Safari

Accounts on trips done, safari preparations, sand driving, mud driving, tips and travel-related issues.

Suicide season

The Rufous-bellied thrush (Turdus rufiventris) is a songbird that occurs in most of eastern and southeast Brazil (where it is the national bird), Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and central and northern Argentina. While in Uruguay they are known as “zorzales”, here in Salta they are called “Zorzales chalchaleros” or just “Chalchaleros”. While the English name for the species describes its distinctive reddish-orange underparts, the vernacular name in Salta reflects its preference for feeding on the fruits of a tree known as Chal-chal.

The Rufous-bellied thrush -very similar to the African Olive thrush (Turdus olivaceus)- occurs in different habitats (forests and urban treed areas) and it is common around rural houses where its song is one of the pleasures of rural living. An omnivorous bird that prefers arthropods and fruit it can eat broken maize during our dry winter season when food becomes scarce. As I mentioned earlier, one of its favourite fruits are produced by the Chal-chal (Allophylus edulis)[1].

We do have Chal-chal trees in the farm but not close to the house. However, about ten years back we planted a row of Hawthorn bushes (Crataegus spp.) to act as a wind-breaker against the predominant eastern winds that often blow in this latitude. This resulted in a rather unexpected high wall of trees that not only help to stop the wind but also yield what I estimate to be several hundred kilogrammes of red berries, towards the end of the summer months.

This plethora of fruits attracts a number of birds that include the large Dusky-legged guans (Penelope obscura), Chachalacas (Ortalis canicollis), Toco toucans (Ramphastos toco), Blue-and-yellow tanager (Rauenia bonariensis) and Sayaca tanager (Thraupis sayaca). Although the latter are rather spectacular, the most common birds that come to feed on the hawthorn are the Rufous-bellied thrushes. We probably have a few dozens of them constantly moving to and from the red berries.

Year after year, the resulting thrush heavy and uncontrolled air traffic causes casualties announced by loud bangs coming from our only large east-facing window in the house (that also faces the row of hawthorn trees about twenty metres away). Usually, about two or three thrushes (no other species do this) either die or get stunned after heating the glass. So far we have accepted this as an unavoidable consequence of the increased number of birds brought about by the abundance of food.

The offending window showing the reflection of the surrounding garden.
A stunned thrush after crashing.
Sometimes the thrushes came at such speed that they broke through the mosquito screen as shown here by the Bolivian guiro (a musical instrument).

This year, however, the suicides (birdicides?) reached alarming levels and yesterday we had four hits (three dead and one recovered), a rather alarming number! Although the first bird that hit during early morning recovered, a second one crashed about an hour later so we decided to do something about it.

I remembered having read somewhere that if you drew lines on the glass with a highlight pen, somehow the birds eyesight would see them from far and avoid the window. I drew the lines and, satisfied with my job I called Mabel to see it. The moment we were close to the window a bird nearly hit Mabel’s head and the loud thud indicated another fatal outcome! The fluorescent lines did not work so, do not try this at home!

So, “encouraged” by Mabel I placed a rather obstrusive zig-zag of flourescent yellow tape that occupied the top of the glass, at the area the sky was reflected. We decided that it was better to interfere with our view rather than nhaving more casualties!

The yellow tapes in place.

So, proud with my work but now tired, I went for my obligatory siesta (a pleasure of these regions!) to recharge my batteries.

When one hour later I woke up, Mabel was very upset as a fourth bird had killed itself!

In desperation and after some more thinking, we remembered that we had bought some bird netting to protect our fruits. We placed the netting in front of the window in a way that resisted me throwing the Bolivian guiro that was the closest to a thrush I could find for a test!

The Bolivian guiro itself.

Below I show you the netting and a video showing how we expect it to work.

A lateral view of the netting.

We believe that the deaths will stop now but our discussion has turned now to resove the reason that compels the birds to do this.

A couple of years back we thought that the birds could see a mirror that we have in front of the window and tried to fly through. As the birds continued hitting the glass when we covered the mirror, this idea was abandoned.

However, we are convinced that the birds see the reflection of the sky in the window and try to fly through.

The presence of predators, in particular the Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) make us also believe that it could chase the thrushes and the latter, trying to escape, bump themselves against the window. In favour of this hypothesis is that we have seen the hawk catching thrushes and other smaller birds around us. However, it is unlikely that the hawk would try to kill four birds the same day when one would be sufficient for a few days.

That leaves us with the last hypothesis that had been put forward by Mabel: the ripe fruits of the hawthorn ferment in their crops and their small livers are not able to process the resulting alcohol with the result that they get drunk! The fact that the berries are ripe now and likely to ferment faster, supports this hypothesis. In addition, after “googling” the idea, I found that at least one similar event involving the hawthorn and Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorumhas) happened in the USA [2] and other instances of drunk birds also exist [3][4].

[1] I did not find an English name for this species.

[2] S. D. Fitzgerald, J. M. Sullivan and R. J. Everson (1990). Suspected Ethanol Toxicosis in Two Wild Cedar Waxwings. Avian Diseases 34, pp. 488-490.

[3 See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/10/04/drunk-birds-are-causing-havoc-in-a-minnesota-town-police-say-theyll-sober-up-soon/?noredirect=on or https://time.com/5415378/drunk-birds-minnesota/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071081/

Turmoil

Following the recommendation of her doctor, Mabel traveled abroad to get checked on her pregnancy. As the work was rather pressing, I did not go with her but remained in Lusaka, still moving daily to and from Chilanga.

One day, while returning from Chilanga with a colleague from Tanzania called John, a few kilometres before getting to the Kafue roundabout (the entrance to Lusaka city at that time), we started seeing a few cars doing U-turns in total disregard of the traffic. I was still surprised when we also noted a lot of cars with their windscreens smashed and waving their arms at us, and the cars before and after us, to stop and turn back. Then we heard explosions. It took us a few seconds to realize that there were gunshots! Something very odd was happening but we could not know what!

Without a second of hesitation, I turned the pick-up around and started to retreat back to where we were coming from. It was then that we saw a large of crowd of people blocking the road ahead of us and throwing stones at the cars that tried to break through. Clearly, we were trapped between rioters. The area we were in was quarried for stones and there were usually many piles of rocks while people waited to sell them. We knew that there was plenty of ammo to smash our car so, unable to move through the road, I engaged 4WD and headed for the bush, hoping to be able to avoid the trouble and rejoin the road further on. It was not to be so we decided to abandone the car somehow hidden, hoping that the rioters would ignore it, being stationary and unoccupied.

We hatched a plan B that was to walk through the bush, attempting to get to the house of Des, my mechanic that was a few kilometres away. However, we had not yet walked more than a dozen paces when we heard a voice that, through a megaphone, asked the rioters to stop. We saw a couple of pick-ups loaded with soldiers and a convoy that was forming behind them. Without thinking twice, we run back to our pick-up, did another turn to now face Lusaka again and joined the convoy. Clearly, the intention was to attempt reaching Lusaka and we were prepared to take the risk rather than to remain where we were.

Soon the convoy started to move towards the city while the megaphone continously asked the rioters to clear the road. Many did but others would continue to attempt to block the road while still throwing stones to them. Then the soldiers replied by shooting above their heads and a stampede of riotrs ensued and, in a few seconds, the way was cleared!

We had a window of opportunity and we took it without thinking. I drove fast with my adrenline flowing, trying not to lose contact with our “protectors” regardless of the serious rock piles that were placed to block the traffic. It was a bumpy ride, but I managed to keep up while John held on to any available handle inside the car to avoid being knocked about by my rough driving. Luckily, we avoided injuries and damage to the car.

Once we entered the city, the soldiers continued through the main road while we deviated towards the East as I took John to his house. The air was heavy with tear gas and helicopters were flying above our heads when I dropped John and finally headed for home.

I got to our house and when I stopped the car I could still hear shooting and a far off murmur that clearly indicated that people were still revolting, despite the Government attempting to control the situation. The minute or so that Lemek, our gardener, took to open the gate felt like an hour and, as soon as the gate was opened, I rushed in and parked the car. I stayed a while re-gaining some degree of calm after what we had gone through. I felt as exhausted as if I would have driven hundreds of kilometres! I then made sure that the front gate was securely locked and told our employees to stay inside as I was not sure of the extent of the revolt and how it would end!

I then went inside and phoned Mabel to tell her that I was well so for her not to worry as I was sure that the BBC would be reporting on the events already. I got in touch with the project personnel and told them not to move from their houses until further notice. Luckily, Bruno was in Lutale, far away from the problems.

I locked the house and switched on the SW radio tuned to the BBC as the local radio was of not much use and got the UN VHF radio to participate in any security checks that they may do as well as getting information on the situation in the different areas of the city. What I heard was quite worrying as it seemed that the riots were spreading and luting was rampant.

It was Monday the 26th. of June 1990. Earlier, President Kaunda had announced an increase of more than double in the price of maize meal, the staple food of the country. The people were answering to these measures.

The night was reasonably quiet although sporadic shooting was heard. The following day we heard shouting outside the house. It was our turn for the rioters to visit us, probably on their way to the nearby shops and the supermarkets. Quite a few stones were thrown towards the house, but the house was quite far from the road and nothing was broken. To my relief, the crowd continued moving along.

The riots intensified over the next three days. A curfew was imposed, and I stayed home. Luckily, we had sufficient food in the house to last me for a few days. To my relief, on the 28th., the UN VHF radio announced that calm had been restored and essential personnel could go back to work.

The central and some of the commercial areas of Lusaka were severely damaged and most shops showed signs of having suffered a total loss. An estimated twenty-four people died and about one hundred and fifty were injured, many by gunfire. It was the most severe crisis that President Kaunda had suffered during his twenty-six-year rule and his power was severely weakened. When he addressed the Nation later, he repeated his offer of holding a referendum on the introduction of multi-party rule that he had mentioned the previous May.

A charged calm was restored but another surprise laid in waiting. On Sunday 1 July Lieutenant Mwamba Luchembe of the Zambian Army staged a coup d’état attempt [1]. At 3 am the coup’s leader announced via the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation that the military had taken over the government and he cited riots of the previous week as reasons for his action.

The move only lasted about six hours. However, when people learnt that the military had overthrown Kaunda, hundreds of people demonstrated celebrating the event and, in the confusion that followed, there were rumours of some other military joining the coup.

At 9am, the Army loyal to Kaunda crashed his attempt and Luchembe was arrested although I do not recall that he was put on trial. The coup attempt added to the increasingly fragile situation of the President who, a week later, announced that a national referendum on whether to restore multi-party government would be held on 17 October 1990. We will go through these events later on.

[1] See: https://www.zambianobserver.com/mwamba-luchembe-and-his-failed-coup-of-1990-on-kenneth-kaunda/

Bad motoring start…

We settled down in our house and gradually started to discover Lusaka and its ways. Of course, walking in the city was not advised as there was a high risk of getting mugged. In view of the situation, a car was a must and we needed it fast. Renting a car was not common those days so we relied on “borrowing” a small project vehicle to do our necessary errands.

Northmead, a small shopping centre was quite close to our house and there we did most of our shopping at first. Although safe, we learnt to be very alert of our surroundings while parking at shopping malls as we heard a lot of stories about robbers lurking about. Soon, Mabel discovered other shopping options in both Woodlands and Kabulonga that we started to frequent as well.

At first, goods supply was erratic and poor. Although amusing in retrospect, it was not so when you faced it. A supermarket would have half of its shelves full of one make of toilet paper and the other half with rice while another one will be full of salt, toothpaste and cooking fat and so on. Sugar was impossible to get and people would drive to Mazabuka (Southern Province) to buy it in bulk from the sugar factory located there and then sell it at a high price in the open market or pass it on to friends.  

Because of the situation people were organized in groups whose members placed orders and took turns to do the shopping for the various items and then they would meet at a house and distributed the shopping. A cumbersome but effective system that also worked for meat and its sub-products such as ham and bacon that were obtained at a farm in Chilanga.

Fruits and vegetables were on offer at markets where people from different farms would be offering all sorts of produce, including milk and eggs that complemented the production from the small livestock kept in the houses. These markets were mostly operating on Saturdays and they were a great source of information about what was going on in the city.

So, although with more difficulties than usual, we managed to get by and, luckily, the situation started to get more normal after a few months of being in the country.

Clearly, a car was essential. After having a Land Cruiser in Ethiopia, we decided to go for a larger version: a long-wheel base hardtop, economic and resilient as well as roomy to carry our rubber dinghy, its engine and other needed items for our planned camping and fishing. A large car was a great decision as our family would start growing that same year and we planned to take our children with us at all times, regardless of their age.

Our new car on safari. Mabel and Florencia riding on the roofrack and Annie (our nanny) inside the car while Giuseppe looks on.

Buying a car in Zambia was not as simple as you may think. There was no internet and faxes were the new thing at the time, so you did not have the present-day advantage of buying online! At the time, although there were a few places that offered cars to be delivered fast, these were either of the wrong make or very expensive, so we did not pursue these options.

As in Ethiopia, we decided to place an order through the United Nations (UN) goods procurement agency. This process had advantages and disadvantages. Drawbacks included a three-month waiting time and the limited model choice together with the rather austere specifications of the UN vehicles [1]. This did not bother us but the low price that the UN was able to negotiate was too good to be ignored.

Zambia was still not trading with South Africa, so Durban was out of bounds. The same applied to Walvis Bay as negotiations for the independence of Namibia, that finally got its independence in March 1990, were not yet completed. Mozambique was still undergoing its civil war so both Maputo and Beira were not available! So, the car would arrive in Dar es Salaam, over 1,900 km North-east, a journey of about three days. Luckily, the system for such purchases was already in place as most vehicles imported into Lusaka (both official and private) would come through there.

After the three long months had passed, I got a fax announcing the date the car was due in Dar and from that time things started to move fast. I contacted the FAO Office where I was put in contact with Mr. Victor, the Senior driver, who would be in charge of bringing our car to Lusaka. He would fly to Dar with all the necessary documents, the needed cash and a hotel booking to be able to clear the car and drive it all the way back. Of course, I was to meet all expenses.

I took Victor to the airport and we agreed that he would let me know his arrival time in Lusaka so that I could meet him at home without stopping in Lusaka. This was an added precaution in view of the recent disappearance of a number of new vehicles from various international agencies.

The vehicles were somehow placed in containers and shipped by road to South Africa through what was some organized system that the Zambian authorities of the time could not (or wish not) stop. Interestingly, periodically, the South African police would recover some vehicles and the lists would be distributed among the various international agencies based in Lusaka, but I do not remember of any vehicle listed in them ever returned!

The day of the arrival of the car I stayed home to meet Victor, excited to be getting a new car. I heard the hooting at the entrance, and I was at the gate before Mr. Lemek (the gardener) could open it! It looked like a great car, so I followed it to the house parking area where I met a tired looking Victor and saw that the windscreen was cracked!

Trying to dissimulate my disappointment, I greeted him warmly but I could see that he was very worried and immediately started to apologize. I cut him short and told him that the journey had been very long, and he could not control where the loose stones present on the road would hit the car. Despite my remarks, he still looked very worried. It was then that I heard Mr. Victor saying “Sir, it also has a knock in the engine”. “What?”, I muttered, as if hit on the head with a hammer! He explained that he heard the noise from the first time that the engine started but he did not know what caused it. Again, aware that it was not his fault, I tried to minimize the problem while helping him to collect his belongings. I took Victor home and, honestly, my mind was racing on what to do next!

As soon as I came back, I started the car but I could not hear anything, so I tried to convince myself that it was not a serious issue. However, I phoned Toyota Zambia and they told me to bring it the following morning for them to inspect it. They also warned me that it would be difficult that they would accept liability for the problem as it had happened to a car that was not purchased through them. Additionally, they stated that the issue started in another country! A guarded reply that left me quite worried!

The following day I was at Toyota Zambia before it opened! Eventually I met Phillip (Phil), the Workshop Manager to who I explained my predicament. Luckily, he was a very reasonable man, so I started to feel better. He immediately brought the car to the workshop and tested the engine confirming that there was some abnormal engine noise. More checks made him suspicious of piston damage that would require opening the engine. My mood was somber again.

He must have seen my disappointment as he was quick to add that, after repairs the engine would still be as good as new adding that that engine was among the best engines Toyota ever made. He added that, before opening it, he would report the issue to his boss, the Toyota representative, and hoped that he would agree to do the work under the guarantee. However, Phil could not give me a positive answer until then.

I left the car at the workshop and waited for news while continuing with my project activities but still worried about the car. I waited for two days before Phil called and said that he had bad and good news. The latter was that the representative had agreed to cover all needed repairs under the guarantee. The bad news were that he had already opened the engine and the repair involved replacing a piston and other parts that I did not get. He also asked me to go to the workshop when I had time.

I dropped everything and went straight there. Phil showed me and explained what had happened. Trying to simplify things, the top ring in one of the pistons was “gapped too small”. Then, the heat of the engine caused its expansion and its ends run into each other. The ring pressure became too much for the cylinder and, with more heat, cooling was not sufficient and the piston head broke! Luckily, Phil said, he could find no damage to the inside of the cylinder. It was, he said, “a clear manufacturer error”.

The needed cylinders, valves and other smaller bits and pieces were ordered that same day and, amazingly, these were in Lusaka a few days later and the car was soon repaired and it run well for as long as we had it.

The phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” was true in this occasion as in many others. I got to know Phil and, later on, his wife Rosemary.  Phil retired a few months after I got my car back, but we kept our friendship alive until we left Zambia in 1993.

They lived in a lovely house in Woodlands extension, a leafy suburb a few kilometres from us where we spent a couple of afternoons watching his lovely fishpond that snaked through the garden adding a touch of colour from the koi and gold fish it had, an attractive feature for humans and cats alike. Rosemary and Phil kept several cats that were the children they did not have.

Depending on the weather we would sit in the verandah or on the lawn having a cup of tea with the traditional British scones. Rosemary served the tea and then sat at the piano to play classical music in a very British setting. The only difference was the good weather of Lusaka that, for me, made all the difference.

During his spare time with Toyota and more fully after retiring Phil repaired firearms, mainly from hunter friends and he had a well-equipped workshop. While visiting it Phil proudly showed me his patented invention: an ingenious adjustable chain wrench to remove any kind of oil and diesel filters. He was pleased that these were selling well.

He had also fitted his “bakkie” (pick-up) with another of his creations, a strong metal plate that would lock over the three pedals covering them completely making driving the vehicle impossible without removing it. I found the contraption an overkill and I teased him about it but he swore by it so, still learning about security in Zambia my jokes stopped!

Their kindness to cats was such that they were delighted to accept our offer of leaving the now quite elderlyTigger with them when we we left our elderly Tigger with them when we departed from Zambia [2]. We got frequent updates of our cat’s life until it died a couple of years later.

Rosemary and Phil moved back to the UK a few years after our own departure. Sadly, Rosemary passed away soon afterwards, but Phil managed to somehow adjust to the loss and to England. We kept in touch and we had the great pleasure of hosting him a few years later while we were living in Rome when we reminisced of our time in Zambia like two members of the “Whenwe” ethnic group [3].

[1] As an example, to get an air-conditioned car you required a strong justification endorsed by your country representative!

[2] Inky, our Siamese, had died earlier of kidney failure despite my efforts to keep her alive.

[3] People often start talking saying “When we were in Africa…” so, jokingly they (us included) are referred as “Whenwes”.

Reinforcements arrive

I do not recall the date, but it must have been March or April 1990 when I got up very early to go to the Lusaka airport for an important mission: to meet the first of the colleagues that would join the project. He was an Associate Professional Officer (APO) [1], called Bruno, a Belgian. He was arriving from his country on a Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) flight with a morning arrival time.

The day before I had managed to borrow one of the airport’s passes from FAO to enter into the luggage handling area, before the passengers entered Zambia. I also borrowed one of the FAO arrival signs, normally used by the drivers to collect visitors. I wanted to be absolutely sure to meet him, remembering my early Kenya arrival experience [2].

I was rather anxious because I was meeting a newcomer that would be critical for the project work and I did not know how we would get on. It would also be the first time in my career that I would have someone working with me in a project. He would also be bringing news from the FAO Headquarters, always useful information to get.

I arrived at the airport about one hour before the estimated arrival time, the pass worked and I went through security and stationed myself in what I thought was the most strategic place and I was sure not to be missed and I prepared to wait. The loud noise the “Jumbo” (Boeing 747) made landing at a relatively small airport clearly announced the arrival of the flight and soon the passengers started trickling in until the place was crowded as usual with people looking tired around the conveyor belt that, after a few minutes, jolted into life.

As usual, people started to get their suitcases and bags and walking towards the customs and exit. I waited, watching the flow while trying to spot my visitor before he spotted me! I had a few candidates in mind, and I kept watching. Conveyor belts are monotonous and often frustrating. This was the situation that day until two truly fluorescent bags, one rabid pink and another lemon yellow appeared and, for a while, distracted me but soon they were collected and it was back to the usual boring suitcase parade.

After about forty minutes the crowd thinned and, a few minutes later the hall was empty, the belt stopped, and the airport luggage handlers picked up the few suitcases that remained on the belt and took them away. No Bruno!

I had a good look around before leaving and confirmed that I was alone. Rather baffled I walked out, thinking what could have happened for him not to arrive. I walked outside the terminal heading for the car when I heard a voice behind me saying “ah, FAO!” Taken by surprise, I looked and saw a tall guy with a luggage trolley with the two fluorescent bags I had seen before: Bruno had spotted my FAO arrival sign. He was there after all and I was relieved!

He was not expecting me in the luggage hall but in the arrival hall, he explained and, not finding anyone in the latter, he thought that no one was meeting him and he was looking for a taxi to get to town. I took him to his hotel while talking about the country and the work that was expected from the project and from him as he would be in charge of the tick trial in Lutale, but more about that later.

Aware of the existence of the Zambezi River (although I had not seen it) I had purchased a Zodiac rubber dinghy (a very safe boat I was told) to be able to enjoy some river exploring and fishing. Convinced already that Bruno and us would get on, I invited him to go fishing in the Kafue river, close to Lusaka, the following day that happened to be a Sunday. Although it was not a good fishing day the outing was a good way to strengthen our connection, a very useful thing.

With Mabel, testing our new rubber dinghy at the Kafue Marina.

While Bruno was overlooking the trial in Lutale and settling in, I was devoting most of my efforts to keep the immunization work going in Southern Province, working with the Government personnel. I was rather stretched and trying to “push” FAO to recruit a Protozoologist that would take care of this work so that I could supervise the whole project. A month later FAO informed me of the candidate selected for the job and I agreed. Giuseppe, an Italian I knew briefly from Ethiopia was confirmed.

I also went to the airport when he arrived. This time, as we knew each other, the welcoming was easier and my confidence on the project success was boosted! I knew that Giuseppe was hard working and practical and capable of doing the job that he would in charge of. In addition, he brought more good news: another APO was being selected to work with him on the immunization against theileriosis.

Giuseppe got himself to Monze in Southern Province after a few days and stayed at the New Monze hotel for a few days until his personal effects arrived and he was able to rent one of the few houses available there.

The last member of the project arrived about a month afterwards. It was Anders, a young Danish veterinarian that went straight to Monze to join Giuseppe. The latter hosted him until he found his own place, something easier said than done. After a few weeks, he was lucky to find a house in the outskirts of the city. There we enjoyed the rural setting and having a few domestic animals around. I recall that he missed having fresh milk in the mornings and that he would get up very early to go to the local market to get it!

Bruno started his Lutale tour of duty staying at a small Government guest house used by visiting Government officials. So, he could only stay there for a short while. It had been agreed in his FAO briefing that, with project funding, he would build his own house and, after the work was completed, the future of the building would be decided with the Government. Chief Chibuluma, our host had agreed to this rather unusual solution so he started the building work.

In record time he had built a rather comfortable thatched-roofed house close to the village’s dam. The house had two bedrooms, an office and a comfortable sitting room. Electricity was provided by a generator until 22hs and he built a “Tanganyika boiler” that supplied ample hot water. He then announced that he was ready to bring his wife Dominique.

Tanganyika, Donkey or Rhodesian boiler. Credit to Kim Hannah Pearse, downloaded from Pinterest.

Very soon with Giuseppe and Anders we negotiated with George, the Director of Veterinary Services, that the expansion of the immunization programme would take place at an area known as Hufwa. Farmers there were requesting for assistance as they almost did not have calves surviving because of the heavy mortality due to theileriosis. They welcomed our proposal with open arms and the various villages agreed to build cattle holding facilities for the project to do its work. Soon we were flooded us with cattle beyond our capacity to immunize so we needed to improve our vaccine supply to cope with the demand!

The project had two drivers, Mr. Mutale and Mr. Chewe (not their real names) from the earlier project. The former was a city driver, used to move people within Lusaka. Although not noted for his fast thinking, he was an extremely careful driver that I enjoyed being driven by. Mr. Chewe, conversely, was very sharp and a true bush driver. He would not mind sleeping in the car if necessary and was able to make common repairs naturally. Eventually he was posted to Monze to help Giuseppe and Anders while Mr. Mutale remained in Lusaka supporting the project administration with limited field work.

Unlike the drivers, the former project secretary, seeing that no one was coming to continue the work, had moved to another FAO project. We needed to recruit a Secretary and we found Euphemia. She had experience working in a sister tsetse and trypanosomiasis project as the “second” secretary and immediately got going. Apart from efficient, she was also a very kind and good-natured person that brought her cheerfulness to our activities.

To me, she became invaluable as, not being maths person, I had difficulties closing the project accounts every quarter. I always had a difference that resisted my efforts to balance them for many hours and a couple of times, fed-up of fruitlessly looking for my error, I decided to send a driver to fill the tank with (for example) Kwacha 25.45 of diesel so as to get things right, something that the accountants in FAO kindly overlooked!

Seeing me struggling with the accounts Euphemia volunteered and immediately got the hand to it and at the right time she presented me with the draft accounts that, for some miracle, matched perfectly, a great help at the time! She got herself a new line in her terms of reference!

After a while traveling to and from Lusaka to the Veterinary laboratory in Chilanga, it became clear that there was no added advantage for the project to be there as we were occupying a driver and punishing a vehicle to get to a place that was difficult to reach and to communicate with. I talked to John, the manager of our sister project working on tsetse and trypanosomiasis that were also responsible for the Lutale training camp next to our project and he kindly agreed to also share his offices in town with us. This was a great move that facilitated the work and brought us close to colleagues that were also commuting to Lutale.

In the new office we had many project meetings and usually at lunch time we would order pizzas. Although these were acceptable to us, Giuseppe refused to eat them and always chose something else. The situation became untenable for him the day Euphemia ordered a “Tropical” pizza. When it came, the chunks of pinneaple were almost offensive for Giuseppe that made a great (good humoured) fuss and even moved to a different table to have his lunch! Aware of this, we sometimes ordered such a pizza just to watch his reaction! [3]

During the more than two years the project lasted, we also held periodic meetings outside Lusaka, close to the work areas of Lutale and Monze. As we had a good relationship, sometimes we chose a place at a nearby National Park at our expense to make the work more amenable by doing a bit of game viewing. During the meetings we would review progress, discuss options to solve difficulties and plan for the future activities. Our favourite places were Kafue National Park (close to Lutale) and Lochinvar National Park (close to Monze).

With Bruno (left) and Anders (right) at Lochinvar National Park.

As a neutral participant, I tried to moderate, often with little impact, the discussions between the three Europeans on European Union policies. However, the differences of approach between the Italians, Belgium and Denmark were such that it was difficult to find an agreement!

The game of French boules (Petanque) [4], promoted by Bruno, became the highlight of the meetings.The teams were the “Old” (Giuseppe and me) and the “Young” (Anders and Bruno). The game’s popularity was not because it was very exciting but because the reward for the winners of each round was a sip of a rather good Italian grappa, courtesy of Giuseppe. Of course, this was a double-edged sword as the more you won, the more you drank and the worse you played, making the game evenly matched at the end! DEspite this, the youngsters beat us at both the game and the grappa resilience!

While in Monze, we used the Monze Hotel as our base. Although it was clean, it had no water during the day and very often, no electricity. The water shortage was such that I would leave the tap open when I left in the morning and by the end of the day there was probably 15 cm of water for my daily wash! It had a restaurant that offered a choice of grilled t-bone steak or chicken and, frankly, I do not recall what dessert there was if any!

Monze Hotel. Credit John Y. Mvula. Screenshot from Google maps.

Zambia had a lager beer called Mosi and it is interesting that the manufactureer defines it as “Named after the mighty Mosi oa Tunya (Victoria Falls) Mosi Lager is the iconic Zambian beer. Brewed for over 30 years it’s Zambia’s number one thirst quencher. Mosi is a clean, crisp and refreshing lager with a characteristic pleasant bitterness, and a delicate hop aroma”. What they do not say is that in the days we were in Zambia there was a joke going round that spoke about its poor quality control. The story went like this:

A customer asked for a beer at a bar and finds a fly inside the bottle. He calls the waiter, complains, and gets another bottle. As he keeps finding flies, eventually the fly is removed and the beer drunk to avoid time wasting. One day, a flyless beer is delivered and the customer calls the waiter and asks “where is my fly?”.

This well known joke did not deter the Zambian customers at the Monze hotel that, on weekends, would sit outside and buy a whole crate of twelve bottles that they would place under their chairs and drink away the whole night! Of, course, they could not see the flies as it was dark and they drank from the bottles!

Sometimes we would dine at the New Monze, usually grilled chicken with rice or chips. As Giuseppe with the tropical pizza, Bruno would not touch the local fries, used to the amazing double-fried Belgian chips!

One of these occasions was rather memorable.

While having a forced candle lit dinner, we decided to risk the flies and ordered four Mosi, aware that they would be rather warm as fridges did not like the electricity interruptions and mostly died of a power surge. Although we were talking away, after waiting an inordinate amount of time, one of us went to the bar to remind the waiter about our drinks order.

Eventually the waiter, who was also the barman and cashier, came and brought eight beers and not the four we had ordered. We looked at each other in surprise and asked him for the reason why he had brought double the amount we had asked. Looking rather confused he said “sorry” and took the four extra away.

While eating, we noted that the waiter was really accelerated and that other customers (that we could not see but heard) were complaining about the service. As this was not unusual, we finished our meal and asked for the bill. Again we waited a very long time and, as it did not come, rather fed-up, we all got up and walked to the small table where the waiter sat calculating the bills.

When he saw us, clearly absent-minded he started to add up our consumption when we noted that the candle fell over and a stream of burning wax spread over the table. Oblivious to this, the waiter continued writing while the tablecloth caught fire and surrounded a paraffin lamp that was also on the table.

Seeing that a conflagration that could destroy the hotel was likely, we took action while the waiter still did not seem to be aware of his surroundings! As no fire extinguishers were at hand we grabbed another table cloth and tried to suffocate the fire while removing the lamp. Water was brought up from the kitchen and poured on the table. It was only when splashed by the water that the waiter oake up from his trance and reacted to join us (and other customers) in our fire control efforts.

The smoke attracted the Manager who got furious with the waiter and strongly reprimanded him. We learnt that he had indulged in the rather common practice of smoking “uluwangula”, known to us as marijuana! [5] Luckily for him, he was not sacked although after that night he behaved like a normal waiter!

[1] The Associate Professional Officer’s programme would fund young graduates through FAO with funds from a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, etc.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/09/30/africa

[3] Afterwards, after eating in Italy for a few years, I understood his views fully!

[4] The idea of French boules is to throw a metal ball close to a smaller one called “cochonnet” in French and you score by the number you get closer to it. When two vs. two play you get three balls each and one member of a team throws first, then a member of the other team throws, etc. until all twelve balls are played and the round ends. Then you count how many points you scored and add to the tally of each team. The first team reaching thirteen points after as many rounds as necessary wins the game. More details: https://frenchyourway.com.au/how-to-play-petanque-rules-of-petanque

[5] Also known as “dobo”, the local weed strain is considered of very poor quality and although illegal at the time, it was very common in the local markets. Zambians preferred to smoke marijuana imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo that they called “Congo poison”.

The bowtie country

Landlocked Zambia got its independence from the UK in 1964 and for a number of reasons it got its shape that reminds me of a bowtie (a “Club round” type one for the specialists!). The knot squeezes and splits the Lusaka and Central Provinces while the left bow (Northern, Eastern, Luapula and Muchinga Provinces with small parts of Central and Lusaka Provinces) slightly smaller than the right one (Southern, Copperbelt, North-western, and Western with the largest portions of Central and Lusaka Provinces).

This rather special shape means that it is much closer to travel from Mansa, the capital of the Luapula Province to Kitwe in the Copperbelt through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, if that trip would be possible!

Although, if interested, you can search for Zambia in the internet and find lots of information, I will give you a few facts that should help to put our life there in context.

Among the twenty largest countries in Africa with 752,618 km2, Zambia has borders with eight other countries, quite a record! To the north there is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique to the southeast, Zimbabwe and Botswana to the south, Namibia to the southwest, and Angola to the west. It is truly at the junction of Central, Southern and Eastern Africa.

In 1953, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that grouped together Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (now Malawi) was created despite a large majority of the population opposing it. Kenneth Kaunda led this opposition that ended in its dissolution in December 1963. Zambia was born and Kaunda became its first President.

Kaunda was still there when we arrived, after 26 years. He did not have long to go but more about that in future posts. His party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled the country as a one-party state with the motto “One Zambia, One Nation”. Although there were about 73 ethnic groups, most of which Bantu-speaking, nine were the main ones, the Nyanja-Chewa, Bemba, Tonga, Tumbuka, Lunda, Luvale, Kaonde, Nkoya and Lozi. Although the tribal groups were important, rivalries as we had seen in both Kenya and Ethiopia were not evident, something I attributed to Kaunda’s “humanistic” ideas.

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Tribal and linguistic map of Zambia. Credit: Collection African Studies Centre, Leiden (The Netherlands). Author Unknown. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

My first blunder seeing many vehicles with the UNIP logo was that I thought that they belonged to one of the United Nations peace keeping organizations operating in the country. Luckily, after a couple of days of living in Lusaka, someone corrected me, not without some amusement.

Agriculture was important for the rather underpopulated country of 8 million (now 18 million) but mining, particularly copper extraction was the overwhelming driver of the economy and that was evident seeing the hundreds of lorries loaded with copper ingots moving through the country aiming for the ports in Mozambique and Tanzania.

Zambia had a difficult start as an independent country as, naturally, Kaunda supported the guerrilla war against the white-ruled Southern Rhodesia. This led to the militarization of the country and the closure of their border in 1973. The war escalated and in 1978 it reached Zambia’s territory when, after the shooting down of an Air Rhodesia passenger plane by the guerrilla, Southern Rhodesia retaliated with an attack to their enclaves throughout the country, including their military headquarters outside Lusaka.

Later, Kaunda played a key role in the resolution not only the conflict in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) but also in Angola, and Namibia and, while we were there, supported the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa that culminated in the liberation of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and the restoration of black rule in the country.

In 1990, there was still tension, not with Southern Rhodesia that was already Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe but with South Africa. Zambia was supporting the various organizations fighting against apartheid and South Africa retaliated striking at dissident targets so, there were strict restrictions on taking pictures not only of the airport or any military facilities but also of bridges that were guarded by camouflaged anti-aircraft guns and controlled by army roadblocks.

Apart from the developments with South Africa, to make matters worse, the security situation was also bad and armed robberies were very common, particularly in Lusaka.

And then we arrived! It was late January 1990 during the rainy season to a rather steamy Lusaka. We stayed at the Andrews Motel, located a few kilometres beyond the “Kafue roundabout”, then the end of the city while we searched for a house. I do not recall much of the place as I was out most of the time but Mabel had to put up with it for a couple of months until we found a house.

While looking for a house we received lots of advice on where to live and what kind of house would be safe. “Get large dogs”, “it should have a good wall with razor wire”, “you must get a gun”, “do not rent a house without bars in all openings” and “your house must have an inner protected area” were some of the phrases we heard repeatedly, apart from recommendations on which suburb to pick!

Rather edgy we embarked in house-hunting and looked at a few houses within our rent bracket and settled for one in the Roma suburb, close to the city showgrounds (where the Annual Agricultural Show was held). More exactly we were at Nyoka road. Njoka meant Snake in Nyanja [1] and we hoped that it was only the name! This was confirmed a few months later when we became aware of the abundant rat population in the area as observed feeding on the fruits of the guava trees.

Although Mabel disagreed, I wished that a njoka would appear to take care of a few! Although Inky, our Siamese cat, caught some, Tigger, the marmalade was utterly useless, so we resorted to traps and shooting them with the pellet gun while feeding on the guavas!

The house fulfilled all the necessary security features that were apparently needed, particularly that, as a project manager, all project cars would be parked at my house every night as the stealing of cars was almost as frequent as the house robberies.

A poor picture showing the garden and the perimetral wall from one of the windows.

The house’s bedrooms were higher than the rest of the house and their windows looked down on the garden, a good vantage position to be. It also had, as repeatedly recommended, a strong “rape gate” (a rather straight but commonly used terminology to indicate the gate that isolates you and your family in the bedrooms while thieves steal your electronic stuff) fitted with two enormous padlocks housed inside steel tubing, very difficult to reach from the outside of the gate.

The house came with a caretaker called Mr. Phiri (not his real name) [2], highly recommended by Mrs. Wilson (not her real name), a former stewardess of the Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) [3], and the owner of the house.

As it was common those days, the house had a good vegetable garden that also came with a gardener called Mr. Lemek as well as an ample enclosure where we found a few hens and ducks as well as a number of rabbits housed in cages. Luckily, Mr. Lemek took care of both vegetables and animals and soon we added four Rhode Island Reds that produced lots of eggs all over our stay while the rabbit meat was mainly consumed by our house staff.

We installed “panic buttons” that, if pressed, would bring a contingent of guards that would enter the property to deal with the problem. We also recruited our own security guard, Mr. Nelson, an elderly gentleman that mostly sat in his guard house reading the Bible from his arrival at 18hs until he fell sleep, as most security guards do, until his shift was over at 6hs. There were also two resident dogs, Nero and Ginger, that we decided to keep as we were told that they were good guard dogs and they got on well with Mr. Nelson. In addition, we also were provided with a United Nations VHF radio to be used in emergencies.

Aware that security guards were usually the ones suffering injuries during armed robberies in Lusaka, we gave Mr. Nelson a whistle and instructed him to blow it if he saw something unusual and to run towards the staff houses at the back where he could seek refuge among the other people staying there, our gardener and the caretaker. Despite my objections, he insisted on keeping his catapult for which he made perfectly rounded clay balls to use as ammo.

The recommendation of getting a fire arm seemed very reasonable to us hearing of all incidents that were taking place in the city so I got a shotgun and a few cartridges that I was meant to use as a final line of defense in case the robbers attempted to break our final gate. Although I had shot partridge and hares in Uruguay during my youth, I am not a fan of firearms so, I disassembled, packed it carefully and hid it inside a trapdoor in the ceiling of our bedroom where I expected it to be for all the time we would be there.

So, we moved in although we only had very few personal effects for the reasons named in my earlier post and that took five months in arriving! It soon became clear that all we had been told about the insecurity was true and shooting was heard almost every night and we knew of several neighbours that would come out at night and shoot in the air in an effort to deter would be robbers! In addition, there was a “neighbourhood watch” formed by some neighbours accompanied by the police that would patrol the various neighbourhoods. I declined the invitation to join but, for a while, contributed financially to its operation.

Clearly Zambia was wild, and we had not yet seen the bush!

[1] Nyanja or Chewa is a Bantu language spoken in Malawi and Zambia, where it is an official language.

[2] People in Zambia were always referred as Mr. or Mrs., I believe this was due to Kaunda’s humanism emphasis on respect.

[3] UTA flew weekly to Lusaka until 1992 when it was taken over by Air France.

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.

Spot the beast 76

A different “Spot” provided by my son. The find took place while he was SCUBA diving in Tenerife. See if you can spot it.

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The video clearly shows that it is a sole that lost its nerve and swam away rather fast. A nice sight.

Condors!

At the end of the year, taking advantage of a relaxation of the Covid control measures in Salta, we left our quarantine and travelled to the Calchaquí valley [1] for a well-deserved break from the routine of the farm where we had been since March 2020.

We travelled to a small town called Payogasta where we spend three nights exploring the Los Cardones National Park [2] and then continued to Molinos, travelling on the well-known national route 40 (RN40) that goes from North to South of Argentina traversing almost 5200 km and crossing eleven provinces [3] through the most amazing and changing landscapes.

The cardones (Echinopsis atacamensis) give the name to the National Park.

While in Molinos we visited the Brealito lagoon, a natural water reservoir, and the Acsibi caves, both near the small town of Seclantás. I will deal with these visits in due course.

We enjoyed our stay at the Hacienda de Molinos hotel and when we were due to depart, decided to enjoy an extra night and explore Angastaco, another small village 50 km further on on the RN40 towards Cafayate, the wine-producing area, towards the South.

The entrance of the Hacienda de Molinos hotel.
The patio of the hotel with a very old molle tree (Schinus molle)

We traveled to Angastaco with the expectation of visiting the “Quebrada de las Flechas” (the Arrow’s gorge), meant to be a spectacular sight. This northern section of the RN40 is a rather twisted murram road crossing mountainous terrain and we drove with care following the Calchaquí river on our left. Although along the river there is a green valley where agriculture is practiced (including vineyards), the dominating landscape is one of dramatic dry rocky hills of different colours that change with the light and where one hopes (against hope) to see condors after turning each corner.

Because of the Covid 19 situation, we were among the very few people moving through so our journey was very relaxed until, as usual, I heard Mabel saying “these are Condors!”. As usual, without seeing anything but the rather twisted road ahead, I stopped to look and I could see some tiny objects against the horizon on one of the hills that I took for rocks, until one of them moved and we got excited! There were indeed Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) [4]

The condors as spotted by Mabel (they are on top of the hills!).
A close-up of our first view of the condors.

We stopped to watch them with the binoculars and to take a few pictures. There were about ten birds along the edge of a cliff and then she started spotting more flying above us until we realize that there were many.

Condors flying.

We advanced slowly to get a better angle on the birds on the cliff and then saw a large number of smaller birds on the ground and on a tree. These were Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus). We also saw a few Southern crested caracara (Caracara plancus) and other smaller birds of prey that I could not identify as they were quite far. Among the Vultures there were a few more condors and more were discovered by Mabel all around the area. So, we had hit a “condor jackpot”!

To give you an idea of what we saw, below I include a slide show.

We saw the remains of a carcass under the tree and decided to have a good look. We found a number of dead cattle, probably disposed off there by farmers as a consequence of the dry conditions in the area and this “cattle cemetery” attracted all the birds we saw.

We watched the birds for a long while while feeding until it was time for them to take off. The condors started first, followed by the Black vultures. The latter are super flyiers and gliders but they are no match for the truly majestic condors that, after the first few wingbeats they can go for long distances without the need of flapping their wings.

We enjoyed observing both vultures and condors after they had taken off while they glided up until they disappeared and then we decided to continue to Angastaco and have a look at the Quebrada de las Flechas. This did not disappoint us. The road snakes through a very dry gorge made of large pointed rock formations that extends for several kilometres. As I am not good with descriptions, the following slide show hopefully will reflect what we saw.

Despite the drama of the gorge and the beauty of the landscape that we traversed, nothing will make us forget our first close encounter with the magnificent condors.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calchaqu%C3%AD_Valleys

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

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Route_40_(Argentina)

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condor

A short video to show you more “action”.

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.

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!