Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Conversation with Qeshi Alazar Mengistu

I first read about Qeshi Marcos Ghirmay in Journal of Eritrean Studies Vol. IV 1982 written by Dr. Araia Tseggai. (I will repost the aforementioned at the end of this interview). Since then, I have read more about Qeshi Marcos.Qeshi Alazar Mengistu, author of The History and Background of the Lutheran Church of Eritrea 1911-1932 (Qeshi Marcos’ story included) is currently visiting the United States with his family. Recently, I made an arrangement to meet with him for an interview in Santa Rosa, California. I would like to thank him for his time. 
Part One
Here are the excerpts:
Issayas: First, congratulations on your new book. Will you tell us about yourself?
Qeshi Alazar:  My name is Alazar Mengistu. I was born in the village of Cheat, Tzelema region, Eritrea in 1942. My father was a priest of the Tewahdo Ortodox Church. I attended my first school year at the Mission School in Quazien (formerly Hamasien, now Zoba Maekel), the village of Abboi Qeshi Marqos Girmay. My first teacher was, Abboi Yacob, Qeshi Marqos Girmay’s half brother. I started my schooling in Quazien because my older sister’s(Neghesti)husband , the late Memher (teacher) Araya Gebreegziabher, was the headmaster of the Mission school there, and they had the responsibility for my schooling.
The Swedish True Friends (Bibeltrogna Vänner, traditionally known as BV) opened a new mission school in Idaga Hamus, Asmara and as a result Memher Araya was transferred there as the new headmaster. That meant I had to go back to my birth place, Cheat, and continue my schooling at Dequtsnia, in our region, a school which was also run by the same Swedish Mission as in Quazien. This was around 1950. When I was in the fifth grade I moved to my sister’s and her husband’s house in Asmara and attended at the Mission school there.I finished 7th and 8th grades at the Evangelical Mission School in Geza Kenisha. After passing my 8th grade General Examination, I went to Luul Mekonnen School, and later completed my 12th grade at Santa Anna School in Asmara. By then, I was very much involved in reforming the Lutheran Church in Asmara (at Idda Hamus). I started a youth group (The Youth Group of the Lutheran Church in Asmara) and a Sunday school there. I led Sunday services and I was also the self- made leader of music at the Church. The church recognized the zeal I had to serve the Church, therefore the Church decided to send me to Sweden for further studies in theology and music. Even though the mission rejected the idea, with the insistence of the Church, a scholarship was arranged for me through an individual who was a missionary of BV (Bibeltrogna Vänner) in Eritrea from1953 to 1957. 
I left Eritrea for Sweden in 1967. After finishing my language studies in Swedish (1969), I enrolled as a theology student at the University of Uppsala. At the beginning of 1976, I had my degrees in Practical Philosophy (BA) and in Theology (Teol.kand). In June 1976 I was ordained as a priest by the Archbishop of Sweden, Olof Sundby, at the main Church Cathedral of Sweden in Uppsala, at the same Church, where Qeshi Marqos Girmay was ordained as the first African in 1898. I became the third African to be ordained after a Zulu Prince (1911). 
My intention with my priesthood was, to serve within the Swedish State Church for three years, get the experience and build some contacts in Eritrea. However, Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown and a new government, Dergue, came to power in 1974. Therefore, I was advised by my Church leader at home to stay in Sweden, until the political situation at home became clear. By this time, I had gotten married to a Swedish woman, Lisbeth. When we met, Lisbeth was working as a missionary in Barentu, and I was doing my studies in Uppsala. In 1978/1979 we were sent to Sudan by the Swedish Evangelical Mission (Evangeliska Fosterlandsstiftelsen, EFS) to start a refugee counseling service in Khartoum, Sudan. Until my retirement in 2007, I had served the Swedish Church as a priest and had different positions in different places, enjoyed equal opportunities as my Swedish colleagues, and ministered my fellow country people on my part time and freely. Now, I am writing and translating books in my mother language. 
Issayas: What is the main thesis of your first book: The History and Background of the Lutheran Church of Eritrea 1911-1932?
Qeshi Alazar: The thesis of my first book, The History and Background of the Lutheran Church of Eritrea 1911-1932 is that The Lutheran Church of Eritrea (constituted in 1959 as an indigenous Church) was the mother church of the Lutheran Church of Ethiopia, and indirectly, even of the Lutheran Church of Kenya.
Issayas: What was the significance of Qeshi Marqos Ghirmay for the Lutheran Church of Eritrea in particular and Eritrea in general?
Qeshi Alazar: Qeshi Marqos, with his wife Regina, and his missionary partners: Karl Nyström and his wife Agnes Nyström were the first missionaries who left the EFS (Evangelical Fosterlandsstifelsen) for BV- mission (Bibeltrogna Vänner) and started the BV mission work in Eritrea. Karl and Agnes Nyström started the mission work in MayZibo (Debarwa) and Qeshi Marqos and Regina Girmay started the mission at Quazien. Both Nyström and Girmay put the foundation for an indigenous Church in Eritrea. From the beginning, Qeshi Marqos had the intention of making the missionaries in Eritrea self sufficient, responsible and hard working. For instance, he sent his own evangelists in 1904 to Ethiopia from Eritrea. He used to say that evangelism should be carried out by Eritreans. Qeshi Marqos truly made a journey in many ways, and for me he was a source of an inspiration. I had knowingly and unknowingly followed his traces, as we say in Swedish, right from my youth, asking the question as to why the churches from the west were sending missionaries to Africa in one-way traffic instead of two-way traffic. I fought to have an indigenous church andI became the first African priest in Sweden for Swedes.

Qeshi Marcos Ghirmay

Regina Ghirmay


Karl Nyström

Next: Part Two.