Monday, September 28, 2009

Conversation with Pastor Ezra Gebremedhin

Part Four:

Issayas: Pastor Ezra, you mentioned that Karl Johan Lundstrom had materials on the history of the Kunama and the Mensa. Can you breifly elaborate on that? Also, a lot of people do not know that Aboi Woldeab Woldemariam's first job was as a teacher in Kunama area.

Pastor Ezra: When three Swedish missionaries landed on the coast of Massawa in the spring of 1866, they had no thoughts of heading in the direction of Kunama. Their goal was to reach the Oromo in western and southern Ethiopia. However, the route from the coast to the interior of Ethiopia was closed to them due to political and social unrest in the country. The roots of Evangelical Church of Eritrea (ECE) go back to the individuals and small communities that once belonged to three religious groups: the "Animist" Kunama, Tigre speaking Muslims and mainly highland populations groups that belonged to the Orthodox Tewhado Church and who spoke mainly Tigrigna.

Aboi Woldeab who was born in 1905 started school late. He spent his early years as a boy tending his father's cattle in a highland village in Eritrea. Even though he started school late, he made fast progress. Eventually he attended the Teacher Training School of the Swedish Mission at Beleza. His first job was that of a teacher in Kunama where he was to spend three years and where he almost died of the type of malaria that attacks the brain.

In 1935 he writes the following personal report on a confirmation ceremony that he attended in Ausa Conoma:

" The mission field in Kunama has far been regarded as the most difficult and the least fruitful field. Its history, which I have had occasion to learn about more closely in recent days, has been dark. [...] but I only want to say that I have admired and still admire those people who struggled and died victorious, in spite of the fact that they never saw victory."

Aboi Woldeab was in Kunama in the company of his close friend Sahle Ande-Mikael (later commonly addressed as "Memher Sahle"). The two were part of a working team led by an energetic, widowed Swedish missionary by the name of Signe Berg.

Aboi Woldeab had experienced a sense of awe and admiration in the face of what the very first Swedish messagers of the Gospel had met in Kunama, "the land of blood and tears." But who were the Kunama who had captivated the hearts of Swedes and Eritreans alike? Why did they attract such attention?

Chief Adim Billa the first Kunama to be baptized on the mission field.
As a boy, he had met the first missionaries and his mother used to cook for them.

School for girls in Kunama.
Middle row: Far left, Emma Andersson and behind her Joseph Mati.
Peter Andersson is seated to the far right of the girls in the front row.

Maria Nilsson with the first Christian couple wedded in Kunama: Joseph Mati a teacher who was later ordained and his wife Sillas who was from Geleb.

The main area of settlement of the Kunama was and still is between the Gash and Setit rivers. However, a certain section of the population lives to the north and south of this area. Basically, the area is divided into four regions, namely Marda in the north, Barka in the east, Bazena in the west, and Tika in the south.

The Kunama language is classified as belonging to the Nilo-Saharian group of languages. The Rev. Sture Normark, a former Swedish missionary to Kunama mentioned that there are four main Kunama dialects: Marda (for the region around Sosena), Barka (for the region around Kulluku), Tika (for the region around Ugaro) and Sogodak (for the region around Tessenei).

Kunama culture shares many characterstics with the cultures of other Nilotic people. The totem symbols that represented the four territorial divisions are an example. These divisions with their respective totem symbols and dialects are Shua (the Rhinoceros) for the Marda, Gumma (the Buffalo) for the Barka, Karawa (the Elephant) for the Tika and Semma (the Moon) for the Sogodak. Each division has its own dialect.

In 1864 Werner Munzinger (Governer General of Massawa under the Egyptians) reported that Muttersrwecht, a social system in which the woman plays a dominant role in the family, existed among the Kunama. The system was, however, not a form of matriarchy in which the woman was the head of the family, but rather one based on matrilineal kinship. Inheritance followed the mother's lineage, but the dominant personality was the mother's brother, i.e. the maternal uncle. Thus the women played a crucial role in Kunama society as bearers of tradition and spiritual life.

The society was very egaliterian and the village was seen as a unit. An attack on a single member was considered an attack on the village. Every village had a council whose members were called Andai, the Great Ones. These elders consisted of all married men in the village. As a sign that they had assumed this role, the men cut their hair and receive the title Anda.

The older a man, the greater his influence. The elders met regularly on the dibba, the site of the council, usually located under a big tree. In the deliberations that were held, the younger members of the council spoke first, followed by the older ones, who also had the right to final say.
If a Kunama broke the faneda- the manners and customs- he would find himself isolated. This was the worst punishment that could be meted out to a Kunama. Kunama society was acephlous, i.e. it had no central ruler or chief. Every village was legally and politically independent. A stranger could become a member of the village even if he didn't have any relatives in the village. This fact had negative consequences. The absence of a common defence organization left the Kunama open to attacks by robbers and to other kinds of harassment.

A.Pollera and E. Cerulli maintain that the Kunama, since times immemorial regarded Anna as the one God, the creator of all among the Kunama. According to the Kunama, the first people to be created were Adam and Aua (or Hawa), the original parents of the Kunama. The names may have been added later as these words occur both in the Jewish-Christian and Muslim traditions.
The Kunama addressed their prayers not only to God but also to their ancestors. In their religion there were clear signs of hierarchial structure. Highest in this hierarchy was the Creator, Ana and below him/her came the hierarchy of the ancestors, which consitituted the various lineages. The society also had bearers of religious heritage, people who were recognized as specialists in various aspects of religious practice. These assumed both secular and spiritual functions. Among such specialists called Manna, are : the L'Aula Manna: who brought or withheld rain; L'Ula Manna: who provided protection from locusts; Sciurka Manna: who provided protection from birds;Bian Manna: who protected specially durra(sorghum) from the scourage of worms;Attana Manna: who provided protection from flies and insects.

The Manna were male. There was, however, another group of female actors in the realm of religious rituals, who were called Asirmina. The Kunama too attach a great importance to the presence of spirits. The world is a unit of the Living and the Dead, Good Beings and Evil ones. Life would continue beyond the grave and the spirits of the deceased would always be present in the minds of the Kunama. The spirits , usually representing someone from about a generation ago , would assume a human shape by becoming a Manna and Asirmina.

Next(final) on the Mensa.

1 comment:

  1. Issyas you're amazing. I love your information, site, and rare photos. I can proudly say as a grown man in my twenties that I look up to you. Great work as always.