Father Teweldebrhan. Bringing the Gospel to the Kumana

Father Teweldebrhan Nayir Barkay from Eritrea talks with us about his vocation journey and the challenges of his pastoral activities among the Kumana. 

I was born in 1983 in Abengulet, a village 17 kilometres from Keren, the second largest city in Eritrea. I went to primary school in a nearby village. This allowed me to participate actively in the religious activities that my father, as a catechist led the in local chapel. Liturgical ceremonies were celebrated in Ge’ez, the classical form of the ancient Ethiopian language, which has extensive Christian literature and is still used in Eritrea and Ethiopia in the liturgy. 

After finishing primary school, I was enrolled in the secondary school situated in the large courtyard that housed the parish church and other church buildings. My contacts with the parish priest became almost daily, and I was immediately fascinated by the way he related to people and lived his priestly life.

 He was very involved, not only in carrying out the normal pastoral activities, but also in supervising all the events that took place in our school. Besides making sure that each class went through the entire curriculum, he was interested in the teaching methods adopted by the teaching staff, and was very demanding in matters of discipline.

However, when I decided to talk to him about my desire to enter the seminary, he told me to wait a little longer, to pray and reflect. I did not feel discouraged at all. On the contrary, his words motivated me to get closer to religious services and to live them more intensely.

At that time, I had no knowledge of religious institutes. I knew my parish priest, a few diocesan priests, and the small group of Ursuline sisters working in my parish.

One day – I was in grade eighth – the parish priest invited me and three schoolmates to attend a vocation meeting in Halib-Mentel, 12 kilometres east of Keren. Several boys and girls came from various parishes in the diocese. 

A Comboni missionary and two Comboni sisters, in charge of vocations promotion for their institutes, animated the day. They shared their missionary experiences with us and explained the requirements for a boy or girl wishing to enter their institute.

I immediately jumped at the chance: I filled in the form and handed it to the missionary. My request was promptly granted and, the following year, I entered the Comboni Minor Seminary in Dekemhare, attending class nine.

I liked seminary life right away. The atmosphere was better than I could imagine. The teaching was excellent and the teachers well prepared. The three years spent in the minor seminary flew away like the wind. The desire to move on immediately to the next stage of my missionary formation was compelling. But now there was an obstacle to overcome.

All Eritreans between the ages of 18 and 40 have the “compulsory duty to perform active national service”, consisting of six months of military training and 12 months of active service and development tasks in military forces. Conscription for an indefinite period was institutionalised in 2002. This meant that I had to do grade 12 in Sawa Defence Training Centre in the Gash-Bark region. Which I did. In 2003, I sat for the national exam and passed it. I could have enrolled in a college, but I discarded the idea. I wanted to become a Comboni missionary.

In 2004, I entered the Comboni postulancy and for three years attended the required philosophical courses. I should have started the novitiate in Lusaka (Zambia) or Namugungo (Uganda), joining other novices from other African nations, but national regulations forbade an Eritrean to leave the borders of Eritrea before reaching the age of 50 for a male or 40 for a female. Consequently, the Comboni missionaries had found themselves obliged to open formation houses for their candidates in Eritrea.

I spent the two years of novitiate in Dekemhare, concluding with first religious vows in June 2008, and the five years of scholasticate in Asmara, the capital. I took my perpetual vows in August 2012 and was ordained a priest on 12th January 2013.

Two months later, I was sent to work among the Kunama people in the mission of Delle, in the diocese of Barentu. I threw myself into the study of the language and culture of these people. The presence of a primary school near the parish church helped me to practise the language. Children were always ready to ‘play’ by teaching me their language, even taking the right to burst out laughing at the gibberish that came out of my mouth. They laughed and I smiled. In the end, I managed to master their language.

There was a lot of work in the mission. Besides running the central parish in Delle, we had to care for two large outstations, Gogne and Gucci, both with a chapel – St. Bakhita and Our Lady Kidane Mihret – where the Eucharist is celebrated every Sunday.

The Kunama live in a flat area of Eritrea. They lead a very simple life, which depends on agriculture. If the rainy season is good, they can harvest enough grain for a year, otherwise famine arrives on time and life becomes hard.

All Kunama believe in God, whom they call Anna. Many are Christians (Catholics and Protestants), some are Muslims and others still follow the traditional religion. Some areas are predominantly Muslim, but there is peaceful co-existence between the various creeds. What happened at my priestly ordination is a clear example of this. 

I had to hold the ceremony in the neighbouring parish of Gilas, because the small chapel in my village, Abengelet, was too small to hold all the people who had expressed a desire to attend. After the ceremony, however, we all went to my village, where the majority is Muslim, but many followers of Islam joyfully participated in the celebration, with dancing and singing, declaring: “Catholics and Muslims are all brothers”.

In the parish, there are still areas of first evangelisation, which represent a considerable challenge, but very exciting at the same time. A large part of our pastoral work is dedicated to work with schools, encouraging the younger generations to acquire a proper education. The level of education is very low in Eritrea; among the Kunana, it is even lower. Many pupils drop out of school without completing at least the first cycle, guaranteeing a bleak future for themselves.

We pay great attention also to visits to families, especially those recently formed. Many of these unions, even between Catholics, do not feel the need to be strengthened by the sacrament of marriage. There is constant need of serious and prolonged catechesis. The efforts made are beginning to bear fruit. More and more families are asking for the grace of the sacrament and are becoming models for other families to imitate and follow.