My heart quickens. We have been driving for hours along rutted dirt roads,
but now we are on the final stretch of our journey. We park by a sign that
welcomes us to Gish Abay and find a guide from the village. We descend a
steep, slippery slope of red soil, a crowd of children following behind us.
A light rain falls, and black- and- white monkeys scamper out of our way.
At the bottom of the hill, a circular green building with a small cross on it
signals our destination. The church is considered so holy that you are only
able to visit if you have not eaten that day. We have, so we skirt around it and
gather by a muddy pool. Water trickles out of the ground through a small
opening, surrounded by stone blocks. A few people are collecting water in
colored bottles and containers. At the other end of the pool, water flows
slowly out into a gully, which winds off to the north, into a flat plain of short
yellow grasses. Our guide says, “This is the source of the river, which then
flows 6,600km to the sea.”
Water seeping out of the ground may not seem all that momentous, but
this spring high up in the Ethiopian Highlands marks the beginning of
one of the longest rivers in the world: the Nile.1 As I stood by the source of
the Nile’s primary tributary—the Blue Nile—one damp day in April 2012,
I imagined the large river this small stream becomes. I thought about the
channels, dams, pumps, and fields of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt that it
passes through on its long path to the Mediterranean Sea. I pondered the
possibilities that the water opens up with its presence, the potentials it oc-
cludes in its absence, and the conflicts it generates in the process.
Five years earlier when I arrived in Egypt to begin my doctoral fieldwork,
I felt a similar sense of excitement as I stood on the 6 October Bridge in
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