In the Amhara region of northwestern Ethiopia lies Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. Flowing over 1,500 kilometers, snaking through Sudan, the Blue Nile joins the White Nile and is one of the world’s longest riverways. Lake Tana is a mystical place where time and history run deep. Nothing on that lake is more sacred than its flotilla of papyrus boats gliding across its waters like the wind.
I had read about the papyrus boat fisherman in Selamta the in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines. The article “Papyrus and Lake Tana” captivated my imagination of this mystical land and inspired me to get out of bed at the crack of dawn despite my jet lag and fatigue.
I rose at dawn to the muezzin call to prayer reflecting off the shores of Lake Tana. Although it was almost pitch black, I jumped out of bed in excitement knowing that the early morning hours of daylight was when the fisherman set off on their papyrus boats just like they have been doing for centuries. If I moved quickly, I’d be able to catch the thousands of traditional fishermen heading out across the mystical glossy still water of Lake Tana.
As much as I craved my morning cup of coffee, there was no time to waste because there in the distance I saw him. Like one of hundreds, the fisherman was heading out across the murky blue-brown waters of Lake Tana to start his day.
The fishermen of Lake Tana have been earning a living off the waters for centuries, crafting their handmade boats of papyrus reeds, known as “tankwas” since the Negede Weyto people of Sudan and Egypt traveled up the Blue Nile and begin anew in Bahir Dar. The newcomers noticed that papyrus reeds grew in abundance along the swampy shores of Lake Tana and used the reeds to construct the tankwas. A tankwa takes anywhere from a few hours to an entire day to make depending on its size and only lasts about a month or two until it becomes waterlogged and is discarded. Most tankwas are long and narrow, built to fit a fisherman and his catch, however, some tankwas are so strong that they can hold loads of firewood. The unlucky driver of these papyrus boats paddle at a snail’s speed for hours to bring the firewood from the nearby islands onto the mainland.
What I found most fascinating about the papyrus boats is their long tradition and culture of use. Reed boats may have even been used during Biblical times. Ron Londen, author of the article I read, “Papyrus and Lake Tana” says that “papyrus boats are mentioned in the Bible, first with a mother’s memorable efforts to save baby Moses by floating him down the Nile in a makeshift boat of reeds” and later by prophet Isaiah. Reed boats are among the oldest types of boats in history and papyrus paper has been used for thousands of years conveying the written word.
In the early morning light, the fisherman carry their featherweight papyrus boats into the water and begin another day fishing. As the sun slowly rises across the smooth lake waters, one sees hundreds of boats gliding across the large lake. But what catches my attention is the lone fisherman tucked inside a small inlet of water not too far off the shore from my hotel.
Thrilled at my discovery, I decide to watch him from afar and take some pictures. Little did I realize, I would be spending the next hour standing in this same spot as more fisherman joined him and another unexpected surprise entered the scene.
Within the waters of Lake Tana lie an abundant and diverse amount of fish. Over 70% of Lake Tana’s fish are endemic. There also are hippos. I heard from the hotel that the hippos like to hang out around the Blue Nile Falls in Lake Tana. But I had no idea that hippos also lurked under the murky waters near the fisherman only several yards away.
I have heard that hippos can be extremely dangerous especially when they are protecting their calves. Normally they are found together in a big group called a pod unless a rowdy adolescent or two breaks free from the group and decides to cause problems. Since I am no hippo expert, I cannot be certain why these three hippos were here. I spent the next hour watching the fisherman fight off an attack by the hippos by trying to scare them away. I could only imagine what would have happened if the hippos got too close. They could easily toss the boat in the air like a frisbee and it was something I certainly didn’t want to see happen.
I watched in awe as the brave fisherman continued their battle to scare the hippos away. Despite these massive creatures, who often submerged under the murky waters and would suddenly, unexpectedly pop up, the fisherman held their ground and refused to leave.
It was nearing 6 am and I decided to wake my friend Elizabeth so she could catch a glimpse. I don’t think a travel experience can get any better than watching a show like this right before your eyes. My adrenalin was rushing at the fear the hippos would suddenly emerge right under the whimsical papyrus boats. I worried about the fisherman.
After an hour, the hippos must have got bored and left. We did not see them again. But we did have the chance to get an up close and have a look at one of the fisherman and his boat. It was too bad we couldn’t communicate with him as I bet he would have a lot to share with us about his life on Lake Tana, a life that is more threatened by modernity than by hippos.
As I watched the fisherman, I realized that like so much in the world the future of his livelihood was threatened. The papyrus reeds were becoming less abundant and surely in due time, more modern boats like the one I was riding on later that day from the hotel, would threaten the culture and tradition of papyrus boats. It was a sad thought thinking that such a beautiful, peaceful way of life could soon be gone to the forces of time.
By 7 am, it was time for my coffee. As the birthplace of this magical bean, Ethiopian coffee is something that cannot be missed in Ethiopia. Luckily I had a table with a view.
As I drank my coffee, I did a little research on Lake Tana. The afternoon was going to be spent visiting a few of the island monasteries that dot the lake and go back to the 14th century. We would also ride out to the Blue Nile Falls in hopes of seeing more papyrus boats and hippos.
The sun was rising and I captured a few more shots of the fisherman in their boats, with their silhouettes reflecting off the waters. I wondered how many more years they would be around and felt fortunate to share a moment of their world.
Papyrus and Lake Tana : The Peaceful boatmen of Ethiopi’a largest lake reflect a grand and ancient past” by Ron Londen. Selamta magazine. Ethiopian Airlines.