Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Ludwig, Rufo Christian Paulus

Protestant Mission

First Oromo Bible translator and prospective “black missionary.”

Rufo (or Roofo, rarely called Rafa or Rufoo) was a former Oromo slave, who, in 1865, was redeemed by Protestant missionaries, and sent to the missionary center Kornthal, Germany in the framework of an Oromo Bible translation project. After two years of work he started to receive missionary education in Basel, later in Jerusalem and Cairo, but died on the way to his people.

Rufo, from the Guma-Oromo, was around eleven or twelve years old when he was sold by his own people in order to fulfil tax obligations to the region of Gombata. Brought to the Ethiopian kingdom, he escaped, worked as a shepherd in Gojjam during two years, was caught again, and became a slave in an Ethiopian household. After several years he was brought to one of the largest slave markets at the Ethio-Sudanese border, Metemma. The missionary station of St. Paul’s had at that time received an order from Johann Ludwig Krapf of Kornthal, a key figure in the Protestant mission, to send him a young man with linguistic skills both in Amharic and Oromo to assist in Bible translation. Rufo was bought for 80 sovereigns. When he arrived at Krapf’s house in 1866, he received some education from local teachers and at once started translating the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The translation process was highly complex, Krapf working with the Greek original and Rufo with an Amharic Vorlage. Rufo spoke Oromo, Amharic, a little Arabic, but only learned German later.

Then Rufo started to work in the printing press of St. Chrischona Pilgrim Mission near Basel due to his knowledge of Amharic. After Krapf returned from a mission to the British-Indian invasion army in Ethiopia in 1868, he and Rufo continued with their translations and, as a result, the Gospel of St. Luke in Oromo was published in 1870. He also assisted Krapf in revising his twenty-year-old Oromo translations of the Gospel of St. Matthew and several chapters of St. John.

The letters of Krapf show that their collaboration was deeply marked by conflicts. Rufo, on the one hand, showed great interest for the Word, including prayers, but Krapf still considered him a complete pagan, who had not learned “to break his will,” and underlined his freedom rather than fulfilling his duties towards the missionaries. Published reports, however, give a more positive impression. In 1867 he provided valuable information on the unknown Oromo countries for publication. Kober and others underline that his work was of crucial importance for the coming into existence of the Oromo Bible.

Rufo relentlessly tried to convince his masters to send him to the Oromo together with other missionaries. Krapf, however, warned the St. Chrischona Pilgrim Mission of baptizing him too early. During the first stages of a lung disease which was treated in Basel in the winter of 1868/69, he was, however, able to convince the missionaries. In the presence of many friends of the mission, he was baptized on May 23, 1869 and received three new names. Later that year he was sent to the Syrian Orphanage in Jerusalem to pursue a missionary education. Proposed for a missionary post at the prospective West-Swiss Oromo mission, he was sent to the German Protestant community of Cairo, but died there on January 23, 1871 of his disease.

Using Rufo’s translations and a manuscript of the Ethiopian priest Zenneb, who had started his work after Rufo in 1868, Krapf prepared a manuscript of the whole New Testament in Oromo, which was finally published in 1876. As this book is a mixture of different manuscripts, –Krapf’s, Rufo’s and Zenneb’s,– the language is heterogenous, praised by some and critized by others. Among the critics was the next Oromo Bible translator one generation later, Onesimos, a former slave who worked for the Swedish mission. He based his Bible translation on the work of Krapf, Rufo and Zenneb. Already in 1870 the first Oromo Bible portions had reached the Oromo of Shoa, the whole New Testament followed around 1877. Whether the Oromo portions of the Old Testament arrived in the region is unknown.

Wolbert G. C. Smidt


L. Krapf, Debtera Saneb, Roofo, * Wängeli Luqasi / The Gospel according to St. Luke* (St. Chrischona, 1870).

Yohannis Luwis Krapf, Aläqa Zännäb, Rufo et al., Qulqulota mät’afota käku häräwa afan yonaniti gärä afan oromoti / The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ translated into the Galla language (St. Chrischona, 1876).

Kober, Johannes, Anjama (Basel: C.F. Spittler, 1882), 77f.

Pankhurst, Richard, “The Beginnings of Oromo Studies in Europe,” Africa, no. 2, (Roma, 1976), 199-201.

Smidt, Wolbert, “The unknown first Oromo Bible translator Christian Rufo,” Proceedings of the 14th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies [2000] (Addis Ababa, forthcoming).

This article, received in 2001, was written by Wolbert G. C. Smidt, M.A., lecturer and research assistant in the Department of Ethiopian Studies, University of Hamburg, Germany.