When the sun goes down in the Borena Zone, there is no light. No electricity. A lantern is a luxury in this Ethiopian village. Tonight, nearly 30 people gather around one lit inside a small hut.
Kia Dureti Dida prays, then begins to teach the cluster who have come to listen to the Word of God. None of them can read, so they only hear the Bible when Kia visits.
Kia is a “mobile missionary” to the Borana Oromo people group, a semi-nomadic tribe in Ethiopia. He travels to this village and several others on a regular basis, sometimes staying the night, sometimes walking four miles in the dark back to his home. Yet Kia is not just an itinerant preacher -- he’s Borana himself. He raises cows and other animals just like the villagers he addresses.
The next morning, Kia walks to other nearby villages. As the land dries quickly from a morning rain, Kia ducks into the hut of a 68-year-old woman named Tume Kosi. Tume’s 16-year-old daughter knows how to read, so Kia recently gave her a Bible translated into Oromiffa, the language he and the other Borana speak. She keeps it in a plastic bag hung over a hook in their hut -- the only Bible in their village.
Like many others, Tume has a story of healing related to her faith in Christ. In fact, almost every Christian Kia knows has a story involving a healing of themselves or a relative, or a story of evil spirits and being freed from demon possession. It’s a common theme among almost all Christians in the area.
But Kia himself is also a common theme; most can trace their faith back to when Kia or another mobile missionary first visited their village and explained that Jesus is the only way to know God. Some had never heard of Jesus before, others knew only rumors. Some learned for the first time when Kia and the others brought the JESUS film to the village and showed this Gospel of Luke portrayal.
Standing in the center of the hut while the women sit on small stools, the 22-year-old prays for Tume and her daughter, Ture. Kia then teaches from the Bible, continuing to stand, an Ethiopian Christian tradition expressing respect for God and His Word.
Tume sits with her hands folded, listening intently. She later tells Kia about her difficulties -- her partially paralyzed hand, her sick cow, her husband’s other wife. Polygamy is common among the Borana people. Since Tume became a Christian, her husband has stopped providing for her.
Before he leaves, Kia helps the sick but heavy cow back to its feet, like he would for any neighbor. Although he lives with his young wife in a tiny town nearby, he is still part of this community. The day before, he helped a woman named Bati Dida when one of her cows died, since her husband was miles away with other animals. He gathered other neighbors, and together they salvaged all the meat they could, then they buried the cow.
A cow could typically earn enough money for Bati Dida’s family to live on for several months, but at least the meat will feed them for several days.
Kia also sometimes helps with plowing, since many of the Borana people are transitioning from a completely nomadic lifestyle to an attempt to grow crops while the husbands or children still walk for miles with the cattle, camels or goats.
When Kia leaves Tume, he walks through a village without any Christians. They are not as welcoming, but one man still invites Kia into his hut. The conversation lasts only a few minutes; the man is not interested in Christianity. On Kia’s way out of the village, some women taunt him, shouting that Borana should not be Christians.
“Sometimes I get discouraged when they refuse again and again,” he confesses, “but I have a calling.”
Kia grew up believing in the traditional Borana religion, worshiping trees or stones and praying for the weather. He didn’t believe anything happened to a man when he died -- man simply ceased to exist. Then Kia started to hear bits and pieces of other religions, especially Islam and the teachings of Christ.
After a Muslim told him to embrace Islam, Kia began to think more about God. While grazing his cattle on a mountainside, he paused.
Without ever having been taught how to pray, Kia got on his knees and prayed, “God, you know I’m in Borana culture, but I want to know what is true. Is it the Borana way or Islam or Christianity? Whatever takes me to eternal life, let me choose that one.”
Kia can’t explain what happened any more than that he felt a peace about the Christian faith. He decided to attend a church. “I resigned myself to God,” he says, after learning about Jesus.
He then taught himself to read using the Bible, figuring out words and letters as he went along, asking others for help. “Does this word say, ‘Father’?” he remembers asking -- his first word. It progressed from there, to entire verses, chapters and books. He’s now read the entire New Testament and parts of the Old. His passion for Christ has grown. “Now that I can read it, I really see this is the way,” he says.
He began spending some of his time telling others about his faith, but also had cattle and donkeys to care for. Then he got connected with the Great Commission Ministry of Ethiopia. It paid him a stipend to free up some of his time to begin traveling to outer villages to explain the gospel and plant churches.
“This started as a ministry to help track the JESUS film shows, and ended up as its own ministry, planting churches,” says Damtew Kifelew, who leads the Great Commission Ministry of Ethiopia. He doesn’t know the number of Borana -- estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million, because many live in remote areas. However, there are 18 mobile missionaries, and Damtew dreams of a day when there will be more than 250.
With his brother-in-law caring for the cattle, Kia switched from spending about 20% of his free time in evangelism to giving almost 90%. He visits between 10 and 20 villages on a regular basis, each one with a house church he has helped plant.
Great Commission Ministry leaders also bring him to trainings two or three times a year, teaching him practical things to pass on to the villages, like water purification and cautioning against harmful traditional practices. Most importantly, they emphasize Scripture during the trainings, giving Kia inspiration and vision to reach the Borana.
When he leaves Tume’s and Bati’s villages, Kia travels to the town of Mega for a 3-day training with the 17 other mobile missionaries. They all listen attentively, never seeming to tire or lose interest. As staff member Abayneh Anjulo teaches about being a spiritual leader, Kia scribbles notes -- his own made-up markings, since he hasn’t yet learned to write.
These trainings inspired Kia to learn writing and other skills, so one month earlier, he decided to attend the free public schooling offered by the government. He entered the second grade with 69 other students, ranging from ages 7 to 30. He’s only able to go a few days a week because he has his wife and cattle to care for, but he still enjoys school.
On the second day of the missionary training, Kia receives some disturbing news -- three of his cattle have died. He debates about returning immediately to his other animals.
His motivation wavers, and he wonders if he’ll have to quit both school and this training just to make ends meet. And what of the other Borana? How can he possibly reach all the tribes scattered around the region when he can barely support himself?
Then Kia remembers his calling. He remembers that these are his people, and they need to know the same truth that has changed his life. So Kia stays at the training, continuing to diligently scribble notes that only he can read.
The next week, Kia visits Bati Dida’s village again, this time able to sympathize with the loss of their cow in a painfully familiar way. Their shared sadness also highlights the reason why the mobile-missionaries strategy works so well. Kia understands the Borana like no other, because it’s his life and culture, too.