Shame Across Cultures

An experience of Malcolm Hunter in Ethiopia (1977)

 Editors Note: This story was shared with me by Malcolm Hunter when he visited us in the Arabian desert in 2003. He was on a trip around the world, studing various nomadic peoples. Roland Muller

Ethiopia at the beginning of 1977 was coming to the boil with the violent propaganda of the Marxist Revolution. Russian, Cuban, and Chinese communist radicals competed to toke the fires of hatred towards American capitalists, British Imperialists and anything seen as Western, especially anyone and anything connected to Christian Missions from overseas. Apart from hours and hours of radio propaganda attacking all things western and Christian, the local party officials were ordered to organize demonstrations and public denunciations campaigns against the hated American and European democracies.

I had many opportunities to see and feel the effects of this ferment of hatred and officially instigated violence as I went around the mission stations and rural projects for which I was responsible as District Superintendent for South West Ethiopia. My wife and I had been traveling over 5 different locations each month by MAP plane to cover all the bases where we had missionaries or young ones who needed encouragement and supervision.

One of the ferment places was called Chencha, an old Mission Station at 9000 feet in the mountains where the national church had been well established and the school and clinic handed over to very capable Ethiopian staff. The church leaders from all over the tribe used to meet there once a month for 2 to 3 days of prayer and reporting on what God was doing and they still wanted "their" missionary to meet with them.

I was happy to do that, not just because it was a pleasant to go back up to the green grass and cool air in the mountains at Chencha after spending the rest of the month in lowland deserts, but also because those dear old Church elders were my friends, many of them old enough to be my father. I loved them and believed they enjoyed working with me.

For several months at the beginning of 1977 each time I went back to Chencha I head troubling reports from the school principal, that one of the junior teachers had been affected by the Marxist revolutionary propaganda. He had been leading his pupils out of their classroom to join in demonstrations and disrupting the school more and more each week. I listened to these reports but gave the inevitable response to Ato Paulos, the principal that this was not my problem as the school was run by the national church, and they could employ or dismiss whoever they liked. My only responsibility was to bring the 20% of the school budget that the mission had agreed to contribute to help the church with wages and running costs. I did not even know the young teacher called Tefera, who was causing the troubles. Ato Paulos told me "maybe that was part of the problem, that I had not taken the time to get to know him. I could only admit that in the whole range of things, I was trying to hold together in these uncertain times that the school and church at Chencha was among the least of my concerns wand one mixed up teacher could not justify my personal attention at that stage of advancing chaos all over the country.

By March of that year the situation in the school had become so bad that the teachers came to the monthly meeting of the church elders and told them that they wanted to help make peace between the teacher, Tefera, and the missionaries, meaning me of course. I still did not take the matter seriously, so replied that I would be willing to meet with them when I came back the net month to help bring peace to the school. At that point the senior and most respected elder, Ato Gembo, turned to me and said they would be willing to try and bring reconciliation but if they did, it would have to be on their terms and by using the peace-making methods of their Gamu tribe. Against, I readily agreed without checking what these special methods and terms would entail. So the appointment was made for a reconciliation attempt in April.

During the intervening weeks before I returned to Chencha for the next elders meeting there were several other crisis with the missionaries in the South West with health and political problems, and I personally found myself accused of opposing the revolution. But that is another story, suffice it to say that I got back to Chencha, we were quite exhausted, but so far stretched beyond our human resources that were deeply aware of God's strength.

I went to meet with the church elders, 18-20 of them that had come on the Friday evening to represent the 130 or so local churches scattered all over the Gamu mountains, five days walk from North to South. We had the usual happy welcome meal and informal changing of news from all over the trine, obviously keeping far away from the political turmoil spreading through the land, through the deliberately destabilizing efforts of the communist cadres.

By 9:00 pm the meal was cleared away and the first item on the agenda was raised - to make peace between the teacher, Tefera and "our missionary." Ato Gembo showed how important he regarded this matter, by handling it himself instead of allowing one of the younger elders to deal with it as he usually did. He told us both to come forward into the center of the large room with just one kerosene pressure lamp to give light and long eerie shadows. Then came my first surprise.

"You must both kneel on the ground and repent of your sin in dividing the body of Christ."

I was astonished at what I was hearing and started to protest that I did not even know who this school teacher was until I saw him sitting up beside me. Ato Gembo sternly interrupted me saying "Did you not agree to allow us to make peace in our own way and on our own terms?" With a sinking heart I shut up and got down on my knees on the mud floor. I had seen this repentance process many times so waited for the customary murmur from all the witnesses granting their forgiveness in the tribal language and custom.

Having waited on the ground for a considerable time I lifted my head to look at these dear old men whom I considered as my close friends and brothers. They looked closely at me and one of them said: "There is no mud on your forehead. You must truly humble yourself and get right down again on the ground."

Feeling more and more confused and dejected I pushed my head down into the dirt that had come from all the boots walking from the muddy trails over the mountains. Eventually Ato Gembo told me to stand up beside the teacher Tefera and give my account of what was the problem between him and me. I repeated my protest that I had not even known Tefera before that evening so I could not say I had any problem with him except I felt that the Mission would not want to continue paying money towards the school if their teacher kept on disrupting the classes.

Then came the most difficult moment for me when Ato Gembo asked me directly "Do you think you have loved this young man as Jesus would?" Of course, I had to admit, "No, I have not." Before I could say anything else the teacher Tefera was told to give his side of the problem. He launched into a long political speech, straight from the communist propaganda bureau about British imperialistic oppression and American capitalistic exploitation. Being a dual citizen of both nationalities I was clearly held guilty of all charges.

The poor young man got more and more inflamed so that the school principal Paulos had to try to quite him down and eventually shut him up completely, telling him to sit down before he made a bigger problem for himself.

We were both told to go and wait in the room next door whilst the elders discussed our case. It may have been part of the psychological method of dealing with protagonists in Gamu society that we were left along in semi darkness for about 20 minutes. We said nothing to each other as we tried to hear what was being discussed next door between the elders and Ato Paulos.

It was a solemn and serious moment when we were called back into the meet room to hear the verdict of the elders. Ato Gembo looked as serious as I had ever seen him, turned first to me and told me almost forcibly that they were sorry to have to tell me that they were most disappointed in me. I was supposed to be their teacher and counselor but I had admitted myself that I had not loved this young man as Jesus would. He was just a boy, a baby in Christ who had not had the privilege of Bible training and extension training that I had, so I should make up for his ignorance.

I was feeling increasingly bewildered, troubled, and ashamed with nothing to reply. This was the man I most respected in all my life, the first believer in his tribe, the greatly used father of the church through 40 years of suffering and severe persecution. After Ato Gembo had spoken severely for about 5 minutes he told another of the elders to give his opinion. This was the man I had regarded as my second most respected friend and father who launched into an even fiercer exposure of my failure to love this young man as Jesus would have. "How could I expect people in the tribe to listen to my teaching at conferences and in the church when I had confessed this most serious shortcoming in my love for a hot headed young teacher who did not know any better than to listen to the current political propaganda." This same accusation was repeated five or six times by different elders before they were finished with me. I must have stood in front of them for nearly half an hour listening to the same charges, all presented with in may different African proverbs and analogies that left me feeling utterly ashamed and defeated.

Eventually they finished with me and turned to the teacher, Tefera. One of the other elders gave a summary of all the problems he had caused in the school which took about 2 minutes, 3 at the most, and then Ato Gembo cleared his throat, as was his custom when he was about so say something important, and told us that he felt that enough had been said and discussed, and there was no reason why we should not now embrace each other and make peace.

By that time I was so overwhelmed with shame and as near as I have ever known despair, almost numb with it, that I put my arms around Tefera as tears rolled down my face. I could not say anything or even look at anyone. I have to confess that I certainly did not feel any love and forgiveness for Tefera but by that stage I could only do what I was told, while the elders voiced their approval.

Soon afterwards we were dismissed and I walked across the few hundred yards in the darkness of night to the house across the road where I could see a light still in the living room window. I disconsolately walked in the front door to find my dear wife still up and waiting for me. No doubt praying as she thought this was going to be a tough meeting for me even though my boundless optimism had let me believe it would be no problem.

The eucalyptus logs were burning in the stone fireplace so I went and sat dejectedly in the nearest chair while Jean said she would make me a hot drink.

When she returned with it, I looked up from my seat by the fire and said to her "I don't think I will ever understand these Ethiopians." I really thought they were my close friends and brothers, but tonight the best of them have just torn me to shreds, utterly humiliated me to the point of wanting to give up as never before."

At that moment the front door opened and Ato Gembo walked straight in. He had never done that before as he would always knock and wait to be invited to enter but tonight was something different. He walked right across to me sitting miserably in my chair and put his arm around me.

"Ah Mr. Hunter, that was so hard for you, wasn't it? We are so sorry that we had to hurt you like that, but that is our Gamu way of making peace. If you had known our way, you would have realized that by addressing you first you were the least guilty. And the more innocent a man is in any dispute, the more serious we have to make his offence appear, so that there is no room for pride at being addressed first. The man who is taken second knows that he is regarded as the guiltiest so we do not need to take much time talking about his offence and mistakes. By this means we believe there is the best chance that the two people in depute might be able to be reconciled. That is our Gamu way of judging between quarrels. Within our people, even more so in the churches. In your countries we know that your English law is very different when people go to court. One man is judged innocent and leaves feeling proud and vindicated. The other must therefore be guilty and goes away angry and full of resentment towards the one judged innocent. There is very little chance that such people will be reconciled and want to speak to each other again. This is not good."

I am happy to be able to tell the end of this story. Teacher Tefera went from bad to worse as he got almost consumed by hatred to the point that he was behaving "like a crazy man." He went to all the communist party meetings and followed the lifestyle of most of the members into the bars and brothels in town till he was often found lying in the mud ditches dead drunk. His wife was an amazing woman of faith and kept on trying to hold the family together with the help of the Christians who had been forced underground when all the churches were closed. Many times the children were starving as there was no money but God finally answered the desperate prayers of Tefera's wife.

After almost 12 years of utter misery and abuse Tefera came to his senses and went to the leaders of the underground Christian church and confessed his stupidity and sin. It took a long time for him to sort out the mess of his life and his many debts but in God's good time I met him about fifteen years after that awful night before the leaders at Chandcha. He still bore the signs of his wretched life like an old man with a wizened face and scars all over his head. I hardly recognized him but when he approached me and hugged me, he was indeed the teacher Tefera. I could freely and sincerely put my arms around him and really embrace him. The tears that ran down my cheek this time were of pure joy and praise to God for making real peace.

Malcolm Hunter

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