Ethiopia (November-December 2013)
I spent 3 days in Gambela at the end of this trip to Ethiopia. I had chosen to go there because it is known to be very different from any other region in Ethiopia. Although it lies further away from the sea than any other Ethiopian region, it has the lowest elevation (if one excludes the bottom of the Afar depression). In most (all?) guidebooks, the state of Gambela is mentioned in a short last chapter, like an afterthought.
The area is populated by two main ethnic groups, the Anuwaks and the Nuers, but there are also a significant and increasing number of immigrants from other regions of Ethiopia. Both the Anuwaks and the Nuers are much darker-skinned that the other Ethiopians. They are also incredibly tall, especially the Nuers, a Nilotic people. I have never seen before such a concentration of people taller than 2m. Many (including a large fraction of women) are one head taller than me.
The region is flat and quite green. The city of Gambela (actually, a small town with only two main streets) is traversed by the Baro River. This river is the only navigable river (during the rainy season) in Ethiopia. Navigation is possible as far as Khartoum, first along the Baro, then along the White Nile. A port was established in the early 20th century by the British and the Ethiopians, and regular ships used to sail from Gambela to Khartoum carrying coffee and other Ethiopian products to Sudan. This shipping service eventually stopped, and all what remain today is a small pier in Gambela.
Overall, I have been disappointed by Gambela. There is little to see. The Anuwaks and the Nuers are friendly, but they seem to have lost most of their roots and traditions. Maybe I spent too little time to appreciate the area. After all, if I had only stayed in small towns elsewhere in Ethiopia, I would have been deeply disappointed as well. Moreover, I arrived on December 17th soon after serious fighting had erupted in South Sudan (where Nuers also form a major ethnic group), only 50km away. Gambela remained quiet and peaceful, but I felt some tension, perhaps because in a recent past Gambela has also seen ethnic fighting.
People bathing in the Baro River at sunset.
Anuwaks eating and drinking coffee along the bank of the Baro river.
A street in Gambela.
Well-built Nuer huts on the outskirts of town.
Marsh near the Baro River outside town.