Archive for February, 2013

The South Omo

Omo ValleyWe’ve continued south in the Omo valley, down near the border of Kenya. Dirt is everywhere, so much so that it’s no longer a problem. We stop changing our clothes everyday. Dinner, often made by our drivers now that we are camping, is lentil soup, boiled vegetables, with fruit for dessert. When all of the amenities are gone, it becomes easier and much more fun.

This south Omo is home to 65 of the 83 ethnic groups of the country, most of them quite small tribal societies (ranging from ~200,000 in a tribe to ~ 2000) with little change in lifestyle for hundreds of years. They are dotted across the grassy land clustered around the Omo River, fighting for access.  Fighting between the tribes is common; the government tries to sponsor treaties, but to little use. Disputes have been augmented in recent years by an abundance of AK-47’s. They’re everywhere – whenever we camp our guide, Minalu, hires a local with an AK-47 to stay awake all night to guard us. We get a little history from him – his father was a smuggler who brought them in from Kenya on donkeys, buried in grain. Made a killing!

AK47Some are pastoralists, some are farmers, all are polygamist. The primary tender for trading or spoils of war are cattle and daughters. Dowries in the 21st century consist of cattle and AK47’s. Marking and form of dress and decoration are wildly variant from tribe to tribe. This is National Geographic country where the women wear only skirts and the men paint themselves.

The region is isolated from most contact with the rest of the country or world. There is no power, no internet, no TV or radio. Lives are recorded into five ‘ages,’ and no one knows quite how old he is in years. There is virtually no education, with only 5-10% of the children of the larger, more prosperous tribes going to school. Up to ~ 40 years ago most of the people did not know that an entity called “Ethiopia” existed. It’s changed some with the advent of tourism and the NGO’s, but the impact of the people in the tribes has been small.

There is strict division between the responsibilities of women and men, and the status of women is not good at all.  Daughters are used as trade and wives are beaten ritualistically. Disfigurement practices such as the whipping of young girls by boys in ceremonies and self-scarification of girls to enhance their appeal to boys are justified as “tradition.” The grossest by far is the Mursi; the women stretch their lips with large plates. This is an odd appearance that has been recorded often in National Geographic types photos, but mostly these women walk around with the plates out, their lips just hanging in a big loop down to their chins and below. Again, it’s a “tradition,” with many conjectures as to its origin, and no move to end the practice.

Some of the tribes we meet as we camp through the area:

The Benna   We encounter the Benna at the Key Afar market between the Dorze village and Jinka. These people are beautiful – very tall, very dark and very thin. The women wear their hair in dreads coated with butter mixed with red ochre. They have elaborate dresses of goatskins and beads. Each has three or four holes for earrings; the earrings range from beaded metals to the currently popular phone cards used by teens. But the men are more striking, with faces like models, very short skirts like loincloths, beaded armbands and ankle bands. Wow.

We get our first taste here of photography in the south Omo. Every shot is a charge, negotiated by our guide. The normal cost is 5 birr (about $.25,) which is not so bad, but the negotiation and the arguments tend to consume a lot of time. Then the people are uninterested in the process, never connect with the photographer, and so just looked bored.

The Ari  Jim’s comment “f”ing depressing.” The Ari village we visit (Kooray) seems much poorer than those of other tribes we’ve seen. Little boys are pantless, wearing only some beads. It’s an agrarian society; the only man we see is a blacksmith making scythes. The huts are made from mud sealed with dung and grass roofs. Richer Ari have tin roofs.

earringThe Mursi   We camp one night in a Mursi village (Hiloha). I’ve been dreading this – actually seeing the plate-lipped women. However, I didn’t see a single one – no one seems to wear a plate. They just walk around with their lower lips flopping down. Horrible. There is some conjecture that the practice started to keep the women from being stolen by marauders (by making them so ugly.) The young girls have huge plates in their ears. Bad enough. Many organizations are trying to help the young girls reject the lip-plates. Hope it works.

The women spend most of the day grinding corn, on their knees, rubbing it between two stones. The staple food is corn mixed with milk and cow blood. The men, when they’re feeling tough, just take blood directly from the cow’s neck.

Our campsite is hot (gets to 106 F during the day), loaded with flies, mosquitoes and other buzzers, the ground covered with shit. Everyone is friendly, people keep coming up to shake hands, but we have an AK-47 armed guard for the night.

The Hamer  Probably the most interesting of the tribes. This is a subsistence agro-pastoralist society. The women are responsible for food, farmland, producing honey and caring for the house and family. The men take care of the cattle. Dress is beautiful. The women wear their hair in short dreads covered with butter and red ochre like the Benna. They wear leather skins as skirts, lots of beads and earrings. They are sometimes topless but more often wear a cowl decorated with shells and beads, suitable for carrying a baby when appropriate. Their backs and arms are bare and covered with scars. Although the little boys are mostly naked they have on small belts hung with beaded loincloths.

HutIn the village of Wunarke we are invited into a hut for a coffee ceremony. Amazing. Our hostess sits in the center of a room ~ ten feet across and four feet high. She has three metal rings around her neck – one with a large protuberance meaning that she is a first wife. There is a baby in her cowl nursing, her four other children clustered around her and three others who have made their way in. She ladles coffee into large wooden bowls and gives us each some. Not bad – but it’s coffee so I can always drink it.

20130128-Ethiopia-1504When Hamer men are ready to be initiated into manhood they must undergo a test – they have to jump seven bulls – leap up and step on the backs of each one. This bull jumping is a whole day of celebration. It begins with hordes of young girls (maybe 13-18 years or so) dancing. They have bells on their legs and have coated their backs with butter and ochre until they’re dripping with it. During their dancing they are chased by men who whip them. With switches, leaving open wounds. To be honest, it seems it is the women who initiate this. The butter and ochre feature the wounds. It is thought by the girls that scars will make them more attractive to men (wonder how that rumor got started) and so they have been cutting themselves on the arm for years already, rubbing ash into those wounds. It also likely prepares them for being beaten by their husbands after marriage.

After the dancing and whipping, everyone retires back to the village for a couple hours of napping and coffee, then onto the bull yard. It’s getting late in the day. Ginny and I are quite interested in seeing how this ceremony progresses, but Jim and Maynard are only worried about losing their pictures if the sun goes too far down.

There are about 40 bulls. The man of the hour, our jumper, and his friends cull through them finding the ones most likely to stay still, then there is another half hour or so trying to ‘convince’ the other bulls to leave by grabbing their horns and marching them out. Bulls don’t take well to this sort of argument and there is one point where I am concerned that about ten of them are going to stampede right to where I am standing. Somehow organization is achieved, the jumper jumps, going over the bulls several times (maybe someone told him that we needed pictures!) Now he can go off and get his first wife and become a man.

Read Full Post »


toiletA point comes in every trip when I just can’t stand it any more; the dirt and heat, unfriendly people, bad plumbing, 10 hour drives over dusty eroded roads. I want to go home, to have a tablecloth, television, a good shower, and my own bed. It’s 95o F, altitude breathlessness is gone but mosquitoes have come. And…we have no internet virtually anywhere. So I apologize to everyone who is trying to follow this blog.

We’re in the south, in the Omo valley.  This is the real Africa! The north of Ethiopia, to which most tourists limit themselves, is an ancient Judeo-Christian country with ties to Israel and the old civilizations of the Mediterranean. The south is home to most of the 83 ethnic groups of the country, tribal societies with little change in lifestyle for hundreds of years.

We spent the first night here in a Dorze village. There are 38,000 Dorze in Africa. They take pride in the fact that they can live, make everything they need, if they have access to only bamboo, false banana (a plant that looks like banana but has no fruit,) and cotton.

DinnerThey use the meat of the false banana trunk to make a flat bread called kojo, similar to injera.  Their homes are the famous Elephant houses, constructed with a framework of bamboo, filled in with false banana leaves; the doorways lead somewhat out from the round building and the high windows look like the ears of an elephant. The floor space is ~ 1600 sq ft, enough room for both the family and their animals. Elephant houses are “repaired” every twenty years or so by replacing the leaves, and last 70-100 years.

Drinks  This particular village was very welcoming, first giving us Araki to drink with their kojo. This stuff really has a kick. It’s made from corn and hops that are pounded together then heated and distilled over a fire inside a hut. The alcohol, over 120 proof, is then flavored with garlic and anise, resulting in a drink that reminded me somewhat of ouzo – fire strong, clear, and anise tasting. You’re supposed to say “YoyoyoyoYO!” (cheers) then drink it all back. I was able to pour most of it in the dirt when no one was looking.

Coffee  After a quick break for a tour of their fabric making (in which the women spin and the men weave, since weaving is so Coffee Ceremonymuch more complicated) it was time for a coffee ceremony. Coffee is big in Ethiopia. Legend has that it was discovered centuries ago when a goatherd watched his goats become animated after eating the berries of a plant. He took the plant to a local monk who figured out how to roast them and the rest is history. Ethiopians make wonderful coffee – strong and not bitter, served in tiny cups. However, it was 6 PM, so I threw the coffee into the dirt on top of the Araki.

Read Full Post »