We were traveling along the Blue Nile when we reached a gorge so steep and remote that we
were told we might not see people for two or three days. Just as we got into the area, we
saw a group of men at a distance on the right bank. Some wore big turbans and carried
walking sticks and lunch baskets that looked like flat canteens. We decided to say hello,
but as soon as they saw us they ran away. Walking sticks and baskets flew in every
direction. Men scrambled up the hillside. Some even scaled trees.
Our interpreter finally managed to coax a few of them closer. They began to relax and smile
once they discovered what we were doing and that we werent enemies. It turned out they
had feared the rare sight of our boats as much as our strange appearance. Ethiopia and
Eritrea were at war, and two of our gray rafts looked rather military and imposing.
Later as we were pulling away, one of the men told his friend: I hadnt planned
on coming down to the river today, but Im glad I did. Otherwise, I would never have
seen this historical event. Now I have something wonderful to tell my family.
We were approached by men armed with AK-47s. They introduced themselves as officials, but we
were suspicious; they looked like a band of brigands. There was a roughness about them, and
they were exceedingly hostile to us. They refused to accept any of the permits or letters
that allowed us to be there. It was very tense. They tried to force us to go with them into
the high mountains so they could wire Addis Ababa, they claimed, to confirm that we were
legitimate. Eventually, we had to pay them to make them go away.
The atmosphere eased tremendously after they left. But we could tell from the looks on
their faces that they could have killed us and not thought twice about it.
We came upon one group as
they were planting beans and cotton. Throughout the expedition I had been collecting songs
and poetry from the people along the Blue Nile. I wondered if such forms of expression were
as important to the Gumuz, so I asked them if they sang any special songs while planting.
They looked puzzled. Then they told me that they do have special songs, but they
couldnt sing them without their musical instruments.
Im sure I looked equally as puzzled. These were
people who used simple hand hoes, were plainly dressed, and lived far from any major towns.
What kind of instruments could they have? And why did they need them to sing?
They dropped what they were doing, ran to their homes, and returned with
a surprise. The men carried pipes several feet long that they wet in the river. The women
were adorned in ankle bracelets and necklaces decorated with bells and big seed pods. In
a short time we were treated to an impromptu concert. Women rang and rattled as they
sashayed to rhythms from blasting horns that rivaled saxophones and trumpets. Yet no one
sang a word. Later they explained: It was the instruments that sang the song. Words