Last fall I had the chance to fulfill my one of my long-held dreams to visit the Omo valley and spend time with its remaining tribes. The Omo valley is in the Southern part of Ethiopia and the lack of roads and infrastructure in the area makes it very difficult to reach and to explore. Staying at two different camps over two weeks, seven of us were able to meet with four of the sixteen or so different tribal groups found in the region. We spent time with members of the Surma (also called Suri) tribe, the Kara (Karo) tribe, and their archenemies the Nyagatom and finally we had a brief but colorful encounter with the Hamar, one of the largest tribal groups in the area. Two weeks was obviously not enough time to understand the richness of these vanishing cultures, but I got a few insights and a few photos that I thought were worth sharing.
Having been isolated from the outside world, the Omo tribes have adopted a number of unique rituals and practices. But before I get to that, one of the most jarring things I faced when I arrived is the fact that, as some of you may know, Omo tribesmen have adopted the practice of demanding money for “each” picture taken (which can obviously be tricky with a digital camera). This is obviously not a practice appreciated by travel photographers and not one that I had participated in before, at least not explicitly.
When I heard about this initially I envisioned a situation similar to what I have seen in many other less developed countries namely, a few “model-wannabes” asking for money who can easily (well sometimes not so easily) be avoided and then access to the real locals who would not mind me taking pictures of their daily activities. In fact, this is the way it was in other areas of Ethiopia that I visited. But for some reasons that are still unclear to me, the Omo people take this money/photo exchange very seriously (even the remote tribes do, including some of the ones we met who see very few travelers.) There is a set price: 5 birr –about 30 cents- for an adult, 2 birr for a child. Thank goodness babies are free otherwise I would be broke. There is also an elaborate exchange procedure, including the fact that everyone wants to be paid in birr notes even if birr coins are now available. So for two weeks, we were walking around feeling rich with large wads of birr.
Everyone is in on the deal and if you take a photo of someone’s back without them noticing you can be sure that he or she will be told that you did so and that payment will be claimed. And since most tribesmen walk around with an AK-47 on their shoulders, I decided it would be unwise to object to this policy.
As expected, children were showing their interest in having us taking their pictures, but surprisingly adults were not. If we wanted to take a picture of someone we had to “ask permission” and then pay. When we were invited to events such as dances, our guide would pay to compensate for each of us being there. So for the sake of full disclosure, I guess it is fair to say that most of these tribe people were “paid” for allowing me to photograph them.
Has this practice impacted my photography? I am sure it has. But I realized that what was the most problematic was not the money per se, as it was very little money for us, and I was more than happy to make some small contribution to their economic welfare. And strangely, it sometimes felt that the money transaction was just a way for them to get an acknowledgment that we value their pictures. The worry, of course, is that this commercial exchange might change the behavior of the locals; that they would end up posing or acting as they thought I wanted them to act instead of just being themselves. Upon reflection and looking at my photos, I felt that this may have been the case with body painting where some youngsters were clearly trying to outdo one another. But overall, I had the impression that for the most part, the Omo tribe people just did not know how to be anything else other than themselves. Of course, I cannot know for sure, I wish I had been there longer to be able to confirm that impression. And I am not saying that this is a practice that I favor, far from that. But I felt that after I had overcome my discomfort with the process, I was able to capture some real moments. Well, I hope I did.
Some of the rituals and practices adopted by the various tribes are quite intriguing to the modern world like the cattle-jumping initiation rite in which young men run along the backs of cattle to prove they are ready to marry. Others are shocking to us such as women asking to be whipped until they bleed as a sign of commitment to a relative. And there are some practices that challenge all we believe in. For example, the Kara and Hamar tribes have a tradition of practicing what they called “mingi”. This requires the tribe members to kill a child who is born out of wedlock or with a birth defect as a way to control bad luck (mingi) associated with such a birth. Luckily, mingi and other “harmful traditional practices” are now banned by the Ethiopian government, though as is often the case, such bans are not easy to implement. Luckily also, a wonderful organization, The Omo Child (www.omochild.org), is trying to rescue and take care of these children before the worst happens.
I thought the best way to illustrate the similarities and differences between the four tribes we visited was to present them one at a time. I will discuss each one of them in the order in which I visited them. In this post, I’ll talk about my experience with the Surma while subsequent posts will cover the remaining tribes (so stay tuned if you are interested). I hope these comments provide some useful background to help you understand what you are seeing in the images that follow.
If you meet the Surma, few things will stay with you (well they sure stayed with me). Married Surma women wear lip-plates, at least they are expected to wear them when strangers are around. These plates are thought of being a symbol of beauty, and according to some, the size of the lip plate may also be a function of the price (in cattle) the husband paid for his bride. The lip plate is considered another of the “harmful ritual practices” the government has banned. Surma women also stretch their ears using clay plates similar to those used to stretch the lip. They also often use what looks like giant wood plugs that they paint or decorate (and sometimes anything else that is available such as small plastic cups.)
As we know from the beautiful work of Hans Silvester among others, the Surma enjoy decorating themselves. They use colors from nature (chalk, charcoal, ochre, and red clay) and paint their face or body in quite intricate ways. They also started using flowers, fruits, leaves, and whatever else they think will improve their appearance or catch attention. Surma people also beautify themselves, in their eyes, by practicing scarification. To do so, they use a razor blade to cut the skin and an acacia thorn to create bumpy scars to form simple or elaborate designs.
The lives of the Surma tribesmen revolve around cattle. Cows (and goats) are some of the most prized possessions, and men spent a lot of time with them. Most young boys will spend extended time away from the village caring for the cattle so that they develop the necessary skills and knowledge to tend them. The cows are very rarely killed but young cattlemen drink cow’s blood to get stronger. As a couple of the photos show, an arrow is used to pierce a vein, and the blood is drunk quickly before it coagulates, either directly from the cow or from a calabash.
Finally, the Surma have their own dance rituals. The one we witnessed involved a large group of people dancing in a large circle. From time to time, two men or a man and a woman would venture to dance in the middle of the circle. Surprisingly, guns were shot repeatedly during this dance, perhaps because the dance was in honor of someone who had recently died.
Meet the Surma.