Granta 100, January 2008
Human diversity is the new wildlife, apparently. Every second honeymooner has glimpsed a lion or stalked a buffalo, but people – ebony-skinned, half-naked, scarred, painted people – are the new wildebeest. Going to stare at people untouched by modern life (ignorant of the life and work of David Beckham) is state of the art adventure tourism. These people are rare, but they do exist, as can be proved by the photograph albums on show back home. Unfortunately for the participant in the human safari – the white one, that is – one’s arrival tends to mean that these subjects are no longer untouched. No doubt this is also unfortunate for the spotted as well as the spotter, though their opinion – as opposed to their photo – is rarely sought.
The Omo Valley, in South-West Ethiopia, is home to more than twenty distinct tribes. Some of them understand each other’s languages and intermarry; others raid cattle and kill each other. The Omo Valley is part of the clumsily-named ‘Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region’ (SNNPR) of Ethiopia. There is an ironic, and satisfying, symmetry in the fact that Omo should be part of Ethiopia, of all countries. South Omo epitomises several stereotypes – or prejudices – about ‘native’ Africa: bare-breasted women with lip plates and heavy iron ankle rings; near-naked men with spears or feather headdresses; children smeared with coloured body paint; murderous inter-tribal conflict over cattle. That this should be in Ethiopia – the Christian, hierarchical, bureaucratic, isolationist, conservative nation of Africa, where the word for black African (in Amharic) means ‘slave’ – is almost as extraordinary as the fact that it still exists more or less as it always has. Apart from the tourists, that is.
Ethiopia has a rather undeveloped tourism scene, despite offering ancient rock-hewn churches, breathtaking mountainous landscape and the ability to see the outside of a shabby stone cottage in which sits, we are assured, the original Ark of the Covenant. I have been living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, for two years now; my partner has a posting here with the British government’s Department for International Development. Last year some friends visited us. ‘Omo Valley looks interesting,’ they said. I was working on a book partly set there and needed to go again, having only been for a brief, overwhelming, visit one month after I had first arrived in Ethiopia. In addition, it was August when Lalibela (highland home of the rock churches) is, quite literally, mouldy from the rains.
So six of us set off, with some reservations, for the inaccessible Omo Valley, that lowland, ‘pagan’ and generally un-Ethiopian part of the country. We drove from more than two days from Addis Ababa, though it can also be reached by a six hour drive from a grass airstrip usually occupied by sheep and goats. The facilities in the Omo region barely deserve the name. As the Bradt guidebook notes, of one of the larger ‘towns’ in the region; ‘whether the marginally cheaper and even more sordid National Hotel represents better value for money is the sort of burning question that will help see you through the night should counting cockroaches fail to cure any insomnia brought on by the heat and the dirt’. Generally people camp.
Most visitors go with a tour group. These are run by Addis Ababans who feel no affinity with these tribes, despite being their countrymen. The first time I visited, with a friend taking photos for an NGO project, the driver from Addis Ababa shouted at people as we sped past, our large car kicking up dust. I couldn’t understand the words, but the tone was clear enough: ‘Oi, monkey. Get a load of those feathers! Put some clothes on.’ On the subsequent trip, I saw mainly Southern Europeans (who hunt in packs in August) going from campsite to campsite: families from Spain in matching khaki; Italian backpackers with loud tie-dye T-shirts and louder voices. They were transported in a convoy of white Toyota Land Cruisers, with a piece of A4 paper taped inside the back window of each, numbered ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’ and ‘4’. We were travelling independently in our private cars – white four-wheel drives, obviously, with diplomatic plates – so we felt superior, though I expect the distinction was lost on the locals.
One of the larger tribal groups in the Omo is the Hamar. At first glance – which is all that is generally taken – Hamar men come across as fey, preening, vain birds. The women, by contrast, are tough, sturdy and no nonsense. The men wear short – sometimes very short – striped wraps and little else. Sometimes shoes, sometimes not. Their main, show-off, feature is their hairstyle. Young men will spend days working on each other’s hair. They have headdresses – clay caps with feathers sticking out the top. The feathers are supposed to indicate that the wearer has killed a dangerous animal or (human) enemy in the last year. I’m not sure if this is really so – or whether ‘dangerous’ is liberally interpreted. A Hamar man’s most prized possession (after his cows and, if he can afford one, his gun) is his stool, which he will have spent several days carving himself. It is about six inches high and long, and has two functions, both of which are integral to a Hamar male’s sense of well-being: sitting down to contemplate life, and careful sleeping to preserve his elaborate hairstyle. A Hamar man will lie on his side and prop his neck on the stool at an uncomfortable angle and, somehow, fall asleep.
The women wear small short plaits – not braids but stringy twists – cut in a bowl-like fashion, coated with butter mixed with red ochre. Their heads resemble animated orange mops. Their bodies – at least chests and shoulders – are often also shiny and red with the same butter. Married women wear heavy iron neck rings (usually three) – those with a protruding piece on the top ring are first wives; the others are second wives. They wear goatskin skirts and, often, a goatskin piece over their shoulders, trimmed with rows of cowrie shells. Their breasts are usually exposed, except when a hungry child is clinging to them. They have tight brass spirals wound round their upper arms. Married women are all ochres and browns: skin, butter, goat-hide skirt. The unmarried girls are more colourful: red, yellow and blue beads round their necks and decorating their leather skirts. They also go bare-chested, and are most sought after by the prowling tourists with cameras.
The Mursi men – neighbours and mortal enemies – appear much more impressive than the Hamar males: manly and beautiful, posing as great warriors with spears. The ones we saw were almost naked, with a blanket hanging loosely down from their necks or shoulders. It’s easy to stray in to colonial porn here: the flashing smiles, firm thighs and blue-black buttocks of the native. With the Hamar, it is the women you want to look at. The Mursi women, by contrast, defy your gaze. They wear enormous, disfiguring lip plates and, those who aren’t wearing them, have long saggy lower lips – hanging up to ten inches down in a droopy echo of the missing clay plate – a parody of a surly teenager.
These living covers of the National Geographic know their value. There’s not much to see in South Omo. Indeed, almost nothing beyond the inhabitants. The palette of the landscape is muted: browns, dusty yellows, bleached greens; the blue sky rinsed out by the unforgiving sun. It’s a harsh landscape in the dry season (when the tourists come): most of the limited growth consists of shrubs that only the hungriest goat would consider eating. The thirsty eye is quickly drawn to the occasional tree with shocking pink flowers, a blaze against the drabness. You don’t come for the views: the highlights are village visiting, gawping at local markets and, perhaps, seeing a traditional ceremony.
We were lucky enough to see the spectacle of a Hamar ritual – a privilege, as it turned out, offered every day to tourists during the season. One worry about tourism is that it undermines traditional cultures; but does it, paradoxically, conserve them as a show for the tourists? This ceremony involves whipping the women, a practice which inevitably makes a modern Western liberal nervous. We worried that, as spectators, we were implicated in such brutality. This initiation festival would have happened without us, but the family sometimes needs to wait until sufficient money is saved up to brew beer and kill goats for the participants. There must have been at least 40 ferengis (white people) watching the ritual and, if everyone paid the same price as us, then the tribe or the family would have received well over £200. (The standard wage for a construction worker in the capital is just 50p a day.) The ceremony is a genuine tradition, and the Hamar, naturally enough, make the most of its appeal to the tourists, whom they never courted. But should we help to preserve it? Ought we to refuse to watch? And who is exploiting whom, after all, when one is clearly paying a (relative) fortune for a ring-side seat? How would we feel if our luxury wedding could pay for itself by letting a few strangers from a very different culture wander through the proceedings, pointing and taking photographs? Would we all sell our wedding party to OK magazine if they asked us?
The rite we saw was the Hamar initiation ceremony where a young man leaps across the cattle and is, subsequently, permitted to get married and carry a phallus-shaped piece of wood tucked into the waist of his skirt. It goes like this. The Hamar women (and the ferengis) gather in a dry river bed. The women sing and dance, clacking their heavy ankle rings together. Some of them have bells tied below their knees, which jingle as they jump. It couldn’t be less like Morris dancing. After an age of the women blowing atonal horns and singing loudly (in the ruthless midday sun), a few men approach. The women wail in response. The men carry fistfuls of long, narrow stripped-birch branches. A woman approaches a man with branches and ‘provokes’ him by blowing her horn loudly in his face and jumping. She will raise her right arm ready to be whipped. Other women may push her out of the way, wanting to go first. The man, seemingly reluctantly, will whip the birch branch round the woman’s left side, the tip flicking onto her upper arm and her back. He drops the stick in the sand and reaches for another. Each woman will be whipped several times.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not, it was the men (both European and Hamar) who were most uncomfortable with the whipping. It seemed that the women asked for it. The Western men were confused by this, as were (apparently) the Hamar men. It’s difficult for the tourists to know how much of the refusal to whip and insistence on being whipped are show, when so much of what goes on with the Hamar remains completely incomprehensible. An anthropologist who has lived with the Hamar writes, in her wryly named article ‘Beating About the Bush’, that the women are whipped to prove their loyalty to their kinsman who is being initiated. In return they will get gifts and he will take care of them in future. The scarring on her back functions as an IOU. Yes, our new-men agreed, women initiate it – but do they have a choice? Isn’t this unreasonable pain required by the – male-dominated – society in order to succeed, or even belong? Hmm, bit like a full Brazilian, observed a female member of our party.
It’s faked, one ferengi man said, hopefully: look, it catches them only lightly on the arm. I pointed out the fresh, bleeding stripes on a young woman’s back. He wandered away, thoughtfully, and sat down. How is a modern European man supposed to react to this spectacle – the whipping, the noise, the heat – except by filming it on his camcorder? The ferengis appeared to think of themselves as disembodied, invisible. The Hamar women ignored us completely and some ferengis took that to mean that their presence had no effect. The visitors had no qualms about crowding the participants to obtain their photos – literally shoving cameras through Hamar legs to get a view (that is, a view for later) at all costs.
The Hamar men’s part in the ceremony appeared to consist of much sitting around, some beer drinking, and a little face- and leg-painting. Older men painted their legs white and pale green which made it look disconcertingly as if they were wearing 1980s-sytle cropped leggings. One of the drivers from Addis Ababa was filming the men with his mobile phone. A Spanish woman had her face painted. This is men’s business, really, but – despite her quest for the authentic – she was not, it seemed, prepared to be involved in whipping. The men did have one crucial task. Once the other business was done – the dancing, the trumpets, the whipping, the painting – the men arranged the cows in a line, side by side. The 20 year-old initiate, who was naked with electrified afro-style hair, jumped up on to the first cow, ran across the line (of about 10 animals) and hopped down. He then jumped up from the other side and ran back. This happened four times (twice each way) and then it was over. Stand on a few cows – big deal – at least you don’t have to get whipped. Or have eight children, fetch the water every day, clean the house, cook the food, grow the crops or grind the grain by hand with heavy stones. But none of this makes a good spectacle.
You pay a fee to watch the ritual and then you have full access and permission to take unlimited photos. Visiting a village or market is somewhat different. You pay to enter the village (though not for the market) then you must negotiate separately for each photograph. There’s not really much to see in a Hamar village: four round huts, perhaps, a large goat pen built out of thorny shrubs and, amazingly, almost no western artefacts beyond some plastic jerry cans, and cigarette lighters or digital watch straps worn on necklaces. And us, of course, looking ridiculous with our designed-and-tested walking boots, insect repellent, sun cream and cars full of essential equipment – camping stove, tents, sleeping bags, extra clothes, toothbrushes, tins, tin-openers. (Actually, we forgot the tin-opener.) When we got changed in the camp site, local children would ask for our T-shirts. The assumption, naturally enough, was that you clearly didn’t need it if you had taken it off and swapped it for another one. We look at the Hamar, the Hamar look at us. ‘But you’re here!’ both groups are thinking, with somewhat different emphasis. It’s a two-way zoo.
Having paid $200 per day for a car and guide, cushioned camping and cooks, not to mention flights to Ethiopia (none of it to the Hamar or Mursi), tourists are reluctant to pay the people themselves – their raison d’etre là – the going rate: 6p per person per photo. Tourists bargain – 12 subjects for the price of 10 – and they turn off the sound on their digital cameras to pretend they have only clicked the shutter once when they have taken several shots. It’s as if the very handing-over of money for the privilege of photography is sordid; that the actual exchange makes it so, not the presence of aliens with their cameras pretending to have discovered an exotic tribe. Tourists don’t want to interact with the people – find out their names, ask about their lives – they want to see them, and get photographic proof that they’ve seen them. In any case, their guides from Addis Ababa probably don’t speak the local language. If you do ask the Hamar what they think, they are bemused: ‘Why would someone follow me on foot for two hours just to take my photograph, then show it to his people in his country? They don’t even know me.’
The Hamar, Mursi and others posses a scarce resource which is in demand. It’s a truism of capitalist economics that monopoly sellers will exploit their position. The Hamar’s hard-nosed demands for money reveal that this tourist is not the first; other visitors have taught the Hamar their worth as photographic subjects. But the ghostly, and actual, presence of the other tourists spoils things. One cannot pretend to be pioneering while surrounded by fellow pioneers. Tourists may try to ignore each other, as lines of Landcruisers pass on the rutted road, but the reactions of the kids (chasing cars, shouting ‘caramelo’) makes the context clear enough. There’s a parallel with hunting – some of the vocabulary even carries over: ‘I bagged that shot’. If the ‘prey’ acknowledges your presence and negotiates terms, then it’s closer to engineered grouse shooting than big game hunting. Often, in the markets, people will approach a ferengi and demand that a photo is taken – the hunter hunted – which is most unsatisfactory. The visitor wants to capture a photo of an exotic creature to take home like a leopard skin (and then, most likely, ignored), and the chase is soured if the subject talks back and demands money. Eventually one emerges from the village, emotionally soiled, and with hands and clothes covered in ochre-coloured butter which has rubbed off from the Hamar.
The South Omo region may be remote – geographically and psychologically – from our world, but it’s not all cockroach-counting or camping. There was the extraordinary mirage of Murle Lodge. We drove for three hours and saw almost no sign of life. The only evidence of human habitation was, in fact, a few humans – very few – who materialised and waved at the car. There were no permanent human markings on the landscape: no buildings, no rubbish, no artificial colours, just bare nature. Suddenly we spotted something which looked like an airstrip. It was an airstrip and, after hours of nothing, a tidy gateway to a lodge which charges $150 a night for a double room.
Murle Lodge was beautifully situated, next to the famous Omo River. We stayed in the attached campsite which was four times as expensive as the other campsites in the area, but a bargain compared to the lodge. The campsite was run by a mild young man from the North of Ethiopia who had been imported for six months. ‘I can’t control these people,’ he said of his local employees. We asked about the facilities of the lodge. Could we, for example, take a boat trip? ‘It’s for professional hunters. Very expensive,’ was all he would say. I nosed round the lodge. Is that where the guests eat breakfast? ‘That is where the professional hunters eat breakfast.’ It was a happy fantasy that ‘professional hunters’ would land in private planes and track crocodiles on the wide Omo River. Every tourist is an amateur hunter, taking pot shots with a digital camera, but I doubt that the spirit of Hemmingway is to be found in the back of Landcruiser ‘3’.
What is the appeal of the human safari? It’s not a particularly modern brand of sightseeing. Travellers have always aimed for remote places, the inaccessibility of which is confirmed by the ‘noble savagery’ of the inhabitants. In the age of globalisation (or perceived globalisation, where ‘everyone and everywhere is the same’) utterly exotic people are increasingly endangered species. Perhaps visiting them is intended as a defiance of the miseries of this homogenising trend, though without the fanatical step of altering one’s own comfortable life for more than two weeks. It’s hard not to see a sense of superiority in this. On one hand, superior to those who have stayed at home. This is why the photographs are required: to display as proof of adventurousness, albeit people no longer bring back living specimens. But also, in at least some cases, superiority to the Hamar, the Mursi and their neighbours. These people don’t read; their lives haven’t changed for generations; we can visit them but they can’t visit us; they walk for miles, we drive past in powerful cars. We’d hate to be them, though we love to see them. To the tourist it’s ‘obvious; why: they look extraordinary; their customs and appearance are remarkable.
Of course, leaping over the cattle and whipping, wearing goatskins and beads are pretty unremarkable to the Hamar. The astonishing part is that the ferengis have come to watch. But if the visitors insist on gawping (and they do) then the Hamar know their price.