Through the gap

January 3, 2012

Young Hamer women

After saying farewell to the Goh Hotel yesterday (Monday), the drive from Jinka to Turmi took just under four hours, which didn’t seem bad, in light of the previous day’s extended car time. Turmi (aka Turumi) sits in the midst of the extensive territory inhibited by the Hamer tribe, and en route, Endalk described the bull-jumping ceremony which the Hamers use to mark their boys’ transition to manhood. For it, Hamer men round up a dozen or so bulls and line them up nose to tail, wrestling them into position and almost magically calming them to a surreal stillness. Then the naked, wild-haired initiate climbs up onto and dances over the animals’ backs, moving from one end of the line to the other several times, while Hamer girls who’ve bolstered their courage with alcohol for days beg to be beaten with sticks, a form of cheerleading that traditionally could get quite bloody. Times are changing, and the beatings are becoming more moderate. Endalk seemed to approve of that. His eyes shone when he described the celebration that would follow the completion of the initiate’s performance. We would have to pay a fee to attend, Endalk said, but once admitted we could photograph incessantly, and no one would ask for as much as a hard candy.

This was the season for bull-jumping, Endalk added, and he would use his network of contacts to learn whether one would be taking place either this day or the next. But when we checked into the Tourist Hotel, we got bad news on two fronts. None of Endalk’s friends at the hotel had heard of any taurine spectacles in the offing. And because our itinerary had changed (due to our late start the first morning), the room he had reserved for us, which had a shower, was unavailable. We would have to sleep in one of the rooms with neither toilet nor shower. But we could switch rooms the next day.

The upside to our scheduling changes was that it allowed us to arrive in Turmi on a Monday, the Hamers’ big market day. We strolled the few blocks over to that, and it was instantly clear why this weekly event gets glowing reviews from the guidebooks. The Hamers look fantastic. Men wear brightly colored miniskirts and special hair ornaments for recent braveries. But it’s the women who could step onto a runway in Paris and draw gasps of admiration. Most are either topless of they wear skimpy goatskins ornamented with shells, fur, and other beads. They soak their hair in ochre mixed with animal fat, and then work it into long thick strands (think of henna’d Raggedy Anns). The square teamed with people buying and selling tobacco, coffee beans and shells, pots, skins, produce, and grasses.

After the market, Steve and I consumed greasy pasta and tomato sauce in the Tourist’s shaded outdoor dining area, and Endalk continued scouting for bull-jumps.  But he returned in the late afternoon announcing defeat. He suggested we spend the rest of the day and evening resting, in preparation for our excursion to the Karo tribe in the morning.

For us, the best part of resting at the Turumi Tourist was spotting a tall young lonely- looking guy in the dining room whom I took to be Japanese.  We invited him to join us and found he was in fact Korean, with a sketchy command of English, a sweet personality, and an amazing itinerary: Seoul, Dubai, Cape Town, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Cairo, Jordan, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and India. Once he got back to Seoul he would be starting his university studies as a fashion major, he told us.

One section of our hotel room's ceiling. Other panels had holes knocked in them.

Steve and I returned to our room, where the bed linens looked clean enough and the mosquito nets were intact.  But that’s about the only nice thing I can say about this decrepit hovel, with its wasp nests, huge holes in the window screens and drop-ceiling tiles (revealing the dark creepy crawl space above us). Hip-hop and Afropop blared outside at least to midnight. The most dismal part became clear the next morning, when we found the solitary toilet with a commode to be locked. S and I trooped out in back past a tree where some men were butchering a goat. We used the squat toilet then tried to wash our hands, first from a water jug (empty) and then from the tap next to the locked commode (dry).

It didn’t help when Endalk arrived and got us into our room-to-be; it was even worse than the old one: one double bed instead of two, still no toilet, and with it’s shower located right next to the bed.  Some of my thoughts on the ride to the Karo were glum.

That trip took two and a half hours over boulder-choked ravines, powder-fine sand washes, and bone-jarring gravel beds. It wasn’t all bad; the road cut through virginal looking savannah (populated by cows instead of lions and elephants). We passed sections studded with phallic termite towers for as far as we could see, and we admired flocks of beautiful storks.

Moreover, when we arrived at the Karo village, my doubts about whether the ride would be worth it vanished. Most endangered of all the OV tribes, the Karo have been ravaged by malaria and sleeping sickness.  But their sense of style remains intact. Some of the topless young women sported yellow flowers stuck into their lips and noses.  One beauty adorned her shaved head with a pair of corn ears. The Karo are famous for the elaborate designs they paint on their bodies, but we’d read nothing about the rifles carried by all the men. Endalk said a rite of passage for boys in this tribe was to make the 4-5 day trek to Southern Sudan, along with a couple of cows to be traded for a weapon. Maybe part of this is machismo but Endalk also pointed out a large number of animals watering in the grand winding Omo River at the base of the cliffs on which the Karo village sits. He said the shepherds routinely fire a couple of rounds into the water, to scare off any crocs with a taste for boeuf tartare.

A tall sturdy man led us past one half-naked woman sorting sorghum seeds from their chaff and another grinding them on the African version of a metate, past crowing roosters and growling dogs and children imploring us to take their pictures.  I wondered about the single lower central incisor that was missing from our village guide’s mouth; most of the rest of his teeth looked so white and strong, and clearly this was not the land of refined sugars. As if reading my thoughts, Endalk said that removing a lower front tooth was another rite of passage for young men. The Karo believed that whenever misfortune befell them, they could use that small passage to take water into their mouths. The act of savoring it, drop by drop, would help distract them from whatever bad thing had happened.

That image returned to me several times after we returned the way we’d come and Endalk dropped us off for lunch at the Turmi Lodge, by most reports one of the two best hotels  in town. The gardens were quiet and pretty, the patio cool, and as we tucked into chicken noodle soup and beef goulash, Steve and I had the same idea. He slipped off to reception and soon returned with a thumb’s up: they did indeed have a room for the night for us ($75, including a breakfast buffet). We called Endalk and Sharom, who returned with all our luggage. 

I took TWO hot showers over the next few hours in our spotless, newly constructed room. The night was deeply silent when we slipped between the crisp clean sheets. Several times I pointed out to Steve that I was sipping it all through a newly created conceptual gap in my teeth.

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