18 Jul 2011
TRIBES – Ethiopia and Kenya
Our planet, our home.
Sometimes when I travel I get fed up when people ask me where I am from. Where are you from? What is your Nationality? What is your religion? What is your belief? Is it not enough that I am me? I am human. I am a man of the planet. Where am I from? Earth same as you or anyone else you see. My belief is my own and I am from the same origins that you are. Whether we believe those origins to be the same or not it doesn’t matter, one of us is right and therefore we originate from the same. I am only human and so are you.
All around the world people are residing, living. In England people wake up and continue in their day to day lives, they go to work, go to school, and look after the house. They talk to their friends they socialise, they eat food and they go to sleep. I write this to you from Nairobi and in Nairobi the people wake up and continue their day to day lives, work, school, friends, food, sleep and they wake the next day and they do the same thing. In North America the same and in New Zealand they do the same. In New York in Nairobi, in London in Lagos, in Brussels and Belgium and Brisbane, in Manchester and Moscow and Malawi, in Africa in Asia in America in Australia in Antarctica in Europe whether it be carrying your water from the well and collecting your firewood, whether it be sitting behind a desk in an office or patrolling the forests, whether it be saving lives in hospitals or working in lab’s on cancer cures, mankind works. Whether it is sewing, or hut building or cooking or hunting or schooling children learn. Whether it be very little or glutinous amounts people all eat and people all sleep, in beds, king size, double, single, sleeping bag, cardboard box, dirt floor, pipe lines, a prison cell . . . people all sleep. And perhaps the most varied of all in some way or other we all socialise. We talk to others, we look at others; we spend time with friends, family, colleagues, neighbours and strangers. We are a varied and complex species. The ways in which we live our lives all over the world vary from the most ‘extreme’ to the most ‘average’. Every race, every group, every culture, every clan, every tribe, every society, every family, every tradition, every belief, every faith, every religion, every nationality, every man, woman and child is different, unique, not like the other, their own person, individual.
Then why is it that somehow we humans are all the same?
I arrive in Ethiopia desperate to see the tribes of the Omo, so many stories heard, so many photos seen, so many times I have dreamed of visiting them. Third time’s a charm in this country overflowing with so much to see I finally get a lucky break and my chance to visit the unknown and supposedly untouched place called ‘The Omo Valley’ has arrived at last.
In the middle of nowhere in South West Ethiopia the Omo Valley straddles the border with the sparse and baron lands of Northern Kenya, equally as untouched and thought to be uninhabited. Places such as these become difficult for the solo backpacker. With no roads and most certainly no transport system these far and distant worlds become just another place us backpackers can’t get to. But those well-equipped and lucky individuals who drive around in their own off road 4 by 4 vehicle have the world as their oyster. As did the two Kiwis who I hitched a ride with through the Omo Valley and onwards into the wilds of the Kenyan bush!
So the long journey begins and it takes a few days of driving for us to reach the outskirts of the Omo region. There are many tribes within the valley and all are very different. These are often described as the last of Africa’s remaining untouched ethnic groups. Still living by their individual traditions and continuing for the majority, unaffected and uninfluenced by the rest of the country, let alone the rest of the world. Anthropologists have their own descriptions of each tribe and its way of life and label them as Africa’s most fascinating and colourful peoples. Within the tribes themselves each group has a reputation amongst the others for their various practises and many of the tribes still remain sworn enemies with each other. Many of the tribes are renowned for violence and aggression. Keeping their reputations as fearsome warriors is very important as inter-tribal warfare is still a very real aspect of day to day life. The Bumi, The Surma and The Mursi are the three tribes most renowned for violence and fierce stick fighting, and all are often battling each other for various reasons. Many of the tribes practise scarification for cosmetic purposes much alike our western tattoos but amongst these three tribes the scars are a sign of prowess in battle and often dictate how many people a man has killed! So of course with such a reputation how could one not want to go and see these people? (and hope that their ferocity remains directed towards each other). Unfortunately time is of the essence and the chance to visit all three just simply isn’t possible. A decision was made and The Mursi came out on top.
We arrived in the nearby village of Jinka and set up camp for the night, an early start in the morning was needed to get to the Mursi territory so I hoped for a good night’s sleep, but Africa will always remain Africa. The storm hit in the early hours of the morning and the rain was torrential. The thunder was the loudest that I have ever heard and truly shook the ground, my poor tent struggled. We had received warnings from many that we were travelling into the heart of the rainy season and one night’s rain can make all routes in the Omo Valley impassable, not to mention the very real possibility of flash floods, my tent and I wouldn’t stand a chance. We’d heard stories of people stuck for day’s even weeks in tribal territory and vehicles in this region are so rare that help wouldn’t come for a long time. As I felt the water begin to flow under my tent I lay there on my ‘water bed’ and wondered if we would even manage to make it until morning, let alone reach The Mursi. Deep in the jungle of Mago Forest the journey to reach them would surely be a challenge. Another worry to pester my attempts of sleep was the news reports of murder in Northern Kenya. As I’ve mentioned the tribes of Ethiopia have a reputation. And the reputation was adhered to when tribal men in Ethiopia crossed the unmanned border with Kenya and slaughtered a number of Kenya’s nomadic tribe’s people. All over the Kenyan news just days before I ventured into this neck of the woods I couldn’t help but wonder if I was making a huge mistake. As the thunder continued to boom and the water continued to pour I lay wide eyed thinking of the descriptions of the Mursi I had read. “ghost like body paints” “fearsome warriors” “known for their violence and aggression ” “the most ferocious of all the stick fighting tribes” “regularly doing battle” “bearing lip plates of gross proportions” “believed to hold powers of witch craft”. Whether I can blame the storm I do not know, but I must confess I did not sleep that night.
By morning the storm had passed but the rain continued, we left early and hoped for the best. But the vehicle did us proud, we slipped and slid through the mud surrounded by dense forest and looming trees and made our way hours into the jungle to the land of the Mursi. By the time we arrived we were one extra in our party, the mandatory ranger sat next to me with his gun on his lap. Pointing across the car towards me I very much hoped that the safety catch was on. The rangers skirt the outline of the Mursi territories most of the year. A step made by the local councils of the South to ensure the safety of those crazy foreigners who wish to venture into territory that even the local Ethiopians won’t go. Finally we arrive at a small clearing in the trees, a few dried grass huts stand huddled together, soaking in the remaining of the drizzle the storm has left behind. My eyes scan the surrounding area and then I see them, a group of men sitting together under the largest tree in deep discussion over some unknown topic. As the vehicle slows to a stop I get out of the car, they raise their heads and immediately the party has stood looking at us across the clearing. A few elderly women appear from out of the huts and the odd child or so run to their sides and together they join the men in their stare. It’s at this moment you question your motives. Why am I here again? Was this such a good idea after all? What happens now, should I approach them or let them approach me? Suddenly my research into this region felt hugely inadequate and gut instinct seemed to take over. I dopily raise my hand in the hope that a wave of sorts would suffice, and with that gesture one of the men turns to the huts where the women are gathered and shouts something, an older child breaks from the group and runs into the forest and with that done a few of the men approach with the one who vocalised to the child leading the way to us across the clearing. I hold my breath and together we make our way to meet him and I start to wonder over the rangers gun again, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the catch was off after all. As he approaches I see him clearer through the misty rain. A piece of material wrapped around his lower body he stands otherwise naked with nothing else but a thick wooden stick in his left hand reaching higher than his head, the top complete with a fist size knot in the wood. An old yet not elderly man he bears large holes in his earlobes where he once wore ear stretches much like my own, though much bigger the flesh now hangs wrinkled and empty. We ask if we can visit the village and take some photos, a few hand signals and a reply in Mursi that I think was a yes it would appear that we made a good first impression. This seemed to be enough for the elderly gents who then turned and made their way back to the others under the tree. The women and children stood, still in position and my mind disappeared to the child who ran off into the forest. Sent to recruit re-enforcements for battle perhaps I thought and my eyes flicked to the trees surrounding us. As I walk towards the huts I notice more people than I had first observed. Maybe they had been in the huts I thought. We approach and their appearance becomes clearer and at first it leaves me a little startled. The faces of the elderly women are streaked with white, ghost like paint indeed shadows their faces and the rain leaves thick streaks through it showing the dark and worn skin below. Seeing earlobes hanging lower than that of the village chiefs I start to look behind the masks of paint. Deep and angry frowns line the foreheads and these women are a far cry from your friendly granny who arrives with sweets and treats. Stern faces and harsh voices meet me and I take in the fact that every member of the tribe must be renowned for their fearsomeness. The women wearing little more than the men have old material and animal skins wrapped around their waist and their top half lies naked apart from the white of the paints. The women are all wearing headdresses, each different but made up of the same thing, bones. Bones of dead animals (I think) and horns, tied into pieces of rope and hide, and displayed of course to put fear into the hearts of the onlooker. I certainly feel that that the Mursi have a reputation for a good reason. The children scattered amongst the women were not many. Wearing paint from head to toe, naked and wet the smeared white created this ghoulish effect and the ornate hairstyles intricately shaven really confirmed the fact that every member of the tribe has to keep the reputation alive, at all times. Again I look around and notice the number appears to have risen again, where have they all come from I wonder, surely not all were hiding in the huts, but then I saw a young woman appear from the trees to the left, then another from the right, slowly people began to gather from all around and it dawned on me that the child that had run into the trees had been sent as a messenger, to tell those out in the forest that visitors had arrived in the village. Young men and women grouped together and the rain had finally cleared. Remaining overcast but with the occasional burst of sunlight they re-applied paints using their hands and fingers to create the desired design. Children were given their discarded head dresses and made to wear them and young men gathered together, sticks in hand and shouted what appeared to be orders from person to person (all the while the elderly men of the village remained under their tree, clearly in discussion about much more important things than a couple of white people and their black plastic machines which go ‘click’). As I started moving around the Mursi taking photographs I noticed that the young men and women had come bearing more than fancy headgear and body paints. Their torsos and backs and shoulders and biceps all bore geometrical designed scars. Scarification within the tribes is achieved using stone, knife or hooked implements. Once incised, ash mixed with saliva is applied to the wound promoting infection and in doing so escalating scar tissue growth. This method is often used amongst women to create a knobbly effect on the skins surface which is considered to be highly desirable to touch by the men. The scars curve around pectoral and shoulder muscles and consist of many small incisions equally placed in line across the skins surface, and they really did look phenomenal. The Mursi tribe really were stunning! What a sight to see all of these people with such a unique and alarming yet fantastic appearance. I continued to shoot photos and at times thought I was going to get a stick to the head judging by the looks in some of the young warriors eyes. During a photograph one of the warriors pointed at my wrist and seemed to be demanding one of my bracelets, deciding for some bizarre reason I wouldn’t do as he ordered I pointed at the bracelets on his wrist and implied he make a trade. He appeared to accept and before long I had traded bracelets with a few men, each of which had found my nipple piercing alongside my very small stretches in my ears rather amusing. If stretch size was a sign of manliness I clearly was less than a woman in their eyes! All the jewellery activity seemed to spur the arrival of the women who bear quite possibly what makes the Mursi so infamous in the eyes of photographers and anthropologists alike. Lip plates. The women of the Mursi make a small slit in the lower lip between the chin and the lip itself and over time stretch the skin using plates made of either wood or clay, the idea is similar to that of ear stretches. The plates are decorated accordingly with different coloured paints, and designs are often influenced by animals and their colourful markings, the polka dots of the guinea fowl being a favourite amongst the Mursi. A number of reasons have been given for the practise of lip plate wearing such as a sign of social status or the animistic belief that it’s a way of stopping evil from entering the body via the mouth, the Mursi still practise Animism. The women stood for photographs, deep frowns of pain across their faces, apparently wearing a lip plate is not the most comfortable of things, in fact it’s meant to be very painful, and I’m not at all surprised. After crawling inside one of their huts with the door no higher than my knees it truly started to dawn on me how basic and traditional the lives of these people were as they continued to exist in this forest within the Omo Valley. But as time went on the Mursi became more demanding and aggressive, ordering us around and crowding us. I got pulled towards different groups of men all requesting things I couldn’t understand and slowly the day became more and more difficult, finally the ranger stepped in and said enough is enough, he took us back to the car and too soon the time had come for me to leave the land of the Mursi behind, though I did so with my fair share of lip plates, ear plugs and other Mursi jewellery that I had traded for food, my own belongings and on one occasion Ethiopian currency. The younger men stood and watched, their interest in us fading as we parted the group and the women and children followed us to the car, the same harsh and demanding tones in their voice. As we drove away I turned back for one last look only to see them all laughing, had I missed the joke? Of course I had, clearly the fact that they had ‘scared us off’ had gone down with humour, for I am certain that they thought they had been nowhere near aggressive, in fact for them I imagine they were just being over friendly. Over the heads of the laughing crowd I strained to look a little further and saw the elder men still sitting there under the thick tree which loomed over their little collection of straw huts. Not even looking this way they were apparently undeterred and uninterested in the whole process. So the car started its arduous journey back out of the forest, and though I tried to get my head around all the events of the day I couldn’t help but feel that I had just had one of the strangest experiences in my life thus far.
So it’s a long blog so far and I’m only past the first tribe. So I will continue with only one other tribe from the Ethiopian side (the photos can tell the stories of the others) and then talk briefly of those I met in Kenya. So if you fancy a break now’s the time. Go to work, do that errand you need to do and pick up from where you left off a little later in the day. Or go grab a cup of tea and come back as we continue through the Omo Valley and I enter the lands of The Hamer tribe.
So the Hamer tribe, let’s start with a small introduction shall we? The Hamer are particularly known for their remarkable hairstyles. The women mix together ochre, water, and a binding tree resin before rubbing it into their hair. Then they twist strands again and again to create brown/red coloured pieces of hair looking almost like small dreadlocks locally known as goscha. Having good looking goscha is seen as sign of good health and welfare amongst the women. The men equally have interesting hairstyles, if they have recently killed an enemy or particularly dangerous animal they have their hair shaped into rectangular designs which stick the hair to the head using a special consistency of mud, clay and various coloured ochre’s. The finishing touch is a large ostrich feather which sticks out of the back of the head. This lasts for 6 months and can be remade 3 times during the 18 month period in which the men can keep the hairstyle. The Hamer also highly regard body decoration and, like the Mursi, jewellery and scarification are important parts of this. The older men often wear significant amounts of earrings. Each pair representing the amount of wives he has. The women have many types of necklaces and clothing made from animal skins which are all decorated using cowrie shells. They wear coiled metal bracelets on the upper arm and heavy steel anklets piled one on top of the other on their ankles, worn for the clanking noise they make when dancing. These anklets are welded directly around the ankle consequently meaning that once they are on they won’t be coming off! Married women wear thick, tight fitted double barrelled necklaces. These metal necklaces represent that they are married. If the woman is the first wife she bears a further necklace made from animal leather with a hard metal cap sticking out of the front. Similar scarification patterns to the Mursi are used with geometrical designs curving around the torso and arms. Ceremonial values dominate much of Hamer life and the coming of age ceremony for the boys is an important one for the whole family. The ‘jumping of the bulls’ is exactly what it says on the tin. For a boy to pass into manhood he must first jump naked over a selection of bulls. Up to 30 bulls can make the line and the boy must make his way jumping from bull to bull all the way down the line and back again. Once he has done this four times back and forth he has become a man, falling off is not an option! During this ceremony the women of the family, mothers and sisters etc beg other men from the family to whip them across the back with thick strands of leather and bark, the idea being that the bigger the scars that are left behind the more love you show for the boy in the family during his passage to manhood. Although a fascinating ritual I still think I’d rather celebrate manhood by going down the pub and having my first legal beer when I turn 18! So there you have it, sound fascinating don’t they? And they really were, we shacked up in the tiny village of Turmi (The largest of all the Hamer villages) on market day and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Hundreds of Hamer turned up to sell and trade food and produce and, supporting them, though fewer in number were the nearby members of the Banna tribe, friends of the Hamer. Two tribes at once, what a sight to see, with a lot more children darting about the place and an attitude ten times more welcoming than the Mursi the Hamer tribe really helped in giving us such an enjoyable experience. Many of the women happily asking for photos to be taken and showing off their freshly made hair I couldn’t help but thinking of staying with these guys for a few weeks, would be a fantastic thing to do! The men would come up and shake hands, fashioning their clay hair and ostrich feathers, only too delighted when I asked if I could take photos. Laughing, uncovering their chests so they looked the part, paint designs all up and down their legs and shins they marched around, also holding sticks for fighting and the little wooden stools they make which double up as pillows of all things (yes I couldn’t help myself, I bought a small stool from someone on the outskirts of the village). All of the young girls walked around looking very glamorous, going shy and causing a fuss when photos were requested and posing with their menthol eucalyptus twig toothbrushes hanging out of their mouths. The children were good fun, and dressed just as intricately and overwhelmingly as the adults and would follow us around the market as though we were the ones who looked different! Well, I suppose we were. All around were things for sale or trade, clay pots for cooking, dry grass for hut repair, firewood, wooden pillow stools, animal skins, calabashes filled with honey, chewing tobacco, sorghum, millet, freshly picked cotton and all the materials needed for self-made beehives which litter the tops of the trees in and out of Hamer territory. Yes the market was great fun and most of the day was spent wandering around the village and sitting in the shade, watching the day pass by, talking with the locals and participating in the culture. We watched women do each other’s hair and took photos, they found it so funny they even decided it would be a good laugh to cover the hair on the top of my head with red ochre as well, oh the comedy that caused! The scars were incredible, only a few appeared to have decorative scars but many had obviously had a son or two pass into manhood and as the photos will reveal some of the women really do get whipped pretty badly. As always I couldn’t help myself, I mean when will I ever revisit this place? So a stool wasn’t the only thing I left with, necklaces and bracelets, arm coils and anklets I left The Hamer tribe a little heavier than when I had arrived. The market slowly died out and everyone started making their long journey home and once again I found myself leaving a place and a race I really didn’t want to part with just yet. But the journey must continue, the show must go on and in the days that followed I continued through a few other Omo tribes. The Mursi and The Hamer set the standard and following them were The Banna and The Ari, The Karo, The Arbore, The Konso and The Dorze, we also passed by territories belonging to the Tsemay and The Birale, looked across the waters of the great Omo River at lands belonging to The Bumi and finished by leaving Ethiopia via it’s most Southerly tribe, The Dhasanech. Wow! What an adventure, and that’s not even the half of them! Yes indeed a kingdom of cultures tucked away in Africa’s hidden Valley the tribes people of the Omo really are some of the most interesting and fascinating people I have ever come across. Throughout my trip I have seen and experienced many a place I wish to return to and many places I have recommended as good places to visit. Well I must admit that a return to the Omo Valley in years to come is most simply the biggest must so far! To spend weeks with the people, learning their ways, seeing their true lives would be such an honour that I couldn’t describe, and it’s an experience I shall endeavour to chase within my life time that’s for sure. Do I recommend the Omo Valley to you, the reader? Well, yes of course it is a beautiful and fascinating place but one that in all honesty I feel many couldn’t handle. What’s more, my selfish streak shines through; no you can’t visit those amazing people, because I want to experience them all to myself!
So the blog drones on and we continue across the border to Kenya, a short paragraph or two as Kenya has dominated many a blog in the past! I pass the region of Lake Turkana, or as she is known to many, The Jade Sea. On my route back to civilization I first have to journey through the wilderness of Lake Turkana and its surroundings of Northern Kenya. Coming through this way we meet many tribes including the Gabbra and El Molo though quite easily it is those of the Samburu and Turkana tribe which take the trophy! Again beautifully dressed peoples, especially the women, they make it hard for one to not have the desire to stop and stay there forever. The most important part of fashion here is necklaces, and lots of them! We pass by village after village and hut after hut. The women of Turkana all wearing metal feather earrings in the tops of their ears symbolising marriage and the Samburu with their colourful face paints promoting beauty it’s a fantastic journey South! And people aren’t the only beauty. The beautiful jewel that is The Jade Sea shimmers and shines in the sun and the mountains surround the wild bush, piercing the sky with their summits, and what a temptation that is. The last part of the journey south had to end on a high and the 2050 summit of Mount Poi (also known as ‘Bread Loaf Mountain’ due to its shape) seemed high enough to me. The New Zealanders and I made our final journey together by climbing up Mount Poi and a day’s rest later we parted ways.
So there you have it. Not nearly half of my tribal adventures have been covered by this blog but I’m in the hope that what I have shared has been of interest. The blogs appear to be getting longer and I continue to ponder on how long is too long but with such a lot happening in such a short amount of time I think it would be unfair to all that has been experienced to not do it justice and describe it thoroughly. Certainly my interest has been stirred and my mind races towards other tribes, other countries, other continents and all the possibilities that lie out there waiting for someone, for me, to go and see them.
And once again I find the voice in my head having to remind me, “one trip at a time Sam, one trip at a time!”