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Published: February 12th 2012
After hours on the narrow two track 4x4 trail, dashing in and out of dry washes, spinning across the flat expanse that is punctuated only by the towering termite mounds, we roll into Murelle, one of three tribal villages of the Karo people.
We are high above a massive bend of the Omo River with a view that stretches forever.
I gasp at the incredible view, thinking ‘these people know the old saying - location, location, location’.
But before I can even let my breath out from that same gasp, the 4x4 is surrounded by the people of the village. Soft, understated voices insistently implore, ‘my photo, 3 Birr’. Again and again. Thats about 20 US cents, one fifth of a US dollar.
And there you have the heart of the dilemma that the rich cultural heritage that is Southern Ethiopia faces. Along with the tourists who come here.
We come to see the tribal people, their villages, their way of life. And yet our very presence further endangers their traditions and their way of life. For they are busily scampering about the village asking you
to pay to take their photo. They are not pursing their traditional way of living.
Or does our presence actually encourage them to maintain their traditions, so they can share those ways with us and make money from those photos? Even as they maintain their traditional ways - a culture of barter and trading, not one of collecting money and paying.
I don’t know.
I make my peace with paying for photos, something that I find too often poisons the feeling of the photo.
But I hold as my standard, that I only want to take a photo of someone I develop some sort of relationship with.
So we wander their villages, taking it all in. We walk with them and interact even though the barrier of language seems nearly insurmountable. We watch in amazement as a young girl skillfully dances about the blazing fire in her yard, baking fresh injera (traditional flat bread made from tef grain). Or a young boy stokes the fire to work a glowing piece of metal that magically becomes a knife. Or the children of a farming family drive
the family’s oxen around and around in the field, tossing the wheat under the hooves to be threshed by the trudging oxen.
I play a bit of harmonica for some and even manage to join in with some young drummers in one village.
Yes, it was about relationships for me. And perhaps in that way, the negative impacts of the tourist presence is balanced a bit with an awareness of the underlying thread that makes us all human.
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