Bedele

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!

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!

Catalina

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

Large eyes and preorbital glands.

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

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

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

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

Mabel bottle-feeding a young Catalina.

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

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

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

With Woletu.

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

Catalina with Tigger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animals come

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

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

Our grown Egyptian goose.

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

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

The Egyptian goose entering its enclosure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Releasing the kingfisher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in Bedele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tick hunting

Our tick (and later tick-borne disease) studies took us to different places of south-western Ethiopia “officially”, so we took advantage of these trips to get to know the area we were living. In our selected sites (Arjo, Bedele, Metu, Gambela and Fincha’a) the project had purchased some cattle from the local farmers, and they were keeping them for us to assess tick numbers at monthly intervals.

Fincha’a was located 295km north of Bedele, after driving through Arjo. This was a long drive that we did a couple of times. At 2300m Fincha’a was a rather cold and also damp place.

Working at damp Fincha’a.

The latter was probably explained by the existence of a dam that, for a while after its inauguration in 1973, was the largest hydro-electric project in the country. The visit I recall took place during the rains and it rained all the time we were there! This did not help our work nor our potential sightseeing!

A shy boy under a reed “raincoat”.

Despite the bad weather, along the road leading to the town we started seeing tall structures built with very long wooden poles and erected by the side of the road. On the top they had a little house and we were very puzzled by them, guessing that they had some religious significance but unsure of their real meaning.

The structures near Fincha’a.

We got to Fincha’a under rain and, while we checked in our rather basic hotel, my colleagues went to arrange for the tick work to be carried out the following day. The hotel was a basic affair to put it mildly with walls that enabled the sounds from the three rooms on each side of us to be heard! However, aware that that was the best hotel (and probably the only one?), we decided to make the best of it.

The hotel did not offer dinner so that we had to venture on the street to find an eating place and we ended up at a small restaurant where we were the only customers! Luckily it was a really warm place both because of the welcome we got from the family that owned it and thanks to the cooking that was taking place inside. Soon, after chasing the chickens away from the room, we joined in the kitchen activities and learnt a few things.

Mabel trying their hand at cooking under supervision.
Dinner arrived.
Mabel grinding the coffee after dinner.

Apart from food-related information, the lady informed us that the tall wooden structures we had seen were erected by local hunters that would travel east towards the Nile to hunt and, on return, they would build these “shrines” where the buffalo skulls would be placed on display to show their ability. I haste to add that I have not been able to confirm this information beyond what I was told at Fincha’a.

We ate hot (both temperature and taste) local food and had a reasonable night sleep. The following morning, we did our work under rain (not a very pleasant activity as the water runs down your back…) and we were soon on our way back to Bedele, looking forward to our warm and dry bungalow.

We also often travelled East, following the B50 road that, at the time, I did not know it had a name! After about 115km from Bedele we arrived at Metu where we did not stop until we discovered that there were some Cuban doctors working at the Metu hospital.

Passing through Metu.
Spices at Metu market.
Assorted goodies.

They were part of the well-known contingent of doctors from the island that are found in many places in Africa, often in areas that no one else wishes to be! We learnt that among them many specialities were covered and this boosted our confidence in case of a health problem as the facilities that existed in Bedele were rather limited. Luckily, we only visited them socially and we did not need their services.

Their presence was clearly justified judging by the number of people suffering from serious diseases that we found on the road. Apart from the blind being led by holding sticks by young relatives, many young boys and girls showed cases of tinea (ringworm) and scabies. These were mostly treated with Gentian violet with the consequence of lots of purple-stained heads around! Goitre was rather common and even severe cases of elephantiasis could also be seen.

Following the road to the south-east we would come to Gore, a larger town that became known as it was the capital of Ethiopia for a short while. It happened during the Italo-Ethiopian war fought between 1935-1937. In 1935, the Italians attacked from their colonies of Eritrea and Somalia without declaring the war. After conquering Aduwa, they seized Aksum [1] and then moved on Addis forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to leave the country (taking the gold of the Ethiopian Central Bank with him!).

Before leaving he ordered that the capital of Ethiopia to be moved to Gore and appointed his cousin Ras Imru Haile Selassie as Prince Regent during his absence. The latter fell back to Gore to reorganise and continue to resist the Italians but his efforts were fruitless and Gore was occupied at the end of 1936. Ras Imru, with his forces trapped between the Italians and the Sudan border surrendered and he was flown to Italy and imprisoned on the Island of Ponza. So that was Gore’s claim to fame although the town did not have much to show for its history.

Leaving Gore behind, we would drive another 150km west on a wide, dusty and mostly downhill road full of curves following the course of the Baro river towards the Sudan border. The road offered magnificent scenery where we often stopped to stretch our legs and have a look a the rather clean waters of the river.

The heavy relief lorry traffic aiming for the refugee camps in the border with Sudan did not help our progress. Going towards the refugee camps in the Gambela area loaded, they would come back with the trailers “piggy-backed” on the same tracks, the first time I saw this really clever saving technique.

Eventually, full of dust and rather edgy with the road and its traffic, after crossing a large bridge over the Baro river, we would arrive to the town of Gambela, a completely different seen when compared with where we were coming from as Gambela, at 526m was a tropical area, particularly when arriving from Bedele located at almost four times that height!

The bridge over the Baro river in Gambela. Credit: T U R K A I R O / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Gambela, located at the confluence of the Baro river and its tributary the Jajjabe was founded because of its location on the Baro river, a tributary of the Nile, which was seen by both the British and Ethiopia as an excellent highway for exporting coffee and other goods from the fertile Ethiopian Highlands to Sudan and Egypt.

Already while crossing the river it was apparent that everything was different but most of all the people that inhabited the area. Although there were some from the highlands, most of them as a result of the ruthless resettlement schemes, this was the territory of the Anuak and the Nuer, people that we had not seen before in the country.

The Anuak belong to the Luo Nilotic ethnic group. They are primarily found in villages situated along the banks and rivers of southeastern South Sudan as well as southwestern Ethiopia, especially the Gambela Region. Group members number between 250,000 and 300,000 people worldwide, many of them following Christianity. The Anuak are an agricultural people, although most families keep some livestock. They are keen on fishing and they set up temporary fishing villages in times of fish abundance.

Anuak fishing in the Baro river.

The Nuer are also of Nilotic origin and inhabit a similar area than the Anuak. Their language belongs to the Nilotic language family and they are closely related to the better known Dinka ethnic group. They are pastoralists who herd cattle and the cattle define their way of living.

Both races are very tall [2] and we often watched them in amazement playing basketball at night (too hot during the day) in the local open courts in Gambela thinking that they would be sought after by the National Basketball Association (NBA) and not knowing that they had done so. Manute Bol, a Dinka of 2.30m (one of the tallest players in the history of the NBA), had been playing for the Washington Bullets since 1985!

About to start working. The picture shows a rather tall gentleman on the right!

The Nuer receive facial markings (called “gaar”) as part of their initiation into adulthood. These consist of scarification that varies within their subgroups, the most common among men being six parallel horizontal lines cut across the forehead although dotted patterns are also common. The scarifications helped me to distinguish people from the two groups and enabled me to greet them properly in their language, “male” to the Anuak and “derejote” to the Nuer.

I will come back with more experiences from Gambela in future posts.

[1] Italian soldiers found one of the Axum obelisks (stelae) (King Ezana’s) fallen and broken in three sections, one of about fifty obelisks in the city of Axum at the time of the discovery. In 1937, it was taken as war booty and moved to Italy after being cut into five pieces and transported by truck to Massawa from where it was shipped to Naples. It was then taken to Rome, where it was restored and erected in front of the Ministry of Italian Africa (later the headquarters of the FAO) where I saw it (pic is already in Media and I found it looking for Rome). It was eventually returned to Ethiopia in 2005.

[2] See: Chali, D. (1995).  Anthropometric measurements of the Nilotic tribes in a refugee camp. Ethiopian Medical Journal 33: 211-7. Among other things, the study concludes that “…The mean height of Dinka men (176.4 +/- 9 cm) and Nuer men (175.7 +/- 9 cm) were significantly higher than that of Anuak men (171.7 +/- 8 cm) and Shilluk men (172.6 +/- 6.1 cm). This study confirms that the Nilotics in Southern Sudan have slender bodies and are amongst the tallest in the world and may attain greater height if privileged with favourable environmental conditions during early childhood and adolescence, allowing full expression of the genetic material…”

The Didessa river valley

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

The way to Arjo.

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

The beautiful Didessa river.

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

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

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

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

One of our first visits to the Didessa.

We did this soon afterwards and learn a few things.

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

A close-up of the tsetse flies.

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

Tsetse flies were quite abundant!

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

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

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

Reversing to get out of the mud.

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

Tsetse bites were quite bad.
More bites.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fish.

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

House Issues

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel and her marvelous vegetable garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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