Historical

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

The plague

I thought that my earlier post on Ethiopia was the last but I was wrong.

Something that happened two days ago at our farm in Salta reminded me of an incident at Bedele worth mentioning and that somehow seeped through the cracks of my memory (oh surprise!).

While de-weeding one of the fields I saw a swarm of immature locusts. These were nymphs of the soldier locusts (Chromacris speciosa), unmistakable with the shiny black and red markings. They are widely distributed in Brazil and Northern and Central Argentina.

Nymphs of Chromacris speciosa, rather striking insects.
Adult of Chromacris speciosa.

The first memory that came to mind was of my father, an Agronomist in charge of pest control in Uruguay, who told me about locusts for the first time. He described the enormous clouds that would obscure the sun and that his Jeep (Willys) would skid on the mass of insects and needed to engage 4WD to be able to move!

Then I remembered the day in Bedele when, although it dawned with a clear sky, suddenly, as it happens during the sun eclipses, light faded for no apparent reason. This lasted for a few minutes until the locust swarm arrived and landed on us! They covered the ground and landed on trees stressing branches to the point of breaking. Most of the green matter available was consumed within hours and they moved on as a wave, leaving scorched earth behind.

A desert locust swarm. Credit: FAO (http://www.fao.org/locusts/resources/photos/en/).

The invasion only lasted for a couple of days until they moved off. During this time we were the target of a very unpleasant experience when, without warning they would land on your back and prick you with their spiny legs!

We were suffering the impact of a periodic swarm of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), found mainly in Africa. Interestingly, this insect can change its body in response to changes in the environment. Although this takes several generations, a solitary, shorter-winged (non-migratory form) can turn into a social locust that, because of being long-winged can travel really long distances in search of food.

When this happens, they can cause severe and extensive damage to food crops and fodder as a classic swarm can be as numerous as 150 million individuals, capable of covering hundreds of km in one day when on the go. Because of their transboundary nature, its spread must be monitored in various countries to control them while they are still not able to fly, usually in dry areas. This activity requires collaboration between countries through specialized bodies such as FAO and the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA).

Finally, the rather nice grasshoppers we get in our gardens in Zimbabwe, known as Green Milkweed Locust or African Bush Grasshopper (Phymateus viridipes), are also capable of long migrations but they are not a pest although, to our annoyance, they are capable of eating our flowering plants.

Leaving Ethiopia

As all things come to an end, the same happened with our stay at Bedele. Although we completed the study despite the difficulties we faced, as expected, the UNDP would not release further funding to expand the activities countrywide as we proposed. However, we managed to get some funding from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) to continue the search for theileriosis in refugee cattle. This did not include international personnel, so I was no longer employed and I needed another job somewhere else. We will see about that later.

Although I have described a number of events that merited a separate description, there were a few others that, although minor, I believe are worth revealing. I will end this post with details of our departure from Ethiopia in December 1989, hence the title.

I have mentioned earlier that it rained lots at Bedele and that its dirt roads became a quagmire at that time to the point that to reach the butchery we needed to engage 4WD! Hygiene was not an issue in the place as, before you could get to the open window behind which the dark meat was hanged, you needed to tread carefully to avoid the cow bits and pieces that were strewn around the adjacent field as I have already described. However, there was a time when we did not need to make this journey.

Sheep and red-billed oxpecker walking through the laboratory compound.

Livestock grazed everyday inside our laboratory enclosure as the front gate was always open. The animals often walked between our houses and a clever goat used to climb on one of our project cars to get to the bananas that grew across the road from our house. I remember that I made the mistake of chasing it off and the brute jumped from the roof to the bonnet and left a nice dent that remained for posterity!

The clever goat browsing on bananas before it jumped!

A day that was bucketing down I was returning to our house after negotiating for fuel for the next study trip with the political authorities, not an easy job. I entered our compound and saw a herd of sheep and goats lying down on the road, resisting the heavy downpour as well as their woolly coats allowed. I reduced my speed to the minimum to allow them to move off as one usually does in these occasions.

That day maybe this sheep was sleep or the bad visibility affected both of us. Whatever the reason(s) I noted that the left front wheel suddenly went over a bump. Fearing the worst, after it came down, I stopped and got out of the car to investigate. I had indeed driven over the head of the sheep killing it instantly, a most unfortunate incident!  Before a minute had passed the upset owner came and started talking to me in Oromo language that I did not understand but it was clear that he was demanding compensation for his loss.

I tried to explain that it was an unfortunate accident caused by his animals parking in the middle of the road but I could see that we were not getting anywhere! Luckily, one of the laboratory workers was also returning on foot and I asked him to interpret what he was saying. As expected, the herder was demanding a very high price for his sheep and, to stop getting soaked, I offered to buy a “new” sheep the next day as compensation. He would not have it so, the discussion continued and it was only after a few offers and counter offers that we reached a reasonable settlement as I was considered the guilty party.

After getting the money, the owner picked up the sheep and started to move off with it. Seeing this, through my interpreter I told him that I had paid for it and that it was now my dead sheep! He abandoned his attempt so I collected my forced purchase and, after giving a lift to the accidental interpreter, I arrived home, wet and with a dead sheep that I proceeded to skin and quarter, still under the relentless rain.

Slaughtering the unfortunate sheep under the rain.

While I was working on the sheep I could not help recalling that in the past in some areas of Ethiopia people would cut chunks of beef to eat from their live animals, a rather dreadful procedure, that I believe I learnt while reading the late Richard Pankhurst’s book “Ethiopia Engraved”, a beautiful work by the main historian of the country.

Unfortunately, the sheep was a fit animal, used to long distance running and rather thin and tough. For a few days we consumed expensive meat but its ex owner (that still grazed the animals inside the compound) greeted me warmly!

Mabel’s garden included most of the common vegetables that, because of the combination of good temperature and abundant rain grew at an astonishing rate. Unfortunately, the garden was a temptation that a few animals could not resist.

We kept lots of insects at bay by home-made control methods such as planting marigolds around the garden, spraying with water and pepper and others, but these would do nothing to deter the monkeys.

Although the lovely black and white colobus just watched enjoying their tree leaves diet, the grivets were always lurking somewhere close to jump at the opportunity to snatch a tomato or uproot a carrot. This was a challenge that, after a while, was cleverly resolved by Mabel by sharing the produce of the garden with our neighbours who assisted gratefully in chasing the monkeys away!

Although we produced vegetables, fruits were a different story. Although we had banana and mango trees in the compound, the monkeys would always get at them before us and we could only get them at the Bedele market on Saturdays. Something of a breakthrough was the discovery that cooked green mangoes were a great substitute for apples and from then on, we collected them green, before the monkeys, boiled them and froze them to be used as filling for pies. Mabel’s green mango strudel became well known in the compound!

Although at home we could “control” what we ate, the situation was different when traveling or when invited to a restaurant by our Ethiopian colleagues as the food needed some getting used to because it was rather different from what we were used to. I can only remember eating out at only one place in Bedele and this was only on special occasions. It was a family house with red velvet-like armchairs surrounding a low table where the food was served.

A very popular dish in Ethiopia is Doro Wat, chicken stewed with plenty of chilli and one egg. In Bedele the chicken (too rare and expensive) was replaced by mutton, but most of the time the egg stayed. This was known as “Doro Fänta” that meant “instead of chicken”! The latter is what we mostly ate. [1]

Attempts at changing our eating place were not successful and I cannot forget one particular eating house we went where we were offered the usual Doro Fänta but, when we asked to see the cooking, we were confronted with a pot where among the boiling bit and pieces of mutton, there were a couple of eyes coming now and then to the surface! We moved on and ended up in the place of the red velvet armchairs.

I mentioned that we bought honey from a farmer near Bedele. What I forgot was that the first time we went to purchase honey (that eventually came inside a sewn goat skin) we were invited to taste the product before purchasing it. We sat with the farmer around a polished concave stool where the honey was poured for us to taste it. It looked and tasted very good, except for the white grubs that were in it and that we were offered as a delicacy! I must confess that I thanked the farmer profusely but refused to eat them while Mabel, being a beekeeper herself, tasted a few and declared that they had a rather pleasant “nutty flavour”. Luckily, at least for me, the goat held enough honey to last us for a long while and we did not need to visit the farmer very often.

Driving from Addis to Bedele, the revolution propaganda weakened as the distance from the former increased. The arches that spanned the road were hefty and colourful near Addis and Marx, Engels and Mengistu depicted in them with the ubiquitous AK47s and revolutionary slogans written in Amharic. After Jimma, the propaganda disappeared almost completely except at the entrance/exit from the major towns. In Gambela, I only saw one rather insignificant sign by the road leading to the hotel that said: “We move forward with the revolution”.

Apart from the rather newly installed revolutionary signs, we could not fail to notice the existence of the abundant yellow Meskel flowers (Bidens macroptera) that were very abundant along the road and had been there since time immemorial. These flowers, known as Adey Abeba, bloom in September, after the rains. Their appearance coincides with the Meskel festival, one of the main Ethiopian festivals, that takes place on 27th September and commemorates the finding of the true cross. The festival, celebrated with abundant food and drink, has been going for over 1600 years.

Meskel flowers surround teff fields on the way to Addis.

Life in Bedele was rather quiet but there were a few good moments. One of the highlights was the arrival of the mail from Addis that was brought to the laboratory by anyone traveling there. Apart from the shortwave radio tuned to the BBC World Service, this was our lifeline with the world and to open the mail was always a treat as we got news from home as well as books and developed films, to name a few items.

A great moment. Mabel opening the mail.

One day, while opening our letters I hatched a plan for a Christmas joke to our neighbour Jan. While he was in one of his extended bush stays I needed to go to Addis and be back just before Christmas. I knew that he would be alone as his wife was in The Netherlands and the idea was to lighten his time in Bedele.

When in Addis, we did our shopping and I took the opportunity to buy a few items for my plan such as Christmas crackers from the Victory duty free shop, chocolates and other usual Christmas presents, including stockings and nougat as well as a suitable box, the right wrapping papers and ribbons. Once back in Bedele I prepared a parcel where I put all these goodies and addressed it to Jan as if it had come by the FAO’s pouch. I put our organization’s Director General as the sender and I faked an appropriate card to add credibility to a most unbelievable and silly joke!

I now needed to wait for Jan to get back to hand him the parcel at Christmas. I waited for Christmas Eve when I knew he would be missing his wife to hand over to him all the genuine correspondence I had brought to him from Addis as well as my fake parcel, thinking that he would immediately discover the ruse. When the time came, rather naively, he showed surprise when saw the parcel, and he proceeded to open it. He was as delighted as incredulous that our Director General had remembered the loyal field staff and equally happy to receive the goodies that the parcel contained. He asked me, of course, if I also got one and I replied “yes, of course”. I could not believe that he had taken my joke seriously and, later on, it took some talking to convince him that it was just an innocent joke to brighten his Christmas!

As our departure became imminent, a number of activities took place. Again, a lorry came to collect our personal effects and we remained for about a week only with the basic stuff (most borrowed from the laboratory and/or neighbours) and the two cats. During that time the arrangement for our farewell “celebrations” started.

Our belongings being loaded.

We were taken almost daily to the Bedele tailor where our measurements were taken so that our “ceremonial” garments could be made so that we would be sent off properly. The latter were fortunately ready for the day of the farewell ceremony and we were both dressed for the occasion in the Ethiopian traditional clothing.

The official ceremony was a rather formal affair where speeches were given by the Director of the laboratory and project colleagues to which we both replied, mainly thanking them all for our time spent there. Then we exchanged presents and we had a traditional lunch. Things were going well up to this point but then the much feared dancing was announced!

I must say that we were (and still are) not dancers, not even tango! Even if we would have been, it would not had helped us much when confronted with the Eskista. Wikipedia [2] defines it as “… a traditional Ethiopian Amhara cultural dance performed by both men and women even children, that is known for its unique emphasis on intense shoulder movement. The dance is characterized by rolling the shoulder blades, bouncing the shoulders, and jilting the chest… The complex nature of Eskista makes it one of the most highly technical forms of traditional dance”.

A short video to show the movements involved in the Eskista dance.

We had failed at dancing Eskista a few times earlier and we knew we could not do it but we gave it our best try nevertheless, but still without any improvement. Luckily, soon enough, other colleagues that new what to do joined in and we managed to hide within the shaking crowd and, in this way, saved our joints from collapse.

After such a nice but demanding party we rested while organizing our own farewell party at our now empty house to take place a couple of days later, the day before departure. We invited everybody in the laboratory. A few invitees from outside the campus were also included, the Director of the Bedele clinic, the political administrator and the recently arrived Czech engineer that was building the beer factory (that today makes the Bedele beer).

We calculated that we would have about sixty people attending so we borrowed most of the needed items from the laboratory, including plates, glasses and cutlery. We also managed to get tables but there were not enough chairs, so we got the long benches used for the Wednesday political meetings! We arranged them against the wall where we were to accommodate most of our guests. The ladies took care of the cooking and a few close colleagues and I organized the drinks that mainly consisted of soft drinks and beer.

The party was extremely well attended and after about an hour, nothing had happened, despite the guests having eaten and drank well. Something was missing and then we decided to enliven things by serving some clericot (a punch in English) that we prepared by mixing a few of the spirits that I was going to leave behind. The effect was amazing and the party really came to life and then it would not stop! Eventually, at about 3 am people started to leave gradually and we were able to retire to bed. The following morning I found a few people sleeping on the grass around the house. Clearly we had overdone it in the clericot department!

So it was that a day later we drove to Addis where, after formally closing the project and spendng a few days in a friends’ house, we departed Ethiopia.

Luckily, before we left I had already offered a job to continue working on ticks and tickborne diseases in Zambia and we headed there after stopping in Nairobi for some shopping and a few days rest (including the camel safari I had mentioned) with our very good friend Susan that we knew from our Kenya days.

[1] I was surprised to see that this was the subject of a study (that I have not read)! If interested, see: McCann, J.C. (2006). A response: Doro Fänta: Creativity vs. Adaptation in the Ethiopian Diaspora. Diaspora 15, 381-388.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskista

A naive vet

In 1988-89 Sudan, the same as Ethiopia, was undergoing a civil war between the predominantly black south (now South Sudan) and the mainly Arab north (now Sudan). That was the environment in which I was running a development project dealing with ticks and tickborne diseases!

I will briefly refresh your memories on the situation in Sudan at the time.

During the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) [1] Gambela received many refugees but it was when the Second Sudanese Civil War began in 1983 that the number of refugees increased dramatically, and it was then that several refugee camps were established.

The Second Civil War, between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) lasted until 2005. It was basically an extension of the First Sudanese Civil War and it lasted for twenty-two long years with a human live cost estimated at two million! It is believed that war was basically over the oil fields located in the border between Sudan and South Sudan and eventually the latter became an independent country.

After three years of conflict, the Sudan government started negotiating peace with the SPLA, led by Col. John Garang [2]. There was eventually a constitutional conference and in 1988, a peace plan was developed. It called for the ending of military pacts with Egypt and Libya, the freezing of Sharia law and an end to the state of emergency among other issues. A cease-fire was reached but, unfortunately, the then ruler of Sudan, Sadiq al-Mahdi refused to approve it. He was soon deposed by Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the war re-started. This was the time we were there.

As usual, a number of refugee camps were established in Ethiopia to hold the people displaced by the war and Itang, the main camp, grew in size to reach officially 200,000 people displaced in 1988 although later, in 1991 the official estimate came to 280,000 making it the largest refugee camp in the world.

In mid 1988 we were informed that there was a significant movement of Dinka and Nuer refugees and their livestock mainly from the Upper Nile and the provinces of Bahr and Ghazal and that they were crossing into Ethiopia. It was also possible that some refugees would also be coming from further South, nearer to Uganda. This would not have been relevant for our tick and tickborne disease project except that it was just possible that the cattle could be carriers of theileriosis, a deadly disease caused by a protozoan parasite of the Theileria spp., transmitted by Rhipicephalus appendiculatus, the Brown ear tick.

Theileria schizonts inside white blood cells and “bursting” into the lymph/blood.

Ethiopia’s geography and the fighting spirit of their inhabitants kept the country unconquered throughout the colonization of Africa. This, and the absence of the Brown ear tick, also helped to stop theileriosis from establishing there although the environmental conditions were suitable for it. As usual, Nature filled the Brown ear tick’s niche with a very similar tick species (R. bergeoni) that was not able to transmit theileriosis because of its different life cycle.

Heavy infestation with Rhipicephalus appendiculatus in a heifer.

Despite this apparent long-term stability, a mathematical model had just been developed that indicated that the Brown ear tick (and Theileria) could get established in parts of Ethiopia if they were introduced. This was of concern to the animal health authorities of the country. Up to that point, the possible entry point was through imported cattle flown to Addis but now the refugee influx opened up another possibility.

The results of the prediction model that indicated good suitability for R. appendiculatus in Ethiopia.

Because we were working on the subject in South-west Ethiopia, we were asked to do some “detective” work to see if the disease and/or the vector were indeed moving in. That is how I found myself traveling to the Sudan border in the Gambela area in search for theileriosis and its vector.

After studying our options, we decided that the large refugee camp at Itang could be a good place to start our work, provided that we would be allowed to get to the incoming refugees and their cattle and to bleed them and check them for ticks. We would then send the serum samples collected to International Livestock Research for Animal Diseases (ILRAD), now the International Livestock Research Institute, where they would be tested (free of charge) for antibodies against theileriosis.

We planned our trip as well as we could. Luckily, we managed to get the needed supplies for blood collection and I found a couple of large United Nations car stickers that I placed on the doors of our Land Rover as to be easily identified, just in case. We were not so lucky with the trip arrangements, always the bottleneck of our work, but this was expected with civil wars in both countries!

The trip, we were told, was difficult and even dangerous and a special travel permit from the Political Chief was required to leave Bedele and this took some justification, particularly to go to work at a refugee camp. After a couple of days, the permit was eventually granted and the negotiation for the acquisition of the necessary fuel, although protracted as usual, was also successfully and we were ready to go. A team of technicians would accompany me, including one that was the political delegate of the ruling party in our project. This was very good –I thought- as I would get the Government support if needed.

To get to Gambela, we followed the “food relief route” that I already described and needed to go through a large number of movement control barriers that existed along the way while swallowing the dust of the lorry convoys loaded with food and supplies for the refugees.

Dusty and tired we arrived at Gambela where we spent the night. The following morning, we spent a long time getting the next travel permits. Traveling from Gambela to Itang required a special safe-conduct as it was regarded as a politically sensitive area. In addition there was a need of a local delegate of the Communist Party to accompany us as well as a military escort in the form of a couple of soldiers who joined us in a now full Land Rover. Things were shaping up and I was happy not to have come in a smaller vehicle.

We started the journey later than I wished as we needed to wait for the various members of the group that now numbered six and I was getting rather anxious to get going. So it was that while reversing after collecting the Government’s political delegate, I hit a tree and bent the back door in with the consequence that the large window literally exploded. While cleaning the glass shards that were still attached to the door, a large one got embedded in the back of my leg and this needed some first aid but it was soon under control and we managed to clear all the glass.

There was no hope of panel beating the door in Gambela within the short time available so we needed an emergency repair to keep going until we could do it once we could take the car to Addis. The trip was off for now and we started to consider ways of repairing it. Eventually we found a carpenter that cut a plywood “glass” that, after a few tests, perfectly covered the hole and it was secured well. After sending a message to the camp for the cattle to be released, it was back to our hotel. After a wash I did an inspection of my leg and noticed that the glass had buried quite deeply into my calf but I could see or feel no glass inside. So, I washed the wound as well as I could and left it at that.

Next morning, we managed to gather all members of the party in time and we departed much earlier and arrived at the camp an hour later after driving the 47 km non-stop but swallowing lots of dust from a great number of relief lorries. I was happy to see that, although opaque, that the “back plywood window” held most of the dust out. More importantly, our soldier escort was not needed…

The camp was much larger than I had imagined and looked like a town with lots of people moving about. Although there were rows of tents, I noticed that there were also buildings that seemed to have been there for a long time. We drove to one of those to meet the Camp Director and discuss our work. Meanwhile, the soldiers parted company to get back to Gambela on another escort job.

The Director was pleased to receive us, and he listened to our brief attentively. He had clearly been informed of our arrival, and we were soon taken to a makeshift enclosure full of cattle. Clearly, it was going to be quite a job to bleed animals with no crush pen, but we would not let the opportunity pass. The cattle pen was rather chaotic. In a cloud of dust, apart from the rather tame cattle, there were the usual retinue of herders and other people attracted by the animals and their mooing.

We decided that before the work could start, we needed a meeting with the owners to explain the purpose of what we were doing and also for them to leave their AK47s under a tree so that they could work more freely with the animals. In fact, their guns were almost an extension of their bodies so leaving them aside was mainly for our own safety! They agreed and we soon had gun stacks all over the place! I was somehow surprised to see that almost all of the cattle owners had guns but did not think much about it and focused on the work.

We worked hard as the animals needed to be roped and held by the owners while we recorded their origin, took blood samples, numbered them and collected any ticks we saw on their ears. The work progressed well as there were many willing cattle owners. At some stage I noted that my leg was bleeding again but I decided to ignore it and continue with the work.

At some stage I felt my shirt being pulled from behind. When I turned around, I found myself looking up to a young, leggy and half-naked Dinka boy grey with dust that was pointing at my leg. I looked at it and I saw dry blood that has gone down from my wound to the sock and shoe and, I must admit, looked quite dramatic. I looked again at the boy and shrug my shoulders, but he extended his hand and then I saw that he was pointing at my leg and offering me a plaster to cover my wound! I looked at him and he was smiling at me.

I stopped the work and walked with the boy to a water tap where I washed my leg and applied the plaster while the tall boy, only wearing a pair of green shorts, watched me attentively. Once I applied the plaster, he made a thumb up sign and departed. Maybe I am making too much of this gesture, but it became one of the most memorable moments of my vet career!

By early afternoon we had examined well over one hundred animals and we called it “a day” as we were planning to return for more in a few weeks. We packed and went to thank the Camp Director and to get our army escort. While driving towards the Director’s office we stopped for a drink and a bite in the more established area of Itang. Then, I saw a small group of truly beautiful cattle walking past and I took a couple of pictures of them.

An example of a zebu animal like the ones I photographed at Itang.

Unfortunately, my picture-taking was a bad move! Instantly, four armed men in green uniform surrounded the car and asked for my camera that I handed over to one of them. He knew how to open it to remove the film ignoring my protests! My Ethiopian companions, including the Gambela political delegate, looked as confused as I and they kept quiet. I imitated them expecting that my camera would be returned, and this would end the incident.

I was wrong! The door of the car was opened, and, in sign language, they told me to go with them, together with one of my technicians as an interpreter. A large wooden gate was opened, and we entered into the first army base I have ever visited. Apart from lots of armed soldiers carrying the ubiquitous AK47s there were also other heavier military hardware such as trucks and large guns to name what I could see walking past.

The moment I saw where I was, I knew I was in trouble. I was correct!

In the centre of the compound stood a very large tent that had been white when new and it was clear that there it was where we were being taken by our captors. We were roughly and thoroughly searched at the entrance and told to wait outside while some entered and others stayed with us, looking rather serious. I could see the face of my technician/interpreter and that did not improve my moral! We did not talk and waited for a few minutes until we were brought inside.

The large tent was very well lit and carpeted, with chairs on both sides of the entrance. There were people already seated there and we were also told to sit down and wait. To the right there were some desks or tables where what looked like clerks sat. At the back, towards the other end of the tent my eyes fell on an imposing seated figure, probably in his forties, dressed in a white robe with a leopard skin swung on his shoulders and clearly the Commander of the place. He was busy listening to some people discussing something in a rather agitated way that were dismissed shortly.

When our time came, the Commander was given an account of our incident by one of the soldiers that captured us. I could tell that it was my case because they were brandishing my camera and pointing towards us. My concerned augmented and I could now feel the sweat starting to trickle down through my back and it was not because of the heat! My leg was also throbbing but that was the least of my worries.

The talking continued and then the strip of film was produced and shown trophy-like to the Commander who still sat impassive. Then, looking at me, he said “You are being accused of espionage by my soldiers” and then added “they saw you taking pictures of our compound”. “This is forbidden, and you should have known that!” he added. I waited until he finished and requested to be allowed to explain what had happened.

I told him that we were a team from the United Nations, but this failed to make an impression. I then explained our mission in great detail, informing him of the risk of the cattle disease we were searching for and, suddenly, his expression softened when I said that I was a veterinarian. Clearly, he was a pastoralist as well as a Commander!

He became more interested and asked a few questions on the disease and its impact on cattle and then he spoke to his people for a while. Afterwards he told us that we could go and that we were welcome to come back to continue with the work. My camera was returned to me, we shook hands, and we were out of there much faster than when we came in!

Once in the safety of the car and when we were all more relaxed, my technician/interpreter said “do you know who this man was?” As I did not know, he went on “he was William Nyuon, the SPLA Field Commander, only second to John Garang! Although I did not know his biographical information at the time, I was aware that I had been in a tight spot and that I was lucky to had got off so lightly.

William Nyuon. Credit: Taken from https://paanluelwel.com/2014/10/31/thankful-to-cdr-william-nyuoon-bany-a-eulogy/ (No credit for the picture given).

Years later I learnt that Itang was the site of the founding of the SPLA in 1983 by Garang, a graduate in economics from the University of Iowa. Other founders of the SPLA were Salva Kiir Mayardit, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol and William Nyuon. The regime of Mengistu allowed the SPLA the management of refugee camps and gave them logistical support. In fact, it is believed that without the support of Mengistu and supplies for refugees, the SPLA could not have maintained the war with northern Sudan.

The refugee camps in Ethiopia stopped functioning as SPLA camps in 1991 after the fall of Mengistu and William Nyuon, the commander of the SPLA in the field continued to fight against the Government of Sudan and was finally killed in 1996 -ironically- by the army of South Sudan Independence, a dissident branch of the SPLA.

After our return to Gambela, the following day we drove back to Bedele without any further problems and our conversation throughout the journey focused on the incident at Itang although the throbbing in my leg reminded me of the kindness of the herdboy.

Regarding the blood samples, we found a small percentage of animals positive for T. parva but we did not find the vector neither during that trip, our first, nor in the ones that we did afterwards.

Unfortunately, the infection in my leg deteriorated in such a way that I need to spend a week in bed in Bedele undergoing antibiotic treatment until it finally healed.

[1] The war lasted seventeen years (1955 to 1972) and about half a million people perished. It demanded regional autonomy for the South that the British decolonization failed to implement. One of its consequences was the appearance of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Garang

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Nyuon_Bany

A dot in a map

As I have already mentioned the Didessa valley, between Bedele and Arjo, was one of our favourite exploring spots over the weekends. After a few visits, during one of our walks along one of the smaller tributaries of the Didessa river, the Legedema, we saw a kingfisher flying fast as usual along the semi-dry riverbed.

Curious, we followed it and watched it for a few seconds before it flew away to an area where we could not find it. We thought it to be one of the tree species belonging to the Halcyon genus, probably the Woodland kingfisher (H. senegalensis). However, we believed that we caught a shade of blue on its breast and we kept our options open for it to be a Blue-breasted kingfisher (H. malimbica). We had watched both species while in Kenya, so we had some idea about kingfishers.

Once at home in Bedele, as usual, we checked the birds we had seen with the Checklist of the birds of Ethiopia [1]. We noted that, although the Woodland kingfisher was included, the Blue-breasted was absent. So, things started to look interesting and the situation required follow-up and we decided to go back at the next opportunity to have another look.

Although work postponed the visit, we eventually made it and looked for the bird, now alert to detect the salient features of the different species. We found it but it was not easy to approach because of the terrain. Despite this, after watching it for a while, we both agreed that we were looking at the unlisted, Blue-breasted kingfisher, its bright blue breast unmistakable.

Aware of the importance of a new species for the country, the next time we were in Addis, I contacted the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) to inform them of our find and to confirm that there was no other record of the bird that we did not know. They did not know of any other observation and they suggested that I should bring the bird to be examined, something I explained I would not do! I realized that I needed to break through their scepticism, and we returned to Bedele determined to get pictures that would prove our “discovery” without the need of collecting the bird.

At the next opportunity, we travelled to the Legedema river area and we spent hours following the bird from one end to the other of the riverbed, often crawling through sand, rocks, water and vegetation, only to find that it was either too far for my zoom lens or watching it taking off to the other end of the river before being able to take its picture. Then it was back to crawling towards the place it had flown to!

After a couple of days of walking/crawling along the river, under the amused watch of Mabel, I managed to take a few pictures that I thought could be decent enough to prove the identity of the bird and eventually convince the EWNHS that the bird was what I said.

A few “mates” to regain energy during the tough bird chase!

Although I had taken pictures the films still needed to be developed as in 1989 there were no electronic cameras. Because of the kind of film I used, the rolls needed to go outside Ethiopia to get developed and printed so I was not yet sure of the fruits of my work!

In comes our good friend Ranjini (from our Kenya days) that kindly agreed to receive the film in the UK, get it developed and choose what she considered as the best shots to get them enlarged to show the bird as clearly as possible.

A few weeks passed until we got a large envelope that contained the print negatives and a few enlargements that, although very bad from a photographer’s viewpoint, showed beyond doubt that the bird had indeed enough blue in its breast to qualify for a kingfisher of the Blue-breasted kind, a new record for Ethiopia!

I immediately sent the pictures to the EWNHS and they accepted the find. They also invited us to one of their meetings to present our finding. The latter was well attended by an interested crowd and they gave me a nice green tie with the EWNHS logo to recognize the find!

We wrote a Short Communication that was accepted for publication by Scopus in September 1989, a couple of months before leaving Ethiopia. It was published in May 1990 [2]. In it we explained the circumstances of our find and gave details of its approximate location, speculating that it could be also present in the Didessa river itself and/or its tributaries.

Our move to Zambia towards the end of 1989 took all our efforts and we soon forgot the kingfisher to focus on more important issues related to our new posting and the arrival of our children that left very little time for birdwatching or even thinking about it! Then, in October 1991 we received a letter from the late John S. Ash [3] that referred to our publication. I quote:

“…After living in Ethiopia for 8 1/2 years … It was … extremely interested to see your very interesting observations of Blue-breasted Kingfishers. I have to admit that at first I was sceptical but on looking into it further was able to convince myself that I had also come across the species not far from your locality, and then re-found an even older Italian record [4] which I had relegated to an “improbable” file many years ago.”

“… In commiserating with you on your loss of an addition to the Ethiopian list I congratulate you on rediscovering it and being instrumental in putting it on the map… I enclose a draft of a note I have prepared for Scopus and shall be most grateful for any comments you have on it…”

So it was that our belief of having “discovered” a new bird species for Ethiopia was dashed and it became a “re-discovery” of a bird that had been seen first in 1959 and subsequently misidentified as the Woodland kingfisher by Mr. Ash.

However, in the light of our finding, in his paper [5] Mr. Ash revised his earlier observations and, luckily, he was able to contact Professor C.H. Fry that accepted our record for inclusion in a monograph of the kingfishers where a small green dot in Ethiopia is all we achieved after all our efforts! [6]

A dot in the map! The Blue-breasted kingfisher in Ethiopia. Credit: Print screen from BirdLife.org (Accessed on 6 January 2021). http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/blue-breasted-kingfisher-halcyon-malimbica?gclid=Cj0KCQiA3NX_BRDQARIsALA3fIJHYxNCgl8BCtJoFkA4Z6wvIrYQS6M4Vhm_2CNWE_gSzcX48yh8stoaAvHFEALw_wcB

[1] Urban K. and Brown, L.H. (1971). A Checklist of the Birds of Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie I University Press. pp. 143.

[2] de Castro, J.J. and de Castro, M. (1990). The Blue-breasted Kingfisher (Alcyon malimbica) in South-West Ethiopia. Scopus 14: 22.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ash_(ornithologist) and https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/feb/09/john-ash-obituary

[4] Toschi, A. (1959). Contributo alla Ornitofauna d’Etiopia. Ricerche di Zoologia Applicata alla Caccia 2: 301-412.

[5] Ash, J.S. (1992). An apparently isolated population of blue-breasted kingfishers Halcyon malimbica in Ethiopia. Scopus 16: 14-17.

[6] Fry, C. H.; Fry, K.; Harris, A. (1992). Kingfishers Bee-Eaters and Rollers. Editorial: Russel Friedman Books CC, Halfway House, South Africa Editors.

Nuer’s oxytocin

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, the Nuer people are strongly linked to cattle in complex ways that are not always understandable to us. What I will describe here is part of this people-cattle interaction that ensures the survival of both in rather harsh conditions.

As with most cattle belonging to African pastoralists, they are of a placid nature and used to constant handling from an early age and milk is probably the most important commodity they produce although sales of oxen are also practiced by the Nuer.

As it is common practice the world over, Nuer cattle are milked after the milk let-down have been stimulated by allowing the calf to suckle briefly and then withdrawn. This action stimulates nerve receptors in the cow teats which induce oxytocin release within a few minutes. This compound, a, hormone causes the cells around the milk-producing alveoli to contract and squeeze out the milk, pushing it down the ducts towards the teat as well as dilating the milk ducts making it easier for the milk to flow down them.

On a visit to a Nuer cattle kraal we came across a very unusual sight, even for a veterinarian that had worked with cattle most of the time. A Nuer woman was blowing strongly, rhythmically and repeatedly into the vagina of a cow for about five minutes, taking rests in between as the effort needed was evidently great.

After the operation, she proceeded to milk the animal, obtaining about one litre of milk. After a while, the process was repeated an more milk obtained.

Enquiries about the practice revealed that the cow had aborted recently but that it was also performed on those cows which have lost their calves or are giving poor milk yields. I took pictures to document the practice and these are presented in a slideshow at the bottom as they are strong pictures that show the operation in great detail.

Later, at the laboratory I checked the literature for this phenomenon and did not find any records of it among the books I had at my disposal. However, I learnt that stretching of the cervix induces oxytocin secretion, increasing uterine motility and probably it also induces milk let-down, probably explaining how the curious practice works.

Years later, in 2010, checking through old papers and pictures I found the notes and prints of the oxytocin observation in Gambela and looked for it on the internet. I found several interesting references to the practice, including one by Wilfred Thesiger during his travels through Sudan [1] and several references to the practice of “cow blowing” in Wikipedia [2] where I learnt that it was quite an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world and that Gandhi stopped drinking cow milk after he came to know about the process known as “phooka” or “doom dev” in India that he considered cruel.

It was the comprehensive work of LeQuellec [3] on the evidence of the practice in ancient cultures that called my attention and prompted me to get in touch with him to discuss my observation. He was interested and encouraged me to publish the observations and so I did [4].

Although the physiological aspects of the practice can be explained, it still leaves unclear in my mind how early “milkers” linked the insufflations with milk let down and started to use it to their advantage. Is it that they have seen milk dripping at calving time? Or is it that they believed the udder to be the end of a continuous system which starts in the vagina and blowing through it will expel the milk? I still do not know.

[1] Thesiger, W. (1983). Arabian Sands. Collins. p.48.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cow_blowing

[3] Le Quellec, Jean-Loic (2011). Provoking lactation by the insufflation technique as documented by the rock images of the Sahara. Anthropozoologica 46, 65-125. See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232693395_Provoking_lactation_by_the_insufflation_technique_as_documented_by_the_rock_images_of_the_Sahara

[4] de Castro, J. J. (2011). Nuer’s oxytocin. Cahiers de l’AARS — N° 15, 27-28.

Gold rush

I am not very sure of how we got the idea of travelling to Yubdo to get some gold. The fact is that we decided that it was a good idea and my colleagues recommended it as “the place” to get “cheap” gold in Ethiopia.

Abera (not his real name), one of the workers at the laboratory, was somehow volunteered as he had worked at Dembi Dolo prior to coming to Bedele and he knew the area well. So it was that we took one day off, and we left for Yubdo.

A rather dry waterhole on the way to Nekempte

We took the road to Arjo town that we knew well up to there and then proceeded to Nekempte to spend the night before continuing to Yubdo the following day. It was a dirt road and the 108km took a while to drive and we got there in the afternoon. We were delayed as we stopped to watch a religious ceremony that was taking place near the road. It was rather colourful and we were welcome and also allowed to take pictures.

All I recall from Nekempte was that we stayed at one of the Ethiopia hotels and that the room walls were so thin that we could hear the conversations of several rooms around us!

The next morning, after a non-eventful journey, we got to Yubdo and went to the main hotel (another Government Ethiopia Hotel!) to see if they would have accommodation for us while Abera went for a walk to get an idea of gold prices as well as getting in touch with the contacts he knew from his time at Nekempte.

Yubdo has been the centre of gold and platinum mining in Ethiopia and when the Italians invaded the country, these metals were extracted commercially as the Italians recognized the potential of mining there. We were not aware of the history of the place until much later.

While we were finishing our hotel check-in, Abera returned and we discussed our next move. “We now go to a certain coffee shop where we will meet the seller and we look at the gold” he said. When I asked when, he replied that he had set up an appointment for 16 hs, about half an hour later.

We drove to the shop and followed Abera inside. It was crowded and rather dark. We sat at one of the small tables and ordered a cup of coffee and waited. After a few minutes, someone came and sat with us, after greeting Abera warmly. A conversation in Amharic followed and a small newspaper parcel was produced that contained a pinch of unimpressive yellow powder. We were told that were looking at gold!

Negotiations followed and, eventually, we reached a price that I have now forgotten but that was not the cheap bargain I expected! When I made moves to pay, the man stopped me and Abera explained that we needed to go outside the town and meet “privately”. It was then that I realized that what we were doing was not a normal transaction but something that looked a rather dodgy affair.

When I expressed my doubts about the issue, Abera reassured me that this was the way you dealt with these issues in Ethiopia and that there was no problem. I knew him as a responsible man so I decided to go ahead and drive to the spot of our rendezvous with the seller and parked the car just outside the town and we saw him coming towards us crossing the fields between us and the town.

As soon as we could, we exchanged money for gold and departed to avoid any problems as I was feeling slightly concerned, something that Abera found funny and enjoyed! I thne realized with some concern that we now had some powder that was still a distance away from a gold nugget or farther still from a gold ring, the purpose of the purchase!

“Abera” I said, “what do we do now, we need to smelt the gold”. “Yes”, he replied, ‘we now drive to a certain Woreda [1] that specializes in smelting gold”. My amazement (and concern) grew as we started driving there. The place was not too far, we entered and parked near some huts and Abera and the yellow powder went to have a talk with the Head of the place while we waited.

Getting to the Woreda. Note the yellow Meskel flowers in the foreground.

A few minutes later Abera came back and told us that we could go with him as this was the right place to do the smelting. We followed him and met the blacksmith, an old man that seemed very happy to see us and who directed us to a fireplace that looked as it had been used for many years, black walls, black floor and smoke coming out of a kind of open oven.

The man poured charcoal on the smoking embers and started to pump the bellows that were made with the hindquarters of a goat. Very soon the right temperature was apparently reached so the gold was placed in a small crucible and the blacksmith continued to pump while we waited, eager to see the results.

The smelting going on. The yellowish artefact on the left, near the man’s hand is the bellow and the gold was where the fire was. At the bottom left are a few other crucibles and near the kettle the green leaves can also be seen.
A look at our gold being smelted.

A few minutes later the man removed the crucible and cooled the melted metal down and showed it to us. There were two nuggets, a golden one and a much smaller silver one.The blacksmith announced that we needed to boil the gold nugget with some herbs for it to acquire the right colour, so he placed it in a small saucepan and added boiling water from his kettle and some green leaves. The gold was boiled in this kind of tea for about ten minutes.

While our nugget boiled, I remembered the tiny silver nugget and, through Abera, I asked what happened with it. I learnt that it was the platinum and that was the pay for the blacksmith’s work. I did not argue and focussed again on my nugget that was now outside the water and looking beautiful, but I thought rather small for its cost. I weighed 16 grams.

Without further ado, the blacksmith started hammering the nugget until he got a wire of about 25 cm long. He hammered both ends over a file to give it a reticulated finish. He then asked my wife to produce her ring finger and compared with a rounded stick he produced from among his tools. He decided on the size of the finger and twisted the wire four times until a simple but rather nice ring was born, made of pure gold, quite soft!

Rather relieved that we had our gold ring we left the Woreda and eventually departed back to Bedele truly pleased with the result. My wife kept it on from that day and did not remove it until the gold got so thin that it broke! She was clearly shedding Au molecules from that they on until the breakage occurred and, of course, it was no longer 16 grammes.

Mabel is now keeping it for our son’s wedding rings (if he ever needs them!).

A bad picture of a silver copy (of three twists) of the
original gold ring that had four.

Later, she had several admirers of the ring among jewellers she visited in Italy and some wished to buy it at all cost but she resisted selling it despite my strong encouragement to recover the investment!

[1] Woreda are the Districts in Ethiopia. They are composed of several Kebele or neighbourhood associations. Several Woreda make a Zone and several Zones a Region or State such as Oromia.

Sightseeing from Addis

As I mentioned in earlier posts, to travel in Ethiopia at the time we were there was very difficult. To the long distances to be travelled, the war situation demanded the “infamous” travel permits that were not easy to obtain. It was for these reasons that our plans to visit Axum and Lalibela as well as the Omo valley were not viable.

We did manage some travel although more restricted and this is what I will describe in this post. I present you with brief descriptions of the various trips we did.

Around Addis

Apart from exploring the city itself, we visited a few churches such as the Entoto Maryam and the Kiddus Raguel, two of the best known.

We found the Entoto Mariam (Mary’s) church in the northern part of Addis, in one of the highest hills around the city. The area was still well forested and densely populated and we could see lots of people walking about as well as the ubiquitous pack donkeys moving teff straw to feed their domestic animals.

Entoto Mariam (Mary’s) church.

The church was built in 1877 by Emperor Menelik II. His wife (Empress Taitu) is buried there and the tomb is known as “Shera Bet”. Eucaliptus trees are quite common in the highlands of Ethiopia and it was near this church that the first one was planted!

There is a museum right next to the church where some of the personal belongings of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu are displayed for visitors to see. Some of the historical items include traditional clothes, crowns of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu, their royal bed, different jewels owned by the royal family, and a mirror presented as a gift from Queen Victoria to Empress Taitu.

We visited the octagonal church on a Sunday but refrained from entering it or visiting the spring that produces “holy water” nearby where sick people go to get cured with the assistance of the church’s priests for respect to the believers present there. Unfortunately, the museum was closed. We walked about the church grounds and caught sight of the remains of Menelik’s palace that looked rather unimpressive!

Although we inspected the various eucalyptus trees present around the church none, in our judgement, could have been the first one. This tree was brought directly from Australia and planted there. Another interesting item we missed!

After enjoying the view of the city below we continued our tour and went to another church, the Kiddus Raguel, also well known and it too found on the Entoto Hills about 2.5 km away. This church is the oldest church in Addis, also built by Emperor Menelik II, who also founded Addis Ababa, about 140 years ago. This church, unlike the octagonal style of the previous one, is hexagonal, the same as many other Orthodox churches found in Ethiopia.

Kiddus Raguel church.

We were able to enter the building as, by the time we got there, mass had ended. There, the inner part of the church,where mass is celebrated was secluded by curtains and a few panels decorated with well preserved hand paintings that were centuries old.

The Nile Gorge

The Abbay River originates in Lake Tana, about 500 km and a ten hour drive (today) to the northwest of Addis. The river runs through Ethiopia and it becomes known as the Blue Nile when it enters Sudan on its way to join the White Nile -coming from Lake Victoria- north from Khartoum area. These two are the major contributors to the Nile River that ends in the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt and, interestingly, both originates in lakes.

The road to Lake Tana and the Blue and White Niles. Map of Nile gorge: Credit Nicolás Pérez, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned earlier, travel restrictions did not allow us to visit Bahir Dar, the city located at the southern tip of Lake Tana but, as a consolation, we could see the Nile river at an area known as the Nile Gorge.To get there we took the road to Bahar Dar road and drove for over two hundred kilometres through the highlands (over the Entoto mountain range). At about two hundred kilometres the scenery opens up and you have a most magnificent view of the river that, shining blue, runs about one thousand metres below!

The Nile Gorge.
The winding road down the Blue Nile gorge.

Over millions of years the river has carved this deep and wide valley through the mountains that many people compare (as usual!) with America’s Grand Canyon. Although I have not been in the latter, what we saw was a truly vast canyon that run for as long as the eye could see and through which, for the first time in our lives we could spot the amazing bearded vultures, also known as lammergeiers (Gypaetus barbatus).

A bearded vulture or lammergeier. Credit: Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.
A great close-up of a bearded vulture. Credit: No machine-readable author provided. Else assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

We watched the birds for a long while as they caught the thermals to climb high above us as we had seen vultures do very often. However, the gorge also allowed us to see them glide below us while they gained altitude and then climbed quite close to us on their way to great hights. A truly magnificent sight.

Spotting the lammergeiers was almost as amazing as spotting a stretch of road ahead of us that luckily we did not take! It was a true road to nowhere, part of an attempt at climbing the mountains gone wrong that ended abruptlly, allowing you to take the jump to the bottom of the gorge! I am not sure what happened there but I took a picture to prove it.

The road to nowhere!

The Ethiopian Rift valley

The trip from Addis to Shashamane through the lakes.

From Addis to Debre Zeit (Bishoftu in Oromo) was 47 km following the A1 road. It was a very popular recreation for day trips or weekend escapades from Addis at it offered warmer climate by being lower (1900 m). It was surrounded by several small lakes of volcanic origin such as Bishoftu, Babogaya, Hora, Magarsa and Kuriftu where some hotels offered decent accommodation. The Veterinary Research Laboratory was located there as well as a field station belonging to the then International Livestock Centre for Africa. The latter sited at lake Babogaya, green and volcanic.

Debre Zeit still had trees -a rare sight in Addis- as well as many interesting water birds and from there we could continue driving south and then take the A7 that took us to a number of interesting larger lakes located in the Rift valley. As you drove you would first come to the 180 km2 Koka reservoir (also known as lake Gelila) that was in fact product of a dam built on the Awash river. From then on, a string of lakes that reminded us of those in Kenya, followed.

The freshwater lake Zway or Lake Ziway (Oromo: Lake Dambal) came first at just over 100 km south of Debre Zeit. The lake is fed primarily by the rivers Meki and Katar, and is drained by the Bulbar river which, in turn, enters lake Abijata further south. It is believed that the Ark of the Covenant was housed at a monastery on its shores during the 9th. century. Although we did not find the monastery, we had a good time watching birds such as pelicans and the numerous hippos that inhabited the lake. It has an estimated area of 440 km2 and 30 km long (three times lake Naivasha in Kenya).

Further south there were lakes on both sides of the road: Langano on the left and Abijata and Shala on the right. The latter was alkaline and covered 205 km2 and a maximum depth of 14 m. Like Magadi in Kenya it hosted a soda ash operation in its shores (the same as in Shala and Chitu lakes nearby). We saw lots of flamingoes there but nothing in the level of Nakuru or Bogoria further south, in Kenya.

A satellite view of lakes Langano (pale brown on the right), Abijata (green) and Shala (blue). Credit of NASA / Public domain.

Lake Langano, located to the east of Lake Abijata at an elevation of 1,585 m is of similar size but filled with fresh water to a maximum depth of 46 m that it catches from a basing as large as 1600 km2. It is drained by the Hora Kallo river which empties into Lake Abijatta. Lake Langano is the only freshwater lake in Ethiopia free from Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) and therefore a popular venue with tourists and city-dwellers that ignore the possible crocodiles!

Although fresh, its water is not clean looking but rather brown because of the high mineral content that many believe gives its waters healing properties. As expected, there were a few resorts around the lake that had increased in number today and from where water sports were practiced. Some wildlife was present there including hippos -not seen often-, monkeys and warthogs and numerous water bird species.

On one occasion, while walking along the shore we saw that the waves broke through water full of flotsam. As we had not seen this in a lake before, we came close for a better look that revealed that, in fact, they were pumice stones, very much like the ones we buy in the chemist to rub our heels with! Of course we collected a few that we still keep. When writing this piece I learnt that pumice is created when very hot rock is violently ejected from a volcano under intense pression and the foamy structure of pumice takes place because of concurrent rapid cooling and loss of pressure. It is infact volcano solidified foam!

An unexpected find in the journey to the visit the Langano-Abijata-Shala lakes were the crocodiles. These were not seen basking at the shores of the lakes or swimming but crushed on the road while trying to move between lakes! It was a real road hazard as some of them were really large and occupied the whole width of the road!

Shala lake, with a surface area of 329 km2 is the deepest of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley lakes reaching 266 m. It is surrounded by sulphur hot springs boiling away and smelling like rotten eggs. The land around the lake is criss-crossed with cracks due to erosion and earthquakes. Pelican island in the south host a colony of the beautiful great white pelicans and other birds such as lesser and greater flamingoes.

More lakes are found further south and east of the Bale mountains. These are Awassa, Abaya and Chamo and, further south lakes Stefanie and the Jade sea, lake Turkana. We never reach these lakes but stopped at Shashamene Zuria, an interesting place as you will see.

Shashamane Zuria [1]

Driving towards the lakes we were quite surprised to find Rastafarian-looking people walking towards the South. Then we learnt that their goal was a place called Shashamane that, for some reason was the Mecca for these people. We decided to pay the town -located 22 km from the southern tip of lake Shala- a visit.

We did not find the town anything special, apart from the community of Rastafarians that resided there as it was regarded as a “patch of Jamaica” in Ethiopia. It was more an issue of learning its history.

In the 1950s the then Emperor Haile Selassie I donated about 200 hectares to African Americans who were victims of racism and injustice after being exiled and forced into slavery in the USA. Jamaicans learnt about this and they a started coming so the Rasta movement started. The name Rastafarian derives from “Ras Tafari Makonnen”, the title of Haile Selassie I before he became Emperor and the latter still plays a major role in the Rasta culture [2]. The red, green and yellow colours of the movement are those of the Ethiopian flag.

Gladstone Robinson was the first Rastafarian to settle in Shashamane in 1964 and when we were there, there were a few hundreds residing there although their land had been reduced to just over 10 hectares by the Mengistu’s regime. It was an interesting visit that increased our knowledge of the Rastafarian movement.

Awash National Park

An eye catching sign on the way to the Awash National Park.

A couple of times we headed towards the East of Addis in search of the Awash National Park, located in the southern part of the Afar region of Ethiopia. At 225 km from Addis the park was quite easy to reach and enabled us to visit it over the weekends.

Entering the Awash National PArk.

Much further North is the Danakil depression, famous for being 100 m below sea level, one of the lowest and hottest places on earth. The Danakil area was explored by Wilfred Thesiger that wrote some very interesting books about his esploits there [3]. Unfortunately, this interesting area was out of reach at the time so we could not visit it and remains one of the places I would love to see.

Sketch of the Awash National Park (as I recall it).

The park, set up in 1966, is at the southern tip of the Afar Region and it has an area of about 800 km2 and an average altitude of 900 m. The south boundary of the park is formed by the Awash river which swings North soon after leaving the park and eventually disappears into the Afar (Danakil) region. In the middle of the park is the dormant Fantale, a dormant volcano reaching a height of 2007 m at its top.

It had large areas of Acacia woodlands with patches of grassland. The Addis to Harar road divided the park and separated the Illala Saha Plains to the south from the Kudu Valley to the north. In the south of the park the Awash River gorge had amazing waterfalls that, together with the Awash River gorge are the dominant features of this part of the park.

We stayed in bungalows located near the park headquarters but I fail to remember the name. The place offered a most magnificent view from the park headquarters. We thoroughly enjoyed watching while on the other side of the gorge cattle people were going about their business, going out of the kraals in the morning with the bells of their cattle sounding loudly and returning in the evening to spend the night under the protection of the thorn enclosures. Again, a sight that brought me back to my time with the Maasai in the Transmara.

The spectacular gorge of the Awash River as seen it from the park headquarters.
An enlarged view of the gorge to show a settlement and a cattle kraal from where the animals will go in and out on a daily basis.

There were not many roads at the park, but we managed to go for game drives during which we spotted a few animals such as East African oryx, Soemmerring’s gazelle, Salt’s Dik-dik, Lesser and Greater Kudus, Warthogs and Olive Baboons. We also saw interesting birds that included the North African ostrich and the Abyssinian ground hornbill and Abyssinian roller to name some of the rarer ones.

Of great interest were the Hamadryas Baboons (Papio hamadryas) [4] that are rather unique and present in large groups. These baboons are native to the Horn of Africa and the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula. The most striking feature of these baboons was the silver and white mantle that the males had while the females do not have it and they are brown all over.

During the drives we caught sight of the nice waterfalls and in one of our visits the river was running fast and this added a touch of drama to the sight. We spotted a few crocodiles but we needed to work hard for them and the same happened with the hippos that were there but more often heard than seen.

We also visited the northern part of the park that consisted of a 30 km drive from the main road to reach the Filwoha area and its well-known Hot Springs. This is Afar country and during the drive we saw a number of herdsmen with their beautifully looking cattle.

On arrival we met the Afar (also known as Danakil) people that resided in the area and that offered their services to guide us to the springs that we declined. They were truly fierce looking, a fact that concurs with their warrior reputation. As usual, for respect (and fear this time!) I refrain from taking pictures of them.

An Afar (Danakil) warrior. Credit: Élisée Reclus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The springs looked beautiful and refreshing in the severe heat. Their water was of an amazing turquoise and they were framed by doum palms. I must say that they were very inviting but they were not as refreshing as we thought. They were very hot, particularly one known as the “Emperor pool” in which it was almost impossible to keep your hand inside it for more than a few seconds! If it was used by an Emperor, it must have been a tough one!

[1] There is a movie called “Shashamane” produced in 2016 for those interested in following up the subject.

[2] The term “Ras” means a duke or prince in the Ethiopian Semitic languages; “Tafari Makonnen” was his personal name.

[3] Thesiger, Wilfred (1998). The Danakil Diary. Journey through Abyssinia 1930-34. Flamingo publishers. 240p.

[4] For more on this species see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamadryas_baboon

Gambela fireworks

Another time in Gambela for work, after a successful day working successfully on our tick-infested cattle without getting stuck in the mud! When returning to the hotel after the work, we passed in front of the compound where the personnel from the Soviet Union [1] were housed. The place looked like a fortress and its gates were usually closed. That afternoon, however, the gates were open and we had a chance to see that there was, for a change, some movement but we did not stop to ask!

After my usual afternoon walk among the Nuer kraals nearby (a hung-up from my time with the Maasai), I went back to the hotel for a well deserved shower. As usual, tired, we decided to have an early dinner as we were departing early the following morning.

One of my walks among the Nuer cattle in the neighbourhood of our hotel. note that each animal is tied to its peg, ready to spend the night.

Regarding our muddy showers, we soon learnt how to handle them. The trick was to have plastic water bottles with holes punched at the bottom that we would hang from the shower head and, in this way, rinse ourselves from any remaining mud (sometimes we needed two though!). Apart from that, the rooms were comfortable and well-kept and the food adequate, all considering the circumstances.

Gambela hotel.

That evening as usual there were four or five dining customers and there was the habitual choice of either a piece of chicken or a beef cutlet, both with chips. We felt that our teeth were up to the challenge that particular night and asked for the latter that, as expected it took a while coming. That night, the importance of this issue was soon forgotten.

Suddenly we heard a few loud explosions nearby that shook the windows of the dining room to a point that I was convinced that they would shatter. “We are under attack!” I immediately told Mabel and we moved under the table, in case we were hit! Of course, we were not the only ones that did this and soon, all dinners were looking at each other in wonder through a forest of table and chair legs!

Although the heavy explosions did not happen again, there was intense shooting noises from what seemed to be heavy guns as well as the pop-pop-pop of the ubiquitous AK47s. In the middle of the confusion, we saw a pair of fast-moving legs going through the entrance door and that, after a few minutes, came back to announce something in Amharic that made people return to their food!

We imitated them while trying to find out what was happening. A waiter came and kindly explained to us that we were not under attack (relief!) but rather we were hearing a celebration by South Sudanese people stationed nearby. When asked about the reason, he replied that the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had captured an important city (Kurmuk?) and the news had just arrived. Now we understood the movement we had seen earlier at the Soviet compound!

Knowing that we were not the target of the shooting we hurriedly finished our, by now cold food, and withdrew to the safety our room! While walking in the open we could see the green lines that the tracing bullets were drawing in the dark sky. As they seemed that they were being shot from places nearby, I decided to get my torch and go for a walk to investigate from a safe distance.

Perhaps one hundred metres from the hotel I found the first group of excited revellers (some probably drunk already). Lots of dancing was going on around a battery shooting in the air. Not being a weapons expert, I recall the battery I saw being a twin-barrelled gun that a recent search indicated that it could have been a ZU23 anti-aircraft gun. Satisfied my curiosity and after confirming that the atmosphere was one of celebration, I returned to the hotel.

Celebrations went on for a long time and I was wondering the amount of ammo that was being wasted and I fell sleep, while thinking how crazy the situation we had been through was as well as the futility of wars.

[1] Nick-named the “Popovs” mimicking the sound of the AK47s’ shooting!

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…

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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