Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

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!

Gambela

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!