Gambela hotel

Gambela

As soon as you got closer to Gambela it became clear that you were entering a totally different environment. Located at the confluence of the Baro River and its tributary the Jajjabe, the city was just over 500 metres in elevation, hot and humid with an average yearly temperature of 27°C and 1200mm of annual rainfall (see also: https://bushsnob.com/2020/09/22/tick-hunting/)

The bridge over the Baro river at the entrance of Gambela. Credit: T U R K A I R O, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

At the time, apart from the original Nilotic Anuak and Nuer inhabitants, there were a large number of people from the highlands (Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, etc.). Some of them were those who still remained after being brought there by the controversial resettlement schemes being driven by the Government at the time.

These people were moved from their homeland during or after the famine and many, as soon as they could, abandoned their resettlement schemes to get back to their homes, often traveling thousands of kilometers risking the stern measures that they could expect if caught.

The Anuak and Nuer were by far the predominant ethnias. The former built their villages along the banks and rivers of both south-eastern South Sudan as well as south-western Ethiopia. Their population is today estimated between 250 and 300 thousand people. Their subsistence economy largely depended on their rivers as they grew their crops in the riverbanks and they also keep some cattle. During the dry season they fished and hunted the animals that came to drink.

The Nuer are a larger population of about 2 million, concentrated in the Greater Upper Nile region of South Sudan (where they are the second largest ethnic group) and Ethiopia. They are nomadic pastoralists who herd cattle for a living.

An ox being admired for its hide and special horns.

Their cattle serve as companions and define their lives being of the highest symbolic, religious and economic value. So, their lives revolve around their cattle, although some horticulture is also practiced. Their relationship with their cattle is complex and it has been studied by several anthropologists [1] [2].

Although they eat meat and some of their cattle under certain circumstances, their diet primarily consists of fish and millet. We met many of them and most showed long scars in their foreheads. They get these markings (gaar) as part of their initiation into adulthood.

The most common pattern among males consists of six parallel horizontal lines which are cut across the forehead with a razor and applying ash for them to protrude afterwards. Dotted patterns are also common among some Nuer groups and among females. Several of the ethnias in Africa do this and the Dinkas, also from Sudan, also have scars that follow different patterns.

Nuer youngsters and the bushsnob (with a blue cap at the back…).

While travelling in Gambela, the scars on the foreheads were useful to distinguish among Nuer and Anuak and to greet them accordingly: male to the Nuer and dereyote to the Anuak.

We soon learnt that Gambela could be either very dry or very wet, depending of the season. The trip was tough as we usually travel from the Bedele height to Gambela following the curvy murram road behind a convoy of a couple of dozen relief lorries that were almost impossible to overtake safely.

We swallowed lots of dust, an experience I do not wish to repeat, particularly when the hotel in Gambela did not offer the best washing facilities to the disgust of Mabel.

Mabel trying the shower at the Gambela hotel!

Worse than the dust was the black mud during the rainy season and getting badly stuck whilst trying to get to our study cattle was not rare. Getting stuck is usually a nuisance but doing it with a LWB Land Rover demanded lots of work in order to pull it out. In no time, the tire grooves would get stuffed with sticky mud and just turn without gripping anything! Only lifting the wheels would do and, if trees were around, the winch would save us! I noted then that the Nuer would work hard at digging while the job was clearly below the people from the highlands that mostly watched! I had the excuse of being the driver.

Hard at work!
Finally tired but out of the mud!

So, on arrival to Gambela we would find a bungalow at the only hotel suitable for ferengi (foreigners) that offered reasonable rooms and, as I mentioned and showed you above, reasonable showers with muddy water!

Gambela hotel.

Life in Gambela during the hot days happened by the river and we also had the impression that not much mixing between ethnic groups took place, the highlanders staying on one side while the Nilotic would stay in their own river patch.

During the night people came out from their houses and we saw quite a lot of movement in the streets and lots of youngsters, probably Nuer, playing volleyball and basketball in a few fields that were scattered around town. By the way, basketball courts were very common in Ethiopia, probably as common as football fields, probably the influence of past efforts from USA churches?

As some of our Ethiopian veterinary colleagues were educated in Cuba, they knew a number of Cuban human doctors and other technical assistance personnel that were working in the area. We met some of the doctors that had interesting stories to tell and I still remember their amusement when telling us that no operating table was long enough for the Nuer with the consequence that their legs were always sticking out and interfering with their movements!

We also met a young Ethiopian that worked assisting the Anuaks with their fishing activities and, one day we accompany him to his working area nearby to watch people fishing. This was a great experience as we saw the wealth of fish that the Baro river offered.

Among the memories I have was to see some medium size greyish catfish being treated wth utmost respect by the fishermen. When I asked the reason why these were not touched, a fish was placed on one of them and it immediately died! These were electric catfish! I had a good look at them just in case I would hook them in future. These were most likely Malapterurus electricus, a fish found throughout the Nile basin and capable of delivering an electric shock of up to 350 volts that they generate from an electric organ that, in the case of the catfish, runs the entire length of its body [3].

The visit to the fishing community planted the idea in my mind that we could also fish so during the next visit we took one afternoon off and tried to fish. We searched for a spot a distance away from Gambela, trying to avoid the overfished areas near the town, and chose a large rock (away enough from the water) from where we tried our luck for Nile perch or anything that would like to take a chunk of meat. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours we still got nothing and, after watching a few rather large crocodiles swam past, we decided to go back to our hotel before dark.

The Gambela river where we fished.

The crocodiles reminded us again of the dangers lurking in the African rivers and the risks that the local people exposed themselves while living close to rivers. The chain of thought made me remember the story of an American that was taken by a crocodile while entering one of these rivers, but I could not remember where it had happened.

Then I remembered that I had read about this in an amazing book written by Peter Beard called “Eyelids of Morning” that presents a rathe gruesome account of the incident that I thought then had happened in Lake Turkana, the area the book deals with. Once back in Bedele I looked for the story in the book and, to my surprise, the incident had taken place in Gambela!

In 1966, a young Peace Corps volunteer by the name of William Olson had gone to Gambela with a group of colleagues and they decided -unwisely- to go for a swim in the Baro river. Mr. Olson was taken by a rather large crocodile that was later shot and his remains recovered [4]. So it was that we were probably fishing at a spot near where this accident had happened but, luckily, we did not consider a dip in the river despite the intense afternoon heat.

[1] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. “The Sacrificial Role of Cattle among the Nuer.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 23, no. 3, 1953, pp. 181–198. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1156279. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

[2] See: http://orvillejenkins.com/profiles/nuer.html

[3] Electric fish have specialized organs in their bodies, made up of specialized muscle cells called electrocytes. To regulate electrical discharge, they also have a special trigger organ known as the pacemaker nucleus, a specialized group of neurons in the fish’s brain. When the fish wishes to produce an electric current, it triggers the pacemaker nucleus, which sends a signal to the electrocytes initiating electrical discharge.  The electrocytes then use transmitter proteins to move positive sodium and potassium ions out of the cell, building up an electrical charge. The individual amount of electricity generated per electrocyte cell is small. However, when millions of electrocyte cells function simultaneously, an electric fish is capable of building up charges of hundreds of volts… Electric catfish have electric organs that line their entire body cavities. (From: https://www.leisurepro.com/blog/explore-the-blue/electric-fish-produce-charge/). More details on the electric catfish: https://animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Malapterurus_electricus.html

[4] See: http://peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2001/0101/101cllook.html for a description of the event that spares the gruesome details.