Northwest Ethiopia Field

By Fantahun Ayele

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Fantahun Ayele

First Published: April 3, 2021

The Northwest Ethiopia Field (formerly part of Ethiopian Union Mission) was established in 1929 and reorganized in 2019. It is currently a part of Eastern Ethiopia Union Mission in the East-Central Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists. Its territory includes Gojjam and Gonder regions and parts of Benishangul Gumuze and Wollo regions. Statistics, as of June 30, 2020: churches 16, membership 2,657, population 14,077,974.1

Currently the field office is located in the Bahir Dar SDA Church compound in the town of Bahir Dar, 545 kilometers from the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. The first field office, in 1931, was at Debre Tabor, 666 kilometers from Addis Ababa; but it was moved to the current site in 2009 due to the fact that the town of Bahir Dar became the capital of Amahara region and it is also the center of the field.2 The territory is highly dominated by Orthodox churches and Muslim mosques. Protestant and Catholic believers are comparatively few in number.3 As of 2021 the field has three districts/zones (Addis Ager, Debre Tabor, and Bahir Dar), and the total membership is about 2,668 in 23 churches.4 The field has six schools—two kindergartens, three elementary and junior high schools, and one high school.5

Origin of Adventist Work

Long before the arrival of the first Seventh-day Adventist missionaries in Ethiopia, a great Muslim reformer named Sheikh Zekaryas began his movement in 1891 in Begemeder. According to Pastor Truneh Wolde Selassie, the movement of Sheikh Zekaryas had many elements of Adventism. Among other things, he taught observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. Although he began his movement to reform Islam, he eventually succeeded in converting about 15,000 Muslims to Christianity.6

In 1910 Sheikh Zekaryas was baptized and took the name Newaye Kirstos (meaning “property of Christ”) by Abba Ananya at the church of Debre Tabor Iyesus in the presence of Ras (later, King) Wolde Giorgis, the governor of Begemeder. On that day, 3,000 of his followers were baptized with him.7 Wolde Giorgis was so delighted to see the baptism of this influential reformer and his followers that he invited Newaye Kirstos to move to Debre Tabor. As an expression of his support for Wolde Giorgis, Newaye Kirstos joined the governor with his 150 retainers in his march to Tigray in 1914 to restore law and order.8 During that trip Newaye Kirstos visited a Swedish mission school near Adwa and received over a hundred books and tracts.

When the news of his visit reached the Swedish missionaries in Asmara, they sent Aleqa Dessalegn to make contact with Newaye Kirstos and his followers in Begemeder. Aleqa Dessalegn stayed a year at Feresmeda in the house of Aleqa Motbaynor Goshu, one of the students of Sheikh Zekaryas (now Newaye Kirstos). His teaching kindled Motbaynor’s interest and he was determined to find out the truth by going to Asmara. Accordingly, in 1921, Aleqa Motbaynor traveled to Asmara and he was warmly welcomed by the Swedish missionaries. However, the Swedish missionaries were not Sabbath keepers, nor did they practice adult baptism through immersion.9 He thought that these were not the people he was looking for. Finally, Aleqa Gebrat, whom he met at a Sunday church service, took him to a Seventh-day Adventist church. There, he “saw three men standing together by the pulpit preaching the one message in three different languages.” Aleqa Motbaynor “saw with his own eyes on that memorable Sabbath, a direct fulfillment of the prophecy given by his teacher and spiritual father, Aleka Newaye Christos, some years back.”10

Upon his return from Asmara, Aleqa Motbaynor began to preach the gospel in ten villages where the new Christians were living. In response to Aleqa Motbaynor’s request for evangelists and teachers, the Seventh-day Adventist Mission in Asmara sent Aleqa Gebrat and Ato Equbazion to Feresmeda. While Aleqa Gebrat joined Aleqa Motbaynor in preaching the gospel, Ato Equbazion began his work as a village teacher. When Aleqa Gebrat and Ato Equbazion returned to Asmara, they were accompanied by three boys from Feresmeda named Dessie Gudaye, Tebeje Gudaye, and Amare Yeshaw. A year later another four students from the same locality traveled to Asmara and joined their friends. These were Dessie Kassahun, Kibret Abebe, Legesse Wassie, and Bailey Berbere. “It was again Aleka Motbainor, that gallant soldier of Jesus Christ who inspired the parents and the second group of students to go to Asmara and obtain Christian education.” Aleqa Motbaynor had also undertaken “the responsibility of taking that second group of students right to Asmara and got them admitted into the boarding school.”11

In the meantime, Adventist evangelism began to bear fruit in Begemeder. In 1924 the first six converts went to Asmara to be baptized. That was followed in the same year by the baptism of another 20 people from Begemeder. The Adventist mission in Asmara seems to have understood the difficulty of the new converts in traveling to Asmara to be baptized. As a result, Pastor Ogbazgy was sent to Begemeder to baptize the new Christians. Accordingly, he baptized around 200 converts in the Teqen River in late 1925.12

In 1927 and again in 1928, G. Gudmundsen, a missionary from Norway, visited the places in Begemeder where the new Adventists were living. The purpose of his visit was to study ways of establishing a mission station in northwest Ethiopia. Following his visits, Gudmundsen approached the emperor and asked him to grant him land in Begemeder for the mission. The emperor not only granted land, but also “donated 400,000 Maria Theresa dollars” for the construction of a hospital in the town of Debre Tabor. Likewise, the governor of Begemeder, Ras Kassa Haylu donated 10,000 Maria Theresa dollars to the new project.13

Organizational History of the Field

The field was organized in 1929 as part of the Ethiopia Union Mission and reorganized in 2019 to become part of the Eastern Ethiopia Union Mission.14

In 1929 the Gudmundsens were transferred to Ethiopia and the young Dessie Kassahun was to assist him as a translator and assistant supervisor of the building construction work. After getting permission from the emperor in 1931, he established a mission station at Debre Tabor; this was the beginning of the establishment of the North West Ethiopia Field. G. Gudmundsen was the first leader of the field.15 Adventists from Begemeder were assigned to transport building materials from Addis Ababa to Debre Tabor using pack animals. Pastor Dessie Kassahun and Gudmundsen also moved to Debre Tabor via Debre Marqos and Dessie, respectively. They worked together in the construction of a hospital, a school, and an office for the Northwest Field. When Gudmundsen returned to Norway, he was replaced by Mr. and Mrs. Erik Palm from Sweden. The construction of eight buildings was completed in 1934. Mr. and Mrs. Erik Palm were trained nurses. Pastor Truneh aptly described them as “a godsent couple to a people who had never known medical help in all their lives.”16

Adventist education also witnessed remarkable growth. While boarding students from Adventist families were admitted, day students from the town were also enrolled. Amharic, Arabic, English, geography, history, and mathematics were the main subjects taught at the Adventist school. Unfortunately, however, all the evangelical, medical, and educational activities of the mission were interrupted by the Italian invasion of 1935 and the subsequent occupation that lasted until 1941. Mr. and Mrs. Palm were imprisoned and then deported to Europe.17

Soon after Ethiopia’s liberation from the Italian occupation in 1941, Pastor Dessie Kassahun and G. Gudmundsen returned to Debre Tabor to resume what they had been doing five years previously. Sister Shake Nalkranian, an Armenian nurse, joined Mr. and Mrs. Palm. Later, Dr. Roland Nielsen from Denmark arrived to lead the hospital. In 1949 Dr. K. Hogganvik, a Norwegian physician, replaced Dr. Nielsen. Dr. Hogganvik dedicated himself to tirelessly serving the local people for the next 25 years. People from near and far began to flock to the Adventist hospital to get his medical treatment. In addition to his professional integrity, he was widely known for his philanthropic activities. He is reported to have collected money from Norwegian charity organizations and distributed it among the poor people and orphans.18

While evangelical, medical, and educational activities in Debre Tabor were showing remarkable success, the Adventists in Addisge, Agdamoch, Ebennat, Feresmeda, Gebergie, Washa, and other villages continued to suffer from severe persecution. For instance, in 1932 the Adventists in those villages were told by Orthodox fanatics to stop all farming activities, and that order remained in force until 1935. In 1937 the Adventists in Feresmeda, Geberye, Addisge, and Washa villages were plundered by the Orthodox Christians,19 but the worst was yet to come. On June 27, 1946, the Adventists in Gubda, who had recently moved to that locality, were subjected to plunder and destruction of their village. After looting their cattle and murdering two elders, the bandits set the village on fire. The bandits were led by Fitawrari Haylu Dejen from Hamus Wonz, and Qegnazmach Tesemma Dori and Ambaw Bitewa from Kemkem. Many Adventists were forced to take refuge at the mission compound in Debre Tabor. This was reported to Bitwoded Andargachew Mesay, governor general of Begemeder, and Simen, who had been visiting Debre Tabor. He ordered that these bandits should be hunted down without delay and brought to justice. The government forces finally managed to capture the leading bandits on August 24, 1946. While the two bandit leaders Fitawrari Haylu Dejene and Ambaw Bitewa were hanged, others were sentenced to imprisonment.20

In 1950 a meeting was held by church leaders in Debre Tabor to discuss the problem of the unending persecution against Adventists living in those scattered villages among the Orthodox population. At the end of that meeting it was decided to relocate those Adventists to a new area near a town where they could receive emergency help. There was also an intention to build a school, a church, and a clinic in the new settlement area. Amare Yeshaw was elected to carry out the resettlement program. Amare soon began to search for virgin land large enough to accommodate all the Adventist families living in Addisge, Agdamoch, Ebennat, Feresmeda, Gebergie, Washa, and other villages. He was informed of the availability of a vast amount of land around Metemma. In 1951 he took with him Dr. Andersson, medical director of the Zewditu Hospital, to Metemma to study whether the area was suitable for settlement. However, the land was deemed not suitable due to the prevalence of malaria. In addition, it was too hot and too remote. They also visited a place called Gijen in Dembia. This area, too, was malaria infested. A year after their visit to Dembia, a malaria epidemic broke out in that area and claimed the lives of more than 7,000 people.21

Next, they paid a visit to a place called Buraqa in Kemkem. They did not like that place either. Finally, they visited two places in Fogera: Selen Wuha and Arbamba. Selen Wuha was selected for four reasons. First, it was closer to Debre Tabor. Second, the soil was very fertile. Third, it was covered with dense forest and there would be no problem with acquiring firewood and wood for construction. Finally, the area was endowed with abundant water resources, mainly rivers like Selen Wuha, Konkoz, Marza, and Reb.22

In 1952 Amare requested Fitawrari Negede Zegeye, governor of Debre Tabor Awraja, to grant him this land. This land was a safe haven for bandits and the area was called lebameqemecha (the seat of thieves). For the governor, it was good to give away this land to the new settlers. Fitawrari Negede thus ordered Qegnazmach Abraham Meshesha, governor of Fogera district, to hand over the land to Amare. The forest land granted to Amare stretched from Alga Chincha in the south to Reb River in the north, from Zeng in the east to Sifatra in the west. After securing the land, Amare sent letters to the Adventist families scattered among the Orthodox population who had endured endless persecution, inviting them to settle in this new area. They accepted the invitation with joy and excitement. The first group of the new settlers arrived in 1953. They were so delighted that they called the new settlement Addis Ager (new country). The settlement process continued until 1960, the year when the last settlers from the village of Geberye arrived. The new settlement sites were named after their former villages.23

Now the question was how to distribute land among the new settlers. In 1953 another meeting was held in Debre Tabor. Twelve representatives from Addis Ager were summoned to attend the meeting and they were to elect a person who would be in charge of distributing the land among settlers. The majority elected Alemnew Wubete to carry out this assignment. Soon afterwards, Alemnew took the new responsibility and began to distribute land among the new settlers using a thong measurement. At this point, the Orthodox Christians of the surrounding areas decided to take their own share from the new land. Thus, they began to occupy the new forest land in all directions before it was taken and cultivated by the new settlers. In the eyes of the Orthodox Christians, although it was not owned by individual landlords or small-scale cultivators, it was their own communal land. They further claimed that it was the land of their ancestors, received for future generations. This claim was rejected by the new settlers. First, the case was taken to local and regional courts. Then, it was referred to the authorities in Addis Ababa. After a lengthy court procedure, the final verdict allowed both parties to keep what they had already possessed and prevented any future encroachment by the Orthodox Christians to the new land.24 Soon an open-air school under the shade of a tree began to operate in the new settlement. It attracted many boys and girls from the surrounding villages. Since it was the only modern school in the area, it also admitted students from some liberal Orthodox families.

The outbreak of the Ethiopian revolution in 1974 brought about tremendous changes. In 1975 Girazmach Admasu Belay, a former secretary of the Debre Tabor Awraja, took up arms against the new military government that deposed the last emperor in 1974. He gathered a large peasant force from Gayent, Farta, and Este and marched to Debre Tabor. On September 9, 1975, he defeated the army sent against him at the battle of Gasay, then he advanced to Debre Tabor. His rebel force entered the Adventist mission compound and plundered all the property, including hospital beds, drugs, and medical equipment.25

Once the rebel force was repulsed, the military government nationalized the Debre Tabor hospital along with the school and the church. The Northwest Field was left with two mission stations only. There were still a few Adventist families in Gubda who had an elementary school and church which had been built in 1948. At Addis Ager, the school was upgraded to a junior high school and had a sizable student population. The church and the clinic there were also doing very well. The church in Addis Ager had probably the largest congregation in northwestern Ethiopia. The schools in Gubda and Addis Ager have succeeded in educating some of the best minds in the country. Likewise, the churches in both localities have produced devoted pastors who served in the field as well as at the union in various capacities.

Field Outlook for the Future

The outlook for the future is promising for several reasons. The union has been reorganized into two, which will make it possible for the new union leadership to give closer attention and more support to the fields that fall under its jurisdiction. Also, the growth rate, though it is very low, is there nevertheless. For instance, in 2019 membership was 2,624, in 2021 it was 2,668. While the increase is small, it is still there in a predominantly conservative Orthodox area. The increase of 44 people gives hope for the future.

List of Presidents

G. Gudmundsen (1931-1932, 1941-1942); Erik Palm (1932-1936, 1942-1947); E. Bjannes (1947-1954); Tebeje Guddaye (1954-1962); Berhan Negussie (1962-1967, 1976-1982); Negash Botbaynor (1967-1976); Amare Yeshaw (1982-1991); Worku Tsgawe (1992-2001); Tekeba Alemayehu (2002-2006); Addisu Mengistu (2007-2011); Mandefro Alemayehu (2011-present).26

Sources

Ayele, Fantahun. “Malaria Epidemics in Dembia, Northwest Ethiopia 1952-1953.” Ethiopian Journal of Health Development, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2017).

Ayele, Fantahun. “The History of Seventh-day Adventist Missionary Activities in Dabra Tabor Awraja, 1924-1975.” B.A. thesis in History, Addis Ababa University (1986).

Crummey, Donald. “Shaikh Zakaryas: An Ethiopian Prophet.” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1972).

Crummey, Donald. “The History of Seventh-Day Adventist Missionary Activities in Dabra Tabor Awraja, 1924-1975.” B.A. thesis in History, Addis Ababa University (1986).

Selassie, Truneh Wolde. Adventism in Ethiopia: The Incredible Saga of the Beginning and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventist Work in Ethiopia (2005). A copy in the author’s private collection.

Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, various years. https://www.adventistyearbook.org/.

Notes

  1. “Northwest Ethiopia Field,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (2021), https://www.adventistyearbook.org/entity?EntityID=13635.

  2. Eyrus Emshaw (secretary, NWEF), interviewed by Mandefro Alemayehu, Bahir dar, Ethiopia, May 17, 2021.

  3. Adera Abite (ordained pastor), interviewed by Abraham Teka, Hawassa, Ethiopia, May 9, 2018.

  4. Eyrus Emshaw (secretary, NWEF), interviewed by Mandefro Alemayehu, Bahir dar, Ethiopia, May 17, 2021.

  5. Maru Mekonnen (Communications and Education director, NWEF), interviewed by Mandefro Alemayehu, Bahir dar, Ethiopia, April 12, 2021.

  6. Truneh Wolde Selassie, Adventism in Ethiopia: The Incredible Saga of the Beginning and Progress of the Seventh-Day Adventist Work in Ethiopia (2005), 104, 163.

  7. Ibid., 108; Donald Crummey, “Shaikh Zakaryas: An Ethiopian Prophet,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1972): 64.

  8. Selassie, 108; Fantahun Ayele, “The History of Seventh-day Adventist Missionary Activities in Dabra Tabor Awraja, 1924-1975,” B.A. thesis in History, Addis Ababa University (1986), 16.

  9. Selassie, 164-166.

  10. Ibid., 167.

  11. Ibid., 179.

  12. Ayele, 30; Selassie, 179-180.

  13. Selassie, 198.

  14. “Northwest Ethiopia Field,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (2020).

  15. Ibid., 197.

  16. Ibid., 201.

  17. Ibid., 202.

  18. Ayele, “The History of Seventh-day Adventist Missionary Activities in Dabra Tabor Awraja, 1924-1975,” 58; Selassie, 215.

  19. Ayele, “The History of Seventh-day Adventist Missionary Activities in Dabra Tabor Awraja, 1924-1975,” 34.

  20. Ibid., 47-49.

  21. Fantahun Ayele, “Malaria Epidemics in Dembia, Northwest Ethiopia 1952-1953,” Ethiopian Journal of Health Development, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2017): 58.

  22. Fantahun, 49-51.

  23. Ibid., 52.

  24. Ibid., 52-53.

  25. Ibid., 54-55.

  26. Eyrus Emshaw (secretary, NWEF), interviewed by Mandefro Alemayehu, Bahir dar, Ethiopia, May 17, 2021.

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Ayele, Fantahun. "Northwest Ethiopia Field." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. April 03, 2021. Accessed June 17, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=HFGE.

Ayele, Fantahun. "Northwest Ethiopia Field." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. April 03, 2021. Date of access June 17, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=HFGE.

Ayele, Fantahun (2021, April 03). Northwest Ethiopia Field. Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved June 17, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=HFGE.