Author: bushsnob

Ethiopian coffee

Coffee, Coffea arabica, comes from Ethiopia and its first records can be found as early as the 9th century in the Oromia region, more exactly in the former Keffa province (1).

Coffee plant drawing. (C)Guy Ackermans 2005. Credit: Franz Eugen Köhler / Public domain

In Bedele, located in the Ilubabor province next door, we were able to see ancient coffee plantations under flat top acacias from where coffee was harvested and sold locally and to stockers that would come to buy and take it to processing plants. To see these bushes covered with white flowers so close to the laboratory invited us to often walk through the plantations to enjoy the view and their amazing scent.

Coffee bushes in Brazil. Credit: FCRebelo / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/); https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/68/Coffee_Flowers_Show.jpg

In 2006 it was estimated that Ethiopia produced a substantial amount of coffee (estimated at 260,000 metric tonnes) of which one half was consumed in the country, a lot of coffee! So, as expected, coffee drinking was a daily habit with most Ethiopians and we often drove out of the laboratory for coffee breaks. I must say that my Ethiopian colleagues always insisted in paying the bill! Although Italian-style coffee machines existed at the Bedele coffee shops, the coffee we drank was made following the traditional style.

In Addis we saw the traditional and colourful coffee ceremony being performed for tourists by beautifully dressed and nice-looking ladies seating on loose reeds or grass spread on the floor, often adorned with yellow flowers (probably Meskel flowers –Bidens macroptera– when available) while frankincense smoke rose from a small burner while the coffee was roasted on a larger one and then grounded and boiled. We made a point to return to the hotel to participate more closely in this lovely tradition.

We did not need to do this as, luckily, our good neighbour and friend Wolete (Lete) invited us to her house one afternoon with the purpose of having a cup of coffee! We immediately accepted and we were at her house (about forty metres away) on the dot. As soon as we left our house, we smelled the frankincense that reminded us of the catholic church ceremonies of our Uruguayan childhood, and we followed it to Lete’s house. Frankincense is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia.

Frankincense. Credit: snotch / Public domain.

Lete and her husband were waiting for us wearing traditional white garments from Tigray, both looking very handsome. Lete had put on a long dress and she was wearing her massive gold earrings and pendants. They were really pleased and honoured by our coming. On the veranda and inside the house, the floor had been covered with reeds and a small burner was already releasing the frankincense fumes that were quite dense and strongly aromatic.

We sat around on low chairs or on cushions on the floor while Lete, as expected, performed the ceremony. She sat down after we had done so and started to thoroughly wash the green coffee beans that she then dried over the charcoal burner. She then proceeded to roast the beans over the while explaining the procedure to us.

The smell of coffee slowly started to break through the frankincense to create a unique combination until it became the dominant aroma. Lete stood up and walked around the room with the coffee so that we could smell it and apprecite its quality. She then moved the grains to a mortar and started to grind the beans very gently. I could not help noticing that she was using an exploded mortar bomb as a mortar! “How appropriate”, I thought while pointing it to Mabel. “This one comes from the war in the north” she explained, “and it is really useful” said Lete smiling.

A close-up of our host wearing her traditional white dress and gold ornaments.

While the grinding was taking place a coffee pot –known as “jebena”- was put to heat up and the ground up coffee placed inside for boiling. After a while Lete proudly announced that the brew was ready and proceeded to pour the dark brown liquid into small handless cups called “si’ni” placed on a tray. She poured the coffee from some height filling each cup while announcing “this is the first coffee, and we call it “awel”. It was strong and dense and it left a thick deposit behind, similar to the better known Turkish version of coffee.

While we drank the awel Lete refilled the jebena and put it to the boil again. Once we finished, Lete offered the second coffee called “kale’i”, a lighter version, more to our taste. The process was repeated a third time and the “baraka” (to be blessed), the third and thinner brew, was produced.

We had our coffee with sugar and eating popcorn, but it could also be drinking while eating a flat bread called “ambasha” or peanuts.

Luckily, we established good relations with Lete and her husband and we were lucky to be invited a few times to enjoy coffee with them and to admire her performing this ritualized form of drinking coffee that had been developed in the area we were staying, by the south western Ethiopian people, a real treat!

(1) For more info, see http://www.ethiopianspecialtycoffee.com/history.htm

The Didessa river valley

Once we realized that traveling beyond the project area required permits and fuel that was not easily available without almost begging it from the Bedele Administrator, we decided to spend our time exploring the area around Bedele.

The way to Arjo.

After a few trips we discovered that the road leading to the near town of Arjo crossed the Didessa river and its lovely valley and we chose it as our prime destination for day trips and we spent several Sundays there, birdwatching, walking, fishing or just relaxing with a picnic.

The beautiful Didessa river.

The road to Arjo was one of the roads that crossed the Didessa, the other one being the road between Jimma and Bedele that crossed it again near the town of Agaro. However, this trip was much further, and the road was quite busy.

The Didessa river is a tributary of the Abay River. It originates in the mountains of Gomma, flowing towards the northwest to its confluence with the Abay. It drains about 19,630 square kilometres and in the early 1900 it was a favourite place for elephants, attracted by the young shoots of its abundant bamboo forest.

Although there were no elephants left when we were there, the river still had hippos that we used to see often although they clearly did not like to see us, rather wary of humans as they were not protected inside a national park!

Our initial visit was after the first rainy season that we spent in Bedele and we went for a picnic with Janni and baby Winand (her son). It was a very quiet affair that opened up our appetite to return on a more adventurous approach.

One of our first visits to the Didessa.

We did this soon afterwards and learn a few things.

Being adventurous, we decided to enter an unmarked track that seem to follow the river with the hope that we would get closer to it at some stage while we kept an eye for wildlife. While driving we noted that the road was getting softer and that the tsetse flies were becoming more abundant as we advanced.

A close-up of the tsetse flies.

As the road was now a swamp and the tsetse flies were becoming too numerous for comfort, despite the heat we closed the windows while looking for a place to turn around to avoid having to reverse all the way back!

Tsetse flies were quite abundant!

Although we just escaped death by exsanguination by the flies, the road kept worsening and eventually, we could not go forward anymore. We were stuck in wet black cotton soil, a bad medium to get buried in!

Stuck and trying to get out.
The situation getting worse!

After digging a couple of hours and lifting the car to use the spare wheel to at least have one wheel on a firm surface, the car moved, and we managed to reverse fast miraculously keeping to the track as I am a bad driver on reverse gear. Luckily, soon we were on firmer ground and we were able to turn around and depart from this truly mud trap.

Reversing to get out of the mud.

Although we got out of the mud, we did not escape the flies and we were beaten really bad, something that reminded me of a similar situation in the Nguruman mountains of Kenya that I described earlier (see https://bushsnob.com/2019/07/01/the-nguruman-escarpment/).

Tsetse bites were quite bad.
More bites.

That day we decided that we would stick to the main road that, in any case was wild enough as there was almost no traffic, apart from a few horse riders or the occasional group of people bringing a sick or dead person from the rural area to the Bedele clinic or cemetery, depending on the circumstances. Life for the farmers was very tough!

Riders going to a celebration.
People walking on the Arjo road, probably taking a dead villager for burial.

It was on that road that on two occasions we met some of the true “wild” lions we had seen. The first time Mabel spotted a lioness and when we returned to the spot a while later, -very luckily- we found a female and two cubs. We were truly impressed as we did not expect to find them in that area despite the presence of some large tracts of forest. I am sure that there were not many wild lions in that area of Ethiopia at the time!

Some of the forested areas goint to Arjo.
Luckily I managed to photograph a lioness before it disappeared in the thicket.

Arjo was also one of the project’s tick observation sites and we would cross the bridge quite often when going to our tick sites. Every time we crossed it, I made a comment to my Ethiopian colleagues that we should try our hand at fishing one day.

So, the fishing day arrived once the rains were over and the level of the river had gone down to enable us to reach a place below the bridge from where we could throw our lines. I only had beef as bait and that was what we used as I did not know what to expect. I hoped that crocodiles were not abundant!

The fishing expedition included Solomon, both of us and Tilahun, another veterinarian working with the tsetse and trypanosomiasis project. He was probably the most enthusiastic of the group! We casted our chunk of meat down the river and waited while we talked and enjoyed a good picnic. Fish were quiet and fishing was quickly forgotten until one of the reels started to scream and Tilahun got it and, eventually, brought in a reasonable fish.

An excited Tilahun (left), Solomon (holding the fish) and the bushsnob with the rod, celebrating the catch!
Weighing the fish back home.

It was the only fish we caught that day (and in that place for that matter) but it was enough for us to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, particularly Tilahun that I think had never caught a reasonable sized fish before!

We took it back to Bedele as our companions wished to eat it and I weighed. It was 3.75kg but I am not sure of how it tasted!

The fish.

I believe that we caught a Labeobarbus bynni, a species that can reach 80 cm in length and that inhabits the Nile river system feeding on crustaceans, insects, molluscs and organic debris, including our meat!

House Issues

As soon as our car got sorted out, our attention focussed on making our house more comfortable so we finished organizing the furniture, hanged our pictures and unpacked our books, including the few I had managed to find about Ethiopia as there were not the guides you find today.

Regarding Ethiopian animals, I trusted that my great “Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa” by Dorst and Dandelot would do. On birds, the situation was pretty desperate and I spent a small fortune on a copy of Mackworth-Praed and Grant “Birds of Eastern and North Eastern Africa” and I managed to get Urban’s “A Checklist of the Birds of Ethiopia”. Now I needed to use them!

We had been warned that water and electricity in Bedele were erratic. The situation brought back memories of my early days in Uruguay during which there seemed to be a chronic period of austerity that included shortages of all kinds, including power and water. I still remember my mother discussing the latter with her friends and taking sides between those who preferred the absence of water or lack of electricity!

Regarding the electricity, we stocked up candles and got our camping gas lamp ready. Mabel and I agreed that water was more important, so we decided to store some in our bathroom by means of a number of one hundred litre plastic garbage containers that we filled and kept there for that purpose.

At the same time Mabel started her great vegetable garden and regular yogurt-making thanks to a few sachets of culture received from our friend Ranjini in the UK that, several times, came to our rescue. Yogurt with honey became a house “special” and I still wonder why no such thing is available commercially! We also learnt that green mangoes, very abundant in Bedele, were a great substitute for the impossible to get apples and Mabel excelled in making green mango strudel to the delight of ourselves and invited neighbours and those that dropped by following the amazing smell.

Mabel and her marvelous vegetable garden.

I focussed on the bird life and set up a number of high hanging plates where seeds were always on offer for those birds that wished to visit them. Immediately we got a positive response from the firefinches and waxbills that kept coming despite the anxious looks of our Siamese cat!

The birds did not take long to come.
“I wish I could jump that high”.

Not all was pleasure though. There came a day when the water heater packed up and, in the absence of a maintenance service in the laboratory, I took it apart and discovered that it was almost full of mud. Through a series of washings that took quite a while, I pushed the mud out and ended up with a functional appliance once again, to the satisfaction of Mabel.

Repairing the water heater. At the back on the left the piled garbage containers filled with water can be seen.

Unfortunately I was less effective with our septic tank. The device kept getting blocked with the same frequency as I needed to write project progress reports! I was nominated the responsible person on account of being a vet and therefore used to some unpleasantness… I soon discovered the meaning of those metal trapdoors around the house. This was not my favourite pastime as it meant to open them up and unblock the pipes for things to move along! With the passing ofthe months, practice made me quite good at it but unfortunately the heavy rainy season did not help.

Rains at Bedele. Credit: Data provided by WorldWeatherOnline.com

The onset of the rains would be announced by a gradual accumulation of clouds over a few days and then heavy rain would come and immediately we realized that our concern with water shortages was somehow exaggerated. With about 1.8 metres of yearly rain, water was in great abundance for about six months of the year. This required work on the garden drainage to avoid the water entering the house.

This week weather in Bedele. Screenshot of 1 September 2020 from Weather-Atlas (https://www.weather-atlas.com/en)

The noise of the rain on our tin roof did not let us listen to our music and, when electric storms came, the lightning and thunder that we experienced were the worse we have ever gone through, even when Harare is tough on this too!

Somewhere I had learnt, the probably incorrect fact, that to know where a lightning bolt has landed you started counting when you saw it until you hear the thunder and the number gave you the distance in kilometres from your position. I tried this in Bedele and I could never count more than two! I stopped as it only increased my sense of vulnerability, particularly when I did not see any lightning rods around!

It was in Bedele and the surrounding area that I learnt what car winches were for! The rains would transform our laboratory compound in a quagmire and often we needed 4WD to get out of it and to drive around the town, particularly to reach our butcher as I described.

It was on a rainy evening that the water finally got to us. It did not come through our door or through a leaking roof but from our bathroom. We were sitting reading quietly when we heard a loud noise and then saw a wall of water about 50cm high coming towards us! Taken totally by surprise we had time for nothing except getting our feet wet but, of course, our cats watched the events from the table.

One of our large garbage containers (not really for that use) that had another one on top of it, had cracked. The one on top also fell and knocked the one next to it. The result was that about three hundred litres of water were violently released in a mini tsunami! It took us until 2 am to wipe our house free of water.

After such a shocking incident and seeing the way it would rain, we decided that we no longer needed to store so much water and we made do with only one of the containers and we survived without having to open it until when, before departing we emptied it.

Our new car

As I mentioned in the earlier post, once in Bedele, the news came that our car had arrived at the port of Assab [1] and that I was needed back in Addis to arrange (read pay!) for its transportation to Addis. In addition, I had to meet the costs of the handling by the Ethiopian clearance agency and to deal with its registration.

After a few days we had gone through all bureaucratic processes that were not few but luckily, we had the assistance of the FAO to do it. I recall someone hearing my complaints about the inordinate amount of time the process took that told me to regard myself lucky as, if you were a private individual, you needed clearance from about thirty offices before you could leave the country!

Eventually we got the car and we left Addis after breakfast and drove slowly while I adjusted to it (no great feat!) and proceeded at a moderate speed through our usual way back to Bedele.

After several hours we started to go through a mountainous area before Jimma where the road twisted around with a few sharp bends. It was turning one of these that we met a bus cutting the corner and coming straight at us!

I was climbing the mountain so I could not have been doing more than 50 or 60 kph and I would say that the bus was not going fast either as we met almost on top of the hill. Despite this, it all happened at a rather vertiginous speed!

I slammed on the brakes while aiming towards the mountain wall, trying to avoid a head-on impact. Luckily, the bus driver went towards the steep cliff and crossed the bus in front of us. The result was that we hit it behind the front wheel. Luckily the side caved in and the car got rammed into the bus’ soft belly.

The crash was not too violent, good news as we did not have airbags! Quite angry I left the car and walked towards the bus to recriminate the driver for his recklesness. My anger boosted as we no longer had a new car!

The driver had wasted no time and he was already scrambling down the hill where it soon disappeared ignoring my shouting for him to come back up. He did not wish to face me so I forgot him and tried to solve the situation as fast as possible.

A few passengers were leaving the bus and a small crowd was gathering, luckily, sympathising with me. We decided that it was worthless to do anything about the incident and, while some of the passengers pulled from the twisted bus metal panels, I reversed the car and extricated it from the hole it had made on the side of the bus.

We could now see that our car had suffered from the impact. The front mud guard on my side (right) was bent and re-painted yellow, the colour of the bus! It also had a bent bumper and some broken lights. Not much considering what it could have been.

Once disengaged I thanked the passengers and drove off to avoid the people that were appearing from all over and the crowd that was gathering. Although the car was making weird noises, I drove on and only stopped after a couple of kilometres where we parked at a safe place and proceeded to pull the mud guard so that the tire would no longer rub against it.

After quite an effort we managed to free the wheel on the driver’s side but, despite this, it was clear that it was no longer aligned, and it produced quite a lot of vibration. However, we had no other option but to push on, so we did.

Because we could move rather slowly, we only managed to get to Jimma and there we spent the night in one of the hotels, I believe called the Ethiopia Hotel, belonging to the Government as most hotels were in those days. By the time we got to Jimma we had talked about the incident enough and had already gone through a thorough catharsis and we were no longer too worried about the incident as no one was hurt.

The following morning, after having as good a check on the car as we could and seeing that the tire was still undamaged, we departed for Bedele through the very rough road that, somehow, dissimulated the status of our wheel alignment! We still enjoyed the journey, particularly the spectacular valley of the Didessa river where we stopped at the bridge to enjoy the beautiful scenery and tried to spot the hippos that dwelled there.

We got to Bedele where everybody felt sorry for our now “former” new car and, luckily, I got a mechanic to do a good job straightening the metal bits and improving the wheel movement and alignment while patching up the missing plastic and glass from the lights. Eventually we got back to Addis where we interned the car and got it repaired by a great panel beater that worked overtime for us to get it as good as new again.

One of the few pictures of the car I could find.

We enjoyed the car after this unfortunate start. However -and funnily-, its end was also accidented!

About a month before we were due to depart, I had sold the car to a newly arrived UN employee with the agreement to hand it over just before departure. Ready to depart for Nairobi on a Sunday, I went to see the buyer at the UN headquarters in Addis the Friday before to sign some of the documents required for the transfer and agreed to hand over the car the following day.

Leaving after the meeting I forgot that I had parked very close to one of the parking posts that held a chain to indicate the end of the space allocated for cars. So, I tried to reverse while turning the steering and somehow one of the posts got stuck between the front bumper and the body of the car!

I have no idea of how I managed that, but I was stuck and considering removing the bumper when one of the guards, quite amused, came to assist me. Following his instructions, I moved the car centimetre by centimetre but could not avoid damaging the wing and breaking one of the lights, again!

Aware that were leaving in less than forty eight hours, I drove straight to the panel beater that had done the previous job on the car who, luckily, did a great paint job overnight and I could hand over the car on Saturday afternoon. I excused myself for the broken plastic claiming that it had happened on the journey from Bedele and gave the buyer the money to cover the cost of a new lens.

[1] At the time Assab (now in Eritrea) was still part of Ethiopia.

We travel to Addis

After a while of being in Bedele and, once the work had progressed sufficiently well, it was time to return to Addis to deal with a number of personal as well as work issues. This trip was repeated a few times over the couple of years we were in Ethiopia, an average of once a month so, probably we visited it about twenty times and we got to know the road quite well.

As I already mentioned, travel was a slow affair that required great care because of the abundant pedestrians you would meet all over. It was a day trip to get there and we would then install ourselves at the Harambe Hotel, quite an experience. The hotel was a rather basic eight-floor cement and glass building [1]. I tried to check how it was today but I could not find a web site for the hotel. It does appear in Tripadvisor though but what it says there is not too good. It has only one review: “Terrible”!

Clearly, today we would not stay there but at the time, being the base for the “Bedele people”, compelled us to accept the system that was in place and we decided that we were able to survive there, a decision we questioned every time we visited it!

It would be unfair to dwell only on the problems as the hotel had a few good points. The absence of communication facilities between Addis and Bedele meant that we always arrived without a booking but we always found a room. Whether this meant that we were given some kind of priority treatment or that the hotel was half-full most of the time I will never know.

Being the base of the people from Bedele meant that all messages would be delivered to us there. It was also well sited and it became the fourth angle of my work square, the UNDP and FAO offices and the Ministry of Agriculture being the other three.

In addition, it had the advantage of being within walking distance from the few shops that offered the food we needed and, immediately after our first arrival, a young boy (with a small stick) appointed himself (or it was placed by the hotel) as our “beggar-chaser” and waited for us to come out to walked with us all over the place [2].

Entering the hotel the dampness and the smell of carpets in need of a good cleaning hit you hard but, luckily, you adjusted to this rather fast. The receptionists were nice and the situation improved once we became known and we even got access to fridge and freezer to store our food, after some protracted negotiations.

Several times we rejected rooms because of various reasons such as strong urine or damp stench, doors that did not lock or lumpy mattresses. At first, we rejected a couple because of the cockroaches but soon we discover that they were part of the hotel perquisites and that a certain population level was to be expected.

However, there were some rooms that were truly cockroach breeding grounds and these became Mabel’s worst nightmares. I recall it vividly getting up at night, turning on the lights of the bathroom and seeing hundreds of them rushing back to their hideouts! Soon, after uselessly trying to find a cockroach-free room, we made a list of our “liveable” ones and we requested these at the reception. This was an important breakthrough!

The breakfast was another sad affair, served on the rather dark and stinky first floor restaurant with a very poor service and rather plain food. For this reason, we made the point of -as far as possible- not having luch or dinner at the hotel. In this way, provided that we kept the midnight curfew in mind, we got to know a few places to eat out.

“Why did you keep coming back to it?” you may ask yourselves and I could not really give you an answer as we often ask the question ourselves! However, we kept coming back and it added more experience to our lives.

Work in Addis meant various kinds of meetings that, at least, were not equally monotonous. Those with UNDP meant constant defensive statements while the ones with FAO, naturally, were more helpful. The Director of the Veterinary Services was a tough cookie, arrogant and authoritarian and neither the Director of the Bedele Laboratory (an extremely kind and nice man) nor myself (or both combined) could do much to score points with him.

However, the really difficult meetings were those that took place every six months, the tripartite ones. As the name indicates, these involved the donor (UNDP), the implementing agancy (FAO) and the recipient government. The only advantages of these was that they brought the Veterinary Department closer to FAO to defend us against the incisive questions of the donor. Luckily, we survived these meetings and the funding was maintained as originally planned.

On the first journey, apart from work problem solving and getting food, we needed to get a 220v to 110v transformer for our printer as I had bought it from the US without realizing its voltage. We were pointed out to the Merkato as our best option and on a Saturday we set off to get one as well as a drill chuck key as the one for my drill had disappeared during the move from Kenya.

To say that the Merkato was large would be an understatement, it was humongous and incredibly crowded and dynamic. Despite this, there was no apparent danger despite seeing very few policemen and we felt quite comfortable walking about, some of the very few “ferengis” (foreigners) we saw at the time.

Italy, under fascism, invaded Ethiopia in 1936 and two separate markets were planned to segregate the Italians from the Ethiopians. The Arada would be for the former while the Merkato was developed for the rest of the population and, naturally this is the one that still survives as a very vibrant place and reputed as the largest open air market in Africa, no mean feat!

It will be impossible for me to describe the Merkato and I present you with one of the videos that I found interesting to give you the dimension and dynamics of the place. Although it is a more modern Merkato, I believe that it still maintains its character. There are other videos on the subject also worth watching.

Credit: Wildlife Israel Yuval Dax. I recommend that you watch it with at least 720p.

Needless to say that I easily found my needed hardware items before our attention got diverted to the countless craft shops offering the most amazing silver and gold as well as beautiful baskets and Ethiopian textiles. I will go back to these on a later post with more details.

After walking for a while we heard some shouting and, curious, we went to see what was up. We arrived at an open area with lots of rubbish accumulated where a goat, sitting on its haunches and sporting a rather large “beer belly” was enjoying a beer straight from the bottle. Unfortunately, I could not find a video of this particular customer but there is one of another drinking a soda [3]. Times definitely have changed!

The first visit to Addis soon came to an end and it was time to return to Bedele and, as usual, once we got there and a week later we learnt that our new car had arrived so we needed to get back to Addis to get it but that is another story!

[1] For images of the hotel see: https://www.google.co.zw/search?q=harambee+hotel&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj505uihsPrAhUmK7kGHRz-Bg8Q_AUoAXoECBoQAw&biw=1280&bih=598#imgrc=2DrjOr18N62w0M

[2] This may sound unacceptable for many today but I can assure you that the famine and poverty in Ethiopia at the time were such that people asking for food and/or money were in such numbers that they would stop you from walking!

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5VCuFyatAk

Bedele, settling in

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!

Advert on Covid 19 in Amharic. Credit: US Centers for Disease Control. Public Domain.

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.

Woletu (left) with tigger and visitor enjoying a cup of tea.

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.

Cats enjoying the new bed.

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!

The great time of opening the mail at Bedele!

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.

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:  https://bushsnob.com/2014/09/13/gardening-in-the-wild-i/

Bedele, the work

Although my work was the reason for us to have come to Bedele, I will try not to bore you with descriptions of technical issues that are beyond the scope of this blog. However, some general background information is relevant to place the stories that will follow in context. After all, all anecdotes I will describe took place as spin offs of the project.

FAO had technically supported the building and equipping of the laboratory through earlier projects that, unfortunately, were not able to complete the work as could be seen by a number of large crates at the entrance of the laboratory as well as the parts of an incinerator that were scattered in the field surrounded the buildings.

At the time of my arrival, FAO was still supporting the laboratory implementing two projects with UNDP funding, a tsetse and trypanosomiasis and a tick and tick-borne disease project, ours. Both projects worked towards the control of these parasites and there was good collaboration between us all along. Jan, my Dutch colleague and neighbour headed the tsetse project and he spent most of his time in the bush while I travelled to our field sites but also had work to do at the laboratory.

The tick and tick-borne disease project had a number of veterinarians and technicians that would work with me. Among the vets there were Sileshi (my main counterpart), Solomon and, later Assefa. There were also a number of able and devoted technicians that supported the work that I will not mention as some names escape me now.

It did not take long for surprises to start to pop-up. As in any project hand over, I had a thorough inventory of the project’s equipment. This included a list of the project vehicles, regarded as “hot items” by the FAO and UNDP administrations. In the list there were five vehicles but I only found four in Bedele and I was informed that the provincial Administrator in Jimma has taken possession of one of them for his use.

As this was unacceptable, I planned a visit with the Director of the Bedele Laboratory and my counterpart to meet the Administrator, all of us determined to recover it. Eventually we were given an “audience” by the Governor of the Kaffa province in Jimma to present our case. We were made to wait for a while before the meeting with an Administrator as the Governor was too busy to see us.

To my surprise, things went very smoothly, and in a few minutes, we had the assurances of the car’s return. Unfortunately, it could not be done the same day as the car needed to be serviced but the following week. Of course, I never saw the car again despite repeated assurances that it would be returned a few “next weeks”!

I duly reported its “disappearance” in the project inventory, something that failed to create any queries neither in FAO nor UNDP! We still had four 4WD to do our work and we believed that they would be enough, provided that we managed to get them in good working order. I soon learnt that this was not as straightforward as it sounds as we will see below!

The Ethiopian Government worked on Saturday mornings, something I had not realized until I arrived in Ethiopia the second time. However, to compensate for this extra half a day, there were “political meetings” every Wednesday afternoon. As myself was not expected to participate I cannot say what was discussed there. So it was that on Wednesday after lunch I was alone in the laboratory.

Our project’s working area were the three south-western provinces of the country namely Kaffa, Illubabor and Welega. Apart from capacity building on tick and tick-borne diseases we had two main objectives: (i) to collect and identify tick species from domestic animals from as many locations as possible (tick survey) and (ii) to monthly monitor the number of ticks on groups of cattle (that had been selected and identified by the project) to assess the numbers of the various species of ticks present and get an idea of their seasonal abundance (population dynamics).

Tick counting.
We were very popular, particularly with the children!
Tick work often took place in wet conditions!

From the start it was clear that the project staff were devoted to the work and they -to my relief- had kept the population dynamics work going and the data collection had been kept as scheduled by my predecessor. This was great news. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the tick survey that had suffered as it was more difficult to justify getting the needed inputs to carry it out.

A practical training session on tick taxonomy
A lecture to animal health personnel from the three provinces.

So, we needed reinforce our tick survey while keeping our monthly observations going as we needed as much data as possible to draw meaningful conclusions. For that we needed fuel to visit the various places and this was one of our major problems as it was severely rationed.

Often, I needed to visit the Bedele Administrator to persuade him to let me have the needed fuel to carry out the work and I remembered feeling “victorious” walking away with a 20 litre coupon of petrol! Luckily, after a few months Total introduced their own petrol coupons and these helped a great deal to get the needed fuel.

For about one year, things run smoothly, and it was time for us to go on home leave as, because of the UN duty station hardship classification, we were entitled to go out of the country once per year. We had a very good break but, on return, I faced a bit of a crisis when I was tersely informed by the laboratory’s administrator that one of our vehicles had been “borrowed” by President Mengistu and his entourage while touring the west of Ethiopia.

While to stop this would have been impossible for anybody, the fact that the car never came back was very worrisome. The situation was indeed delicate as it involved the highest authority of the country and one that had a rather ruthless reputation, so I decided to let it rest for a while. This was a good decision as, eventually we learnt that the car had hit a buffalo and overturned on the way to Gambela and that it had been abandoned but that we were allowed to recover it!

As there were no car workshops in Bedele, to service or repair our cars, we needed to find the car, towed it back to Bedele and then to Addis, a journey of several hundred kilometres. A rescue party was sent, and the car was brought to the laboratory. It was our best Land Cruiser and it looked like a “banana”, rather twisted after it roll. Luckily it could still be towed had been badly damaged, and it had a banana shape although it could still be towed.

We decided to invest some of our meagre project resources to repair it and it was eventually taken to Addis on a lorry and we got it back a couple of months later when I went to collect it and immediately detected that it would never ride as well as before and that it gained a new trait, its inability to stop dust from entering all over the place!

After two years of work we managed to complete the work expected from us both on tick identification and population dynamics. Despite our efforts, UNDP stopped funding projects by implementing agencies like FAO and our effort was not continued despite the need for it that still remained. Luckily, we did manage to get some limited funding from the Danish Government to look at tick-borne diseases but not enough to keep international personnel so we departed after a very interesting spell in Ethiopia that I will go through in the next few posts.

To Bedele, loaded

To get petrol for a journey in a war economy was not just filling up at a petrol station. It required the application for petrol coupons and getting them through a heavy government bureaucratic process as these were treated like golden sovereign coins by the Ministry of Agriculture’s administration.

Once that was achieved, a travel permit was necessary. Personal details were passed to the administration and that took a couple of days to be processed. Finally a small paper written in Amharic with a few stamps and signatures was given to me and we were ready to go.

Before departure, we were warned of a dangerous behaviour of pedestrians in some areas of Ethiopia where people would cross the road in front of your car at full speed apparently for no reason and, apparently, wishing to kill themselves. However, the real motive was the belief that thesepeople were closely followed by some kind of “evil spirit” and by the tight crossing the spirit would get ran over and therefore the person would be cleansed. Another extra precaution to be taken for the journey to the little known.

We loaded our Hilux pick-up and departed early in the morning as I knew that the journey was a long one. The cats in their double travel box were placed on the back seat and it left little space for anything else apart from a few clothes bags and the cool box with our lunch and drinks.

The back was also packed chock-a-block with all the rest of our essentials. These included fridge and cooker as well as food stuff to last us for a month, cutlery and crockery, camp beds, bedding, camping chairs, music centre and other essentials that were required to spend a couple of months until the rest of our belongings arrived. We also took a couple of water jerry cans and, during the journey, made up a list of items we still needed but that we were not sure to find in Bedele.

We selected a Saturday for our journey and realized, too late, that it was a bad choice as Saturdays were market days and there were lots of people moving about, particularly on the road we were using. Although the large crowds thinned somehow as we left Addis, they reappeared whenever we approached some of the populated areas such as Wolkite, Woliso and, further on, Jimma.

The road to Bedele, near Addis.

The trip followed the main road west of Addis, a rather busy and new road for us so our progress was slow. This was not helped by the habit of people to walk on the road –as seen in India- and the number of livestock that was free ranging. Of interest were some moving grass mounds that turned out to be donkeys heavily loaded with teff straw and grass to feed the abundant and free ranging livestock. There were many and they did not seem to obey orders very well, forcing us to hoot very frequently and take evasive action.

Loading!
Near Bedele.

The landscape was rather denuded from trees and the fields were being planted with teff (Eragrostis tef) the main crop of Ethiopia from which the injera I described earlier is made of. Farmers were busy planting and lots of them were seen on the fields. Then in a field we saw a circle of about twenty adult people crouching holding hands in a circle. We slowed down and, to our surprise, we witnessed our first and only communal defecation we have ever seen! Whether this is a common occurrence or something rare I cannot say!

The Ethiopian revolution was celebrated with colourful arches spanning the length of the road. These were rather substantial near Addis but they started to diminish in hierarchy as we moved on and, although approaching Jimma they revived, again, from there to Bedele these were almost absent or rather poor efforts that suggested to me that the revolution was not a priority in the interior.

Passing through Wolkite, on the way to Bedele.
Some of the beautiful large houses at Wolkite.

We arrived to Jimma late afternoon and decided to spend the night there at one of the few hotels available, I believe that it was called the Jimma Hotel. It was a rather basic facility but suitable for our needed rest. Dinner had a rather limited menu that consisted of chicken and chips or spaghetti with tomato sauce. We chose the latter, a clear consequence of the years of Italian occupation of parts of Ethiopia. We were the only commensals so the waiters literally fought to serve us and you needed to be careful as they would take away items from your table before you had finished with them!

Unfortunately, the pasta was not memorable but, tired and hungry, we were somehow satisfied and decided to retire early. On arrival to our room, Mabel remembered that she was told that the beds in some of these hotels had more wildlife than the countriside! So, apart from bringing the cats to our rooms, we slept inside our sleeping bags not before she attacked all invisible creepy crawlies with a white insecticide powder from our FAO medical kit that I hoped it was not DDT! In any case, it must have been effective as we slept like logs, hopefully not because of its fumes.

Mabel controlling insects by physical means!

The following morning, after a simple breakfast, we had a tour of Jimma, looking for fuel that was severely rationed. Eventually we arrived at one petrol station that took our Government fuel coupons and we left the asphalt to take the 140 km of the rather rough road to Bedele that would become familiar to us.

We drove for about two hours through farmland and then the landscape became forested and I knew that we were close to Bedele. We crossed true forests of large and ancient flat top acacias (Vachellia abyssinica) and we could see the coffee bushes thriving under their shade. We were arriving to the true origin of the arabica coffee!

After our afternoon arrival we needed to present ourselves to the political authority of Bedele to who we handed over our travel permit. The man examined our paper carefully and, after a while, he declared “your wife is not included in the permit and I need to ‘capture’ her and keep her at the police station”. I reacted strongly explaining that we were coming to live at Bedele and to work for the United Nations. The man seemed unimpressed by my arguments and remained unmoved, clearly full of his own importance!

Becoming rather worried I left Mabel with the political guy and drove to the veterinary laboratory to explain the situation to the Director who was really mortified by the situation and, immediately, came to our rescue. Luckily, after a short discussion (in Amharic), the Director announced that we could go with him and that we would go to the police the following day and inform them of our arrival.

We thanked the political administrator profusely for his understanding and left with the Director who took us to our bungalow and left us to unpack and organize our house before nightfall.

As agreed, the following morning I visited the police station accompanied by the Director and the Administrator of the laboratory. There we met with the political delegate of the previous day. A protracted discussion followed and, eventually, the Director (who was the only person that spoke English) explained to me the outcome.

The meeting had decided that Mabel’s omission from the Travel Permit was a serious mistake but also that we were allowed to stay. I was recommended to make sure in future that we were both included in our travel permits. I agreed wholeheartedly knowing full well that it was an impossible task but I was happy that I could now focus on my work.

Ethiopia arrival

After my mission in Bedele I accepted the FAO offer, not without trying, fruitlessly, to negotiate a better contract with my employer, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), a last ditch attempt to stay in Kenya.

So, it was just a matter of a few weeks before this new life experience would start. I would travel to Rome for a two-week briefing session in order to get information on the technical approaches as well as the more boring administrative procedures as well as to finalize my contractual arrangements.

In Nairobi, I gradually disengaged from my activities with regret as our work in northern Kenya on the selection of cattle for tick resistance was going well. Mabel resigned to her position at the Commercial Office of the Argentinian Embassy and was now in charge of our own administrative arrangements regarding our future life “out in the sticks”. She started by having meetings with our architect friend who, kindly, drew a house plan following which she ordered the needed appliances and the additional and tailor-made furniture to complement what we had bought for our Nairobi flat. She also put together a “camping pack” that would be sent immediately so that we could have the essentials to live in Bedele until our main shipment arrived. Mabel would also organize the latter while I was briefing in Rome.

We decided to take our two cats with us as we were rather attached to them. Both were neutered when we got them, Inky, a talkative Siamese female and Tigger, a lazy and rather fat marmalade. They got on well as long as the latter did not challenge the authority of the smaller but tougher Siamese. They required a number of health certificates to enter Ethiopia and this also took some of Mabel’s time. The animals also needed to be carried in a cage of certain dimensions that needed to be made as the current plastic ones were not available in Kenya at the time.

It all sounds complicated, but we were young and enthusiastic at that time!

The next task was to order a personal vehicle and we chose a short wheelbase Land Cruiser (short ambulance type) that we ordered through the United Nations system. It would arrive in Assab (then still an Ethiopian port in the Red Sea) with an approximate delivery time of three months. Luckily, keeping in touch with the Veterinary and Economics Unit of the University of Reading (where I was a student in 1981), yielded more fruits. I followed their advice and ordered the latest available laptop, the revolutionary Zenith ZWL-183-92 with one 3.5-inch floppy disk drive of 720KB and an amazing hard disk drive with a capacity of 10MB! This was the latest in portable computers at the time and I was very pleased to get one although I paid the equivalent of the best laptop of today!

I already had some experience of briefings in Rome but this time it was more comprehensive and time-consuming. I learnt that the project I would be leading was funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and that I would need to have close contacts with them, apart from the Government of Ethiopia and the FAO. I also learnt about how to keep accounts and how and when to submit them as well as when and how to write the various kinds of reports required.

The briefing done; it was an Alitalia flight that took me to Addis Ababa (Addis). The moment I landed I realized that Mengistu’s communism was much farther from Moi’s capitalism than the physical distance that separated Nairobi from Addis. Bole International airport was really a military base used by civilian planes. Military planes and camouflaged “machinery” parked there were certainly not for agriculture development! There were armed soldiers all over and the natural good natured Kenyan welcome was totally absent. “Not a good start” I thought and had a shade of regret at having left Kenya.

Gratefully, finding people waiting for me at the airport lifted my spirit. The atmosphere was not only tense at the airport but throughout Addis, and I learnt that a curfew was in place in Addis between 23:00 and 06:00 hours. I realized that it would demand considerable adjustment to enjoy our new country. Two years could be a long time if you did not like the place.

The Ethiopian dynasty started in the 2nd century BC and together with Rome, China and Persia, the Aksum Empire was regarded as one of the four great world powers of the 3rd century BC. Additionally, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African countries that were never colonized and that retained their sovereignty as recognized independent countries. Ethiopia was also one of only four African members of the League of Nations.

This history forged a nation of proud people. Apparently, or so they told me themselves, when God created mankind it prepared its clay model and put it in the oven to bake. Unsure of what he was doing he removed before it was ready and thus the white race was created. Aware of this, when he baked the second model, he left it too long with the consequence that it got over-cooked and created the black race. It was only during his third attempt that God got the timing right and created people of the right colour: the Ethiopians!

Mengistu Haile Mariam had overthrown Haile Selassie in September 1974 and he had masterminded the Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977–1978 that killed hundreds of political opponents and secure him in power. From 1987 he had been the President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the country we had arrived to. It was a country undergoing a civil war with the province of Eritrea that had separatist intentions. This would be our first experience at living in a country at war and ruled by a ruthless leader!

I returned to the Ghion hotel to started work while waiting for Mabel that, together with our cats, was arriving from Nairobi in a couple of days. I negotiated with the hotel to be able to keep the cats (in the toilet!) and proceeded with introductory meetings and project reviews to prepare for the work that was expected.

Eventually Mabel arrived and she took over the arrangements for the trip to Bedele as there was pressure for me to move there as early as possible. She also kept the cats under control as agreed and made sure that they did not got lostin Addis. Commercial cat food as we now see all over was non-existent and we had to do with cooking rice and some meat for them, courtesy of the hotel.

We walked in Addis to get a feel for the place and noted a few new things. First, the white and blue taxis most of which were Lada (like the Fiat 124) and very numerous, as well as the shoe-polishers that congregated around the public offices. At that time, we were told that the “Bedele people” meaning Jan and Janni (our Dutch colleagues) always stayed at another hotel called Harambe so we moved there and this hotel became our centre of operations from then on although it had some shortcomings as I will describe later.

Addis from the window of our room at the Harambe hotel after a heavy hailstorm.

Although the name of the hotel meant freedom in Ki-Swahili it did not go well with the atmosphere in the country at the time. However, being a commonly used word in Kenya, at least the name reminded us that we were still in East Africa! The change also meant a repeat of the negotiation of our cats’ stay while we prepared our trip to Bedele. The negotiations were tougher than in the Ghion but eventually we reached an agreement, they could stay for free, provided that they remained inside our room. Although we got the permission, this time without the option of a garden as we were several floors up.

At the Harambe we eventually met Jan, the other FAO worker with who we would be sharing our stay in Bedele. He was coming to Addis at regular intervals to get food and other issues related to his project work. We compared notes and I appreciated his advice but also decided that I would keep an open mind and see by myself how the stay there would be and handle it accordingly.

Although I immediately got a project car, we decided to walk as I needed a few days to “adjust” to driving on the right-hand side of the road. We did walk a lot as it was very safe to do so despite the overwhelming attention we got from the multitude of beggars that will constantly surround you and follow you all the time in the streets, particularly near the hotel areas.

Poverty in Addis at the time was extreme, a lasting consequence of the most severe famine that affected Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985. This sad event took the lives of 1.2 million people, internally displaced 2.5 million and left 0.4 million as refugees and 0.2 million orphans. The beggars were so insistent that, as soon as you were spotted leaving your hotel on foot, they will swarm around you asking for food but also holding you from your arms and clothes.

The situation almost invariably developed in the appearance of a youngster that would take it upon himself to chase beggars off by brandishing a stick, hoping to get a tip from you! At first, we refused such service but soon we noted that it was impossible to stop it so a boy self-appointed himself as our guard and he will wait for us outside the hotel and join us as soon as he spotted us.

Although the majority of the people dressed either in European or traditional Ethiopian clothes, we noted that many men worn kaki or blue uniforms (Kaunda suit type). These were Government workers although, interestingly, women did not wear uniforms or at least we did not see them.

A few men dressed in darker blue suits with a “Mao-style” collar. These were the senior political authorities that were clearly feared. We were always treated with the outmost courtesy, but it was clear that we were dealing with people belonging to a proud nation and proud themselves almost to the point of arrogance.

Looking for sources of food to take to Bedele, we realized that markets were our main hope although private shops were in evidence in the Kazanchis area, near the hotel, where there were private shops, particularly one that we called “Solomon’s” that was a well stocked and expensive store where we could get what we needed.

The humongous “Mercato” was also an option that we explored and immediately realized that it would be a good choice for the future but not for the present as it was an unknown area for us, and hygiene was not top of the agenda. In fact, Mabel made a mental note to return to it wearing rubber boots!

Both, Kazanchis and Mercato offered amazing jewellery shops that never failed to call our attention, particularly the gold and silver trinkets. Among the latter, the variety of crosses to be worn as pendants was incredible. We decided to leave those more superfluous items for later and to focus on accumulating the necessary items to survive in Bedele.

Ethiopians are very proud of their traditions and they like to share them with you. Among these, food, drink and dance are important. So, before too long we were invited to dine at one of the traditional restaurants in Addis Ababa: the Addis Ababa Restaurant, on the road to Sidist Kilo from St. George Church. In Addis the location of places was described as street numbers were not used.

This restaurant was a large and popular place with lots of tables and little light, served by women clad in traditional dress and where our hosts guided us through the menu as it was all new to us.

Ethiopian cuisine [1] mainly involves spicy vegetable and meat dishes, usually in the form of a stew known as “wot” (or wat) served on “injera“, a large rounded and flat pancake-like sour bread of about half a metre in diameter and accompanied with rolled strips of injera of about 10 cm width. Injera is made of “teff” (Eragrostis tef) an annual grass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands, similar to millet and quinoa but with a tiny seed of less than 1 mm diameter. Teff is thought to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 and 1000 BC. It grows in harsh environments ranging from very dry to waterlogged soil and its best production takes place at about 2000m altitude. The grain is rich in minerals and has a has a high protein content with an excellent amino acid composition.

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

We sat around what looked like a small hut replica made of straw, colourful and tightly woven. We were informed that this was a “mesob“, where our food would be placed. I could not help wondering how this would happen with such a shape. Once seated, the appearance of a basin of water and soap for handwashing anticipated the importance of our hands for eating and, watching our hosts, the right hand was the one to be used. If we needed more information to confirm our suspicions, there was no cutlery!

The mesob now “topless” to show where the food is placed.

While we waited for the food to arrive, we sought some advice on eating techniques, but, before we got an answer, food arrived on a large tray, a very short time after ordering. The top of the mesob was then removed and the food placed on the flat top that had been hidden below. It was spectacular: a large rounded tray covered in injera with a several mounds of different foods, smelling of spices and steaming. “This is doro wot ” said Ibrahim pointing at a large portion in the centre with some obvious chicken eggs in it.

We learnt that several kinds of “wot” exist, depending on the area, ingredient availability, etc. The most common being the chicken stew we got known as “doro wot“. In poorer places where there are no chickens “doro fanta” (doro: chicken; fanta: instead of) was served. It contains the egg, but the meat is mutton, a cheaper substitute. This, I would learn later, was the staple food in Bedele.

They had also brought “kitfo” and “kocho”. The former is a dish of minced raw beef, marinated in “mitmita” (powdered seasoning mix orange red in colour that generally contains ground African bird’s eye chili peppers, Ethiopian cardamom, cloves, and salt). Kitfo cooked lightly rare is known as “kitfo leb leb“, that became our favourite. Kitfo goes with Kocho a grey paste prepared from chopped and grated Ensete [2] pulp that I believe is buried for a while to mature.

We were informed that the way food was presented was mainly for tourists as traditionally such dishes would not be served together very often.

We watched the Ethiopians cutting small pieces of injera with which they would envelop the stew and any suitable side dishes and then placed it in their mouths. A simple procedure in the able hands of our hosts but full of failures and accidents in ours, accompanied of some polite remarks on how to improve and even laughter from those Ethiopians that had a Latin influence from Cuba. The best help came in the shape of a “goorsha“, an expression of friendship through which a person would strip off a piece of injera, roll food in it and then place it in the other person’s mouth. Although the procedure took us by surprise, we truly appreciated it.

Food was rather spicy and some of it rather hot, so we needed to drink a lot. Although a number of excellent local beers and some wines existed, local brews were very popular. “Katikala” and “araki” are inexpensive local spirits that are very strong and illegal but that night we tried “Tej, a rather potent honey wine with an alcohol content that ranges from 7 to 11 %. and another local drink: “Tella“, a home-brewed beer with a smoky flavour due to the addition of bread darkened by baking and the use of a fermentation vessel which has been smoked by inversion over smouldering wood. Tella had a lower alcohol content, between 2-4%. Both tej and tella were good, provided that clean water was used in their preparation. Later on, during our stay we would, sometimes, suffer the consequences of the use of unclean water…

Regarding the work, I attended several meetings with my organization’s representative, UNDP and the Veterinary Department. It was clear that the work was behind schedule and very urgent reporting was essential in order for UNDP to release the funds needed for the work to continue. This meant that my work baptism was to spend long days with Ibrahim, the Director of the Bedele Laboratory writing various reports on a project I did not yet know! The assistance of the Director was invaluable, so we managed to persuade UNDP to release the funds. Despite this, it was evident that the project was already considered as a “problem” by UNDP, a fame that remained till the end!

After a week in the Harambe hotel we learnt that our accelerated shipment including camp beds, bedding, crockery and other essential stuff had arrived so we could now travel to Bedele carrying not only the cats but all the gear that would enable us to camp in our bungalow until our larger consignment arrived.

Enquiries on our main shipment with the rest of our personal effects (also handled by the government’s cargo company) revealed an undetermined delay and, worse news, I was informed that I needed my own arrangements to take the stuff to Bedele as they did not offer that service. Luckily, another FAO project had a lorry that was authorized to take it all the way to Bedele.

Finally the time for our journey to Bedele arrived but I noted that the planned date did not match the one my colleagues referred to. Eventually I understood that the Ethiopian (Ge’ez) calendar was based on the older Alexandrian or Coptic calendar and it was about seven years behind ours. The year had twelve months of 30 days each plus five days (six days on leap years), which comprise a thirteenth month. Finally, we agreed on a departure date and agreed to get a conversion calendar. This was, fortunately, easy to buy and it became indispensable as also all official correspondence was not only in Amharic but dated following the Ge’ez calendar!

Before leaving, we got our Government petrol coupons (as petrol was rationed) and our travel permit that I was (again) unable to read, started with the title የጉዞ ፈቃድ (Tavel Permit) and all the rest! We loaded the car with our camping gear, food to last us for a month, our two cats and the following morning we headed west where, if all went well, we would spend two years of our lives.

[1] As an example I point you out to  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cuisine_of_Ethiopia but many pages cover the issue.

[2] Ensete ventricosum, known as false banana.