The South
Ihala At Dawn

The Omo Valley lies in the south of Ethiopia where many of the Bantu tribes live This is an area rich in social and ethnic interest with distinct tribal customs, ritual scarification and body decoration, and beloved of both photographers, social anthropologists and missionaries.


Aber Minch

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We headed south on a 10 hour trip to Aber Minch, a university town on the lakes. The area was beautiful and green, a characteristic of Ethiopia we came to know and love. En route we passed fields of rock styles which are the headstones of an unknown people from about 1200 AD. The country is strewn with random remains of old civilizations and societies, little gems you fall over on your journey. The stones were marked to show how many kills in battle the warriors had made. It must have been a short life! We are accompanied by random locals nodding and smiling and trying to chat to us with more or less success. Begging and the ferangi song are about to become very familiar.

We have been warned of the ferengi tradition but we are starting to experience this dubious ritual now with increasing frequency and energy.

Ferengi is the Middle East term for foreigner, derived from the term Frank, when the Franks invaded the area during the crusades. In Ethiopia it is a habit, a chant, a greeting or an insult depending on who, what and where it is used. Everywhere you go there will be people calling ferengi after you in the streets and groups of children may follow on singing and chanting repetitively. It can be irritating, to say the least, but we learned to turn it around, especially when there was implied hostility, by referring to ourselves as ferengi with laughter and gesticulation, or in a depreciating way, an excuse for ignorance or cultural gaffes. Generally this worked but it remained, at times, a constant aggravation.

To put it into perspective, in modern times the term ferengi was used in Star Trek to classify an alien species whose male gender are greedy sexist pigs! Go figure. Clearly this is not really a term used with respect or affection.

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Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo are two adjacent lakes in the Nech Sar game reserve. This means white grass and contains many natural springs. In fact the name Arba Minch means 40 springs. The two lakes are a complete contrast, divided by a spit of land called the Bridge of God. Lake Abaya is a dirty reddish brown due to the high iron content and next to it Chamo glints blue and clear. This is mirrored in the fertility of the lake. Chamo is a paradise of birds, fish and game but Abaya appears desolate. We took a boat ride across Lake Chamo and marvelled at the bird life and hippos and some of the biggest crocodiles we have ever seen lazing in the shallows in rafts.

The local fisherman use the old reed boats which are from biblical times. The boat is made of papyrus and reeds, the bow and stern turned up like a giant shoe. The draft is not big and these massive crocodiles must love fishermen as the sides barely clear the water. To fall in, must mean certain death. The Ethiopians are not great swimmers. They laugh at this comment however, clearly this has been part of life so long it does not faze them. In contrast they are very respectful of the crocodiles in Lake Abaya which are smaller, but reputedly very vicious, because there is so little fish in the iron stained waters that they are always hungry.

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The Dorze Tribe

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From Arba Minch we drove up into the hills for our first taste of tribal culture, to visit the Dorze tribe. They live on top of cliffs overlooking the green valley below and run a small lodge. We had our first spat here as they charged us more than double the advertised rate and the drivers refused to intervene. Instead the drivers were given a cottage with the best view and inside bathroom and free honey mead. We were in damp rooms with an outside long drop 100 m away. Dodgy or what!,. There were some grumpy tourists after that. I missed most of the action because I got heat stroke on the lake. Still some humour was restored when the others toured the village and were shown the local crafts and made fermented bread. The bread is called Etw and is made from false banana leaves fermented underground for 3-6 months and made into a flat pizza like bread served with a chilli paste. I know, sounds delicious or what!

The Dorze are well known for their traditional huts made of reeds, like tall cones, 5m high. They cut the bottom of the huts off over time, as the termites invade and eat the bases, and they eventually end up 1-2 m tall before they start the process again.

They are also known for weaving and making hats but we refused to buy anything after the spat over lodge fees. Our loss I fear. A recurring theme in this beautiful land is the constant hustling of tourists for money. A thick skin and short memory are useful to prevent developing a combative and ultimately self defeating attitude. It's hard, but you have to always consider the privilege of your life against the hardship of theirs, and the energy, inventiveness and persistence they demonstrate clawing a living every day. In this process you are merely a resource and need to behave with grace and humour.

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Jinca and the Tsemay Tribe

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Jinca is another 10 hours south of Dorze, and is the gateway to the Omo tribes. The road is littered with cattle, goats, camels, horses, dogs, children and people. A feature of Ethiopia is the large numbers of people everywhere. It is not hard to believe this is the second most populated country in Africa. We begin to appreciate why they don't want foreigners driving here (apart from raising extra dollars!) as driving without causing genocide is definitely an art! The roads are additionally potholed and in bad repair and often crawl up mountain passes clinging to the edge of precipitous drops with no barriers.

The fertility of the land is on generous display. Fields of maize, wheat, barley, millet and sorghum are expertly terraced. There are trees of mango, avocado and paw paws. Everything seems to grow in this fertile area. The sorghum was about to ripen and platforms atop felled tree stumps are dotted across the fields where young men stand and crack whips to drive off the birds. The fields resound to the sound of the whistling whips cracking.

We pulled into a village in the Weyto valley to visit the Tsemay tribe. We had our first taste of photobirr, the birr being the Ethiopian unit of currency. Because of the photographic interest in this area, charging for photography has become a major source of income. The most common system is to insist on a guide for a fixed price, and then reimburse all the photographic subjects per shutter click regardless of whether the picture is worth keeping. In this village the negotiations were done with the elders and the photographic subjects were clearly reluctant, and some frankly hostile. I left my camera shutter set to high speed by mistake and this caused an absolute uprising and tense negotiation after it erupted like a machine gun with the first shot. The light was harsh, the subjects uncooperative and unhappy and the photographers found their pockets emptying at an alarming rate. An unpleasant experience all round and did not bode well for the 5 or 6 tribes we were still scheduled to visit.

Before you decide never to set foot in this culturally rich place, things did get better from here on in. Photographic permission still involved an unfamiliar, and slightly awkward, financial transaction, but at least most of the subjects were willing, even over eager, in anticipation of the rewards..

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Mago game reserve and the Mursi Tribe

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A visit to the Omo region is not complete without meeting the Mursi tribe. Most of the other tribes have friends and allies but not the Mursi. These are a warrior tribe with the reputation for violence and aggression and cattle rustling. They need cattle for their bride payments, and readily steal from each other and their neighbours. Most arguments are settled with AK's. The other tribes steer clear. They are the Omo bad boys. They are generally heavily armed, indeed we saw few men without an AK 47 slung over their shoulders, both in the village and walking in the bush. They practice ritual scarification and distinctive body painting. The scarification is said to toughen the skin for protection in fights and even the women do this. The men wear a blanket slung over their shoulders and not much else. Hand marks and stripes adorn the body in white paint. The women pierce the bottom lip at a young age and insert discs of increasing sizes. Eventually these can be the size of dinner plates. When removed the lip hangs down below the chin. This practice identifies them as being desirable brides, the bigger the disc the more attractive the bride.

We set off to visit them on the far side of the Mago Park. It is a long and bumpy journey across stony river beds and scrub. They practice polygamy, the chief generally has up to 3 wives, and the American missionaries have long been trying to reform this practice with the result that they up sticks and move the village further away when they have had enough preaching. Hence the long journey. We arrive in the heat of the day and there are other tourists ahead of us. Our guide advises us to relax and wait until everyone has left before we start running around with the cameras, a good piece of advice it turns out. We rest in the shade on cow skins provided by our hosts. They are welcoming and seem to be failing the fearsome reputation except for the proliferation of AKs. We have a chance to see the social structure. The men sit under trees in different age groups and the women and small children are by the huts. The older children are out herding the goats and cattle. Dudley is invited to play a traditional game with seeds in shallow cup shaped holes. Similar to the Mozambican game of Bao. Eventually they become restless and begin to signal us to take photographs.

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Photographing the Mursi is an expensive business. You must pick up a guide for 200 Birr in Jinca. You then pay 160 Birr per person and then 20 per car to get into the Mago game reserve. This cost us about 860 birr. We then had to pay 200 birr each to the village chief. The cost of the picture was 5 birr per person per camera. They are experts at photobombing and just as you frame the shot another 3 jump in and demand another 5 birr each. Carmen loves to photograph the children but eventually she has more than she can fit in frame! They all want to be paid. As you choose a subject his mates start to look glum and angry and demand to also be photographed. It is an insult not to be picked. If a man with an AK 47 wants his picture taken it seems best to do it. The atmosphere begins to change and becomes a little tense. The youth are fidgeting with the guns.

The chiefs brother, a mountain of a man, walked in with an aloof appeal. He had the status to keep the young men in check but we decided to make our escape before things turned ugly. The guide tells us they start to drink at lunch time, probably with the proceeds of the photobirr, which has a predictable effect on their volatility.

We drove back through the park. The reserve seems to have little protection. A sugar mill is ripping roads through the bush. They say there are lion and elephant and wild dog but I suspect, with the proliferation of AK's in the area, poaching is common and the game may only survive in pockets. We saw only dwarf mongooses and a duiker, but the hills were heavily wooded and lush after the rains and the bird life beautiful.

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The Hari Tribe

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Next stop was the Hari village. The Hari are a happy and welcoming clan and they proudly take you to tour the village and all their local crafts. They allowed us to help to make injera from a batter made of fermented teff. The grain is fermented for 2 days before it is used which gives the characteristic sour flavour. Injera is a staple of every meal.

Indeed our drivers became glum if they did not get the daily injera fix. The rubbery sour pancake is used to pick up food from the communal plate in place of eating utensils.

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We visited the local "shebeen", in South African terms. Clearly the distilling of alcohol is a universal process. This distillate hopefully does not have too much methyl-alcohol in it, as its a well known cause for blindness.

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Lastly we visited the blacksmith in his forge and watched him with hand bellows and a 5 kg hammer making knives from reinforcing rods. An industrious and multitalented people indeed.

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Kevafred Market and The Hammar and BenaTribes

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Market trading plays a central role in Ethiopian life. There is a market every day, but in different villages. The roads are thronged with people walking to market with their goods and cattle. As motorised transport is a luxury, many will walk all day, or all night, to reach the market and back the next day. The favoured few have a camel, bike or donkey to ride. We headed for the Thursday market at Keyafred. The market had two sections set up on open land. The livestock with cows and goats attended by the men, and a general market with cloth , grain, vegetables and curios where the women ply their wares. The different tribes are distinctive by dress and decoration, the Hamar tribe with ochred complexions are particularly distinctive, similar to the Himba of Namibia. One group sells local honey, a delicacy of their village. The lithesome Bena tribe wear a very short loin cloth around around their waists and are very muscular and well proportioned.

Photography remains challenging. The people are unhappy with even general shots. Some, because of a genuine dislike for the attention, turn their heads away and look angry. Others are fixated on photobirr and when none is offered will throw insults or even sticks. I concentrated on inanimate subjects and cattle and livestock but the owners felt this is also a chargeable offence. The process becomes exhausting. Dudley buys a small wooden stool which doubles as their pillow at night. The stool is only 25 to 30 cms high and carried by the men to rest on journeys. It is no bigger than the pommel on a saddle and looks about as comfortable. Dudley says it is comfortable. It must be his bony backside speaking.

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The Kara Tribe

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We set up camp at the Mango camp site in a grove of mango. A pretty spot by the river. Run down certainly, but the first actual campsite we had found in our travels. As we had planned this as a camping trip, it was a relief to be finally on script after a series of rather damp smelly and depressing small hotels . We had hired camping gear at €7 per person per day and were carrying R2000 worth of food, which we had yet to get an opportunity to cook. Indeed we had jettisoned the meat long ago. I think the issue is that Ethiopia is not set up for camping and essentially there is no campsite network or ethos. However, and we experienced this a lot with our drivers as well, it is not in the Ethiopian vocabulary to say no to requests. If you ask for something they say yes even if it is impractical and so it was with the camp gear. The rental company did not want to tell us it would be largely useless to us. The cars overflowed with mismatched tents and utensils which we were rarely able to use, making the hire a redundant expense and the gear unnecessary extra luggage. Still for 3 days at least we were able to return to our natural habitat. The bird life was fantastic and plentiful including flocks of the white morph of the paradise flycatcher.

Our next stop was the Kara village on cliffs over looking the Omo river and Kenya to the south. The road is long through rocky thornveld dotted with slim termite mounds. On each mound perches beautiful red and yellow barbets. Game was sparse with occasional duiker and goats.

The Kara are pastoralists and keep animals , especially goats, and grow sorghum which is stored in small huts as grain stores. Their dug out mokoros are anchored on the banks and the younger men are keen fishermen. They are a proud and handsome race and welcome us. It is a surprise to see so much plastic and old water bottles around the village. Litter has not been a big element in Ethiopia until now. It seems this is left by the tourists bringing plastic wrapped toys and gifts and food and drink. The negative side of this cultural interaction as we are far from anywhere, and there is no waste disposal. Take it with you guys.

A dam and hydroelectric project is proposed for this river and threatens the culture and ancestral homeland of many of these tribes.

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We spent a happy few hours with the Kara chatting and taking photographs. The photobirr was again flowing freely and we no longer had the small denominations we needed. What to do, there is no where to make change. Then one of the women with a straw headdress came up to us and took off the hat to reveal a fortune in small notes.

The local bank it seems. It is logical that the photobirr must end up somewhere. The light is harsh and the sun hot as we wave them goodbye and good luck. Photographic light is an issue so far. All destinations are far and we rarely arrive in good light but must make do with the harsh midday conditions. This photography is not for the faint hearted.

The Hamar Tribe and the Jumping Of The Bulls

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The Hamar tribe are distinctive in appearance and dress. They stain their skin a dark red with ochre rather like the Himba people. Their dress is decorated with beads. They are tall with fine features and a fierce and proud demeanour. Up until now we had seen them only in the markets and they had been hostile to photography. One of the iconic events in Hamar culture is a coming of age ceremony called The Jumping Of The Bulls. We were lucky enough to find ourselves staying right next to a planned ceremony. For this event we were told we would be allowed to observe and photograph in return for a fee paid to the village. The planning for the ceremony starts with a young man carrying a small wooden stick from house to house, notifying the village that he wishes to be allowed to pass into manhood. Often more than one boy will be initiated on the same day, but each will perform the ceremony in their own demarcated areas.

The elders decide the date. The young men's relatives gather on the banks of the river at selected spots and the girls gather thin sticks. Many of these sticks litter the river bank as they were used in previous ceremonies. These sticks are used to beat the girls from the boys family prior to the bull jumping. It signifies their love for the boy.

We get ready to walk across the river to the ceremonial site in the early afternoon. Gedeyon, our driver, pulls me to one side. You won't like it he says anxiously. Clearly he has formed some opinion of my reactions I was unaware of. I smiled to reassure him but left him looking anxiously after us from the bank. We made our way to a clearing next to the river. There were many tribe members around, old men in the shade and women of all ages, clearly dressed in their best, with beaded headdresses and skirts. Slowly a few younger men arrived, their heads decorated with ostrich feathers, who sat apart on a hillock observing the gathering.

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The women started to dance and chant. They had bells on their feet and horns to blow which accompanied the rhythmic stamping. They danced in snaking lines and tight circles. They brandished thin sticks and periodically one of them would run up to one of the young men brandishing the stick and demand to be whipped. These young men are the Maze, they are bachelors who have successfully jumped the bulls and it is their job to administer the beatings. This they did with varying enthusiasm, always egged on by the girls. The more handsome boys were popular, and if the beating was not to her satisfaction the girl became vocal and abusive. Occasionally they had to be restrained from attacking the beaters. All demand to be beaten, young and old, but clearly they go easy on the younger or more vulnerable. After a while the whips leave wheals and blood. The older women have keloid scarring from multiple beatings. They wear these with pride and they do not flinch as time after time they demand more punishment. Occasional fights seem to break out between the women over rivalry for the same Maze. This is controlled by the male elders who sit near by.

This is clearly what Geyedon feels would offend me, and on paper it does, but in the heat of the process it is hypnotic and fascinating. The girls clearly are in charge and the beaters often reluctant, so it is hard to categorise it as abuse. The energy and intensity is mesmeric, indeed the dancing and chanting seems to create an almost trace like state. Around the clearing the Maze are being decorated with face and body paint.

The Maze then collect 5 or 6 bulls by their horns and tails and line them up next to each other. The initiate must run across the clearing and jump on the bulls backs, running across them and jumping down on the far side without slipping or falling. He must turn and repeat this four times. The girls heckle and goad and will be relentless in their scorn if he slips or falls but he is sure footed and completes the task. He is greeted by the elders who wrap him in a cowskin to signify his passage to manhood.

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After a final song the group wends its way to the river and disperses. Within a few minutes there is no evidence of the ceremony remaining in the empty clearing in the African veld, except for the wind ruffling the trampled grass. As we wade back across the river to the camp we feel privileged to have been witness to such an ancient and intensely personal rite of passage. The light remains harsh in the mid afternoon but for once our photographic efforts were not treated with any hostility, indeed they treated us as largely invisible, and we were grateful for the tolerance.

Feeling we had reached a high point in our anthropological journey we decided it was time to leave the Omo Valley and move on to pastures new. The tribal journey had been fascinating, but hard work in heat and dust and harsh light trying to keep the balance between cultural sensitivity and insolvency. We were done.