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Culture & Religion

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 17

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November 18, 1962 was a day of public celebration in Gondar. Our Peace Corps director, Harris Wofford, arrived from Asmara and accompanied us to the “Unity Day – Ethiopia and Eritrea” celebration on Tukul Hill.

Celebration on Tukul Hill. Celebrating the unification of Eritrea and Ethiopia

There gathered were many hundreds of local nobles and officials from throughout the province. The Governor and other high officials were sheltered in a large army tent where a crush of men tried to sit as close to the Governor as possible. The celebration was held in recognition of the Eritrean assembly vote which dissolved the Federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia and allowed Eritrea to be annexed to Ethiopia.

A week after the event I spoke with a Tigryean merchant from Asmara who told me that the Emperor got the approval of the Eritrean Assembly by sending army trucks throughout Eritrea rounding up all the Assembly members and hauling them to Asmara at gun point. He went on to relate that the Ethiopian government would not let any of the American or European Counsels near the Assembly members on the day of the voting. A year later while I was learning more about Ethiopian agriculture during a two weeks’ stay at Alamaya Agricultural College, a student whose father had been a member of the Eritrean Assembly corroborated what the merchant had reported.

Two menus were offered at the Unity celebration. One. roasted lamb and other cooked wats, was served under a thatched roof tukul (a picnic type shelter) which was constructed on the mountain summit. Today, on the site of the tukul the very nice Ghion Hotel where John and I stayed on our visit to Gondar six years ago now stands. We and other foreigners were ushered into the tukul to eat with all the priests of the area. The other menu which was for the hundreds of men seated along the path leading up the mountain consisted of large hunks of raw beef served with lots of talla and teg. The large metal trays of still warm (straight from the cow) beef were carried on the shoulders of dozens of smartly dressed soldiers.

Upon our arrival in Addis, Ethiopia we had been served chopped pieces of raw beef but we never encountered half pound size hunks of raw beef. It was most intriguing to watch the guests holding the hunks of beef in one hand as their other hand cut the beef by slashing downward between their fingers using very sharp knives. I cringed imagining the potential damage to a hand had the knife slipped. The smaller piece of beef was then dipped into an extremely spicy pepper sauce before it was eaten.

My interest in eating customs was in part the result of my having read Alan Moorehead’s Blue Nile which had just been published in 1962. My mother had sent me a copy which I loved reading because so much of it was drawn from James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768….1773. During that time Bruce lived in Gondar and recorded five volumes of observations on life in the Kingdom. Upon the publication of Bruce’s Journals in 1790, Moorehead related that there was skepticism in England about some of the customs like eating raw meat that Bruce reported. Moorehead’s account of the British incursion into Ethiopia in the mid 19th century was particularly vivid because our provincial governor still had the shotgun that Emperor Teodros used to take his life rather than be captured by the British.

We avoided eating raw meat because of the prevalence of tapeworms. In my second diary posting “Peace Corps Diary, Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 2” I related our journey to visit the ancient churches of Lalibela and our five day return journey by mule to Gondar. On our last day in Lalibela, after the Easter fast, some men killed a cow. At the time I had a conversation with Kassahun, one of the students who accompanied us to Lalibela, about the hazards of eating raw beef. He ate it anyway and some months later asked me to accompany him to the hospital to get medicine to purge the tapeworm he had acquired.

I so enjoyed Moorehead’s book and his frequent references to Bruce’s Journals that on my journey home in 1964 I stopped in London and inquired in an antiquarian bookshop about the availability of a set of the Journals. By chance the shop had just acquired a set when they purchased the library from an old estate. I remember the bookseller telling me “But, they are in the basement and you won’t want them because they have broken bindings.” On the spot I bought all five volumes of the 1790 first edition for only $40. They were a delight to read because the set had been owned by an old empire loyalist who had penciled numerous opinions and comments along the margins.

In rereading Moorehead’s Blue Nile I find no reference to the mapmaking of the Italian, Vincenzo Coronelli. In recent years I have been collecting old maps and one that intrigues me was published by Coronelli in 1690 in his Atlante Veneto. Coronelli’s map of the source of the Blue Nile shows a small river entering the west side of Lake Tana which is south of Gondar and the Blue Nile emerging from the Southeast corner of that vast lake. Coronelli’s sources were several 16th century Portuguese Jesuits who roamed about present day Ethiopia and whose hand drawn maps and journals were available to Coronelli

The Coronelli map does not mention Gondar by name. However, it shows a large city in the mountains a short distance northeast of Lake Tana. I find it hard to believe that Bruce did not have access to Coronelli’s Atlanta Veneto and its wonderfully detailed map of the Lake Tana/Nile area. Coronelli’s map could have been a “Rand McNally” map for Bruce to follow. Bruce’s legacy is his detailed account of the flora and fauna and life in Ethiopia in the mid 18th century. However, despite all his hardships and adventures in making the journey I find it doubtful that he “discovered” anything, let alone the source of the Nile.

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