Cooking the day's injera
I unavoidably ate injera three times a day for four weeks. Though usually with a dollop of something different every time.
"Please rural Ethiopian family in the middle of nowhere, can I empty most of the water from your well in the name of research though I can't guarantee the water will come back and no rains are expected for a month or so?"
"Why certainly foreign person; do what you must with all that baffling equipment. In fact, you sit there on the only chair we have while my family and I haul up buckets for an hour. No, no, please don't help - just sit there in the shade. In fact, come inside our mud and straw house for a huge breakfast and some milk straight from our only cow. It doesn't matter that the last house fed you as well; have some more with us. Here is a pint of homemade beer."
Ethiopia: quite the most generous and hospitable place I've ever been.
Three weeks in to the four week field visit I felt like I had achieved much. Mostly because everyone I met in Addis Ababa and told my intentions for the trip had said it was unfeasible. Therefore, I stayed in the little town closest to my field sites, got up at
6am everyday and often stayed out till 6 or 7pm then worked in the hotel in the evening. Almost everything on my list of things to do had been ticked off. Suddenly, after working 21 days straight (except for a pleasant half-day boat trip to see the ancient monasteries on Lake Tana), it seemed like I might be able to have a few days of being a tourist.
I had always wanted to go to Ethiopia. It has more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other African country (even Egypt), fantastic mountains and other bizarre landscapes (thinking of the Simiens, the Rift Valley and the Danakil Depression), rich wildlife (cliff-dwelling funky-bearded baboons, tame hyenas, and wolves), fascinating peoples (I’m sure you’ve seen photos of tribes from the Omo Valley leaping bulls or with plates in their lips), a different history to the rest of Africa (it is proudly the only country never colonised), a delicious cuisine (little piles of tasty goodness on big round injera), and it’s where the world’s most consumed drug comes from; coffee. Strange then that I had never been seeing as this would be my fifth visit to Africa. Two of those previous
Getting ready for the rainy season.
visits were short holidays to Tunisia and Egypt but the other two visits were a 3-month trip from Nairobi to Cape Town aged 21 (my first “proper” travel) and a six-month trip in 2007 which forms my earliest blogs on this website taking in parts of East Africa I didn’t or couldn’t afford to see the first time then a Morocco to Cameroon jaunt. I’d somehow been to 24 African countries without going to the one I really wanted to (though 24 was still not even half!).
So why did I find myself in Ethiopia now? As you will have gathered I wasn’t there as a tourist.
I had a few days in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar mostly filled with meetings, then I relocated to Dangila; the town in the centre of the area I’d be working. If you’ve ever taken the bus from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar then Dangila is about 8.5 hours into the 10 hour journey. Apparently it’s famous for really good honey and having the second best water in Ethiopia – though nobody seems to know where has the best.
Dangila is a town that
Being fed, again
The young animals, be it a calf, kid, lamb, chick or kitten, stay in the house with the family. Dogs are the only animals I never saw inside a house.
doesn’t see foreigners so I was quite a novelty. I’ve read (often in blogs on this website) that you can get a lot of hassle in Ethiopia with kids begging for money or touts trying to get you on tours. In Dangila there is none of this. It is an extremely friendly little town. In three weeks I made a lot of new mates including many with whom there is nearly zero shared language.
Generally I had breakfast in town about 6:30am then set off in the cool morning air on foot, bajaj (a tuk-tuk or auto-rickshaw), bus, minibus, or back of a motorbike to some rural area, returning at 13:00-ish for lunch. Work in the hotel till about 15:30 when it cooled down then set off out again into the field for a few more hours. Spent a while showering off the coating of red dust then often met a pal for a beer or coffee. Went for dinner – probably waited ages for it to arrive so got through a lot of books in the meantime (Moonstone by Wilkie Collins I can thoroughly recommend) – then went back to my room and did a bit
Luridly Painted Church
If you can't read or write, this is how you learn bible stories.
more work; writing up the day’s discoveries. I seem to get a lot more done without the distraction of internet. The hotel had wi-fi but you got a few minutes per hour and it was extremely slow. I could just about manage to do the important things; check football results and Facebook, but really struggled with email or reading any news.
Particularly if working alone, an entourage soon formed behind me who accompanied me wherever I went but certainly didn’t get in the way. Forcing water into a sample bottle through a 0.2 μm filter isn’t easy so I was glad of some readily offered assistance. Finding springs, identifying particular wells, and learning a bit about the history of a water source or irrigation practices could all be achieved with the help of the gang of followers. It was when working with the very helpful students from Bahir Dar University or with people from the Dangila agricultural office that we couldn’t spend too long near a particular house without being invited in for breakfast, second breakfast, brunch, lunch – often all of those within a few hours. And you can’t say no. Especially not when the t’ella
(home-brewed beer) makes an inevitable appearance.
T'ella (ጠላ in the pretty Amharic script) is the generously proffered homemade beer brewed in seemingly every rural Ethiopian household from maize, millet and teff. It looks like what's left in the washing up bowl after you have cleaned your football boots and tastes like cold tea and old burnt gravy with a hint of paraffin, couscous and sand. After having no choice but to consume about three pints of it a day for the last three and a bit weeks you start getting quite a taste for it.
The rural communities would be called “poor” by foreign charities and governments and they certainly have very few material possessions. Houses are essentially a trellis of sticks filled with mud around a slightly stronger frame with a chimney-less straw roof. Young animals share the single room with a fire in the middle on the dirt floor. However, these communities are incredibly rich in other aspects which are difficult to quantify on some NGO’s statistical analysis. Everyone has their family around them, communities are very close, the place is very safe, there are few work stresses, everyone has enough food
Hauling Eucalyptus to Town
Currently there's lots of this being planted because of high demand for house building and charcoal.
and clean water, people make time to see friends, and they are incredibly welcoming, hospitable and generous.
My research took me all around the rural areas surrounding Dangila. Most days were spent hiking between rivers, springs, and wells, collecting water samples, getting GPS coordinates of seasonal vs perennial water sources, conducting geological and land-use/land-cover surveys, emptying wells and monitoring the recovery, etc, etc, basically trying to figure out the hydrogeology of the area.
The point of all this? A PhD that I started at the end of September 2014 titled: Vulnerability of Shallow Groundwater and Surface Water Resources used for Irrigation in Rural Communities in Sub-Saharan Africa to Climate Variability and Change
Seeing as it seemed I could be finished with the fieldwork early, I thought with a few days off I could go to the mountains. However, Ethiopia is big; the area of France, Germany and Poland added together. The supposedly marvellous Simien Mountains or Bale Mountains were a day or two of travelling away then the same amount of time to get back would give no time actually there. I looked into one or two day trips from
Water for irrigation and animals comes from the open wells almost everyone has beside their house. Potable water comes from the handpumps as they are sealed to prevent contamination.
Addis Ababa, and though there are a few options, none of these really thrilled me.
It was then that I had a mini-revelation: Usually when I travel, I try and seek out experiences that involve hiking around fantastic scenery, interacting with locals as much as possible, in places where few other tourists tread. That’s exactly what I had been doing for the last 3 weeks which is why I was having such a good time. Why seek out something else when I could just keep doing what I had been doing? Gathering more of the all important data data data in the meantime. So that’s what I did. And loved it. Lalibela, Simien Mountains, Axum and all that can wait till next time.
2014 had been quite an odd year for me. I never really knew where I was. I worked for a company with no office so either worked from home or from the location of the project. This meant numerous periods of work in Kuwait and Azerbaijan staying in a hotel or at a gold mine, in Norfolk staying with friends or at a BnB, and in Oldham and Keele staying at
700 year old Bibles in a Lake Tana Monastery
Pages are made of goat skin rather than paper so are perfectly legible and colourful despite the age.
my sister’s in Manchester. In between I was staying with my parents in Yorkshire and even had a month “working from home” from an AirBnB in London. I would just decide where I wanted to live and start making plans then get sent away somewhere again. Not only that, I once again got frustrated working for engineering consultancies. This previously happened at the end of 2006 when I was offered a rise and a promotion and instead quit and went to Africa for six-months.
I’ll skip all of the reasoning and the justifications and the ponderings but basically this is what happened: I saw an interesting PhD at Newcastle University in August, applied on Monday and was offered an interview, had the interview on Wednesday, went to Norway on Thursday (see previous blog), got a phone call while in a bar in Oslo on Monday to offer me the place, I accepted without hesitation. So from seeing the advert for the PhD on the university website to being accepted on it was a week. Came back from Norway on Tuesday, flew back to Kuwait on Wednesday after handing in my notice, returned a month later and immediately
Another pleasant early morning hike in the name of research.
moved to Newcastle to start the PhD. I often find the best decisions in life are the spontaneous ones.
A bit of background and a quick description of the project should you be a hydrogeologist working in sub-Saharan Africa and wish to collaborate: Productive use of groundwater resources in sub-Saharan Africa currently remains low but is expected to increase significantly in the near future, potentially providing a widespread poverty reduction. Shallow groundwater resources are most likely to be used by poorer communities, but they are also the most vulnerable to over-exploitation and climatic variability. Recent studies based on climate modelling and remote sensing data have demonstrated the abundance of groundwater resources at a broad scale, however, there is a scarcity of data to support its local management to reduce vulnerability. This PhD links local community monitored data to regional scale data to produce models that will be used to simulate climatic and land-use scenarios. The principal research will be conducted for two field sites; near Dangila in Amhara province of Ethiopia and near Giyani in Limpopo province of South Africa. Field hydrogeological investigations, numerical modelling, recharge assessments, and analysis of major-ion and
stable isotope groundwater chemistry are supporting improved understanding of the shallow groundwater resource and its vulnerability. The transferability of conclusions to more data-poor locations will be evaluated to determine the level of monitoring and modelling required in order to understand the vulnerability of shallow groundwater resources at community scale across sub-Saharan Africa.
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