ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Kunama of Eritrea

The Kunama of Eritrea proudly maintain their ancient way of life in the face of modern incursions.

I’m not an anthropologist. My ignorance of tribal cultures is about as vast as the continent of Africa. But I can recognize generosity and faith, and the Kunama tribe in southern Eritrea showed me how generous faith can be.

Last October, I traveled with Abba Tomas, Vicar General of the Eparchy of Barentu, himself a Kunama, to the village of Mardami to celebrate liturgy with the people of the surrounding tribal villages. We drove as far as we could into this mountainous region, abandoned the truck and climbed the rest of the way.

In this high, desolate area of Eritrea, Kunama Catholics gather for liturgy in a thatched hut perched atop mountainous rocks; the interior contains a table and roughly hewn benches. There is no electricity, but the hot sun provides sufficient light. Giant bees and other large insects provide interesting distractions.

No one knows the origin of the Kunama; little is recorded about them, probably because they have no alphabet and, therefore, no recorded history. Many regard them, however, as the very first Eritreans. Today, Kunama children use the Latin alphabet, but are taught in their own language.

Originally, the Kunama were nomads; eventually they settled near the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Kunama are peaceful, but the ongoing wars between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been devastating, drastically reducing the tribe’s population to roughly 50- or 60,000 people. During the conflict that ended last October, the Kunama became an even tighter group–no one was admitted into the tribe, nor would the elders allow their young to leave.

The war also halted any further development, affecting even the endeavors of the Eastern Catholic Eparchy of Barentu, set up in December 1995. Led by a dynamic bishop, Abuna Luca Milesi, O.F.M., Cap., the eparchy works closely with the Kunama. Unfortunately, the eparchy’ hospital was destroyed and plans for a larger facility and medical school disappeared with the war and subsequent ailing economy.

The Kunama prefer their own local medicines and remedies to more advanced technology; perhaps they’re better off, since they cannot afford modern drugs, which are not even available. Recently, though, all Kunama mothers brought their children to the Sisters of the Poor in Barentu for an oral polio vaccine provided by the government.

Worshippers had already gathered when Abba Tomas and I arrived, carrying two plastic bottles of water and wine, the host, two candles in tuna fish cans and a chalice. I introduced myself to the group while Abba Tomas heard confessions. Quickly a long line formed of young and old, male and female–all waiting for the sacrament of reconciliation.

Afterward, liturgy began in that tiny, crowded hut. Adults stood around the sides of the hut, children sat in front, near the table that served as an altar. Some children were perched on the ceremonial drums that were played during the liturgy. A young woman, chosen as a catechist because she was literate, helped Abba Tomas prepare the first reading. Her own children gathered around her, pulling at her for attention. When one fussed to be held, she picked him up and, quite comfortably, breast-fed him while she conducted the faithful in song.

Abba Tomas delivered a spirited homily in Kunama. I understood not a word, but was enthralled with the intense listening in the room, from the youngest child to the oldest parishioner. They were all spellbound by the Gospel, as if they were hearing the words and deeds of Jesus for the first time and that his message was solely for them.

Isolation and a tenacious adherence to tribal customs have enabled the Kunama to retain their traditions, which existed long before the introduction of Christianity and Islam into the area. Living in close harmony with nature and each other, they have survived by excluding the dominant cultures of the outside world.

The Kunama of Barentu first experienced Catholic missionary activity in 1912 with the arrival of the Italian Capuchins, who joined an already active Protestant mission working there. Work with the Kunama, said Abba Tomas, was extremely difficult at the turn of the last century. Even today the area remains malarial and, like much of Eritrea, still lacks adequate roads and sewage infrastructure. All movement was made on foot or by donkey or camel.

Today the outreach programs of the Eparchy of Barentu hinge on three essential elements: teaching, pastoral council and health care programs. Now that war has ended, priests and religious can move freely among the different villages and deliver not just faith, but a healing contact with the outside world.

Abba Tomas bristled when I asked if the tribe was animistic. “No!” he exclaimed. “People often say this because we honor the land, but we do not worship trees and the earth. We respect them.” The Kunama, he continued, even those who have not adopted Christianity, are not animists, but monotheists, because “they believe in one God, the God who created the earth.”

Evidence of this belief could be seen during the famine in the 1980’s. Aid agencies rationed food to each ethnic group, but the Kunama passed their supply to those more in need. While others barely subsisted with crude agricultural methods, the Kunama had, and still have, a knowledge of plants and wildlife that sustains them, even in less prosperous times.

The Kunama venerate their ancestors and have a special reverence for the elders of the tribe. This respect for their elders allows the tribe to make important decisions, called “democratic choices,” which always involve two elders. The Kunama work together, designating certain months for special “events.” September, for example, is the time for harvest; January is the month for repairing houses. Everything is done as a community, each helping the other. Even at funerals, the entire village attends: It is their custom to bid farewell as a group, though children are not allowed to participate.

Kunama marriage customs reveal the tribe’s practical yet gentle lifestyle. After much dancing and celebration, the newlyweds spend a few days together, but then the young woman returns to her mother, often for a year or more. During this time, the mother teaches her daughter the role of a wife and mother. This does not mean only learning how to cook and sew, but how to manage finances, how to organize, how to cultivate skills, how to care for a baby and more. The bride returns to her husband a more mature, wiser woman. By this time, her husband and his family have completed the new couple’s home.

Liturgy over and candles extinguished, we left Mardami and its Kunama families. My visit reminded me that membership in the “church” is far more than just membership in my own parish. The Kunama and I are sisters and brothers of the one, Catholic and universal Church.

A photojournalist, Mercy Sister Christian Molidor is special assistant to CNEWA’s secretary general.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español