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A Leopard Among the Bannas
Mahay Choramo faced down hardship and violent opposition to the murderous nomads of Ethiopia's southern frontier.
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.
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.
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