Bedele, first impressions

As soon as the people in the station saw us arriving, they immediately came out to greet us, and they did their best to make us feel at home. They were all mortified when they learnt about our experience with the Bedele town Administrator and his -luckily failed- attempt at “capturing” Mabel. It was at that time that, judging by the veiled criticism we heard, we realized that not all Ethiopians were in favour of Mengistu’s regime. We found this rather unexpected.

Luckily, almost everybody at the station spoke English well as Ethiopian professionals do. Senior administrators, veterinarians and technicians from the laboratory lived in the remaining five bungalows while the lower ranks stayed at Bedele town. Another -pleasant- surprise was that a few of the professionals spoke “Cuban” Spanish, the consequence of their education at the “Isla de la Juventud” (Youth Island) in Cuba where many children from countries in Africa and other continents were sent to be educated.

It was really a weird situation to talk in Spanish with my two counterparts Sileshi and Solomon but, somehow, it gave as a sense of more closeness in such a remote place. While most people at the laboratory communicated in Amharic both spoken and written, farmers and folk people in south-western Ethiopia spoke mainly the Oromo language or their local dialects, all of them impossible to understand and learn in the short time we had in Bedele.

Apart from Jan and Janni, the Dutch couple from the next bungalow, we had other neighbours such as Wolete from Tigray, a technician working with trypanosomiasis that was to become a great neighbour and friend. She and her husband cared for a young girl called Meredith (Meredit?), an orphan that they were looking after. They shared their house with another couple. 

Wolete spinning wool.
Learning to spin wool.
The bushsnob also tried… but decided to continue working with ticks and TBDs!
The daughter of our neighbours was shy! But her eyes said a lot.

Ibrahim, the Director of the laboratory occupied the fourth bungalow and the remaining two were shared by the various veterinarians.

Our bungalow seemed in good order. It had electricity and running water, two very important facts to start with. It had a sitting and dining area, two bedrooms and a toilet. We proceeded to install the cooker, fridge and music system, our only electrical appliances until the rest of our stuff would arrive later on. We also prepared the largest bedroom for us while the second became my office and it would also serve as a guest room. 

Although there was little room separating our house from the others at the back, we were fortunate to have the last bungalow and it opened to the laboratory campus towards our front. This was earlier referred to as our large garden by my Zimbabwean colleague and it was a good description as beyond the campus you could actually see a long way away in the distance the smoky hills of higher lands.

With François looking at the beautiful Didessa river valley.

People at the station kept chickens to eat and to get fresh eggs and it was quite common to witness a white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda) chasing them between the houses, followed by the owner trying to defend it, not always successfully!

Cattle, sheep and goats also roamed through the station as the gate was open during the day and they had little difficulties to enter and enjoy the relatively abundant grass of the campus as compared with the overgrazed land around town. While the sheep were quite well behaved, the goats were a pest and they would eat anything, including our bananas and mangoes, even climbing on our vehicles to get them!

Sheep walking past with natural oxpecker tick control inluded.
A goat getting at the bananas and later denting the bonnet of the car.

Settling in was easy as there was little to do after work, apart from going for a cup of coffee to one of the coffee shops in the village that the Ethiopians always paid for! There were a few restaurants in Bedele and the favourite of the laboratory was really a family house where you could eat. Basically, you would be the only customers and they would accommodate you in their red plush armchairs in their living room and they would bring the food that our colleagues ordered. Usually this was doro fanta (injera, mutton and egg chilly stew) although, occasionally (to our relief) we could get kitfo (raw meat and butter with chilly), our favourite. Injera in this land was not the white and tasty we tried in Addis but a rather dark and sour variety that took a while to get used to eat it without getting severe stomach burn. However, we got used to eat it after a while.

There were other, rougher, eating places that we avoided after our first experience. We went there on an exploratory visit and we were guided to the kitchen to choose our food. While this was good as far as the injera went as we could see it being baked, we were then directed to a rather large cauldron where a kind of thick stew was boiling and from where we should help ourselves.

Injera oven. The dough is poured under the top cover.

We were getting ready to dip the large spoon in the simmering mass when we froze. A large cow eye was floating on the surface staring at us before it sunk back into the stew probably to join the second one and other organs that “grow in the dark”. We politely declined the food offer and went to our usual and safer place.

It was soon clear that it would be difficult to spend money in Bedele as there were no shops, with a few exceptions such as the butchery and the usual Saturday market. Mabel has just refreshed my memory regarding the former. It was reached through a track that, during the rains, required 4WD. It was located among a number of eucalyptus trees, a shack with a small glassless window through which some very dark looking (and rather stinky) meat chunks were hanging from hooks attached to the wall.

The butcher was an old man that had a couple of young assistants busy hacking at a freshly killed ox and hanging pieces of on a long pole from where the numerous customers were selecting their share. Purchases were paid in cash in Birr, no credit cards accepted!

The place was clearly a combined abattoir and butchery, judging by the number of bones scattered around it. However, it was nowhere as spectacular as the main slaughterhouse in Addis that had true bone mountains.

The bone “mountains” at the Addis Slaughter house. Credit: Magnus Franklin. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.

It took a great effort to get the cuts we wanted as there were not only communication issues (the butcher and or helpers would only speak Oromo) and the way we cut eat was also rather different. Eventually, through a combination of sign language and pointing out directly to the carcass we got a few chunks hacked off for us.

As expected, the meat was very tough, and we needed to cut it very thin to prepare something that our “civilized” teeth could bite through. After a couple of attempts of visiting the butcher, we decided to bring any further meat from Addis.

The local market did not offer any great spending possibilities either. Apart from lively livestock sales, we could find a few tomatoes and onions as well as Oromo potatoes (Coleus edulis) and false banana or ensete (Ensete ventricosum) used for kocho [1]. The former is a special variety of potato that was found only in Welega province. Its shape is similar to that of a human finger, thin and elongated and widely consumed in Oromia. We had them steamed or boiled but failed to leave an impression.

Buying tomatoes at the market was another challenge to Mabel. The peasant women would sit on mats with about four to five tomatoes each and there was no way of convincing them from parting from all their tomatoes! So, we needed to visit about ten women and buy one or two from each to get the amount we were after! I am not sure of the reasons for this selling strategy but our presence prompted lots of talking and arguing!

After the first couple of weeks we realized that we would need to grow our own vegetables and bring most of our food from Addis or Jimma as the rest of the people did. Mabel also decided that a “survival” garden was on order and immediately she mobilized friends both in Italy and Great Britain to urgently supply her with the needed seeds.

I have already described her achievements in an earlier post published in September 2013 [2] and I recommend you to read it after the present one, if interested.

So, with the passing of time, life at Bedele became rather nice and we spent long hours reading and listening to music. In anticipation of long nights Mabel had bought several tapes of the most famous opera that we enjoyed very much in the evenings. Apart from quiet nights, there was also quite a bit of socializing with neighbours at our or their houses.

[1] The Gurage people chop the ensete’s flesh into a paste, and then shape it into a dough-like mass that gets wrapped in the plant’s leaves and buried in the ground to “mature”.

[2] See:

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