One of the things I did in the new Gambella, pop 40,000, was look for the old Gambella, the Gambella I had known, pop 1,000.
I did this by checking and cross-checking maps, looking for patterns and landmarks that were familiar to me, then asking questions, walking around, meeting dead ends, meeting people, circling back, meeting more people and asking more questions—in any fractured patchwork of Amharic, Nuer, English, and Anuak that would provoke a glimmer of understanding in my listener, when accompanied by broad illustrative gestures.
All while sweating copiously in the 110-degree heat of Gambella’s late dry season, drinking constantly from the water bottle I was never without.
Many people were amazed by the Gambella I talked about; they would shake their heads and say, “I wasn’t even born then,” but would pump me for stories of the old days when paddle-wheeled steamboats would still come down the Baro from Khartoum. Sadly, I did not find any of the people I’d known there before—although, since most of them had been refugees from the Sudan, or workers in refugee programs, it was normal, I told myself, that they would have moved on.
I did find Old Main Street, and the compound where I and a few other volunteers used to live. It still exists as a section of dirt road about three blocks long, closed off at both ends, down a slope from the new main road purposefully crossing the new bridge. Its backyards on the side away from the bustling main road drop off onto the intermittent tributary of the Baro called the Jebjebe.
On the end where the Jebjebe meets the Baro, the street now ends at the compound where we used to live, which once belonged to the “flying missionary” Don McClure. It is now an army barracks, and I was faced by men with machine guns when I asked to look at it. I found my way to the other side of the Jebjebe to take this picture of our old house from the back.