Category Archives: Letters to Family

August 8, 1977

Dear Mom,

…. With trips to Addis getting fewer and fewer, we’ve changed over to using a wood stove here. The logistics of keeping ourselves in gas just got too much.

The garden is going well. To a great extent we’re now self-sufficient in regard to vegetables. Vince has a rotation system worked out so that he keeps replanting every so often, thus keeping a steady flow of ripening vegetables coming. Not having winter here means a year round garden. Our papaya trees (about 40) are now a year old and some have fruit starting on them so in a couple of months we’ll have fresh fruit too. We have subscriptions to both Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening and enjoy trying out the different things talked about in the articles. Recently they discussed a simple method of measuring the amount of water in a large tank (ours is two and a half thousand gallons). We put the thing together in less than an hour from materials we found around the house and garage. Now by just looking at the level of water in a plastic garden hose section, we know where the level in the tank is. Before the only indication we had was when it ran dry.

The language is going well enough. Recently, in an effort to learn more about and get a feel for the way the Borana think about things, I’ve been collecting and translating proverbs, riddles, fables, songs and poetry. You might be interested in hearing a few. Some of the proverbs are similar to our like
“See the mother, take the daughter” (like mother like daughter), which might be said to a young man looking for a wife.
“A young camel can finish a forest of bushes as he slowly eats” like our dripping water wears away the stone.
Our monkey see monkey do is much like the Borana one that says, “A passing camel makes sitting camels rise up”.
“I haven’t seen the fat of a donkey” means that as there is no possibility for a donkey to be fat so this thing we are talking about is not possible either. Another one says “I can’t cut off my rotten finger and throw it away” said about a wayward child.

Some riddles I found particularly interesting. The children especially enjoy telling them.
“I have fire in my stomach and am at God’s mercy”, I am a house.
“100 have entered the crawl and 100 are outside”, hoof prints of cattle.
“The mother looks at the man, while her children kill him”, a rifle.
“Rain comes from four directions and drops into a lake”, milk from four tits into a gourd.

Six un-understandable things:
Baldness without the head being scraped like a cow skin.
How a snake can walk so fast without legs.
A road how it can stretch itself so far without being cut into strips like meat.
The land, how it can stretch itself out without being pegged down like a skin.
The sky, how it can stay up without poles like a house has.
The fruit on a certain tree, how it always stays the same size in the dry season while the cows all get thin.

Finally, what never sleeps although all else is sleeping, a cowbell….

Love,

Ned

June 6, 1977

Dear Mom,

…. Vince got back from the trip to Tanzania three weeks ago. He enjoyed the trip and brought news of everything going on down there. Parkepo, the fellow who gave you the cow, has died in the past year, and his village (he had six wives and many children) has dispersed. Lembarnat, who gave you the goat, is well and his eldest wife has a new baby. Tom Tunney, Arky and Joe Hertzstein are home attending the chapter, a general meeting of the province, which we have every few years. It seems the same old controversies are raging, the main one being are we educational or missionary. The meetings will be over toward the end of June and Tom hopes to stop here on his way back.

I have been staying in the villages more and more. Recently during the rainy season, there has been plenty of milk. Now that it is beginning to dry up again, I’ll have to carry more of my own food. It’s been quite a challenge to work up a safari kit for carrying on the back of the bike. Tent, sleeping bag, spirit stove, utensils, a few books, everything for three or four days, including enough water plus me go on the little 100cc bike. It must look very strange, but then not more so than a Borana camel loaded for travel to a new grazing area.

The garden is doing well. During this wet season, we’ve dug a number of beds about two feet deep and about fifteen feet square. These we line with cheap plastic, and then fill the holes back up with wet grass, manure and some of the dirt that came out. We’ve found that these holes lined with the plastic retain the water many times longer than those without. During dry season, it’s impossible to keep up with the watering….

Love,

Ned

April 15, 1977

Dear Mom,

Iede and I are off to Addis tomorrow to get the car fixed and buy some parts for the bike – neither one is working very well. We are missing Eef’s expertise in mechanics. The rest of us can do very little when it comes to engines, and there is little in the way repair facilities this far south. There is a chance of getting a used bike from one of the Italians going on leave. It would be quite a bit bigger than the one I have and therefore better for traveling around down here. The small one was ok for language school but is a bit small for travel of any distances and especially unsuited for carrying a passenger.

……….I’m glad to hear so many people were there for the funeral. This is one of the hard things about being so far away – not being able to be with family at important times like these. Despite the sadness of the occasion, I’m sure it did everybody a lot of good to get together.

Vince has been gone five weeks now, so he should be turning up in two or three weeks. We’re hoping to get quite a bit of help from the missionaries working with the Borona in Kenya. Materials on language, customs, etc. It will also be good to hear the news from Tanzania. I hope that you and Aunt Meg haven’t given up the idea of coming. I will let you know as soon as things quiet down here.

The garden is doing well. Right now we’re getting celery, sweet peppers, onions, egg plant, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, beets, carrots, sage, thyme, parsley, chervil, marjoram, cress, dill, basil, leeks, garlic and coriander. Sounds like a lot when you write it down. I will say the masses you requested…..

Love,

Ned

March 10, 1977

Dear Mom,

Vince is off to Kenya and Tanzania tomorrow. The road is still closed to the North, so he must first go west and than north by a round about way. You asked about mail in your last letter. It too must come this long way around, so we get it even less often that we did before. The two small packages came with balloons, bandages, tapes, etc., and also the Whole Earth Catalogue, all of which I was very happy to get. I’ve listened to the tapes a number of times already and we are all enjoying the catalogue.

Vince will be spending two or three weeks in Tanzania, visiting and gathering ideas for our own work here. We miss the give and take we had with the Arusha group concerning the work, so his trip will make up for some of that. Then he will spend some time with a group of Italians in Northern Kenya working with the Borana but on the other side of the border from us. They have been there a number of years so we’re expecting to get some help in the way of grammar in the language and some help in understanding the customs and life of the Borona; presumably they should know much more than we do about these things. I will wait myself and go later, hopefully with you people. If that doesn’t work out, perhaps I’ll go by myself toward the end of the year.

The people here are having it very rough. They have fewer cows than the Maasai, and since everything is inherited by the eldest son, there is very poor distribution of the animals they do have. Most of the wealth tends to be concentrated among a limited group. The dry season, which is drawing to an close now (at least that’s what people say), is very hard on them. They depend almost exclusively on maize meal, which is shipped down here from the North. With the road having now been closed for a month and a half, you can figure out what it’s like.

Eef came back cured but with the decision to leave us. He came down for a couple of days to let us know his decision and then went back to Addis. He’s staying with the Christian Brothers there and as far as I can figure has no idea what he will do. I don’t know why he decided to go, only that he has been dissatisfied for quite a while. We’ll begin now to slowly look for someone to take his place.

I will be taking Vince the first two hundred km. tomorrow to a place called Arba Minch, some Irish Holy Ghost fathers are working over there among some farming people. It is situated on the lip of the Rift Valley overlooking a lake (alligators live in it, so I hear). I’ll spend a day or two with them, then back here…

Love,

Ned

January 14, 1977

Dear Mom,

It was good to talk to you. It was so easily done, I wonder why I never got around to doing it before. I know that in the future, we’ll speak again.

You have the news already by telegram. I will try to explain here the reason for it without at the same time making too much of it. The situation has deteriorated somewhat here in the last two weeks. Whereas before the shifta (Somali or other kinds of bandits) were neither heard of nor seen in our immediate area, now there has been attacks on some cars on the main road not far from here on the way to Addis. For this reason, travel along the Addis road is being kept to a minimum these days – only convoys with an escort of soldiers.

For these reasons, to bring you down here at this time would not be a good idea. It would be well for you to put off your trip to Ethiopia until things have settled down a little. It’s too bad; I was looking forward to it very much ….

Love,

Ned

November 27, 1976

Dear Mom,

…. Iede and Vince are off to Addis today and will be gone a couple of weeks. They will try to get tables for the kids to eat on and more bunk beds. They’ve been on order for six months but so far they aren’t ready.

We’ve had very little in the way of dry season since Jan/Feb. This is very unusual. As a result, the Borona have had milk right thru, and have not had to sell much in the way of animals to buy grain.

Sorry that you have to put the trip out here on hold. It is true that it may be safer and easier to travel some months from now. Since your time for coming is now uncertain, Vince and I have decided to go ahead with plans for a trip to Tanzania. If we can clear the government paperwork, we’ll try to go around the first of the year. I hope to do it again with you and Aunt Meg when you are able to travel here.

The language is getting better all the time. It will take a long time to become really fluent but I’m able to communicate with some ease about quite a lot of ordinary things ….
Love,

Ned

October 26, 1976

Dear Mom,

…. We’ve been getting what seem to be the small rains and as a result the grass and trees have become green. Many of the nomads are living close by now. This area is part of their wet season grazing land. There are seven or eight encampments – about three hundred or four hundred people all together.

The main difference in the landscape from Maasailand is the camels. The Borona don’t ride the camels but use them for carrying loads, to and from the market. From what I gather they don’t eat camel meat but only drink the milk. Many of the more wealthy people have mules and horses which they travel on and traditionally used to ride to war. These wars especially with the neighboring tribe to the north, the Guji, are still going on.

Eef Nass, one of the Dutchmen, has gone home. He left three weeks ago after a check up in Addis – seems there is some sort of a cavity in his lung. In Addis they think it may be cancer, so he went home to be fully checked out. Perhaps Iede will get a letter from him this week.

Our gardening is producing – tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers and some others. One cow has been killed so far; we have fresh meat all the time now. Haven’t started any goats, have killed a few that I bought. We are thinking of raising some chickens if we can get some high breds from Addis.

Hope all is going well. Do you still have plans to come out?

Love,

Ned

September 11, 1976

Dear Mom,

…. All is quiet here. Since we are twenty miles from the nearest trading center, Yabello, it is much more isolated than even Kijungu was. As I mentioned before, I have a tent set up in one of the Borona encampments and spend some time each week there. The language is coming – I’m beginning to be able to get by on very ordinary things.

Couple of weeks ago we bought a young cow to fatten up and slaughter in a few months. It’s gotten so much attention that it is fatter already and jumping around like a colt. One thing, it gets as much water as it wants.

Took a few pictures of the village, will send them on to you ….

Love,

Ned

September 1, 1976

Dear Mom,

Thanks for the package with the viewmaster pictures and flashlight. As did the Maasai, the Borona got a big kick out of the pictures. One of the Dutchmen is off to Addis to order school materials and that is the opportunity for this letter.

I have a tent set up in one of the villages and am spending about half the time there. Being nomads, most of the time there are no Borona right here where the school is. So as it was in Tanzania, we have to go out to them.

The Borona use much more food from the outside than do the Maasai. For example, they use a lot of coffee, but it is not ground. The whole beans are roasted in butter shells and all, then a little milk is added to this and the whole concoction in ready for eating and drinking. One sips the milk and butter and chews the coffee beans floating in it. I’ve come to like it very much.

The languages, both of them, are coming along slowly, slowly. Borona is easier than Amharic, but it’s still fairly formidable. I’m using all the things you bought me, all the time. The sleeping bag, canteen, space blankets (a perfect sun shade over the tent) and the buck knife which comes in handy all the time.

Here at the center, we have a good garden started – Vince and I are involved in this project. I planted a seed bed early in June and now many of the plants are almost ready for use – we’ll be eating lettuce in a week or two.

Have your plans for coming out become more definite? ….

Love,

Ned