Chapter 19 – Peace Ceremony
One morning several of the men working for me in building the camp came and asked for “ficad” or permission to be absent from work that day. Nothing uncommon; they often needed time like that for weddings or funerals. But that morning was different; they went on to tell me about a young man, one of their clan, who had been murdered eight years previously. His murderer had been incarcerated for those years but now he had been released from prison. The revolutionary uprising in the country had filled the prisons with political prisoners. This left the government no choice but to release other criminals to make room for those they considered a more serious threat.
The authorities sent the criminals home to their tribal areas with instructions for the people to deal with them in their tribal tradition.
Today my workers would join the other Arsi people in the area to make peace between the family clans of the murderer and that of the dead man.
Lights began to flash in my mind! Was this God’s answer to a “key” we had so recently asked Him for? I asked the men if I could go along. Even more than welcoming me, they urged me to come.
We walked about 45 minutes back into the hills to the murdered man’s village. By mid-morning about 50 men had assembled and sat in a large semi-circle under some shade trees. The circle of men was roughly divided into three participating parties; the family of the dead man, those of the murderer, and then a group of mediating elders with an old grey-haired witch doctor acting as their spokesman. Discussion and argument seemed to be mainly concerned with the settlement price. Only the most elderly of the old men knew anything about the tradition of their people when it came to dealing with such a matter. The peace ceremony had not been practiced for many years. The younger generation did not even know that such a tradition existed.
All the men were keyed up to a high pitch. I had never seen such oration before. One old elder squatting on a low stool or another on a log would snap his three-foot hippo hide whip and shout, “Gumm gommy, gumm gommy” (“Hear what I have to say!”). Whip-snapping and a quick spit punctuated his speech. His voice would gradually rise in tempo to the conclusion of his statement. The old witch doctor mediator would bring in a refrain of “Burrumptay, burrumptay” meaning, “Let this matter be finished.”
The matter seemed unresolved after two hours of such haranguing. Finally it was decided to move to a spot nearer to the village of the murderer. In mass the group of men now numbering about 100 filed through the bush and corn fields to another enclosure of large shady trees. Again the scene was the same except they seemed to be nearing an agreement. The payment for peace would be forty cows and one small girl, the daughter of the killer’s brother as he had none of his own. She would become the future wife of the dead man’s only child, a boy now about nine years old. It was dark when the meeting broke with the understanding that the transaction would take place the next day at noon.
To my dismay I arrived the next afternoon just after the proceedings had begun. Already the sacrificial bull had been slaughtered. From the cut throat of the bull, the witch doctor had collected the blood in a large wooden bowl. He then took this bowl and slowly made his way between two rows of men facing each other. Those standing shoulder to shoulder in one row were members of the dead man’s family clan and facing them in the other row were those from the murderer’s family. Hatred and antagonism was very deep between the two groups. As the witch doctor approached, two men face to face would each simultaneously dip the palm of his hand into the blood and place it on the other man’s forehead.
When I arrived on the scene they had just completed this act. They were anxious for me to photograph the proceedings and so when I asked if two men could stage this blood dipping rite again, a lengthily discussion ensued. Finally they said they would have liked me to take a picture but once the blood had been dipped into and placed on the forehead, a pact had been sealed, could never be broken, and thus never again be enacted. What a picture of Christ’s blood!
But it didn’t stop there. The ox was butchered and the intestines carefully removed and placed on a specially prepared place of grass and leaves in a circle about ten feet in diameter. The principal men of the families sat on the ground with their feet inside this circle. As a guest of honor I took my place in the circle directly across from the murderer. He seemed bewildered and scared at all the commotion. A large number of people pressed close to the circle. Some perched in surrounding trees to get a good look at the proceedings.
The old witch doctor raised his hand for silence. Someone was pressing their way through the crowd.
It was an old woman with a large clay jug of honey-water, a drink common to the Arsi people. Once at the edge of the circle, she filled her mouth and sprayed it over the seated men in the center. As I frantically tried to protect my camera with my shirt, my Arsi language informant, Buli, informed me that peace was about to come.
The witch doctor mediator then declared to the men of the fly-studded circle, “You must confess all acts of retaliation resulting from the murder”. The murder eight years previous had engendered so much hate and hostility between the family clans that houses had been burned, bee hives in the trees damaged and cattle and other livestock stolen. One after the other the men confessed. The mediator stressed over and over that all must be confessed now, or it could be judged later. With this soul searching completed after an hour or so, the final seal of the peace agreement followed. The clay jug previously brought in by the old lady and deposited at the witch doctor’s feet, was taken in the hands of the murderer. First he drank the honey-water simultaneously with the witch doctor and then with the brother of the man he had murdered. He went slowly from one man to the next in the circle and drank with them.
To eat and drink together was the highest form of friendship; an act in which enemies would never engage.
Like an explosion, the atmosphere abruptly changed. Men from the two opposing parties hugged and kissed. Some were shedding tears of joy.
The scene was set for feasting. A large bonfire was kindled and the sacrificial bull was roasted. Each person had to eat even if so in a symbolic fashion. The two family clans had now been re-united. They were united again. The full impact of it all didn’t seem to be lost to anyone. The day, now rapidly fading away into darkness, was drawn to a close by a happy throng of people feasting and celebrating.
However, there was one frightened, screaming three year old girl. She was part of the peace bargain. Clutched in the arms of the murdered man’s brother, she with 40 cows was taken away to the neighbouring village. She would become the wife of the murdered man’s only child, a boy about nine years old.
She would stay in the new home for about a month and then return to her own home until the marriage.
Sadly, I ran out of film before getting a picture of them all riding off
into the sunset.
The murderer was now a free man and mingled with the crowd as a brother. His crime could never again be held against him. The caked blood on his forehead stood out as a visible sign of a pact forever sealed.
Needless to say, the drama I witnessed that day needed no explanation to me and the few Christians that were there. The next day was Sunday and the clear picture of Christ’s redemptive work was discussed to great length.
But what about the Arsi people in general? Just as they were able to reach back into their cultural past and find a provision to make peace with one another, could I not explain that God also provided a plan to establish the broken relationship between Himself and man?
Would they be able to understand that just like the murderer had alienated two family clans from each other, so had man’s sin alienated him from his creator? Just like they had to accept this old traditional custom to settle this serious matter, would they be able to accept God’s only plan of redemption?
Some did. A small church came to birth among the Arsi people. But by and large, the people could understand that Satan needed to be placated. He was the one who sent evil spirits to destroy their crops and kill their children with disease. Peace with God? That was a totally new concept. But God had wonderfully provided a traditional ceremony that, it properly explained, could supply the Arsi people with an understanding of God’s plan – redemption in the giving of His Son, Jesus Christ.