Olisarali Olibui, Tesfahun Haddis, Shauna LaTosky, Alexandra Genova, Ben Young

South Omo Theatre Company

This collaborative project between researchers and creative artists is using performance and theatre to explore and imagine what political representation and integration of ethnic groups in Ethiopia might look like against the backdrop of radical reforms and government commitment to indigenous theatre. The project focuses on the Mursi (hereafter Mun, or Muni, sing., a self-designation), a group in the peripheral areas of Southern Ethiopia who have never had a Member of Parliament in the House of Peoples’ Representatives and remain excluded from local, regional and national politics.

Olisarali is a Mun leader who travelled to Australia to learn English. He returned with a video camera which he used to portray Mun life and culture. ‘Shooting with Mursi’, produced by Ben, has become a historical record of a moment of change for the Mun. Following this, Olisarali became interested in art as a mechanism for advocating for reduced inequalities and marginalisation of the Mun.

Olisarali participated in an intensive theatre training workshop, organised by Wolkite University and the South Omo Theatre Company, which became a milestone in his theatre training and where he experimented with song and storytelling as a medium for teaching others about his culture and people. Alexandra reflected on the university’s theatre course as a catalyst for positive socio-political change and bridging ethnic tension in an article for the Guardian newspaper.

100th anniversary of Modern Ethiopian Theatre

Olisarali is now working with Tesfahun to script and stage a play written in the Mun language, and performed by Mun people, at the national theatre in Addis Ababa. The aim is to bring greater awareness about Mun to Ethiopian people more generally, and to influence and change opinions amongst policy-makers towards the inclusion in national politics of all South Omo region’s ethnic groups. The play is informed by interviews and group discussions conducted by the team in Mursi, Addis, and Wolkite about the ways in which the Mun achieve and maintain effective governance, and why and how they believe these are changing both within the community and through external pressures. South Omo Theatre is an official partner of 100th Anniversary of Ethiopian Modern Theatre, which is staging 50 theatre shows in 7 days across the capital in 2021, and a partner of the Ethiopian Theatre Professionals Association.

This coalition plans to create a new partnership with GRNPP in SOAS  and Meron Tesfaye, at Wolkite University, to perform the play, document the process with film and ethnography, and enhance policy-makers’ understand of (a) the situation of the Mursi, (b) the value of indigenous theatre in political debates, (c) decolonising international partnerships.

 

The team are also currently working on two academic articles. The first, ‘Performing DongaGender, Aesthetics and Theatre in Mun (Mursi)’ by Shauna LaTosky and Olisarali Olibui, will be a chapter in a book. It is about how Donga, a ritualized form of dueling practiced by the Mun of southwest Ethiopia, is not only a competitive sport, but a ritual performance through which the tensions, predicaments and conflicts of society are confronted and resolved. As articulated in the anthropological literaturedonga contests constitute a socio-political mechanism that promotes societal stability and prevents the disintegration of social relations (Turton 2002). In this essay we offer a view that expands on explanations of donga in socio-political terms by looking closer at reconciliation and other meaningful aspects of donga through an analysis of its gendered and aesthetic value. The paper also focuses on how donga has recently come into direct dialogue with the contemporary events unfolding in South Omo through the first-ever Mun-authored theatre script about dongaWe argue that, more than ever before in their history, donga has become a central metaphor for the predicaments of Mun, as both the performative practice of donga and the principles it stands for – the protection of rights and societal unity – are being compromised, in particular by political and popular media rhetoric. 

The second article, ‘Indigenous theatre as a pathway to cultural heritage rights in Southern Ethiopia’ by Shauna LaTosky, Tesfahun Haddis, Olisarali Olibui and Asteway Mellese, will be submitted to a journal. This paper provides a pathway into the potential that indigenous theatre can offer performance practitioners and theatre scholars in Southern Ethiopia and beyond. We ask how does indigenous theatre allow for a better understanding of inequalities in theatre studies in Southern EthiopiaWe also ask how indigenous theatre can help us (and to a certain extent, demand from us to) recognize the generative potential of such performances, especially in relation to the assertion of rights to cultural heritage? Drawing our attention to the first Mun-authored performance, “Tirainya ko Koisani” (Playing the Mediator), we offer insights into the past, present and future of indigenous theatre in Southern Ethiopia, and suggest indigenous methodologies as a corrective for addressing inequities in Ethiopian theatre, but also for facilitating accountability in historical, political, ethnographic and practical ways in the future.

 

About the team

Olisarali Olibui is an agro-pastoralist from South Omo, and a member of the Mun ethnic group. He is an award-winning documentary-maker, whose film ‘Shooting with the Mursi’ provides the context for this new project imagining what political inclusion of the Mun might look like. Olisarali has an avid interest in sharing Mun indigenous knowledge with others, and has also translated school books, cultural books, and veterinary and clinical books into the Mun language.

Alexandra Genova is an independent journalist and filmmaker who has worked for platforms including the Guardian, Al Jazeera, National Geographic, NYT, and broadcast channels like ITN, ITV and Channel 4. She has also worked on assignment with Magnum photographers including Martin Parr and reported around the world from Ghana to Ethiopia. Alexandra has a Masters’ degree in magazine journalism and has a particular interest in social and racial justice, agriculture and food, and indigenous peoples.

Tesfahun Haddis, a filmmaker, theatre practitioner, and lecturer of Theatre Studies from Mekelle university. He studied Master of Arts in Theatre and Development at Addis Ababa University. He has written and directed several plays in Ethiopia and has worked as director and cameraman for four ethnographic films, which are selected and screened in different international film festivals. Olisarali and Tesfahun combine their efforts with the host organization, South Omo Theatre Company, whose broader set of aims includes promoting indigenous performance, participation, and integration into Ethiopia’s theatre scene by producing research-based creative outputs designed to positively impact Mun political inclusion.

Shauna LaTosky is a cultural anthropologist who has been working with the Mursi intermittently since 2003. She has substantial field experience and knowledge of the Mursi people, culture and language. Her publications include, for example, Predicaments of Mun (Mursi) Women in Ethiopia’s Changing World (2013)‘Customary land use and local consent practices in Mun (Mursi): A new call for meaningful FPIC standards in Southern Ethiopia’ (2021) and ‘The Social Role of Purging in Mun (Mursi)’ (2021). 

Asteway Mellese is an experienced lecturer in Theatre Studies in Ethiopia, with an MA in Theatre and Development. He has worked as an independent journalist, producing and broadcasting biweekly infotainment radio shows in local and national radio stations. Since 2014, Asteway has successfully organised many national and international academic and theatrical events.

Meron Tesfaye has been a lecturer at Wolkite University for the last 8 years. She is working in the Theatre Arts department with BA degree in Theatre and Masters degree in English Language and Literature. She has undertaken numerous research projects and managed community services in Southern Ethiopia, which mainly focus on theatre, language and culture.

Ben Young is an award-winning filmmaker, editor and sound designer who received an International Emmy nomination for his work on a documentary about young actors with Downs Syndrome. He has directed, filmed, and edited several broadcast documentaries about remote and marginalised peoples for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel; and in the 1980s and 1990s he worked in music production across Europe. Ben’s affiliation with Olisarali dates back to their discussions and shared interest in representing threatened indigenous communities through film.