Tuesday, 9 August 2011

My memories of a Town called Arba Minch (1972-1979)

My first memories go to the year of nineteen seventy-one when I was  four years old. My parents had been transferred to the town called Arbaminch, literally the town of forty springs. This town is located in the province of Gamogoffa in the Southern part of Ethiopia. We had quite a few Indian teachers working under the Ministry of Education. Vijay, the son of an Indian teacher named Mr.Charles was one of my friends, and he was a neighbour of ours.

Mr.Kingston and his wife, were a couple who did not have an issue. In nineteen seventy five, there was a revolution where the Imperial Government of Ethiopia was overturned by a Revolutionary Government  which was first led by a person called Teferi Banti, and then taken over by a young revolutionary called Mengistu Haile Marium. Mengistu soon aligned himself with the Soviet Union. We were told that the revolution had been prompted by the drought and the so called insensitivity of the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. Whatever, I was and Indian Ex-Patriot caught in the midst of the revolution. A large number of our Ethiopian friends were arrested by the Dergue, the Ethiopian Secret Police and most were never heard of again. The charges against the arrested people was that they had been plotting against the revolution. There was an atmosphere of terror, and the schools had been closed for a whole year in 1975, when my sister was born. After the revolution, people from Cuba and The  Soviet Union started flooding in. The Cubans were largely doctors, and veterinary doctors. The people from the Soviet Union were largely teachers and military advisers. We came into contact with various teachers from the Soviet Union. One couple that was very close to us was Mr. Stephen and his wife Vera.

I went to a Missionary school in the twin city of Shecha (we lived in downtown called Sikalla). This school was run by some missionary sisters from the U.K. Sister Lina and Sister Josepha come to my mind. When the revolutionary Junta came to power, the missionary school closed and it became instead a centre for aid supplies. I remember an Italian who used to visit us in the Missionary school. He, we learned later on helped some of the members of the Royal Family to escape to Kenya. His name, I remember was Senor Sarti, he had stayed back in Ethiopia after the Second World War. There were rumors that he had helped the Crown Prince  to escape to Kenya in his World War two  Wiley's Jeep. He had married an Ethiopian Woman and had children from her.

I joined the Arbaminch Comprehensive Senior Secondary school when I was nine years old, and I was admitted in class seven under the instigation of the Russian Couple Stephen and Vera. Their surmise was that I would fail and be detained in class Seven being under age! Fortunately,  I kept on passing, and I studied till class nine after which my parents were transferred to Addis Abeba, the Capital of Ethiopia. What I liked most about the Arbaminch Comprehensive  School was its library. The library was well stocked and my Father initiated me into the habit of reading by introducing me to books which were based on animals. Thereafter, there was no stopping, I was hooked on to Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew series of books besides many others!

Week ends were spent in visiting the Jungle during evenings. Before the revolution, my Dad had a Beretta Semi-Automatic pistol and he took great pride in it. One evening we went to the jungle, driving on the road towards Sodo, and I remember my Dad saying that a large animal, a predator had come to the jungle. I asked him how he had come to this conclusion, and he told me to look at the deer, and the Baboons which appeared to be rather nervous! When we reached the farm called Limat, my Dad stopped the car, and pointed out towards flashes of pairs of what appeared to be torchlights. He said, “look those are lions,” and he stepped out of the car with a sealed beam that he had attached to the battery of the car. Sure enough, it was a pride of lions, with the male lion, the female lion and two cubs. We rushed back to town and got hold of Mr. Kingston and his wife and went back to see the lions. Sure enough, the pride was sitting on the road. As soon as they saw us, the male leapt into the surrounding jungle, and the female led her cubs into the undergrowth.

My days in Arbaminch passed in studies, reading of books, flying of kites games of football played with the local children and the week end visit to the lake Chamo to fish for the famed Nile Perch. This was a lake infested with Crocodiles. My father and his Russian colleague would wade through the crocodile infested waters to their favourite fishing spots, more often than not, the platform to which the steamer was anchored. I remember feeling worried and apprehensive when I saw them wading towards the platform.

In Arabaminch, I came across a rather frightening tribe called the Gujji Tribe. The men and women were rather regal, tall people, nomadic people who herded cattle. This tribe was renowned for their savagery. When a Gujji man wanted to get married, he had to prove his prowess by cutting off the sex organ of  a male of another community, or in some cases the foetus of a pregnant woman. The trophy would then be hung at the door of his hut as a proof that he was man enough to get married! I came across a number of unfortunate students of The Arbaminch comprehensive High School who had been castrated by men of the Gujji Tribe!

I remember that iit was dangerous to step out doors after 8:00 p.m. because the town of Arbaminch was visited by Lions and Hyenas. The snakes were well known, and there was one occasion when a spitting cobra spat into my father’s eyes, but then that would be another long story!

My brother and I had a lot of Ethiopian friends, and our favourite game was football. More often than not, we played with a ball that was made of a sock filled with hair, or scraps of cloth.

My favourite Ethiopian dishes were Injera, a fermented bread made of the flour of Teff, a seed of a grass like plant, and  kai Wot, and Shoro. Then there was a dish ethnic to Gamo Goffa, it was called Kurrkuffa. It was made of lumps of ground corn flour cooked in a soup containing the leaves of the tree which bears the vegetable called drumsticks.

I remember that Coffee was an important Ethiopian institution, and the women of the neighborhood would gather all the women and invite them to a feast of traditional black coffee served with roasted corn and wheat. The women would gossip and discuss things like the women in India do in Kitty Parties!




  1. Hello Rodrick,

    Good to read your memeorie of Arbaminch. Where are you now. I worked in Arbaminch for a few months during 1985, when there was famine in Ethiopia. I worked with CARE, an international NGO. I had many Ethiopian and Indian teacher friends when I was there. I knew particularly an official from Education dapartment, his name is Solomon.

    Presently I am in Bangalore, India

    1. Dear Mr. Thomas, I was particularly happy to see your comment. I left Arba Minch in 1979. My memories are still there! Maybe one day I will visit all those places once again!