We regrouped in Addis, unpacked and repacked our bags, and the next morning started out on the final segment of our holiday itinerary: a 7-day visit to the tribes in Ethiopia’s remote Lower Omo Valley region.
For many people, a trip of this kind is ethically problematic. While it is fascinating to observe firsthand cultures so markedly different from our own, what is the effect of tourism on them? Is it beneficial or is it exploitative? We are cautioned not to make the trip if we have any type of communicable disease, even a cold, as the tribal people don’t have resistance to our germs. That’s fairly easy to manage, but what about the cultural impact? Westerners go to see these tribes because they are different, but the more westerners interact with them, the less different they will be. The most isolated of the groups might see 1000 foreigners a year; others who live close to towns, like the Dorze and the Konso, get many times that number.
The village chief usually collects a fee for the visit. Certainly this money improves the lives of the villagers, but how do we know for sure that our guides are paying a fair price? Often individuals charge 5 or 10 birr (25 or 50 cents) to have their photos taken. This seems like a reasonable exchange, but the monetization of photography has unfortunately turned village life into a sideshow for some groups when cameras are present – we witnessed this ourselves when we visited the Karo and the Mursi. Villagers ask us for candy, medicine, or clothes (which we don’t give, but others might). What impact does this have on their health and their society? If the tribe becomes dependent on tourism, does that help or harm the efforts to preserve their culture?
I have a good friend here who says he will never go – he calls it “the human zoo.” And I agree that the apparent inequality of the experience is discomfiting. For me, though, having majored in cultural anthropology, the opportunity to meet people I had only read about in monographs was irresistible. I think it’s a given that the way of life of these tribes will be very much changed in a few short years, and I am here now. I can only say that we were friendly and respectful and tried to do no harm in an attempt to make our inevitable imprint as positive as possible. In the end it was probably the most incredible experience I’ve had in Africa so far (and I have had a few).
I’ll divide my photos I took into several slide shows over two posts featuring the tribes and markets, and a third post for some of the other things we saw and did in the Omo Valley.
Located just outside of the city of Arba Minch, the Dorze are a much-visited tribe of shepherds and weavers who are making the most of tourism. A Dorze man gave us a tour of the village: we saw inside a traditional elephant-shaped home, a woman demonstrated how to make kocho cakes from false banana, we saw the tourist lodge operated by the village, we sampled traditional food and alcohol, and we toured the weaving factory (with roof provided by an Irish NGO) where Andreas bought Alekka a scarf. It was a heavily mediated experience which made it unclear whether we were seeing how the Dorze actually live now or whether we were touring a living history museum, but either way it was worth the stop.
It was market day for this small tribe of pastoralists. We visited the market first; several young people asked to have their photos taken but did not ask for money. Then we were invited (I presume our guide offered remuneration, but I didn’t witness the exchange) to a family home. We had a good time “talking” and laughing with the man and wife and their kids (much sign language involved). The woman shared some fresh brewed buno, prepared by boiling the coffee husks left over after coffee beans are sent to the city. It was a pale liquid with the the husks still in it that tasted more like herbal tea than coffee.
This visit was a little awkward. There weren’t many adults at home in the small village because most of them were away at a market. We saw two young men return from fishing, and a man knocking pods out of a tree for his goats. There were quite a few young children around who were curious but shy. Our guide asked a woman if we could see inside her house; she said yes but after we were inside she seemed uncomfortable and we didn’t stay long. We talked with our guide about it afterwards and he said that this village has not had many outside visitors and they are not used to being the object of curiosity.
We noticed the Hamar in all the markets, where the women’s distinctive clothing and hairstyle and also their confident bearing make them easily identifiable. In the Hamar village we met several people, visited a family in their house, and saw the animal corrals.
Our guide learned that there was going to be a Hamar dance that evening and he got permission for us to attend. We arrived at sunset at a small clearing outside a village. Men and women took turns dancing (the men’s dance involved much jumping, the women’s more complicated steps) while others watched and clapped.
Next to the dance area there was a large shelter where women were grinding grain and singing.
Both men and women have decorative scars on their faces and arms, but in the photos you can see that most adult women also have heavy scarring from wounds on their backs. This happens at the bull-jumping ceremony, which is the Hamar coming of age ritual for young men that takes place in the summer months. The boys run naked across the dung-smeared backs of cattle lined up side by side, while the “maza” – young men who have already completed the ritual – beat the initiates’ sisters with canes. The purpose of this is to create a debt to benefit the sisters, by obligating the boys to protect them in exchange for the pain they have endured. The women are proud of these scars.
Next post: more tribes and markets from South Omo.