There is the taste of the red earth in the air in Assosa combined with the faint floral scent of the few mango flowers still in bloom. The green mangoes hang lushly from the numerous trees around town but they are still small and hard – it will still be a month or two until they’re ready. Unlike in Addis Ababa where it feels like flirting with death every time you want to cross a road, the few roads of Assosa are populated mainly with bajaj – three wheeled motorized rickshaws (aka tuk tuks) – and donkey drawn carts. My first impression of the town is that Assosa surprises. We flew here this morning so it was a couple hour flight (via Gambella) rather than a very long 15 hr bus journey (on the good bus lines) so we didn’t really get that sense of journey into remoteness but the truth is, Assosa and the whole of the Benishangul Gumuz region is really the most remote, smallest and thinnly inhabited federal regions of Ethiopia. Both the airport and the all weather paved road from Addis Ababa (previously, flooding in rainy season made Assosa impassible from the capital) are fairly new. Instead of the sleepy one main street villagesque town, Assosa is a bustling place with lots of little shops and many hotels of various clientele from two flashy modern hotels for the various NGO people passing through to the small pensions with small and simply rooms set around a courtyard.
Assosa seems to be a “in-between” place – between simple and modernized, between arid climate yet full of lush green trees, between remote and regional center, a meeting place between cultures and history. It is a kind of place that is somehow always on the edge, sandwiched between major powers and always slightly forgotten about by both but filled with the people who kind of like it that way. Developmentally speaking, it is an underdeveloped, neglected and marginalized region but in a way, there is a bit more freedom here outside of the highly structured existing protocol. As someone with an anthropological background, this is a fascinating place. A poster from the low-key Assosa Regional Museum tucked in the backrooms of the public library building states “Benishangul-Gumuz is one of most rich and varied regional states of Ethiopia and Africa from a cultural point of view. This is due to the frontier character of the area, between two radically different geographies (Ethiopia and Sudan) that have been historically associated with two equally different – but related – religions: Islam and Christiantiy. Local mountains were used as a refuge by the populations that refused to be assimilated by other more powerful cultures and states, preserving their old traditions until our days.” There is a mixing of Nilo-Saharan language and culture (Berta, Gumuz, Komo (Kwama as they call themselves) and Mao) that historically originate from the Sudanese Plains with the Highland groups (Shinshasa, Amhara, Oromo, Agaw). Some of the features of Nilotic (aka Sudanese originating) culture that can be found in the indigenous groups in Benishangul Gumuz include matrilineality, prestige of women, relevance of hunting and gathering, horticulture of sorghum/millet with digging stick and hoe, communal property of land and egalitarian social structure. The poster writes, “The social organization of indigenous groups inhibits inequality and promotes hospitality.” This can be a marked difference from the highly hierarchical, patrilineal cultures from the Highlands. However, this is not to say that gender inequality is any less of an issue here and while their own communities may be more egalitarian, they are still very marginalized and experience intense poverty compared to the rest of Ethiopia.
Assosa has had a fascinating history being connected with many empires in the past yet retaining its frontier feel with a proudly independent streak. There has been discovery of Stone Age tools here in local caves marking a very long habitation of the area. Pastoralists from Sudan settled here around 5000 years ago and they brought with them domestic animals, decorated pottery and rock art that flourished for about 3000 years! What’s really interesting is that some of the tribes practice ritual scarification on their faces (like a pop-up tattoo) that look a lot like the old rock art but the people will instead say they are early Koranic letters since they are Muslim today. In 1521, Benishangul became the frontier of the Sudanese sultanate of Sennar, which is when the area around Assosa was settled by the Berta people. The Berta brought with them a sacred oblong rock, the Bela Shangul, which is where the name Benishangul comes from. However, Sennar was conquered by the Turkish Ottoman in 1821 and Benishangul Gumez fell under the indirect rule of Egypt. Over the next 60 years, the region flourished as a center of trade and was settled by Arab merchants, whose half caste descendants known as the watawit became the ruling elite. One of the watawit, Sheik Khojele Al-Hassen, founded Assosa in the mid 19th century, exporting gold (which there is a lot of exploration today), livestock, ivory and unfortunately the region was also plundered for slaves to be exported to the Ethiopian highlands. In the early 1880s, the Mahdist rebellion in Sudan weakened Egyptian influence over Benishangul Gumuz and paved the way for conquest by Emperor Menelik II in 1896. Benishangul became a part of Ethiopia a couple years later and Assosa was made into the provincial capital. Menelik II may have been known as the modernizer of Ethiopia bringing in the first telephone, the first cinema and electricity…but not here. The region was neglected by the imperial Ethiopian regime who instead viewed this area as a periphery region to be exploited for its resources of gold and slaves until around the late 1930s. In 1950s, there was an influx of refugees from Sudan following its independence and in the early 1980s, the Ethiopian Derg regime resettled 60,000 drought-stricken highlanders here. Currently, there continues to be large refugee camps near Assosa, mainly with Sudanese fleeing conflict but also from other countries as well and UNHCR is very visible around the town from its shiny white trucks driving through, to some cooking kits for sale at local stalls to UNHCR labeled wrapping used as cafe shade covering and tarping under the many mango trees to catch their future ripe fruit. Also of note in Benishangul-Gumuz is the large Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile slated to open up next year in 2017 will be the largest hydroelectric dam in all of Africa.
Today, Benishangul-Gumuz is considered one of the “developing regions” along with Afar, Gambella and the Ethiopian Somali provinces by the federal Ethiopian government requiring special support. Consequently, Cuso International has been asked to work here and here I am! “Now is the time of globalization” said Ato Muhammad, the young and energetic Assosa Hospital CEO of Berta ethnicity, “Globalization forces you to change.” There is a lot of exciting energy here, a bustle to the streets, as things seem to be happening. At the Regional Health Bureau and the Assosa Hospital where we were introduced today, there is a lot of young Ethiopians who seem to be passionately working for developmental goals even while challeneged with their resource limitations. With a long history of being situated at the edge of empires, development here still has a passionate, independent streak that pays homage to the rich traditions of the area. This is emphasized by my position here to contextualize health promotion materials to local cultures. As I watch two boys in their donkey drawn carts race down the main street from the second floor balcony of the guesthouse, I am happy to be here and to be a part of it all.