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Breaking new ground

Conflict resolution in Ethiopian Indigenous communities focus of award-winning doctoral dissertation

By Marcia Porter

Ethiopia is home to the Arsi Oromo peoples, who live mainly in rural communities raising animals and farming.

In the Indigenous community’s rich and vibrant culture, women sing a unique, musical form of conflict resolution called ateetee. 

The process involves married women who have been abused in any way to travel to their offenders’ homes to sing and negotiate until resolution and reconciliation are achieved.

It’s such an important tradition for Arsi women’s rights and justice that Memorial alumna Dr. Leila Qashu made it the subject of her award-winning PhD dissertation, named best in Canada for 2017 by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies.

The national association singled out her dissertation for “breaking new ground” and bringing to light a form of justice that has national and international applications.

Singing for justice

“By singing through a restorative justice process, ateetee allows women to achieve results and effect change directly, rather than only demonstrate resistance,” said Dr. Qashu, Memorial’s first graduate student to receive the association’s Distinguished Dissertation Award for Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The ritual is exceptional.”

Dr. Qashu graduated this past spring from Memorial’s ethnomusicology program housed through the Research Centre for Music, Materials and Place (MMaP) in the School of Music.

“I never thought I would win since I was in competition with social science, humanities and fine arts graduates across the country. I know there are many excellent PhD projects out there,” said Dr. Qashu, who has spent 15 years researching the juxtaposition between Ethiopia’s legal system and the Arsi Oromo’s ateetee.

Arsi Oromo awareness

Dr. Qashu says she is most excited about the exposure the award will give her work and her interdisciplinary ideas on the arts, Indigenous women’s rights, justice and spirituality.

“Even more importantly, I also hope this will raise awareness about Arsi Oromo women and communities I have been working with.”

And although the African communities are thousands of miles from Newfoundland and Labrador in distance and cultural context, St. John’s turned out to be an ideal location for Dr. Qashu to explore and develop ideas that helped to shape her research and winning dissertation, she says.

She first heard about Memorial’s strong ethnomusicology program through a mentor while working on a UNESCO ethnomusicology project in Ethiopia. Accepted into PhD programs at a number of institutions, Dr. Qashu ultimately chose Memorial because of the School of Music’s Dr. Beverley Diamond, professor emeritus, and Dr. Kati Szego, professor of ethnomusicology, who later became her co-supervisors, and because of the interdisciplinary connection between the school and the Department of Folklore.

A full experience

While a doctoral student, Dr. Qashu immersed herself in life on campus and in the broader community of St. John’s, playing viola in the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and in several School of Music ensembles.

She reached out to volunteer with the multicultural women’s community and with organizations like the Refugee Immigrant Advisory Council and the Association for New Canadians. She assisted in the organization of the local Tombolo Multicultural Festival.

“They asked me to tell their stories.” — Dr. Leila Qashu

“I became involved locally in different ways that resonated with the broader social justice and women’s rights work that I did for my dissertation,” she said.

She got involved in similar ways in Ethiopia over the years. She got to know people in different Arsi Oromo communities and spent time with women and families there.

“I often heard women talk about their daily lives and the challenges and struggles they faced, yet observed how they managed to continue their lives with optimism, strength, and strong spirit,” she said.

“Women told me stories about the ateetee ceremonies, sang the prayers and demonstrated the ritual. They asked me to tell their stories.”

‘Listening and understanding’

Now at Concordia University in Montréal, Que., Dr. Qashu is continuing her work and is putting together a documentary on the practice of ateetee.

“I think this work brings awareness on listening and understanding local mechanisms for rights and social justice. It is really necessary to listen to and understand the voices, perspectives and stories from the ground up.”

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