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Christian History Home > 2003 > Issue 79 > A Leopard Among the Bannas

A Leopard Among the Bannas
Mahay Choramo faced down hardship and violent opposition to the murderous nomads of Ethiopia's southern frontier.
Aaron Belz | posted 7/01/2003 12:00AM

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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.

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