Saturday, 11 April 2009

culture clash...

What an(other) amazing few weeks! The Jangano Juniors have written
about our time in southern Ethiopia, but I'd like to recount my own
experience there.
From Addis, we wound our way down into the Omo Valley, in southwest
Ethiopia. Left almost entirely to their own devices by successive
Ethiopian governments, the Omo tribes are cut off from the rest of
the world by the vast Sudd Marshes of Southern Sudan to the west, the
mountain fastness of central Ethiopia to the north and east, and the
barren wastes of Kenya's Lake Turkana region to the south, the Omo is
inhabited by tribes of semi-pastoralists who have been barely touched
by the twentieth century. With a couple of fine young guides, we
descended a thousand meters into the Mago National park, and camped
beside a river where our askari talked quietly and conversationally
to himself through the night to advise the elephants crashing through
the undergrowth nearby of our presence.
The next day he took us to a village of Mursi people, where we
dropped through the time-space continuum into the late stone age. The
hundred or so Mursi have the most extreme body adornment of any
people I have come across - lip plates 20cms in diameter, inserted
into a slit cut in the lower lip which is extended over time till it
will take a dinner plate.
The encounter was uncomfortable - the Mursi have, in the past couple
of years, become something of a "must-see" on the global adventure-
tourism circuit (a circuit which we would like to think we are not
following, of course). The encounter between heavily armed stone age
pastoralists and twenty-first century high-end tourism has not been
an easy one, with both parties seeing the other through hunter-
gatherer eyes. The tourists want photos, the Mursi want money. The
tourists try to get photos without paying, the Mursi have no interest
in letting them get away with it. For a society which half a decade
ago had virtually no concept of cash - and had never seen a camera
- , these guys have picked up the essence of mercantile capitalism
pretty fast. They make the bazaar merchants of Khan el Khalil and
Luxor look like amateurs.
Andrew, our guide, worked extremely hard to break the ice -
suggesting that we get out our fishing rods and spend a couple of
hours fishing with the Mursi in the river before even thinking about
showing our cameras. Which we duly did - though only the Mursi caught
fish, which they left gasping in the mud on the river bank until we
dropped them back in the river, as it offended their totems to eat
fish. When we thought we'd shown them we meant well, we produced a
camera or two - and were promptly overwhelmed by aggressive demands
for "picture, one picture, you give five Birr". Women thrusting their
plated lips at us, or (most disconcertingly) popping the plate out
and entwining the rope of loose lower lip around their finger; men
with AK's - the only sign of modernity in the village was the AK
every man carried (presumably that's what they buy with the money
tourists give them for photos) - pushing bead-bedecked children in
front of us; a mob, really.
And of course, we did want to take pictures. But more than that, we
(rather naively, perhaps) wanted an "encounter". Wanted to reaffirm
our essential liberal white African belief that we are all the same
under the skin. Wanted to understand and be understood.
The Mursi, bless 'em, where having none of that. We were only there
to open our wallets in exchange for pictures. They have this down to
a fine art; every person in the photo gets paid, and every shutter
click is counted. It can add up pretty quickly, when there are twenty
women barging into your frame and their menfolk stand behind you with
locked and loaded AK's. We tried to explain that we were not only
there to take photos - and were treated with much the same contempt
as the fish they had hooked with our rods and lines minutes before.
As we left - more of a rout than a dignified exit - we were treated
to an example of why this problem has occurred. A white Landcruiser,
with a bling-laden young Ethiopian guide from Addis and two rather
fey women tourists, raced into the village. The windows slid open,
camera lenses stuck out the side like a gunship, and the new arrivals
clicked away for all they were worth as the driver executed a neat
three point turn, waited till the mob had almost engulfed the car,
then slalom-ed away in a cloud of dust, leaving the Mursi scrabbling
for the fluttering one Birr notes that were their "payment".
No wonder they gave us a hard time.

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