Studying the modern Ethiopian state from the ground up
Oromo farmworkers and their children, summer 2022. (Photo: Galaan Hayle.)

Studying the modern Ethiopian state from the ground up

Galaan Hayle spent the summer of 2022 on a coffee farm about 70 to 80 miles outside of Addis Ababa, conducting research on coffee checkpoints.

with Galaan Hayle

The research of Galaan Hayle, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at UCLA, focuses on the social and cultural history of the modern Ethiopian state.

“My work explores the history of the [modern] Ethiopian Empire — and more generally, the history of colonialism in the Horn of Africa — through the prism of complex relations between the West, the Ethiopian Empire and the region’s indigenous farmers and pastoralists, whose produce continues to provide states in the region a crucial source of revenue and hard currency,” says Hayle.

“It’s very much a history from below, from the perspective of peasants and pastoralists.

“Last summer I spent some time doing research among Oromo coffee farmers in south and southwest Ethiopia. These coffee-producing regions and the larger Oromo nation were incorporated into the expanding Ethiopian Empire at the end of the 19th century. This was the heyday of the scramble for Africa.

“European colonial policy in the region provided the ideological and technological impetus for the colonization of indigenous nations, whose produce remains a critical source of export revenue for the Ethiopian state.

“To protect this valuable source of revenue, successive Ethiopian governments have maintained strict control over the production, distribution and movement of coffee from the farm to its eventual destination in the West.”

Hayle spent the summer of 2022 on a coffee farm about 70 to 80 miles outside of Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital, conducting research on the historic and contemporary role that checkpoints play in the production and distribution of coffee in the region. His research was supported in part by a Woldemussie Fellowship awarded by the UCLA African Studies Center.

While focusing on the long history of checkpoints, Hayle explores how European colonial policy engendered a colonial regime of exploitation, surplus extraction and state making. 


Road sign in Oromo coffee region. (Photo: Galaan Hayle.)

The focus of the doctoral student’s (mostly) ethnographic research was to better understand how the checkpoints function. “They are like customs checkpoints, but they are very militarized,” he says. “Checkpoints ensure that the state and its cronies are in charge of the complex value chain involving the production, washing, grading, packing and transporting of coffee from the farm to local, regional and international markets.

“For example, a pound of specialty coffee at the farm costs about $6 and is equivalent to the price of a medium latte at Starbucks,” explains Hayle. “This value chain, whose roots can be traced to European colonial policy and the formation of the Ethiopian empire, can tell us a whole lot about the larger dynamics of the colonial and post-colonial state in the region.

Coffee packed at an Oromo farm. (Photo: Galaan Hayle.) “One of the things that I discovered is that the contemporary discourse on fair trade, fair [value] chain and single-origin coffee, etc. , from the perspective of the farmers, has not improved their lot. In substantive terms, life in the village remains the same and whatever benefits the proponents of fair trade envisioned, [they] did not accrue to producers.”

Talking to farmers about coffee and checkpoints was tricky, says Hayle, “because you’re basically asking them to gossip about an authoritarian state. You have to learn to be very nuanced in conversation; most importantly, you have to be knowledgeable about what you can and cannot say. You have to stay around, observe, get to know people and learn all aspects of life on the coffee farm.”

Over the course of the summer, he discovered that many peasants in the region keep original state documents — the type of documents that he had been unable to find in state or university archives.

“Many of these documents were produced by the state, but I found them in the hands of the peasants themselves, not with the state. They have these little boxes in which they keep official documents… Most of them can’t read or write, but they can explain the context of the documents and recount when and how they received them.”

In fact, farmers were critical of his work as an historian. “The Oromo have a long tradition of what they call argadhageti, ‘what is seen and what is heard.’ These custodians of knowledge are thinkers as well as doers,” he remarks.

“In Oromo epistemology, there is no difference between doing and thinking, thinking and doing. They abhor the kind of research alienated from local needs and conditions; research should produce something actionable.”

Hayle believes that the emerging trend of community-supported agriculture (CSA), in which consumers and farmers form an equitable partnership, might bring greater benefits to farmers as well as consumers.

“I will likely write a grant proposal for a larger collaborative study to see whether this kind of model can actually be developed,” he explains. “This might help bridge the existing gap between knowledge as thinking and doing that my indigenous teachers taught me and the training I am receiving here at UCLA.”

Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2023