The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - In Ethiopia

John Blower

Reviewer - Richard Snailham

I have to declare an interest here: John Blower and I were both members of the 1968 Blue Nile Expedition and it was then that I first heard of his work as Adviser to the newly setup Wildlife Conservation Department. John was the archetypal wildlifeman, well described in a letter from his other good friend John Blashford-Snell: “tall, moustached, bronzed and balding, in baggy shorts and with a pipe stuck firmly in his mouth”.

The book describes the setting up of the Awash and Simien National Parks (and three others notionally). They were delineated, put in place and at first run by expatriates. Hard men like John himself, Peter Hay, Clive Nicol and the fiery Scot, ‘Marmalde’ Brown, down in the Omo. OK, it was quasi-colonialist but things were managed as well as they could be; the staff worked, the wild life was protected and poachers more or less kept at bay. The parks were worth visiting, not like Awash today, a dismal, expensive disappointment, or Yangudi Rassa, just lines on a map.

A fascinating theme running through the book is John’s constant battle with his boss. John was Adviser and Chief Warden but the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Department was Gizaw Gedligeorgis, an incompetent and corrupt Air Force officer reject. Gizaw was uninterested in wild life or its conservation and staffed the department with his equally useless family and friends. John had to fight for four years against Gizaw’s obstructionism and venality and in the end it broke him. Somehow Gizaw had the ear of Emperor Haile Selassie and so was unsackable, except by the Emperor, who was constantly prevailed upon by Ministers with other priorities to keep Gizaw in post. Even when he and his hangers-on were implicated in the illegal export of leopard and colobus monkey skins, and John solicited the help of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, President of the World Wildlife Fund, to get Gizaw gazumped, he survived.

In the end, however, he was shunted off to the Tourist Organisation, but his successor, Brigadier-General Mabratu Fisseha, an arch-embezzler of funds from the Ethiopian Embassy in Nigeria and from the Ethiopian Navy, was no better. It must have been a difficult world in which to get anything properly done. John outlines these vicissitudes with great restraint.

A pity there is no index. Strangely, John spells Debarak (or Debark) as Dararik throughout. He must have been there scores of times on his way to Simien, so is this a permissible variant? And I would have liked some more detailed maps to trace John’s movements in the Danakil desert, the Simiens, the Omo area, northern Eritrea, Annak country and the Dahlak Islands, the accounts of all of which are full of place names untraceable on my larger scale maps.

It is a good read for anyone interested in Ethiopian wildlife – birds, botany, big game especially – or in the machinations of its creaking bureaucracy in the later years of Haile Selassie’s time.

In Ethiopia by John Blower, published by Librario, 2005.
Softback: 280 pages
ISBN: 1904440673

First Published in News File Spring 2007

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