Understanding the Gadaa System

Structural Aspects

Our starting point is to deal with GADA as a system structurally. Then we will look at its organization in historical context and in relation to material conditions. This will help us to take a new look at functions or dimensions of GADA that are usually labeled according to Western scholarly categories “political,” “social,” “economic,” “ritual,” etc. Also this way we can discuss how the system might have worked before colonial conquerors.

We have decided to approach GADA in terms of its overall rationale or logic and not as much in terms of mere descriptions of its component parts. Among most studies of GADA too much attention to recent amendments, adjustments and local variation has blurred the underlying logic of the nationwide system. Once this logic is grasped, and the principal features put in perspective, the search for details takes on new meaning.

In the most general sense, to discuss GADA as a system is simply to see it as an arrangement of interacting parts. Understanding any one part requires relating it to the whole – that is, knowing how the overall system is fitted together. GADA is (1) an arrangement of social categories usually called grades, (2) ‘an arrangement of men into groups usually called parties, “sets,” “classes,” (3) an arrangement of tasks or work to be performed, and (4) an arrangement of ideas, principles, and rules.

Oromo public life was administered through the GADA system. Each man born or adopted by Oromo parents was automatically placed for life into a ready-made pattern of positions and moved through it performing various services for the public good and also receiving certain privileges. Only after a man together with his group or party had passed through a series of four eight year-grades or periods and entered the fifth grade, could his party act to change or amend the system in any way. Following eight years in the grade of formal power all men retired from public service and entered into a purely advisory role. All positions were given or bestowed by the society as a whole and not earned by some kind of individual achievement.

An important distinction in GADA is between (1) groups of men who move through a series of stages and (2) the stages or periods themselves. We prefer to refer to the groups of men as parties, although other writers have used the terms “classes” or “age-sets.” The Oromo word is misenssa or gogesa. And we will use the term grade for the stages (or categories, or eight- year-long periods) through which all parties must pass. So the men are divided into parties and the time is divided into grades. The parties are always named, although the names are sometimes reported differently. For purposes of discussion we will use the five party names most commonly found:

  1. Birinaji
  2. Horata
  3. Bichile
  4. Duulo
  5. Robale

A man and all of his brothers are in the same party, for example, Birmaji, regardless of the differences in their ages. Together they move through the hierarchy of grades, a complete GADA cycle of forty years behind their father. As sons are born to a man, they are held back and do not enter into active participation in the GADA system until their father retires. For example, if a man is Birmaji, his sons are initiated into the first grade of GADA, when he finishes the fifth grade. If a man continues to have children until he is very old, those sons will enter GADA and move through with their older brothers, even if they enter at the middle of the cycle as infants. The grades, or eight year periods through which parties pass are named:

No Gadaa Grade Number of Yeares in the Gadaa System Number of years(Expected age of individuals)
I Iti Mako 0 – 8 8 – 16
II Daballe 8 – 16 16 – 24
III Folle 18 – 24 24 – 32
III Qondala 24 – 32 32 -40
IV Luba 32 – 40 40 – 48

The first column shows the amount of time the individuals as members of a party have spent in the graded system. The second column shows the ages of individuals in those grades. If the system worked like a computer and all men had all their children while they were V. Luba, i.e. 40-48 years old, by the time the fathers were ready to retire, some of their children would be eight years old and others as young as infants. All those children would enter together as Iti Mako, and remain Iti Mako for eight years. When they finished that grade some would be as old as sixteen, others as young as eight, but all would be the same GADA age. Their social age or number of years in GADA would be same as their biological age only if they were born on the very day of their father’s retirement. But since people are not machines, the ages of men in each grade varies widely depending on how old their fathers were and their grandfathers when each had sons. Adjustments have been made by adoption and by amendment to keep the greatest number, of able-bodied men into the grades that require the maximum of physical strength to meet the needs of the nation, e.g. for herding livestock and military activities. Technically, however, GADA is not an age-grade system per se as many call it. It is a generation grade or a generation set system.

Let us look at the cycle at a given time, for example when the Robale party is in the LUBA grade (see Figure I), to show how the grade and party are related. Each of the other active parties holds a specific grade; at that time the Dulo party is Qondala, the Bichiles are FOLLE, Horata is in DABALLE, and the Birmajis have just started in GADA as ITI MAKO. It is the nature of this system to force the parties into new grades every eight years when the party acting as LUBA retires. When Robale retires, therefore, the Birmaji party becomes DABALLE, Horata becomes FOLLE, Bichile moves into QONDALA and the DULOS take formal power as LUBA. The sons of the Robale party enter Iti Mako thus pushing the others forward (see Figure 2). Figure 3 shows the full cycle in operation.

Five parties operated at one time in a forty-year cycle. Each group/party was assigned by the rules of GADA to take on specific responsibilities and to engage in certain kinds of work for the collectivity during the eight years that the members held each grade. The scale of grades stood also for a hierarchy in social positions. By the end of his life every man in GADA had held every major position in the system. The requirements of each grade increased in importance and public responsibility up through the final active period, LUBA which obliged the party to govern the nation for eight years. After performance in public office all men of the party were automatically retired or made YUBA celebrated as a Chaffe of completion called gadamaji. It was at this point that sons took the name of the fathers’ and/or grandfathers’ party. 






The GADA system is the complete sequence of stages, the division of men into parties and the responsibilities to be assumed by each group as they moved into position. It was knitted together by a highly developed political philosophy, a series of legal sanctions, or educational apparatus, and a ritual/ceremonial tradition. GADA organized the entire social order, at least those aspects attributed to males. Over time it has accumulated a great deal of rich and complex detail. Despite its uniqueness and complexity, the fundamentals of the system are easy to grasp. Additional in-depth study of GADA should not lose sight of the functioning whole by focusing on one part alone.

Organizational Aspects

To understand the associational logic of the GADA system, it helps to consider its development within specific historical conditions. Very little attention has been paid to the relationship between Oromo social organization and the physical/material environment in which the society developed, mainly because hardly any information is available through written sources, and much of what there is open to suspicion. Despite obstacles, however, it is possible to decipher a logic of Oromo economy and society gleaned from clues in the written and oral record and from new research. Works-in-progress recently presented at a Cambridge workshop (1979) as well as work by Lewis (1966) and Baxter (1978) indicate that Oromos have been involved in both agriculture and herding from their earliest beginnings around Hora Wollabo. Linguistic evidence shows that the words for oats (garbu) and for sycamore trees (oda, the trees where GADA officers gather before Chaffe meetings) are terms as old as the Oromo themselves. Both of these plants thrive in rolling hills that support both agriculture and livestock raising. It appears therefore, that GADA has functioned in Oromo society through a range of productive activities including herding, farming, trading and working for wages. The oldest written accounts of GADA (Bahrey 1954, original 1593-1646) prove that GADA has changed very little in its ideal form from the 15th century to the present. This seems to show that GADA has not only adapted to basic shifts in the productive forces, but that it has also been a shaper of Oromo history. It has been a product and a producer of history. Perhaps this is so because GADA was never a system of ownership, but rather a system of distribution and utilization of the national productive forces.

GADA through history came to organize social life around the series of five generation grades which assign obligations as well as rights to all the males in the society. Females were linked through men. Among other functions, the separation of men into grades is a division of labor. Each man as part of a permanent group, the party, contributes his labor power in different capacities to the society as a whole and is prevented (or discouraged) from settling permanently until he has completed the cycle. The grades were also periods of initiation and training as well as periods of work and performance.

The youngest grade, Iti-Mako are messengers as well as looking after calves and doing errands close to home. Daballe bore a large responsibility in herding, in locating new trading opportunities, in making significant decisions on their own about where to move and how to safeguard one of the society’s major resources, the livestock. Folle were the warriors, able-bodied men available for protecting the local community and in joining together to expelling common national enemy from Oromo territory. They organized themselves into military batallions, elected a leader from their ranks-Abba Dula, lived in camps separate from the rest of the people, and more than any other grade put their physical power at the disposal of the nation.

Actually, the whole society relied considerably on the labor of these three younger grades. By design they were prevented from marrying at these stages which enabled them to move around as necessary without any hindrance, and prevented them from accumulating wealth.

The next grade, Qondala, was a transition grade. They acted as a reserve army ready to assist the folle militarily when the national boundaries were threatened. During this time they put a great emphasis on proving themselves with acts of skill and bravery. Also, however, they began to settle, to intensify their learning of the laws and principles of administration, to marry and to select their officials.

Luba was the ruling grade. During the eight years that a party was Luba, its members held all political authority, elected representatives to attend a national covention called Chaffe where the laws of the land were amended by the vote of tens of thousands of Lubas and where officers were selected to administer the nation in a wide variety of capacities. A chairman or chief executive, the HAYYU* was elected along with others whose positions and titles show remarkable similarity to other representative democratic systems. The legislative assembly or convention Chaffe, was run by Abba Chaffe (father of the convention), the Abba Dubbi (a herald or speaker) , the Abba Seera (parliamentarian/historian) . The Executive branch or officers nominated by HAYYU* consisted of positions similar to cabinet officers or ministers e.g. Abba Alange (attorney general) , Abba Saa minister of finance) , Dori and Raba (vice-chairmen) etc. Judicial matters were dealt with by the HAYYU* , Raba and Dori acting as judges assisted by a jury of nine chosen by the plaintiff and defendant.4

In their own local areas, Luba members as a group, were responsible for maintaining peace, nagaa. (Oromos define peace not as the absence of war but as a proper relationship within the localities/and with God, Waqa.) They settled disputes among groups and individuals and apply the laws dealing with the distribution of goods, criminal fines and punishment, protection of property, theft, etc. The principles of GADA that the LUBA were obliged to learn and uphold were not mere philosophizing, but clear-cut criteria and standards for deciding what was right and wrong, where the resources should rightly go, and who was a criminal and should be punished according to the GADA-”akka gada ti. ” LUBA were the diplomats, the arbitrators, the councilors. Every clan and every locality had members in LUBA at all times. These LUBAs continued to perform public service wherever they were throughout the eight years in power. They had reached the highest point of obligation and recognition. GADA was kept together primarily by movement of people and commodities. Throughout the eight-year cycle and through the annual cycle, actual practice required mobilizing labor, livestock and products, and then redistributing them through the society. A major economic function of GADA was distributing resources by establishing who had to help whom, when, and why. By settling conflicts between families over goods and by making laws, the LUBAs did not attain personal or group power. They were making decisions about how products should circulate. Dynasties could not be set up ideally; the system prevented them because a father and son could not be in the GADA at the same time.

Following LUBA, men automatically were retired from GADA and moved into an advisory role as YUBA. There they received a great deal of respect as wise experienced authorities and repositories of law, but their decision was no longer law as it had been. They turned the bulk of their attention to private family business or religious activity while their sons entered GADA, the public service.

The formal aspects of GADA as observed and recorded do not focus on the activities of women. The major strategic problem solved by GADA is managing of male activities and the products they are responsible for. Yet men move around settlements occupied by women, who manage most of the stationary resources. Women through history have managed a large and constant portion of the economic activity of Oromo society. The male orientation of all existing studies of GADA prevents a thorough understanding of how women’s activity is organized internally and how it is linked to the public life of men in GADA. A genuine and useful analysis of GADA has to grasp the objective realities and not try to lay down the law to reality based on illusion.

By looking at GADA in its historical context, we see that its general characteristics have remained the same: it operated as a nationwide system for organizing and coordinating a large population of people over a huge territory and for regulating their activities according to democratic principles. Viewed in this way, GADA is seen as flexible rather than unstable (as some have called it); rather than being disorganized, it is decentralized. By not looking at the system in its historical development or linking it with its material base observers intentionally or unintentionally introduce a serious error. Oromos must stop historical lies from becoming theoretical faults.

Summary and Conclusions

We have looked at GADA as a system, a unity of interacting parts. It organized the social order by dividing men into groups and providing a blueprint which specified:

  1. an arrangement of categories (grades) into which all men were placed
  2. the relationships among people in different grades
  3. the rules for behavior, the rights, and the tasks to be performed by the men in each grade
  4. the process by which groups (parties) moved from grade to grade.

The dynamic of the GADA system was the constant movement of men through the cycle.

Through GADA, many socio-political functions were carried out. For example, the system operated as an educational institution by providing periods of training and skill development in each grade and by casting all those YUBA [who had finished the cycle] in the role of teachers and advisors. The system operated as a judicial institution by assigning a Chief Justice, jurors at the national level and making all LUBA wherever they were into arbitrators and councilors ready to defend the national law. And so on. The GADA structure was multi- functional.

The ritual aspect is all that remains visible in the current political environment. GADA has been reduced to ritual. Some writers have assumed that ritual is the key to the entire GADA system. This is wrong. Ritual in GADA was an inauguration into power, or a transfer between grades. The inauguration ceremonies continue to be held despite the stripping away of political power of those in GADA. Focusing on ritual blows it out of all proportion in relation to the whole. As with any system, taking it part by part and analyzing those parts misses the essence of the society. Keeping a clear view of the whole in its historical context and in relation to its material conditions is the challenge before Oromos now.

Many aspects of GADA have found some limited expression in current Oromo social life-the resistance to hierarchical relationships, the circulation of labor through mutual aid groups locally organized, the association of men as age-mates and equals in any formal or informal group, the assessment of wealth in terms of cattle, common psychological traits (open direct action, independence, cooperation, and self-reliance) and openness and fairness in residence choice, agricultural cooperation, mutual aid and especially in conflict resolution. At the cultural level Oromos share a community of belief. The local-level democratic principles imbedded in GADA are expressed in custom, daily practice, even in the very language Oromos use to describe and evaluate the world. Oromo men, who are now uniformly placed in the position of peasants paying tribute (tax) to a state power in which they have no say, constantly judge the situation they are in against the standards of GADA. The concepts of democracy and participation in government are not new to the Oromos. They refer to the era of GADA when governments were changed democratically and peacefully, when political power was separated from wealth, when food did not lie in storage while some starved, and when working together in generation grades created equality in rank among men.


  1. Descriptions of some parts of GADA can be found in varying degrees of comprehensiveness in Prins (1953) Almeida (1954) , Bahrey (1954) , Baxter (1954), Huntingford (1955), Haberland (1965) , Knutsson (1967) , Legesse (1963, 1973) , and in Baxter and Almagor, eds. (1978).
  2. See Beckingham and Huntingford (1954) for a summary of the literature on some of the names of parties.
  3. Those who expect to find all men in the same grade to be of exactly the same age, for example, expect all Folle to be between 24 and 32 are often confused and declare that the system does not function properly. That approach uses the wrong assumptions. Men of the same biolo ical age are age-mates, hiriyya, a c ass- ification that is separate from the GADA system.
  4. See Knutsson (1967:172ff.) for details about public administration.
  • Almeid Manoel de, 1954 “History of High Ethiopia or Abassia,” In C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, (eds.) Some Records of Ethiopia 159 3-1646. London: Hakluyt Society.
  • “History ofthe Galla,” In C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, (eds and trans.) , Some Records of Ethiopia 1593-1646. London: Hakluyt Society,
  • Baxter, P.T.W. 1954 Social Organization of the Boran of Northern Kenya. London. Baxter, 1978 P.T.W. Age, Generation, and Time: Some Features of East African Age Organizations. New York: St. Martins Press.
  • Beckingham, C.F. and G.W.B. Huntingford 1954 (eds. and trans.) Some Records of Ethiopia 1593-1646, London: Hakluyt Society. Cambridge1979 African Studies Centre Society and History in Ethiopia the Southern Periphery. Workshop proceedings forthcoming.
  • Haberland, Eike 1963 Galla Sud-Athiopiens, Stuttgart: Huntingford, G.W.B. 1955 The Galla of Ethiopia. London: Watson and Viney.
  • Knutsson, Karl Erik 1967 Authority and Change: A Study of the Kallu Institution Among the Macha Galla of Ethiopia. Goteborg: Etnografiska Museet #29.
  • Legesse, Asmarom 1963 “Class Systems Based on Time,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 1:1-19, 1973 GADA: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society. New York: The Free Press.
  • Prins, A.H.J. 1953 East African Age-Class Systems: An Inquiry into the Social Order of Galla, Kipsiris, and Kikuyu. Groningon, Djakarta: J.B. Walters.

Source: gumii.org

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