Visiting the Tribes of South Omo

Trip Start Jul 21, 2009
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Trip End Jul 21, 2010


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Where I stayed
Jinka Resort Hotel

Flag of Ethiopia  , Gamo Gofa,
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Last night we heard some animal noises that we had never heard before. When we imitated the noise to DJ he said that we had heard monkeys -very distinct and eerie.  Today we are going further into the Omo Valley and we will end up in the town of Jinka.  Our first stop was to see the people of Dasanech.  They have a cool way of gathering honey – they use baskets with one queen bee inside and hang the baskets high off the ground in the branches of the acacia trees.  As you drive you see these baskets everywhere!  We drive off the main road for a bit to get to the village – and when we step out we become the main focal point.  Kids run to greet us and we are whisked away to a young woman's house.  The village that we stop at does not get a lot of visitors so some of the women are shy and are genuinely surprised when we take their picture and show them the image on our cameras.  And again it makes sense because there is not a lot of glass around – people do not have mirrors in their tukuls – so they rarely get to see an image of themselves without perhaps looking into water

The Dasanech practice polygamy, like most of the groups in South Omo, but they allow both their men and woman to practice it.  So for example, if a man comes back home and sees a spear blocking the front of the door he knows not to step in because his women is getting some action!  There is no problem with this – if the woman becomes pregnant by this other man, who is not her husband, no big deal – since the women raise the children anyway and the husband can not object to having the child live with them in their compound.  According to some articles that DJ gave us yesterday, some women who were interviewed said they didn't mind polygamy and actually would prefer that their husband would get more wives because that eases the burden on them.  This makes total sense given that women do the majority of all the work in the villages.  They raise the children, cook the food, gather the water, plant the crops, harvest the crops, clean the home area – the men's only responsibility is to herd the cattle to graze.  Not a bad life for these men. 

The next stop off on our journey is to see the Korso people.  Their village is MASSIVE – with almost 500 people living there (it's like a tukul metropolis).  When we get out of the van the town comes to greet us – literally.    The women wear colorful full skirts.  The women used to also be topless but since the Christian missionaries arrived the women have started wearing western-donated t-shirts.  Some of the tukuls in the villages are decorated with crosses on top.  DJ has certain feelings on this – he says that missionaries pick a couple of people in the village and basically give them things: food, money etc. in exchange for their membership, so to speak, and recruitment of other members.  They do this because the missionaries do not live in the South Omo and do not speak the groups’ language so they need an insider.  It's a bit disheartening.  I have no problem with missionaries reaching out and talking about their religion but I do have a problem with these tactics, if true.  But what's the difference then of prohibiting or saying that female circumcision is wrong and saying that walking around naked is wrong?  To me, there is a huge difference as certain forms of female circumcision damages the female’s ability to reach orgasm, and the latter is just a matter of aesthetics and prudence.  But that's me.  Hearing about tactics like what DJ told us,  you can't help but think of the history of missionaries in the past destroying cultures – not allowing them to speak their native languages, dance and sing, etc. in order to "Christianize" (i.e. civilize) them.  How many cultures have been diminished in the quest for salvation?  Native Americans, Aborigines...the list goes on.  It's very disheartening.

The Karo have an unusual mating ritual: unmarried and married men and women (only those who are unmarried) have a dance ceremony.  If a woman likes a certain guy – she can invite him for “relations.”  She can choose whomever she wants to have sex with – no problem.  However, if she becomes pregnant because of this liaison – the community steps in to handle the problem.  A woman can't have a child unmarried or she becomes estranged from the community – so first the father of the child is asked whether or not he wants to marry the girl.  If he does, great.  If he doesn't - not a problem – he isn't forced to marry her.  Instead the girl must have an abortion.  Having an abortion is not seen as a bad thing – in fact, the asking price of the girl increases and she is considered a valuable catch because it is proven that she can have children.  In a way this seems kind of backwards – but in another way fascinating because the community and the elders obviously thought about this:  ok how can we allow our men to have fun sex and our women to have pre-marital sex but still not have the woman completely damaged by this process? – so they came up with this system.  But get this – if the woman refuses to have an abortion – then she is ostracized from the community and basically has to go on her own to raise the child – which of course is damn near impossible in this type of community.  So due to the circumstances – you know what happens. 

Our last stop today in our tour is to a Bumi home.  The Bumi women wear their hair in these rolled braids that they color in ochre (reddish brown) – very distinct.  We again happen upon a house compound that hasn't received a lot of visitors.  The husband has 2 wives and his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren live there.  The nice thing was that he was actually working with his wives in harvesting the crops. 

The women do not want their picture taken at first – but they warm up to us. We've got our program down now – while I distract people by showing them the pictures I have taken Mike snaps away and gets some good candid pics.  There are some people who run away from the camera – not sure if it's because they think that by us taking a picture we rob them of their spiritual make-up - or whether it’s simply because by taking their picture we make them feel like objects in a museum.  We hope it’s neither and it’s just a matter of shyness. Of course, we don't take their pictures if they say no or shake their heads.  And sometimes we don't take pictures because we feel like the situation is exploitative – for example, the kids who are sick and suffering from some disease. We don't want to further add to the stereotype of the poor African child – although at times the image is just so powerful that you have this voyeuristic desire of taking the picture. 

Going to these villages presents its own questions – and sense of guilt.  Just by being born in a different part of the world as Americans, we have built-in advantages that these children do not have—particularly with regards to health.  I say only health because being here also makes me question what do we really mean by “quality of life?”  Is their quality of life less because they do not receive an adequate education in first-world terms?  Does it even matter since in all likelihood they will not be able to travel around the world like we have, nor have a chance of getting a “good job?” (again, by our standards)  That seems pretty trivial – and not a good way to judge “quality of life” because although they do not have these things - they live with their family and friends surrounded by utterly amazing and simplistic beauty.  These are groups - that at least for now – are not consumed by material consumption – they have no need for material things.  There are no toys and trinkets all over their homes – what they have for the most part (other than the second-hand t shirts and plastic water bottles) are things that they produce themselves. The one thing that has to be improved on – no doubts at all - is the health issue.  Life expectancy of these tribes is very low – the average age is 45.  The main culprits: malaria, tuberculosis, and recently HIV. 

We are now sitting at a table drinking a soda and reflecting on the past couple of days.  What was remarkable to us is the lack of trash in the villages – it is a very pristine environment because again there is no access to cheap western plastic-packaged goods. Before there was no money – not a currency system.  Now when visitors – again like us – give these groups cash they can walk to larger towns and start buying these cheap goods.  Will the environment and delicate balance be altered? 

Another thing that we noticed in visiting the different villages is that there are no disabled people – there are some elderly people who are having a hard time walking and we have noticed that some children have watery eyes – and some children look a bit malnourished but we have seen no one with physical or mental disabilities.  When we asked DJ about this he said that is because children who are born with disabilities are killed immediately within the tribe.  They are either left alone/or ignored/or actually smothered to death.  The reason is very simple – everyone has to pull their weight so to speak.  If someone needed constant care and supervision that would drain the mother who would not be able to do all of her chores.  Secondly, there is still a suspicion in these groups that people born with deformities are somehow cursed or harbors of evil.

This brings us to another issue: privacy.  Everyone lives in the same compound and the tukuls do not have separate rooms – everyone can't help but be in everyone else's business.  Which of course leads us to think – how do people have private intimate moments?  Answer: most go out into the bush and find themselves a nice spot to make it happen.  After marriage, most of the time they kick the kids out of the hut and make – a – the – sex.  :] 

Perhaps it’s a stereotype or just a bias but the people we are drawn to the most are the women and the children.  The women in general are more decorated than the males and thus more striking and the kids are just adorable and warm.  When coming to these villages you have to get over the sense of personal space – it just doesn't exist here.  We are constantly touched, pulled at, and poked - there are no boundaries.  And to let go of that expectation and not seem aloof/distant/rude – it takes a lot of energy.  Thus, at the end of the day, like today, we are completely exhausted but also thrilled both by what we have seen and faced.
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