On 25 August 2019, we, Consolata missionaries in Ethiopia, have launched a new book entitled:- Sacred in the Worldview of the Gurage people of Ethiopia, Analysis of its Missiological Implication in the Pluralistic Society. It is the fruit of the Doctoral Dissertation of Fr. Gebremeskel Shikur IMC, presented to the Faculty of Missiology of the Urbaniana University in Rome.
The launching of the book was attended by Bishops, Majior Religious Superiors, members of the clergy, religious brothers and sisters, laity, our friends and family members from different religious backgrounds.
The event was started with prayer led by His Eminence Card. Berhaneyesus Surafel CM, Archbishope of Addis Ababa Archdiocese, and followed by a short presentation of the book by Fr. Gebremeskel Shikur IMC, the author of the book. A review of the new book was done by three scholars from different perspectives, Fr. Odomaro Mubangizi S.J, Fr. Petros Berga, Fr. Daniel Assefa OFM. Cap., followed by open discussion with the participants about the content of the book and its relevance for evangelization.
Fr. Marco Marini IMC, Our regional Superior, presented in short the Consolata Missionaries presence in Ethiopia and the relevance of the book for the missionary activity of the Church. He also underlined the position of Our Founder Blessed Joseph Allamano about the respect to the culture of the people, and about knowing their culture in order to evangelize. Our Consolata Chapel choir sung melodious songs in order to give us a break in such academic hard discussion.
At the end His Grace Bishop Musie Ghebreghiorgis, OFM. Cap., the bishop of Emdibir, the home place of the Gurage people, gave a short review of the book and its relevance for evangelization in his diocese in particular and to the whole church in general. And he has concluded the event with a prayer. Then followed a moment of refreshment prepared by the Consolata Missionaries; it was a nice moment of encounter and sharing for all the participants.
Review of the Book
By Abba Odomaro Mubangizi, S.J. 25th August, 2019, At Holy Saviour Parish Church, Addis Ababa
Sacred in the Worldview of the Gurage People of Ethiopia: Analysis of its Missiological Implications in the Pluralistic Society—Gebremeskel Shikur Kirato PhD, (Ethiopian Review of Cultures: Addis Ababa, 2019).
First of all, I am profoundly honored for having been requested by the author of the book we are launching today—Abba Gebremeskel Shikur Kirato, PhD. On a personal note, I have been keenly interested in studying about the Gurage people of Ethiopia, from the day I arrived in Ethiopia. I will begin with an anecdote. The year is 2012 and we were hosting some guests who had come to visit. We took the guests to the famous Yoda Abyssnia for a cultural evening. As the different cultural dances of Ethiopia were being displayed, amidst the delicious Ethiopia cuisine, especially kitifo, one unique and dynamic dance started—the famous Gurage dance. I resolved that I will do some study about the culture and beliefs of the Gurage. I took particular interest in the Gurage indigenous architecture from a comparative perspective—comparing it with that of the Kiga of South Western Uganda. I am therefore very delighted and grateful that Abba Gebremeskel Shikur Kirato, a Consolata Father, has done a thorough and well researched study of his own people the Gurage, and drawn missiological conclusions as well as implications in a pluralistic society. The specific theme the author chose—the concept of the sacared-- is of great interest to all those who are interested in African traditional religions and philosophy, as well as African philosophy and theology.
One key question that intrigues those who study culture and religion in Ethiopia is: given the centuries-old Christian tradition in Ethiopia, are there traditional or indigenous beliefs and values, similar to those found in the rest of Africa, where Christianity was introduced at a much later stage? This question is very crucial since the theology of inculturation presupposes the existence of such traditional or indigenous beliefs and values that can be adapted to the Christian faith and practices.
My brief reflection will cover the following aspects: methodology; chapter by chapter synopsis and main themes; a brief critic; importance and relevance of the book; further areas of future investigation and way-forward.
Being a doctoral dissertation, that was presented to the Faculty of Missiology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, the book meets the major criteria for a highly scholarly and critical work. It combines both empirical and theoretical approaches from an interdisciplinary perspective. Disciplines deployed include: sociology of religion, anthropology, missiology, systematic theology, and history. The author used questionnaire and interviews to supplement the data from secondary sources. Being a member of the community studied, the author was able to corroborate some of the information he gathered from interviews and books from his personal experience. But studying one’s culture can raise the issue of objectivity since there is a tendency to be more sympathetic and appreciative of one’s worldview.
Chapter by chapter synopsis and main themes
The book which has 279 pages, has a general introduction, five chapters and a general conclusion. The general introduction introduces the main theme of the sacred, the challenge of secularism and Vatican II’s appreciation of non-Christian religions. Then the motivation, method, sources, limitations of the research, and division of the work are briefly presented. The chapters are systematically and logically organized.
Chapter one that discusses in great detail the concept of the sacred, covers the following areas: the meaning of the sacred in ordinary language and from anthropological and comparative religious studies; biblical views of the sacred both in Old and New Testaments; the scared in the Qu’ran and Islam; and the Christian view of the sacred in tradition, Conciliar and post-conciliar documents of the Catholic Church.
Chapter two deals with the scholarly views on the sacred, discussing the two main trends—the sociological and phenomenological approaches of the 20th Century. Special attention is given the issue of secularization and modern scientific discoveries as major challenges to the idea of the sacred. The chapter concludes by analyzing the notion of the sacred in Christian doctrine with emphasis on Christ’s salvific mission—Christ event as the decisive reality in understanding of the sacred in Christianity.
Chapter three is dedicated to the Gurage of Ethiopia by presenting their social-cultural, economic, political and religious reality. Since in Gurage as in other African cultures, the secular and the sacred are intimately interconnected, this chapter is key to understand the concept of the sacred among the Gurage. In this chapter the key to understand the concept of the sacred among the Gurage are the two sections on social-cultural reality and social-religious reality. Gurage conceptual scheme is well elaborated, e.g: Anke (harmony, justice, peace and truth,), Yedem Kitcha (a rule which deals with murder), ye Gurda Kitcha (a rule which deals with mutual oath), Ye Ankit Kitcha (rule which deals with marriage regulation), Ye Kiye Kitcha (rule of borders between two neighbors), Teye (procedure of searching for justice with the help of an oath), Batir (Sin against the set rules—very grave), Woge (office or person for resolving a grave sin or Batir), Bozhe, Waq, Demwmuit, (the main deities of the Gurage people). Tour—spirit of prosperity and the gift of God—like grace—it can come and go away. The geographical, historical and cultural description of the Gurage is set in the broader context of Ethiopia. The contested history of the origins of the Gurage is also presented relying on major works about the Gurage.
Chapter four extensively and with great scholarly rigor the concept of the sacred among the Gurage and how this reality is experienced. All the major values, beliefs and customary practices associated with the sacred are well discussed. Among such beliefs are: sacred values, sacred persons, sacred objects, sacred places and sacred times. The scared is highly revered and respected among the Gurage. Attention is also paid to the profane in Gurage worldview and how the profane and sacred are related. Some comparative view is given by presenting what other African scholars have said about the sacred. Similarities are quite evident and this confirms how across Africa the concept of the sacred is ubiquitous or to use the common phrase: “Africans are notoriously religious” as John Mbiti put it.
Chapter five is an application of the concept of the sacred among the Gurage to missiology. The themes or issues where the Gurage concepts of the sacred are applied and very relevant are: human life as a sacred; ecumenical dialogue; interreligious dialogue; environmental protection—creation as sacred; reconciliation, peace and justice. The chapter concludes by highlighting some challenges and prospects for the future. First of all, the future is promising: “According to our studies of the sense of the sacred in the worldview of the Gurage people of Ethiopia, there are promising aspects which are similar to the Christian teaching on the sense of the sacred. I could say that it s fertile ground for the Church’s missionary approach in the pluralistic society or our time.” (p. 244). The inseparability of culture and religion among the Gurage and the rest of African societies, makes these cultures fertile ground for the seeds of the Gospel. Because of the high sense of the sacred that permeates the whole of creation, there is great respect for creation as a work of God—this is similar to the Church’s teaching on “…the sacredness of creation as the work of God and the dwelling place of God.” (p. 245). The strong social structure where elders play a crucial role and emphasis on life, provide fertile ground for a culture of life, while the respect for elders and traditional authority, can serve as a basis for an African ecclesiology. Similarly, the strong communitarian ethic captured in the famous phrase: “I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am”, can help to strengthen a communitarian Christian life, especially in today’s world of increasing individualism.
The key challenges that the author focuses on are: secularism due to high urbanization and globalization; exaggerated ethnicism—during the First African Synod in 1994 someone commented that in Africa “blood is thicker than the waters of baptism”; poverty; and environmental degradation.
A brief critique, Further Areas of Investigation and way-forward
Apart from some few typological errors, there are some issues that could have been mentioned even in passing, given the dynamic and ever changing world within the Gurage worldview is set. Traditional societies like the Gurage generally tend to be very patriarchal and male-dominated. This was briefly mentioned, but given the increasing demand for gender equality and the role of women both in society and church, this issue could have been some extra attention. This issue has a great impact on the Church’s evangelizing mission in the 21st century. Equally missing is the issue of youth that was recently addressed by a Synod of Bishops in Rome. The future of the church all over the world seems to be the youth who now make about 60 % in some countries such as Ethiopia. The issue of reconciliation and peace was well brought out, but there is even a big issue of governance and democracy, that Laurenti Magesa in his famous books that the author quotes—What is not Sacred?, dwells on to a great extent. Might the idea of exaggerated respect for authority and tradition also lead to unquestioning acceptance of undemocratic systems and procedures? This is the big question that most African philosophers and theologians are battling with given the tendency for some African leaders to over stay in power, behaving like African chiefs and kings of the past.
Given the strong cultural values and norms of the Gurage, I would have loved to see some few proverbs and riddles or folk tales to illustrate some of the concepts that are well presented by the author. Some African riddles are quite amusing like: “What can’t you ask about news?” Answer: a dog. I have my house, which when I enter, cannot come out, and it has no door and no windows. Answer: grave. Proverbs: One who does listen to advice sailed with a boat made of clay; a fly that has no body to advise if follows a dead body to the grave.
Given that the Gurage use a lot of traditional medicine found in plants that are part of the sacred realities, I would also have loved to hear something about the use of traditional medicine, given that this is also a controversial area that hotly debated.
Importance and relevance of the book
Abba Gebremeskel has made an unprecedented contribution to the growing body of scholarship both in African theology and philosophy, not to mention ethnography. The book Sacred in the Worldview of the Gurage people of Ethiopia, as Abune (Bishop) Musie stated while appraising the work—“This work will remain as an important point of reference for scholars, researchers on the topic for many years to come.” I will add my voice to this strong affirmation and say that, this work stands tall among other famous works by African scholars like John Mbiti, Beneze Bujo, Charles Nyamiti, Oborji, Laurenti Magesa, Jean Marc Ela, John Mary Waliggo, and many others.
What is next? Theological and philosophical institutes across Africa can now use works such as this to systematically and programmatically develop African theology and philosophy and make these central to academic research across Africa. The ideas in the book can also be used to develop pastoral programs for deeper evangelization in Ethiopia, where several other ethnic communities have similar traditional religious beliefs, that are still looked down upon.
Abba Gebremeskel has opened wide avenues for further investigation by future upcoming scholars who can now zero down on some of the specific themes and develop them to greater detail from various disciplinary perspectives. This is a landmark achievement in taking studies on Gurage from the historical and anthropological domain to theological discourse. While foreign scholars like Leslau and Shack made their unique ground-breaking contribution to Gurage studies, it is high time members of the Gurage community started telling their own story with passion as Abba Gebremeskel has so ably done.
Even policy makers who are engaged in social and economic development can borrow some insights from this excellent work to address issues of sustainable development, climate change, and indigenous knowledge. The section on reconciliation and peace is very much relevant for Ethiopia these days. Those involved in the process of peace and reconciliation will benefit immensely from this work.
I highly recommend this book to all those who are fascinated by the enterprising Gurage of Ethiopia, and those who wish to do the work of evangelization among the Gurage. And those who are engaged in development programs among the Gurage, it helps to know something about the people’s worldview and mindset.