31, 2003 -> No Mursi: Southern Ethiopia
The men had covered their black faces with ash.
Most carried automatic weapons, slung over bare shoulders.
The women were topless and had large wooden discs inserted
into slits made in their lower lips. On younger women, the
smaller discs stuck straight out, like an extended jaw. One
old woman had a huge lip disc that hung straight down, and
a pair of breasts that looked like pizza
slices. Everyone had heavy jewelry and painted faces. They
pinched, they poked, and they crowded around and shouted "Photo!
Photo!" Everyone tried to sneak into our photos; they
had to be physically separated from the desired subjects.
The Mursi tribe intended to intimidate tourists
- to badger the shocked visitors into taking unwanted photos,
at 2 Ethiopian birr per shot (about US$0.20) - and it worked
spectacularly well. Within 15 minutes, the harassment had
elevated to pre-riot levels and we rushed to the van for our
escape. We looked at each other in disbelief. We had driven
two-and-a-half days to see the Mursi, over horrible roads
in blazing heat, and we weren't sure at all if it had been
Even before our Mursi encounter, the trip had
seemed destined for disaster. In Addis Ababa, Nori and I had
done two days of research, visiting a number of tour companies,
comparing itineraries and pricing. But we still chose poorly.
The company manager designed a program for us that bore no
resemblance to what we asked for: the tour inexplicably included
several nights in places where our driver/guide, Mike, admitted
there was "nothing to do." We were also unimpressed
by our vehicle, an '86 Land Cruiser with a banged-up body
and a deteriorating interior. On the first day's trip, the
vehicle broke down numerous times. If not for Mike's roadside
repair-work, we would not have even reached our first destination.
We were traveling with Keir and Robyn, an American
and Aussie, respectively, who both worked in Cairo at an international
school. Their last posting had been in the Ivory Coast; they
had to be evacuated when the latest coup convulsed the capital,
Abidjan. They had also lived and worked in Panama, China and
Korea. We got on well, and spent much of that trying first
day telling traveling stories.
Post-Mursi, sitting in a tsetse fly-ridden camp
in Mago National Park, sweating and cursing, we decided to
take matters into our own hands. We had been lucky enough
to meet a very experienced guide at the campsite next to ours.
His suggestions were invaluable, so we asked Mike to have
a talk with him before we left the next morning. From that
point forward, the trip got much better, the tribes much friendlier,
and our morale much higher.
The next morning, we drove south out of Mago
- passing several waterbucks, a graceful gazelle and a family
of startled warthogs. Just beyond the park boundary was a
Karo village, a cluster of gumdrop-shaped huts above the Omo
river embankment. The Karo are the least numerous of the Omo
valley tribes; just 1500 remain. The Karo practice scarification,
and make fetching jewelry from metal watch bands, nails, razors
and old machine parts. The Karo wanted photos too, but there
was no hostility. They let us wander through their village
for a nominal fee. Now this was more like it.
As we continued further south through dusty
country, we began to see people of the Hamer tribe. At one
point, six young topless Hamer women ran into the middle of
the track, singing and dancing in a particularly jiggly way,
if you get my point. Mike was unphased, he hardly slowed as
he veered around them. "Many Mursi in Turmi," he
said. He was right. As we drove into Turmi, our base for the
next few days, we passed dozens of Hamer women, incredible
looking in their animal skins and ocher-daubed tresses.
Most trips to the Omo valley are scheduled to
coincide with village market days. The Dimeka market - on
Tuesdays and Saturdays - is the largest and most colorful.
On the 30-km drive north of Turmi, we passed dozens of Hamer
men and women heading to market, balancing large loads on
their heads, or carrying gourds filled with butter, milk or
tej (the national honey wine). It was amazing to see this
earliest version of a 'market' economy.
A dusty square served as the marketplace. A
few people had set up rickety stalls; most spread out cloths
on the ground and squatted beside their wares. While some
items are of interest to tourists (incised gourds, wooden
headrest, beaded or cowried jewelry) most visitors are their
to see the market-goers themselves. We sat at the edge of
the market in the shade, and soon became invisible. The marketplace
was filled with Hamer greeting and haggling, laughing and
shouting. The women looked spectacular, with fresh, glistening
ocher in their hair, heavy metal torcs around their necks
and ankles, and beautifully beaded animal hides fastened about
the shoulder by strings of cowrie shells. A second V-shaped
animal hide hung from their waists. The scars of ritual were
clearly visible on their sides as they walked past.
On our second day, we drove two hours southwest
of Turmi to Kelem, a tiny settlement on the Omo river, not
far from the Kenyan and Sudanese borders. We crossed the river
in a tiny launch, preceded by a dozen village kids who roughhoused
as they swam across. The Geleb village on the other side was
fly-blown and shambolic, many huts 'thatched' with rubbish.
The Geleb men press clay into their hair, painting bright
patterns on the 'cap' once it hardens. The villagers were
mostly apathetic, but a trio of sour-faced young girls insisted
on taunting us as we walked back to the river.
Most village kids are friendly. In fact, Ethiopian
children generally go crazy when they see foreigners. This
"faranj [foreigner] frenzy" is cute at first, but
quickly becomes annoying. Even kids half a mile away will
suddenly erupt into spasms of hectic arm waving and yelling.
Their favorite shout, which sounds somewhat hostile, is "You!
You! You! You! You!" Once they have your attention, they
normally follow up with one of the following:
"Give me Caramello [candy]!" "Give
me pen!" or the very direct "Give me money!"
After Turmi, we drove back to Arba Minch, after
overnighting in Konso. Arba Minch sits on a hill above two
lakes that are separated by a mountainous isthmus known as
"The Bridge of God." Beyond the isthmus is Nechisar
National Park, a hidden plateau filled with zebras, gazelles
and hartebeests. One afternoon, we drove to the southern lake
and took a two-hour boat trip that took us past massive crocodiles
(the biggest Nori has ever seen, bigger than in northern Australia)
and a playful family of hippos. On another day, we drove into
the mountains above Arba Minch and saw the amazing 'beehive'
huts of the Dorze people.
The trip had started poorly, but we finished
in high spirits and with new friends. Keir and Robyn dropped
us off in Shashemene, the unofficial capital of the Rastafarians
- on New Year's Eve. They were heading back to Addis Ababa,
and would start a tour of the "Historical Route"
soon. We were heading south to Kenya. We each had a beer to
celebrate 2004, and then we crashed. We had a bus to catch
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