There’s a famous photograph that has become emblematic of the impact tourism is having on the delicate ecosystem of Antarctica. It shows a mob of photographers snapping away at a lone penguin, while in the background their cruise-ship looms as huge as an iceberg. Of course, the tourists have positioned themselves to keep other humans safely out of shot; their pictures will show only the penguin, majestically standing alone in a seemingly untouched wilderness.
This is the image I had in mind when I pictured Ethiopia’s South Omo valley. This vast arid hinterland stretching to the Kenyan border is home to some of the most remote and ‘exotic’ tribes in Africa, an anthropologist’s dream of distinctive ethno-linguistic groups whose rituals, religions and ways of life have stayed largely unchanged for centuries. This is the land of the Mursi, whose women wear clay lip-plates 15cm in diameter; the Hamer, whose traditions include the ritualistic whipping of girls and naked warriors leaping over bulls; and around 20 other tribes who, together, seem to fulfil an enduring Western stereotype of what the ‘real’ Africa should be. Guidebooks are fond of describing it as a ‘living museum,’ and, as new roads are cut through the region, cultural tourism is catching on in a big way.
I had deep reservations about going to South Omo. Most visitors come in hired 4X4s that cost a couple of hundred pounds a day, shuttled from one village to another to photograph their inhabitants in convoy. I imagined cowed tribal people lined up obediently outside their huts, posing in colourful beads and jewellery put on especially for the occasion, and removed as soon as the dust had settled from the last departing Land Cruiser. I’d even heard stories of less ‘photogenic’ tribes adopting the costumes of their neighbours in the hope of attracting photographs; tourists pay 2 birr (about 10 pence) per snap. If nothing else, I expected the tribes would be patronised or humiliated by this contact with wealthy foreigners. It sounded like a human zoo.
This, it turned out, was not the whole truth. While there is definitely something uncomfortable about the sight of an overweight Westerner looming over an African child with a telephoto lens, I failed to take into account the dignity of the people involved. In fact, I committed the mistake I imagined the tourists would be making: I underestimated the tribal peoples’ humanity.
My first sight of tourists in South Omo came at the weekly market in Turmi, an important centre for the Hamer tribe. (I didn’t hire a 4X4 to get there, but found a guide who showed me how to make use of the Isuzu trucks that carry supplies between the larger villages; a question of luck, like all hitchhiking, but far cheaper and somehow less intrusive.) A group of elderly Japanese, led by a Japanese tour guide waving the obligatory flag, climbed from a line of dusty vehicles and mingled with the crowd. Though so different physically – the Hamer are particularly dark-skinned, while some of the tourists were so pale they had to wrap themselves up like mummies, with only their sunglasses poking through – it wasn’t such a clash of worlds as I might have thought. The most striking thing was that the Hamer didn’t allow the arrival of foreigners to disrupt them in any way from what they had come here to do. Yes, they posed for photos when asked, but clearly saw it as a windfall, a chance to make a bit of easy cash that didn’t distract them very long from their real business. Some of the children, quickly catching on, did ask to have their pictures taken, but this was simply kids being kids. The presence of a Japanese tour group, far from being a major event, only seemed of marginal interest.
Markets like the one at Turmi attract people from many miles around – some walk a couple of days to get there – and form a vital meeting point for scattered Hamer groups. It’s a place where women catch up with friends and relatives, and elders sit in the shade of acacia trees to discuss births, deaths, cattle, the weather, and feuds with other tribes. In this atmosphere camera-waving tourists, as alien as they may be, are just another group of visitors coming to the market. They may have travelled further to get there, and have come not to trade cows or tobacco but to give money in exchange for photographs, but the market is so important to the tribes I imagine they fully understand why foreigners want to come too.
The other immediately obvious point was that the Hamer, in their beaded jewellery, body adornments, ornate hairstyles, and goat-skin skirts fringed with caori shells, were not dressing up this way for the tourists. The heavy necklaces worn by the women signify marriage, like a wedding ring; the elaborate haircuts of the men – shaved to the crown and plastered down in a clay-hardened bun at the back of the head – show the man is a warrior; while his multiple earrings represent the dangerous animals he’s killed, or the lives he’s taken in battle with other tribes. The costumes they wear are not frivolous, but imbued with deep layers of meaning, intended to convey information about each individual’s status. They don’t decorate their bodies for outsiders, but for themselves, as they’ve always done.
My second sight of tourists in South Omo was unfortunately less tasteful. It occurred at a Hamer bull-jumping ceremony, announced at the market by a procession of women blowing horns. These ceremonies take place when a man is eligible to be married; in order to prove his worth, he must leap naked from back to back over a line of standing bulls, repeating the process again and again until the tribe is satisfied of his courage. A prominent feature of the event is the ritual whipping of girls; all Hamer women bear fierce scars, at first a very disturbing sight, across their lower backs and their bellies.
Like many traditions we don’t understand, this whipping initially seems inexplicable. To Westerners, it may appear an example of savage chauvinism; the normally sober Bradt travel guide describes it as ‘a frenzied spree of institutionalised violence, repeatedly beating the backs of all their female relatives with sticks until the screaming women are left battered, bleeding and scarred for life.’ From what I saw, this lurid description is highly misleading. Yes, the women are scarred for life, but there was nothing frenzied about it, and the women were not screaming; that would bring great shame. They presented the sticks to the men themselves, pushing past one another impatiently for their turn at being beaten, and received the blows with expressions of wild delight. They elect to be whipped for the same reason the men elect to leap over bulls: to demonstrate their physical strength, and their identity as Hamer. More than once I saw a woman angrily arguing with a man who only gave her a few half-hearted blows; he’d judged she’d had enough, and she was demanding more. Being whipped by a man is not a sign these women are weak, but that they are as strong as the men themselves.
The bull-jump is the most important event in Hamer ritual life, and I was lucky to be there when one happened. I was also privileged that the tribe allowed me to attend (for a small fee, which would help the jumper with preparations for his marriage). This is like us allowing curious spectators to come and photograph our wedding or other landmark events of our lives. There were a handful of tourists there, but understandably, as at the market, the foreigners were of much less interest than the ceremony itself. I didn’t feel my presence was intrusive, as I was clearly there only at the tolerance of the tribe, most of whom took little notice of a few white people on the fringes.
And then it happened. A fleet of 4X4s roared up in a cloud of dust, and disgorged the crudest group of tourists I’ve ever seen. They were the sum of the very worst, most vulgar stereotypes of tourists that can be imagined. It was like something from a bad sketch show. The first thing I saw was one obese man, with white socks pulled up to his knees, sticking a camera in an old man’s face and yelling ‘Hello, photo!’ Then there was the six-foot blonde in the skimpy red vest and tiny denim shorts, whose appearance caused hilarity amongst the Hamer women. Then there was the man aiming a camera as big as a telescope at a woman breast-feeding her baby. While the Japanese group had been quiet and respectful, somehow managing to be subtle even when wielding their technology (it seems hard to escape tourist stereotypes here), these newcomers were crass, offensive, and apparently with absolutely no idea of how they might be perceived. I even saw one shouting at a Hamer man to move out of his shot. (To his credit, the man didn’t move, and gave the photographer a look which shifted him pretty quickly.) The scene at the bull-jump was everything I’d feared South Omo would be, an example of tourism at its worst.
But despite all this, the tribal people retained their strength and dignity. It was the tourists, and not their subjects, who were humiliated. The Hamer, like South Omo’s other tribes, are deeply proud and resilient people, who hold on to their traditions not for the sake of a photo shoot, but because their traditions are what makes them different from everyone else. I imagined cartoon tribal life; it turned out to be cartoon tourism. The tribes were the only real thing.
In the future, of course, this may change. Tourism is still relatively new here, and has yet to make significant inroads into the culture of the region. If it is handled in the right way, the tourist trade could bring benefits, serving as a reminder to the tribes that their way of life is valued by outsiders, as well as providing an alternative income to hunting and cattle herding. But if the region is inundated with many more tourists like the ones I saw, swaggeringly arrogant and insensitive towards the people they visit, the character of this relationship might change. At the moment accommodation is basic (roach hotels and bucket showers) and the roads are still only half built. The addition of a few tourist-class hotels could possibly tip the balance, and the kids cheekily demanding photos might be portents of a greedier, less respectful exchange between two cultures.