Eddo Gidole. Date of birth unknown, even to himself. In Italian the adjective that best describes him is “un mito.” The closest you get in English is “the man,” but that doesn’t do him justice. He was an iconic figure throughout his life in Lake Langano. To put it all in context, Lake Langano is one of the Rift Valley lakes about 200 kilometres south of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. It was, and continues to be, the vacation destination of choice for city folk wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital. The equivalent of North Americans’ summer “cottage” or “cabin” basically. If you were privileged enough to have a place to call your own in Lake Langano, the expectation was that you had a caretaker from the local community who would look after it. Story has it that in the mid 70s my father bought the lease from the departing Italian ambassador to a house they were renting from Bekele Molla hotels (fast forward 50 years and neither the house nor the hotel are left – demolished for something glitzier). Along with the house came Eddo Gidole and this is what I remember …
I remember pictures of him looking after me when I was a baby. Especially this one particular photo of me when I was maybe 6 months old playing on a towel on the patio of the house. Happily butt naked covered in rays of sun with a chewy toy in one hand and the frames of Eddo’s aforementioned glassed in the other. And in the corner of the frame there is Eddo smiling down at me.
I remember Eddo walking me through Shukketi’s plantation to buy papayas. It took all day. If you drove it took you three days given that there were no roads so sitting on my dad’s lap we would take out boat over – with me holding on to the steering wheel, “the driver”. Around the peninsula of “punta bianca” and then onwards, steering the bow towards a dip between two hills way on the horizon. Everyone seemed to “know” where it was though it was literally just a narrow strip of beach on the other side of the lake. To me it seemed like magic that we were able to find this place over and over and over again. All the more so because we only ever had enough fuel in the tank to make it there and back, just. Not enough to wander around getting lost. Anyway, once there Eddo taught me how to climb the papaya and mango trees to pick out the ripe ones (I’m not sure I ever did learn) but the climbing part was fun. And we would keep going until we had a full box of fruits to take back home. Running around naked, eating fresh mango just picked off a tree, splashing around little irrigation ditches – that was the life.
And I remember his glasses. More like binoculars. He was blind as a bat without them. The frames were broken more often than not but he would glue/tape/screw them back to life. The lenses were full of smudges, everything from engine grease to God knows what. And since the lenses he needed were so thick there was only a certain type of frame that would work – meaning his glasses were always covering most of his face (when they weren’t falling off his nose that it). In a way they defined him. Eddo and his glasses.
As a young child I remember Eddo untangling my fishing line. For years and years. First we would walk to the Bekele Molla hotel kitchen to buy some sheep heart from the cook. I don’t know how old I was … old enough to walk by myself and hold a fishing rod in the other hand. Then we would walk back home but head directly for the beach where Eddo would patiently slice the heart into thin strips to use as bait. Every slice was just perfect. Wide enough to cover the hook without any excess, all the more impressive given that the knife he used was about as blunt as could be. The rest of the sliced heart bait would go into the cap of a discarded mosquito repellent (back in the good old days when DDT was still in fashion 😉 And then we would wait. And fish. Together. But mostly we would wait …
And I remember Eddo could wait in the squatting position for hours on end. Eventually I would hook something, often the rocks at the bottom of the lake and I would yank the rod back. It all happened in a frenzy with the end result being a tangled mess of line. Eddo would smirk and then patiently put the glasses on top of his head and start untangling. Often using his teeth and working the line dextrously with his fingers, staring intently at the line right in front of his face as he really couldn’t see much anyway. I was always in awe as to how he could figure out which part of the line was what but he would always manage. Then he would gently smile back and say “ecco” (there) as if it was obvious all along that he would succeed.
Into my teenage years I remember Eddo speaking Italian, English, German, French, Russian, and whatever other languages he invented on the spot to sound funny. Italian he knew fluently and that is how we spoke to each other until I learned to speak Amharic as I got older. But mostly he enjoyed making fun of others in different languages. He knew all the bad words, stereotypical accents, and trivial bits such as holiday songs or Italian fascist propaganda lyrics. The best was his profane laden rendition in Italian of “Jesus in a Manger” which goes something like this “nella culla c’e un bambino, ^%$^%$#^%$ e Jesu’ bambino!”
I remember Eddo the engineer, although he had never formally gone to school of any sort. However, what he lacked for in formal instruction he made up for through careful observation. Growing up we didn’t have power from the grid so we would run a generator for a few hours every day, basically from 5pm to bedtime at 9pm. This was enough to keep the fridge ticking through till the next day and give us lights at night. Alas the generator that powered the house was an old diesel truck engine converted to the task. It had it’s very own special shed, and was temperamental at best. It always leaked diesel, you needed to crank it on by hand and that was a feat in and of itself, and the mishmash of parts from whatever we could scavenge to keep it going could only be made sense of by Eddo. In spite of all this, Eddo was always able to coax the generator into life and keep it going without fail until mains electricity finally came to 50 years later. One of these “engineering” lessons is also where I learned how to siphon gas/diesel by sucking on a hose. You learn by trial and error, and let’s just say that I distinctly remember the “error” of sucking on the hose for too long and having a mouth flooded full of diesel. Yuck!
And I remember Eddo always having problems with his teeth. Most of the problems caused by too much fluoride in the water occurring naturally in the soil. The end result of which was most people from the area having tooth that would brown and then rot. But Eddo would still smile with gaps in his mouth as his teeth fell out over the years. One day however, Carol-Alberto Pejrone, a family friend and awesome dentist came to visit. Carlo-Alberto decided that he could make him a new set of teeth that he could mail over when he went back to Italy but in order to do that he would need to pull a tooth that was on the verge of being rotted out. Problem is the only tools available were whisky and pliers. I remember a lot of blood and a lot of whisky being swilled around, never a complaint, and at the end a radiant toothless smile. A few months later the dentures arrived. That was pure bliss! Eddo walking around showing off his new set off teeth, probably the only man in all of Ethiopia outside of the capital city to have his own custom set of dentures! That kept his smile going for years!
And as I got older and able to drive by myself, I remember driving Eddo over three hours through Ethiopian bush to a Norwegian missionary hospital when his jaw broke. All on account of the mechanical winch that slipped through his hands. Basically when it was time to haul the boat out of the water into the little shed it would live in, you had to winch it out using a steel cable operated by hand. It usually took two people as the incline was pretty steep (and the boat was heave) and there was a little notch (or sometimes a rock) that you could put in-between the gears to prevent the cable and winch from running free out of control. Anyway, as fate would have in on this day Eddo was on the winch, as he heaved forward the winch handle slipped out of his hand and he fell forward over the winch – only to have the boat roll back pulling the cable and forcing the winch to rotate in the opposite direction, snapping the handle at the end of it’s rotation onto Eddo’s jaw. Lots of blood and crunched bone, with Eddo’s face all out of joint and proportion. Bandaged up in some towels and bleeding profusely we drove to the closest hospital where I knew Dr. Kjell-Magne, a Norwegian missionary doctor and family friend could look after him. Eventually Eddo had to have surgery on his jaw but in time it all healed and his smiled returned.
And as I returned from college in the US and started working in the family business I remember Eddo looking older, frailer, and more emaciated. At that time he must have been in his mid 50s perhaps. Still with plenty of life to live. What Eddo didn’t know, like the many others in his little village of Bulbula just outside Lake Langano, is of a newer disease that went by the name of HIV. It decimated entire communities and families. I distinctly remember the time the doctor informed him of his blood test result. It was a ticking time-bomb death sentence. Yes, anti-virals existed. But for people like Magic Johnson in America, not Eddo Gidole in the middle of rural Ethiopia. The downward spiral was swift. Eddo saw out the rest of his days at his home in Bulbula, sporting a broad smile till the very end.
Thanks for the memories Eddo!