Onni's own stories:

Hazardous Orienteering

Letter From The Finnish Winter War

The Scout Movement on The March

A Visit to Kilimanjaro

Onni Goes Flying

Onni Goes On a Lion Hunt

The Scout Movement on The March

Letter from Onni Niskanen, published in Duvbo IK's Annual Magazine 1951

The Scout movement on the march Letter from Onni Niskanen, published in Duvbo IK's Annual Magazine 1951

The Scout movement in Ethiopia, which I myself was involved in starting up, was founded a couple of years ago and has developed hugely. It gives the young Ethiopians a leisure pursuit that is very valuable. It follows the international Scout Movement's pattern and there are scout leaders from several different nations, who actively contribute to the development.

The first big scout camp turned into an adventure that the boys will not easily forget. I was the leader for the camp that had been planned to last for two weeks. After a train ride to the outskirts of Dire Dawa, we set up camp in a place that I had chosen on a previous reconnaissance and the trouble started already upon arrival.

While we were lugging our things across a dried up river channel, we suddenly saw a wave rushing along the previously bone-dry riverbed, which was around 20 metres wide. Before we knew it, the swirling water masses had separated us, where we stood on opposite sides of the river, contemplating the natural phenomenon. This was not a tiny little steam, which you could wade across. The body of water was roaring forth and stones and branches were dragged along in the foaming, brown whirls. The water rose higher and higher. I sent out scouts in both directions to see if there was a place to cross, but it looked hopeless. The darkness was falling and something had to be done. After searching for a short while, I found a place where the river did not seem so deep. I tied a stone at the end of a rope and after a few misses I managed to throw it across to the boys on the other side. We fixed the rope level with the water line on both sides and I made an attempt to cross over. It was not easy. At the deepest part, the water reached up to my chest. The gushing water masses knocked my legs away and I had great difficulty getting across.

We threw over two more ropes, making three in total, before I dared to let the boys cross. After a few hours of work, all of us had crossed, properly beaten black and blue by logs and stones that were dragged along by the water masses. We set up camp in the preselected spot and fell asleep immediately.

I woke up around two in the morning by something wet falling down on me and a wild babbling of voices all around me. It took a few seconds before I completely understood what was going on. The tent lay as a wet mass on top of me and, after crawling out from under it, I saw a funny sight. All the tents, military tents for 20 people, lay in big heaps and from all directions, boys were trying to get out from under them. The rain was pouring down. Only one tent was still standing up and we steadied it with extra tent poles to keep it from falling down.

The whole area around Dire Dawa is sandy ground with low scrubs and cacti here and there. When the torrential rain started, the sand washed away so that the tent poles popped out like champagne corks. All we could do was to try to secure the tents again and around four in the morning, we had all tents standing up again. The rain had subsided and after some tea, which we made in the only tent that had remained standing, we went to bed, tired and wet.

When we woke up the next morning, a clear blue sky greeted us. The sun warmed nicely, the riverbed, where we had such problems crossing the previous night, was again dry, and only a few moist spots in the sand showed us that it had not been a dream.

The explanation to the whole thing was that the rain started up in the mountains and the water ran down all the narrow streams, which later gathered in the main river, and that was the one we had struggled across. We heard later that such torrential rains only appear a few times each year in these areas.

When we had a couple of days left of the camping trip, a strike broke out on the railway. All traffic had been stopped and we started wondering how we were going to get back to Addis. I spent several hours per day at the railway station, but I had only disheartening results. There did not seem to be any solutions to the strike in the near future.

We had to start decreasing the food rations. I only had enough money for 14 days stay and now we really had to economize. We played some football games against local teams and that way we got some money to help with the food supply. My boys won a town race that I had arranged against the area's 10 men strong team and that gave some economic help to my hungry boys. Week after week passed by without any improvement in the railway sector. I finally decided to try to get back to Addis some other way. I enquired about the cost for renting big lorries with drivers. It would cost between 4 and 5.000 Swedish Krona. After some arrangements, I managed to borrow that sum and wrote a contract with a transport company.

At the time when we were ready to leave, everyone came around to warn us of travelling. The route we had to travel went through difficult country and the rainy season was still on in higher grounds. There were also some disturbances between a few of the tribes along the way and Government troops had been sent out to try to sort things out. After conferring with the boys, we decided to go in spite of all warnings. We had equipped ourselves with enough water to last the nearest time. The money we had left was unfortunately not enough to buy a large amount of food, but I counted on shooting some game along the way. I had a rifle with me for that purpose.

Everything went well to start with, even if we had to cross over countless riverbeds. All bridges had been destroyed during the war and we had to drive down beside them, which was not the easiest thing to do. When we were stuck, we at least had many willing hands to help with digging and gathering stones and twigs to put under the spinning wheels. Due to the disturbances between the tribes, we had to try to get to the next town without stopping over. We took the opportunity to make tea when we were stuck somewhere, so that we would not lose any time. Tea and bread was the only things we had during the first two days. Considering the circumstances, everything had gone well until we arrived at a river that looked impossible to cross. I tied a rope around my waist and waded in to see how deep it was. The water flow swept my legs away as soon as I got around ten metres out and I had to give up. It was getting dark and we took the opportunity to make some tea while we waited for the water to subside, which it also did, even if it was only by 20 centimetres. The drivers now decided to try to cross over.

They connected the lorries with 6 metres long iron bars, specially made for this purpose. We got in the lorries and off we went. Some exciting seconds followed. We went down the first riverbank and out into the water that was foaming against the lorries. When we reached the middle of the stream, the water was above the big wheels, but we did move forwards. We came closer to the opposite bank and now the worry was whether we could get up the steep mud bank or if we would be stuck in the water. The engines worked frenetically. Sometimes one of the lorries skidded, sometimes the other, but they were helped back on track by the iron bars that functioned either by pushing or by pulling. Then we went up the bank in the mud that sprayed from the wheels. Slowly by surely we proceeded. The first lorry was up the bank and got better grip under the wheels, so that it could help the following lorry. When that one was up as well, we breathed a sigh of relief.

Another lorry was left on the other side. It was not one of ours, but we had travelled together from Dire Dawa and we rather wanted it to make it across and not be stuck there on its own. It followed in our tracks and everything looked fine. When it was about 8 metres from our shore, it stopped dead in the river without possibility to continue. It was somewhat smaller than our lorries were and only half the bonnet was visible over the water.

With a rope around my waist, I waded out with a winch wire that I fastened around the front axle of the lorry. It was not easy to do. I had to support myself by putting my back against the inside of the wheel, crawl down under the water and, without seeing anything, tie the wire around the axle. Somehow, I managed to do that and one of our lorries started pulling this one out of the water. The thick steel wire broke with a bang and so I had to start over again, trying to tie the ends together. We tried again but with the same result. The knot held together but this time the wire broke in another place. We understood that there must be some other problem and I took on the task to investigate what was wrong. Right in front of one of the front wheels, there was a 50 cm big boulder, which put an end to further attempts to move forwards. One of the best swimmers among the scouts came out to me and together we managed to move the boulder to the side. After that, we could get the lorry up on the bank without problems. I had spent two hours in the water by then. I had not felt the cold during the exciting work, but afterwards I could not speak from being completely frozen stiff. At least, we could continue our trip. It took us three and a half days to get back to Addis, after several major or minor similar difficulties. I managed to get more than enough food by sitting on the roof of the driver's cabin and shoot while we were moving. We had antelopes, gazelles, guinea fowl, hares, etc.

This was one episode that you can experience in Ethiopia. I am going back there now for another three years service and I must admit that I like it better and better the longer I stay. Ethiopia is a country in progress. The schools especially have moved forwards during the five years I have worked down there. I myself have a large working field in the sports and the physical training and apart from that, I also have the Red Cross and the Scout Movement.

Finally, I would like to point out that the work that Swedish people in different positions are doing, to a huge extent help maintain the good relations between Sweden and Ethiopia, a country that, under the Emperor's guidance, is slowly but surely progressing.

Onni Niskanen