Episodes of African history connected to wildlife or guides, hunters, explorers

The smell

This did not happen to me (although it could have done) but to an FAO colleague that spent time in Ethiopia doing consultancy work. I repeat the story as he told it to me a few years later, when I was working in Rome.

The fellow had just completed his work and, as it is customary in Ethiopia, he was given a good farewell party and he was presented with a few gifts. As he was returning to Rome for debriefing, he was also asked to take a few letters and small parcels to Ethiopian relatives living in Italy.

The protagonist of the story also stayed at the Harambe Hotel like us. As it happened to us also, he was given a room that he found smelling too strongly and asked to be moved to another one. After checking a couple of rooms, he picked the best available and decided to go for dinner to be ready to get up early the following morning as getting through the “necessary” procedures at Bole Airport demanded time and lots of patience.

The guy came back to his room after dinner and he had the impression that the smell in the room had increased but he could not be bothered to ask the reception to give him another room so he opened the windows to the chilly Addis air and went to sleep.

The following morning, he took a taxi to the airport, happy to leave the smell behind as it was still strong in the room. The taxi was one of the blue and white Lada cars that were probably imported “en masse” from the then Soviet Union years before. Most of them were in some degree of deterioration. The one he took, apart from a worn upholstery and dirty floor mats, it also smelled bad!

Without any problems he got to the airport and went through all the required moves until, eventually, he could relax and seat at the waiting lounge for a while, until he could feel the same smell again! At first he thought it was still in his nostrils but soon he realized that it was not and that it was coming from somewhere at the lounge. Before he could do much about it the flight was called and he boarded, found his seat and literally passed out until he was woken up for breakfast, a couple of hours from his destination.

The plane landed and, while removing his bag from the overhead compartment he felt a wet patch in it and when he smelled his hand, trying to identify the cause of the spill, he recognized the familiar smell that had followed him throughout his journey. So, as discreetly as he could, he inserted a hand into the bag and soon contacted the wet culprit. It was one of the parcels that had given to him by someone in Bedele!

He disembarked and, as soon as he could, he removed the stinky packet and -to his horror- discovered that it was a chunk of an Ethiopian bovine that had kept him company while making its presence felt all the way through his journey!

He immediately contacted the airport authorities in Rome to hand over the smelly meat to be destroyed. This took quite a while and afterwards, to add insult to injury my friend, a veterinarian, was given an ear full about the dangers of bringing beef into Italy as well as not travelling without checking what you carry with you. The latter, an issue that has become critical nowadays!

Spot the beast 67

While writing about our Ethiopia days, I found this finding. Let’s see if you can see it. I think it is pretty easy but…


To take this close-up I needed to climb the rocks that are seen behind the croc in the previous picture as to at a safe distance from the “sleeping” beast. That is the reason why the head is pointing to the opposite side in the second picture.

Recently it has been discovered that, as it had been observed in other animals, crocodiles are able to sleep with one-half of their brain at a time, a phenomenon known as unihemispheric sleep. During this kind of sleep the eye neurologically connected to the ‘awake’ hemisphere remains open while the other eye is closed [1].

I was not able to check the condition of its eyes to tell what was it really doing but, in the light of the research mentioned, to ascertain its status would have demanded a close inspection that I had no intention to do and I am quite happy not to know!

[1] See: https://jeb.biologists.org/content/218/20/3175


As soon as you got closer to Gambela it became clear that you were entering a totally different environment. Located at the confluence of the Baro River and its tributary the Jajjabe, the city was just over 500 metres in elevation, hot and humid with an average yearly temperature of 27°C and 1200mm of annual rainfall (see also: https://bushsnob.com/2020/09/22/tick-hunting/)

The bridge over the Baro river at the entrance of Gambela. Credit: T U R K A I R O, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

At the time, apart from the original Nilotic Anuak and Nuer inhabitants, there were a large number of people from the highlands (Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, etc.). Some of them were those who still remained after being brought there by the controversial resettlement schemes being driven by the Government at the time.

These people were moved from their homeland during or after the famine and many, as soon as they could, abandoned their resettlement schemes to get back to their homes, often traveling thousands of kilometers risking the stern measures that they could expect if caught.

The Anuak and Nuer were by far the predominant ethnias. The former built their villages along the banks and rivers of both south-eastern South Sudan as well as south-western Ethiopia. Their population is today estimated between 250 and 300 thousand people. Their subsistence economy largely depended on their rivers as they grew their crops in the riverbanks and they also keep some cattle. During the dry season they fished and hunted the animals that came to drink.

The Nuer are a larger population of about 2 million, concentrated in the Greater Upper Nile region of South Sudan (where they are the second largest ethnic group) and Ethiopia. They are nomadic pastoralists who herd cattle for a living.

An ox being admired for its hide and special horns.

Their cattle serve as companions and define their lives being of the highest symbolic, religious and economic value. So, their lives revolve around their cattle, although some horticulture is also practiced. Their relationship with their cattle is complex and it has been studied by several anthropologists [1] [2].

Although they eat meat and some of their cattle under certain circumstances, their diet primarily consists of fish and millet. We met many of them and most showed long scars in their foreheads. They get these markings (gaar) as part of their initiation into adulthood.

The most common pattern among males consists of six parallel horizontal lines which are cut across the forehead with a razor and applying ash for them to protrude afterwards. Dotted patterns are also common among some Nuer groups and among females. Several of the ethnias in Africa do this and the Dinkas, also from Sudan, also have scars that follow different patterns.

Nuer youngsters and the bushsnob (with a blue cap at the back…).

While travelling in Gambela, the scars on the foreheads were useful to distinguish among Nuer and Anuak and to greet them accordingly: male to the Nuer and dereyote to the Anuak.

We soon learnt that Gambela could be either very dry or very wet, depending of the season. The trip was tough as we usually travel from the Bedele height to Gambela following the curvy murram road behind a convoy of a couple of dozen relief lorries that were almost impossible to overtake safely.

We swallowed lots of dust, an experience I do not wish to repeat, particularly when the hotel in Gambela did not offer the best washing facilities to the disgust of Mabel.

Mabel trying the shower at the Gambela hotel!

Worse than the dust was the black mud during the rainy season and getting badly stuck whilst trying to get to our study cattle was not rare. Getting stuck is usually a nuisance but doing it with a LWB Land Rover demanded lots of work in order to pull it out. In no time, the tire grooves would get stuffed with sticky mud and just turn without gripping anything! Only lifting the wheels would do and, if trees were around, the winch would save us! I noted then that the Nuer would work hard at digging while the job was clearly below the people from the highlands that mostly watched! I had the excuse of being the driver.

Hard at work!
Finally tired but out of the mud!

So, on arrival to Gambela we would find a bungalow at the only hotel suitable for ferengi (foreigners) that offered reasonable rooms and, as I mentioned and showed you above, reasonable showers with muddy water!

Gambela hotel.

Life in Gambela during the hot days happened by the river and we also had the impression that not much mixing between ethnic groups took place, the highlanders staying on one side while the Nilotic would stay in their own river patch.

During the night people came out from their houses and we saw quite a lot of movement in the streets and lots of youngsters, probably Nuer, playing volleyball and basketball in a few fields that were scattered around town. By the way, basketball courts were very common in Ethiopia, probably as common as football fields, probably the influence of past efforts from USA churches?

As some of our Ethiopian veterinary colleagues were educated in Cuba, they knew a number of Cuban human doctors and other technical assistance personnel that were working in the area. We met some of the doctors that had interesting stories to tell and I still remember their amusement when telling us that no operating table was long enough for the Nuer with the consequence that their legs were always sticking out and interfering with their movements!

We also met a young Ethiopian that worked assisting the Anuaks with their fishing activities and, one day we accompany him to his working area nearby to watch people fishing. This was a great experience as we saw the wealth of fish that the Baro river offered.

Among the memories I have was to see some medium size greyish catfish being treated wth utmost respect by the fishermen. When I asked the reason why these were not touched, a fish was placed on one of them and it immediately died! These were electric catfish! I had a good look at them just in case I would hook them in future. These were most likely Malapterurus electricus, a fish found throughout the Nile basin and capable of delivering an electric shock of up to 350 volts that they generate from an electric organ that, in the case of the catfish, runs the entire length of its body [3].

The visit to the fishing community planted the idea in my mind that we could also fish so during the next visit we took one afternoon off and tried to fish. We searched for a spot a distance away from Gambela, trying to avoid the overfished areas near the town, and chose a large rock (away enough from the water) from where we tried our luck for Nile perch or anything that would like to take a chunk of meat. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours we still got nothing and, after watching a few rather large crocodiles swam past, we decided to go back to our hotel before dark.

The Gambela river where we fished.

The crocodiles reminded us again of the dangers lurking in the African rivers and the risks that the local people exposed themselves while living close to rivers. The chain of thought made me remember the story of an American that was taken by a crocodile while entering one of these rivers, but I could not remember where it had happened.

Then I remembered that I had read about this in an amazing book written by Peter Beard called “Eyelids of Morning” that presents a rathe gruesome account of the incident that I thought then had happened in Lake Turkana, the area the book deals with. Once back in Bedele I looked for the story in the book and, to my surprise, the incident had taken place in Gambela!

In 1966, a young Peace Corps volunteer by the name of William Olson had gone to Gambela with a group of colleagues and they decided -unwisely- to go for a swim in the Baro river. Mr. Olson was taken by a rather large crocodile that was later shot and his remains recovered [4]. So it was that we were probably fishing at a spot near where this accident had happened but, luckily, we did not consider a dip in the river despite the intense afternoon heat.

[1] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. “The Sacrificial Role of Cattle among the Nuer.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 23, no. 3, 1953, pp. 181–198. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1156279. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

[2] See: http://orvillejenkins.com/profiles/nuer.html

[3] Electric fish have specialized organs in their bodies, made up of specialized muscle cells called electrocytes. To regulate electrical discharge, they also have a special trigger organ known as the pacemaker nucleus, a specialized group of neurons in the fish’s brain. When the fish wishes to produce an electric current, it triggers the pacemaker nucleus, which sends a signal to the electrocytes initiating electrical discharge.  The electrocytes then use transmitter proteins to move positive sodium and potassium ions out of the cell, building up an electrical charge. The individual amount of electricity generated per electrocyte cell is small. However, when millions of electrocyte cells function simultaneously, an electric fish is capable of building up charges of hundreds of volts… Electric catfish have electric organs that line their entire body cavities. (From: https://www.leisurepro.com/blog/explore-the-blue/electric-fish-produce-charge/). More details on the electric catfish: https://animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Malapterurus_electricus.html

[4] See: http://peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2001/0101/101cllook.html for a description of the event that spares the gruesome details.

A coup?

After the usual long journey, we were arriving in Addis and seeing the city from a distance while already preparing to enter it and finally get to the Harambe hotel. Our friend and colleague Solomon was coming with us and we agreed that we would drop him in town so that he could get home as early as possible.

While looking at the city we saw several jet planes and helicopters flying over it. We had seen planes flying during other journeys and this was not strange as we imagined that new pilots were trained all the time to go to the war with Eritrea. However, we realized that that day, Tuesday the 16 of May of 1989, the traffic was denser than usual but did not think more about it.

We did not think much (rather celebrated!) the thin traffic we met when entering Addis as this would enable us to reach our destinations earlier. So, we entered the usual way, I believe through Sudan road straight to the hotel. About a block away from it we saw a vehicle parked in the middle of the street that blocked our way.

It was not a normal vehicle but a tank! Perhaps it was our imagination but we saw it moving its turret while we approached it. I am not sure if you have been aimed at by a tank, but I believe we were in its sights so, without thinking, I veered rather violently to the left into the next street to get away from it.

The view from our room at the Harambe hotel. The green building is the Ministry of defense, the heart of the coup.
The same view after a heavy hailstorm.

While moving through the empty street I heard Solomon saying “Julio, this is not normal”, “something is happening in Addis that we do not know” and he added nervously “we better find a place to stop so that you can spend the night”. Luckily Solomon knew that the Wabi-Shebele hotel was on that road and that was exactly the place we headed for.

We arrived at the hotel after a couple of minutes and, luckily but not surprisingly, they had rooms available. I offered Solomon to stay there but he wanted to go home and thanked me for the offer but declined. He knew the city, he said, and would manage to get home without problems.

While checking in I noted that, before leaving us, he was having a very animated talk with the receptionists and concièrges. After checking in, a quick talk to Solomon, in Spanish, enlightened us on the situation. Mengistu had gone to the then East Germany and some army officers had attempted to take control of the country. “He will return and I fear for the coup leaders” he said before leaving us.

We saw Solomon leaving not without misgivings as the situation was clearly not safe. We decided to offload the car and moved to our room, located on the second floor, facing the street. While unpacking I turn on my short-wave radio to the BBC world service and, when the news come, we learnt that the information that Solomon had given us was correct: a coup d’état was indeed taking place.

As soon as we knew about the coup we started hearing sporadic shooting but nothing too serious, so we went down to the first floor to have our dinner.

We were very few people dining that night. The dining room had large windows through which you could see the street below and, at the start of the evening things appeared calm with the exception of the sporadic gunfire, now farther away, that continued unabated. At some time we were all peering through the windows when we heard heavy vehicles moving through. It was a lorry convoy carrying troops that, of course, we could not tell on which side they were!

We finished eating, still listening to the BBC, and we decided to go up to our room as we could not do anything but wait and see. We did not have much to wait. By midnight, gunfire became more frequent and the caliber of the guns increased! There was also lots of heavy weaponry being moved in front of the hotel and I could see through a slit in the curtains that there were a few tanks moving as well.

I did not wake Mabel up to avoid her getting too worried but she surprised me by sitting on the bed saying “these are tanks!” and going to the window to watch them. She was, in fact, calmer than me!

While the coup progressed, we stayed put at the hotel until, I believe through a phone call from FAO, we were told that the United Nations personnel were all concentrated at the Ghion hotel from where developments were being followed to decide whether to evacuate us or not. We were at the wrong hotel and we needed to move as soon as possible to join our colleagues!

The following day (probably the 18th or the 19th) things appeared calm, so we decided to go for it. The drive was risky as it involved crossing the centre of town, where some fighting could still be going on. However, we needed to get through and hoped that the UN identification in our vehicle would be of use.

I drove straight to the Ghion without caring too much for the roads’ way, right or left as the roads were almost empty of civilian vehicles but littered with rocks that needed to be negotiated slowly. We did not meet any military personnel but needed to avoid a few damaged military vehicles while we also saw some of the human casualties on the street.

Luckily, we arrived at the Ghion safely and we were immediately “ticked” in the list of personnel by the security officers. We were some of the last arrivals if not the last ones!

It was explained to us that we needed to wait and see how things evolved and, if they escalated, we may need to be evacuated to Nairobi. So, we were given a room and told to rest and wait for news. That evening, over dinner, we met a number of colleagues we knew and shared the dinner table with them, getting up-dated on what was actually happening.

Oddly, our new hotel’s location was of concern as it shared its grounds with the National Palace, the place where the Head of Government stayed and a strategic target for the rebels! This meant that we could see armoured vehicles criss-crossing the grounds. “Guys, there is a lot of heavy agricultural machinery moving around” said a colleague with a chuckle while pointing at a number of tanks manouvring through the hotel lawn. A comment I will not forget!

We had some sketchy information and learnt that Mengistu had already returned and was defeating the rebels although the situation was still uncertain. Interestingly, at lunch and dinner times there were SW radios at every table, and they were all tuned to the BBC News so we had a truly stereo effect as the same radio was all over the dining room!

We stayed at the Ghion for a few days and we were still there on 24 May as I remember watching the European Cup Final from the Camp Nou in Barcelona that A.C. Milan of Italy defeat Steaua Bucarest of Romania 4–0. The match was watched by a large UN crowd that started dispersing when Mengistu regained control of the country later on.

We returned to Bedele alone as we did not have any news of our colleague Solomon. Luckily, he turned up a few days later, unharmed and as cheerful as usual. Although he added more information on the events, it was only much later, when we were already outside Ethiopia, that we understood what had taken place.

Briefly, a while before May 1989 the Government had suffered two major military defeats at Afbet in 1988 and Shire in 1989 where thousands of troops and weapons had fallen in the hands of the Eritrean People Liberation Front. In addition, before the Afbet defeat Mengistu executed the commander of the forces. This resulted in additional loss of moral in the army and marked the start of the decline of the Government.

It was this demoralized army that took its chance in Mengistu’s absence and staged the coup of the 16 May 1989 that we had lived through. The coup was defeated within three days (something we did not know for certain at the time). Two of the leaders died during the fighting while some others were executed later in 1989 and a large number arrested. Solomon had been correct with his concern for the coup leaders!

Despite Mengistu’s victory, the coup left the army command very weak as the new generals lacked combat experience and the end came in 1990 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forces advanced on Addis Ababa from all sides, and Mengistu fled the country and was granted asylum in Zimbabwe.

Bird battle [1]

It was a Saturday afternoon in September 1989, I had just finished working and I was walking back to our bungalow when I saw about four Thick-billed ravens (Corvus crassirostris) flying about around an acacia tree that stood alone in the park of the laboratory.

These birds, usually noisy, were rather common but their behaviour was rather odd as it was obvious that they were more agitated than usual. So, I rushed home to tell Mabel and bring the binoculars and the camera, just in case.

As we returned, a Harrier Hawk (Polyboroides radiatus) flew off with two of the ravens pursuing it. They all disappeared from sight, but the ravens returned shortly after. To our increasing amazement, what appeared to be a Wahlberg’s Eagle (Aquila wahlbergi) also flew away from the tree with another couple of ravens in pursuit. It landed in a nearby dead tree, but the ravens soon forgot about it. This situation was clearly odd, and we could not believe that we had already seen two uncommon raptors!

But there was more to come.

Although two possible candidates for the commotion had been chased away, the ravens were still very agitated. The racket attracted a pair of rather vociferous Cape Rooks (Corvus capensis) that joined in. It was now obvious that there was some other cause for the mobbing behaviour of the ravens that was now focused deep inside the acacia.

It required a thorough search to detect the presence of a fully grown Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (Bubo lacteus) surrounded by the ravens while the Cape Rooks provided a more distant but very noisy support. The owl had chosen or it was driven by the ravens to a rather thick tangle of thorny twigs. These shielded the owl from the raven’s beaks which were only able to attempt to reach it one at a time through one opening among the branches. 

At this point one of the ravens (frustrated in its attempt to reach the owl?) began to deliberately break off the twigs with its beak in order to increase the size of the hole.

Corvids are regarded among the most intelligent of birds and they have brains with a similar number of neurons as some monkey species! So their “twig-removing” behaviour is not surprising [2].

After a few minutes, all four ravens adapted this activity, and soon made an opening large enough for them to enter and reach the owl from several directions. Despite their numbers, large size and powerful bills, the ravens were very wary of the owl, never facing it and always striking at it by jumping up and pecking at its rear.

The Verreaux eagle owl, at the back, being harried by one of the thick-billed ravens, just before the owl took off.

After a few minutes of being forced to fend off the four attackers simultaneously the owl took off still pursued by the ravens. It alighted again in a nearby tree but was almost immediately forced to fly again into another one where it remained until dark, continually mobbed by the ravens, clearly unhappy to see it in their neighbourhood. The following morning, there were no signs of the dispute of the day before and the ravens were back to their normal noisy life!

Of particular interest to us was to see the congregation of several birds of prey on the tree as well as the persistence and ferocity of the attacking ravens.

The late Leslie Brown in his book African Birds of Prey [3] has reported Verreaux Eagle Owls preying on the young of pied crows and buzzards, so that probably all the corvids and raptors involved in this incident were reacting to the owl as a potential predator of their young.

Note: during the subsequent years spent watching birds in Africa, we have observed the great respect aht most birds of prey have for large owls, clearly seeing them probably as dangerous to their young.

[1] This observation was published much later as: de Castro, J. & de Castro, M. (2013). Verreaux’s Eagle Owl Bubo lacteus attacked by Thick-billed Ravens Corvus crassirostris. Scopus 32: 51–52

Link to the published work: https://www.ajol.info/index.php/scopus/article/view/108343

[2] For a recent study on crowns see: https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/24/crows-possess-higher-intelligence-long-thought-primarily-human/

[3] Brown, L. (1970). African birds of prey. Collins.

The telephone rang once

Despite the limitations we found almost daily at a rather remote place such as Bedele, the work progressed. By mid 1989 we had already accumulated good information on tick population dynamics and distribution and trained a large number of veterinary people from the three provinces. We were quite pleased and then we even started looking into other work venues such as acaricide resistance, tickborne diseases and the possible use of local plants in tick control.

Our laboratory was basic but sufficient for our needs although communications were a severe weakness. We did not have access to telex or telegrams, the only means of communication at the time, together with land telephone lines. We did have a telephone set but it sat in my office noiselessly from the time of our arrival. We soon learnt to ignore it joking that it could be used to put some flowers in it to decorate our lab! This was the situation when, one day, it did ring.

Shocked we all stopped what we were doing to pay attention to this unusual event for which we were quite unprepared. One of the Ethiopian colleagues, rather weary, pick up the receiver and answered. Judging by the tone of the conversation rather than the words in Amharic, I could gather that something serious was happening. I got worried as it looked and sounded like bad news.

Once the conversation was over, we learnt that the head of our donor, the UNDP Representative, was coming to our laboratory to see the work that both FAO projects, the one on trypanosomiasis headed by Jan and ours were doing.

Quite excited, we informed our Director of the unexpected but important news. Used to visits of political nature, he immediately put in motion a number of activities to ensure that our important guests would get a good reception, including the necessary visits, lunch and other refreshments.

We also prepared and rehearsed our technical presentations trying to impress the visitor. I have already mentioned that, as far as UNDP was concerned, our project was regarded as a problem, a consequence of the unfortunate delays it had suffered because of the sickness of my predecesor and my delayed arrival.

The visit was our only chance to get some more funding to continue our work. We also arranged for a field visit to nearby farmer in case time allowed.

So, two days later, when the guests were meant to arrive the laboratory had been cleaned and a new Ethiopian flag was flying at the front of the building where all personnel was lined up for a rather long wait.

Finally the convoy arrived and the car carrying the Representative stopped at the front of the building. The Director of the Laboratory stepped forward to greet him. The solicitous driver opened the door and the man emerged but, before he could even shake hands with the Director, something as unexpected as unfortunate happened: a rather large wasp came from nowhere and stung our guest somewhere in the face!

It was a powerful sting that left our visitor motionless and not sure of what to do, apart from holding his face! He tried to ignore the sting but the swelling (and I am sure the pain also) increased rather fast despite the ice that was applied to try to stop it.

After a while, concerned for a possible allergic reaction to set in, the decision was taken for his return to Jimma and later Addis just in case. that he would need further medical attention tht was not available in Bedele.

To say that the rushed departure of such an important official created generalized consternation would be an understatement as all efforts made by all were rather wasted. We remained with his assistants -well known to us- but feeling a sense of anti-climax. The last chance to change the fate of our project through our planned presentations was gone and, of minor importance of course, our only telephone call was unfortunately for nothing!


The deep eyes of the animal (that happened to be a female) reminded Mabel of those of an old friend from Uruguay and, therefore, the name was coined!

Large eyes and preorbital glands.

When it arrived it was an extremely young common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia), very likely to had been the survivor of a mother being a casualty of the bush meat consumption around Bedele. Duikers in general are well known to be an important part of the species hunted for food by the local people. A study in Liberia found that duikers and forest antelope constitute 57% of all meat traded [1] and the situation is likely to had been similar in Ethiopia at the time of our stay. 

In any case, Catalina entered our lives. To start with its condition did not look as it would be with us for too long. It had clearly suffered from lack of milk and it was wet, very dehydrated and not very active.

The recently arrived duiker. The red ribbon came with it.

It was immediately adopted by Mabel who placed it inside her jacket pocket for warmth while we heated up milk and sugar to feed it. Luckily, after several attempts we managed. As soon as the creature tasted the sweet milk it started drinking with a passion, head-butting the foster mother in an instinctive attempt at getting more milk.

Mabel bottle-feeding a young Catalina.

Milk-drinking had a positive effect and, by the next day, she was looking more lively although I still did not like its look, particularly her arched back. We then realized that she had urinated but not defecated and that she was probably uncomfortable, hence the position of her back. How do you get a young duiker to defecate was an issue -albeit not very academic- that took us thinking for a while!

Then we remembered having seen female Thomson’s gazelles licking the rear ends of their babies for them to defecate when newly born. We tried to mimic this using cotton wool wet with warm water and the effect was instantaneous with the resulting large harvest of very dry faeces. It looked as she was going to live after all.

Live she did and became an interesting pet with one main drawback: house training! It would not learn to do the necessary outside and she insisted in performing her functions in our sitting room. We got rather tired of collecting her droppings that would bounce and run all over the room, particularly under the armchairs, just like small brown marbles!

With Woletu.

Despite her drawbacks, Catalina became a youngster in a few months and started to eat grass around the house. She would follow you like a dog and enjoy playing with the cats, mainly outside the house where there was quite a large open space.

Catalina with Tigger.

She would tease the cats and mock charge them until the latter tried to catch her only to find that the duiker was much faster than them and she would even jump high above them and bounce off. Her gracility and speed of reaction were truly extraordinary and left the cats looking like sloths in comparison!

It all went well until one day Catalina disappeared. No amount of searching around the house and beyond yielded any results and we feared the worst. Consternation increased as the days passed but no one had seen it and we could not locate her. This went on for about a week until one evening Catalina entered our house through the front door!

We were happy to see her after fearing her dead and she stayed for a couple of days and then disappeared again. This behaviour became the norm until our departure from Bedele towards the end of 1989.

We realized that our departure would be a problem for a “semi-wild” duiker as it was not possible to get someone at the station to care for her. We could not leave her either as it would probably be killed so we started to think what best to do about something we had not planned when Catalina arrived.

The solution came from André, an FAO colleague who was wishing to have Catalina. So it was that we took her to Addis and left her with him. He had it for about a year and, eventually, Catalina ended up at the gardens of the British High Commission where we hope she had a good life coming to watch people drinking a cuppa in the gardens of the mission.

[1] See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/194008291400700103

Animals come

After being in the laboratory for a while, people from the area learnt that we liked animals and we started getting surprises as we were surrounded by interesting creatures.

The first arrival was a very young gosling that took us a while to identify although we knew that it could only belong to basically three species: Egyptian (Alopochen aegyptiaca), Spur-wing (Plectropterus gambensis) or the rarer Blue-winged geese (Cyanochen cyanoptera). After a detailed search we decided that we were the “owners” of an Egyptian goose and this was confirmed later on when it matured.

Our grown Egyptian goose.

To get a stressed animal is always a problem but luckily it adjusted to living in a heated carbon box where it grew until it became too large for it and we built an enclosure with reed mats and, eventually let it go around the house with the consequences that this produced that needed to be cleaned!

From the start the plan was not to get it attached to us so that we could release it.

The Egyptian goose entering its enclosure.

After a few months it started to beat its wings and run the length of the space between the houses trying to take off. Soon it managed to hop, and the latter became longer and higher. I started to watch it as it was great fun until one day, I saw it lifting off and disappear towards the hills! It was a great success as we never saw it again.

The absence of the goose was hardly noted as it was almost immediately replaced by a young kingfisher that did not look too good on arrival and could not yet fly. However, we placed it in the cats’ cage and supplied with water while we searched for suitable food.

It was easy to identify it as an African pygmy kingfisher (Ispidina picta), one of the very small kingfishers distributed widely in Africa south of the Sahara although it is not present in the whole of the horn of Africa. A woodland species, it is not bound to water and it is usually very secretive and mostly seen when it loses its nerve and flies off from its perch.

African pigmy kingfisher. Credit: Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

We learnt that the diet of this kingfisher consists of spiders and various insects as well as geckos and lizards. We were pleased to know that, among the insects, grasshoppers were acceptable as well as praying mantis, worms, crickets, dragonflies, cockroaches and moths. We knew that there were hundreds of grasshoppers across the road in the fields and we soon collected a few. Later we got a couple of children to collect them for us and we never had any shortage of food.

My attempted clever picture! The actual bird flying as it had escaped from the bird book! Not too good.

At first the bird ignored our offerings of water and grasshoppers but, to our relief, it started catching a few and to smash them against the box before eating them. We soon learnt that it defecated at one corner of the box while it produced food pellets with insect chitin as owls do with hairs and bones in a separate corner.

A common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) casting a large white pellet. (Photograph by: Tan Gim Cheong). From L. K. Wang, M. Chan, Y. M. Chan, G. C. Tan and Y. C. Wee (2009). Pellet-casting by non-raptorial birds of Singapore. Nature in Singapore 2: 97–106.

It ate well and clearly matured under the attentive gaze of our cats that were rather frustrated as they could not get it! Interestingly, the bird totally ignored the cats.

Eventually, I opened the box and allowed to be free inside the room during the day and placed it back in the box for the night. After a few days it was clear that it could fly well and we took it to a forested area and released it.

Releasing the kingfisher.

One day, we started hearing howls that we first identified as coming from young dogs but soon we realized that they were more like the sounds we have heard earlier in Kenya whenever we came close to jackals!

A search in our backyard (a large open field that continued all the way to Ethiopia itself!) produced a family of jackals that we identified as side-striped jackals (Canis adustus) not without surprise. They were a pair of adults and two pups that had taken residence in one of the unused shacks that remained from the time of the building of the laboratory.

They were not bothered by our presence and continued to stay there, well-hidden during the day but becoming active in the late afternoon. Luckily, they went unnoticed by the chicken owners in the laboratory but not by other inhabitants…

It is beyond my knowledge of animal ethology why our two cats decided that they would befriend the jackals. When we discovered a meeting, in panic, we went to the rescue as we thought that our pets were about to be killed. We managed to call them away from the jackals and took them home unharmed.

We kept the cats locked for a few days but eventually they went out of the house and, lo and behold, they did a beeline to the jackals again. This time, we decided towait and watch, and we were quite surprised to see them engaged in a kind of hide and seek exercise with the wild jackals, both adults and pups! After that we relaxed and watched the unexpected interaction until the jackal family left not to be seen again.

Apart from the long-term visitors, we also had a number of day guests. Among these the least desirable were the grivet monkeys as they would do lots of damage to Mabel’s garden as opposed to the black and white colobus that were not only beautiful to watch but harmless to our garden. I will describe a few more interactions with birds later but there was one that was quite scary.

It happened while Paul and I were working on the document for the extension of the project. We were sitting at home next to the computer when, suddenly, a large bird entered the room through the open window and landed on our worktable, as confused as we were shocked!

Amazingly it was a black kite (Milvus migrans) a rather large bird to be in close quarters with considering that it has 150cm wingspan and we could see that it had a strong beak and talons! Luckily, it departed almost as soon as it arrived leaving us rather amazed and looking at each other in disbelief!

The last long-term guest to arrive was a Common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) but I will deal with this visitor on a separate post.

Visiting Addis

As I mentioned earlier, we needed to travel to Addis roughly every month and, after the first twelve months I got promoted and that meant that we gained access to an expatriate shop known as the Victory shop. Although this impressively named shop could only be compared with a small supermarket in Kenya, to be able to enter it was a moral boost to our remoteness and complemented our food needs. It also offered the option of buying several things in one place and even find some imported stuff.

Despite our newly acquired privilege, we continued to visit the Mercato, attracted not just by the food but also in search of handicrafts. Ethiopia is well known for its rather unique jewellery. Various silver crosses of different sizes, shapes and materials as well as gold ornaments of different kinds, particularly the rather large rounded earrings and other items are sought after by both Ethiopians and visitors.

Although we bought a few crosses and other silver trinkets, we were more interested in other kinds of crafts such as textiles and baskets, the latter in particular we liked a lot. So, while I attended meetings and did project procurement and other official tasks, Mabel spent many hours shopping at Mercato.

She bought lovely lengths of cotton material known as “shammas”. These are light weight shawls worn by women and decorated with coloured borders. There are also plain and heavier ones worn by men and used as blankets and even as shrouds.

She also bought a number of baskets of which I only have a few where we are now for you to see.

Tequyes. Baskets made of bamboo in southern Ethiopia mostly Gurage zone .

Amazingly, she was not deterred by the amount of strongly smelling rubbish that was strewn all over the place that included lots of human excrement as there were no public toilets available. She solved this inconvenience by wearing her gumboots and spending quite a time cleaning them on return! She walked with our “beggar chaser bodyguard” and both came back loaded with various shopping items.

While in Addis we also got to know the various restaurants as the food at the Harambe Hotel was truly poor. We sampled a few with various results. Eventually we narrowed them down to the great Italian Castelli where the antipasti, the spaghetti with gorgonzola and the tiramisu were truly excellent. Sometimes we also dined at the Greek-Armenian Club where we had a weak spot for the cold mint and yogurt soup and other delicacies of both cuisines. We also liked some of the local restaurants such as the Habesha and the Finfine but, because we ate local food in Bedele, we wished to change to other kind of food.

Regrettably, almost towards the end of our stay we were taken to a non-descript place by a friend who claimed that he had eaten the best chicken in Addis! We followed him and arrived to what looked as a family house. We were accommodated at one of the few tables available and ordered the only dish on offer: fried chicken and chips and waited and then waited a bit more. Eventually the food arrived but when it did, it was really delicious. As we could not remember its name, we started calling it the “Chicken Embassy” and returned to it whenever we felt like having a good chicken!

During one of the trips to Addis our car (a project Land Rover) died about 200km from Addis. After trying everything we knew to find what was wrong, we finally realized that the petrol was not reaching the engine. I recalled that, sometimes, I needed to punch the front panel of my Land Rover Series I in Uruguay to get it going again to the amusement of my companions that did not know that the electrical fuel pump was screwed on the other side of the panel!

So, we looked for the pump not only behind the front panel but all over the place and failed to find it. After that we thought it had fallen off during the journey, but we could not find where it should have been either!

Eventually, we gave up trying to do a DIY repair and stopped a lorry that towed us to the next mechanic we found while we speculated where the pump could be. The mechanic announced that these cars had the pump inside the petrol tank (a clever idea!) and that he needed to siphon the petrol out, remove the tank, open it and check the condition of the elusive pump!

After a few hours spent putting things apart, a loose wire was reconnected and the car re-assembled. Later on, I needed to take it to Addis to fit a new pump outside the tank! Anyway, we got the car going again but only for a few km before nightfall. Luckily, we reached the town of Wolisso and found a hotel to spend the night. The place, built in Italian style, clearly belonged to a gone era when travellers would find there all necessary luxuries. However, it was obvious that the revolution did not have room for frills and the place was clearly state-run and rather dilapidated.

We were tired so we dined on spaghetti and tomato sauce while we were “over served” by all the waiters of the establishment that did not have any other customers to look after!

The following morning, we were woken up by birds calling and the sound of what appeared to be monkeys screaming! We went out to look and realized that our hotel was immersed in a patch of green forest and that there were lots of birds and monkeys around us! The latter were the grivets Chlorocebus aethiops, the horn of Africa equivalent to the more common vervets (C. pygerythrus).

Walking in the park we soon discovered a large derelict steaming open air swimming pool rather overgrown with vegetation and, further on, another one inside a large hall that had also seen better days. We had just stayed at the Ethiopia Hotel (earlier known as the Ghion Hotel and today known as the Negash Lodge) that had been built in the 1930’s and that it was famous because it had been used as a holiday home by Emperor Haile Selassie, because of its natural hot springs which many believe has curative properties.

Although we continued with our journey the following morning, we made a note to return to spend more time in this hotel during our journeys to and from Bedele. We returned again and again to the point that we became rather well known to the staff that was always welcoming! We soon discovered that the hotel had a speciality, the so-called “Emperor’s Suite” that was room number one, near the entrance, in the internal patio, on the way to a closed pool that was functioning and popular with day visitors. We asked for it and, paying a small surcharge, we could have it!

When we entered, we could see that it had been a luxurious suite, with a sitting area with windows that opened to the surrounding lush vegetation, a large bedroom with a large bed and a truly oversized toilet. We felt like the former Emperor, if we ignored the neglect and smell of damp!

Once we entered the toilet, it had another surprise for us: the largest bathtub we had ever seen, almost the size of a small swimming pool! I opened the only and rather humongous tap and hot water -clearly coming from underground- gushed out. Clearly the tap was in accordance with the size of the recipient!

So, to enjoy our private pool, we hatched the plan of opening the tap to fill it up while having dinner. Immediately we hit a snag, the drain hole was also humongous and there was no plug! As the reception did not have one, we improvised one with an ashtray and a hand towel and went for dinner thinking that surely Haile Selassie had a proper stopper, but it had long gone.

To our surprise, when we came back the tub was still empty although the water was still running. Although the ashtray, being of hard plastic, was still there, the towel had gone “down the drain” leaving no trace as the suction power of the outlet was stronger than anything I had seen before. A look in the drain showed no signs of the towel! Luckily, our initial concern of having blocked the pipe forever were unfounded as the water was still running but we could not have our bath! This we managed the following night by using a small dessert plate and a stone that, although was not hermetic, it worked quite well! We paid for the “lost” towel and, fortunately, no questions were asked.

The bath was very soothing, and we slept well, probably partly the consequence of the sub lethal toxaphene fumes inhaled, product of Mabel’s bug control efforts prior to entering her sleeping bag. She steadfastly refused to get between the sheets! We were up early because of the loud bird calls and the screaming of the numerous grivets.

After breakfast we usually continued our journey either west towards Bedele or east to Addis. Either way we could not fail to admire the beautiful round Gurage houses along the road.

House being built.
Detail of a Gurage house. Credit: Pic of house: Cutaway Design from P. LeBel, “On Gurage Architecture”, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Fall 1969.

These were not the usual straw huts, but proper large structures known as “sauer bét”. They are built with eucalyptus, bamboo, vine, and thatch. Red eucalyptus wood is resistant to termites, so the basic structure of a house can last for several years. Although without plumbing or electricity, the houses are meant to be cool during sunny days and can be warmed up with a fire in the centre of the house during the cold months.

Young Gurage coming to greet us.

Each Gurage house was surrounded by the ubiquitous false banana trees (ensete) from where the “kocho”, typical Gurage food comes from. Ensete is a drought resistant staple crop and we also saw some coffee probably for cash or domestic consumption.

We never failed to admire these houses whenever we travelled to or from Bedele.

Life in Bedele

As you have probably realized, we were not following the Bedele social scene for several reasons that you can also guess, language and cultural differences, isolation at the laboratory and the feeling that not much was happening.

The weekends that we did not go out exploring the surrounds, we visited the farmers market and bought what we could find there while having a look at the various activities that went on there, in particular the livestock sales as there was a lot of loud haggling and discussion going on that was quite entertaining for a veterinarian. It was also new to us that farmers would arrive to the fair riding a mule or a horse but we soon learnt that for many villages this was the only way to move around.

One time, while leaving Bedele in one of our weekend escapades, we noticed an aid lorry parked a few kilometres outside the town that we thought was being offloaded there “unofficially” and, as expected, when we were spotted, all activity ceased. However, we suspected that some of the relief food was siphoned out for other “beneficiaries” although we did not know who!

Following on the above, with the passing of time we discovered a second market. One that did not function in the open air but under a roof and that offered numerous food and food-related items, clearly coming from what we had seen earlier on the road. There was flour from origins as different as Canada, Italy and Argentina and cooking oil of different kinds, including olive oil from Europe. We also saw bags and bags of chocolates and high energy biscuits of the type that are consumed while on a climbing expedition and literally hundreds of humanitarian eating and drinking kits still in their original plastic wrappings showing their unsuitability for the recipients.

Although the large food items were likely to be those diverted from lorries, the other stuff was most likely traded by the refugees themselves that did not need them or did not know what to do with them! This market, until it burnt down a while later, was an important source of food for the Bedele inhabitants that were able to get some stuff that was otherwise unavailable. So not everything was lost!

Most of our news were related to life in the laboratory and our neighbourhood. Among these, the birth of Jan and Janni’s son Winand in The Netherlands was great news and their arrival to the laboratory was a motive of great joy. He was the object of attention of everybody, in particularly of the resident ladies, including Mabel, that took turns to look after him.

Entertaining Janni with the recently arrived Winand
Mabel and Winand after a few months.

We did have a number of visitors from abroad. The first one arriving was Giuseppe, an Italian veterinarian with an interest on tsetse and trypanosomiasis that came to work with Jan for a while. Although we saw him briefly, our meeting was the start of a friendship that lasts until today. Later, our friends and safari companions from Kenya François and Genèvieve also came and with them we did a bit of sightseeing, mainly around Bedele that we all enjoyed.

With Geneviève and François enjoying the Didessa valley.
Geneviève and Mabel sharing a mate in the bush. Mate is a traditional drink of southern Latin America. For details see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mate_(drink)

Finally, towards the end of the project Paul, my FAO backstopping officer came to see the work and to assist me with the writing of a project extension to continue the work although we knew that UNDP had no intention of continue funding it as I explained earlier. However, we did write a new project and, eventually, we got some funds from the Danish Government to continue the activities, particularly on tick-borne diseases.

Although mostly unknown to us, some events that took place in Bedele were rather dramatic.

There was a great commotion at the laboratory when a serious accident took place on the Metu road just outside Bedele and, of course, we all went to see what had happened. As, while we were getting there all was said in Amharic I was not entirely clear of what had happened, so I went fearing to find lots of casualties.

Although there were fatalities, luckily, there were not humans! A bus full of passengers had hit a cattle herd and it had killed eight of the animals and their bodies were strewn along the road. It was a sad incident but with a note of humour as well. We spotted our butcher already negotiating with the owner of the animals to buy them cheap! Of course, we made sure that we did not buy meat for a few days afterwards as its toughness would have been more than the usual chewy nature!

The cattle massacre! The culprit bus is ahead, ahead of the green lorry.

Although far away from Bedele, the civil war permanently influenced our lives beyond the travel restrictions and shortage of fuel that I described earlier.

One day we drove through Bedele and there was hardly anyone in town. Surprised I asked what was the reason, but I did not get a clear reply. I was told that people were at some religious ceremony at another town and other stories. Unconvinced, I went back to the laboratory and discreetly asked one of my trusted colleagues at the project. “Bedele people had learnt that the military are coming soon to recruit soldiers and the young men are hiding in the forest” he said and then added “they do not wish to go to fight in the north!”. This event was repeated a couple of more times and I do not know how many people were really recruited. However, there must have been some success as the army training camp near Jimma was always busy!

The war also complicated the lives of the Ethiopians working at the laboratory, so they needed to be extremely careful when voicing any political opinion. We accepted an invitation to eat spaghetti at a neighbour house one day. Dinner was a pleasant affair but, as the evening advanced, tension arose between the host and one of the commensals over the political situation. To our dismay the discussion got hotter and the host got rather vehement on his attack to the Government to the open (quite rare I must say) dislike of the visitor.

Aware of the situation we retreated as soon as we deemed it to be polite and the meeting ended without much more ado but clearly on a wrong note. Although we talked about this for a few days, we soon forgot it.

However, after a few weeks we learnt that our host -that happened to be a nurse- was mobilized by the army and sent to the war front! Luckily, he survived the time he was there, and we saw him again before we left the country although it was apparent that he had suffered, both physically and mentally, the time spent at the war front.

The other time when I felt the difficult situation of the Ethiopians that did not agree with the regime was when one of my counterparts from the project and myself were traveling to Rome for a meeting. My colleague managed to get the innumerable clearances needed in time and, finally we found ourselves on board of the Ethiopian Airways plane to Rome.

Aware of his concerns, once we entered the plane and found our seats I said casually “Now you can relax”, “Not until I see Addis from above” was the reply I got. I thought that he was exaggerating but, as if by some kind of magic act, two people looking like plane clothes police or secret service boarded the plane and walked down the aisle towards us.

I noticed that my colleague became very quiet and quite pale but, luckily, it was not him they were after! So, when the plane took off, he regained his usual cheerful ways and only then he looked relaxed. I must confess that I thought that, once out of the country, he would not return with me to Ethiopia but I was wrong and we continued working together until the end of the project.

Sometime in 1989, the construction of the Bedele beer factory started and we had the arrival of a Czech engineer that was in charge of the building. He became “forengi” number six (counting baby Winand of course) in Bedele and we saw him sometimes although we left a good while before the now well known “Bedele Beer” started to come out of the production line.

The first label. I like the Black and white Colobus displayed in it as it was very common around Bedele.