The Kunama of Eritrea

Surviving war and famine, the Kunama of Eritrea maintain their ancient culture.

text and photographs by Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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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.

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Tags: Christianity Cultural Identity War Eritrea Hunger