Finding a forbidden language

Toltu Tufa prints children’s books in Oromo, a language once forbidden in Ethiopia.

As a child growing up in Australia, Toltu Tufa’s father made sure she learnt Oromo, a macro language spoken in parts of Ethopia.

Yet when she was asked to help teach other children, she realised there were no books or learning resources printed in Oromo at all.

Despite being the fourth most widely spoken language in Africa, it is spoken predominantly in Ethiopia, and was outlawed under the dictatorship of Haile Selassie.

“Speaking the language attracted a prison sentence, and publishing in the language would have attracted the death penalty,” said Toltu.

“Many people ended up escaping, leaving Ethiopia, and since the ban was lifted in 1991, there has been a real focus on literature for adults and trying to reclaim history, but there hasn’t been a focus on children.”

She launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $50,000 to print several children’s books, and raised $120,000 in six weeks. Demand came not just from Australia, but from every continent.

“It’s mainly refugee communities, people who have escaped persecution and made a home in another country and are trying to maintain the language. Passing on that language becomes very important to those families, particularly the parents.”

Toltu flew around the world to communities that had supported the appeal, to get their feedback on her ideas, and make sure she was on the right track.

“These are African children and it was very important that they see pictures and reflections of themselves in literature that’s about them,” she said.

“I wanted to preserve a culture and recognise that everyone has their own story. I involved people in developing the content, and I went and thanked them personally and brought them the books and the materials, and so people really felt a personal connection and they were really excited, that’s how it spread even more.

“Refugee communities in Kenya and in Egypt contacted me and said we have no money because we are refugees, but we would like to pool some money together and hold a big party to raise awareness, and I’ll never forget that they had 500 people turn up to that event.”

Toltu Tufa is completing a Master of Professional Psychology at ACU.

Find out more about studying psychology and counselling at ACU.