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Published: November 1st 2012
Hundreds of bodies litter the killing field. Many still twitch as the cherry red blood bubbles out of slit necks and pools in the mud. Blood-splattered butchers hunch over the bodies, their axes methodically rising and falling as they hack through flesh and bone. Others peel away the skin with long curved black bladed knives. Cows that had fifteen minutes before been chased across the field by squealing children are now fat marbled slabs of meat laid out on eucalyptus leaves for sale. Near a pile of steaming entrails and flesh covered skulls, a woman squats in front of a plastic bucket churning blood, allegedly for drinking. Perhaps this, like kort, as the raw meat dish is called in Ethiopia, is a delicacy. The hecatomb is to celebrate Meskel, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian holiday commemorating the 4th century’s Queen Eleni’s finding of the True Cross (which like the Arc of the Covenant, mysteriously came to be in Ethiopia). On Meskel, the faithful shrouded in ghostly white will dance around tremendous bonfires all over Ethiopia, but here in the south, the Dorze tribe has begun the festivities two days early. Those not preoccupied with butchering or meat buying are getting roaring drunk
on honey mead in rickety shacks lining the edge of the field. Although it is barely 10 AM, this seems preferable to the killing field, so we elbow our way into a bar and join the celebration.
The Dorze village is the first stop of my last waltz in Ethiopia.. We leave for New York City soon, so I have come down south for a last look around. Plenty of Ethiopia is cultural and historical and brimming with the strange and the unusual, but the lower Omo valley is where the West comes to sate its thirst for the ‘primitive’. The Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional State is a confederation of dozens of tribes, and being a tourist here is wading into an ethical morass: the fine line between human interest and human zoo.
There is no question which side of the line you are standing on with the Mursi, the most famous of the tribes of the Omo valley. The clay lip plates worn by Mursi women are the quintessential archetype of the exotic and draw tourists like flies to shit. And in truth, the experience is about as pleasant. After a long days drive from
Dorze, accompanied by a worthless guide and an armed guard, we arrive at a Mursi village on the edge of Mago National Park around daybreak. Plate lips are hastily retrieved and fitted into distended lips, necklaces donned, and random feathers and bones stuck fetchingly into hair. Authentically ‘exotically’ attired, the charade commences. Pastoralists since before time, the Mursi sullenly herd the us into the far corner of the village. Once corralled, sleeve tugging, pocket exploring, imploring eye batting, and the frenzied babble of ‘photo, photo, photo’ erupts. Business is brisk and competition stiff on the cultural commodities market. Though the experience leaves everything to be desired, we play our part: Nico and I dole out money - five birr for women and men, two birr for children - while Ceasar and Nitara attend to the photographic chores.
The famed Mursi lip plates may or may not be a symbol of beauty or wealth or adulthood or tribal identity or a disincentive for slave traders. Our ‘guide’ doesn’t know or care. He isn’t Mursi and doesn’t speak the language. He is only here to get paid. There will be no dialogue, no meeting of worlds, no bridging of difference, or
drinking of rancid local beer or liquor. This isn’t about cultural exchange, it is about money and tourists taking enough pictures to enhance hyperbolic tales (such as this one) of daring do amongst the natives. Fifteen minutes later, our part in the farce is thankfully over, and we are shepherded out of the village. A Landrover gorged with Japanese tourists has arrived and the show must go on. Driving back toward the town of Jinka, five more vehicles crammed with tourists, cameras, and birr speed past. It is not yet ten AM, but clearly business at the human zoo will be brisk today.
Leaving the Mursi, the road winds south into ‘the poisoned paradise’1
, the lower Omo Valley. The landscape is spectacular, but once the rainy season fades, it will become hellishly hot and dry. Now, the rains are still falling, so it is cooler and green. As we near the crossroads town of Turmi, Hamar people begin to appear along the road’s edge. The women are stunningly beautiful. They wear cowrie shell fringed goat skins, beaded necklaces, copper and iron bracelets, and some have thick iron rings with phallic shaped protuberances encircling their necks. The women’s hair, twisted
pencil-sized ringlet dreads colored burnt umber with ochre and butter, falls to their eyes and dances about their shoulders as they walk. The men are equally striking - tall, thin, and almost delicate, they wear short plaid skirts, beaded headbands, armbands, and copper and gold bracelets. A few carry long spears, but most have AK-47s slung carelessly over their shoulders to deter enemy tribe cattle-raiders. Driving their long horned cattle along the flat of the road, they swat them idly with long supple sticks, perfecting the technique used on their women.
The following day, we visit a Hamar village outside the town of Turmi. It consists of little more than a few round mud huts with thatch covered conical roofs and some wooden pens to hold animals, but the experience is strikingly different than the Mursi. Rather than rushing out to meet us, the few women and children in the village are more aloof and more dignified. They too want their birr, but they have no interest in pleading or performing for it. Beyond the village, a footpath meanders through the stunted acacia, pink flowering baobabs, and thorny scrub toward town. In the market, there appears little commercial interest
in the rancid butter, coffee husks, tobacco, honey, sorghum, and random baubles for sale. Instead, the vast majority seem to be deeply engaged in the ancient business of sitting around doing nothing much. Though the children and the trinket vendors note our passing, we are otherwise largely ignored. In their indifference, the Hamar seem much closer to walking the razor’s edge between the increasing encroachment of the modern world and preservation of their own. As one Hamar woman remarked, “We must learn to sow and cultivate tourism like a sorghum field.”2
In the morning, we drive out of Turmi toward the southern fringe of Ethiopia - a hell hole of hot, dust, and ugly on the banks of the Omo River called Oromoti. A dugout canoe ferries us across the crocodile infested river to a squalid village of the Desenech people. The village looks like a cross between a refugee camp and a post apocalyptic Mad Max dystopia. A man whose chest is covered in neat rows of scars tells us proudly that he has killed two Turkana tribesmen. Another older man has a fist sized scar in his chest where a Turkana stuck a spear through him. Existence
here has echoes of Hobbes’ primal state of nature: “Warre . . . of every man against every man.” Gathered under the shade of the one tree, an old man says that now life is better; the Ethiopian government has brought schools and medical clinics, but traditional lands are also being leased by the government to foreign agriculture businesses. Beyond the village are Indian cotton plantations. Though warring tribes may stick spears in each other, the real threat is globalism, modernity, and the competition for limited resources .
Back in Turmi, we stop for a beer and get lucky. There is a rumor that perhaps, maybe, somewhere out in the bush, there may be a bull jumping ceremony. The only way to know is to go. Twenty minutes into the bush and our fourth flat tire of the trip later, we find the ceremony. In a nearby clearing, the female relatives of the boy who will jump the bulls dance about stomping their feet, singing, chanting, blowing on shrill metal horns, and jingling the bands of iron and goat hoof bells wrapped around their calves. The women have been drinking sorghum beer and honey mead since dawn. Most of
their backs are already crisscrossed with open bleeding wounds. Now, they have gathered again to taunt, beg, and plead with the Maza to whip them some more. The Maza, recent initiates, do not seem very interested in this task. Eventually, one of the Maza emerges reluctantly from shady shelter, grabs a five foot long wooden switch, and bends it testing its suppleness. A woman stands before him, and he lashes the branch across her arm. She doesn’t flinch as the tip opens another long red gash in her back. Hopping forward on both legs, she bows her head to him. Immediately, the pack of women surges forward to hound him for his service. Tossing aside the switch, he picks another from the large pile the women have gathered and thrashes the next woman. For hours, the drinking, taunting, and whipping continues. This whipping not only binds the boy who will become a man to the women of his family, but the ritual scarification is regarded as beautiful. Different strokes for different folks.
Afternoon stretches into evening and the crowd swells as other Hamar wander in from the hills. Some of the men lounge about drinking while others begin their
own dancing and chanting. Eventually, the boy who will jump the bulls is taken off. He sits in a circle with his brothers and friends, gets a cow from his uncle that he can never slaughter, and then things I can neither see nor understand transpire. At dusk, he rises, and walks up the hill to the waiting bulls.
The women have proceeded him and are racing around the bulls blowing their horns, singing, howling, and generally working themselves and the animals into a frenzy. A maddened bull breaks free, trying to escape the circle, but is driven back. Next, men rush in, grab the bulls by their tales and horns, and wrestle nine of the animals into a line. The Hamar boy must successfully traverse the bulls’ backs four times. Until he completes the bull jumping ceremony, he cannot marry, own cattle, or have children. As the last light of day fades from the sky, the naked boy leaps onto the back of the first bull and races down the line of animals. In the near darkness, he runs, slips, and falls. The assembled crowd screeches and cheers. The terrified boy gets up and hands steady him to
run again. Under the light of a nearly full moon, he traverses the backs for the fourth time and becomes a man.
A vacation dedicated to staring at people gives you some things to think about. As the modern world makes inroads into this remote corner of Ethiopia, it will be accompanied by the good, the bad and everything in between. Who knows how long Mursi women will want to wear plates in their lips, how long Hamar women will beg to be whipped, how long boys will jump bulls to become men, or how long any of these tribes will resist the allure of modern materialism. These will be decisions they make, and no amount of anxious hand-wringing about cultural preservation or cultural exploitation by outsides will matter much. When cultures collide, change is an inevitability. What arises will have to fit each tribe’s unique cultural moorings, but they will have to navigate uncertain waters. Only time will tell if development brings clean running water, health care, and education or just a tidal wave of Chinese plastic and shitty low-paying plantation jobs picking cotton for foreigners on their former traditional lands. My guess is that it will be
a both. One thing, however, is certain, their lives will not stay the same.
For Mino’s (Nico’s dog) view of the Dorze killing fields see
For a fascinating look at the Hamar see
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