[ABOVE—Volcanic pic at Erta Alé, Ethiopia, could stand as a metaphor for the fiery ordeal Gudina and Tsehay endured under the Derg Marxists. Marc Szeglat / Unsplash]
Retelling the stories of many Christians is retelling the passion of Christ. In the case of Tsehay Tolessa, the passion was decades-long and ten years of it were spent in foul prisons with cruel torture.
Her sufferings began as a child in Ethiopia. Italian invaders killed her father because he refused to transport grenades. Her mom struggled to feed the family but the Italians burned down their village. Slavehunters took relatives. After these disasters, her mom died of typhus. Tsehay was not yet ten. However, a Christian mission took her in. There she met her husband, Gudina, and the two devoted their lives to Christ and homemaking. Gudina became Ethiopia’s leading Lutheran theologian and leader of an Christian ecumenical movement. Teshay evangelized alongside him.
In 1979 Marxist agents arrested Gudina as he returned from church. For thirteen years, Tsehay had no knowledge of his whereabouts. Instead, she was herself arrested and her interrogators tortured her demanding that she tell them where he was. For ten years she suffered unspeakable torment in some of the foulest conditions possible for humans to survive. During her first torture, her tormenters broke her collarbone and legs, shredded her flesh, and gave her no medical care. Getting to the toilet hole was almost impossible. The prisoners’ teeth fell out from malnutrition. Yet, under such terrible conditions, she led others to Christ.
After the cruel regime fell, Tsehay’s imprisonment ended. She learned that Gudina had been executed the night he was arrested. She told the story of her life and faith, declaring “In the midst of all the suffering, though, I experienced Jesus near to me the whole time, so close, so close.”
Here are two short excerpts from her account as recorded in The Life, Works, and Witness of Tsehay Tolessa and Gudina Tumsa, the Ethiopian Bonhoeffer.
This time they threw me on the ground and bound my hands behind my back. They tied up my feet as well and hung me up again. They shouted, “Tsehay, go ahead and pray to your Jesus!”
But I had already been doing that for quite some time.
Then they whipped me. They beat and battered me like savages. This time it was even worse than before. The skin that had healed split open again and shredded. The nightmare began anew.
“Won’t he come and help you, your little Jesus?” they taunted. The pain was unendurable. Finally I heard someone say, “Now she’s dead.”
They let me down again.
. . . .
Someone brought me a Bible that I wrapped up inside my clothes. In unobserved moments, I opened my dress a little so I could read some of those precious words to myself. I had most success doing that on the toilet. Reading was impossible in the room where we slept.
We crouched on the ground. Often other women came up to me and sat down near me. Then I hurried to tell them what I had read. We had to be very careful. We couldn’t let anyone notice what we were doing. We would have been harshly punished.
Many people decided to become Christians.