Having wrested my next Ethiopia visa from the Embassy in Djibouti, I was free to re-enter the country and fly immediately on a field mission. The destination was Gambella, Ethiopia’s westernmost region bordering South Sudan. I was to spend two weeks there doing research among refugees and their hosts.
Gambella is beautiful. When I arrived in the spring it was green and orange, earthy, hot but not too hot. A huge river, the Baro, flows through the centre, although at the time of my visit it was so low that people could almost walk from one bank to the other. The streets were lined with coffee huts and pool tables, full at all times of day with young men and women. A visual proof of high unemployment.
The region is populated by the Nuer, the Anuak, and ‘highlanders’ – Ethiopians from the interior. The Nuer in particular are striking: very tall, very thin, and strictly geometric. Some of the men practice scarification and have thin lines traced across their foreheads. The Anuak tend to be shorter and rounder. They are both so black they glow a little. The Gambellans who speak English do so with a distinctive accent that I found hard to grasp, Ps interchangeable with Fs, so you hear we are haffy or the frocess, and pipteen or suppicient.
Gambella is one of the world’s classic refugee contexts: hundreds of thousands of people swirled together over decades by multiple layers of politics, vast, hubristic development and private business plans, ethnic rivalry, and the savage civil war in neighbouring South Sudan. I spent my two weeks interviewing a cross section of refugees and hosts, listening to their experiences of accessing the fundamentals of life: food, water, health care. Here as in other places I found the dignity and lucidity of people in sometimes deeply disadvantaged situations a humbling experience. I asked one young refugee lady how it was to have a host community village between her and her source of water: “because they are the ones near the river they may claim that the water is for them,” she said, “but actually the water belongs to God.”
I was in a team of three working to gather as much information as possible in a relatively short time. We worked all day for 13 days in a row, racking up over 100 interviews in Gambella town, far-flung villages, and one of the giant refugee camps. Interviews were punctuated by hours on dirt roads in white 4x4s and snatched meals, injera and goat at lunch and fish in the evening. It was privileged work, but hard, and tiring. As soon as my research was complete I was bidden to return to Djibouti. I needed to be in another part of Ethiopia for another mission in two weeks’ time, and as my visas only ever lasted 30 days my existing one wouldn’t cover that period.
Returning to Djibouti again was dispiriting. The guesthouse was fine for a few days but not much longer, especially over a weekend, when its shortcomings in comfort began to bite. There is precious little to do in Djiboutiville, especially during the hot season and more especially during Ramadan. In early May the temperature was building up to the debilitating summer months, peaking at 37 or 38 for the middle hours of the day and troughing at just under 30 at night. The air outside was humid and sour like a dog panting on you. I did not look forward to future visa runs in June and July.
Residency Card in hand, my time there revolved around the Ethiopian Embassy in Djiboutiville. My visa application was met with velleity by the Embassy staff, who made their counterparts in West London look like the US Navy SEALs. How long will it take for you check your emails? 24 hours? OK. And to fill out this receipt? Two days? Of course. Come back tomorrow. Come back tomorrow again. Come back at 3pm. Come back at 9. What took four hours in Knightsbridge took three working days here. I found myself getting short tempered with emails from friends and colleagues asking when I would be back in Ethiopia: it wasn’t under my control.
I coped by going running, carefully aiming for twilight when I could still see but the worst of the heat had subsided. I ran past the cargo ships coming into the port under great electric lights, the sun setting over the Gulf of Tadjourah, security guards who couldn’t leave their stations praying on flattened cardboard boxes. I ran and ran, coping, past teenagers playing volleyball in the dusk, past the high perimeter walls of the fantastic hotels, past the graffiti along the tidebreaker proclaiming Hope Is My Army.