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Published: December 25th 2010
There was much that lay waiting for me in the Omo Valley – a place where tribal people scar and paint their bodies and pierce them with all manner of objects, where women are publicly whipped to demonstrate their loyalty, and where men run naked across bulls to prove their manhood. As we continued along the dirt roads the anticipation of meeting the first tribe grew.
This tribe was the Arbore, which in hindsight was a poor starting point for they were the second most aggressive tribe in persuading you to photograph them by utilising such techniques as grabbing your arm or camera and verbally badgering you for a picture; this whirlwind of attention was almost overwhelming. The reason tribal people pursue photography with such passion throughout the Valley was their payment demands for any photograph taken. The amounts are small, one or two Birr (approximately 15 cents) but after many hundreds of photos, these small amounts became sizeable. Another income technique are village admission fees (always a larger amount – at least 250 Birr) but if one decided to remain outside the village, many times the tribe would come to you without the need to make the extra payment.
There are obvious responsible tourism issues with these practices, but it was only later that I could sufficiently reflect on this dilemma.
Returning to the vehicle afterwards was comparable to finding a calm silent shelter from a buffeting verbal tempest, it was a confronting experience. While still musing on the best method to approach photography in the Omo Valley, we proceeded to the small town of Turmi. Our plans to arrive by nightfall were thwarted by the rough road conditions that caused not one, but two punctures within the space of half an hour, a rather inauspicious start to this adventure. With little phone coverage and almost no traffic in the Valley, any serious mechanical issues could cause immense problems.
The late arrival meant that accommodation was limited to the Green Hotel. The best way to describe this hotel is thus; If one considered that all the hotels in the world formed a human body, and a doctor needed to give this collective body an enema, then they would insert it into the Green Hotel. It is the clearly the foulest hotel I have ever stayed in, the one remaining room was small, stuffy with peeling green paint
and a broken fly screen that allowed entry to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The linen was a public health risk and as an added benefit for this five dollar room, it held a complimentary pile of condoms, some opened, “What is THIS!” I barked and pointed to them with obvious disdain, and though they were soon cleaned away, the thought of this room being used by “clients” of the nearby bar whose music was unnecessarily loud was most disconcerting. The music finally ceased at 1am, but it was followed by a fight between drunk women who charged by the hour and their equally drunken clients – it sounded a frightful scene.
Hasten to say, my sleep was limited and I was so unimpressed that upon awakening I brusquely blurted to Tsegaye my hatred for this hotel – even the car would be a preferable option in future. After a pitiful breakfast, happiness again returned when I saw the Green Hotel disappear in the rear-view mirror. Two further hours along moderately good roads saw our arrival in the small town of Omorante, only 40 kilometres from the Sudanese border. After registering our arrival at the police station, there was a choice of
two hotels, one dire, the other dismal, for as with most accommodation in the Omo Valley the toilets were fetid, the showers cold, and the food of average quality. The village was quite interesting, but watching elongated and unstable boats carved from a single tree plying the fast flowing Omo River dissuaded me from crossing to visit the Galeb tribe. That evening my malaria tablets caused a severe bout of heat sensitivity which impacted on my health for a few hours. These first days in the Omo Valley were most challenging ones.
The following day saw a return to Turmi, and I decided to pay a premium (US$50.00) for a spacious cabin with cold showers and a toilet that didn’t make me shudder when approaching it; an excellent decision that heightened my enjoyment of the Omo Valley. This Monday was a special day in Turmi, for not only was it a market day, but a Hamer (pronounced hah-mehr) initiation ceremony would occur later that afternoon. The Hamer people are famed throughout Ethiopia, their beautiful women plat their hair and coat it with a distinctive red clay, and the men are equally handsome. I warmed to the Hamer tribe more
than any other, they were gentle and a smile never seemed far away.
The market was the best I attended in the Omo Valley, as hundreds of Hamer converged to interact and trade goods. I did notice a few women with large scars on their backs and arms, which I thought odd for a seemingly placid people. It was almost surreal to watch this glimpse of tribal life and it was not the only time in the Omo Valley that felt as if I had stumbled onto the location of a National Geographic documentary.
I lingered too long here and needed to rush to attend the Hamer initiation ceremony, one of the highlights of any Omo Valley visit. This ceremony is an elaborate affair which allows the male initiate, if successful, to commence the process of choosing a wife. The ceremony lasts for hours and starts with women adorned in bangles and carrying small horns making a tremendous noise in celebration, jumping in unison and following each other in a tight circle. Not so unusual, but the same could not be said of the public whipping that followed.
Tradition dictates that any relative of the initiate can
prove their loyalty by being publicly scourged with a thin, destructive whip. The process involves a woman approaching any Hamer adult male to deliver the punishment, but some men were reluctant to take part, and they had less enthusiasm for the practice then some of the women who needed to cajole them for another lashing. Supposedly a woman will plead to a man “Hit me”, he will respond with “No”, and she will retort with “You are no better than a woman!” at which time she would receive a single strike. It was quite gruesome as some women proudly displayed numerous open welts on their back, but not every female was similarly enraptured by the societal pressure. I espied a forlorn teenager with doleful eyes who had just received her first whipping; I pointed to a long thin cut on her back and she expressed her feelings by grimacing.
While the women bravely bore their wounds in silence, the men continued the ceremony by engaging in ritualistic face painting – a rather genteel task compared to what the women endured. Most remarkable was that the tightly packed group of men were so incredibly intense about this painting. The concentration
of the painters’ faces were immense, but it paled when compared to the recipients, whose eyes were simultaneously both calm and fervent; the eyes of men searching their inner thoughts as if in a trance.
The gathered crowd walked the one kilometre for the climax. Whilst the Hamer men tightly huddled around the initiate, twelve reluctant bulls from a collection of many more were forcibly placed beside each other in a line, as the women danced, jingled and played their horns around the corralled beasts – yet another National Geographic moment. With scores of men holding the bulls in place under cloudy skies, the naked initiate stood at the far end as the women increased their noise to a crescendo and the tourists paused with cameras poised. Suddenly the initiate appeared on the first bull and quickly, but ever so carefully, stepped on each animal before jumping on the ground near me, at which time I detected his expression of absolute concentration flicker for a moment to one of momentary relief. He returned from whence he came, again stepping on each of the bulls, and he repeated this whole process two more times. It took less than a minute
for the initiation to be successfully completed and the foreigners applauded, which seemed incongruent with this traditional ceremony.
The assembled onlookers dispersed and when leaving the area we offered a seat in our vehicle to a young Hamer man who proudly stated that he would soon undertake the same initiation ceremony but without foreigners and women present. I smiled and wished him the best as my thoughts drifted to the forthcoming days where my travels to the deepest part of the Omo Valley will see me visit a tribe that is as famous as it is feared...
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