January 2, 2012
Yesterday in Mago National Park, Ethiopia’s 780-square-mile preserve near the Kenyan border, we saw several dik-diks and maybe a half dozen olive baboons. We didn’t spot any of the 200 elephants and lions, 400 buffalo, or countless monkeys, antelope, and other mammals who reside there. But we weren’t looking for them. Our goal was to visit the Mursi and Ari tribes who make their homes within this vast jungly wilderness.
As so often happens to me, I was shocked by the difference between reading and intellectually understanding that these tribal regions are remote, and actually experiencing the difficulty of visiting them. We’d spent the better part of two long hard days on the road just to get to Jinka, maybe 18 hours of driving in all. When Endalk told us it would take about two more hours to reach the Mursi village, I was a little startled and then dismayed by the brutality of the ride over rock and gravel roads. And then maybe two and a quarter hours into the journey, Endalk and our driver had an exchange with a couple of camo-clad, machine-gun-toting park rangers who delivered bad news: the government (god only knows which) was concerned about the fact that tourists were only visiting the Mursi village closest to Jinka. This meant all those Mursis were getting rich, while their further-flung brethren were seething. To rectify this injustice, we were being ordered to continue on to Hana in the adjoining Omo National Park, a hot, dusty bone-jolting additional hour further down the “road.” The worst part about this was that it turned out Hana wasn’t a classic Mursi village at all, but rather a settlement of Mursis who had intermarried with the Bodi people, and the government had installed a number of administrative buildings. It didn’t look like Scarsdale, but it wasn’t the return to the Stone Age for which we had traveled so far.
We spent maybe 5 minutes walking around the village (which Endalk himself had only visited once several years ago). But the ranger who had accompanied us in our Land Cruiser relented and bade us goodbye, freeing us to return any way we wanted. So we stopped first at a Bodi village that seemed only to consist of 3-4 huts. Bodis, according to Endalk, are the second most warlike tribe in the Omo Valley (the Mursi being number one), but the two elders, lounging in a shady spot, naked except for long strategically positioned shawls, greeted us affably. The tall thin wife of one of the elders looked peeved, though. She wore a sort of toga made of animal hides that half-exposed only one of her breasts.
All the negotiations with Omo Valley tribespeople regarding photographs bewilder me. Years ago, they learned to charge for serving as photo subjects, and typically villages also charge a fee simply for receiving visitors. (The standard rate for the latter seems to vary from about 200-450 birr (about $11.75-$25). But it’s all quite fluid and complicated. In this case, Endalk refused to pay a village fee. And while the chief’s wife wanted 100 birr for a photo of herself, he got her husband to agree that just 50 (about $3) was acceptable. The per-photo price tends to be for one single image (and the villagers are sensitive to detecting the sound of extra camera clicks!)
For the 50 birr, we also entered the chief’s hut, a dim and smoky den where a couple of younger wives were steeping moringa leaves, valued for their antimalarial properties. Outside in the bright sunshine, a weird sound intruded, and we saw it was the chief’s cell phone (stashed somewhere on his naked person). He stood to take the call, and the sight made even Endalk laugh. We bagged a photo or two of this, and I’m sure it will rank among my most cherished images.
We drove on and on, and around 2:30 we came to a cluster of huts where we finally scored a definitive Mursi/tourist interaction. Probably there are anthropologists who have spent months living with the Mursi, but their culture seems so alien, I’m sure many mysteries remain. We had less than an hour there, but it was enough to boggle my mind.
Part of the bafflement comes from extricating one’s impressions of the Mursi themselves from those of the Mursi in the presence of foreigners. The Omo Valley isn’t Disneyland; the Mursi live and dress as they do year-round, even in the rainy season when no tourists come. They survive mainly on the corn and sorghum they grow, along with an occasional goat or cow for special occasions such as weddings. But only for the tourists do they prepare rolls of 10 one-birr notes to serve as change (as the going rate for routine photos tends to be around 2-3 birr — 12-18 cents). The Mursis have no stores or shops of any kind, so to spend those birr, someone has to make the two-day walk to Jinka (which means overnighting in the bush along with the lions). That’s why they most avidly crave trade goods of the sort Endalk had us buy. So it was that we had the odd experience of handing out razor blades not only to our grown-up photo subjects, but also to kids as young as 3.
Still, the photos are irresistible. Their headgear is fantastic, and they create patterns of bumpy scars on their bodies. Most photogenic and famous, if freakish, are the lip plates worn by Mursi women. Supposedly this practice dates back to the days when slavers menaced African natives. To make their women repugnant to the raiders, or so the story goes, the Mursi began mutilating their women’s lower lips so that a series of larger and larger disks could be inserted into the space created. Over time, the Mursi came to see the practice as intrinsic to their tribal identity, part of what makes them Mursi and their women beautiful. The plates are heavy (I bought a medium-sized one for 10 birr, and it’s reminiscent of a condiment dish). So the women mostly wear them on ceremonial occasions such as weddings and tribal festivals. And of course they pop them in when the tourists arrive (the dangling undisked lower lips, if anything, look more grotesque than the adorned ones.) The women and children clustered around us, plucking at our arms, pinching my nipples, tugging at Steve’s beard and arm hair, murmuring “photo? photo?”
Somehow, none of this bothered us, it was all so surreal. And Endalk’s leadership was a big help. He finally urged us to be on our way; it wasn’t a great idea to be in a Mursi village much past 3, when all the men and women would start drinking the alcohol they brew from sorghum and upon which they daily get drunk (and more irascible, I took it.)
We made one more stop, at an Ari village maybe 45 minutes further down the road. I think Endalk likes to take people there right after seeing the Mursis, because the two tribes live so close to each other but boast such different cultures (and interact little, if at all). The Ari huts looked more sophisticated than the Mursis’ shaggy grass ones. The Aris also are master farmers, raising not only corn and sorghum, but also coffee, tobacco, oranges and other fruits, various vegetables, chicken and goats. They’re potters too, though the potter where we stopped was away (which gave Endalk an excuse to avoid paying the standard village fee.)
As our Land Cruiser labored up the switchbacks leading out of the park, I felt exhausted from our sleepless night and the hours upon hours of long, rough driving, as well as the welter of alien impressions. But I still noticed the splendor of the vistas around us, as rugged as the American West but so much greener, a dozen or more shades of green. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, this is the real Garden of Eden — the place on earth where humans almost certainly originated. We’ve read that the oldest remains of homo sapiens — an estimated 195,000 years old — were found in the Omo Valley. (The famous Lucy, vastly older but a humanoid precursor, were found elsewhere in Ethiopia.) We’ve also read that DNA research suggests that every human being on earth today descended from a single woman who once lived here, a small band of her offspring having then departed through the Arabian peninsula to spread out and populate the globe.
So in a sense, the Omo Valley is home. It may not feel like home, but it was our first one, and somehow visiting it made me feel closer, emotionally, to the whole vast extended clan of us.