Eritrea- Religious Beliefs among the Kunama

A glance at the religious beliefs of the Kunama, an Eritrean ethnic group living in the remote and isolated area between the Gash and Setit rivers near the border with Ethiopia.

When the Kunama are asked: ‘Ayshila mekobino?’, they reply: ‘Ánnala’la makobinke’ (we believe in God). The word ‘Anna’ (God) comes from the word ‘Annena,’ which means creator in Kunama.

The Kunama believe in Anna (God) who created the heavens and the earth. For them, God lives far away, up in the universe, and no one can reach or see him; he is invisible. The Kunama say: Annà na inti? (who sees God?), Na itache? (and who can know him?). Still they say, Annà itache – God is God.

They are very religious people, and their own language testifies to this. For example, in times of trouble, they say: Anna koske (God is present), Anna konala (in God’s hands), Anna kondorabu (by God’s grace or power), and Anna headabbu (God willing).

In expressing their gratitude, they say: Annam eso (God bless you), Anna gola (God is great/ good). When they pronounce curses, they say: Anna ebale (may God destroy you), Anna eyafasu (may God kill you), Anna laga (God’s earth/universe).

When they pray, they call upon their ancestors to intercede with God on their behalf. Their religion is based on orality, they do not bow or kneel to any image or statue, and they worship only one God.

For the Kunama, Anna also has another characteristic: He is not interested in the earth in a specific way. Once the creation is completed, he leaves the inhabitants to live alone and build their existence as they see fit; they will be helped or harmed by the spirits of good or evil.

Anna, however, does not completely forget about his creatures. Every 14 or 15 years he leaves his seat and goes down to earth to visit people, and it is then that the Kunama gather to solemnly celebrate the great event with dances, songs and aifa (drinking) for days on end.

This celebration of the Tuka (the manifestation of Anna) does not happen suddenly but is announced many months in advance. Distance does not prevent a relationship of trust. The Kunama people trust in Anna, they truly believe in the Creator, and in the difficult moments of life, one expression recurs frequently – Anna coske, meaning a God who sees and provides.

Especially in the elderly, there is no lack of recourse to Anna through prayer, together with the invocation of Adum and Hawa (Adam and Eve, the progenitors of all the tribes) and of the ancestors.

Prayer does not consist of already prepared formulas, but it is spontaneous, simple, confident, and of few words: ‘may the wind (Anna’s strength) take away all evils from you; may your health, your life be as robust as Mount Fodé (a sacred mountain); may Anna give us abundant rain and a luxuriant harvest’. These are the essential points of the Kunama prayer and when a Kunama swears by Anna, his word can be fully trusted. He certainly is not lying.

The Kunama venerate their ancestors and have a special reverence for the elders of the tribe. This respect for the elders allows the tribe to make important decisions, called ‘democratic choices’, which always involve two elders. The Kunama work together, designating certain months for special events. September, for example, is harvest time. January is the month when houses are repaired. Everything is done as a community, each helping the other. The whole village participates in funerals, as it is the custom to say farewell in groups, even if the children cannot attend. (Ayana F. Makda)

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