Jimma

Our new car

As I mentioned in the earlier post, once in Bedele, the news came that our car had arrived at the port of Assab [1] and that I was needed back in Addis to arrange (read pay!) for its transportation to Addis. In addition, I had to meet the costs of the handling by the Ethiopian clearance agency and to deal with its registration.

After a few days we had gone through all bureaucratic processes that were not few but luckily, we had the assistance of the FAO to do it. I recall someone hearing my complaints about the inordinate amount of time the process took that told me to regard myself lucky as, if you were a private individual, you needed clearance from about thirty offices before you could leave the country!

Eventually we got the car and we left Addis after breakfast and drove slowly while I adjusted to it (no great feat!) and proceeded at a moderate speed through our usual way back to Bedele.

After several hours we started to go through a mountainous area before Jimma where the road twisted around with a few sharp bends. It was turning one of these that we met a bus cutting the corner and coming straight at us!

I was climbing the mountain so I could not have been doing more than 50 or 60 kph and I would say that the bus was not going fast either as we met almost on top of the hill. Despite this, it all happened at a rather vertiginous speed!

I slammed on the brakes while aiming towards the mountain wall, trying to avoid a head-on impact. Luckily, the bus driver went towards the steep cliff and crossed the bus in front of us. The result was that we hit it behind the front wheel. Luckily the side caved in and the car got rammed into the bus’ soft belly.

The crash was not too violent, good news as we did not have airbags! Quite angry I left the car and walked towards the bus to recriminate the driver for his recklesness. My anger boosted as we no longer had a new car!

The driver had wasted no time and he was already scrambling down the hill where it soon disappeared ignoring my shouting for him to come back up. He did not wish to face me so I forgot him and tried to solve the situation as fast as possible.

A few passengers were leaving the bus and a small crowd was gathering, luckily, sympathising with me. We decided that it was worthless to do anything about the incident and, while some of the passengers pulled from the twisted bus metal panels, I reversed the car and extricated it from the hole it had made on the side of the bus.

We could now see that our car had suffered from the impact. The front mud guard on my side (right) was bent and re-painted yellow, the colour of the bus! It also had a bent bumper and some broken lights. Not much considering what it could have been.

Once disengaged I thanked the passengers and drove off to avoid the people that were appearing from all over and the crowd that was gathering. Although the car was making weird noises, I drove on and only stopped after a couple of kilometres where we parked at a safe place and proceeded to pull the mud guard so that the tire would no longer rub against it.

After quite an effort we managed to free the wheel on the driver’s side but, despite this, it was clear that it was no longer aligned, and it produced quite a lot of vibration. However, we had no other option but to push on, so we did.

Because we could move rather slowly, we only managed to get to Jimma and there we spent the night in one of the hotels, I believe called the Ethiopia Hotel, belonging to the Government as most hotels were in those days. By the time we got to Jimma we had talked about the incident enough and had already gone through a thorough catharsis and we were no longer too worried about the incident as no one was hurt.

The following morning, after having as good a check on the car as we could and seeing that the tire was still undamaged, we departed for Bedele through the very rough road that, somehow, dissimulated the status of our wheel alignment! We still enjoyed the journey, particularly the spectacular valley of the Didessa river where we stopped at the bridge to enjoy the beautiful scenery and tried to spot the hippos that dwelled there.

We got to Bedele where everybody felt sorry for our now “former” new car and, luckily, I got a mechanic to do a good job straightening the metal bits and improving the wheel movement and alignment while patching up the missing plastic and glass from the lights. Eventually we got back to Addis where we interned the car and got it repaired by a great panel beater that worked overtime for us to get it as good as new again.

One of the few pictures of the car I could find.

We enjoyed the car after this unfortunate start. However -and funnily-, its end was also accidented!

About a month before we were due to depart, I had sold the car to a newly arrived UN employee with the agreement to hand it over just before departure. Ready to depart for Nairobi on a Sunday, I went to see the buyer at the UN headquarters in Addis the Friday before to sign some of the documents required for the transfer and agreed to hand over the car the following day.

Leaving after the meeting I forgot that I had parked very close to one of the parking posts that held a chain to indicate the end of the space allocated for cars. So, I tried to reverse while turning the steering and somehow one of the posts got stuck between the front bumper and the body of the car!

I have no idea of how I managed that, but I was stuck and considering removing the bumper when one of the guards, quite amused, came to assist me. Following his instructions, I moved the car centimetre by centimetre but could not avoid damaging the wing and breaking one of the lights, again!

Aware that were leaving in less than forty eight hours, I drove straight to the panel beater that had done the previous job on the car who, luckily, did a great paint job overnight and I could hand over the car on Saturday afternoon. I excused myself for the broken plastic claiming that it had happened on the journey from Bedele and gave the buyer the money to cover the cost of a new lens.

[1] At the time Assab (now in Eritrea) was still part of Ethiopia.

To Bedele, loaded

To get petrol for a journey in a war economy was not just filling up at a petrol station. It required the application for petrol coupons and getting them through a heavy government bureaucratic process as these were treated like golden sovereign coins by the Ministry of Agriculture’s administration.

Once that was achieved, a travel permit was necessary. Personal details were passed to the administration and that took a couple of days to be processed. Finally a small paper written in Amharic with a few stamps and signatures was given to me and we were ready to go.

Before departure, we were warned of a dangerous behaviour of pedestrians in some areas of Ethiopia where people would cross the road in front of your car at full speed apparently for no reason and, apparently, wishing to kill themselves. However, the real motive was the belief that thesepeople were closely followed by some kind of “evil spirit” and by the tight crossing the spirit would get ran over and therefore the person would be cleansed. Another extra precaution to be taken for the journey to the little known.

We loaded our Hilux pick-up and departed early in the morning as I knew that the journey was a long one. The cats in their double travel box were placed on the back seat and it left little space for anything else apart from a few clothes bags and the cool box with our lunch and drinks.

The back was also packed chock-a-block with all the rest of our essentials. These included fridge and cooker as well as food stuff to last us for a month, cutlery and crockery, camp beds, bedding, camping chairs, music centre and other essentials that were required to spend a couple of months until the rest of our belongings arrived. We also took a couple of water jerry cans and, during the journey, made up a list of items we still needed but that we were not sure to find in Bedele.

We selected a Saturday for our journey and realized, too late, that it was a bad choice as Saturdays were market days and there were lots of people moving about, particularly on the road we were using. Although the large crowds thinned somehow as we left Addis, they reappeared whenever we approached some of the populated areas such as Wolkite, Woliso and, further on, Jimma.

The road to Bedele, near Addis.

The trip followed the main road west of Addis, a rather busy and new road for us so our progress was slow. This was not helped by the habit of people to walk on the road –as seen in India- and the number of livestock that was free ranging. Of interest were some moving grass mounds that turned out to be donkeys heavily loaded with teff straw and grass to feed the abundant and free ranging livestock. There were many and they did not seem to obey orders very well, forcing us to hoot very frequently and take evasive action.

Loading!
Near Bedele.

The landscape was rather denuded from trees and the fields were being planted with teff (Eragrostis tef) the main crop of Ethiopia from which the injera I described earlier is made of. Farmers were busy planting and lots of them were seen on the fields. Then in a field we saw a circle of about twenty adult people crouching holding hands in a circle. We slowed down and, to our surprise, we witnessed our first and only communal defecation we have ever seen! Whether this is a common occurrence or something rare I cannot say!

The Ethiopian revolution was celebrated with colourful arches spanning the length of the road. These were rather substantial near Addis but they started to diminish in hierarchy as we moved on and, although approaching Jimma they revived, again, from there to Bedele these were almost absent or rather poor efforts that suggested to me that the revolution was not a priority in the interior.

Passing through Wolkite, on the way to Bedele.
Some of the beautiful large houses at Wolkite.

We arrived to Jimma late afternoon and decided to spend the night there at one of the few hotels available, I believe that it was called the Jimma Hotel. It was a rather basic facility but suitable for our needed rest. Dinner had a rather limited menu that consisted of chicken and chips or spaghetti with tomato sauce. We chose the latter, a clear consequence of the years of Italian occupation of parts of Ethiopia. We were the only commensals so the waiters literally fought to serve us and you needed to be careful as they would take away items from your table before you had finished with them!

Unfortunately, the pasta was not memorable but, tired and hungry, we were somehow satisfied and decided to retire early. On arrival to our room, Mabel remembered that she was told that the beds in some of these hotels had more wildlife than the countriside! So, apart from bringing the cats to our rooms, we slept inside our sleeping bags not before she attacked all invisible creepy crawlies with a white insecticide powder from our FAO medical kit that I hoped it was not DDT! In any case, it must have been effective as we slept like logs, hopefully not because of its fumes.

Mabel controlling insects by physical means!

The following morning, after a simple breakfast, we had a tour of Jimma, looking for fuel that was severely rationed. Eventually we arrived at one petrol station that took our Government fuel coupons and we left the asphalt to take the 140 km of the rather rough road to Bedele that would become familiar to us.

We drove for about two hours through farmland and then the landscape became forested and I knew that we were close to Bedele. We crossed true forests of large and ancient flat top acacias (Vachellia abyssinica) and we could see the coffee bushes thriving under their shade. We were arriving to the true origin of the arabica coffee!

After our afternoon arrival we needed to present ourselves to the political authority of Bedele to who we handed over our travel permit. The man examined our paper carefully and, after a while, he declared “your wife is not included in the permit and I need to ‘capture’ her and keep her at the police station”. I reacted strongly explaining that we were coming to live at Bedele and to work for the United Nations. The man seemed unimpressed by my arguments and remained unmoved, clearly full of his own importance!

Becoming rather worried I left Mabel with the political guy and drove to the veterinary laboratory to explain the situation to the Director who was really mortified by the situation and, immediately, came to our rescue. Luckily, after a short discussion (in Amharic), the Director announced that we could go with him and that we would go to the police the following day and inform them of our arrival.

We thanked the political administrator profusely for his understanding and left with the Director who took us to our bungalow and left us to unpack and organize our house before nightfall.

As agreed, the following morning I visited the police station accompanied by the Director and the Administrator of the laboratory. There we met with the political delegate of the previous day. A protracted discussion followed and, eventually, the Director (who was the only person that spoke English) explained to me the outcome.

The meeting had decided that Mabel’s omission from the Travel Permit was a serious mistake but also that we were allowed to stay. I was recommended to make sure in future that we were both included in our travel permits. I agreed wholeheartedly knowing full well that it was an impossible task but I was happy that I could now focus on my work.