Leaving Ethiopia

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

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

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

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

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

The clever goat browsing on bananas before it jumped!

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

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

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

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

Slaughtering the unfortunate sheep under the rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meskel flowers surround teff fields on the way to Addis.

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

A great moment. Mabel opening the mail.

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

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

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

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

Our belongings being loaded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] See:

Bedele, first impressions

As soon as the people in the station saw us arriving, they immediately came out to greet us, and they did their best to make us feel at home. They were all mortified when they learnt about our experience with the Bedele town Administrator and his -luckily failed- attempt at “capturing” Mabel. It was at that time that, judging by the veiled criticism we heard, we realized that not all Ethiopians were in favour of Mengistu’s regime. We found this rather unexpected.

Luckily, almost everybody at the station spoke English well as Ethiopian professionals do. Senior administrators, veterinarians and technicians from the laboratory lived in the remaining five bungalows while the lower ranks stayed at Bedele town. Another -pleasant- surprise was that a few of the professionals spoke “Cuban” Spanish, the consequence of their education at the “Isla de la Juventud” (Youth Island) in Cuba where many children from countries in Africa and other continents were sent to be educated.

It was really a weird situation to talk in Spanish with my two counterparts Sileshi and Solomon but, somehow, it gave as a sense of more closeness in such a remote place. While most people at the laboratory communicated in Amharic both spoken and written, farmers and folk people in south-western Ethiopia spoke mainly the Oromo language or their local dialects, all of them impossible to understand and learn in the short time we had in Bedele.

Apart from Jan and Janni, the Dutch couple from the next bungalow, we had other neighbours such as Wolete from Tigray, a technician working with trypanosomiasis that was to become a great neighbour and friend. She and her husband cared for a young girl called Meredith (Meredit?), an orphan that they were looking after. They shared their house with another couple. 

Wolete spinning wool.
Learning to spin wool.
The bushsnob also tried… but decided to continue working with ticks and TBDs!
The daughter of our neighbours was shy! But her eyes said a lot.

Ibrahim, the Director of the laboratory occupied the fourth bungalow and the remaining two were shared by the various veterinarians.

Our bungalow seemed in good order. It had electricity and running water, two very important facts to start with. It had a sitting and dining area, two bedrooms and a toilet. We proceeded to install the cooker, fridge and music system, our only electrical appliances until the rest of our stuff would arrive later on. We also prepared the largest bedroom for us while the second became my office and it would also serve as a guest room. 

Although there was little room separating our house from the others at the back, we were fortunate to have the last bungalow and it opened to the laboratory campus towards our front. This was earlier referred to as our large garden by my Zimbabwean colleague and it was a good description as beyond the campus you could actually see a long way away in the distance the smoky hills of higher lands.

With François looking at the beautiful Didessa river valley.

People at the station kept chickens to eat and to get fresh eggs and it was quite common to witness a white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda) chasing them between the houses, followed by the owner trying to defend it, not always successfully!

Cattle, sheep and goats also roamed through the station as the gate was open during the day and they had little difficulties to enter and enjoy the relatively abundant grass of the campus as compared with the overgrazed land around town. While the sheep were quite well behaved, the goats were a pest and they would eat anything, including our bananas and mangoes, even climbing on our vehicles to get them!

Sheep walking past with natural oxpecker tick control inluded.
A goat getting at the bananas and later denting the bonnet of the car.

Settling in was easy as there was little to do after work, apart from going for a cup of coffee to one of the coffee shops in the village that the Ethiopians always paid for! There were a few restaurants in Bedele and the favourite of the laboratory was really a family house where you could eat. Basically, you would be the only customers and they would accommodate you in their red plush armchairs in their living room and they would bring the food that our colleagues ordered. Usually this was doro fanta (injera, mutton and egg chilly stew) although, occasionally (to our relief) we could get kitfo (raw meat and butter with chilly), our favourite. Injera in this land was not the white and tasty we tried in Addis but a rather dark and sour variety that took a while to get used to eat it without getting severe stomach burn. However, we got used to eat it after a while.

There were other, rougher, eating places that we avoided after our first experience. We went there on an exploratory visit and we were guided to the kitchen to choose our food. While this was good as far as the injera went as we could see it being baked, we were then directed to a rather large cauldron where a kind of thick stew was boiling and from where we should help ourselves.

Injera oven. The dough is poured under the top cover.

We were getting ready to dip the large spoon in the simmering mass when we froze. A large cow eye was floating on the surface staring at us before it sunk back into the stew probably to join the second one and other organs that “grow in the dark”. We politely declined the food offer and went to our usual and safer place.

It was soon clear that it would be difficult to spend money in Bedele as there were no shops, with a few exceptions such as the butchery and the usual Saturday market. Mabel has just refreshed my memory regarding the former. It was reached through a track that, during the rains, required 4WD. It was located among a number of eucalyptus trees, a shack with a small glassless window through which some very dark looking (and rather stinky) meat chunks were hanging from hooks attached to the wall.

The butcher was an old man that had a couple of young assistants busy hacking at a freshly killed ox and hanging pieces of on a long pole from where the numerous customers were selecting their share. Purchases were paid in cash in Birr, no credit cards accepted!

The place was clearly a combined abattoir and butchery, judging by the number of bones scattered around it. However, it was nowhere as spectacular as the main slaughterhouse in Addis that had true bone mountains.

The bone “mountains” at the Addis Slaughter house. Credit: Magnus Franklin. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.

It took a great effort to get the cuts we wanted as there were not only communication issues (the butcher and or helpers would only speak Oromo) and the way we cut eat was also rather different. Eventually, through a combination of sign language and pointing out directly to the carcass we got a few chunks hacked off for us.

As expected, the meat was very tough, and we needed to cut it very thin to prepare something that our “civilized” teeth could bite through. After a couple of attempts of visiting the butcher, we decided to bring any further meat from Addis.

The local market did not offer any great spending possibilities either. Apart from lively livestock sales, we could find a few tomatoes and onions as well as Oromo potatoes (Coleus edulis) and false banana or ensete (Ensete ventricosum) used for kocho [1]. The former is a special variety of potato that was found only in Welega province. Its shape is similar to that of a human finger, thin and elongated and widely consumed in Oromia. We had them steamed or boiled but failed to leave an impression.

Buying tomatoes at the market was another challenge to Mabel. The peasant women would sit on mats with about four to five tomatoes each and there was no way of convincing them from parting from all their tomatoes! So, we needed to visit about ten women and buy one or two from each to get the amount we were after! I am not sure of the reasons for this selling strategy but our presence prompted lots of talking and arguing!

After the first couple of weeks we realized that we would need to grow our own vegetables and bring most of our food from Addis or Jimma as the rest of the people did. Mabel also decided that a “survival” garden was on order and immediately she mobilized friends both in Italy and Great Britain to urgently supply her with the needed seeds.

I have already described her achievements in an earlier post published in September 2013 [2] and I recommend you to read it after the present one, if interested.

So, with the passing of time, life at Bedele became rather nice and we spent long hours reading and listening to music. In anticipation of long nights Mabel had bought several tapes of the most famous opera that we enjoyed very much in the evenings. Apart from quiet nights, there was also quite a bit of socializing with neighbours at our or their houses.

[1] The Gurage people chop the ensete’s flesh into a paste, and then shape it into a dough-like mass that gets wrapped in the plant’s leaves and buried in the ground to “mature”.

[2] See: