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  Field Notes From
Blue Nile Expedition

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View Field Notes
From Author

Virginia Morell

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Nevada Wier

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Nevada Wier (top) and Mick Davies

Along the Nile

Field Notes From Author
Virginia Morell
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 weren’t 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 hadn’t planned on coming down to the river today, but I’m 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 couldn’t sing them without their musical instruments.
I“m 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 weren’t necessary.

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