by Richard Baker
Ethiopia has the third largest population in Africa, following Nigeria and Egypt. It is located in northwest Africa and, until the independence of Eritrea in 1992, bordered on the Red Sea. Ethiopia is now a landlocked country.
The Maryknoll Society was invited to work in Ethiopia by the Bishop of the Vicariate of Nekemte in the early 1970’s. Nekemte Vicariate is located west of the capital city of Addis Ababa. Soon thereafter, a team of three Maryknollers arrived in Nekemte to begin missionary work – John Ridyard and Edward Schoellmann came from Tanzania and Dennis LaRoche came from the Philippines. In 1974 a Marxist government was installed in Ethiopia. Foreign missionaries were then restricted to certain areas within the country. Shortly after 1974, the Maryknoll team left Ethiopia.
Another Maryknoller, Fr. George Cotter, returned to Nekemte in the 1980’s. After a short stay in the Vicariate, he moved to Debre Zeit, a town about 30 miles outside of Addis Ababa. There he continues to research Oromo proverbs and oral wisdom. He compares Oromo wisdom with biblical wisdom. He has published several books on this and related topics. George is also involved in other pastoral and educational activities.
In 1990, Fr. Carroll Houle who was at that time serving as Maryknoll’s Africa Area Coordinator, and Fr. Richard M. Baker visited Gambella Region in Ethiopia at the invitation of the Vicar and Development Director of Nekemte Vicariate. Fr. Baker had recently been expelled from southern Kordofan Province in Sudan by the Sudanese government. He was asked to investigate the possibility of working with the Vicariate and the Jesuit Refugee Service to assist the more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees in Gambella Region. In 1991 the Marxist government was overthrown and all refugees returned to Sudan or took refuge in neighboring countries.
Fr. Baker went to Gambella in 1991 on a three month visitor’s visa. He served as chaplain to the Missionaries of Charity, assisted the new transitional government in Gambella in social work – student hostel, orphans – and served the Catholic resettlers in the region. He was not able to secure a work permit and left Gambella.
Fr. Richard returned in 1995 and continues to work with newly returned refugees, resettled Ethiopian communities, and nascent local Catholic communities. Gambella is situated 400 miles southwest of Addis Ababa near the Sudan border.