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The Blue Nile
By Virginia Morell
From Mount Gishe's 10,433-foot (3,179-meter) summit, Marigeta Birhane Tsige, an elderly clergyman in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, looked down at what many Ethiopians consider the source of one of Africa's great rivers, the Blue Nile, its waters emerging from bubbling pools hidden behind a thicket of trees and shrubs in a close-cropped, alpine meadow. The spring of the Blue Nile, or Abay Wenz (meaning "great river") as it is called in Ethiopia, forms one of the holiest places in the country, the turbaned priest explained. And, indeed, around the edges of the spring were gathered numerous villagers, waiting to fill their containers—gourds, bottles, canteens, and plastic jerry cans—with holy water.
"Yes, yes. They seek the power of the Abay," Marigeta (which means "holy instructor") Birhane said. In exchange for a promised future sacrifice of a sheep or young heifer, the spirit in the spring's waters might be enticed to cure a thousand ills, to bless a farmer with a bountiful crop, or to break an evil spell.
The Blue Nile, he continued, may surface first here on the side of Gishe, but its true font, its absolute source, lies beneath the mountain. "The mountain floats on a lake," he said, sweeping his hand sideways to illustrate. "And from that lake flows the Abay. It starts like this." Leaning forward, he extended his left palm, and with the forefinger of his right hand traced a spiral like one in a nautilus shell. "The river flows in every direction," he said, "north, east, south, and west, making the sign of the cross."
It was that spiraling journey, he added, that gives the river's waters their powers. From here the spring's waters course downhill into an alpine stream that bends its way through the mountains to the shores of Lake Tana. Other streams pour into the lake too, emerging on the southeastern side at Tis Isat Falls ("smoke of fire") as the Blue Nile proper. Marigeta Birhane, who had followed much of the Blue Nile's route, knew that other rivers ran in more-or-less straight lines from source to mouth. But the Blue Nile wound like a mainspring through the land.
"It circles around Ethiopia," he said, "so it's like a herder boy sent out to protect the cows." He pulled back a moment. "You know, the Italians bombed us here [in 1935]. But they never defeated us. They had the power of bombs, but we had a greater power: We had the Abay."
For more than a month a team of explorers and I had been following the circuitous course of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Before visiting the spring at Mount Gishe, we had hiked and rafted the river from below Tis Isat Falls to the Sudanese border, a journey of more than 500 miles (800 kilometers). Over that distance the Nile drops nearly 4,000 feet (1,219 meter) and in places has carved out a canyon 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 kilometers) wide, as vast and terraced as the Grand Canyon.
As the first expedition to travel the entire length of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia in an unbroken journey, we discovered that among Ethiopians the Nile has a decidedly mixed reputation. It is loved and hated, revered and feared, treated like a saint and despised like the worst sinner. It sweeps away precious topsoil; its waters boil by without leaving a drop behind; it is infested with crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and malaria-bearing mosquitoes; and its deep, moatlike channel splits the country in two. At the same time its waters are regarded by Orthodox Christians and animists alike as harboring powerful spirits, some like devilish demons, but another that is almost akin to God.
"Be sure you give some bread to the Abay," one woman with a blue cross tattooed on her forehead cautioned us as we started our hike along the upper Blue Nile Gorge southeast of Lake Tana. "There are bad jinn [spirits] in the water that might reach up and grab you."
Her warning didn't seem that implausible. Just below the thunderous cascade of Tis Isat Falls, the Blue Nile churned its way through a narrow-sided canyon of black volcanic rock. It was early September, the end of the rainy season in Ethiopia, and the Nile's waters were swollen and heavy with silt. Far from being blue, the river was a mean, muddy brown, and it roiled by us angrily, its waves slapping long, dirty fingers against every rock in its path. It was easy to imagine one finger rising up to drag you in, and I gladly tossed the river the last of my granola bar—and hoped that the spirits liked it as much as they did bread.
There were other potential jinn—or at least dangers—associated with the river. The Blue Nile isn't only a river of magic to Ethiopians, it is a river of great strategic importance. Sweeping in a big-bellied, 560-mile (900-kilometer) arc through the central highlands of the country, it has been used many times as a blockade. Since only two small brick-and-mortar bridges spanned the river's canyon until this century, warring kings and princes could retreat to their mountaintops beyond the Nile and feel as secure as if they'd pulled up a drawbridge behind them. Today three additional two-lane concrete-and- steel highway bridges cross the Nile, tenuously linking the halves of the country. Some months before we arrived, a border war had flared up between Ethiopia and Eritrea to the north—and these bridges were now under heavy guard. The Ethiopian government granted us special permission to raft beneath two of them.
Other worries: notorious gangs of bandits, known as shifta, who hide out in the gorge (and had attacked previous expeditions); crocodiles the size of small dinosaurs and with tempers to match; suffocating heat; parasites and fevers; questionable rapids; tribesmen on the lower reaches who are prone to throwing spears first and asking questions later. Against all these we had only our luck—and a prayer tossed to the Blue Nile.
Ten people, including three boatmen, aparamedic, and an interpreter, made up the core of our group. But at the start of the trek below Tis Isat Falls, our team expanded into a large, rangy retinue. With guides, porters, donkeys and their wranglers, and other assorted camp followers milling about, we looked more like an unwieldy caravan of traders than an
expeditionary force. It wasn't always clear who was in charge or where our team began and ended, not that it mattered: The trail, a black clay path, was beaten into the land from tens of thousands of farmers' bare feet and was easily followed.
We met dozens of people heading to or from the city of Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana, a long day's walk from their farms and villages on the plateaus and mountains above the Blue Nile Gorge. They stared at us and our white skin in disbelief. Most of them had rarely, if ever, seen ferenjocch (white foreigners) and certainly not white foreigners hiking in the countryside. But we were staring too. These highland Ethiopians were largely Amhara, the people who dominated the country during the reign of the Emperor Haile Selassie. Tall and slender, with high cheekbones, even teeth, and large, dark eyes, they were strikingly handsome in their turbans, robes, and white embroidered dresses. Many of the women wore silver or wooden crosses at their necks (a sign of their devotion to the Orthodox Church), while most of the men, we couldn't help but notice, carried automatic weapons—Kalashnikovs and G3s.
Most of our guides and porters were similarly armed, since they belonged to their village's militia and the government requires them to bear their arms at all times. One, Kes Yeshambel Berhanu, was also a priest and, alongside his Kalashnikov, wore a large brass cross on a metal chain. It seemed a curious mix of talents, but apparently only to us. Almost every villager we passed recognized our well-armed priest and stopped to seek his blessing and to kiss his cross. This was protection of an altogether different sort, and as other rifle-men strode down the trail, we were glad of the bristly yet holy image our team projected.
Our trail downstream followed the left-hand bank of the Blue Nile, first keeping so close to the river's edge that with the water at flood stage the main path at times vanished beneath the muddy flow. Ethiopia's spring comes at the end of the rains, and the land we walked through was vibrant with its flush of new green grasses, yellow daisies, freshly sprouted fields of teff—a kind of millet—and corn. Bowers of star jasmine, tumbling through the branches of acacia trees and euphorbias, scented the air, and buffalo weaverbirds darted among the shoreline shrubs like big golden bees.
Fifteen miles (twenty-four kilometers) downstream we parted ways with the Blue Nile. Our path led up onto a high, cultivated plateau, while the river dropped into a sheer-sided, black basalt canyon. The gorge's basalt flowed out of fissures in the earth some 30 million years ago. The flows lie on top of layers of limestone and sandstone, and they are more than a mile thick in places—yet all that rock poured out in a million-year period, geologists have recently discovered. This hard volcanic rock is the guiding hand that gives the Blue Nile its curvaceous route.
With the river roaring through its canyon a good half mile below us, we trekked past clusters of round, thatch-roofed homes and fields of teff edged with low stone walls and clumps of daisies. On both sides of the gorge the land rose in broad-shouldered, terraced mountains, each flat bit of land quilted with a patchwork of fields that shimmered green and gold in the sun. In many fields small groups of men, women, and children squatted on their haunches, laboriously weeding each row by hand. Some stared in amazement as we passed; others rose and made three or four quick bows in greeting. One farmer stopped his team of oxen, walked away from his plow to the edge of his field, and cracked his whip into the air. He then cupped his hand around his mouth and whooped the news of our arrival to his neighbors down the valley. Others felt compelled to rush up to shake our hands and offer us thick slabs of injera (bread) or invite us to their homes for coffee.
"Tenaystellegn! May God give you health!" we learned from our guides to call out. "Ende-men adderachehu! Good morning to you!"
But some still trembled in fear at our approach. A teenage woman, carrying a water jug on her back, simply dissolved into tears.
"She's not seen a white person before," said our interpreter, Zelalem Abera Woldegiorgis. A square-jawed young man, who had traveled throughout his country as a guide, Zelalem knew how to ease her fears. Taking her gently by the hand, he spoke softly for a few minutes, assuring her of our good intentions—and explaining that our skin condition wasn't a communicable disease.
"We only saw pictures of ferenjocch before—photos with their intestines, stomachs, and hearts coming out," said Atele Asseras, the headman in the village of Genet Yamaryam, referring to pictures of dead Italian soldiers taken during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia some 60 years ago. "We never saw one up close until now."
Atele's small mud home was now full of ferenjocch, five of us having accepted his invitation to drink coffee. We sat on low wooden stools, while his wife roasted handfuls of coffee beans, then wafted their rich fragrance over us. Atele wasn't the first Ethiopian to mention the Italians to us; no one, it was apparent, had forgotten that bitter period of history, and more than once we'd had to reassure small groups of armed men who eyed us suspiciously that we were not part of an invading army.
"I did see one of you once before," Atele continued, pointing to the boatman, Michael Speaks, who had rowed the upper section of the Blue Nile Gorge in 1996. "You were down there on the river in your boat, and I thought, 'What's this? Are these Italians coming to invade?' I had you in the sights of my gun," he said, nodding at his Kalashnikov, which hung against a wall. "I was going to shoot, but then you waved."
"Ohhhh," Speaks said, "my mama doesn't need to hear this."
We laughed and sipped our coffee—and decided to wave to everyone we saw.
Some sounds wake you in an instant; you know even before you're fully awake that something is wrong. First, in some foggy part of my mind I heard the donkeys stampeding past my tent. Had a hyena attacked them? I sat up, then heard the sound of men running. They were shouting. There was the flash and loud crack of a Kalashnikov being fired. One shot. Then another, and a third. I dropped to the floor of my tent, my heart leaping, while two more shots echoed in the night.
Were we under attack by the shifta? More shouts, but the gunfire stopped, and we called out questions from our tents. Was everyone all right? What, in God's name, had happened?
Only a donkey thief, Zelalem explained. He'd got away, but without his prize.
In the morning the people in the nearby village complained that our men had not shot the thief. "He's surely not a man from here," they swore. "We have no thieves among us." "More likely," said another man, with a blue turban and a pirate's copper ring glinting in his ear, "it was a spirit. A devil from the Gihon that took the form of a thief. That's why you couldn't shoot him."
The Gihon—yet another name for the Blue Nile and one with strong biblical connotations. To the people in these villages set smack along the rim of the gorge, the Nile was one of the four rivers that flowed out of Eden at the beginning of the world. It was the river in Genesis that "compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia," and in its waters lived a king also named Gihon.
"Some nights Gihon comes to the surface with his lights," explained a woman with a white shawl pulled over her finely plaited hair. "If he sees you, he may attack you, so you must look away." There were small devils in the water's depths too, shape-shifters, she said, like our donkey thief.
A morning's steep downhill hike had taken us back to the Blue Nile's edge, where the second of the two old brick-and-mortar footbridges crosses the water. Its proper name is the Second Portuguese Bridge, but in 1935 Ethiopian patriots broke the middle arch in an effort to stop the Italians, and so the bridge is called simply Broken Bridge. People still use it but rely on the stoutness of a rope and strong men on either side to pull them across. The rafts and gear for our journey to the Sudanese border were waiting for us there.
While we loaded the boats, a steady stream of villagers crossed on the rope, letting their legs dangle over the white foamy rapids where Gihon dwelled below. After crossing, some stepped onto the rocks above the bridge, undressed, and sat in an eddy, while others poured water over their heads. "They are being baptized," Zelalem said. "They'll take some holy water home for their families too."
Our packing interrupted some of these religious activities as people stopped to marvel at what few had ever seen: not only white people but boats on the Blue Nile. "They look like airplanes," a stocky militiaman named Kassa Mongenet told Zelalem about our oar-powered rafts. "Surely, this is tarik—a major historical event!" We'd bid our other guides and porters farewell at the bridge but hired Kassa—and his Kalashnikov—to join us. Kassa could swim, he said, but he also knew that there were devils in that water, and he eyed its brown boiling surface warily.
By midmorning we were ready to go, and Speaks and the other two boatmen pulled on the oars, steering the rafts into the river's main channel. In an instant, like every other bit of flotsam tossed into the Blue Nile's muddy waters, we were on our way to Sudan.
It took a week to raft this first section of the river, a 120-mile (190-kilometer) stretch from the Broken Bridge to the modern Abay Bridge. Along this course the river alters its southeasterly route, curving straight south and forming the deep bend that swings through the heart of Ethiopia. That we could make this expedition at the turn of the 21st century on a river the size and energy of the Blue Nile was by itself surprising. Most comparable rivers were dammed or diverted for irrigation long ago. But aside from a small conduit below Tis Isat Falls, which channels some of the river through a hydroelectric station, the Blue Nile remains uninterrupted until it crosses the border. At Roseires Dam, 50 miles (80 kilometers) inside Sudan, the river's steady surge is finally halted, its waters corralled in a long, lazy reservoir.
Beyond Roseires Dam the Blue Nile wanders along, drifting over the hot Sudanese plains for another 300 miles (480 kilometers) until it reaches its confluence with the White Nile at Khartoum. The two join forces there, becoming the Nile and pushing on to the Mediterranean another 1,850 miles (2980 kilometers) away.
Of the two niles, the White is the better known, and perhaps the more glamorous, in part because of the mystery of its source, which wasn't discovered until 1862. In contrast, Ethiopians have for centuries regarded the spring at Mount Gishe as the start of the Blue Nile, and in 1618 they readily guided a Jesuit priest, Father Pedro Páez, to the same marshy meadow that I would later visit. But this spring was the only thing the Blue Nile gave up easily. The highland Ethiopians seldom ventured into its narrow canyon, fearing its heat, malarial airs, and evil spirits.
Consequently, on maps its course remained merely a dotted line until the late 1920s, when Maj. R. E. Cheesman, the British consul, surveyed the river in his spare time. Putting a boat on the river was out of the question; a few such attempts had been made, but the boats ended up smashed in the rocky rapids. Instead, over an eight-year period the doughty Cheesman mapped the river on foot and muleback. He had hoped to travel beside the river but quickly discovered this was impossible: The mountains and sheer canyon walls that rise above the Blue Nile were far too steep for such a journey. He settled for tracking the river's course from the high plateaus and the river's side when he could reach it.
Not until the 1950s did anyone succeed in getting far down the Blue Nile in a boat, and not until 1968 did a team finally travel the length of the river in Ethiopia. But even this latter group, led by British explorer Col. John Blashford-Snell, was forced to divide the river into sections, journeying down the lower Abay at the end of the rainy season, then returning to the upper gorge after the water level subsided. Since then a few other groups have rafted portions of the river.
From the reports of these previous boaters, we knew that we would hit rapids, especially with the river at high water. But because it was unclear how big or dangerous these rapids would be, we watched the Blue Nile closely, studying every bucking wave and surge as if watching the paces of a young pony.
For the first dozen miles of our river journey, where the Blue Nile is still fighting its way through a narrow basalt canyon, the water felt bunched up and reined in, and it kicked up short, choppy waves that we splashed across lightheartedly. These small trains of rapids always ended in a series of deep-sucking whirlpools that sent our boats spinning helplessly downstream. It could catch us any time it wanted, the river seemed to say, and toss us about like so many rubber ducks. Kassa mistrusted the swirling dark waters and studied them intently as if searching for the passage to the devil's world. But it was daytime, the sky a clear blue above the sheer canyon walls, and if the Nile harbored any demons, they were content to let us pass.
It seemed far more likely that any dangers were going to come from the canyon above. From there people could see us long before we could spot them. If we were rubber ducks to the Nile, we were sitting ducks for anyone with bad intentions perched along the gorge's rim. We knew the stories. In 1968 the Blashford-Snell team fought two gun battles with shifta who crept down on their camp in the night. They'd been forced to take to their rafts in the dark and run the canyon's rapids blind. An American hiking the length of the gorge had simply vanished; other rafters had been pelted with rocks by unseen assailants. And Michael Speaks had nearly been shot. How would the local people react when they saw three boats bearing eight white foreigners downstream?
Our first hint came as we rounded a bend and saw a group of people running along the canyon's rim. They were clapping and dancing, cheering us on.
"Konjo! You are beautiful! Gobez! You are brave! Melkam gouzo! Good travels!"
Their shouts and trilling calls followed us downstream for miles—an outpouring of goodwill and innocence we hadn't anticipated and that made us feel ashamed. Where were the bullets, rocks, and thieves?
"You are tarik for them," Zelalem said several times, using Kassa's expression to explain how wonderful and novel our journey was for these countryfolk who celebrated our passage with such joy. "They will never forget you."
We traveled 16 miles (25 kilometers) that day, riding along with the Nile as it wound through the canyon in tight bends, twisting first left, then right, cutting under the cliff in places and hollowing out caves and arches in others. Hundreds of clear streams and waterfalls spilled down the canyon's walls into the river. Along some of these grew tangled thickets of ferns and tall green reeds, lending the little silver waterways a tropical air. In contrast, the bare rock of the canyon felt harsh and sere; not without reason do the highland Ethiopians refer to the bot-tom of the gorge as the desert. Occasionally we passed wide, sandy banks, and on one we spotted our first crocodile. But it was only a small crocodile, and it slithered at once into the safety of the river.
On our next day of rafting the canyon began to widen. We rowed past two dark basaltic towers rising from the river like crumbling chimneys and in the next moment entered a world not unlike the Grand Canyon. On each shore the river had carved out wide plateaus that rose up in tiered steps separated by bands of red sandstone and creamy limestone. Wherever the earth was flat enough to be tilled, there were crops of millet, corn, and
sorghum—but no villages. The few people we met explained that their homes were higher up, on the top of the plateaus, often a three- or four-hour walk away, where it was cooler and malaria-bearing mosquitoes were rare.
As the Blue Nile shot south, other rivers joined it. Their waters swept down steep canyons and through braided gravel channels, then spilled into the main river, increasing its force and flow and forming high V-shaped waves, which tossed us about like untamed broncos. We saw goliath herons, hammerkops, and stately fish eagles hunting for their dinners. Wire-tailed swallows and half-collared kingfishers skimmed over the river, flashing feathers of a brilliant blue, while troops of vervet monkeys and baboons ran along the shore.
Most nights we found good campsites where the Nile briefly widened out, forming broad sandy banks. And although we were a long distance from any village, people—usually men—came to visit nonetheless. We were most visible to people living on the far shore. To reach our camps, they ran down the canyon, found a log to use as a float, then stripped off their clothes and kicked their way across the river, a good hundred yards, all the while holding on to their hunk of wood as if it were a boogie board.
That was how we met Melese Menesha, the medical officer from Mertule Maryam, a village so far up one of the distant plateaus we could not see it. A spare man with flaring cheekbones and dark curly hair, Melese warmed himself by our campfire and told us in a soft voice that he'd never met a white person before but decided to visit us since he'd heard that white people have excellent medicine. Perhaps we had some new knowledge to teach or some of the latest miracle drugs to give him?
I wished we did. But after he explained the doctoring he does—dispensing pills for headaches and birth control and giving quinine injections to those suffering from malaria—it was clear that he had far more medical training (and a better medical chest) than we. He had a radio, too, in his village home and filled us in on the latest news from the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. It had not ended, and Zelalem and Kassa shook their heads in dismay.
Melese left at dawn the next day, kicking his way back across the Nile's rough waters. "He is a progressive thinker," Zelalem said, watching him in admiration, "and look at where he lives." I was thinking the same thing and winced at how ill-prepared we were for meeting men of progress along the Blue Nile. We had expected bandits and spear-throwers, not paramedics who listened to the BBC.
Men like melese would, in time, certainly bring changes to the Blue Nile. But many others we met, such as the livestock traders, lived much the same life that merchants here did several hundred years ago. Now, as they always have, traders from the villages in the Gojam region cross the Nile on wooden or goatskin floats, then hike up the plateaus to markets in Borana country. They buy goats, donkeys, horses, and cattle at a good price, then march the animals to the river and swim them to the other side. For them the Blue Nile was simply an irritating barrier.
Watching one man kicking across the river while simultaneously holding the heads of his three goats above the waves, I was struck again by the limited use the highland Ethiopians make of all this water. They seek it out as a holy source, and those who live close enough lead their herds to it to drink. But although a team of Ethiopian and American engineers drew up plans for dams and irrigation projects some 40 years ago, none have been built because of the high cost and politics involved. Instead, the local farmers continue to depend solely on the rains. The rains had been meager in the past few weeks, and we could only imagine the farmers' frustration as their corn and barley turned brown while the Nile's waters rushed by below.
"They have a proverb about this," Zelalem said. "In the summer the Abay plows with black oxen, but where he sows corn, only pepper sprouts." Like many Ethiopian proverbs, this one tells a tale on several levels, but its overall meaning, Zelalem explained,is simple: "The Nile takes our soil and gives us nothing in return." Why, the farmers wonder, can't the Nile slow down and linger for awhile?
Another 150 miles (240 kilometers) downstream, past the two modern concrete bridges, where the Blue Nile curves westward to Sudan, the river does give the farmers what they need: land saturated with rich topsoil and water. Not long after the river takes that turn west, we rode its waves into the broad valleys of the Gumuz. A Nilotic people, their skin is a deep, lustrous black, their faces broad, with delicate, birdlike features. They'd suffered for years at the hands of the highland Ethiopians, who until the 1930s regularly raided Gumuz country for elephant ivory and slaves. The elephants are nearly all gone now, hunted out, although we did see an occasional hippo and numerous crocodiles. We met many Gumuz people too, since they live beside the river, raising sorghum, cotton, and cattle.
Few foreigners had ever traveled this section of the river, and we caused instant consternation. Children ran in terror down the riverbanks, women fled into the sorghum fields, and men seized their Kalashnikovs and stood ready to face us down—whatever we were.
"Come quick, come quick!" one group of children called to their parents. "There is something big flying down the river."
With long oars stroking the water in circles, our boats looked like giant geese flapping downstream, their parents explained. Others thought we must be flying airplanes or driving cars on the river. And whatever had happened to our skin?
"Your eyes are like cats', and your hair is like a baboon's . . . or maybe a goat's." "Watch out," one man cautioned the honey-colored Zelalem, "you're starting to fade like them."
One group of villagers, planting beans along the riverbank, dropped their hoes and ran home to fetch their musical instruments tocelebrate our journey. They returned with horns made from gourds and bamboo, some a foot in length, others extending from their mouths to the ground. The men and boys puffed out their cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie to play their horns, then blasted the air all at once with the call of trumpets, trombones, bugles, and saxes. "It's a song," our Gumuz guide explained through Zelalem—one with a universal theme. "My girl has big breasts and a big behind; she is the shapeliest and most beautiful of all." When we asked if they had songs about the Blue Nile, the people looked at us blankly. The river was the river, we were told; there weren't any devils in it or kings or gods. They still used the highlanders' name for the Nile—Abay—but perhaps because the river gave them water and good soil, the spirit had left it.
That didn't mean that trouble couldn't come down the river. And a few times we were thought to be it. We woke one morning to see a large group of armed men across the river. One waved a white flag at us, while others called out that we must stop and show them our permits. Their weapons assured that we did. A good two dozen militiamen had gathered, some dressed in khaki uniforms, others in old suit jackets with turbans wound round their heads. Many had tribal scars on their cheeks; all looked unhappy. We might be taking arms to someone, they feared. And who was Zelalem, an Eritrean in disguise? Our sheaf of permits didn't satisfy them; one turbaned fellow, nursing his Kalashnikov in both arms, scowled and waved our papers away, saying the best thing to do was to follow them to their headquarters—a six-hour walk away.
A cold, pelting rain had begun to fall, and the thought of a long walk to some distant police station made us look as unhappy as our hosts. Only Zelalem's artful diplomacy saved us. He listened patiently to every fear and complaint, let every man have his say, then carefully explained our journey to them once again. How could we be aiding Eritrea, when it lay far to the north, and we could only travel downstream? Furthermore, like them, he was an Ethiopian and a patriot.
Slowly the scowls fell away. Someone asked to have his picture taken, and in the next instant the militiamen were jockeying with one another for the best camera angle and fiercest pose. When we ventured back onto the Nile, they ran along the banks to wave good-bye.
For most of our journey the Blue Nile had churned along beneath the rafts at a speed of eight to ten miles an hour. But as we approached the Sudanese border, the river grew sluggish. We were nearly 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the Roseires Dam, but already it had caught and trapped the Nile. The river's frisky spirit was gone, there were no demons or kings in its depths, no rumbling stretches of whitewater. When we took the boats out at the border town of Bumbadi, we bade farewell to a river so tamed and placid we called it Lake Abay.
Later I returned to Lake Tana with two guides, making my own loop around Ethiopia. We took a boat up the lake to the mouth of the Little Abay, the Little Blue Nile, where the local people also worship the river as Gihon. Although it was not the time of year to give sacrifices to the Nile, I asked if an exception could be made. The villagers agreed, and from them I bought coffee, a bottle of araki (a liquor), three chickens, and a sheep, which they duly presented to the river in a simple ceremony. When the chicken carcasses and sheep's intestines floated instead of sinking, the people smiled and relaxed. "That's a good sign," one elder explained. "Gihon is surprised by this unexpected offering, and he is happy. He will give you his blessing."
The Blue Nile, in all its forms, had surprised me too. Now, sitting with these villagers on the shores of Gihon, feasting on chicken and sheep, I smiled at my good fortune, and this last blessing from the Great Abay.