January 22, 2013 (Gulele Post) — Virginia Rose Luling was born in June 1939. Her father Peter was an artist and her mother was the novelist Sylvia Thompson, from whom she felt that she inherited her talent for writing. The youngest of three sisters, her wartime childhood was a time of uncertainty and many family moves but she was a happy child.
Virginia later followed her mother and grandmother to Somerville College, Oxford, where she read classics and Norse languages and found friendships that endured all her life. Her tutor while she was at Oxford was J.R.R. Tolkien, whose thought influenced her entire life, both intellectually and spiritually. She received her degree in English Language and Literature in 1957. Virginia went on to study Social Anthropology at London University and completed a Master’s Degree in 1965. Her thesis was on the Government and Social Control among peoples of the Horn of Africa, in particular the Oromo people. It was field research for her PhD that then took her to Somalia in 1966. She lived for three years in the village of Afghooye, an experience that shaped her future.
During the 1970’s she taught for the Open University and also volunteered locally for the newly formed Survival International, the organization that works for the rights of tribal peoples.
For the next 20 years she worked for Survival International, as editor of the Survival journal and then as Africa Cases Officer. During these years she travelled to and reported from a number of parts of Africa, often in remote areas, experiences she enjoyed very much and recorded in long and vivid letters home, as well as in her field reports.
After she retired from Survival in 2004 and at the time when many from certain Somali clans were fleeing to England to seek asylum, Virginia’s unique knowledge of local languages led to her being employed by the Home Office to interview those who needed to establish their claim to asylum. This work continued until shortly before her death. She also had many warm friendships with Somalis and Oromos, settled in London, and was very active in the work of the Oromo Relief Association.
Dr Virginia’s Work with the Oromo people
Dr Virginia developed an interest in the Oromo people when she studied the Gadaa system, their ancient democratic method of legal, moral and spiritual regulation of society, for her MA dissertation in the mid-1960s under the guidance of Dr Paul Baxter.
When the Oromo scholar, Dr Mohammed Hassen (now Associate Professor in the History Department of Georgia State University in Atlanta and author of numerous books and articles about Oromo history), came to the London School of Oriental and African Studies in 1977, Dr Virginia was one of the first to welcome him. She had just completed her PhD thesis based on fieldwork in Somalia and shared her work on Oromo and Somali society with him.
When Dr Mohammed established the Oromo Relief Association in 1982, while still in the UK, Dr Virginia was one of the founding members. She remained a stalwart supporter of ORA throughout her life, despite her promising academic career taking second place to caring for her two nieces following the early death of their mother, Dr Virginia’s younger sister.
It was she who introduced ORA to Health Unlimited, which sent health professionals to train Oromo health workers and midwives among refugee populations in Sudan and within areas of Oromia Region before and after the regime changed in 1991. Dr Virginia strengthened her association with Oromo society when she visited the region following the fall of the military dictatorship in that year.
She worked for Survival International and became Chair of the Oromo Relief Association, demonstrating her commitment to threatened peoples and refugees in both her professional and private life.
In April 2010, ORA were on the verge of insolvency. Dr Virginia, almost single-handedly, persuaded Oromo and their friends, and her own friends and family, to rescue ORA and commit to regular contributions to keep the organisation afloat in the future.; because of her leadership, the management committee is now able to envisage an expanding role for ORA again.
Dr Virginia has overseen ORA’s move to new premises in Caledonian Road in Kings Cross. She has formed good relationships between ORA and other organisations and charities.
As well as establishing ORA on a former financial footing, enabling it to fulfil its role in aiding Oromo refugees in their countries of exile in Africa, Dr Virginia has personally made considerable donations to funds assisting destitute and threatened refugees in Somaliland, in addition to maintaining ORA’s commitment to assisting refugees in Eritrea. Dr Virginia has invested her energy in the recent establishment of a secondary school education programme for teenage Oromo refugee girls in Nairobi. She has personally funded one of these students since her domestic circumstances changed last year.
Never one to withdraw from a challenge, Dr Virginia opposed injustice whenever confronted by it. She was a true friend and advocate for the Oromo people. She is loved and missed by all Oromo and their friends in the UK.
Virginia’s health had been deteriorating and in September 2012 she received a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. She accepted this news, saying the realityis what had been given to her. She set out to complete some writing projects and to put her affairs in order, as well as to connect with her many friends and colleagues.
She remained alert and interested until the end. In answer to her questions, doctors in London had told her she would probably live until Christmas, and she died very quietly an hour after the end of Christmas Twelfth Night, returning to the God in whom, she said, she had ‘decided to believe.’