There are actually three distinct groups of Gurage (goo rah gay) people, whose languages are not always mutually intelligible. Those I worked with, called the Sebat Bet (Seven House) Gurage, probably number around a million (total Gurage population is over 1,800,000). They live in a mountainous area about 150 miles southwest of Addis Ababa. Their language is Semitic, like Hebrew and Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia), but due to the influence of surrounding Cushitic languages it has 10 vowels instead of the usual 7.
Well-known for their hard work and skill as traders, many of the men own shops in Addis Ababa and other cities, returning to their home area only for a few days each October to celebrate Meskel (for Orthodox Christians – commemorating the finding of “the true cross”) or Arefa (for Muslims), the most important Gurage holidays. While something over 50% claim allegiance to Christianity and another 40% to Islam, many also participate in traditional religious practices such as offerings to a deity called “Waq” and hanging of fetishes in their houses to ward off evil spirits. Inset (false banana) is the staple food, grown by almost every household. Barley, potatoes and kale grow in the highlands and wheat and tef (a millet-like grain native to Ethiopia) in the lower altitudes.
Gurage houses are famous for their neatness and symmetry, circular structures held together without the use of nails, wooden spokes protruding from a center pole to support the thatched roof. Locally-made pottery hangs around the inside wall in neat rows. Near the center is a fireplace used for cooking and heating the house. The people take pride in their hospitality and often serve coffee (boiled in a large clay pot and traditionally flavored with salt and butter) and roasted grain to 30 or more guests at a time. This provides socialization for neighbors and refreshment for passers-by. Often a small section on one side of the house is equipped for livestock (cows, sheep or goats, and perhaps a horse), which are kept in the house during the night and put out to pasture in the daytime.
I had the privilege of living among the Gurage from April, 1975 to July, 1977. Then, due to pressure from Communist agitators, SIM moved me to Addis Ababa, where I continued to work with translator Deggefu on the Gurage New Testament. We completed the translation and got it approved by the Bible Society Consultant in November 1979. Then it had to be typeset, one character at a time using the old metal type, by a man who did not speak Gurage. The translation had taken 2 1/2 years to complete; the typesetting took another 2 1/2 years. By that time we were unable to obtain permission to publish the Gurage New Testament in Ethiopia, so it was sent to Korea for publication. That was in 1982. In July, 1983, 10,000 copies of the Gurage New Testament arrived at an Ethiopian port and were seized and held there. We were told, “You didn’t have permission to print it, and you don’t have permission to bring it into the country.”
Since 13,000 New Testaments had actually been printed, the remaining 3,000 were shipped toward the end of 1986. God graciously, miraculously, brought those into the country without their being seized … my best-ever Christmas gift, arriving at my office door on Dec. 24, 1986. In January, 1988, the other 10,000 were released. The Gurage believers were delighted to receive them and began asking for a translation of the Old Testament as well. That has now been completed and was published in 2010. Between 1975 and 1990, the number of professing evangelical Gurage Christians grew from about 50 to more than 13,000. SIM produces a Gospel radio program in the Gurage language which is very popular and has been used by God to bring many to faith in Christ.* The Gurage believers are nearing completion of a building which will house a Bible school to train evangelists and church leaders. The Bible school was started back in 2011 and graduated its first class in 2013. The second class will graduate in July 2015. I don’t have a current estimate of the number of believers. I hope by the time the Lord returns it will be uncountable!
*Summary and Statistical Report of the 2007 Population and Housing Census, published by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Population Census Commission. Page 84.