Laliso Tantu was born near the village of Humbo, about twenty kilometres south of Soddo, Wolaitta. At the age of thirteen or fourteen he began to ask such questions as, “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of life?” and “What happens to me when I die?” Residing near Humbo was a wise man named Albé Acha, who had the ability to predict the future. The entire community respected this man who practiced traditional religion and made predictions that usually came to pass. Laliso recalls that one day Albé predicted that various clans–even the blacksmiths, potters, and leather workers of Wolaitta–would one day all eat together in one large fellowship. This seemed unbelievable to Laliso because, at that time, various Wolaitta clans had no social dealings with one another and would never eat together with despised artisans.
While Laliso was pondering this incredible prediction with some vexation, his aunt advised him to go to Humbo town and seek out a prominent Wolaitta evangelist called Wändaro Däbäro. The next day Laliso went to see Wändaro who read him verses from the Wolaitta Tosay Yotes (selected scriptures). Laliso recalls hearing Acts 16:31 which mentioned “believing in the Lord Jesus Christ” and Isaiah 45:22 which said, “Return to me and you will be saved.”
Soon after his conversion, Laliso attached himself to Wändaro’s assistant, Wanna, who taught him the basics of the Amharic alphabet and other reading skills for about six months. Laliso then sold his jacket and purchased Mark’s Gospel written in a local dialect similar to the Wolaitta language. After mastering Mark’s Gospel, Laliso went to Soddo and purchased an Amharic Bible from an Ethiopian Orthodox priest for the price of a two-year-old heifer.
As a follower of the Wolaitta traditional religion, Laliso’s father was upset that his son had become a follower of a different religion. Every morning, Laliso prayed aloud to the Wolaitta high God, Tosa, asking that the sins of the family be forgiven. Angered by such prayers, Laliso’s father asked, “How do you know my sin? What sin have I done?” For a time his father cruelly punished Laliso for his prayers, but eventually relatives interceded on Laliso’s behalf and the father relented.
From 1937 to 1939 Laliso began assisting Wändaro as he preached in several districts of Wolaitta. Soon Laliso ventured into Gämo province, Boroda district, with a friend, Shanka Boroda. Laliso followed the example of his spiritual father, Wändaro, in his own preaching. Wherever people gathered, at a market place, a funeral, or a house-building enterprise, Laliso and his assistant would take out their Bibles from their carrying cases and, holding them high, would quiet the crowd by shouting, “Listen, listen.” They would then tell the Jesus story.
On most occasions the common people would listen with respect and attentiveness and the evangelists would be invited to their homes. But soon they encountered difficulties from two sources. First, ruffians or highway robbers attacked them as they trekked through the countryside and stole their clothing, Bibles, and other books. As they carried little money, they seldom lost any cash. Second, government officials often threw them in jail. Throughout Laliso’s forty years of evangelistic service in provinces contiguous to Wolaitta such as Gofa, Qucha, and Gamo, he was imprisoned eleven times with sentences ranging from two months to five years. While imprisoned he suffered from hunger, cold, infestation of lice, bedbugs and rats, crowded and cramped sleeping conditions, and received severe beatings. When Laliso was stopped and questioned at road blocks by customs officials or police asking where he was going and why he was traveling, he replied, “I am going over that mountain range to look for my lost brother.”
Laliso made several noteworthy contributions to the New Church Movement of southern Ethiopia. First, he is acknowledged as the father of the Gofa believers. Gofa church elder Dalsha Dana Sigo said, “He is my father in the faith. He is an outstanding person. He preached and taught very well.” There are several Gofa families who have named their children “Laliso” in honor of the saintly evangelist who brought the gospel to them. Laliso’s second contribution was in the area of church administration. Through his administrative skills he organized the prayer houses scattered throughout the mountain ranges of Qucha, Gofa, and Gamo into functioning church district fellowships. Even though he was elected by the Gofa believers as the first president of their church district, he gladly relinquished this position some five years later when the Gofa elected their own leader. Third, while serving as an evangelist in Gofa, Laliso introduced the “golden book” to a well-known religious functionary called Chäläqé. Before 1930 Chäläqé had prophesied that men would fly in airplanes, that the mountains would shake, and that someone would bring him a golden book by way of the river. In 1951 Laliso arrived at Chäläqé’s house. When he opened his satchel and produced the four-page wordless book with the last page the colour of gold, Chäläqé exclaimed, “My ancestor spirit told me years ago that a golden book would come to me while I would be sitting under this very tree by someone who would have a crooked walking stick.” (Men in his district carried straight canes.) Chäläqé’s conversion prompted many other primal religion functionaries in Gofa to accept Laliso’s message.
For forty years, Laliso served in three provinces of southern Ethiopia in various capacities as an evangelist. When asked what hardships and trials he faced as an evangelist, he said he was tempted to lose hope while suffering in prison and to get over involved in farming or trading in salt; once he was tempted by a generous salary offer to join the Seventh-Day Adventists. He also had to resist the urge to relish the honor and prestige given to Wolaitta evangelists by the thankful believers of Qucha, Gofa, and Gamo.
Laliso and his wife returned home to Wolaitta to retire in 1978. Somewhat to his surprise, as he was now an old man, he was elected by his home district of Humbo to serve as a ruling elder on the Wolaitta Kale Heywet Church council. In this leadership position until his final retirement in 1998, he worked recruiting Wolaitta evangelists and supporting them when they were sent out to unreached areas of southern Ethiopia.
E. Paul Balisky
Personal information from Laliso Tantu in 1995.
E. Paul Balisky, “Wolaitta Evangelists: A Study in Religious Innovation in Southern Ethiopia, 1937-1975,” Ph.D. thesis presented to the University of Aberdeen, 1997, pp.233-236.
Dick and Vida McLellan, letter to supporters and friends, June 1, 1963.
Peter Cotterell, Born at Midnight, Chicago: Moody Press, 1973.
This biography was researched and adapted from “Wolaitta Evangelists: A Study of Religious Innovation in Southern Ethiopia, 1937-1975,” by E. Paul Balisky (University of Aberdeen Ph.D. Thesis, 1997, pp 157-160). Dr. Paul Balisky is a former lecturer at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, a DACB Participating Institution.