It is the
travellers' Catch-22. We want to explore and interact with
exotic people from exotic lands, but the fact that we are
interacting changes the dynamics of the encounter. This
unfortunate reality is illustrated in southern Ethiopia, one
of the most culturally diverse regions on the planet.
Fifty-three tribes inhabit the area, most have unique
traditions that range from incredible art to self-inflicted
mutilation. Tour operators offer the chance to meet several
of the tribes found in or around the southern Omo Valley,
and an increasing number of tourists brave horrific roads
and long drives in order to go tribal.
experience comes with challenges.
of the problem is popularly known as the 'ferengi'
(an Amharic word for foreigner) and the mob that surrounds
tourists in whatever region they seem to go. Whether it is
the result of prolific non-government organizations (NGOs),
aid workers or irresponsible tourists, ferengis are
heavily associated, by rural people in the south, with free
is tradition in Ethiopia to refuse gifts and be generous
with what you have, anyone booking a tribal tour will find
these traditions hard to come by. Instead, ferengis
(also the name of an alien race from the ‘Star Trek’ series)
are often mobbed for money, pens, empty water bottles,
anything. Especially, and sadly, by children with few
Cruiser stopped off the side of the highway to visit a band
of Alaba, a Muslim tribe living in dark mud huts with
thatch coverings. Immediately, children with their hands out
surrounded me as our guide negotiated a price with the
leader of the family. An argument ensued, a price was
settled and the atmosphere became as welcoming as a doctor's
A band of
several dozen people stood looking through me, admiring my
cheap watch, pulling my shirt with the request of "one
Birr." In Ethiopia, it is customary to pay anyone you take a
picture of one or two Birr for their image; one Birr is
equivalent to 10 Canadian cents. It is fair and
well-intentioned, but many locals now see it as a quick and
easy way to make money.
travellers, I always ask people permission to take their
picture, with the aim of capturing a moment, an authentic
image, the picture to speak a thousand words about life in
Italian tourist expressed the problem when he told me, "I do
not mind paying for a photo, but I am finding it hard to
find people being natural. They want to pose for me, so I
can pay them."
entering a dark, smoky hut and asking some casual questions,
it was time to leave. Most tourists spend about 15 minutes
with the tribe, longer than most exhibits in a zoo, but not
by much. As uncomfortable as I felt, it was about to get
Tribe, numbering between 6,000 and 10,000, are nomads in one
of the country's most remote regions. Famous for the clay
lip plates worn as a sign of beauty by their women, ritual
scarification and stick fighting, the Mursi are embroiled in
an unfortunate dispute with the Africa Parks Board, which is
creating national parks in the tribe's roaming area.
As one of
the most extreme tribes to be found anywhere on the
continent, the Mursi have been visited by tourists for
decades. Foreigners are fascinated by a 'primitive' culture
as alien to the West as whales are to poodles. It is a
three-day drive to the town of Jinka, and takes more than
three hours to drive just 27Km on a bulldozed dirt road into
the Mago National Park.
warned that visiting the tribe in the afternoon was a bad
idea, because of rampant alcohol abuse and the
unpredictability of violence within the group. The Mursi are
also aggressive in charging for photos: one Birr for an
adult, one for a child, and three for a mother and child.
They only accept crisp, new one-birr notes.
the bush, the four-by-four pulled up to a small village of a
dozen thatch huts. Immediately, we were mobbed by a tribe
both frightening, fascinating and thrillingly exotic. With
their faces painted, the women made it impossible not to
stare at them and their lips that extended inches below
picture, take picture, take picture!" I was told, then
pushed, poked and prodded by half-naked men, women and
children, several of whom held semi-automatic rifles that
were used in inter-tribe warfare.
four-by-fours of tourists arrived, the tribe swept
themselves into a frenzy, the tourists took photos while
their subjects violently grabbed cash notes. More and more
people did their best to get into the photo.
sickening, yet the photographs are undeniably incredible.
people to stay longer, some do not even get out of the car.
They come, take picture and leave," a Mursi man told me.
can tourists be expected to stay longer when they are mobbed
with such feverish aggression?
was nothing less than a human zoo, everyone was exploited.
the solution is organized structure, such as what I found
with the Konso. Tourists pay the government-run central
office a fee to visit the tribe in the southern Omo Valley
and are assigned a local guide. While kids initially
surrounded me with familiar pleas for money, the guide kept
them at check, explaining fascinating traditions and
customs. I was told that half the tourist fee is distributed
to the tribe, and, although it might not be enough, it
benefits all parties.
It is, of
course, heartbreaking to turn down children, but aid
organizations and charities say giving money, clothes or
coveted empty water bottles in Ethiopia only breeds a
culture of begging.
nutritionist for a local NGO told me Ethiopia has moved on
from the famine of the 1980s. Kids just want things as a
sign of prestige. Better to donate to groups that know local
traditions and how best to help.