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!

Ethiopia arrival

After my mission in Bedele I accepted the FAO offer, not without trying, fruitlessly, to negotiate a better contract with my employer, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), a last ditch attempt to stay in Kenya.

So, it was just a matter of a few weeks before this new life experience would start. I would travel to Rome for a two-week briefing session in order to get information on the technical approaches as well as the more boring administrative procedures as well as to finalize my contractual arrangements.

In Nairobi, I gradually disengaged from my activities with regret as our work in northern Kenya on the selection of cattle for tick resistance was going well. Mabel resigned to her position at the Commercial Office of the Argentinian Embassy and was now in charge of our own administrative arrangements regarding our future life “out in the sticks”. She started by having meetings with our architect friend who, kindly, drew a house plan following which she ordered the needed appliances and the additional and tailor-made furniture to complement what we had bought for our Nairobi flat. She also put together a “camping pack” that would be sent immediately so that we could have the essentials to live in Bedele until our main shipment arrived. Mabel would also organize the latter while I was briefing in Rome.

We decided to take our two cats with us as we were rather attached to them. Both were neutered when we got them, Inky, a talkative Siamese female and Tigger, a lazy and rather fat marmalade. They got on well as long as the latter did not challenge the authority of the smaller but tougher Siamese. They required a number of health certificates to enter Ethiopia and this also took some of Mabel’s time. The animals also needed to be carried in a cage of certain dimensions that needed to be made as the current plastic ones were not available in Kenya at the time.

It all sounds complicated, but we were young and enthusiastic at that time!

The next task was to order a personal vehicle and we chose a short wheelbase Land Cruiser (short ambulance type) that we ordered through the United Nations system. It would arrive in Assab (then still an Ethiopian port in the Red Sea) with an approximate delivery time of three months. Luckily, keeping in touch with the Veterinary and Economics Unit of the University of Reading (where I was a student in 1981), yielded more fruits. I followed their advice and ordered the latest available laptop, the revolutionary Zenith ZWL-183-92 with one 3.5-inch floppy disk drive of 720KB and an amazing hard disk drive with a capacity of 10MB! This was the latest in portable computers at the time and I was very pleased to get one although I paid the equivalent of the best laptop of today!

I already had some experience of briefings in Rome but this time it was more comprehensive and time-consuming. I learnt that the project I would be leading was funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and that I would need to have close contacts with them, apart from the Government of Ethiopia and the FAO. I also learnt about how to keep accounts and how and when to submit them as well as when and how to write the various kinds of reports required.

The briefing done; it was an Alitalia flight that took me to Addis Ababa (Addis). The moment I landed I realized that Mengistu’s communism was much farther from Moi’s capitalism than the physical distance that separated Nairobi from Addis. Bole International airport was really a military base used by civilian planes. Military planes and camouflaged “machinery” parked there were certainly not for agriculture development! There were armed soldiers all over and the natural good natured Kenyan welcome was totally absent. “Not a good start” I thought and had a shade of regret at having left Kenya.

Gratefully, finding people waiting for me at the airport lifted my spirit. The atmosphere was not only tense at the airport but throughout Addis, and I learnt that a curfew was in place in Addis between 23:00 and 06:00 hours. I realized that it would demand considerable adjustment to enjoy our new country. Two years could be a long time if you did not like the place.

The Ethiopian dynasty started in the 2nd century BC and together with Rome, China and Persia, the Aksum Empire was regarded as one of the four great world powers of the 3rd century BC. Additionally, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African countries that were never colonized and that retained their sovereignty as recognized independent countries. Ethiopia was also one of only four African members of the League of Nations.

This history forged a nation of proud people. Apparently, or so they told me themselves, when God created mankind it prepared its clay model and put it in the oven to bake. Unsure of what he was doing he removed before it was ready and thus the white race was created. Aware of this, when he baked the second model, he left it too long with the consequence that it got over-cooked and created the black race. It was only during his third attempt that God got the timing right and created people of the right colour: the Ethiopians!

Mengistu Haile Mariam had overthrown Haile Selassie in September 1974 and he had masterminded the Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977–1978 that killed hundreds of political opponents and secure him in power. From 1987 he had been the President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the country we had arrived to. It was a country undergoing a civil war with the province of Eritrea that had separatist intentions. This would be our first experience at living in a country at war and ruled by a ruthless leader!

I returned to the Ghion hotel to started work while waiting for Mabel that, together with our cats, was arriving from Nairobi in a couple of days. I negotiated with the hotel to be able to keep the cats (in the toilet!) and proceeded with introductory meetings and project reviews to prepare for the work that was expected.

Eventually Mabel arrived and she took over the arrangements for the trip to Bedele as there was pressure for me to move there as early as possible. She also kept the cats under control as agreed and made sure that they did not got lostin Addis. Commercial cat food as we now see all over was non-existent and we had to do with cooking rice and some meat for them, courtesy of the hotel.

We walked in Addis to get a feel for the place and noted a few new things. First, the white and blue taxis most of which were Lada (like the Fiat 124) and very numerous, as well as the shoe-polishers that congregated around the public offices. At that time, we were told that the “Bedele people” meaning Jan and Janni (our Dutch colleagues) always stayed at another hotel called Harambe so we moved there and this hotel became our centre of operations from then on although it had some shortcomings as I will describe later.

Addis from the window of our room at the Harambe hotel after a heavy hailstorm.

Although the name of the hotel meant freedom in Ki-Swahili it did not go well with the atmosphere in the country at the time. However, being a commonly used word in Kenya, at least the name reminded us that we were still in East Africa! The change also meant a repeat of the negotiation of our cats’ stay while we prepared our trip to Bedele. The negotiations were tougher than in the Ghion but eventually we reached an agreement, they could stay for free, provided that they remained inside our room. Although we got the permission, this time without the option of a garden as we were several floors up.

At the Harambe we eventually met Jan, the other FAO worker with who we would be sharing our stay in Bedele. He was coming to Addis at regular intervals to get food and other issues related to his project work. We compared notes and I appreciated his advice but also decided that I would keep an open mind and see by myself how the stay there would be and handle it accordingly.

Although I immediately got a project car, we decided to walk as I needed a few days to “adjust” to driving on the right-hand side of the road. We did walk a lot as it was very safe to do so despite the overwhelming attention we got from the multitude of beggars that will constantly surround you and follow you all the time in the streets, particularly near the hotel areas.

Poverty in Addis at the time was extreme, a lasting consequence of the most severe famine that affected Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985. This sad event took the lives of 1.2 million people, internally displaced 2.5 million and left 0.4 million as refugees and 0.2 million orphans. The beggars were so insistent that, as soon as you were spotted leaving your hotel on foot, they will swarm around you asking for food but also holding you from your arms and clothes.

The situation almost invariably developed in the appearance of a youngster that would take it upon himself to chase beggars off by brandishing a stick, hoping to get a tip from you! At first, we refused such service but soon we noted that it was impossible to stop it so a boy self-appointed himself as our guard and he will wait for us outside the hotel and join us as soon as he spotted us.

Although the majority of the people dressed either in European or traditional Ethiopian clothes, we noted that many men worn kaki or blue uniforms (Kaunda suit type). These were Government workers although, interestingly, women did not wear uniforms or at least we did not see them.

A few men dressed in darker blue suits with a “Mao-style” collar. These were the senior political authorities that were clearly feared. We were always treated with the outmost courtesy, but it was clear that we were dealing with people belonging to a proud nation and proud themselves almost to the point of arrogance.

Looking for sources of food to take to Bedele, we realized that markets were our main hope although private shops were in evidence in the Kazanchis area, near the hotel, where there were private shops, particularly one that we called “Solomon’s” that was a well stocked and expensive store where we could get what we needed.

The humongous “Mercato” was also an option that we explored and immediately realized that it would be a good choice for the future but not for the present as it was an unknown area for us, and hygiene was not top of the agenda. In fact, Mabel made a mental note to return to it wearing rubber boots!

Both, Kazanchis and Mercato offered amazing jewellery shops that never failed to call our attention, particularly the gold and silver trinkets. Among the latter, the variety of crosses to be worn as pendants was incredible. We decided to leave those more superfluous items for later and to focus on accumulating the necessary items to survive in Bedele.

Ethiopians are very proud of their traditions and they like to share them with you. Among these, food, drink and dance are important. So, before too long we were invited to dine at one of the traditional restaurants in Addis Ababa: the Addis Ababa Restaurant, on the road to Sidist Kilo from St. George Church. In Addis the location of places was described as street numbers were not used.

This restaurant was a large and popular place with lots of tables and little light, served by women clad in traditional dress and where our hosts guided us through the menu as it was all new to us.

Ethiopian cuisine [1] mainly involves spicy vegetable and meat dishes, usually in the form of a stew known as “wot” (or wat) served on “injera“, a large rounded and flat pancake-like sour bread of about half a metre in diameter and accompanied with rolled strips of injera of about 10 cm width. Injera is made of “teff” (Eragrostis tef) an annual grass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands, similar to millet and quinoa but with a tiny seed of less than 1 mm diameter. Teff is thought to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 and 1000 BC. It grows in harsh environments ranging from very dry to waterlogged soil and its best production takes place at about 2000m altitude. The grain is rich in minerals and has a has a high protein content with an excellent amino acid composition.

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

We sat around what looked like a small hut replica made of straw, colourful and tightly woven. We were informed that this was a “mesob“, where our food would be placed. I could not help wondering how this would happen with such a shape. Once seated, the appearance of a basin of water and soap for handwashing anticipated the importance of our hands for eating and, watching our hosts, the right hand was the one to be used. If we needed more information to confirm our suspicions, there was no cutlery!

The mesob now “topless” to show where the food is placed.

While we waited for the food to arrive, we sought some advice on eating techniques, but, before we got an answer, food arrived on a large tray, a very short time after ordering. The top of the mesob was then removed and the food placed on the flat top that had been hidden below. It was spectacular: a large rounded tray covered in injera with a several mounds of different foods, smelling of spices and steaming. “This is doro wot ” said Ibrahim pointing at a large portion in the centre with some obvious chicken eggs in it.

We learnt that several kinds of “wot” exist, depending on the area, ingredient availability, etc. The most common being the chicken stew we got known as “doro wot“. In poorer places where there are no chickens “doro fanta” (doro: chicken; fanta: instead of) was served. It contains the egg, but the meat is mutton, a cheaper substitute. This, I would learn later, was the staple food in Bedele.

They had also brought “kitfo” and “kocho”. The former is a dish of minced raw beef, marinated in “mitmita” (powdered seasoning mix orange red in colour that generally contains ground African bird’s eye chili peppers, Ethiopian cardamom, cloves, and salt). Kitfo cooked lightly rare is known as “kitfo leb leb“, that became our favourite. Kitfo goes with Kocho a grey paste prepared from chopped and grated Ensete [2] pulp that I believe is buried for a while to mature.

We were informed that the way food was presented was mainly for tourists as traditionally such dishes would not be served together very often.

We watched the Ethiopians cutting small pieces of injera with which they would envelop the stew and any suitable side dishes and then placed it in their mouths. A simple procedure in the able hands of our hosts but full of failures and accidents in ours, accompanied of some polite remarks on how to improve and even laughter from those Ethiopians that had a Latin influence from Cuba. The best help came in the shape of a “goorsha“, an expression of friendship through which a person would strip off a piece of injera, roll food in it and then place it in the other person’s mouth. Although the procedure took us by surprise, we truly appreciated it.

Food was rather spicy and some of it rather hot, so we needed to drink a lot. Although a number of excellent local beers and some wines existed, local brews were very popular. “Katikala” and “araki” are inexpensive local spirits that are very strong and illegal but that night we tried “Tej, a rather potent honey wine with an alcohol content that ranges from 7 to 11 %. and another local drink: “Tella“, a home-brewed beer with a smoky flavour due to the addition of bread darkened by baking and the use of a fermentation vessel which has been smoked by inversion over smouldering wood. Tella had a lower alcohol content, between 2-4%. Both tej and tella were good, provided that clean water was used in their preparation. Later on, during our stay we would, sometimes, suffer the consequences of the use of unclean water…

Regarding the work, I attended several meetings with my organization’s representative, UNDP and the Veterinary Department. It was clear that the work was behind schedule and very urgent reporting was essential in order for UNDP to release the funds needed for the work to continue. This meant that my work baptism was to spend long days with Ibrahim, the Director of the Bedele Laboratory writing various reports on a project I did not yet know! The assistance of the Director was invaluable, so we managed to persuade UNDP to release the funds. Despite this, it was evident that the project was already considered as a “problem” by UNDP, a fame that remained till the end!

After a week in the Harambe hotel we learnt that our accelerated shipment including camp beds, bedding, crockery and other essential stuff had arrived so we could now travel to Bedele carrying not only the cats but all the gear that would enable us to camp in our bungalow until our larger consignment arrived.

Enquiries on our main shipment with the rest of our personal effects (also handled by the government’s cargo company) revealed an undetermined delay and, worse news, I was informed that I needed my own arrangements to take the stuff to Bedele as they did not offer that service. Luckily, another FAO project had a lorry that was authorized to take it all the way to Bedele.

Finally the time for our journey to Bedele arrived but I noted that the planned date did not match the one my colleagues referred to. Eventually I understood that the Ethiopian (Ge’ez) calendar was based on the older Alexandrian or Coptic calendar and it was about seven years behind ours. The year had twelve months of 30 days each plus five days (six days on leap years), which comprise a thirteenth month. Finally, we agreed on a departure date and agreed to get a conversion calendar. This was, fortunately, easy to buy and it became indispensable as also all official correspondence was not only in Amharic but dated following the Ge’ez calendar!

Before leaving, we got our Government petrol coupons (as petrol was rationed) and our travel permit that I was (again) unable to read, started with the title የጉዞ ፈቃድ (Tavel Permit) and all the rest! We loaded the car with our camping gear, food to last us for a month, our two cats and the following morning we headed west where, if all went well, we would spend two years of our lives.

[1] As an example I point you out to  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cuisine_of_Ethiopia but many pages cover the issue.

[2] Ensete ventricosum, known as false banana.