Gardening

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskista

Gardening in the wild (I)

After I was offered a job in Ethiopia in 1988 and while still in Kenya, in my anxiety to know where we were getting to, I contacted a consultant that had just been there to get preliminary information. We knew each other quite well and he was frank with me. “The place is beautiful” he said, and he added “if you can get there with your car in one piece! We blew a tire, went off the road and had a near miss as we hit a large rock that stopped us from going down a steep slope”. I am sure he was enjoying this -probably the look on my face- when he added “but don’t let me put you off!” Trying to digest this and making fruitless efforts to hide my discomfort, I asked for details about the living quarters and the work. He complied with the latter and then said: “You are lucky as you will have a very large garden”. This somehow lifted my spirits and then he finished me off by saying: “the whole of Ethiopia will be your back garden!” I refrained from more questions…

 

Contemplating our "enlarged' garden with a visiting friend.

Contemplating our back garden with a visiting friend.

So we prepared for self-sufficiency through gardening! We bought seeds and tools and this was the beginning of our gardening experience in Africa. Our first visit to the local market confirmed that we had taken the right decision. There was a market every Saturday where farmers brought their produce, often walking very long distances over very hard terrain. A look at their feet clad in the ubiquitous sandals made from car tires vouched to that! Clearly their farming efforts were not directed towards the “forengis” (foreigners in Ethiopia) and fresh vegetables were rare. You could find tomatoes and, occasionally, onions. Both were sold by rows of farmers (mostly women) seated behind piles of 3 to 5 fruits. Attempts at buying all the tomatoes offered by any one of the sellers -through a kind Oromo interpreter- provoked a strong negative response as they were only happy to part with one or at most two units. That meant that to get a kg you needed to negotiate with about six farmers! A time consuming exercise!

 

A local market.

A local market.

There was also a number of produce that was utterly unknown to us and I do not even recall their names or use. I do recall seeing Oromo potatoes (Coleus edulis) and ensete (Ensete ventricosum). The former is widely consumed in Oromia and we did enjoy them steamed or boiled. The ensete is an important contributor to food security in the region and “kocho” was on offer. This greyish paste is prepared from the fermented pulverised trunk and inflorescence. This is a delicacy consumed at weddings and other important feasts. We did eat it occasionally but it did not leave a lasting impression.

Through her dedication, after a few months, my wife had transformed our backyard into a vegetable haven that was the topic of conversation in the laboratory. There were tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, spinach, beans, peas and various spices. We were enjoying our fresh produce!

We discovered Seven year beans (scarlet runner beans) in Ethiopia.

We discovered Seven year beans (scarlet runner beans) in Ethiopia.

My wife tendering the garden.

My wife tendering the garden.

This lasted until the monkeys discovered it! To enlighten you, we were dealing with two main species: the vervet (Chlorocebus aethiops) and the mantled guereza (Colobus guereza), also known as black and white colobus. We loved watching them in the wild but not in our garden. The vervets were the main menace but the colobus, a hervivorous species, would also come down from their normal arboreal habitat to enjoy our garden. It is one thing to deal with small pests (insects, mollusks) and another one to control birds and/or mammals! To make matters worse, monkeys have quite developed brains, are very daring and they arrive in troops! After the first rather devastating visit, the superior primates -us- needed to deploy appropriate measures to prevent this from happening again! Clearly, we were not able to take pest protection measures applied in developed countries (enclosing the garden in chicken wire, flash guns, etc.). We had a problem and needed to act fast!

 

Colobus monkeys keeping an eye on the garden.

Colobus monkeys keeping an eye on the garden.

We did not invent anything new when we decided to consult the local farmers to seek their wisdom on the problem. At the end of the “expert consultations” we came to the conclusion that the best and probably only acceptable solution was to scare them. So, following their advice, we needed to find someone to watch our garden. It is common to see planted areas being watched by farmers from small raised towers from where they can see the crop area and take measures to scare pests away, such as stone throwing, shouting, running after them and other measures that vary according to the intruder. It is a different thing to scare monkeys flock than to chase away an elephant or a hippo!

Acting as per the recommendations, we proceeded to find the suitable candidate by consultating with other neighbours. We were fortunate to find a young relative of one of the veterinarins that was presented to us as the solution and he was duly employed to carry out the task. After this measure, although the monkeys at first continued to besiege our garden, they soon gave up and moved off.

A Vervet monkey feeding on stolen produce.

A Vervet monkey feeding on stolen produce.

Once this major problem was dealt with successfully, vegetables were produced in abundance as the climate there is very favourable for plant growth with an average temperature of 18°C and an annual rainfall of about 1800mm and insects were not a major problem.