Sawl Salgédo felt the call of God to serve as a cross-cultural evangelist to those in southern Ethiopia who had never heard the gospel. The Wolaitta Kale Heywet Church (WKHC) commissioned him and his wife, Alem, to preach the gospel and disciple new believers for some fifty years in five different areas of southern Ethiopia.
Sawl was born into a family which practiced traditional religion in the Wolaitta sub-district of Boloso. As a young lad he heard the gospel in 1948 from a WKHC evangelist named Chondo Wola. After his conversion and baptism, he joined Chondo’s evangelistic band which went around preaching the gospel throughout the Boloso area. In 1957 he heard about Wolaitta evangelists who had gone to Sidama. As a result, after praying and reading the Bible, he felt a divine urge to join their outreach efforts in Sidama. After evangelizing in the Aleta and Yanasse areas of Sidama district for three years, he returned to Wolaitta in 1959 and attended the Soddo Bible School from 1959 to 1962. Then he returned to work as an evangelist in both his home sub-district of Boloso and in the neighboring Damot Fulasa district. In 1966 he was asked to become a Bible School instructor at the newly established SIM centre at Boloso. In 1968 he was commissioned by the WKHC administrative council to go to Käfa, in southwest Ethiopia as an evangelist. His salary was to be $15 U.S. per month. Käfa had the reputation of being the stronghold of traditional religion, controlled by two religious functionaries, Ibida Goda and Gäro Mänjo.
In 1968 only one KHC prayer house located on the southern upper section of Bonga town existed in Käfa with only a handful of believers meeting there on Sundays. Sawl stayed with one of the Käfa families at Bonga for several weeks before he established himself and his family at Sharada. His friend and co-worker, Taso Hébäna, had preceded Sawl to Bonga and was already living in the district of Sharada, some eight hours out from the government centre of Bonga. There they attempted to gather the people together and teach literacy. The SIM missionaries at the Bonga station assisted with various kinds of literacy teaching materials.
One day, while they were teaching literacy and preaching, the two evangelists were summoned to the local police station for questioning. The officials wanted to know why they had chosen to come to Käfa and what they were doing there. They replied that they were preachers and were also teaching literacy classes. The officials then asked who had authorized them to teach in Käfa. Not satisfied with their answers, the officials arrested both Taso and Sawl, accusing them of trespassing.
In the local prison awaiting their trial, they read the Bible and preached to the other prisoners. After several months the circuit judge from Bonga came to the local village of Sharada to judge various cases. The defense lawyer begged the judge to try the evangelists’ case quickly as he said, “Because I am losing sleep about the injustice done to these men.” When the two evangelists were tried, they were judged innocent and set free to return to their homes and work place at Sharada.
When Sawl taught and preached at Sharada, the people listened politely, but no one really accepted the truth of the gospel. As he traveled around the district of Sharada, he would stay overnight in the homes of various Käfa families where he had many opportunities to talk about Jesus. For example when a Käfa woman serves a new loaf of bread, the wife will present it first to her husband who will break off a piece and eat, and then all may partake. When Sawl received the bread, he asked all to bow their heads as he gave thanks to Yero, the Käfa high God, who gives all good gifts to his people. During and after the meal, Sawl was able to explain how Yero is the giver of all good things and how he–not other deities–must be thanked and worshipped. The Käfa gave assent to all that Sawl told them about Yero and his son Jesus.
Sawl shifted his residence from Sharada to the district of Yirgaläm, located about two hours south of Bonga. He served in this area for about two years but, as in Sharada, although people listened respectfully, no one accepted his message. His third move in Käfa was to the district of Goba Chara in 1971, a full twelve hours’ journey by foot from Bonga. He was joined by two other Wolaitta evangelists, Mäja Adélo and Yohanis Wanjamo.
While in the Goba Chara district at a place called Yileyo, the local official, Käbädä, cooperated in constructing a grass-roofed literacy centre. Käbädä wanted all children in his area to be taught literacy and the adults to be taught from the Bible. SIM missionaries located at Bonga provided the literacy materials, blackboard, and chalk. The evangelists were given freedom to move about the wider district of Goba Chara to teach and preach. They had no fear of being arrested by officials because it was well known that the evangelists had official permission from Bonga to teach literacy. Even the well-known diviner, Gäro Mänjo, encouraged his followers to attend the literacy classes.
But some people in Käfa were jealous that the gospel was being preached openly by the twenty-one Wolaitta and Gédeo evangelists. On January 19, 1973, Sawl was falsely accused by the Bonga Orthodox clergy and some government officials on the occasion of the annual baptismal celebration commemorating the baptism of Jesus. On this special church holiday, the sacred tabot (ark of the covenant) is removed from the church and accompanies the procession down to a nearby river. Sawl was accused of insulting the tabot as it was being carried back from the Déncha River to Bonga after the celebration because he refused to give a nod and to genuflect as the tabot passed by him during the procession. The Orthodox religious crowd, celebrating the baptism of Jesus, deemed Sawl’s action against their sacred object a punishable offence. Sawl, an adherent of the KHC, a new religious movement in Ethiopia, had never given obeisance to the tabot. For this he was judged guilty and incarcerated in the Bonga prison for one year. Nevertheless, Sawl had no ill feelings against his accusers.
Sawl’s imprisonment gave him an opportunity to tell fellow prisoners about Jesus. Bonga prison warden Sergeant Basho allowed Sawl to lead a Bible study for the prisoners. While in the Bonga prison Sawl was assigned the task of being the prison literacy teacher. SIM Bonga cooperated by providing literacy materials and other teaching aids. Sawl was eventually awarded a special prize for successfully teaching prisoners to read and write. Those who presented him with his literacy teaching award in the Bonga town hall were the same officials who had previously falsely accused him.
After his release from prison, Sawl was transferred to a new location east of Bonga called Adeya Kaka, the center of the other well-known diviner of Käfa, Ibida Goda Wido. In former days, the people of Wolaitta, Dawro/Konta, Gämo Gofa, and other areas of southern Ethiopia sent their tithes to him but in recent years these funds had been dropping off. One day Ibida Goda called Sawl and asked him, “Was it not true that at one time your people from Wolaitta used to send gifts to me?” Sawl explained that in former times the people did not know better but that in recent years many in Wolaitta had come to believe in Jesus and that was why the tithes were no longer being sent. Ibida Goda responded, “What you say is true. My ancestor spirit informs me that changes are beginning to happen here in Käfa.” Sawl was encouraged to hear this well-known Käfa diviner acknowledge that something new was about to begin in Käfa. They were given freedom to preach and teach about Jesus from the Bible. But this opportunity only lasted for several months as the WKHC recalled their evangelists because of new land laws being initiated by the Ethiopian Communist Government.
From 1978 to 2002 Sawl and his wife, Alem, served in Siraro and Dawaro–districts adjacent to Wolaitta–and among the Bänna nomads in the Omo River valley. After over fifty years of dedicated ministry Sawl was asked, “What motivated you to continue?” His response was, “There is a fire within my bones. I must preach the gospel!”
E. Paul Balisky
Sawl Salgédo, “My Short Life Story” (in Amharic), unpub. ms., 1984.
Raymond Davis, Winds of God, Toronto: SIM Publications, 1984.
E. Paul Balisky, “Wolaitta Evangelists: A Study of Religious Innovation in Southern Ethiopia, 1937-1975”, Ph.D. thesis presented to the University of Aberdeen, 1997, pp.329-333.
Lila Balisky, Personal diary, entry for 13 April 1974.
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.