Gebru, whose name was Gobaw for many years, was born in 1845 to Ato (Mr.) Desta Wolde Essey and Woizero (Mrs.) Tiringo Wolde Tekle in a place called Alefa Takus Gazgie, three days journey by foot from Gondar, Ethiopia. It was a time of civil war between various lords who wanted to rule the country and bands of soldiers from all parties roamed the land, looting and burning peasants’ houses and exposing families to devastation, poverty, famine, and disease. Gebru was seven years old when the war finally ended and Emperor Theodros came to power.
As his parents were poverty stricken and vulnerable to the calamities of war, they sought ways to ensure their children’s survival. Consequently, the children were sent to the homes of well-to-do relatives. Gobaw, at age eleven was sent to live for a period with his uncle, one of the leaders in Emperor Theodros’ army. Gobaw was unhappy in his uncle’s home and, many years later when he was old, he recalled this period as a time of suffering. However, this is where Gobaw began a year of formal education. When he could not bear the suffering anymore, he ran away from his uncle’s house.
After leaving, Gobaw met many poor people on their way to Debre Tabor to make various appeals to Emperor Theodros. He decided to follow them to ask for the court’s protection to fulfill his basic need for food and shelter. One day, as he was getting his daily food from the emperor’s court along with the other poor people, Joseph Bell, the son of Leke Mequas John Bell, saw Gobaw and had compassion on him. When he introduced Gobaw to the missionaries, Theophilos Waldmeier, a Swiss missionary and one of Emperor Theodros’ craftsmen, took him into his home where Gobaw was cared for and educated along with several other children.
In 1868, after the Battle of Meqdela, when the missionaries were expelled from Ethiopia, Waldmeier left the country with Gobaw and two of his friends named Hailu Wossen and Senbetu Daniel. They went to Jerusalem where the Ethiopians were given the opportunity to continue their education at the Samuel Gobat Missionary School. Gobaw studied there for three years.
As a new student in Jerusalem, Gobaw and his friends were ordered to fill a cart with manure and spread it over the garden. All the other students did the work with pleasure but Gobaw did not like it. When his class monitor asked him why he was not working with the others, he responded, “I came to learn and not carry dung (manure).” The monitor was angry and told the school director about Gobaw’s uncooperative behavior. Gobaw overheard the director say to the monitor, “Leave him alone until he understands things better. He comes from a country where work is not a good tradition. So bear with him until he realizes.” Gobaw pondered the director’s statement for a few minutes and then picked up his shovel and the cart and began working with his friends. At that point he realized that work was life and he straightened out his lifestyle from that time on.
In 1872, Gobaw and his friends were sent to St. Chrischona, near Basel, Switzerland, for four years of further education and they graduated with a diploma in theology in 1876. Afterwards, Gobaw wanted to return to his country but Ethiopia and Egypt were at war and the borders were closed. As a result, he was sent to Gutenberg for a period to help Krapf edit the Amharic translation of the Bible.
In 1879 he returned to Ethiopia after an absence of fifteen years. When Gobaw arrived in Azezo, Gondar where he settled, his mother was told that her son had returned and she came to see him. At first she did not recognize him but then she remembered he had a birthmark around his shoulder under the neck. When she found it, she shouted “Gobaw!” and kissed him and cried for a long time, hugging him. All of his brothers had died and he was the only one left.
Working with the Swedish Mission, a part of the evangelical church now known as the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), Gobaw established a school in Azezo for the Ethiopian Jews living in Gondar. Originally, when Gobaw was still in Europe, Martin Fladd had suggested that he return to Gondar to teach the gospel to the Ethiopian Jews and Gobaw did exactly that but only for a short time. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) priests in the area would not let him do his work so Gobaw wrote to Martin Fladd to tell him about the problem. In an effort to solve this problem, Martin Fladd decided to meet with Gobaw in Suakin, Sudan, passing through Massawa on his journey there.
After their meeting, as Gobaw passed through Kessela on his way to Gondar, he saw a young Ethiopian boy who cried when he saw Gobaw. Touched by his tears, Gobaw went over to talk with the boy who told him he had been captured from the Oromo tribe in Gudru, Wellega to be sold into slavery but had then been rescued from the slave merchants. Realizing that slavery was a severe problem in Ethiopia at that time, Gobaw understood that providing education and training the Oromo tribes to make handcrafts would give them much needed income. After discussing the idea with Fladd, they agreed that he would pursue this new vision to take the gospel to Wellega, abandoning his original work in Azezo.
Gobaw had to travel to the southern part of the country by crossing the Blue Nile River to reach Gudru, taking a route which required the permission of King Tekle Haimanot of Gojjam. As the king regarded the missionaries favorably at the time, he allowed Gobaw to journey to Gudru. There Gobaw opened a school and began teaching the youth. Shortly thereafter war broke out between the kings of Showa and Gojjam and Emperor Menilik II conquered the southern part of Ethiopia. Fortunately Gobaw’s work in Gudru was not affected because Ras Gobena, the local ruler, who was happy to see a school establishment in that area, allowed him to continue his work.
Historically Gebru is recognized as the first evangelist to the Oromo tribe.
Gobaw came to Showa to visit “Meier” (it seems this was Waldmeier) who was living in Entoto, located in present day Addis Ababa. Meier and his friend Greiner introduced Gobaw to Emperor Menelik II. However, in 1886, the missionaries were once again expelled from Ethiopia and Gobaw went with them to Jerusalem. He then went to Syria (“Soria” is the Amharic equivalent) where he taught in a German mission school for some time. From there he was transferred to the newly opened mission in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. After establishing this new mission, he began his journey back to Jerusalem, passing through Eden where many Ethiopian young men and women whom the British had rescued from Arab merchants’ slave ships lived. He met about eighty of them, mostly from the Oromo tribe, and began to talk with them in Oromigna. Again his heart was touched. He stayed in Eden and used his teaching skills to help the missions organization, canceling his return trip to Jerusalem. But his own mission was not happy with him for making this decision. Later he received a letter from one of his friends in Jerusalem, encouraging him to pursue missionary service in Ethiopia again, as the emperor had granted Protestant missionaries permission to continue their work in Showa.
In 1890, Gobaw married the daughter of Christian Bender who, along with Johannes Maier, was among the first Christian craftsmen to arrive in Ethiopia in 1856. He then returned to Ethiopia where he went to Harar and became a Bible salesman. Unfortunately his wife died of cholera when she was six months pregnant. In spite of this sad event, Gobaw continued to work with Ras Mekonnen, Menilik II’s cousin and the father of Emperor Haile Sellassie I. Since the ruler liked the fact that Gobaw had been educated in Jerusalem, he sent him to Jerusalem with an Ethiopian Orthodox priest on an important mission to negotiate the reopening of an Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem, which had been closed due to unpaid bills. During his stay in Jerusalem, he was made a delegate of the British Bible Society. Upon his return to Ethiopia, he brought three different editions of the Holy Bible to the Emperor as gift from the society. In return, the emperor sent them two elephants’ tusks inscribed with his name as a token of his appreciation.
As the ruler of Harar admired Gobaw, he made him the mayor of Harar. Gobaw served him diligently and fought against corruption in the administrative region. Just before the Battle of Adewa, the ruler gave Gobaw letters of recommendation and sent him to the emperor who offered to grant him a request. Gobaw asked to have his name changed to Gebru and to be made mayor of his province of Gondar. The emperor agreed to grant his requests after returning from war. Thus, after the Battle of Adewa in 1895, Gebru-renamed Kentiba Gebru-became the first mayor of Gondar. However Ras Mengesha Atikem, the ruler of Gondar, was not happy about this at first because he saw it as an unnecessary interference in his affairs.
Then the emperor sent Gebru to Sudan to negotiate the release of Ethiopian prisoners captured during the Sudan war with Emperor Yohannes in 1889. He presented his case in Arabic-a speech published in the newspapers-to the Kalifa of Sudan who consequently released all the prisoners. Wishing to eliminate Gebru by making him lose the emperor’s favor, Ras Mengesha played into the hands of the British who did not approve of the agreement between the two countries. As the British had opposed Gebru’s initiative they convinced the emperor to send him as a political prisoner to Ankoner in the country side of Shoa Province. Later Ras Mengesha himself confessed that Gebru’s detainment had been unfair.
When Edward VII became king after the death of Queen Victoria, Gebru was pardoned and released from prison. He was then sent to England with Ras Mekonnen as an Ethiopian delegate to attend the coronation celebration.
After his return from England, while working for the government he was repeatedly persecuted both by government officials and by members of the Orthodox church but he continued to help the missionaries nonetheless. At that time Empress Zewditu, under the influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox priests, had refused to give the missionaries permission to buy land and to work in the country. But Gebru came to their rescue at a crucial time and gave them land that he owned at Aera, Gimbi, and Wellega.
In 1930, Gebru became the vice president of the first parliament in Ethiopia. With a first group of delegates he was sent to America where he spoke about the conditions in Ethiopia to many African Americans interested in learning more about the country. As a result many Americans became more familar with Ethiopian culture and society.
When the Italians invaded Ethiopia, Gebru went to Gore Town, Illubabor Province, in southern Ethiopia. At that time he was living a life of great suffering because his children were killed unfairly and his family suffered with him for many years. At the end of the Italian war, he gave the following advice to his son who was helping his employers rid the country of the Italians: “I bid you my son! Although the Italians have harmed the Ethiopians, do not take vengeance against them because you are a Christians and should behave better than them.”
Soon after the Ethiopian liberation, he was made president of the parliament. For many years he devoted himself to serving his county and to promoting the well-being of the nation. But his efforts were not well received or valued because of his Protestant faith and his humble family origins in particular. He was also criticized for his foreign education, considered an attempt to bypass his own country’s education system.
Gebru spoke German, French, English, Oromigna, and Amharic. But even though the princes and lords of that time liked his qualifications, because of his humble origins they refused to give him a higher position. However, one of these lords, Negadras Gebreheywet Baykedagn commended Kentiba Gebru and his friend Aleka Taye by saying: “So far, out of a number of people who were educated after being exiled in foreign lands or through foreign missionaries who came to Ethiopia, and who serve their governments loyally, two brothers’ names stand out. But we label them as backsliders and criticize them. I have been here in Addis Ababa for three years and I have never seen anyone who loves his country as they do. But no one has acknowledged them for this so far, I am afraid. It is very sad. Anyone who observes their lot would despair at the realization that the Ethiopian government has no use for its loving citizens.”
Even though Gebru was knowledgeable, educated, and had experience working in the highest echelons of society, he had very few possessions and struggled with poverty in his old age until his death in 1949.
“Stars that glitter: Kentiba Gebru Desta: Suffering, Persecution…For the Gospel and for Patriotism” in Berhan, an Amharic bimonthly publication of the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia, No. 46, 12, Meskerem - Tikimt 1995 [i.e. September - October 2002].
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. Dirshaye Menberu, retired professor from Addis Ababa University and 2005-2006 Project Luke Fellow. She is a graduate of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST), a DACB Participating Institution.