After our arrival we had a few weeks to adjust to our new work and life as they were both very different from what we were used to. Regarding the work, it was clear that the project personnel were eager to work hard to recover any lost time and I tried to organize the various jobs that were pending.
Luckily, like most educated Ethiopians, everybody in the project spoke English and, as I mentioned earlier, a few also spoke “Cuban”. As my knowledge of Amharic was zero, this was very good for me! I was surprised to hear some words in Amharic that I somehow understood! These were clearly mechanically related: pompa (pipe), formaggio (cheese), kariberēteri (carburetor), pamipi (pump), tubo (hose), pīsiteni (piston), batirī (battery), jaki (jack), moteri (engine), wīnidowisi (winscreen), goma (tire), sipaneri (spanner).
The explanation I was given is that the Italians brought the first motor vehicles to Ethiopia and, as Amharic did not have words for car parts, they adopted them from Italian. I was not a mechanic and, unfortunately, I could not find similarities with the words used in animal health!
To compensate for this handicap, I tried to learn greeting people like the Ethiopians. Just to give you an example, Tena yistilign. (ጤና ይስ ጥልኝ) was roughly “hello” for both, male and female. The reply would depend on your gender, dehna neh? for a male or dehna nesh? for a female. This phrase is then repeated several times while the two people embrace each other. In my experience the number of times the greeting takes place, the voice and back-slapping volumes increased with the affection shown. As you can imagine, my efforts in doing this were pathetic although much better than my attempts at traditional dancing!
Although English was spoken by the educated Ethiopians, farmers spoke their local dialects or languages such as Tigrinya (Tigray Region and parts of Eritrea) and Oromo language (West Ethiopia and parts of Kenya) to name just two of several existing ones. Government personnel and educated people speak Amharic, a Semitic language and the official working language of Ethiopia. Written Amharic was an impossible job for me but could not help being fascinated by the typewriters that would produce such writing!
We gradually got organized and soon, through contacts with our laboratory colleagues, we employed Woletu, a mature Amhara lady that came to help us with the house chores. Coming from Jimma, she deeply disliked Bedele and the “primitive” people that lived in it! She found a place to stay in Bedele and became a good asset for us and someone we missed on departure.
Regarding the food, we realized that we could get honey from a local farmer, a great development, considering where we were. So, we travelled to the farm and were greeted warmly by the seller that, to show this made us sit down and poured honey on a small and concave wooden table. We noted that, apart from the honey, we could see lots of white grubs in it.
We exchanged looks with Mabel and proceeded to eat the honey with our fingers, carefully avoiding the grubs. This surprised the farmer that insisted that we ate them as they were considered a great delicacy. I took one and it tasted very salty, contrasting with the honey’s sweetness. Mabel -being a beekeeper- could not refuse and took them as naturally as possible. the first I took was the only one as I refused them repeatedly, surely offending our host.
Eventually, we moved to a small hut that was the man’s store where we could see a number of bags that I could not help noticing them smeared with what looked like dried blood. He heaved one of them out and gave it to us. It was a goat skin filled with honey, including its legs! So, after paying (I am sure very well), we drove home with our cargo, about 30 kg of honey, more than we could eat for as long as we were in Bedele!
Our shopping was quite dirty as it contained dirt, twigs, dead bees in all stages of development, fragments of wax, lots of goat hairs and chunks of charcoal. The latter no doubt a testimony of the honey extraction method of burning one end of the hollowed trunk (the hive) to get the bees out! We filtered the goat’s contents for days on end. We started with straining it through a sieve with a small mesh to remove the larger “impurities” first and then through a cheese cloth and then, again, through another finer mesh cloth. The result surprised us, it was superb-tasting honey, “certified” by Mabel, the expert!
Although landlines phones existed in Bedele, they did not work so the arrival of a lorry looking for us was indeed a surprise. To our delight, it carried the second shipment of our personal effects.
This was a great improvement to our living conditions as it contained not only furniture and clothing but also some “familiar” food that we bought in Kenya with good forethought. We could now stop camping in the house! Luckily our tailor-made furniture fitted as it was meant to do and we started to live a more comfortable life with armchairs, bookshelves and even my own desk and chairs so that we could return the ones we had borrowed from the laboratory.
We could also stop using the cats’ travel box as our shared bedside table, abandon our camp beds and sleep on a proper mattress, something the cats immediately grasped and started to enjoy.
Although Internet existed at the time, it was non-existent in Ethiopia and even if it would have been there my “advanced” Zenith computer could not have been able to handle it! So, our only source of information from events outside Ethiopia was a short-wave radio where I had all the possible BBC frequencies stored in its memory.
Through the radio we followed world events that included the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the melting of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the election of George W. Bush as President of the US and the blowing-up of the Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, to name a few.
We soon realized that medical facilities in Bedele were very basic, but we did not worry about that! We did learn of the existence of several Cuban doctors, the closest being in Metu, about 115km away towards the west. Eventually we met the doctors and learnt that all our needs would have been covered although, luckily, we did not need them.
There were no cinema or theatre in Bedele. We attended a crowded theatre function at the Bedele Social Hall. It was in Amharic and, although Solomon kindly translated for us to Spanish, we missed a lot of the meaning so, without a TV, most of our time was spend reading and listening to opera as I already mentioned. The Good Book Guide, a British company that would send a monthly catalogue from where to order books (sadly closed in 2015), was an amazing source of great selected books.
We were now settled in Bedele and it was difficult to travel to other parts of the country except Addis that we visited frequently for many reasons, both personal and working. It was from Addis that we got most of our food, mail (both private and project) and our film needed to be sent to New York by the UNDP pouch for developing!
Project activities allowed us to travel within the three provinces of the project and we could also do day or weekend trips around Bedele and I will be describing some of those in future posts.