Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cultural Tribal Experiences or a Human Zoo?

Mursi Girl at Jinka market

We all have an image of what “Traditional Africa” looks like, but the reality is far removed. The Christian missionaries forced Africans into clothes and “civilization” and Africa has never been the same since.

Don’t get me wrong, the journey to the tribal south of Ethiopia is both interesting and quite beautiful. However i witness firsthand the pitfalls of such a trip, and it’s not attractive.

Lower Omo provides a rare opportunity to see and experience tribalism like almost nowhere else, including Ari, Banna, Bumi, Hamer, Karo, Mursi and Surma. The tourist market is enormous and the Ethiopian authorities have become very wise to this, charging considerable sums of money to enter the region and visit some of the wilder tribal areas which are have now become Human Reserves.

The vast majority of foreign visitors (and i include myself in this category) come armed with cameras ready to capture “classic” portraits of the tribes. After all we rarely see half naked elaborately ornate women wondering around the streets. And after all many will come and offer to have their photos taken in exchange for Birr – a strong contrast to the camera-shy Ethiopians in almost all other parts of the country.

Although i rarely offer “money for portraits” i don’t have many qualms about paying small amounts for photos – modelling fees are a given in many countries after all. However, in Lower Omo especially i witness some horrendous sights and exchanges that disturb me greatly.

Scene One:
I ask Gitacho our driver to stop as we race towards Turmi at sunset. There are two very beautiful tribal girls ornately decked out in loin cloths and beads and not much else. We are quickly surrounded by villagers, young and old, clambering for photographs and more importantly for them - Birr. Jostled and bustled i beat a rapid retreat back into the Landcruiser. It’s not pretty.

Scene Two:
Three elderly Italians are dining in a restaurant. They ask their guide to invite a young local tribesman to join them for dinner on the condition that they can video him eating spaghetti. He spends the next half hour with a video camera in his face as he tries to negotiate cutlery and spaghetti whilst the three Italians openly hoot with laughter at his attempts to eat.

Scene Three:
A young Italian male and his girlfriend arrive on market day in Demica and arrives into the local restaurant with a Canon D1 and a 300mm lens. He is shouting and screaming at his driver. He is angry and upset because he is being charged Birr10 (about 65 US cents) per photo. “It’s just not fair! They are charging me too much because i have a long lens” he bemoans. “We are not made welcome here” he tells anyone who will listen and storms off.

I catch up with him later and suggest he maybe uses another lens. I am predominantly using my standard 50mm lens for greater anonymity..

Scene Four: An elderly Italian is in the market. He has selected a tribal male and female for a photo shoot. He spends some 15 minutes “training” the models in the particular poses he is after. He carefully angles both their faces and bodies as if in a photographic studio and can’t hide his irritation as he endeavours to get the tribesman’s chin a bit higher and into the light. Not surprisingly his elaborate behaviour draws a large disapproving audience from both locals and travellists alike. He remains in complete ignorance of his behaviour.

After my experience on Day Two, i find i prefer to engage in dialogue and share cultural exchanges rather than through my view-finder, and i find these experience far more rewarding. I admire their jewellery and hair-styles and they seem to admire my bangles and quite intrigued by my dreadlocks. I play with the kids, and they hold my hand and take me through their village.

The highlight for most people’s tour is a visit to the Mursi tribe – complete with large lip plates and a lot of nakedness. Now kept in “reservations” this is the archetypal zoo experience. Both myself and Gloves opt to just hang out in Jinka instead.

Everyone has their own idea on what is an “acceptable” interaction. Mathieu goes round playing his I-pod for the locals and treats wounds he sees with antiseptic cream whilst his mother buys one bare-footed young girl a pair of pink shoes. I find these actions both patronising and inappropriate. It’s all too easy to play the role of the condescending and patronising “White Man”.

My advice would be to think very carefully about undertaking such a “Tribal Experience”. What are you after and what will you bring by such interference into the lives of the local? With road conditions continually improving, more faranjis will have even easier access into this region and both the land and the people with irrevocably change further.

Would i do it again? Absolutely not. Let sleeping dogs lie.

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