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Esa Lalé
c. 1880 to c. 1925
Traditional religionist
Ethiopia

Esa Lalé (the one who releases to freedom) [1] was born c. 1880 in the district of Zara, Gämo awraja. His father was from the prestigious Gola Malla clan, not from the sharechewa or qalicha clans. [2] Oral information indicates that Esa launched his popular ministry around 1920 within his home community of Zara, near Chäncha from whence it rapidly spread to the Omotic-speaking people of Gämo, Qucha, Boroda, Gofa and Wolaitta. [3] Esa traveled with his assistant, Mera, on preaching excursions to various areas within southern Ethiopia. [4] Wolaitta elders, Dana Mäja, Täntu Bädécho, and Täsäma Täntu confirmed that Esa did not frequent Wolaitta very often--maybe two or three times at most, but many Wolaitta went to hear him in his district of Zara in Gämo awraja. [5] There is evidence that Esa's companion, Mera, traveled alone from his home base to bring Esa's teaching to distant communities within the Omotic language group. Esa was arrested at his Zara home by Däjazmach Habtä Giorgis, Gämo provincial governor of Chäncha in 1924 and was escorted to imprisonment in Addis Ababa by several armed foot soldiers. Esa eventually died in prison incognito. When the Wolaitta were asked, "Why was Esa arrested by the northern officials and marched off to Addis Ababa?" they answered, "Esa prophesied that the Amhara would one day be driven from the South and the land once again be given back to us." [6] This may be the reason his Amhara accusers determined that he was a disturber of the peace. It was feared that his preaching might incite the local population to rise up against the Northerners. On the way to Addis Ababa, the soldiers with their prisoner Esa, stopped at the Gulgula market, sixteen kilometers south of Soddo, to rest and replenish their supplies. Dana Mäja, residing at Wanché near the Gulgula market, along with hundreds of other Wolaitta, went to hear Esa. Dana Mäja recalled:
I remember very clearly what Esa wore and what he looked like. He did not wear trousers, rather had a long white cotton cloth thrown over him similar to what the Gämo people wear. He was a tall man and had his hair cut short, it was not long and unkempt as the qalicha or sharechewa were prone to wear theirs. [7]
Not much more than this is known in terms of biographical data about Esa Lalé. Michael Singleton noted in 1978 that written data about Esa was both "scanty and slanted. Further research is imperative before the last remaining oral witnesses disappear." [8]

It could well be that Prophet Esa felt burdened for his compatriots. The Omotic societies of the South were in a state of religious disorientation. They were also socially and economically harassed by the Northerners. And they were being exploited by their religious functionaries. His burden was translated into action. Whether he received his inspiration for his messages through divine dreams or through contact with the Orthodox Church is unknown. [9] He would gather his followers out in the fields and in market places. His message was direct. Eshetu Abate calls Esa the John the Baptist of Wolaitta. He continues, "Whatever the effect of his preaching, he stirred up the consciousness of many people and left a lasting impression on their hearts." [10]

This "lasting impression" on the hearts and minds of Esa's listeners could be divided into three components. The first component was that the people were to worship the creator God, Tosa and offer him "that which was sweet and expensive." [11] The head of a household, dressed in his best, was to take a pot of pure white honey early Sunday morning and have his family stand behind him in a field facing east. He would dip the fingers of both his hands into the honey and as he flicked the honey into the sky, the father would say, "You are the creator of all, Tosa, have mercy upon us. We offer this which is the best we have to you." [12] This was done three times. The women were to pray to Mary asking mercy from her. The people were to turn away from the fixation on the power of tälähéya and worship only Tosa. [13] They were to destroy any objects of divination or magic which they kept in their houses.

Earl Lewis, SIM missionary from 1929-1936, travelled extensively within Wolaitta. He interprets the function of Esa as follows:
He [Esa] challenged the matter of Satan worship and taught that the people would worship only God, because there was a God that created the heavens and the earth and everything, and He alone was worthy of worship. So he began to denounce Satan worship, and in its place, he challenged the people to worship God. The form of offering their prayers seemed rather strange and interesting because on Sunday morning the head of the house would go out and dip his fingers in honey, and then flip the honey toward the heavens as he prayed to God instead of to Satan. Then this man taught them a kind of ten commandments that we have in the Word of God. There was a lot of interest in his message, and soon he had a great following. [14]
Esa was able to bring a far distant Tosa into the daily lives of the ordinary family.

This brings us to the second component of Esa's teaching: an adaptation of rituals. Families were to worship together with the head of the household acting as the intercessor. Fathers were to pray to Tosa and the mothers to Mariam. Previously the head of the family would offer oblations to the ancestor spirit at the center pole (tusa) of his house. The ritual for family worship was to be carried out every Sunday morning. This seven-day sequence was no doubt borrowed from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Another ritual introduced by Esa was fasting every Friday. [15] This practice may have been borrowed from the Ethiopian Church or from the few Muslims located in Chäncha.

The third component of Esa's teaching which made a lasting impression was to foster better relationships one with another. Partially because of exploitation by the Northerners, ill-will, hate, and jealousy pervaded the Omotic societies. It appears that Esa borrowed the decalogue from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. [16] He taught that all people were to live at peace with one another and not to create divisions among themselves. They were not to argue with their neighbor. They were not to create class distinctions among themselves. Humility was to overrule the tendency to clan pride. All must be careful to do good deeds. All people were to love their enemies. They were not to commit adultery nor to speak falsely. [17] Esa emphasized that true religion makes an ethical demand upon an individual and upon society. Religion not only makes demands upon one in his/her vertical relationship to Tosa, but the truly religious person has a moral obligation in his horizontal relationships. For example, at the Gulgula market in 1924, Dana Mäja overheard this conversation between a client and Esa:
A certain man asked Esa, 'My house has been burned down. Tell me who did it'. Esa replied, 'Because you did such and such evil to that man in the first place, your house has been burned down.' [18]
Esa's arrest, trial and imprisonment are evidence enough to show that Esa was a prophet of substantial influence in southern Ethiopia. He was not intent so much on overthrowing the existing government but rather reforming and seeking to renew society and the structure of government. [19] Testimonies by living witnesses confirm his influence. Mahé Choramo of Qucha said, "The whole countryside responded to his message". [20] Mälkamu Shanqo wrote that his teaching was followed very closely by several clans in Boloso wäräda. [21] And Tesfaye Tole recorded that the residents of Bonké wäräda, some thirty kilometers south of Chäncha, in 1942 were followers of Esa. [22]

From the evidence available, the majority of witnesses would affirm that Esa was both a pre-Christian prophet and a providential precursor of Christianity. Mahé Choramo was a lad of two when Esa visited in Qucha in 1924. Mahé was told by his mother and neighbors that Esa's message was, "Don't go to the diviners. Don't offer animal sacrifices to the ancestral spirits. Don't slaughter goats and sheep so that people can read future events by their intestines." [23] And Chäncha elder, Tesfaye Tole, recorded the following about how Esa's teaching had initially penetrated Bonké wäräda in Gämo:
In 1950 Wolaitta evangelist Gofilo Golo travelled to Bonké to preach the gospel. But for the district of Bonké this was not the first time they received preaching. For most of them this was the second time. The reason for this was that some years before a man by the name of Esa traveled around many districts [including Bonké] and taught the people not to worship the qalicha, stones, trees or any other objects. [24]
Wolaitta evangelist Gofilo Golo, Chäncha elder Tesfaye Tole, and the amanyoch in Bonké acknowledged that Esa was God's messenger. Earl Lewis also expressed what he understood about the prophetic ministry of Esa:
I firmly believe that somewhere in the time back before we arrived, God in this way perhaps, was preparing the way for the Wälamo [Wolaitta] to hear. I think that was one of the reasons why they were willing to listen to the Gospel. [25]
In 1985 a Wolaitta elder, Danél Ganébo compiled a brief Wolaitta church history. He wrote that Esa was,
... like God himself. Those who did not see him face to face longed to see him and those who saw him desired to live with him. Because of his teaching that spread throughout Wolaitta, the power of Satan and his honor was weakened. The way was prepared and a door was opened for Christ's Gospel. Today the Wolaitta Church points out that the prophet Esa functioned as the forerunner of our spiritual history. [26]
Singleton interprets Esa's ministry as Hebraistic, that is, he was a forerunner of Christianity and prophetically appealed to the societies of Wolaitta, Gämo, Qucha, and Gofa to "rid itself of its rottenness." [27]

Esa was a "John the Baptist" to the Omotic populations of southern Ethiopia. He expanded the limited cosmology of the Wolaitta so that entire families could freely and openly worship Tosa. Dana Mäja did just that in the 1920s. He forsook his former use of magic and together with his family began worshipping Tosa. But after several years he reverted to his worship of his clan wuqabé for spiritual power. He said, "I did not receive the cows that Esa promised would come from the ground to all those who followed his teaching. Because I needed power to overcome the possible dangers of gomé and tälähéya I again offered sacrifices to the Wojuwa clan wuqabé." [28]

It has been argued that the socio-political situation of southern Ethiopia in the early 20th century was a contributing factor in shaping the prophet Esa and his message. That he brought joy and a sense of relief to hundreds is incontestable.

Could it be that the Omotic societies of southern Ethiopia paid Esa his greatest tribute when they addressed him as Esa 'Lalé' because he was a catalyst in "releasing" them from bondage and moving them towards spiritual freedom?

Esa's teaching about repentance, the turning away from the use of the malevolent spirits as the gomé, tälähéya, gomatiya, which brought harm upon their enemies, had reached Wolaitta around 1920. At that time many Wolaitta turned away from the use of magic to the worship of Tosa. [29]

Prophet Esa proved to be an effective catalyst for change among the Wolaitta. Both the Catholic and Protestant missionaries, who succeeded him, benefited from this religious precursor. Unfortunately it was the Orthodox religious and political leaders who eventually silenced him in an Addis Ababa prison. Esa played a unique role in not only expanding the Wolaitta cosmology for them to worship their High God, Tosa. Indeed he heralded a new day in which a revitalized and bondage-free people could lift holy hands in worship to their High God, Tosa.

E. Paul Balisky


Notes:

1. Tätämqä Yohanis Shondé, Personal information 13 December 1995 defined the word lalé, "to release from bondage to freedom".
2. Täntu Bädécho, Personal interview, December 1987.
3. Oral information from Mahé Choramo, Laliso Täntu, Dana Mäja, Tesfaye Tolé, and Markina Mäja. Lolamo Boké indicated that Esa's teaching had reached as far as Kambatta.
4. See also Michael Singleton, "Asa--Pagan Prophet or Providential Precursor?" Afer, Vol.II, 1978, pp.82-89, Cotterell, Born at Midnight, p. 114, and Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Anitiquity to the Present, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 1995, p.215 for a brief account of Esa's teaching and itineration.
5. Dana Mäja, Wändaro Däbäro, and Täsäma Täntu, Personal interview, 22 September 1987.
6. Wolaitta oral history remembered by Earl Lewis and communicated to Raymond Davis, 12 September 1961. See also Raymond Davis' comment in Fire on the Mountains, p.141, "Esa was arrested on political grounds and taken prisoner."
7. Dana Mäja, Personal interview, 8 September 1987. (Dana Mäja, who appears several times in this chapter, was to become the leader of the Wolaitta amanyoch communities after 1946.) Wändaro Däbäro went to hear Ésa when the soldiers camped at the Humbo market several days before he arrived at Gulgula. Personal interview, 12 December 1988. For accounts of other Ethiopian prophets see also Donald E. Crummey, "Shaikh Zakaryas, an Ethiopian Prophet", JES, Vol. X, No.1, 1972, pp.55-66 and Cotterell, Born at Midnight, pp.114, 115.
8. Michael Singleton, "Asa--Pagan Prophet or Providential Precursor", p.88. Singleton does not identify his sources of "written data".
9. Eshetu Abate, "Origin and Growth of Evangelical Christianity in Wollayta", p.4.
10. Eshetu Abate, "Origin and Growth of Evangelical Christianity in Wollayta," pp.4, 5.
11. Mahé Choramo, "Philip: An Ethiopian Evangelist", p.21.
12. Markina Mäja, "Autobiography", p.13. The bee is significant in the mythology of divine kingship to the Maale, one of the Omotic societies located 150 kilometers south, southwest of Wolaitta. See Donald Donham, Work and Power in Maale, p.42. Alfred Roke in An Indigenous Church in Action, sites a Sidama functionary flicking the blood of the slaughtered animal to Magano, saying, "May it reach you." p.48. Cotterell, Born at Midnight, p.125 quotes Roke.
13. Cotterell, Born at Midnight, p.114. Esa's plea to worship only Tosa and put away false gods is much like the ministry of Sampson Oppong of Ghana. See G. Haliburton, "The Calling of a Prophet: Sampson Oppong," The Bulletin of the Society for African Church History, 2(1), 1965, pp.84-96.
14. Earl Lewis letter to Raymond Davis, 12 September 1961. Few SIM missionaries saw anything positive in primal religion or in prophets such as Esa. This is the basic thesis of Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, London, 1938.
15. Mahé Choramo, "Philip: An Ethiopian Evangelist", p. 21 said that even children above two years of age were to fast from sunrise to sunset.
16. There is no evidence that Esa was literate or developed skills to communicate in Amharic.
17. Mälkamu Shanqo, "Hulum Ades Honwal", p. 10 lists Esa's teaching, five of which are directly from the decalogue. This may be the author Mälcamu's extrapolation of what he thinks Esa really taught.
18. Dana Mäja, Personal interview, December 1987.
19. Raymond Davis, Fire on the Mountains, p. 241 implies, unfortunately, that Esa's movement "...became involved in politics..."
20. Mahé Choramo, "Philip: An Ethiopian Evangelist", p.21.
21. Mälkamu Shanqo, "Hulum Ades Honwal", p.10.
22. Tesfaye Tole in KHC, "History of the Kale Heywet Church", p.34.
23. Mahé Choramo, "Philip: An Ethiopian Evangelist," p.21.
24. Tesfaye Tole as quoted in KHC, "History of the Kale Heywet Church", p.34.
25. Earl Lewis letter to Raymond Davis, 12 September 1961. In the same letter Lewis penned, "...it seems as if He was working with the Wolamo long before the missionary ever went to that part of the country."
26. Danél Ganébo, "Wolaitta Church History", as found in KHC, "History of the Kale Heywet Church", pp.5-8.
27. Michael Singleton, "Asa--Pagan Prophet or Providential Precursor?" p.84. For an expanded definition of "Hebraist" see Harold Turner, "A Typology for African Religious Movements", Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol.I, No.1, 1967, pp.7-10.
28. Dana Mäja, Personal interview, 22 September 1988.
29. Mälkamu Shanqo, "Hulum Ades Honwal", notes that after the preaching of Esa, "...in all their places [the Wolaitta people] raised their hands to God and prayed." p. 9.



Bibliography:

Balisky, E. Paul, "Esa Lalé, a Prophet of Religious Innovation in Southern Ethiopia." Proceedings of the XIVth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, November 6-11, 2000, vol.I, edited by Baye Yiman, Richard Pankhurst, David Chappel, et al, Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press. 568-581.
Cotterell, Peter, Born at Midnight. Chicago: Moody Press, 1973.
Crummey, Donald E., "Shaikh Zakaryas, an Ethiopian Prophet." Journal of Ethiopian Studies 10, no. 1, (1972) 55-66.
Dana Mäja, Personal Interview, 8 September, 1987, 22 September 1988.
Danél Ganébo, YäWollaita Bétä Kristeyan Tarik [The Church History of Wolaitta]. In KHC, Bäwängél Amanyoch Andinät Mahibär, Mimeographed copy, Addis Ababa, 1982 EC.
Davis, Raymond, Fire on the Mountains, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1966.
Donham, Donald L. Work and Power in Maale, Ethiopia. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985.
Eshetu Abaté, "Origen and Growth of Evangelical Christianity in Wollayta", Research paper presented to Mekane Yesus Seminary, Addis Ababa, 1980.
Haliburton, G. "The Calling of the Prophet: Sampson Opong." Bulletin of the Society for African Church History 2, no. 1 (1965) 84-96.
Isichei, Elizabeth, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.
Kraemer, Hendrik, The Christian Message in the Non-Christian World. London: Edinburgh House Press, 1938.
Laliso Täntu, Dana Mäja, Mahé Choramo, TesfayeTolé, Markina Mäja and Lolamo Boké, oral information, 14 December 1995.
Lewis, Earl. Letter to R.J. Davis, 12 September 1961. EA-2, SIM Archives, Charlotte, NC.
Mahé Choramo, "Philip: An Ethiopian Evangelist." An autobiography of Evangelists Mahé Choramo, transcribed by Brian L. Fargher, Mimeographed copy, Addis Ababa, 1985.
Mälkamu Shanqo, Hulum Ades Honwal, [A Short History of the Boloso KHC], mimeographed copy, Addis Ababa, 1978 EC.
Markina Meja, Unbroken Covenant with God, translated by Haile Jenai. Belleville, ON: Guardian, 2008.
Roke, Alfred G. An Indigenous Church in Action. Auckland. New Zealand: Scott & Scott, 1938.
Singleton, Michael, "Asa - Pagan Prophet or Providential Precursor?" Afer 2 (1978) 82-89.
Täntu Bädécho, Personal interview, 13 December 1995.
Tätämqä Yohanis Shondé, Personal information, 13 December 1995.
Tesfaye Tolé, "YäGamo Bétä Kristeyan Tarik" [The Church History of Gamo]. In KHC, Bäwängél Amanyoch Andinät Mahibär," Mimeographed copy, Addis Ababa, 1982 EC.
Turner, Harold W. "A Typology of African for African Religious Movements." Journal of Religion in Africa 1, no. 1 (1967) 1-34.
Wändaro Däbäro, Personal interview, 22 September 1987, 12 December 1988.


This is an abridged version from the article by E. Paul Balisky, "Esa Lale, a Prophet of Religious Innovation in Southern Ethiopia", published in Proceedings of the XIVth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, November 6-11, 2000, Vol. 1, edited by Baye Yimam, Richard Pankhurst, David Chapple, etc. Addis Ababa: Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, pp. 568-581.