New Documentary Film Anchored on Ethiopian Priest’s Venture to Evangelize an Exotic Tribe

Fr. Goesh Abraha in the Documentary “Ethiopia – From every clan” directed by Magdalena Wolnik.
Credit: Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Renown filmmaker Magdalena Wolnik’s new documentary, which has been selected for the 23rd Religion Today Film Festival is a fascinating story of an Ethiopian Priest who leaves the comfort of his home in the north and swims against the current in his attempt to evangelize an indigenous community in the hostile Southern part of the Horn of Africa.

The film, “Ethiopia – From every clan”, is a representation of the lives of the exotic Dassanech tribe where Christianity is a remote concept with Fr. Goesh Abraha from the mountainous north positioned at the center of the tribe’s budding missionary experience.

In a report shared with ACI Africa Tuesday, October 6, Magdalena Wolnik, the Director of the documentary film told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the pontifical charity organization, which supported the film’s production, that much as it shows one of Africa’s “beautiful, unspoiled and fascinating” tribes, the story is about a strong-willed Ethiopian Cleric.

“The Dassanech people are a beautiful, unspoiled and fascinating tribe. However, this is not an anthropological film. It is also Father Goesh Abraha’s story, an Ethiopian, from the mountainous north, who decides to live among these people, to live with them, share their concerns and convey to them a deeply held belief, that God is more than my and your culture and tradition, indeed than any great culture,” says Wolnik.

The documentary is filmed in Omorate, a small town in southern Ethiopia near the country’s border with Kenya and South Sudan, a town inhabited by tribes who lead a totally indigenous life, are less contacted by the outside world and are only learning to embrace Christianity.

The members of the tribes have, for years, learnt to survive in harsh climatic conditions with temperatures that hit as high as 40 degrees centigrade even at night and live in simple box-like structures made from reeds and rope from cow skin.

They endure famine during drought that claims their cattle, their only source of livelihood, and live in perpetual clashes with their neighbors, trying to defend their cattle and grazing ground from being stolen.

Fr. Goesh who has been ministering among the Dassanech for nine years observes, in the documentary, that marriage is an important issue among the Dassanech and says that men can do anything to raise the acceptable number of cows to get a girl’s hand in marriage.

“They always have to raid in order to get married, in order to pay dowry. A young girl has to get above 40 cows and so if the cattle isn’t enough, they will go to raid animals from the neighboring communities,” the Cleric says.

All the eight clans of the tribe worship different gods, he shares.

“All the eight clans have their own traditions and beliefs. Some worship the river, some worship snakes, some worship trees while others worship scorpions,” he says, and adds, “I told them that there is something better than my culture, your culture, my tradition, your tradition. There is one person who is greater than all, the one who created all these cultures. He is the leader. It is Jesus Christ.”

Fr. Goesh is therefore depicted as “a missionary who works to overcome generations of inter-tribal violence through evangelization and reconciliation” in the region.

“Father Goesh built a chapel in the wilderness, believing that with time, the feuding clans and tribes will end up praying together. That it will become their church, with which they will identify themselves – a sign of peace, reconciliation and hope,” Wolnik says.

She further says that the Ethiopian Cleric is also “a happy man who says that you can learn to love a culture that is not yours, embrace and accept the unknown: smells, tastes, even the challenges of living in this seemingly unlivable place. And it changes you.”

Fr. Goesh is a popular man among the Dassanech where the village chiefs introduce him as a peacemaker, according to the Polish film director.

“He told us how we can live with other neighboring people. He taught us what peace means… Father Goesh is our brother. He is a man of God. He taught us how to worship God,” Wolnik told CAN officials, narrating the responses she obtained from the village chiefs who confirmed their interactions with Fr. Goesh.

The Polish filmmaker who is a famed author of several dozen documentary films made in cooperation with Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) and the pontifical foundation ACN said that her new film, “Ethiopia – From every clan” aims to show the place of spirituality in a unique tribe forced to survive the changing times, including climate change that threatens their survival.

“The film aims to show a unique ethnic group, which, while still living a very traditional lifestyle, and fighting bloody battles with local tribes, finds itself, very suddenly, on a collision course with change, including climate change with the inevitable drought and hunger that follows and needs a guide, capable of helping this group to confront and deal with this reality; not only in material terms, including education, agriculture and the knowledge needed to survive in a changing world, but also in spiritual terms, how to stop waging destructive wars, whom to entrust one’s life to,” Wolnik says.

The filmmaker who has produced documentaries in 16 countries, including Angola, Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan says that the rough ordeal during her first visit to Omorate inspired the making of the film.

She says that getting to the Omo River valley, along the Kenya and South Sudan border, where the first ever decent road had just been constructed was not easy.

“We arrived at our destination in the evening, after many hours, and were put up in a small guesthouse, built by zealous young Priests who had forgotten about ventilation, window netting or mosquito nets,” she further says.

“Of course, we did not expect electricity. Outside, apart from the mosquitoes, you would trample on scorpions on your way to bed, meet a few poisonous snakes, as well as hyenas keenly taking advantage of the lack of any fence. Forty degrees centigrade – even at night – no air, means no sleep,” she narrates.

She adds, “Abba Goesh seemed to be profoundly convinced that God had sent him to this place and to the people inhabiting this land. It seemed impossible to live here without such a belief. After those first hours and conversations with him, I knew for certain that we would be back with a camera.”

She says that her actual filming experience got worse with the harsh climate, rough terrain and untrusting villagers who only bended with the intervention of Fr. Goesh.

The film was, during the 23-30 September festival, selected and nominated in the best documentary category for the 23rd Religion Today Film Festival in Trento, Italy.

Wolnik says that Omorate is the Acts of the Apostles lived today.

“Paul dreamed of a Macedonian man who asked: Cross over to us and help us. That is how the evangelization of Europe began,” she recalls, and adds, “Father Goesh travelled through these lands, from Kenya to Adigrad, and met the Dassanech tribe, still battling with local tribes, with whom no one had dared enter into dialogue. He felt that he should try to live in this difficult land.”

According to the Polish filmmaker, Biblical Paul and Fr. Goesh were both convinced that God was sending them to unknown lands and peoples, “with whom they had to find a common language, in order to bring them the good news that also brings peace.”

Such places and such people, Wolnik says, “beg us to ask ourselves: do we also have this ardour, anxiety, for those beyond the reach of the Gospel? And do we, who live in peace and comfort, care for people who continue to experience such great marginalization and poverty?”

“Omorate provokes both delight and reflection. I hope our film does, too,” she says.


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