The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Fish Eagle's Lament

Gerard Dominic Pillai

Reviewer - Katherine Hallgarten


Is it the task of travel writers first to beguile us with their passion, and then to entice us to put our boots on and walk out, to see and hear and smell and taste their corners of the world? If yes, then Gerard Pillai is our man for south-west Ethiopia. In his own words and with his own photographs, he writes as immediately as an e-mail, with humour and without judgement, about these extravagant lands and peoples.

As a member of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, Gerard gave a lecture to us in November 2008. A report of this is now online on the Society website. Attracted to the area by the animals, the birds, and a need for extreme camping, he soon found his first love - the tribal groups of the lower Omo valley, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region (SNNPR).

We travel together from Konso in the north, down to the Omo National Park, which covers an area larger than Cornwall. The worlds change in response to the terrain. In the north are the last of the highland areas of terraces, stone building and agriculture in settled villages where the houses last for up to 50 years. In the south are the semi-nomadic agropastoralists, where the old and the young live in villages and grow the crops, while the young and agile follow the cattle to seasonal pasture.

Each of these groups - Hamar, Borana, Bodi, Dassenach, Karo, Kwegu, Suri, Mursi, Nyangatom is as different from the other as the peoples of Essex are from the peoples of Skye. Gerard Pillai plunges us vividly into detail of each tribe he visits - such as the Mursi body decoration, the Borana role demarcation between men and women, and the Hamar bull jumping ceremonies.

Writing and pictures give seamless views of people and animals. One moment we are with "Swayne's Hartebeest, molded from dark chocolate... remind me of gambling men...lugubrious regardless..." and at the next, contentedly amongst the Hamar hair artists "the clay bun took several hours to sculpture... Artistically tinted with pigments of red, black white or orange it will last for around five months... red ochre fringed hairstyles... further accentuate the beauty of Hamar women... Assille is rubbed into the tresses, giving them a deep ochre colour".

The book is named for the African fish eagle, Pillai's constant companion in the region - "its haunting call at dawn is a welcome to another glorious day; its elegy at dusk a lament to the day's passing".

I myself am an Ethiopia newcomer. The Danakil is the furthest I have been. I haven't yet been south of Addis. Now I am ready. When are you, Gerard Pillai, going again? And please may I come with you? Let's go and hear the fish eagle!

The Fish Eagle's Lament - Travels in Southwest Ethiopia
Gerard Dominic Pillai
Matador, 2009
ISBN: 9781848761308
Hardback 324 pages;
294 x 232 mm;
numerous photos in colour
Price £40

First Published in News File Winter 2011

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