In continuation of our series on Anywaa church music, today’s post features Anywaa singer and composer, Samson Ojullu Amer. He is proficient in all types of Anywaa music, including cultural and secular, but focuses mainly on composing songs in the church (many Protestant Christians in Ethiopia forbid involvement in secular music, so musicians in the church typically restrict themselves to playing and composing religious songs). Samson is from a small village called Gok and, after receiving his degree in psychology from Mekelle University, has returned to Gok upon finding work there with an NGO. I met him in Gambella town, where he was staying to recover from a motorcycle accident. Samson has quite a life story, having grown up in a refugee camp and then as a street boy. He shared this story with me and his path to becoming a composer:
“You know, it is a little bit difficult story when I just talk to myself now [about my] past life. So, my mom was a woman who didn’t have anything. When I was seven, my mom passed away…When my grandmom took me to the refugee camp, life [was] messed up…you just get your ration. In a month, fifteen kilograms. And, then, life became very difficult at that time…
“I started to work for myself so that I could get other things, you know the basic needs for a human. You know gold mining? The refugee camp is near to a place where people can go find gold. So, when I [turned] twelve, I tried to work that job, [so] I could [find] the things I needed for my education, my life, you know: the shoes, the clothes…everything. So, I started doing that. When I became strong enough to work, I started getting my own money. When I started getting my own money, I started taking some drugs. So I lived as a street boy. I didn’t obey the order of my grandmom anymore…I stopped everything [including school] because now I started to have my own income.
“So, when things got like that, life became a little bit difficult, and then I came back to the refugee camp…When I [was] around sixteen or seventeen, I started going to church. Just for, you know, time. I just wanted to [pass] my time, not because I was serious about it. Then there were missionaries that came…and I still remember the word that that man had preached that day. He said that if you believe in Jesus, even if you are dead, you can be alive again after that…and, me myself, it happened to be that I was someone afraid of death…[and] because of that word at that time, I came to receive Jesus Christ. And I didn’t know this thing was in me, the singing. I didn’t understand [it]…I loved singing, but I didn’t know how.
“So, I became a member of the church. I joined choir. And, in the meantime, I think it was the Holy Spirit that came over me. I don’t understand how it happened. But, it happened. I was praying, and I started just doing some rhythm in my mind, my mind is just singing. And, then, when I tried to follow that memory, it became something sensible, something important, like a song itself. That’s how it happened…and then I became a singer, and I started to produce, to compose my first [songs].”
Samson started composing soon after his conversion, around sixteen years ago. The church took him in, and he was able to stop working in the gold mines and living on the streets. He has also been able to earn some income through producing and selling his music. He recorded several tracks with the help of our own Ojho Ojullo Othow playing the keyboard. They sold the songs in Gambella and even to the Anywaa diaspora in the United States and shared the money together.
I asked Samson about the inspiration for his music, and he said, “Sometimes, [the songs] are my way of communicating with God…it is not an easy thing I can [explain]. When I am out of sense, sometimes, when I try to sing these songs, they bring me back…so whenever there’s a time I am in stress or depression, when I sing one of my songs or whatever, I just feel more comfortable and more refreshed. And I feel like I’m with God himself. That means [the songs are] like a connector between me and God. When I sing, I feel like God is here now.”
He sang one of his original songs after our interview, called “Oou Ubeet Ouu Wiguu Gin Caan Kiper Yesu,” which means, “You people, come, listen to what the word of God is.” He wrote this song in 2003, after many members of the Anywaa ethnic group were targeted and killed in Gambella town (see HRW’s report or our previous post). Following the event, Samson and many other Anywaa fled in fear of their lives to the Sudanese border. He composed this song when he saw that, “Many people, all they [did was] just waste their time…What I was thinking was, if those people could come and believe God, what would happen? I came to the conclusion that, when they believe God, their future will be bright. So, even the song itself starts with calling someone: ‘Oou, oou’ means ‘Come!’ I was thinking of them, because their life was disparate in the border.” Samson considers this song one of his favorites and sings it regularly, because, “When I sing it, I can relate it to an event in my life. Because, it was not an easy life, being at that border. Life was so hard, you know. When I sing it, I just remember this thing. And, when I finish it, I can give God thanks, because he already gave me some good life.”
Samson provided some additional information about the role of songs in Anywaa culture, particularly for Anywaa Christians, during our interview. He said that, “Our people, most of the time, when they come to church, they focus on the music, the songs themselves. When there is a song, a new one, they will just sing it with their whole heart. [But] when time for the Bible preaching comes, most of the people, they sleep. In our culture, the very best way to preach is through song….So, this music is not something simple in our culture. It is the big thing in our culture. You saw it this morning in the church. When the song [leader] is singing, everyone will stand and sing.”
It appears that, for this reason, Anywaa Christian songs are moderated for clarity and how closely their message adheres to the Bible. Last Saturday [June 25], I sat in on a choir meeting at the Mekane Yesus Anywaa church, and song lyrics was one of the topics under scrutiny. Initially, I was a little surprised that the choir members felt the need to so closely monitor the lyrics (“What about poetic freedom?!” my ethnocentric brain cried). However, when you consider that song lyrics are the primary way that Anywaa Christians learn religious doctrines, it is understandable that composers and church leaders feel the need to make sure the lyrics impart a message that aligns with their theology.
While I didn’t record the choir’s discussion (it was all in Anywaa, anyway), we did take some video of the songs with which the choir closed their meeting. As Samson indicated, you can certainly see that everyone is very engaged in the music, making it a useful vehicle for educating church members.
Before we close this post, I would like to address something that may have been confusing for some readers and was certainly confusing for me until I asked Samson and Ojho to clarify. If Samson is Ethiopian, why was he in a refugee camp for people fleeing warfare in Sudan? Apparently, it is not uncommon for Ethiopians in Gambella to do this. The UN refugee camps provide food, safety, and access to education that is better than the education that is offered by the government schools. In Samson’s case, he was an orphan, and his grandmother did not have the means to take care of him. By entering the refugee camp, he was able to get some food rations and go to school. This phenomenon still occurs today. Samson said that, “This is how you can get the benefit of your country. The refugees there now, they are resources for Ethiopia. So, what they get, the community must get also…This happens because [the Ethiopian] people have nothing to do, to eat…there is scarcity in everything. So, it is not surprising when indigenous people enter the refugee camp.”
In conclusion, our friend Samson has certainly come a long way from orphan to refugee camp resident to street boy to where he is today. But he has even bigger plans for the future. He plans to get a second degree in sociology or social policy, another bachelors in theology, then a Ph.D. in psychology. For Samson, “Psychology is second to the Bible, because it is about humanity. It is about yourself.” He is especially interested in cognitive psychology. Even after attaining a high level of education, he plans to continue working in the church. “Whatever I do,” he said, “I have to go back to the church, because this is where my life started.” Regarding music, he will continue singing and composing, and he has plans to compose songs in English as he continues to master the language. “For me, my songs are wonderful for me,” he said. “I can say they are why I am alive.”