June 12, 2019
By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
If you attend a Lutheran church you may have noticed occasionally the unfamiliar name “Onesimos Nesib” among the commemorations of saints. Here’s his story—one that can’t be told without that of his friend and coworker, Aster Ganno. Go to an Ethiopian church in the U.S. today and you’re pretty well guaranteed to find Sunday School rooms dedicated to both of them, and maybe one to Gudina Tumsaas well.
Proposed date of commemoration: June 21.
The Oromo people of western Ethiopia received the gospel from freed slaves.
It wasn’t like foreign missionaries hadn’t been trying. They had, for years. One setback after another prevented them from reaching the enormous tribe whose language is the second-largest indigenous one in use in Africa. And it certainly didn’t help that the Amhara emperors and their vassal kings were in the process of conquering Oromia at the very same time.
But just as Joseph’s sale into slavery ultimately meant the salvation of his people (Genesis 37), so did the enslavement of many Oromos. One particular Oromo boy named Hika, whose name prophetically meant “translator,” lost his father and therefore his protection at the age of four, whereupon he was kidnapped by a slaver. Over the next dozen years, he was stolen twice and sold four times, though one master was kind enough that the boy willingly took the man’s surname Nesib as his own.
His horrific existence ended in 1870 when a Swiss explorer and diplomat named Werner Münzinger bought him and turned him over to the care of the Swedish Evangelical Mission, run by Pastor Bengt Peter Lundahl in Massawa on the Red Sea coast in present-day Eritrea. No longer a slave but a student, he threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies and the faith of his liberators. At his baptism on Easter day in 1872, he took the Christian name Onesimos, after the runaway slave that St. Paul had liberated and sent home free to be reconciled to his master Philemon.
Onesimos found his new community among not only the Swedish missionaries in Massawa but also many other freed Oromo slaves. Despite having left his homeland at such an early age, his one passion was to return and share the gospel with his own people.
But through the missionaries he’d learned a key component of gospel proclamation: vernacular literacy. The Oromo would need to be able to read the Bible in their own language; indeed, they’d need to learn to read at all! Recalling Luther’s passion first for the gospel but followed closely by education, Onesimos set out to give his people the gift of their own language and, in so doing, the message of the gospel in the words closest to their hearts.
Since Oromia was closed to visitors at the time, Onesimos traveled to Sweden in 1876 to further his studies at the Theological Training Institute of Johannelund. In 1881 he came back to Massawa and married Mihiret Hailu, another freed Oromo he’d known for ten years, also educated by the mission and fluent in Swedish.
They then set out with several others on what would be known as the First Oromo Expedition. It failed: Amharic armies to the south blocked their progress. They regrouped and attempted a Second Oromo Expedition to the north via Khartoum and the Nile, but a combination of imperial decree, tribal unrest, and severe fever impeded them once again—reminiscent of St. Paul’s turbulent missionary journeys: “In danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (II Corinthians 11:26–27).
It took some time to recover when they finally made it back to Massawa, so in the interim Onesimos began the first of his many translation projects: Evangelical Songs and Psalms, a meditation by John Bunyan, and Luther’s Small Catechism. About this time his Swedish colleagues made the first of many attempts to ordain Onesimos, but he declined every time, feeling that it would only cause confusion among the Oromos who only knew ordained Ethiopians as Amharic Orthodox. Lack of ordination was certainly posed no obstacle to his teaching and preaching ministry, anyway.
It wasn’t until 1885 that a chance arose for the Third Oromo Expedition, this time to the kingdom of Shewa. Despite another attack of fever, the team actually made it and stayed on until they were informed that they had to convert to the Amharas’ Orthodoxy or leave. They left for Massawa again, but Onesimos was so encouraged by the brief encounters with Oromos during this period—many of them, again, freed slaves—that he determined to undertake a much more ambitious task: the translation of the entire Bible into Oromo.
The immediate problem he discovered, though, was his own limitation in his native tongue. Despite his extraordinary linguistic gifts—he was competent or fluent in Amharic, Tigrinya, Swedish, Arabic, English, Latin and Italian—he’d spent so little time in Oromia that his vocabulary was too limited to do justice to the Scripture.
Aster Ganno appeared on the scene at just the right time to help him.
She, too, had been born in Oromia and taken captive by slavers. In 1886 the boat that was taking her to be sold on the Arabian peninsula was intercepted by the Italian fleet; she was liberated and joined the other Oromo ex-slaves in Massawa.
In short order her teachers discovered that her linguistic talents superseded all her peers’, and she was set to work creating an Oromo dictionary. Onesimos spoke admiringly of her “real feeling for the language and genuine literary gift.” In a letter he described her (using the old term “Galla” for “Oromo”):
“The Galla girl Aster’s contribution to the dictionary work is fine. She is filling many gaps: she finds the words, as she knows the Galla language better than any one else. Aster and the other girls were brought and entrusted to the mission at Imkullu in 1886. And Aster, in particular, on finishing school was assigned with a new task of composing a dictionary of Galla. With her pencil in her hand, she finds all the words which can be deduced from one basic root. Although she is young she is unusually steady and has a genuine character. Her face bears evidence of intelligence and energy. She looks so learned and skilful that even in the beginning I had due respect for her, being ashamed of my poor language.”
Onesimos even gave her a Bible for Christmas in 1887—a bit bashfully, it seems, as it arrived anonymously through a donor.
By the time she finished, Aster had assembled a fifteen thousand-word vocabulary, a basic grammar, and a collection of five hundred songs, tales, riddles, and proverbs from the Oromo, all set down from memory. These latter were assembled into an Oromo Reader—a primer for teaching literacy. A translation of Doctor Barth’s Bible Stories, a children’s Bible, followed.
But by far Onesimos and Aster’s most ambitious production was the New Testament in Oromo, first published in 1893, and the entire Bible in 1899. Their partnership was essential: Onesimos had a determination always to find exactly the right word, but Aster was the one who knew the words and helped him find them.
The end result had an impact on the Oromo language similar to Luther’s on German: it set the literary standard for the written language, introduced new words and concepts, and altered old ones. The Reader and the Bible were the first works ever to be published in Oromo and were wildly popular among a population already thirsting for education. People would gather round to hear the stories read out by those who were so lucky as to own them.
And yet, all this time, Onesimos was still kept out of his long-lost Oromia. That wasn’t the only tragedy to strike. In 1888 his wife Mihiret died in childbirth. He eventually remarried another freed slave, Lidia Dimbo, but during his stay at the St. Chrischrona Pilgermission in Switzerland from 1897 to 1899 to oversee the printing of the Oromo Bible (its script was the same as Amharic, creating new printing challenges), their baby daughter died and their two older children fell sick. Lidia insisted Onesimos stay put in Europe, fearing the consequences of fleeing his post like Jonah. His own health was always frail, too, although he managed to live to quite a respectable old age.
On his return to Africa, everyone expected him to try again to penetrate to Oromia, but his exhaustion and sorrow made the prospect unappealing. Instead he stayed in Asmara, just inland from Massawa, evangelizing the five hundred or so Oromo living there, nearly all of them former slaves.
It was only in April 1904, when political circumstances had changed, that Onesimos returned home after his thirty-five years of exile, along with Lidia, Aster, and a number of other Oromos who had been getting educated and waiting for their chance to bring the gospel to their own. They were already famous locally for their gift of the Oromo language and the Scripture, but at this point they set translation work aside in favor of direct evangelism and education.
Within a year, Aster and Onesimos had sixty-eight students at their brand-new school in Wellega, and would’ve had much more if space and resources permitted. Aster also began with her friend Feben Hirphee evangelizing the wives of wealthy and influential local men while teaching them to read and write. Theirs were the first schools to educate in Oromo and among the very first free public schools in all of Ethiopia, long pre-dating both governmental and missionary education.
Nevertheless, though Oromia was now open to visitors and foreigners, it remained under Amhara control, and there is nothing that threatens an imperial power more than the occupied people becoming literate in their own tongue. A mere year and a half after his arrival, Onesimos was brought before the governor on charges of sedition. He was released due to insufficient evidence, but the governor’s parting remark was: “The Bible must not be given ordinary people; it would lead to disaster.”
Despite their initial sympathy and support, in time the local Orthodox officials joined in the attack on Onesimos, ultimately leading to a sentence of the loss of all his property and imprisonment. The emperor intervened and cancelled the imprisonment, but Onesimos remained vulnerable to local harassment and his house was burned down. The schools in Nekempte, Najo, and Boji were closed down, so Onesimos, Aster, and their colleagues turned to the countryside and a more quiet manner of evangelism for the next decade. There were still regular accusations and upsets from the authorities, and Onesimos was even banished to Addis Ababa for a half-year during 1912.
Finally in 1916 there was another shift in the political winds that allowed them to return to the cities and start again. Aster and Lidia, with the help of Cederqvist, opened two girls’ schools in Nekempte and taught at them; another Oromo school was established in Addis Ababa under the instruction of Desta Schimper. Onesimos reopened his boys’ schools for training in both literary and evangelism.
From here on out, Lutheran mission work in Ethiopia really took off, and Oromo remained the medium of communication in Oromia for several decades. Many of the Oromos now owned Bibles and turned against many of the practices they’d taken for granted: polygamy, slavery, false witness. The Swedes established a medical mission in Wellega. From then on it was smooth sailing and Onesimos was able to pursue his lifelong dream of bringing the whole salvation of the gospel—healing and redeeming body, soul, and mind—to his people without impediment. He kept working until the very end of his life.
When Onesimos was seventy-five, he was scheduled to preach at a Sunday service. He woke up knowing it to be the day of his death, nevertheless he did his best to arrive at church on time. He only made it as far as the doctor’s house. He died quickly and peacefully on June 21, 1931.
His friends described him as “hardworking, a lover of justice and a man of his faith, body and soul.” Aster lived on until 1964, never having married but devoting her entire life to girls’ education and primary evangelism among the Oromo. Today the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus runs an Aster Ganno Literary Society, dedicated to the publication of works in Oromo.
For Further Reading
Gustav Arén, Evangelical Pioneers in Ethiopia: Origins of the Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (Stockholm: EFS Förlaget, 1978).
Mekuria Bulcha, “Onesimos Nasib’s Pioneering Contributions to Oromo Writing,” Nordic Journal of African Studies 4/1 (1995): 36–59.
Kebede Hordofa Janko, “Missionaries, Enslaved Oromo and Their Contribution to the Development of the Oromo Language: An Overview,” in Ethiopia and the Missions: Historical and Anthropological Insights, ed. Verena Böll et al., Afrikanische Studien 25 (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2005), 63–76.
Dirshaye Menberu, “Onesimos Nesib,” Dictionary of African Christian Biography.