This is a story of a blind man who faithfully served God. Whether as a beggar, student, evangelist, teacher, prisoner, minister, or elder church statesman, Gidada did everything with humility and confidence in God.
Gidada was born in a small village of Aleqa Sotelow, near Dembi Dollo, to Oromo parents in the mountain highlands of western Ethiopia. His parents named him Gidada, meaning, “The one who weeps for people.” At the age of five he was left blind by a devastating smallpox epidemic that spread through western Ethiopia, wiping out a large segment of population, including seven of Gidada’s siblings. His parents applied various potions to his blind eyes as recommended by the local traditional medicine man. Nothing helped restore his sight. Gidada became a beggar.
In 1919 Dr. Thomas Lambie arrived in Sayo village at the invitation of the Qellem governor, Birru Wolde Gabriel, to provide medical assistance for hundreds who were dying of influenza. In 1920 blind Gidada was the first convert of the American medical missionary.
Soon after Gidada’s conversion, he evidenced a keen desire to learn. By 1922 his quick mind had memorized significant Scripture passages in the Amharic language. He also learned English at the American Mission compound from both Fred Russell and Bruce Buchanan. Then in 1924 Gidada was introduced to Braille. He learned to read in Amharic, Oromifa, and English. This opened up an entire world for him. He could now read for himself and the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, became a living book to him. He now had a burning zeal to share with others his new life in Christ and what he read from Scripture. In 1924 he married Dinse Sholi. Their first two children died soon after birth. To this sad couple Rahel was born in 1927 to bring much joy, especially to Dinse. Later two sons Solomon (1935) and Negaso (1941) were born. Both these men made significant contributions to Ethiopia serving in public office. Dr. Solomon served as Ethiopian ambassador to London from 1992 to 1998 and Dr. Negaso was voted in as President of Ethiopia from 1996 to 2000.
Bruce Buchanan played a significant role in training Gidada in evangelism. His first evangelistic assignment was at a toll station between Sayo and Gambella. He had a ready audience because each day about fifty coffee traders would be stopped to pay their toll tax at Buka Badessa before descending the escarpment on their way to Gambella. And another fifty salt carriers would stop by for a rest on their return trip to the Wellega highlands. By 1930, together with a younger man who was his guide, he began evangelistic ministry throughout the Sayo district. His preaching brought him into confrontation with the local qallichas (cult practitioners), each possessed by a different spirit. Gidada would personally visit these qallichas and from his Braille Bible read some verses about the power of Jesus who died and rose again from the dead. By 1940 there were ten Evangelical Churches Bethel established. And from 1955 to 1965 Gidada and his wife and younger children transferred to Mizan Teferi to assist the American Mission in evangelizing the traditional religionist Bench ethnic group. As he trekked on mule-back through dense forest from one Bench village to another, hundreds heard the gospel and responded.
In 1940 Gidada and several Sayo colleagues in Christian ministry were arrested by the Italians. The charge against Gidada was that he was a spy for the British. Was he not receiving mail regularly in a special code that no one but Gidada could read? And the letters he wrote back to England were also coded. The Italians charged Gidada with spying and accused him and his workers in the gospel of being enemies. As a result, they were tied up and loaded onto the back of an Italian truck as criminals. After several weeks of traveling over very muddy roads they finally arrived at the Addis Ababa prison. After eight days in the crowded Addis Ababa prison, they were sent back to Jimma for further interrogation. Gidada’s two colleagues were cruelly beaten, almost to death, for three consecutive days. Then it was Gidada’s turn to face the interrogators and the beatings. When asked why he became an enemy of the Italians, he responded, “As you see I am a blind man. I told you I am a Christian and an evangelist for the Lord’s work. Because I serve the Lord, am I an enemy of the government?” Gidada was sent back to his cell without a beating. When the British army liberated southwest Ethiopia in 1941, Gidada and his friends walked out of the Jimma prison and joyfully returned to their ministry in Sayo.
The persecution from 1951 to 1955 which faced the Sayo congregations within the Evangelical Church Bethel, came from an unexpected source-the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). When the American Mission entered Ethiopia in 1919 their goal was to work closely with the Ethiopian state church and not to establish independent congregations that would be in competition with the EOC. But during the Italian occupation of southwestern Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941 the EOC of Qellem Region was weakened. On the other hand, the preaching of Gidada and other evangelists was indeed Good News to the Oromo population so burdened by the spiritual oppression of the qallichas, who took much from the people but gave few benefits back. By 1951 the number of local congregations had grown to twenty and elementary schools were established in most of these. Because the EOC looked upon this upstart evangelical movement as a competing church, they began to systematically close each church and arrest the leaders. Gidada was thrown into prison again-not by the foreign colonialists, but by Ethiopian Christians. When Gidada was released he appealed to the local court to have the twenty churches opened again, but to no avail. After several months Gidada and other evangelical church leaders made their way to Addis Ababa to appeal their case to Emperor Haile Sellassie. The emperor heard their case and after a lengthy delay, ten of the twenty churches were reopened.
When the American Mission personnel in Ethiopia were in the process of being evicted by the Italians from Ethiopia, they realized that there were no ordained Ethiopian pastors to carry on the official church ministry in the Sayo area. Dr. Henry advised the church in Dembi Dollo to select someone from the congregation to travel to Addis Ababa and take a short course in preparation for ordination. It was decided that Mamo Chorqa and Gidada Solan should be ordained. In July 1938 the congregation selected Mamo Chorqa to be the first to come to Addis Ababa in 1939, Gidada Solan being the second choice. Mamo Chorqa’s ordination to the Presbyterian ministry, after a brief four-week instruction by D. C. Henry, was performed under rather unusual circumstances. In September 1938, Dr. Henry asked Gidada Solan to come to Addis Ababa for ordination. This took place on February 24, 1939. Because D. C. Henry was ordained under the Allegheny Presbytery of New York, this Presbytery agreed that they would validate the ordination of both Mamo Chorqa and Gidada Solan. These ordained Ethiopian pastors were then enrolled as members of the Allegheny Presbytery “under extraordinary circumstances.” Both men retained this relationship with the Allegheny Presbytery until 1947, when the Evangelical Church Bethel, now with some 150 congregations, became an independent Ethiopian church under national leadership, retaining the United Presbyterian Church polity and doctrine.
Towards the end of Gidada’s long ministry, he was revered as an elder Christian statesman. When Emperor Haile Sellassie returned victoriously to Addis Ababa in 1941, after the defeat of the Italians, Gidada made the long arduous trip from Sayo to Addis Ababa to welcome his sovereign back. And ten years later, when the EOC closed the evangelical churches in western Ethiopia, it was Gidada who again journeyed to Addis Ababa to make his appeal directly to Haile Sellassie. While Gidada was serving as evangelist/pastor in the Mizan Teferi area (in a thirty kilometer radius around Mizan Teferi) in 1957, the Maji church, some one hundred kilometers to the south, called him to reconcile two disputing Bethel church parties.
The crowning experience for Gidada, the elder Christian statesman, was to represent the Evangelical Church Bethel, accompanied by his son Solomon, at the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church which was convened in Pittsburgh in 1957. With the following words he addressed the large assembly, gathered from all continents, “Praise the Lord who made heaven and earth, who by His power has brought all of us together. He has made us one by the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ.” At the final communion service of the assembly, the night before Gidada and his son Solomon left the U.S.A. for Ethiopia, Gidada, the “one who weeps for people” wept for joy. Sightless though he was, he experienced the fellowship of the worldwide church as they joined hands and hearts together.
E. Paul Balisky
Gustav Aren, Envoys of the Gospel in Ethiopia: In the Steps of the Evangelical Pioneers 1898 - 1936 (Stockholm, 1999).
Debela Birri, “History of the Evangelical Church Bethel,” D.Th. diss., Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 1995.
Gidada Solon, The Other Side of Darkness, ed. by Marion Fairman (New York, 1972).
Thomas A. Lambie, A Doctor Without a Country (New York, London, Edinburgh, ).
Negaso Gidada, “The Impact of Christianity on Qelem Awraja, Western Wallaga 1886 to 1941,” B.A. thesis, Haile Sellassie I University, 1971.
This biography was researched and written in 2004 by Dr. E. Paul Balisky, serving with SIM as lecturer at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology where he is a DACB liaison coordinator. He and his wife Lila are members of the DACB Advisory Council.