On the night of Sunday, April 13, 2014, at 9 p.m., Ato Mahae Choramo the Ethiopian evangelist, passed away, aged 94, at his home in Soddo, Wolaitta. His funeral is Tuesday morning, April 15. No doubt thousands of people will attend from many parts of Ethiopia – family, friends, dozens of “adopted” children that they raised, and fellow-workers.
Belaynesh, his wife of about 70 years, and his helpmeet through the long years of ministry, will receive the mourners for several weeks. Many Christians from a dozen different tribes in the Omo River Valley and surrounding areas will come to farewell the old warrior who brought them the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I wish I could be there to celebrate the life of that wonderful old man who I am glad to call my brother. More than 59 years ago I first met Mahae at Bulki. Battered, bruised and bleeding from a severe beating, he sat in chains, imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. That time was one of at least thirty-five times Mahae was arrested and suffered for Christ.
With these words, Dick McLellan, Mahae’s closest missionary friend and cohort, paid tribute to him on the day he died.
Who was Mehari Choramo?
Mehari was a pioneer missionary who served the church for sixty-five years: twenty-two years at Gofa (1949-1971), thirty-one years at Hamar (1971-2002), and twelve years at Borena (2002-2014), in the south and southwest of Ethiopia. His original name was not Mehari but Mahe. Mahe is a Gamo name which means “tiger” in the local language. Later on writers changed his name to Mehari which means “mercifulness” in Amharic. In his own village the name Mahe is well understood and he was always called by this name. However, while he was interviewed for this research work, he agreed to be called Mehari instead of Mahe.
Mehari was born at Kucha, in the southwest part of Ethiopia. Kucha, the “place full of butter,” is well known for its butter products in particular their special butter. The Kucha farmers grow crops like maize, enset, (false banana), sweet potatoes, taro, teff, and yams.
The Beginning of Mehari’s Ministry
Years ago, churches in Ethiopia recruited evangelists at the Annual Bible Conference, which was an important event for the Wolayita, Kambata–Hadiya, and Gedeo churches, the first three Protestant churches in the country. The conference generally lasted three to four days and was attended by as many as five to six thousand believers. This was the time to teach and preach the Bible, to identify new evangelists, and to raise funds for the evangelists. After an offering was collected, the church leaders and foreign missionaries asked for a volunteer who would commit himself to God to go to unreached places. Then volunteers came forward and made a commitment before God and the people. The leaders laid their hands on them, prayed for them, and sent them to the unreached regions. This was the usual procedure for recruiting missionaries at that time.
Mehari’s calling was different and rather unusual. Mehari understood from the very beginning that God had called him for his purpose. He began preaching the good news to his neighbors right after his conversion. He accompanied the Wolayita evangelists, leading them to Gofa and then to Bulqi. In this way, God was preparing his heart to be a missionary.
Mehari was committed to his cross-cultural mission, even if it meant poverty, hardship, and deprivation. On one occasion, Mehari fell sick with tuberculosis when he was at Bulqi. At the same time he received a vision in his heart that the people of Ari were in spiritual sickness. While he worried about the people of Ari, one day Mr. Dick McLellan, the S.I.M. missionary at Bulqi, told him that they had no missionary to go to Ari. This was like God’s question to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Is.6:8). In the same way Mr. McLellan inquired, “Mehari, what shall we do? The Wolayta evangelists Biri, Bango, Daniel, Denigo, and Kabbada went into the Ari area to preach the gospel. A man called Zallaka Gizaw was harassing them; Daniel was beaten up and all of them have had their clothes taken from them. There are many people in the Ari area who want to hear the gospel but the evangelists have been chased out. What do you think we should do?” Then he said it was impossible for Mehari to go because of his disease and because Ari is a very difficult place in which to work. However, Mehari’s answer was just like that of the prophet Isaiah’s: “If it is the Lord’s will, I will go to Ari.” And he did.
Facing Hardship and Persecution
Preaching was a priority in Mehari’s life. On one occasion he went to the prayer house the day after his wedding and was put into prison. He served without a salary but testified that the Lord always provided what he needed. He walked very long distances. He walked several times from Gofa to Hamar and from Wolayita to Hamar. Sometimes he had to eat the fruit of the trees and sleep in the open field. Mehari often had struggles because there was not enough financial support and he worked in remote areas. Also the lack of communication created problems.
When he was a new Christian, almost all the believers were thrown in prison. The police treated them like murderers and put their feet in shackles. They pulled the doors off the prayer house, took the pulpit and all the stools, and set fire to the building. Even though the other new believers were frustrated in the face of persecution, in contrast, Mehari instead preached the gospel more boldly. In fact, he was not afraid to preach the good news even among killers.
In 1969 when Mehari heard that his fellow evangelist, Petros, had been killed by Bunna warriors, he was filled with fierce emotions. He described his feeling thus: “I asked myself why should I not die like Petros, or else why should I not go there and turn these murderers to God if God wills? Then I went there without any hesitation and fear. I went there because I already decided to die like Petros. I did not assume to live long until today.”
He also faced challenges related to language and cultural barriers, witchcraft, persecution from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the government, the harsh landscape, and the lack of schools for his children. He opposed cultural practices that involved murder and cannibalism.
Hamar Bunna is found at the very edge of Ethiopia, in the far southwest. Their territory is a vast semi wilderness that lies between Lake Stephanie on the east and the northern tip of Lake Rudolph on the west. It is bordered on the south by Kenya. It is a region known for its harsh surroundings which have been a major factor in influencing the Bunna way of life. It is also covered by scrub and thorn trees which are slashed by channels that rage with muddy water during the rains, and sparkle in heat and dust the rest of the year. The people of Hamar–Bunna spend their life killing people. Taking a person’s life is simple and part of their culture. All Bunna men are armed with rifles, spears, and machetes. When they kill someone, they slash open the body and strew his or her intestines on trees and bushes. Most Bunna people in nature are tall and muscular. They wear only a brief cloth fastened around the waist with a cord or a leather thong. Though Mehari knew all about this, he dared to go there.
Mehari was influenced both by the biblical example of the apostles’ missionary work and by the lives of the first foreign missionaries who were very devoted and spiritual people. These people from Europe and America came to a world where there were no any facilities. They used mules and donkeys for transportation, the ground for a bed and had to eat food that was strange to them. They did not have mobile telephones like today. They had to wait for months or years to get letters from their family.
Hunter was one of these missionaries. He established the church in the Gamo area. He walked eighteen times from Chenca to Kamba and more than three times from Chencha to Hamar. When he arrived at Hamar, there was no water. So, he took baths when the rain fell and began drinking spoiled milk. When the first believers, including Mehari, saw such a committed life and ministry, they wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Hunter was the first missionary who took Mehari to Hamar. Mehari saw with his own eyes that Hunter was drinking milk mixed with flies and taking showers in open fields when it rained. On his first journey, he came to Omo, the biggest river in the south. When they arrived, the river was so full that no one could cross. Hunter said to the evangelists and Mehari, “Now this is the time to test our faith. First I will try crossing the river and then you will be the next. If I cross the river safely, it is good sign to know the will of God that we should bring the gospel to the people of Hamar, but if I cannot cross the river, you have to go back to your place because it is not the will of God to cross to Hamar this time.” Then he gave himself to the water to swim and crossed it safely. After that, all the evangelists crossed the river safely. This was one of the many events that challenged Mehari to be a faithful missionary.
His Missionary Methods
The people of Hamar are semi-nomadic pastoralists who migrate every few months to find pasture for their goats and cattle. Their food differs from Wolayita food. Sorghum is made into a pancake or porridge and eaten with a stew. Practices related to clothing are also different. Being naked is common in Hamar while it is too taboo in Wolayita. Men typically wear a checkered skirt of cloth while women wear a cow skin skirt. When they see men wearing clothes, the people of Hamar consider they have some hidden disease in their body. This is a special challenge for missionaries from Wolaita. Nevertheless, Mehari also practiced being naked in order to reach them. He said, “Gradually I told them that it is better if we cover our body with cloth, and then they began to cover only some parts of their body. I was doing what they were doing.”
To reach out to the people, Mehari used many methods. For instance, because the people of Hamar love drinking coffee, he invited the neighbors for a coffee ceremony. But they used a different coffee from the Wolayita, not made from the coffee bean but from the coffee shell. When Mehari got the chance to come back to Kucha, he collected enough coffee shell to take to Hamar.
Mehari began a literacy program. He began teaching Amharic letters to the nomadic people. He used white stone as chalk and mitad (the flat clay stone) as a blackboard. Teaching served two purposes: to train them and to learn their language himself. He eventually was able to speak fluent Hamar. Giving out medicine was another strategy. He distributed medicine to sick people and also to animals. The people of Hamar are very sensitive to their cattle so when they saw their cattle healed, they became very attached to him. Nobody dared to kill him.
As a result of his learning the language the local people respected and appreciated him. They made him a leader for other newcomers. Even the government officers were using him as a means to communicate with the people. It also helped people to come to Christ. For example, there was a misunderstanding when the first evangelists arrived in Hamar. “Laqamiyo! “Laqamiyo!” is greeting in the language of Ari. “Laqamiyo” means welcome in Hamar. But in the language of Wolayita it means literally “let me swallow you.” When evangelists arrived at Hamar, the people greeted them with this word. But Minota, one of the evangelists, responded to them in Wolayita, “Ne aawaa laqamaka Yesusi dishin” (“You cannot swallow us because Jesus is with us”). He said again, “We came to save your life but do you want to swallow us? No, you cannot do this.” This was a misunderstanding. Evangelist Minota had heard that the border people were eating human meat like food. But the local people were only greeting them. Eventually the evangelists were trained in their language and were able to preach.
Mehari preached Jesus’ death and resurrection as the heart of the good news. He sometimes preached in the market place. He stood out on the street and preached to local people in their language. He embraced people who were expelled by their families because of their faith in Jesus and invited them to live with him.
His Financial Support
Ethiopian missionaries were financially supported in one of three ways. First, they could be supported by the church. The sending church collected clothing for the family, coffee shell, grain and some money. Helping the evangelists’ families by cultivating their farm land was common in Wolayita, Gamo, and Gedeo. The Annual Bible Conference was one of the major events where evangelists could find support because one of the major purposes of this meeting was to recruit evangelists and collect offerings for them. The offerings included money, animals, clothing, grain, and chickens. Larger animals such as mules might be offered by some devoted believers as unique gifts for the evangelists. A mule was the equivalent of a small Mercedes at that time. Second, evangelists might have a semi-supported ministry in which the church was not able to fulfill their needs completely but was still offering them occasional support. Though the churches claimed that they paid the missionaries’ salary, it was not sufficient for them to live on. The third way missionaries supported themselves was through total self-help. Mehari’s ministry was based on the self-help model for over half his life.
Mehari served for at least sixty-three years, mostly among the people of Hamar. Recently, Hamar Christians have been starting indigenous churches. However, the Gamo Gofa Zone Kale Heywet church office has begun organizing missions and they are now sending missionaries to Hamar. They have opened a mission organization center at Hamar where the children of evangelists can now go to school.
Many churches were established at Hamar. Mehari’s mission paradigm included not only starting churches but transforming society. He organized the villagers to build roads and schools, invited veterinarians to care for the animals, planted trees in the area, and taught people to avoid bad practices like killing people and practicing cannibalism. He opened a school in the area in order to teach Amharic letters to the children. Nowadays many have been educated and are able to read and write.
Mehari trained the local people to prepare food and to wear clothes. He introduced new fruits and vegetables to the inhabitants. They had never seen banana, pawpaw, Azopa (Kazava), or sugarcane. He also trained them how to dig the land because they were nomadic people.
As the result the gospel message changed the people of Hamar in many ways. They stopped murdering. The evangelists did not use any weapons or violence to stop bad practices. Before the evangelists came, the government tried to stop these practices using their weapons but to no avail. Only the Bible, carried by physically weak evangelists, was able to change their lives of the people of Hamar. Now there is no killing and no cannibalism. The gospel has transformed their society.
Mehari was a pioneer missionary whose goal was the transformation of society with the message of the gospel. As a pioneer missionary, he left his own birth place and went to live among other cultures. The three places he evangelized are Gofa, Hamar, and Borena. The last two are very different from his culture. In Hamar besides preaching the good news, he did a lot of things to transform the society. Mehari’s life and ministry are an outstanding testimony to the power of God at work in the world. He gave sacrificially of himself, without holding back, to further the spread of the Kingdom of God in southern Ethiopia. Scores of people in Hamar, in particular, have seen the light of the gospel thanks to Mehari Choramo.
*Editor’s Note: The photos, provided by Dick Mclellan, were taken on January 1, 2014 at Soddo by Kate Fellows.
This section is an excerpt of a tribute written by Dick McLellan when he heard the news of Mehari’s death.
Note from Malota Mata: This article neither gives Mehari’s biography in detail nor gives the detailed story of the Wolayita church, Mehari’s sending church. Instead it only gives a summary of Mehari’s life and some insights into how he became a successful missionary. Also the article focuses mainly on Mehari’s Hamar mission task instead of discussing all the places he went and evangelized.
Note from Malota Mata: While methods like oral interviewing pastors and lay members, personal experience and practical observation, questionnaires, survey assessment and literature review are integrated into this article, the content is mainly based on oral interviews when Missionary Mehari was alive. He was directly interviewed by my wife Aster Lambebo and my son Ephrem Malota while he was in his sick bed after a hospital stay.
This article, received in 2014, was written by an Ethiopian student, Malota Mata, and circulated by Tim Jacobsen, at SIM in Ontario.