Ethiopia before mobile phones

by Jon Thompson on July 31, 2008

Photo by filippo jean

In 2001 I was offered and assignment in Ethiopia to work with Doctors Without Borders building a TB clinic.  I was sent to one of the hottest places on earth – the Danakil Desert in the Rift Valley of north-eastern Ethiopia.  The region is home to the Afar who are an extremely tough nomadic tribe.  Rumor has it that back when the central government in Addis Ababa tried to disarm the tribes they didn’t even bother asking the Afar for their weapons.  Although tough they were also incredibly hospitable and shortly after I arrived some of the staff had me over for goat and bread stew slow roasted with mild chilies.  Good stuff.

Photo by Alvise Forcellini

Shortly after I arrived I was redirected to a meningitis epidemic that had flared up in northern Ethiopia in the districts of North and South Wollo.  Before long we were vaccinating like mad (I think at one point we covered 6,000 people in a day between all of our sites) and we traveled far and wide from the lowlands east of Woldiya to the mountains outside of Kombolcha.  We beat the hell out of our vehicles getting into some of the most remote regions imaginable.  I remember one day spending what must have been a couple of hours driving straight uphill to get to one site.  We literally stared at blue sky for over an hour as fragrant jasmine brushed against the side of the Landcruiser.

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This was in 2001 and back then there was no mobile network, no VHF or HF radios, no real form of telecommunications other than landlines in the major cities where we were working.  Since we spent most of our time in the smaller towns and remote villages our communications relied on two things: paper and pencil.  We would literally have to write a message on a piece of paper, send a driver out onto the road often in the pouring rain and then wait for his return with a written response several hours later.  The ban on telecommunications was a hold over from the Mengistu era and it made our work that much more difficult.

At one point I was forced to rent two camels for a couple of days to transport vaccine and equipment into a remote mountain village.  We drove as far as we could go and then met up with the handler and his two camels that were outfitted with saddles.  After loading the equipment the camels took off up the mountain and we set out after them.  After about an hour of walking we reached the village and met with the local health officer.  Upon arriving in the village it became clear that the villagers had either gotten the time or date wrong or they just didn’t think we were coming.  That is when I was introduced to a method that far surpassed mobile phones, bullhorns, etc in efficiency.

After a brief exchange with the health officer he turned to a group of men standing nearby and immediately a man emerged from the crowd and stepped to the edge of the ridge we were standing on.  He began to yell across to the next ridge where a collection of huts stood.  He wasn’t really yelling rather he was calling in a clear and melodic voice.  The distance was quite far but the reply was still audible.  A few seconds later what sounded like the exact same message could be heard making it’s way daisy-chain fashion up the hillside, from ridge line to ridge line, and then it stopped.

It only took 15-20 minutes before we noticed groups of people making their way down the mountainside.  In another 30 minutes our first vaccination patients began arriving in the compound and we immediately set to work.  The time it took to transmit the message up the hillside was a matter of minutes.  It was quick, easy and we quickly realized that their relay system had been in place for quite some time.  We pulled out of that village the next after vaccinating most of the people from the surrounding region.

I had seen this method of communication before when I was working in the Afar region.  It is said that a message could be sent across that region in much less time than it would take to hop in a car and deliver the message yourself.  While I know that people have been communicating like this for a very long time I still need to force myself sometimes to to step back from all the gizmos and gadgets and appreciate the simplicity of these systems.  In the rush to save the world with high technology I think we sometimes forget that it is still one person with good technique, a strong voice and a clear message that ends up saving the most lives.

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