cooperate with each other, because they've learned over the years that a coalition of several organizations can plan a bigger, better race and promote their causes more broadly than one organization by itself.

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