Pauline Fathme, Christian Rufo and the Early Missions to the Oromo

Pauline Fathme, Christian Rufo and the Early Missions to the Oromo


When we think of Ethiopia, we often think of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with its impressive buildings and its ancient, unique, and colorful traditions. The religious complex of Lalibela, for example, with its monolithic churches, has been declared a UNESCO heritage site.

            But the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has not represented all of the Ethiopian population. For centuries, the Oromo people, which are now the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, had maintained their own indigenous religion, with occasional contacts with Christianity and Islam, usually through trade.

            As other African populations, they had been exploited for centuries by African and Arab slave-traders – a commerce Europeans readily joined, particularly in the 18th century. Rank and nobility didn’t deter the slave-traders. In fact, slavery was a common fate for families of defeated princes.


Enslaved Princess

            This was the case of Ganamee, a name which meant “morning” in the Oromo language. She was the only child of the leader of the Guummaa state, Yaa’ii Shaseedaa Odah, a great warrior who was killed in battle before her very eyes when she was only six. We don’t know if her mother was still alive or if other family members took care of the young girl.

What we know is that three years later, while vising her father’s grave, she was kidnapped by Muslim slave traders who took her to a slave market in Sinnaar, Egypt. Later, she said the prospect of being sold as a slave, especially to a harem, was so traumatic that her skin broke out in a rash whenever a man came to examine her – making her look like damaged goods.

She was eventually sold and resold twelve times, until she arrived at the home of the Pasha of Egypt, Mehmet Ali – a privileged place of service. There, she worked mainly in the kitchen. As other slaves, she was required to practice Islam and take on an Arabic name. She became known as Fathme (or Fatima).


From Africa to Germany

 Her life changed in 1847, when a German nobleman, John von Müller, visited the Pasha. He was at that time traveling around Africa, possibly to explore his roots, since his grandmother was a South-African Khoi. The Pasha gave von Müller Fathme as a personal gift. She then followed von Müller for the continuation of his travels, together with two African boys he had acquired during his trip. In Germany, von Müller sent Fathme to his mother, who needed a helper.

Von Müller had a reputation for rescuing African slaves, and enjoyed introducing them to other members of the German nobility. Duchess Augusta of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, mother of King William I of Württemberg, became particularly interested in Fathme, and arranged for her to be enrolled in a girls’ school in Korntal-Münchingen. By this time, Fathme was about 20 years old.

The school, called “Mittelanstalt”, was meant to prepare girls to be good housewives, while giving them a sound Christian education. Its directors, Friedrich and Ernestine Fecht, took Fathme into their home as a daughter and she referred to them as her parents.

Apparently, the move to Korntal took some persuasion, because von Müller was not eager to let Fathme go. According to her biographer, it was Korntal’s pastor, Jakob Heinrich Staudt, and a city leader, Mr. Koeller, who first suggested that von Müller should set her free, “as her freedom could not be purchased in a country where, God be praised, there is no dealing in slaves.”[1]


A Heart for Missions

Fathme embraced the Christian faith with passion and was baptized on 12 July 1852 under her new name Pauline Johanne. She continued to use Fathme as her last name. Von Müller and his mother (who continued to be her legal representative) were her godparents.

The news of Fathme’s baptism traveled fast, because she was the first known Oromo convert. The missionaries Friedrich Spittler, Johann Ludwig Krapf, and Martin Flad were particularly interested in her story. Krapf and Flad had in fact traveled to Ethiopia and Splitter was at that time planning to send missionaries there. In his brief contacts with the Oromos, Kraft had become impressed by their intelligence and was convinced they would become great missionaries. He had begun to learn their language and to translate parts of the New Testament.

Fathme, with her eagerness to bring the gospel to her people, gave Kapf the encouragement he needed. When she met him, she gave him some of her crafts and drawings to take as presents to the Oromo who, in her opinion, were “wild people but good.”[2]

Krapf and Flad traveled to Ethiopia in 1855 and spoke to the emperor, Téwodros II, who showed great interest in their message and allowed them to begin what became known as the “Falasha Mission.”

The mission prospered for a while, with the opening of several schools. In 1865, however, Téwodros became resentful of European politics and ordered the closing of both schools and mission, and the arrest of all missionaries.

Fathme was not able to follow the progress of the African missions. Already frail, she contracted a serious respiratory disease while visiting Spittler near Basle, Switzerland. She died on 11 September 1855.


Christian Rufo

Fathme became an inspiration to missionaries to Africa. Her biography, published by author Karl Frederich Ledderhose two years after her death, was reprinted several times and translated into different languages.

The mission she had promoted so heartily was finally established by German missionaries in the 1870’s and continued to blossom into the following century. As Krapf had predicted, many Oromo became missionaries around Africa.

In fact, one of the first translators of the Bible into Oromiffa was a young Oromo, Ruufoo (later known as Christian Paulus Ludwig Rufo), who was sold into slavery at 12 years of age to offset his parents’ tax obligations. He was eventually purchased and freed by German missionaries and sent to Germany to live with Krapf, who had been looking for someone to help him to translate the New Testament into Oromiffa.

The work of translation was laborious. Krapf translated from Greek, while Rufo checked the Oromiffa version and compared it with an existing Amharic translation. Rufo revised Kapf’s translations of the Gospels of John and Matthew, and portions of the Old Testament, and worked with him on a translation of the Gospel of Luke, the Book of Acts, and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The resulting work, originally done in the Latin alphabet, was printed in 1876 in the Ethiopian Geez alphabet, used by a Southern Oromo tribe where the prospect of a Protestant mission seemed imminent.

While the official reports relate a harmonious collaboration between the two translators, some letters by Krapf reveal his impatience with Rufo’s independent spirit. Kapf’s perplexities toward the young man are evident in his warning to St. Chrischona Pilgrim Mission, where Rufo worked as a printer, not to baptize him too soon.

By the winter of 1868/69, however, Rufo showed some early signs of a lung disease, and convinced the missionaries to baptize him. Still eager to serve as missionary to his people, Rufo continued his education in Jerusalem, then moved to Cairo where he joined the German Protestant community with the goal to serve at the Oromo mission. As Fathme, he died of lung disease before his dream of becoming a missionary could come to fruition. But his translation of the Bible went further than he could have ever gone.

[1] Karl Frederich Ledderhose, Pauline Fatme, First Fruits of the Gallas to Christ Jesus, transl. by Johann Ludwig Krapf, ed. by James Edward Dalton, W. H. Dalton, 1857, p. 25.

[2] P. 57


Simonetta Carr