A Leopard Among the Bannas

HIS NAME MEANS LEOPARD, but after 50 years of ministry in southwestern Ethiopia, he would rather be known as “Mahari"—merciful. Now in his eighties, Mahay earns 300 birr (less than $40) a month as an itinerant evangelist in this hot and rugged land.

Ethiopia, one of the world’s oldest surviving kingdoms, is also one of its proudest. It holds the distinction of being the only African nation never to have been colonized (except briefly, during 1936–41, by Mussolini’s Italy; Liberia also escaped colonization but was founded in 1822 by Americans). Its heritage stretches from figures such as the Queen of Sheba, who visited Solomon and is said to have had a son by him, to Emperor Haile Selassie, whose League of Nations address in 1936 stands as one of the great moments in twentieth-century political rhetoric.

Ethiopia’s 440,000-square mile landscape is similarly mythic. The Semien mountains rise to 15,000 feet in the north, descending through hundreds of coffee plantations to rivers, waterfalls, and lakes, and stretching out into a blistering hot southern terrain that can scarcely be farmed.

In the extreme southwest, near the intersection of the Kenyan, Sudanese, and Ethiopian borders, is the Gamu Goffa region—home of the Bannas, a dangerous pagan people that became Mahay Choramo’s riskiest mission.

Wineskins old and new

Mahay lives in Soddo, a sprawling town halfway between the capital city of Addis Ababa and Gamu Goffa, smack in the middle of the Ethiopian highlands. He is elderly and tired but still active, having refused a comfortable retirement. Instead, he persists in his calling as an evangelist and mercy-worker. He knows that despite a burgeoning evangelical movement in southern Ethiopia, there is still great poverty, suffering, and spiritual need.

Ethiopia is a study in contrasting forms of Christian belief. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, since its founding in the fourth century, has represented the core of national culture. But the EOC’s membership is made up almost entirely of the elite Amhari-Tigrai class—a predominantly northern, more urban and educated people. Furthermore, EOC liturgy is set in the ancient language of Geez (geh-uz), and the only other language spoken is Amharic. The EOC is landlocked, as it were, in Amharic culture.

It is not surprising that the people in southern Ethiopia, such as the Bannas and the tribes that surround them, find themselves estranged from the EOC. While most non-Amharic Ethiopians are happy in their culture, the EOC has not made frontier missionary work a priority.

A second powerful factor in Ethiopian Christianity has been the New Churches Movement, initiated by the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) in 1928 when Haile Selassie himself invited non-Orthodox missions to work in southern Ethiopia. The diametric opposite of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, SIM’s values were aggressively evangelical, trans-cultural, and largely formed in North America. Its primary objective was to plant churches. Though SIM’s leaders tended to be white and foreign, their desire was to translate Scripture into non-Amharic tongues, so they could draw closer to the people of rural Ethiopia than could the national church.

Birth of a passion

Mahay was born in the early 1920s in Kucha, a short distance from his current home. When he was a child, SIM evangelists visited his town and proclaimed God’s love for all people of every culture. Such a radical experience was this for Mahay that he chose to throw over his pagan belief system in favor of a simple message: man is sinful, but God offers forgiveness freely through Christ.

That message translated into a powerful fixation in Mahay. Soon after his conversion, he learned Amharic well enough to read the Bible and translate portions of it for people around Soddo. He began to pray fervently and regularly. In cooperation with SIM missionaries and the church they inspired—the Wolaitta Kale Heywat Church (WKHC)—Mahay worked for the poor of the Wolaitta region in southern Ethiopia, bringing them food and supplies. He extended his ministry to Kaffe, supporting himself with farming coffee (which he loved) and selling salt.

Mahay endured regular government opposition, which was especially heavy during the 1940s and 1950s. Even though Haile Selassie had officially welcomed non-Orthodox missionaries, Ethiopian society did not welcome them. Mahay would appear before government officials with his Bible in hand, claiming it as his sole defense. Often he spent time in jail.

Nomad’s land

In the 1970s, Mahay and his SIM friends engaged their toughest challenge—to reach into Ethiopia’s deep southwest, the region of Gamu Goffa. It is home to the Bannas, nomadic herdsmen all but unreached by modernization.

Hardships are many in Gamu Goffa. The land is dusty and hot except for a few months when monsoons overflow every gully with rain. Agricultural life is not a viable option, and even managing livestock isn’t easy. There are also cultural hardships—most Gamu Goffa tribes have little respect for human life. Children considered “cursed” can be killed or aborted immediately. Men, warriors with mud—packed hair, can raid and slaughter neighboring tribes for seemingly inconsequential reasons. Women wear up to 100 pounds of bracelets on their arms and neck, a permanent fixture of their anatomy. Outsiders are rarely welcome.

The evangelical move into Banna territory began in 1969 with SIM missionaries Charlie and Marion Bonk, who built a school and a clinic. SIM had already started successful Christian movements among nearby tribes, the Aras and the Malis, so there was hope that God would work in the harder and more violent Bannas, too. Indigenous Ara and Mali evangelists promised to help SIM communicate the gospel to the Bannas.

Mahay, his wife Balynish Dooballa, and their children all allied themselves with the Bonks in 1970, building a home several hours’ journey south. Their approach was a little different from the traditional SIM method of building modern facilities and bringing in supplies by helicopter. Mahay built a home in the Banna style, a round dwelling with walls of dried mud, sealed in clay, and a thatched grass roof. In such a typical home, there are no partitions, the cooking is done over a wood—burning fire, and livestock often share living space with humans. Such an arrangement is not without its conveniences: milk can be obtained on demand from a cow’s udder, and so can highly nourishing blood from an opened vein in its neck.

Mahay recalls the early days among the Bannas: “Sometimes they would get angry with us because we did things which offended them, especially in the early days when we did not know any of their language. Then we would talk to them through an interpreter and become friends again. We learned to eat their food with them and to drink milk with them. . . . We became friends.”

Piercing the darkness

Within a few years there were more than 40 other Christians living with Mahay and his family among the Bannas. One of them was Petros, an Ara tribesman who had been converted years earlier. He had gone to Bible school in Addis Ababa, married, and became an evangelist himself. In November 1973, Petros was speared through the abdomen by a Banna warrior, his neck slashed, and medical supplies stolen from his corpse. The fledgling Christian community went into shock. The Banna celebration that followed added insult, and a new sense of the radical nature of reaching across cultural barriers.

But Mahay and the others stayed, and the Bannas’ resistance slowly softened. Several professed Christ, and many others came to rely upon SIM medical assistance, food, and supplies.

Perhaps the most encouraging moment of this several-year saga, at least for Mahay, was the return of a Banna prodigal named Gursho. Gursho had murdered a fellow tribesmen 17 years previously and been sentenced to a lengthy term in prison. There, Christian inmates had led him to Christ, and he had devoted himself to learning Scripture and even Amharic. When Gursho returned, he immediately latched onto Mahay and became his right-hand man. In fact, he literally became Mahay’s next-door neighbor.

Thirty years later, Mahay is still going strong. A survey taken in 1991 showed that the evangelical movement as a whole had reached 14 percent of the total population, thanks largely to the Kale Heywat Church (the name means “Word of life") and its zealous evangelists.

Missionary Doug Stinson describes Mahay Choramo in June, 2003 as “an 81-year old evangelist [who] sports a baseball cap and several days’ stubble of beard. His shoulders are slumped and one hand rests on the dashboard. He dozes as we travel the rough road. He is going to fetch a blind boy to enroll in the School for the Blind in Wolaitta, Mahay’s home area. He says he would have walked the two-day journey to get the boy if I hadn’t been going.”

Mahay Choramo, a small part of the Wolaitta evangelical movement, is also a large part of the advancement of God’s kingdom on the frontiers of southern Ethiopia. CH

By Aaron Belz

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #79 in 2003]

Aaron Belz is a freelance writer and a doctoral student at Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, Missouri.
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