Chapter 14 – Alemu … Just Who We Needed
Betty was dispensing medical help from her tent clinic when a very special person, Alemu Gebre, joined us at Langano. In June, 1972, we went to give the address to the graduates at Grace Bible College in Jimma. Alemu had been one of my students when I was teaching at Jimma, one of our previous assignments with SIM.
He was a sincere and devoted Christian. One day I had the privilege of presenting him with a Bible translated into his mother tongue. Up to that time he had only possessed a Bible in the official Amharic language. As he held the new Bible in his two upturned hands in front of him, tears welled up in his eyes. That was his first opportunity to read it in his own heart language; a moving experience.
He had also joined us at the station of Bulki, another SIM assignment, on the top of a mountain in southern Ethiopia. He was my translator as I taught in the church Bible school.
We had been financially supporting him at GBI and now that he was graduating he accepted our invitation to join us again, this time at Langano. He had visited us over the Christmas break and we saw how well he fit in with the Arsi people. His mother tongue was a sister language to theirs giving him adequate communication and ready acceptance. Even though educated he was a humble, dedicated person.
Alemu enjoyed working with Betty in the clinic. He took the time to meet with the patients as they waited their turn. Sometimes he would bring out Bible teaching posters and explain the gospel message. He took great delight in sharing his faith like this. Their favourite set of posters was the “Heart of Man” series that clearly explained salvation. It wasn’t too long before a few people believed the gospel of God’s love under Alemu’s faithful teaching. He also “walked the talk”; he lived what he preached.
When I built our caretaker, Borema’s house, I made it into a duplex. Alemu lived in the second section. He wasted no time in acquainting himself with the community. One day he walked five hours into the upper escarpments of the Rift Valley to visit several small towns.
In July he conducted a Rainy Season Bible course for about 15 local teenagers, most of whom were not believers. Many of them had been influenced by the SDA teaching that emphasizes salvation by strict observance of Old Testament laws – especially the keeping of the Sabbath (Saturday) instead of simple faith in Christ’s atonement. This created much confusion in the minds of those listening to our message of grace. Alemu agreed with us that to argue with them was not the correct strategy, but to lovingly teach the truth and to allow God’s Spirit to wipe away the confusion. Instead of pointing out the error of SDA teaching which only stirred up anger and resentment, Alemu chose doctrinal subjects that, unaware to them, countered the false teaching.
Each morning before starting work, Alemu led my building workers in a devotional time. Soon they requested further teaching during the lunch break.
One Sunday I hiked a couple of hours or so with Alemu and Borema to the nearest village of Baita. I wanted Alemu to meet an “important-to-himself” stout man who was the village chief and another man from the area who sold medicines at the local market. We happened to meet the “medical” man on the way. It so happened that he was familiar with Alemu’s home area and they struck a friendship right away. We were invited to his house for dinner and while there the village chief came to visit as well. He was very cordial and the atmosphere seemed favorable for Alemu to share his faith and discuss how he might minister in the village in days ahead. I was invited by the chief to return in a couple of weeks to help them with an irrigation project. This would involve surveying a route from a small stream which would carry water in a narrow channel, dug by the villagers, to their homes and gardens.
On another occasion Alemu and I were visiting in a home near the same village. We were sitting on low stools around a fire on the floor. Not knowing the local language, Alemu translated for me. It was amazing how well he and I could communicate under such circumstances. But at one point I noticed a couple of the men across the fire from me covering the lower half of the face with their shawls. Obviously they were trying to stifle the outward expression of their amusement at something I had said or done. I leaned toward Alemu and in English asked him what I had done. I was afraid I had pulled some dumb cultural blunder. He simply said that I had blown my nose. Then I realized that I had done something they had never seen before. Why would this foreigner collect that stuff in a soft white cloth and then carefully fold it away into his pocket and take it home with him for what reason they had no idea?! They had a more conventional method of dealing with it!
Alemu was a great guy to have around. Whenever I needed someone to translate for me or accompany me on visits in the area, he was always there. God only knows how many times he probably bailed me out of a potentially embarrassing cultural misstep or the misuse of a word in the local language. Couldn’t have been without him!