Friday, September 19, 2008

In Search of Ethiopia's Forgotten Tribal Beauties

Tug of Birrs with the Mursi - Photo courtesy of Irada Humbatova
Forget about the quintessential images of ubiquitous savannah where herds of African elephants, with their magnificent ears marching gracefully in a single file and zebras, each with their uniquely patented stripes, grazing under the watchful gaze of mighty predators. Instead, be prepared to be surprisingly charmed and intrigued by the tribal living of the Mursi and Hamer in the South Omo Valley of Ethiopia.

Anyone who thinks that Ethiopia is somewhat similar to other Eastern African countries will be heart pressed to find it lacks the well organised safari industry, commonly attached to these countries. However, thanks to the slow progress of industrialization and development, there is still a huge chance to experience the uncorrupted innocence and natural beauty of tribal wilderness in Ethiopia. Driving along the South Omo Valley is as rewarding as entering any popular safari destination although there is the advantage of not being confined within the parameters of a park and you get to see many other traditional tribes along the way.

Recently, together with my photographer friend, we abandoned our daily domestic chores in Addis Ababa by driving south across more than 1,000km of wide asphalt roads, often proceeded by winding narrow and bumpy paths through the breathtaking mountainous terrain of South Omo Valley in search of the Mursi and Hamer tribes in Mago National Park and Turmi. Situated south-west of Ethiopia, the South Omo Valley has a lot to be proud of, boasting six lakes; Ziway, Abiata-Shala, Langano, Awassa, Chamo and one of the largest of the Rift Valley, Lake Abaya measuring at 1160sqm.

After six days of unlimited escapades, accompanied by long bumpy car rides while being stuck in road traffic caused by hundreds of cows, being tugged and shoved by the Mursi while battling with Tsetse flies in the heat of Mago National Park and not forgetting being chased by baboons provoked by the trail of banana scent in our car, we bring to you the story and images of the forgotten tribal beauties of Ethiopia.

South Omo Valley – Ethiopia’s hidden treasure

As we drifted slowly away from Addis Ababa, we started to see the real splendour and charm of Ethiopian countryside in all its organic splendour. We were constantly fascinated by almost everything, right down to the herds of cattle which seemed to rule the roads in almost every village we passed. The local cows are shaped rather oddly, with backs protruding like humps and skins sweeping loosely beneath their necks.

Since it was already close to the month of June, we began to see the sign of winter (raining season) albeit the seasonal rain being late at this time of the year. The weather was slightly grey and melancholy followed by the occasional soft drizzle of rain. Donkeys huddled together under the flat canopy of acacia trees, waiting stubbornly for the rain to stop. We began to notice how endearing these white-snouted four-legged creatures are as we often saw them in pairs, facing each other, as if having a private conversation with only God as privy to it.

We could start to breathe more easily due to lower altitudes and less air pollution albeit the occasional thick trails of dust left behind by trucks ahead of us. Against a constant background of volcanic hills and the Arsi, Fike and Guge Mountains which seem to stretch for an eternity, it was definitely a quiet and soothing retreat from the madding crowd of Addis Ababa.

Otherwise a landlocked and mountainous country, which often provides a sense of claustrophobia, the omnipresent images of the Rift Valley lakes serve as a temporary soothing alternative. With elevations varying from 450m to 1,700m, the temperature was inevitably erratic, rising as high as 40 degrees Celsius, as experienced in Mago National Park and Omorate, to as low as 20 degrees Celsius in higher grounds such as Wolayta and Jinka.

The landscape varied intermittently from flat arid fields to luscious green and fertile highlands often with layers of man-made terraces to accommodate small agricultural crops. Acacia trees shaped like giant bonsais with their trunks and branches twisted at their own will, aloes and euphorbia were seen spreading sparsely in arid fields. Many acacia trees are used by birds to support their nests and men to hang their traditional cylindrical bee hives made of barks and dung to collect mar, honey.

What is Africa without its bastion of wild animals? We were constantly fascinated by the vast species of birds and mammals flying and roaming freely in their undisturbed milieu. I couldn’t help but wonder how long would it take before the white pelicans, helmeted guineafowls, vultures, falcons, marabou storks, camels, baboons and dik-diks begin to disappear in order to give way to homo sapiens’ insatiable appetite for destruction.

Automobiles were replaced by herds of cows, goats and sheep under the watchful eyes of young shepherds. Occasionally, we would see boys standing steadily on flimsy-looking rubber-wheeled carts pulled by horses cantering along the sides of narrow roads. It did provide an impression of an African version of Roman chariot racers. In bigger towns like Shashemene and Wolayta, red or blue tuk-tuks and horse drawn carriages serve as public transportations. Big concrete buildings are being substituted by tukuls, small traditional round huts made from clay with conical grass thatched roofs.

Tug of Birrs with the Mursi

As soon as we arrived at Mursi Village, situated close to the entrance of Mago National Park, we were greeted by a swarm of Mursi men, women and children who had abandoned their perfunctory chores in order to welcome foreign visitors. While we were intrigued by them, they were somewhat less fascinated by our presence due to the influx of tourists in the past few years. For them, it was just another regular day of work.

The women were obviously dressed to impress; toga-like wraps made of goatskin, lots of beaded accessories and miscellaneous head gears made of animal horns. Most of them were bald and bare-breasted with white paintings on their chests and faces. Not all of them wore their signatory lip-plates due to obvious discomfort although some started to put them on as soon as they saw us. We saw young Mursi girls with scarification on their abdomens marking the start of puberty as well as an indication that they are ready to have sexual relations with men. The children looked like zebras with painted white stripes against their dark skin.

What happened next was a whirlwind as we were tugged and shoved around by women who insisted on their photos being taken with the standard price of 2Birr (10 Birr is equivalent to approximately 1 Euro) per photo, preferably in fresh new notes. Some older women offered to sell their clay lip-plates, measuring about 15cm in diameter and smaller ear plugs for a meagre sum of 10Birr and 5Birr each.

There was a particular Mursi man named Uleketele, distinguished from the rest by his huge pair of prescriptive glasses, who followed us around with great curiosity, evidently enjoying the whole camaraderie. Uleketele had his photograph taken once and yet, he continued to tag along us. We soon noticed that he had quietly sneaked in line with several other Mursi women, getting ready for another photo session. We started laughing as soon as we realised that he had taken off his glasses with the hope of fooling us into thinking that he was not the same man! He laughed along good naturedly as soon as he realised that the cat had been led out of the bag. The mischievous sparkle in his eyes told me that Uleketele is not quite the typical Mursi I had expected.

We were graciously granted a brief tour into their modest but self-contained village. Many women were seen lying around chatting amongst each other while entertaining their children. Despite being unaccustomed to the unnatural sight of lower lips hanging loosely beneath their jaws, we were touched by the natural beauty of babies suckling on their mother’s bare breasts. A woman was seen grinding grains of corn, using traditional tools made of stones. Once turned into powder, she mixed them with water, kneaded and shaped them into balls of dumplings before boiling them in murky water.

Not too far away, a Mursi girl with a younger boy, standing on an elevated flimsy platform attracted my undivided attention. Like a seasoned Olympic hammer thrower, she swung a rope with a rock attached to one end, above her head and after gaining sufficient momentum, aimed the rock at an unsuspecting wild bird perching on a tree. I was impressed as I watched the boy dismounted from the platform nimbly and like a bloodhound, scurried deep into the foliage of corn field, in search of the day’s hunt.

Tradition versus politics and development

With an estimated population of 7,000, many Mursi have abandoned their traditionally nomadic and pastoralist life and begun to rely on tourism more and more as a form of living. The practice of lip-plate had initially originated from a deliberate attempt to make women less attractive to slave traders and then evolved to something of a more aesthetic and social nature. According to my research, the size of the lip-plate correlates with the size of the bearer’s bridewealth, the number of cattle a man must pay for her hand. The park ranger I met at Mago National Park told me that now, it is just a practise sustained by tourism. Sadly, the only reason which attracts tourists to the Mursi is solely their practice of lip-plates.

During the Soviet-backed Derg regime (1975-1991), the Mursi had been told to abandon their practise of lip-plate because it was seen as a symbol of backwardness. Apparently, threats were issued by a regional government official that whoever continued to stretch their lips would have their lower lips cut off entirely. After the fall of the Derg regime, the Mursi were presented with another predicament. As attempts were made by the present government to establish and improve the tourism industry, many tribes were forcibly resettled as their lands were confiscated and destroyed for the purpose of redefining the boundaries of Nechisar, Omo and Mago National parks.

Hamer – the symbol of natural beauty

In Turmi market, we were encountered by a rather different experience with the Hamer. Numbering at around 50,000 and less dependent on tourism, the Hamers paid no attention to us while they attended to their commercial trade of goatskin, spices, milk, butter, honey and colourful beads.
The Hamer women with their copper tresses were dressed in beautiful goatskin laced with cowrie shells, bright coloured beads and copper armlets. Known as masters of body decoration, every piece of accessory has a significant social meaning. For example, the ensente, iron torques worn around the necks of married and engaged women indicate the wealth and prestige of their husbands. The number of earrings worn by a Hamer man correlates with the number of wives he has.

With their naturally lean body, glistering dark skin and beautiful bone structure, the Hamer women often look like supermodel without any form of make-up and cosmetic reconstruction. In the words of my friend, “Just pick them out of the crowd and put them on the fashion runway, a supermodel is born.” Seriously! Hamer women have that je ne sais quoi which exude a certain natural sense of elegance and grace when they move. Some of the portraits taken of them were truly remarkable and it could easily be from a cover of a high fashion magazine.

Unfortunately, we did not have much time to get to know the Hamer people but we plan to take the same journey again, well maybe after the winter season.

Humanizing tourism

As we settled back into our urban life in Addis Ababa, we can’t help but ponder on the fate and future of the Mursi. Will they continue to defend their traditional practice of lip-plates as a symbol of their identity or will it eventually vanish with the evolution of time? While feeling somewhat guilty for partaking in the exploitation of tourism, I think we can limit our potential of dehumanizing them by seeing them as fellow human beings, not as a specimen made for the viewing pleasure of tourists. Instead of just taking pictures of them like prized trophy, we can learn to understand them through the gift of human fellowship.

After spending one year in Addis Ababa, completely disillusioned with my previous expectations of a stereotyped “Africa”, I was finally humbled by Ethiopia’s unassuming ability to astound even the most hardcore adventurer.

Written on 29 June 2008

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