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IN PICTURES | Along the banks of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile

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The Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. Around is an ancient land with life-giving waters.


If one needs to be transported to biblical times, the time machine to do so resides on the banks of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. This ancient land of many cultures and religions has resisted modernity, leaving many of its traditions intact, as I witnessed traveling through the historic Christian circuit of Ethiopia.

The mysterious Nile was long-hidden from Western geographers and explorers. It was not until the expeditions of such great travelers as Bruce, Burton, and Speke in the 18th century that the origins were confirmed: the White Nile originates in East Africa’s Lake Victoria, while the Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana.

It merges with the smaller tributary, the White Nile, at Khartoum, Sudan, to form the mighty Nile River.

The Blue Nile was responsible for the annual floods that contributed to the fertility of the Nile Valley and subsequent rise of the Egyptian civilization. This ended with the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s in Egypt.

For my exploration, I started in Addis Ababa and flew into Bahir Dar, a clean, safe and well-maintained city (by African standards) and the closest approach to the Blue Nile.

It offers access to more than 20 of the world’s oldest monastic churches that date back to the 14th century, located on the peninsulas and islands of Lake Tana. I hired a boat that regularly plies Lake Tana to visit many of its churches and small villages.

I was quite surprised to see locals operating papyrus boats (tankwas) that have been in use since the 9th century BC, either to fish or transport firewood across the lake. The only other place where I have seen papyrus boats still in use was in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. 

My biblical adventure took me first to the magnificent 14th century Ura Kidane Mehret church decorated with its astoundingly beautiful murals painted more than 250 years ago.

From a rather humble building, some of Ethiopia’s fabled treasures were revealed to me by a priest of the church: ancient parchment books from the 9th century, jewel-studded crowns of emperors, historic battle implements and the mummified remains of 14 of Ethiopia’s most revered emperors.

I was quite surprised at the poor quality of the storage cabinets and an absolute lack of proper security for such priceless treasures.

It barely took a five-minute drive from the lakeside town of Bahir Dar to reach the spot where the Blue Nile flows out of Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. But driving further downstream for about 40 kilometers, the power of the first cataract of the Blue Nile can be appreciated at Tis-Isat village. The village is a market settlement of the Amhara people who have inhabited this area for over 2,000 years, farming crops like wheat, sorghum and teff (from which injera, the delicious national bread, is made).

The footpath leaving the village meanders first beside fertile open fields, then drops into a deep basaltic rift. After about a 30-minute walk, a stiff climb up a grassy hillside is rewarded by a magnificent view of the falls, breaking the smooth edge of the rolling river into a thundering cataract of foaming white water.

The approach to the falls was surreal with cowherds playing the flute and local women gathering water from the river in ceramic amphoras (ancient jugs) – scenes that were truly biblical. The Tis-Isat falls had been one of Ethiopia’s major tourist attractions until a decade ago.

Little did I realize that what I saw, despite being impressive, was a far cry from its gloried past. Since 2003, a giant hydroelectric power project has reduced the giant half mile wide water curtain to a mere third of its size. Even though there were many gorges nearby to install a power plant, the government decided on this easier location which has unfortunately affected fish farming in Lake Tana and tourism in the area.

Unlike some of the great falls of the world – Niagara, Victoria and Iguaçu – with endless hotels and tourist offerings nearby, the falls of the Blue Nile are located in a pastoral and primal setting that should showcase its natural might, but it’s being slowly being dammed into silence. Many young rural women and some men in the area sport tattoos of traditional designs, which are as diverse as Ethiopian society, usually indicating the bearer’s cultural, religious and ethnic background.

Traditional tattoos have many forms — from rows of blue or black lines from chin to chest, dots on the forehead to crucifixes or crescents on the back of the hand and tattoos designed to darken pinkish gums.

Meran Kabede, a young lady in her 20s peered through my car window, as I was taking photos of her tattoos. “I am ashamed of my tattoos. My mother told me that it would beautify me but my friends in Bahir Dar tell me that it’s a sign of backwardness and ignorance,” she said in halting English. While I appreciated the beautiful and unique facial decorations, I could very well see her desire to shed her rural identity for more modern times.

Not much has changed along the river bank over the centuries; donkey carts transport goods inland while papyrus and dugout boats carry people across the different villages lining the river.

One man, carrying an ancient firearm on his shoulder, claimed to be protecting himself from any number of ethnic conflicts that could arise. The Eritrean, Somali, South Sudan and Kenyan border areas have always been areas of unrest. In fact, I was fully escorted by a Kalashnikov-toting soldier for my tour of the highlands near the Eritrean border.

This ancient land with life-giving waters, in an otherwise parched landscape is both a blessing and curse for Ethiopia. The sharing of the Nile waters has become a contentious issue in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia where the population explosion has put pressure on water consumption. It is often said that the world’s next war will be fought over water and there are few places as tense as along the river Nile.

-Ramdas Iyer

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Cover Story

A Solution To Improve Madagascar’s Local Economies

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Madagascar is a priority country for conservation and preserving Earth’s biodiversity riches threatened by a rampant rate of habitat destruction. Ninety percent of the natural habitat of Madagascar has been destroyed and 91% of the lemur species are critically endangered, endangered or threatened.

Since the political turmoil of 2009, coupled with security issues and illegal extraction activities, the conservation situation has worsened. The presidential election that took place in January offers hope that this new regime will make preservation of the unique wildlife of Madagascar a priority.

President Andry Rajoelina ran on a platform of eliminating poverty for his people.

Ecotourism is good for the economy, but there are doubts if it is enough. Our conservation teams in the Ranomafana region are hoping that we have a solution for improving local economies.


Patricia Wright is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar. Picture: Supplied

Centre ValBio (CVB), a 30-year-old research center, is nestled overlooking the Ranomafana National Park rainforest near Fianarantsoa, and is an eight-hour drive from the capital Antananarivo.

CVB is a hub of modern science with laboratory equipment to study genetics, infectious diseases and mapping from satellites.

Substantial efforts by scientists have led to an improved understanding about taxonomy, species distributions, the evolution, behavior and population size of the flora and fauna, and the impact of habitat loss on Madagascan biodiversity.

READ MORE | Putting land To Good Use: Food Security In Our Backyards

This knowledge has been successfully used to guide conservation planning and action, as well as new discoveries in medical science. Scientists investigate the impact of anthropogenic influence, edge effects, climate change, and fragmentation on ecosystems and communities in these lush rainforests.

The CVB campus has five buildings and a staff of 130 local scientists, technicians and administrators who work year-round on research, training and conservation.

This station conducts studies of cyanide-eating lemurs, climate change, new leech species, lemurs that have genes that might be related to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and genetics of an ecosystem.

All around, the parks, forests and the rare species within them are still disappearing. Slash-and-burn agriculture is the main threat to rainforests in Madagascar.

READ MORE | The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest

Forests are sacrificed to plant rice, the staple food for humans.
CVB has launched an alternative against this destruction of natural resources. First, the village elders are engaged to ensure a buy-in by the communities.

If the villagers are enthusiastic, workshops and training begin in the fields.
Next, using years of botanical knowledge, the reforestation team (technicians and scientists) helps villagers plant endemic saplings of tree species eaten by lemurs. We don’t plant a monoculture, but rather use natural dispersion as a guide.

We know from our pilot experience that it takes about 15 years for the endemic trees to fruit and flower, and for birds, bats and lemurs to return to these ‘new forests’ where they could help ‘plant’ more forests by dispersing their seeds.

We are hoping that this strategy will help to stabilize the soil, prevent erosion and river silting, and expand the habitats for wildlife.
But what value do these trees have for the Malagasy farmer?

Using these trees as structure vines of high value crops such as vanilla, wild pepper and cinnamon that need shade to grow well are transplanted onto these trees.

With assistance in processing and marketing, the local farmers can harvest these high-value crops and earn great economic gain.

The prices of Malagasy spices are high in the world market and spice venders project that the high prices will continue into the future with new markets in China and India.

There is hope that not only will this strategy increase biodiversity, but it will also bring affluence to the farmers and merchants of Madagascar.
Rajoelina’s promise of prosperity is possible and the unforeseen benefits could be transformative.

– The writer is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar

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Arts

From Fishing Village To Gastronomic Heaven: Tables Turn For Wolfgat

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In a small fishing village on South Africa’s rugged west coast, restaurateur Kobus van der Merwe is struggling to process his meteoric rise to gastronomic stardom.

He recently got back from Paris, where four days ago his 20-cover Wolfgat was named Restaurant of the Year at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards, also winning the remote location prize.

“In our category, which was for the off-map destination… there are restaurants that we literally hero-worship and we were like, this is insane,” the food-journalist-turned-chef told Reuters TV on Friday in his first interview with foreign media since returning home.

Others on that shortlist included Japanese wild dining sensation Tokuyamazushi.

Of both prizes, he added: “We never dreamed of making the shortlist, let alone winning.”

Situated in Paternoster, about 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Cape Town, Wolfgat’s speciality is seafood.

Van der Merwe’s seven-course tasting menu pays homage to the region’s long-gone indigenous inhabitants, and his signature dishes are flavored and supplemented with ingredients foraged locally, such as seaweed and succulent plants.

They include Rooibos tea-smoked yellowtail with dune spinach and buttermilk rusk, and freshly baked bread served with bokkom (salted dry fish) butter and infused herbs.

Guests at the 130-year-old whitewashed restaurant, nestled above Wolfgat cave within hearing distance of crashing waves, pay 850 rand ($60), or 1400 rand including drinks.

Van der Merwe, who took the plunge into full-time cooking before completing his culinary studies, said he had no wish to expand or replicate Wolfgat in an urban setting.

“We certainly don’t aspire to be in the city because the west coast is our muse and I can’t see Wolfgat existing anywhere else,” he said.

His clientele is split evenly between foreign tourists visiting the village and well-heeled South Africans.

But those who make the two-hour drive from Cape Town had better be sure of their reservations before they set out – because he’s fully booked for the next three months. -Reuters

– Wendell Roelf

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Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneur And DJ – Oskido Tells Us Why Brazil Is His Favourite Place

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This South African DJ and entrepreneur is never home-sick when in Brazil. He says its food and music fill his soul.


After traveling the world and the concomitant culinary outings that come with it, kwaito (South African music genre) pioneer, DJ and businessman Oscar Bonginkosi Mdlongwa, popularly known as Oskido, counts Brazil his most favorite overseas destination.

In enjoying the fruits of his success, Oskido has come far.

He was born in Brits, a large town irrigated by the waters of the Hartbeespoort Dam in the North West Province of South Africa.

His childhood was in Bulawayo, a city in the southwest of Zimbabwe, before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in music in 1988.

His influences may be primarily South African and Zimbabwean, but the South American country is what he regales about when we meet him in late November last year.  

“What amazed me the most was the food. I have traveled all over the world but the way they cook their food and the way they love their food stunned me,” says Oskido.

The memories are still fresh.

In September last year, Mdlongwa had traveled to the centrally-located capital of Brazil, Brasilia, on a cultural exchange program between Brazil and South Africa.

During our interview, he also compliments the city’s culture and the friendliness of its people.

“When I come back to my country [South Africa] after traveling, I just want our food. When I start going to Europe, I think of home, missing the food, but when I went to Brazil, it was like I’m home.”

He goes on to elucidate that they have their own traditional way of cooking, which includes beans that he enjoys the most.

Oskido especially appreciates Brazil’s restaurants because of the different meat cuts they serve customers.

“They will bring you a paper and describe the part that you are eating. Also, their way of cooking is healthy,” he says.

“We normally just eat and say ‘rump’; you don’t even know where it’s coming from. Therefore, they come in and you keep eating different cuts until you find the one you like and they will keep feeding you until you are full.

“What amazed me the most is when you get to our [local] food courts, you will find all these chain stores. It’s the same thing [there], but there isn’t anything that is like a buffet. Their food courts are designed that way, there isn’t any of the junk food,” says Oskido.

He speaks about connecting to the people despite the language barrier. He remembers going to a shopping center to buy things and having to explain.

He would speak on the phone with a translator and communication would be delayed.

But he found his own comfort zone.

Whenever he talked about music, he says there would be an instant connection with the people.

Oskido was invited by the South African Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa as a delegate for the exchange program.

“The minister and his office went to a school of kids aged between four and five years old. The kids were told to look for a song on YouTube that resembled Africa. Coincidently, they found Tsa Mandebele as the song of choice. I found that these kids could sing along to my song and dance to the moves because of the music video,” he says, joyfully.

“It was good to see a Limpopo language [song] sung in Brazil. That was the moment when I was really touched, and felt that there was something about Brazil.

“After the festive season, I want to go back, take my family and go relax.”

These are the notes from the South African DJ who has gone from Brits to Brazil.

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