Omo Valley Part 3: Ancient Ways and Roadblocks

Our guide rousted us early for our drive to visit the agro-pastoralist Mursi tribe, in Mago National Park, only to have our trip delayed at the border to the region by a chain across the road.  There were only a few vehicles in front us, but two lines soon formed: tourist transports on the left, and on the right, trucks and buses hauling supplies and people to the cotton and sugar cane plantations.  “This hasn’t happened in a while. It means there is some sort of incident with the tribes that police need to resolve before we can go further,” Ephrem explained as he killed the engine.  As time wore on impatient drivers, guides, (ours included) and passengers began to walk through the lines of stalled traffic, searching for information.  Rumors of “soon,” floated by several times. Some groups turned around so they wouldn’t miss their flights to Addis Abba. IMG_3308 We would have been terribly dissappointed if this had happened to us and we missed visiting the Mursi tribe. (Note to self – don’t leave important events to the last day.) Curious children made their way amidst the tourist vehicles, looking through the windows and asking for soap, shampoo, pens, pencils, caramels, and empty water bottles. The kids would have been happy with anything anyone gave them. Some pointed to the clothes we were wearing, hoping we would donate them.  Folks make do with very little here and wear things until they are threadbare, out of necessity.  Often, we saw older children wearing infant onesies with the feet of the garment cut off.  We are not criticizing; it’s all they had.  It saddened us and we wished we had brought an extra suitcase of clothes along to donate to a village.  Eventually there was a burst of activity with rumbling engines at the front of the line and folks running back to their rides. IMG_2607We were the third car in a group of five that was being led by a pickup truck full of armed paramilitary policemen.  Many of the incidents that have occurred are related to the increase in truck and bus traffic roaring through Mursi territory on the way to new cotton and sugarcane plantations along the banks of the Omo River. IMG_3207 Cattle are very often herded down the roads and sometimes are struck and killed, along with their herders.  Often drivers do not stop to take responsibility.  In the eyes of the villagers, the local authorities have not resolved the situation.  As a result, tribespeople will set roadblocks to rob buses carrying plantation workers and extract revenge on truckers.  A while later we stopped and were assigned an armed escort, with an AK-47, who accompanied us for the duration of our visit. He was euphemistically called a scout.IMG_3060Turning off the dirt road, branches scratched against the side of the truck as we followed a narrow dirt track through the savanna to a clearing where a small group of thatched huts stood. Soon the women of the village stopped what they were doing to greet us.

Nowadays regarded as a sign of beauty and self-esteem, the tradition of lip-plates, debhinya, and ear-plugs with which the Mursi tribeswomen adorn themselves is thought by some anthropologists to have begun centuries ago to discourage slave traders from taking them captive. The Mursi have no oral history, however, to support this theory. It most likely signifies that a woman has reached puberty. Both men and women also practice scarification, which is accomplished when a wound, made with a thorn, is rubbed with ash and dirt so that it heals into a thick, raised scar. Today some of the young women of the tribe are choosing not to stretch their lower lips, instead keeping only the ear-plug. It’s a woman’s choice, though the older generation believes “the lip-plate serves to remind people of a woman’s commitment to her culture.”

Tourists have been coming in larger numbers every year to the Omo Valley since the 1970’s and income from posing for photos has become increasingly important in a drought-prone environment that necessitates visiting the local markets more frequently for supplies to survive.

As unique and interesting as the experience truly was and not to be cynical, there was an element of “dressing up for the tourists” revealed when we realized some of the tribeswomen were exchanging items among themselves or going into their huts for a wardrobe change, to create a different look in pursuit of more tourist dollars for additional photos.

We did admire their business acumen and thoroughly enjoyed visiting them. At the end of the day they still struggle to survive in a harsh environment. It was a win-win for everyone.

Leaving the Mursi, we headed to an Ari village closer to Jinka and were pleasantly startled when a dik-dik darted from the bush ahead of us. Chance encounters are the only way to see the smallest and consequently the most elusive antelope in Africa. Further along our guide spotted an Arabian bustard in the tall grass along the road.IMG_3491It was a steep walk up a trail through a forest of false banana, enset, to a well-kept sturdy hut with a medicinal herb garden. IMG_3710Outside two women were pinching clay into bowls and teapots that would later be sold at a weekly market.

Downhill from the hut a toolmaker was using a makeshift hand bellows to add oxygen to his fire.  Heating metal to a glow, he would hammer it out on a rock in front of him. As we sat watching him a small group of children gathered around us.  Intrigued by Donna’s short and straight black hair, the oldest girl of the group started to braid it into cornrows.  Silently communicating, they each enjoyed the experience. “That little girl had really strong fingers! I don’t know how she managed to braid such short hair,” Donna happily shared later.

Agriculturalists and craftspeople, the Ari people are the largest tribe in the Omo region and live in permanent villages across the vast highlands around Jinka.  Coffee and cardamom are grown as cash crops while subsistence crops of teff, wheat, barley, sorghum, maize, and a variety of root vegetables and false banana are grown for local markets and family use.  Working our way through the village we passed a basket maker who was creating a large woven reed granary.  Standing in the partially finished vessel, most of his body was obscured by its size. IMG_3879With sunlight shining through a canopy of giant enset leaves above her, a tribeswoman prepared kocho, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread, over an open smoky fire as we sat and watched. Behind us children giggled as they playfully rolled an old bicycle rim down the path.

The next morning, we headed to a local market in Jinka.  The city with a population of nearly 33,000 people has three permanent markets that are open daily.  Shops as well as street vendors offer everything imaginable to shoppers who come into town for the occasion. IMG_4033-2 There was a lively commotion of activity by the buses as porters brought over bundles to be tossed up onto the roofs and tied down before heading back to outlying villages. IMG_4149 Goats, cows and children were left to wander about freely while small piles of detritus burned slowly in the streets as vendors cleaned up at the end of the day. The earthy smell of dung and smoke lightly scented the air. It was chaotic.

There are continuing issues with tribal lands being seized for the expansion of the plantations along the Omo River, primarily the diversion of irrigation water from the Gibe lll dam to the plantations, which consequently ruins the livelihoods of tribes that practice ancient flood retreat farming downstream.  The international community is not sure how this situation will affect future tourism into the Omo Valley if it continues, but it is thought if the Mursi are denied access to their traditional farming area along the Omo River, they will not be able to survive without food aide to replace failed crops.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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