Biru Dubalä was born in 1899 in Dawro/Bobo, Kulo Konta. His father died before Biru was born, so according to Ethiopia custom, the father's brother inherited the wife. Biru was not wanted by his father-in-law. Orders were given to a servant to bury the child soon after it was born. Infanticide was commonly practiced in Kulo Konta during that period in history. A relative intervened and Biru's life was spared. Because Biru's life was saved at childbirth, he would often look back on his life in retrospect and compare his life with that of the baby Moses. Both were spared in a miraculous manner. Because of that experience Biru felt from an early age that God had a special task for him to do.
From 1909, when Menelik II suffered from a debilitating heart attack, until 1916 there was political unrest and instability in much of Ethiopia. Lij Iyasu, grandson of Menelik was finally deposed and in 1916 Empress Zauditu and regent Däjazmach Täfäri Mäkonän shared the responsibilitiies of leadership in Ethiopia. Ras Wäldä Giorgis, brother-in-law to Menelik, was asked to transfer from Käfa to assume "supreme command of northern Ethiopia," in May 1910. As was customary in those days, when the strong man transferred to another province, his military commanders and soldiers, plus a goodly number of "domestic slaves" were coerced to move with him. As a boy of eleven Biru joined this entourage and lived for about two years in Gondar  before making his way south to Addis Ababa with some priests.
In 1916 Biru was recruited with many others from the capital to join a military campaign against Lij Iyasu's father, Ras Michael, at Sagale, on the Sandafa plains, about 80 kilometers north of Addis Ababa. Biru safely returned from this bloody and decisive battle that plummeted Ras Täfäri Mäkonän to power, and temporarily enrolled in "Doctor" Cederquist's English School, located at what is now the Mekene Yesus Church at Amist Kilo. Because of reduced financial aid from Sweden, Cederquist's English School was unable to sponsor newly enrolled students like Biru. Once again he became a day labourer.
But opportunity for employment was better had in the railroad centre of Dire Dawa. In this commercial city, Biru worked at various jobs for six years and was exposed to a variety of Ethiopian as well as foreign cultures and languages. In 1922 he attached himself as a trustworthy gardener, to a Mr. Anton of the Harar Swedish Evangelical Mission. He attended classes on a part-time basis and so grew in his understanding of the Christian faith. At the sudden death and burial of one of his fellow students, Biru began to think of "ultimate values" and his roots back in Kulo Konta. He traced his steps back to Addis Ababa (probably by train) and through his friends at the Swedish Evangelical Mission Biru was able to make contact with Dr. Lambie and the SIM party. They were in the process of purchasing 66 pack mules, 20 donkeys and 9 horses in making preparations for the initial trek to the south. Biru was hired on as one of the chief guides and leading muleteer. His ability to speak English was of real value to the missionary party as only the Lambies had previous experience in Ethiopia.
Clarence Duff described Biru in a letter to his parents dated 27 February 1928:
Some of the men we are hiring for the trip I am sure must be true Christians. Some are very eager to have us and go with us to take the Light to their own lands -- Wolamo, Kulo, etc... I was much impressed and encouraged last night by the earnestness of one man whose name is Biru. He came to our tent to get a New Testament in English, and got started telling me about his country, Wolamo [Kulo Konta].
There has been an ongoing discussion amongst the pioneer missionaries about "losing the trail" soon after leaving Addis Ababa. It could well be that Biru was keen to travel to Jimma through his home area of Dawro-Bobo in Kulo Konta. The route from Addis Ababa would take them south, through Hosanna and Soddo, then west to Jimma. In the 1979 interview with Dr. Eshetu Abatä, Biru mistakenly states: "Those who had the baggage went by Jimma. Dr. Lambie went through Kambatta." None of the SIM documents give any hint that the SIM party split -- some to Jimma, some to Wälayta. Biru could well have desired to direct and attract this first mission group to his home area in Kulo Konta -- via Wälayta. In 1965 he eventually did succeed in persuading the Swedish Mission BV to open a clinic and a school in Kulo Konta-Bobo. Subsequently about a dozen Lutheran churches were established in that district.
He left his country years ago, but is anxious to go back and to help make a written language for his people and bring them a knowledge of Christ. He has been in one of the Swedish Mission Schools for three years, knows Amharic, Galla, a little English and says he could translate the Wolamo from Amharic or Galla. He says he has it in his mind to bring some of his brothers (i.e. countrymen) up to the Swedish Mission Schools, but heard that we had come and intended to go toward his country (Kulo is south of Jimma), so he came here to work in connection with the caravan. He believes God brought him here, and I think so too. He told me his uncle is a chief in his country... He said if we went to Jimma province the people there have Mohammedans' book and will not receive us, but if we go to his country the people will be glad to receive us.
Prior to that time the Italians evicted the SIMers from Wälayta in April 1937, Biru was an invaluable assistant to the SIM evangelists as a translator and guide on preaching tours to Kulo Konta, Quch'a, many places in Wälayta, and back in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. When elders Dayésa, Ch'oramo, and Dästa were chosen to lead the young church at Otona shortly before the SIMers left. Biru stated that at that time, he was preaching in the district of Wédé, some distance from Otona.
In 1931 Biru was assisting George Rhoad in Addis Ababa. It appears that Rhoad was very dependent on Biru as his translator and assistant. From 19 March to 22 June 1931 Biru accompanied the George Rhoad party from Addis Ababa to Jimma, across the mountains of Kullo Konta to Soddu and then back to Addis Ababa. On this particular tour Biru escorted the Rhoad party to his village of "Wara" on 18 April 1931. Some months previous Biru had visited his home village but was not well received. But today it was different. Rhoad describes Biru as "...supremely happy" because he had brought his teachers. Biru was not in the original Bible study class that the missionaries held three times a week at Otona in preparation for the baptism.
Biru seems to emphasize that the only reason he was baptized with the initial group of ten in December 1933 at Otona was that as their leader and teacher he must set an example for them.
The people said "We do not know [how] to enter the water." They said, "We won't be baptized unless Ato Biru our teacher [is] be baptized." The missionary told me the case [situation] saying, "Why don't you show them by being baptized." Though I was already a Christian and baptized, though by the hands of the Orthodox, I said, "Alright," and was baptized by the hands of the missionaries.
Earl Lewis, one of the SIM pioneers in Wälayta confirmed that Biru, "professed to believe before he ever came here." But Biru was not chosen as one of the leaders of the newly established church, one week after the first baptism. Instead it was Desta, Godana and Galcia Awa who were selected as the elders to lead that new community. Among the three it was Desta who was the gifted preacher.
Dr. Percy and Vi Roberts reported in May 1934 that at a Sunday morning service with about one hundred present, "Biru gave the message from the first chapter of John's Gospel and the first twelve verses and Percy said he did very well indeed, not long but to the point and well applied."
Biru assisted Walter Ohman in working out the grammar for the Wälayta language. In 1934 he assisted Earl Lewis and Selma Bergsten in translating select Bible texts into Wälayta. These were called YiMirt' Qalat. Scripture Gift Mission of England had initially printed a select number of texts called "God Hath Spoken," and five hundred were printed in Addis Ababa for distribution in Wälayta. He also spent time in Addis Ababa assisting George Rhoad in 1933. Compared with other Ethiopians in the south, he had probably spent the most time with missionaries and gained valuable leadership skills. And it must not be forgotten that Biru spent several years learning at Swedish Mission schools both in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. He was a man well educated for his times!
The Italian military machine moved into Soddu town 19 January 1937. The SIMers used Biru's home as a base for Bible studies and prayer times.
Times were rather uncertain for Biru after the SIM missionaries left Soddu on 19 April 1937, riding out on the Italian "camios." Prior to their leaving he had been assigned the responsibility of guarding the SIM Otona compound. But this terminated soon after the Italians took possession of the compound. Biru was encouraged by Dayésa and other Christians to begin farming a piece of land just south of Otona. And Dayésa also arranged his marriage to a beautiful young lady. Biru, acting as a respectable "elder at the gates" finalized the wedding arrangements for Godana and Beramie in June 1934. Others saw in Biru a potential leader of the nascent Wälayta church of only 49 baptized believers. Even though his family roots were in Kulo Konta, Biru's spiritual family was in Wälayta. Just before the SIMers left Wälayta in April 1937, Biru was voted in unanimously as the leader of the new church. With others he began a very intensive itinerant ministry. It was during this time of transitional government that Biru and others began making plans to build a large stone church near his residence at Anka Bosa.
After the Italian army arrived in Soddu in April 1937, Biru continued on as a guard at the mission property at Otona and eventually was employed by the Italians who moved onto the premises. It is not clear how long Biru remained under the employ of the Italians. But Wändaro and other leaders were disturbed because:
We held baptisms at regular times and when we would make an appointment with Biru to assist, he would never be able to make it because of his work. We tried to get his assistance many times for various kinds of ministry, but he was never available because of his job responsibitities with the Italians. So we just went ahead and conducted baptisms on our own. Later he left his work with the Italians and we did the work of the Gospel together.
Until 1939 the Italians took very little notice of the new religious movement. But after the impressive 1939 parade and display of military might in Soddu town  the foreign invaders made a proclamation: "The one who gathers people and preaches to the people in the [domains] kingdom of Italy, beware." While Biru was in the distant Wälayta district of Soré baptizing a group of 30 new believers in the Omo River, he received word that his house had been burned, Scriptures confiscated and his wife taken off to prison. A warrant of 9,000 liras was placed on his head dead or alive. Biru was between a rock and a hard place. Christian leaders helped to conceal him, nightly transferring him from one believer's house to another. Irbale Goda T'ona, a renowned qalicha who had been recently converted told Biru, "If you die, the faith will die." In other words he was encouraged to remain in hiding. Biru lived like a fugitive in this manner for about three months. From all indications, it appeared that the "New Churches Movement" was looked upon by the Italians as an anti-government political force that must be stopped.
The culmination of two events caused Biru to give himself up to the Fascists. While he was secretly operating under cover, he heard of another believer, Täbo Godata, who was fleeing in fear from the dragnet of the Italians. As a fugitive he shifted his place of sleep every night. That man suddenly died. This was a warning to Biru. He thought, "Many in the New Testament were beheaded for their faith; others were persecuted. If I die it is for God. Jesus died for me on the cross. If I live or die, it is for the Lord." The other significant event was that during the time he was in hiding, his wife was imprisoned. Because he feared for her life while she was imprisoned, he decided to give himself up to the Italian officials in Soddu town. As he was walking into Soddu town an Orthodox priest kindly warned him: "What are you doing here out in public? Don't you know that you will be killed if you are discovered?" Biru went directly to the Italian administrative center, ready to face death, and gave himself up. He was brought before Major Bozé. Because Biru looked the officer straight in the eyes, the Italian major felt somewhat intimidated. Biru was commanded to look in another direction. At that time Biru put his back to the major and asked, "Then, do you want me to speak turning my back to you?" This infuriated the major who ordered the soldiers to slap and kick Biru. This Italian major was suddenly called out to fight some freedom fighters in the Boloso area. Major Bozé never did return from that sortie. A freedom fighter bullet killed him, thus avenging all the cruelty done to Biru and his fellow Christians.
Biru and his wife were imprisoned during most of 1940 and part of 1941. Sickness, loneliness, and hunger were their experiences while they were detained. But he had many opportunities to minister because "the Italians were bringing in hundreds of prisoners to the prison." In May 1941 all prisoners were released when the Italians capitulated to the combined British forces and Ethiopian Patriotic fighters.
When the Wälayta believers received word that Laurie and Lily Davison were back in Addis Ababa a group of four came to see the Advises on 4 July 1942. Apparently some Ethiopian Government office was issuing an official document permitting freedom of movement for the preachers and teachers of the new churches to travel about freely in Kambatta and Wälayta. Ato Shäguté of Kambatta had been issued one of these "permission letters." Ato Biru, leader of the group from Wälayta was asking for a similar kind of letter. Wändaro reported that this "government permission letter" became a sensitive issue amongst the Wälayta believers. Leaders like Wändaro and Toro argued that a permission letter issued to Biru would only cause a "differentiation to come between the Wälayta church and SIM when they return."
During Biru's stay in Addis Ababa Lily Davison makes note that his concern was not only for religious freedom.
Biru has been anxious to get some more gospels or tracts for his people as everything we left there has been since sold. The people have been paying four birr for a handwritten copy of God Hath Spoken, which used to sell for two timoons.
Laurie Davison assisted in reprinting God Hath Spoken as well as the Gofa Mark because Biru confirmed that:
...the Walamo people are quite used to reading the Gofa Gospel as they had to do it in the past, but he also tells us that there is quite a movement amongst the Gamo people now, and the Gamos can read the Gofa language even better than the Walamo people.
Apparently John's Gospel which was translated into the Wälayta using the Amharic script by Walter Ohman, in late 1935, was not acceptable to the Italians. Consequently these were not published and distributed to the Wälayta believers. Biru was made to transliterate the entire Gospel of John from the Amharic script to that of the Roman. Because the Gospel of John in the Roman script was first distributed amongst the students of the Soddu Catholic School, none of the believers connected with the SIM would dare to look at it. In 1943 Laurie Davis was able to send down 900 printed copies of the Wälayta Gospel of John. These were wrapped up in bundles of forty pounds each and head carried to Wälayta.
In 1942 Lily Davison joined her husband Laurie in Addis Ababa. Several Wälayta believers, together with Biru visited them in their Gulele house.
I cannot hope to tell you all Biru told us of the work. He has three other Walamo Christians here with him, and they bear out all he says, and even add to it. There is no doubt that Biru has done a wonderful work -- and he certainly has grown old in the Lord's work. He spends all his time walking around the province, preaching the Gospel, and teaching the young Christians. He does not baptize any under one year's instruction in the things of the Lord, but even then, one day he baptized five hundred! He has leaders in all the province. They say that when we left there were only about ten Christians who stood for the Lord, but now there are ten thousand! 
The sympathetic advisers had heard from other Wälayta believers that a division had crept into the church because of Biru's insistence on Friday fasting and prayer. It was arranged that a group of evangelical leaders such as Qés Mamo Chorka (Presbyterian work in Wollega), Ato Emmanuel Gebre Selassie, of the (Swedish) Addis Ababa Mekane Yesus Church, Ato Shäguté of Kambatta, Mr. Henry and the Davisons, meet with the Wälayta men to attempt to come to a Biblical understanding of this matter.
For two hours they discussed the whole subject and found that it originated when Biru was in prison, and the Italians were causing them much trouble. The other Christians decided to make Friday a day of prayer and fasting, on behalf of the work of the Lord in Walamo. They said Friday was the day the Lord suffered for them, and they were now suffering for the Lord, and it seemed very fitting that they should do this. Biru said that he never taught that fasting was necessary for salvation, but all the Christians have just followed it, excepting the few who split.
The Davisons called this an "epoch-making meeting" because there was a wonderful feeling of unity and oneness among all that gathered "and we felt that the seed was sown for a united Ethiopian Church."
By November 1941 the new movement had penetrated much of the geography of Wälayta. Sometime in October 1941 Shiguté and Sabiru of Hadiya visited the churches in Wälayta. They reported that it took them fifteen days to see all the churches and all the Christian work that was presently going on. In their tour of the churches in Wälayta, they counted sixty-seven churches! They said that some of the churches were "holding over one hundred people and needing from five to seven lanterns to light them at night." The two Haliya men concluded their glowing report about the Wälayta churches "whereas once it was hard to find any believers, it is now hard to find any unbelievers."
The two Hakiya men, Shiguté and Sabiru had a deep appreciation for Biru Dubalä. Laurie Davison quoted them as saying, "People are coming from Maraqo (Previously a very hostile tribe to the Wälayta) and from Gofa, to learn of spiritual things from Ato Biru, the leader of the Walamo work. They stay from five to fifteen days, then return with hearts aglow."
In an interview with Dana Mäja in September 1987 he confirmed that Biru was an able and effective leader of the Wälayta Kale Heywet Church (KHC). Baptisms, marriages and even baby naming were all activities performed by Biru. It was only during Biru's imprisonment in Soddu from 1940-41 that Dana Mäja conducted four different baptisms, and these at night. It was because of this overload of work during the post Italian era of 1941-1943 that Mr. Playfair recommended to the Wälayta elders that the burden of leadership be shared with others.
In July 1942, one week after Lily Davison had joined her husband in Addis Ababa, a group of Wälayta believers visited. Biru was among them and told the Davisons much of what was taking place among the Wälayta churches.
Laurie Davison was in a unique position to get to know and appreciate Biru better than most other SIMers in the post-Italian period. Davison had been assigned by the British to repatriate the Ethiopian army to their ethnic areas after 1941. Several Wälayta leaders of the south came to Addis Ababa for spiritual advice and counsel when they heard that a former SIMer was back in the country. Biru was one of those who came for spiritual advice and fellowship. The Davisons' letters and reports indicate the discussions and fellowship they had together with Biru.
In 1949 Laurie and Lily Davison moved from Addis Ababa to take up residence in Soddu town. They penned this descriptive account of Biru as the leader of the Wälayta church in "Notes on the Situation in Walamo."
Then too, such a memoranda [um] as this would not be complete without some reference to Ato Biru who is undoubtedly the leader of the whole Walamo church. Some day I will write a more detailed report or perhaps a history of the Walamo church, but at present I must be brief. Biru's character is that of a man above reproach. He has a dynamic, fanatical way of public address when aroused by opposition, but his normal sermons are rambling and lacking in clear thought or spiritual food. He deals mostly in platitudes and negatives. Herein lies his chief weakness and many of his contemporaries, some of whom were reborn out of his testimony, have far outgrown him in spiritual leadership. Nevertheless the Walamo church without a doubt grew up around Biru and he is therefore treated with veneration by all concerned. At council meetings, and even in public meetings, he usually displays a domineering spirit and insists emphatically upon having the last word in all matters. He is obviously very jealous to maintain his own prestige. He cherishes the hope of one day building a stone "temple" with a corrugated iron roof where his present church stands in order to surpass all the other Walamo churches. Immediately after the overthrow of the Italians, he encouraged the believers to begin the building of this temple at which time he was in the heyday of his fame. The Amharic [Amhara] authorities providentially put a stop to this before the foundations were laid! However, it is amazing how much material was gathered and is still lying about outside the present church. Only last Thursday he urged us to cooperate with him in reviving this project. Before Mr. Playfair and Mr. Roke appointed fifteen elders to assist him [they laid hands on those who were selected from the group of believers and Playfair had an individual prayer for each one], Biru was forced to make many important decisions alone, and I personally feel that he is to be highly commended for the way in which he molded and guided the formation of the infant church in those early years of fast growth. Because of this, I feel that, although we deplore some of his characteristics, we must uphold his authority and support his leadership, while at the same time we may seek gradually to transfer the final word of authority to the council of ruling elders. In the light of what I have said about his domineering spirit, it will be obvious that such a man would have a lot of enemies even among the believers, and I therefore think that the rulership of the church as a whole should be vested in that group of honorable men that we now have as the council of ruling elders. There is quite a large split in the church and several small ones. They seem mostly to be based on personal quarrels with Biru who believes in church union providing everyone will unite with him. For my own information I have sought to delve deep into these splits and to try and discover why the ruling elders do not, or cannot bring about reconciliation, and I have reached the conclusion that an awesome fear of Biru prevents the elders from speaking their minds frankly on matters that personally concern one who to them is as "the anointed of the Lord." Even difficult matters, providing they do not concern him, the elders seem to settle quite readily. Hence I would advocate the introduction of the secret ballot into their council meetings. This system I believe, knowing their mentality would be acceptable to them. This, however, is a root problem that my successor will have to face.
One must face the question of whether missionary Davison (or was he acting more in the role of a British military officer?) was going beyond his authorized prerogatives in recommending some curtailment of the activities of Biru. But it appears that there is a spiritual authority an outsider may legitimately exercise over a young church. This seems to be in keeping with what the Apostle Paul did in his role amongst the new churches of Asia Minor. The changes Davison recommended were eventually what the Wälayta Kale Heywat Church (KHC) finally adopted and put into practice. The ruling council of KHC elders are certainly in charge of the Wälayta church affairs today. So it appears that Davison's comments about Biru were both objective and fair. It seems that Davison was in tune with the Wälayta KHC in stating what he did.
One must deal with the question as to why Biru did not continue as the leader of the Wälayta KHC after the SIMers returned to Wälayta in 1945. when Wändaro was asked why Biru parted company with the main body of the Wälayta KHC and began to make overtures with the Swedish Mission BV, his reply was that Biru was not satisfied with the permission under which the Wälayta church was operating. When the Ohmans returned to Wälayta in July of 1945 hundreds of Wälayta believers came flocking to their rented living quarters in Soddu town . Walter Ohman was made aware that Biru was negotiating some kind of permission letter with the Wälayta governor Däjazmach Bahole. The fifteen t'ärap'éza elders were upset with their not being consulted in the matter. Ohman writes, "The fifteen and I told Biru very strongly that we did not want to break with him, but that we could not go with him on this other business." Two weeks later when the elders held their monthly meeting, Biru again attempted to get the endorsement from his colleagues to proceed with the church to function as a recognized entity. They flatly refused to give him their support. It appears that the issue had come to a head by February 1946 when the fifteen t'ärap'éza elders decided "that they could not work with him." Soon after this he established his relationship with the Swedish Mission BV, his former friends who had brought him into the faith some twenty years before. Wändaro and other Wälayta elders argued that it was the intention of the Wälayta KHC to work with the mission in the work of the Gospel, not with the government. It was after this that Dana Mäja was elected as the leader of the Wälayta KHC.
Biru retained friendly and cordial relationships with the Wälayta KHC and some of the SIM missionaries even though he was in communion with the Swedish Lutherans. His daughter married Dana Mäja's son, so the two church leaders were bonded together into one family. To show his respect and appreciation towards the SIM, Ed and Edna Ratzliff were invited to speak at Biru's stone church at Anka in May 1959 and reported, "The church was over full and people sitting outside. We had a very good service."
Biru Dubalä died in April 1991. His legacy to the Wälayta church was a disciplined leadership. Even though his roots were not in Wälayta, he followed in the long established tradition of prestige leadership from the outside, like that of the Tigrai dynasty. He served his own generation well and to the best of his ability. He had his own conflicts with younger men in Wälayta as well as those in SIM leadership. It appears that SIMers unknowingly undermined his authority when they returned after the Italian occupation. Whether this was the fault of the SIMers or the reality of a changing leadership paradigm is not exactly clear. We do know that some of the Wälayta districts were not satisfied with Biru's strict dictatorial policies. Change was inevitable.
But during the difficult period of Italian occupation, Biru Dubalä functioned as a true shepherd of the flock. He served his generation well. Arébo, one of the initial ten who were baptized in 1933, wrote this happy letter to the Ohmans who were forced out of Ethiopia and were stationed in Sudan, in late 1937. This letter paints a picture of Biru, a leader with charisma:
We had a happy Christmas together, all meeting at Biru's house. It was all decorated with flowers. Biru wrote on a big paper, "This is a happy day: Jesus Christ's birthday." Forty-five of the believers all had dinner together with singing, prayer, and preaching. All the women baked bread and little cakes and brought them, and then on Christmas morning made wat' (native meat dish). Two men gave the sheep for the wat' and one bought sugar from town. The coffee was so good with sugar in it. All did something and it was a very, very happy day. All were so glad that Jesus had saved them and had died for their sins.
E. Paul Balisky
This article, received in 1995, is a section of Dr. E. Paul Balisky's thesis, reproduced here with his permission. Dr. Balisky is the Liaison Coordinator for Evangelical Theological College in Addis Ababa and member of the DACB Advisory Council.