Circa 7,500 strong, the Mursi are amongst the most iconic African tribes, and famous especially for the ceramic plates (some) women wear in their lower lips. To this day they live in fairly remote areas some two hours across dust track from Jinka, the southernmost town that has an ATM in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region.
Their villages can be reached from Jinka. It’s a two-hour ride along a dust track into the bush (and, if it were allowed, to a secluded sugar factory that not even your average Ethiopian is allowed near).
If one had the chance to observe normal village life it would probably look like this – women with babies on their backs and at their hands doing chores, grinding sorghum, while the men are out looking after the cattle. After all, they are pastoralists, and although climate change as well as political changes have affected the size of their land and thus the size of their herds, they are still rich in cattle. Do not ever run over one of their cows. If one of their men see you, he will sure have an AK47 and go for you. Hence, you are only allowed a visit in the company of an armed guard. One can sense their aggressiveness, even though I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt in the face of their daily confrontation with what must look completely silly tourists. I wonder what it would be like to go to one of the truly remote villages?! Though I am not sure I even want to try. When they feel disturbed, as happened when the government decided to build a road (i.e. have a Chinese contractor build the road), a Chinese worker got shot. When Mursi men decide to go to town, the place themselves in the middle of the road (a dust track here), threateningly with their sticks in their hands, and each truck driver is well advised to stop and let them jump in the truck bed.
Once the word spreads that the tourists have arrived (as they do every day, in droves), the ladies and the men gear up, and they know exactly what tourists want to see – and take pictures of, 5 Birr (ca 20 cents) a piece. They fetch their ceremonial head gear, bring in pretty girls, and so on … you get the picture (pun intended). There is a lot of fightig to get into one’s picture, and damn it, they are cheeky trying to squeeze in another girl or kid to extort more money. Make no mistake about it, it’s 5 Birr per visible person. Many of them have a good sense of how a camera works, they know shutter sounds and zoom lenses and so on. For one thing is for sure: this is big business. Considering the number of cars that rolled in after we left after our very early start, this village must make around $100 a day or so. My estimate. With which money they buy bullets and booze mostly. One may frown upon this, and yes, walking around the village is anything but Romantic, and yet if it weren’t for the tourists the government, at least previous governments, would have done short shrift with the Mursi and the other tribes here. I suppose they would have been relocated, forced into schools and so on. That’s the death of their culture, for better for worse.
It is virtually impossible to get a “natural” picture, and oftentimes a person is rather grim looking, which I assume, is because they are concerned to make the most of the situation, i.e. in terms of cash. However, I managed to introduce my mbira as a prop, and as some of the Mursi tried it out, I could take a few shots that are more lively and “natural” than any of the others. For instance that lady with a baby and an AK47 – it’s such an iconic picture, though I wonder if the pose is of her own making, or if someone once suggested it?
We stayed roughly an hour, and when we left a lot of 4x4s came along, with perhaps 20 or more people, and I knew that village would have more tourists than villagers in it. Along the track people would pose for pictures every few kilometres, and I reckon posing for pics would be much more profitable than herding cattle, if the Mursi had a concept of money and business. I am told they don’t have it just yet.