Previously: My students inspire me to begin collecting stories about refugee resettlement. I arrange these stories according to date of arrival in Australia, stories that start in Vietnam, Romania, China, Sri Lanka, Iraq and now Ethiopia.
Chapter 6 Ethiopia
Otholi leans back on a plastic chair that looks woefully insufficient for his long lean frame. We sit facing one another at the Salisbury Lutheran Church hall, quiet except for the distant sounds of children playing in the next door kindergarten.
Otholi begins his story with the words, ‘The land was really good.’
He lingers on the word ‘good’, drawing it out slowly. A distant look comes over him, as if he can actually see his homeland, the fertile Gambella basin. Located in southwest Ethiopia, Gambella is a land watered by four rivers: Gilo, Operno, Alworo and Akobo.
With rains twice a year, rivers were never dry and crops grew well – maize and sorghum. Trees bore fruit in abundance: mangoes, paw paw and bananas. Even in the swamps, there was wild fruit.
‘Wild fruit which you think is good, not poisonous because by the look you can see which one is’–
‘You know,’ I say.
‘You know,’ he confirms.
‘You’ve been to the bush before,’ I say.
‘We’ve been to the bush all our life.’
We both laugh.
‘We kept some goats and chickens but not always for eating … Wild meat is yummy,’ says Otholi, laughing. In traditional times, men used to go out to hunt in small groups, armed with spears. They would come back with antelope or gazelle. The meat would be shared, and the skins dried in the sun and used as clothing or bedding.
In modern times, however, a man with a gun can go out alone; he can even take down big game – buffalo, giraffe and elephant. Otholi stretches out an arm, and trains his eye on his fingertips. He is well over six feet. I look at his extended arm, I suddenly understand how guns have changed everything. A gun bestows all advantage to the hunter, who shoots from a position of safety.
Otholi tells me that his people are the indigenous people of Gambella. They lived peacefully with their neighbours for many, many years. Many Ethiopians, however, do not recognize his people as Ethiopians because of the boundary that was drawn during the colonial period.
‘According to history, Ethiopia was not colonized, as you know’– I had not known this –‘and the British came and colonized Sudan and then from Sudan they just came to the border and the government of Ethiopia came to the border and they met in this land where we lived. Before the British and Ethiopian government came, this land was called Anuakland, which was ruled by kings: kingdomship.’
‘Who was your king?’ I ask.
‘We had many kings, who represent each village but the main one is King Akwai.’
‘So did you ever see this king?’
‘Yeah, he passed away recently. I’ve seen him.’
‘He came to your village?’
‘Not my village. My people go to see him.’
‘What did he look like?’
‘He was a traditional leader. You can see his picture on Google if you want. There was a Denmark anthropologist who went there and lived with him for almost twenty years. He wrote a book about that,’ laughs Otholi. ‘He didn’t look like somebody official like me, but he had all the traditional things. His neck was full of necklaces and some cultural things. He had a funny hat. He was very old when I saw him and he passed away. He was replaced by his son. His son returned from Canada to the village.’
‘He was in Canada because of education or because he ran away?’
‘He ran away during the civil war in South Sudan. Because this king was located in South Sudan. He was the king of all Anuak. Before British came, as I told you, Anuak lived together in Anuakland. But when the British came, British and Ethiopians just made a border and one day, the Anuak were told, “No, you don’t go to that area, that’s Ethiopia” or “You don’t go there, that’s Sudan”.’
Between 1897 and 1901, Major General Charles Gywnn was sent by the British War Office to survey and demarcate the border between Sudan and Abyssinia, as modern day Ethiopia used to be called. He set off with very few resources at his disposal – no motor transport or aeroplanes. His team posed as a semi-scientific, semi-shooting party, and consulted no one, except possibly high-ranking Abyssinian officers they might have met along the way.
Perhaps because the Akobo River provided relatively easy access to the Gambella basin, Major General Gywnn used it demarcate part of the Sudanese-Abyssinian border. In doing so, the British sliced right through the Anuak heartland. The river that had long been a meeting place, a means of transport and a source of food and water became a dividing line.
In 1937, approximately forty years after being knighted for his work on the border, Major General Sir Gwynn wrote an article in the Oxford Journals titled ‘The Frontiers of Abyssinia. A Retrospect.’ He explained that the borderlands were not demarcated with the customary elaboration ‘owing to their great extent, and to the obvious difficulty of policing such backward and unprofitable regions thoroughly.’
Rubbing the skin at the base of his thumb, skin so dark it has a bluish hue, Otholi tells me about light-skinned people called highlanders.
‘The people with lighter skin are not one tribe. They are very many.’
Highlanders from Ethiopia’s central plateau came to the lowlands where the Anuak lived, found everything to their liking and said, ‘Ah, this is Ethiopian land, but the people do not belong to Ethiopia.’
‘The Ethiopian government didn’t actually care about this community that lived on the land; they cared about the land,’ says Otholi. ‘To begin the real story now, there was a disagreement between the regional leaders and the national leaders because oil was found in the land. Some people put it this way, finding oil in your land is like finding a tumour. Cancer has been found. There will be a lot of problems.’
 Later, at home, I cannot locate the Operno River. When I ask Otholi about it, he explains that the river is also known as Boro, an Amharic name. Amharic is the Ethiopian national language, a language that his people, the Anuak, do not like to use.
This is part of serial online release of the book Refuge, a collection of true stories of people who resettled in Australia. Subscribe for free to receive links to new episodes in your inbox.