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Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Günther Schlee 2013



While visiting Dereje, a doctoral student of mine in Gambela, I have the opportunity to meet with both a photographer, Amanuel, who had photographed Mbororo in Gambela, and Amtallaqa, a government worker from the Ministry of Agriculture, who had been in close contact with them (fuller account in Schlee 2008, Ethiopian Diary 2001-2002 / Tagebuch Äthiopien 2001-2002).

Amtallaqa had been very keen to meet me, because Dereje had told him that I speak Spanish. Amtallaqa never misses an opportunity to speak that language. Amtallaqa was taken to Cuba at the age of 14. The Cuban experience and his belief in internationalism also seem to have shaped Amtallaqa’s relationship to the Mbororo. Some words about his background may, therefore, be appropriate here.

Amtallaqa went to Cuba after his father, who had volunteered to fight in the Ogadeen war (1977-1978), was killed in action. Cuba had offered to train war orphans. Amtallaqa’s sister also went to Cuba, where she was trained as a pharmacist. Amtallaqa spent his formative years in Cuba, and his love for Cuba extends beyond the language to the leaders of the country and the martyr of the socialist revolution, Che Guevara. He is pleased to hear that I, like many Germans of my generation, at one stage had Che’s picture on my wall.

Amtallaqa’s interest in the Fellata who came here might be seen in connection with his socialist internationalism and his general interest in foreigners. After the change of government in 1991 he stored the equipment of a Japanese anthropologist for a whole year in his house, until this anthropologist found it safe to come back to Ethiopia. He is full of stories about other foreigners he has met.

Some of the Fellata speak Oromo, as I discovered to my delight when I met a group of them – possibly the same ones that Amtallaqa had already met – near Abu Na’ama in the Sudan. Unfortunately, Amtallaqa does not speak any Oromo, and the Fellata spoke neither Amharic nor Spanish. He hosted them in his house and became good friends with them, especially with a certain Usman, who gave him a bow and a quiver full of arrows, which he had brought along to show us (see photograph in Schlee 2008, Ethiopian Diary 2001-2002 / Tagebuch Äthiopien 2001-2002, entry from February 2001, 19). Others had tried in vain to purchase such items from the Mbororo. But communication between Amtallaqa and Fellata appears to have been very basic. He has no information about the migration routes of the Mbororo or the names of their sections.

The last time Fellata were here was in 1997-1998. This was the only time that Amtallaqa had met them. They had a single headman, "un solo jefe".

The provincial administration tried to send them back to the Sudan; but the local population was afraid to help implement this policy, because the Mbororo were believed to have magic ways to defend themselves.

As far as visual features are concerned, Amtallaqa noted the Mbororo preference for the colour blue, which is also illustrated by the photographs he had brought along.

The economic activities he recalled included the sale of milk and butter by Mbororo women. Through the sale of cattle for slaughter, which is a male activity, the Mbororo alone met the entire local demand for beef.

Amtallaqa had a number of stories about Mbororo magic. His name means 'lieutenant'. This led a Fellata he met in a bar to believe, mistakenly, that he was a powerful person. The owner of the bar had been a prisoner of war in Somalia for 11 years and had learned some Arabic. The two managed to play a joke at the expense of the Fellata. Amtallaqa demanded a bribe for allowing the Fellata to stay. The Fellata asked him what it was that he wanted, and Amtallaqa asked for a love charm. The Fellata removed various kinds of medicine from their plastic wrapping and instructed Amtallaqa to rub his body with this mixture after bathing on three subsequent Fridays. Later, he tried the medicine to see if it was effective. Even married women agreed to go with him for the mere asking. (A proper testing procedure would, of course, also require making the same proposition to women without the love charm.) He then became afraid (of being accused of disturbing the social order?) and threw away the remainder of the medicine.

In another incident, somebody had insulted a Fellata in Oromo by calling him an "animal" (Oromo: bines). The offended Fellata took two nails, the length of Amtallaqa’s finger, out of his pockets and inhaled them through his nostrils. He then threatened to retrieve them through the penis of his offender. The latter did not delay in eating his words and in clarifying that the Fellata was by no means an animal. He was thus saved from having to endure the procedure.

On another day, a Mbororo woman came to Amtallaqa’s office. He gave her three Birr for tea. She asked him whether she could help him in any way. He replied that his wife had continuous pain in her left breast. The woman left, and Amtallaqa’s wife never had any pain of that sort again.