Thursday, June 01, 2017

Omo Valley, Ethiopia

At the tail-end of our trip to Ethiopia, we visited the Omo Valley tribes in the deep south. Thinking back, I'm not sure what I had expected to get out of that sojourn. Barely a week after my trip a friend back in Singapore described it as akin to a frivolous gap year - that is, by his definition, the kind of self-gratifying trip that privileged kids take to ogle at the less fortunate. I argued weakly that I wasn't there to feel better about myself, but it was true that I had specifically chosen to visit the tribes because they seemed so exotic -  so, ogling, if you will.

Incidentally, this was the first time I'd decided to visit a group of locals for the sake of finding out more about their way of life. Usually my trips are centered around hiking and diving; if the chance came up to interact with the locals I'd seize it, but it had never been something I actively sought out. So, it wasn't until I was on the jeep headed towards the Mursi tribe that it struck me I didn't have a clue what to expect when I finally met them. Would we be invited in for tea and a chit chat? Maybe they'd take us for a walk around their village. Or perhaps we'd luck out and there would be a celebration that we could take part in. Regardless of how it could pan out, I wasn't certain how should I conduct myself to ensure that I would be respectful and non-intrusive, because I imagine there are few things worse than being objectified and looked down upon.


It must be said here that Ethiopia is not an easy place to love. From the moment I touched down in Addis Ababa and was bodily pushed out of the airport door by a security guard, my impression of the country took a downturn. Then, as we travelled out to northeastern Ethiopia, the land became more strewn with rubbish and the people increasingly aggressive. Children threw rocks at us. A boy barely ten years of age threatened to slit our throats with a machete. Two men bigger than me smilingly asked me to take a photo of them, then grabbed my arm and demanded payment for it. A toddler threw a stick at our car with so much vehemence that his feet lifted off the ground. People of all ages yelled "China, China!" at us. We were heckled, shoved, and had our personal space invaded countless times (though it was sometimes out of curiosity and not maliciousness).

At first I was really upset. These people and their actions affected me and made me feel constantly on edge. Who likes to be treated with this little respect, consideration and dignity? Then, one day, our guide sensed the mood and told us: Don't worry. Do whatever you want. If you want to take pictures or walk around the village, but they shout and throw rocks at you, ignore them. They are nothing.

His words gave me a jolt. In an instant, I understood why and how these people came to act the way they do. How can these people be expected to treat others with respect when they aren't accorded the same, not even by their own countrymen?

I also realised that I wasn't enjoying the trip because I was reacting to the situations without first seeking to understand it. The region I was in where most of these incidents happened was Afar, one of the poorest in the country. Ethiopia, though developing better in recent years, has also been through some tough times. Wars, politics and famines have ravaged the country; its scars are obvious to see. There are people begging on the streets for money. As you get further out from the capital the requests become for food, then water. We even visited a tribe that lives in abject poverty, in an area so parched and primitive I could barely believe it exists. To exacerbate the situation, there was a drought going on while I was there, and so there were a lot of people in desperate conditions. Recognising these facts made me empathise with the people who were rough towards me, instead of instinctively shunning away from them out of fear.

We are all moulded by personal circumstances, and we all struggle to survive the only way we know - some more so than others - and perhaps, at the end of the day, the best we can do is to recognise each other as children under the same heavens, and appreciate just how far a little kindness can go.


The first tribe we visited was the Mursi (famed for the clay disks the women wear in their lower lip). They lived about sixty kilometres from the town of Jinka, and we made the journey by four-wheeled drive, bouncing down dirt roads heavy with suffocating clouds of hot dust. The arid land stretched out to the horizon on both sides, dotted only with the withered outlines of dead trees, and tall, bizarre-looking termite nests that were surprisingly cool to the touch. The ride took us over two dry riverbeds. I looked out the window in time to see three dead cows, their hides waxy and stretched tight over their protruding ribs. (Cows and goats are the lifeblood of the tribes here, and this must have been a significant loss to a family out there. To illustrate how important the animals are: during one of our drives, we met a roadblock; villagers standing sentry at the sides of the road ran out, dragging large tree branches that they laid across the path of every approaching car. Twenty or so men and women brandishing all manners of weapons - machetes, sticks, stones - then poured onto the road and surrounded each vehicle. It turned out that a truck had hit a goat further up the road, and the owner had made a quick phone call to mobilise a roadblock on all vehicles passing through. With some persuasive skills and a good deal of cold sweat, our driver pointed out that we weren't the persons they were looking for, and they cleared the road for us to go on.)

At the edge of a slight clearing, our car stopped. There wasn't any real indication that we had arrived at a village, but we got out of the car anyway at the behest of our driver. Almost immediately, a couple of children with white paint down their torsos came skipping out from behind a nearby grove of shrubs, chorusing the phrase we would come to realise was the anthem of all youths in the Valley: Photo, photo, ten birr, ten birr! A group of bare-breasted, middle-aged women soon appeared - the men were out tending to their livestock, so only women and children were around - their calls of ten birr were only slightly less energetic than the children's.

Our driver took us on a tour of the village. I use the word village loosely, because it supposes a certain size, and this community consisted only of fewer than ten huts, each shaped something like an upside-down jello cup. It took all of a minute to walk around it. All the while, a train of Mursi followed us, tugging on our shirt sleeves and trousers - and my ponytail - repeating "photo, photo," until even our driver looked at us wearily and shrugged. "Photo?" he asked.

That was the magic word; immediately the Mursi gathered into a rough line, pulled their clothes straight, and put on their head gear. They beckoned with their hands at the slightest eye contact, mouthing photo, ten birr, ten birr, in a whispered urge that knew the visitors would surely pay for photos, after having travelled all this way to see them.

How it goes is this: from the people standing in front of you, you choose the ones that catch your eye. It could be the one with the most flamboyant headwear, or the one with the most impressive scars. Or maybe it's the kids who have painted themselves in an identical fashion and are standing with their arms draped over each other's shoulders. Kids are always cute in photos. Having chosen your subject, you then point to them and gesture with your camera, and mime where you would like them to stand or pose. Usually, they already know the good spots and the popular poses. They wait patiently while you fiddle with your camera settings and check the image preview. You snap, snap, snap, then hand over a handful of crumpled notes.

Let me say it here - that was easily the most uncomfortable moment of my trip.

Reeling a little from the shock of it, I took a handful of photos mindlessly and signalled to our driver, let's go. He gave me a look of amusement and turned to lead the way back to the car, whereupon the rest of the Mursi broke rank and started surrounding us again.

In retrospect, isn't this ironic? There I was, worried that I would be objectifying the tribes-people and intruding into their personal space, but as it turned out we were the ones getting harried instead. Fair exchange, I say. We get a brief glimpse of their lives, and they get to capitalise on our curiosity. In regions rife with poverty, this has turned out to be smart, opportunistic way to get money for food and medicine.

After the Mursi, we headed back to Jinka, where we met up with the principal and two students of a local elementary-cum-high school. We had with us a fairly large number of English books - courtesy of many generous friends - that we intended to pass to the school, since these aren't that easy to come by in the smaller towns. One of the students was a nineteen year-old boy in Grade Eight. He told us that he'd only enrolled at age thirteen, because his family had been reluctant to lose a pair of helping hands around the farm. His dream now was to make it to university one day, and the last glimpse I caught of him running down the street with an Enid Blyton book tucked under an arm will always be a reminder of what it means to persevere against all odds.

From Jinka, we headed deeper into the Valley, visiting the Hamar, the Bena, the Tsemay, and the Daasanach. By this time Dad and I had gotten a lot less awkward interacting with the tribes-people, although that didn't detract from the fact that every photo and conversation was transactional. Mostly, I was the one who was the target of the badgering because my camera gave me away. Dad conveniently deflected all attention from himself by automatically saying, "She's the one with the camera, go ask her." He was, however, outwitted on one occasion when an enterprising young lady came up from behind and pushed her bare chest into his arm. When he recoiled in surprise, she grinned sheepishly and seized the temporary attention to parrot, photo, photo! 

Thinking back, the most peaceful moment I had that leg of the trip was when we were on our way back to Arba Minch. We had pulled over at the side of a road to wait for the local police to come by with some paperwork. The sun was low in the sky - I can't remember if it was rising or setting - and the terraced hills of Konso were cast in a hazy glow. There was no one for miles around - or at least there was no one interested in us for miles around. I stood on top of a small hill in the unexpected quiet enjoying the view, until our driver waved me back into the car, the faint sour odor of butter (that the locals mix with clay and rub into their hair) lingering in our senses long after the scenes of the Valley had faded away.

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