About Gambella

Where is Gambella?

Geographically, the Gambella region belongs to the lowlands of grass, scattered forest and swamplands which sweep from the escarpment of the Ethiopian highlands
only fifteen miles east of Gambella town westward  across the South Sudan.

Who lives there: Nilotics

Anuak girl with beads, which are significant in Anuak life. (Photo Perna)

The region has long been predominantly peopled by the tall, thin, ebony-black Nilotics: Anuak cultivators and, more recently, pastoral Nuer. Their way of life is in timeless harmony with the land, their physical presence a graceful calligraphy against the endless sky. Having contacted American Protestant missionaries from the late eighteenth century in the Sudan and Ethiopia, many are Christians and many speak English, as well as probably more than one Nilotic language, and perhaps Arabic and Amharic.


Nuer man with initiation “gar” marks.


By the late 1800’s, the Gambella region had entered Imperial Ethiopia’s sphere of influence. In 1902, the British ceded their competing interest in return for a trading enclave in Gambella town, which they retained until the Sudan shook off the Anglo-Egyptian government in 1957. In addition to setting borders which remain today, the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Boundary Agreement, impossibly, assigned Nuer Nilotics to Sudanese territory and Anuak Nilotics to Ethiopia.


Who lives there: Highlanders

“Highlander” man in Gambella market. (photo Schewe)


The geographic core of Ethiopia is the mountainous plateau, northeast of Gambella, from which come the Amhara and related ethnic groups. Here lies the core of Ethiopian identity, an identity tracing back to Ge’ez, an ancient language, precursor of both Amharic and Arabic, still spoken by priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church. Highlanders trace their royal line back to Memelik I, son of Solomon and Sheba. Since the 1800’s these red-brownHighlanders have been descending from the mountains to settle on or to “manage” the fertile lowlands.


Gambella Region in Africa and Ethiopia (Map Turner/Human Rights Watch via Feyissa 2011)



Gambella has been a member state of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) since 1991. (See Map) “Gambella” is used for the town, the region, and the ethno-regional state of Gambella People’s National Regional State (GPNRS). GPNRS is an ethnically constructed, theoretically independent, member state in the FDRE, as are each of the other eight member states who send delegates to the national assembly.


Sudanese refugees

Sudan’s Khartoum government, since independence, has become increasingly northern-Arab-Muslim-centered, and, especially where oil was discovered, increasingly rapacious towards the Nilotic-black-animist-and-Christian southerners who live on land they desire. Since the late 1960’s, repression, genocide, and waves of civil war have sent waves of refugees fleeing into the nearby Gambella region. Tragically, in the aftermath of South Sudan’s triumphant 2011 independence, warfare broke out between southern factions, creating yet another wave of refugees.

The refugees are mostly Nuer, they are housed in UN camps which are administered mostly by Highlanders and foreigners, and located mostly on Anuak land. There are currently four major active camps in the Gambella region, hosting about 270,000 refugees. The base region population is about 300,000.


Dam near Abobo
Altered river below dam near Abobo.

Tension is frequently high over land amongst Anuak, Nuer and Highlanders, and sometimes breaks out into violence. Anuak feel the land was, and should forever remain, theirs. Nuer feel they should be free to graze their cattle and pursue their lives wherever they wish. Highlanders perceive all land as belonging to the state, to be disposed of as it sees fit. And, to Hannah, some of the foreign developers–whether from India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, Japan, Scandinavia, the US, or the UK–just seem to believe all resources–land, water, oil, gold, animal, human–are to be disposed of as they see fit.