Addis Ababa airport. As for a farewell, Africa has given me a treat of what the negative stereotypes about her hold in store: cancelled flights, bad service delivery, lack of water, and now quite some chaos at the airport. I feel obliged to add: obstacles like this amassed, that’s new to me here. My Africa year up to here, the last few days, has been mostly smooth, so much so that I can wholeheartedly dismiss the negative stereotypes as prejudices. That, however, doesn’t mean negatives don’t occur. They are just not as “typical” as the prejudices would have them. So here I go, through a row of obstacles on my way out.
What happens? A few young boys take up some rods, smoothen them (I guess so they don’t break), and then whip across the arms or the back of women, preferably in such a way that the skin breaks, leaving a bloody streak that will turn into a scar. It’s referred to as “culture” (here Banna, and likewise Hamer), and leaves the woman proud. Maybe for her capacity of endurance (as if they didn’t show it every day), her sacrifice for “culture”, and so on. After careful consideration I still see in it a way of making women obedient, and training young boys in the “art” of domestic violence, or so. Explain it in whichever way you like, since the ritual has no male equivalent (just as female genital mutilation has no real male equivalent) I find it not acceptable.
The Daasanach live on both sides of the Ethiopian-Kenyan border. If they want to cross into Kenya, the removed lower front teeth are their passport. I crossed the Omo at Omorate with my guide Gabriel and his friend to reach the nearest village just before sunset, and it was a very enjoyable visit. No other tourists, the kids enjoyed my mbira again, and since I handed my camera to Gabriel’s friend I could freely move about and people cared less about me. Less posing as well. Things must have been similar to the Mursi situation until a while ago, but now the arrangement is such that visitors pay a flatrate of 200 Birr (ca $7.50) to take pics. The German lawyer who gave me a lift the next day had been to the very same village in the morning, in a crowd of tourists. He said that as much as he loves photography, he found the village arranged in such a way that half-naked women were sat outside their huts staring into the distance apathetically, and he refrained from taking any pictures at all. My experience was totally different. I was able to interact with the people to a degree, and I am very grateful to Gabriel’s friend for the pics he took – he’s a natural photographer, I must say. And I find the Dassenach are amongst the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen.
Turmi is primarily a crossroad. A big, dusty roundabout connects Ethiopia’s south-western corner with the rest of the country. While the roads coming in from the north, east and west are dust tracks, the one leading further south to Omorate becomes a perfect tarmac road some five kilometres out of town.
Thursday is market day in Keyafer, and what a relief! It is a much more natural environment than is the encounter of tourists and the Mursi in the few villages where they meet. Keyafer market is lively, colourful and very natural, and a great opportunity to see openly tribal folk interact with town’s people and so on. I loved walking around, buying a few things, and eventually I pulled out my mbira and had a lot of fun with a bunch of kids.
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.
Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region along with the area around Lake Turkana in northern Keny arguably is one of the candidates for the cradle of humankind, as some major discoveries that have been made here suggest. Since it is also a region with an incredible diversity in tribal cultures, it has been referred to as a (live) museum of human cultures. I found traveling here truly exciting, though not free from major challenges. I don’t mean the usual challenges of logistics, food and health or such like, even though they are more pronounced here. Rather, traveling here has exposed me to significant questions concerning the role of tourism, and tourist-tribe members interaction in a region where ritual infanticide and the ritual whipping of women is practiced. I have written about this in a separate post. So here’s a first glance only.
Addis Ababa and I may have started off on the wrong foot, but let me exercise some control over my thinking, and not be too negative. My experience is tainted through the one and only really negative encounter I’ve had on this journey with a local person. Unfortunately, Addis does not seem to have the charm that comes with age-old historical sites (it’s a rather young creation in this very old country) or such architectural attractions that could have made up for my frustration. Having said that, Addis Ababa’s orthodox churches and their communities of worshippers are something else, and truly stunning, and the spirit of one of the oldest Christian communities on earth makes itself felt. The churches, although rather new, are impressive enough, yet much of the town’s architecture reminded me of rather bleak socialist housing projects. Indeed, I recalled how back in my school days we collected money for socialist Ethiopia, under Mengistu it must have been. Except for some encounters with kids and some drunkards, people didn’t really compensate the absence of charm and joy which I had experienced elsewhere, notably in Dar es-Salaam. It actually started with a rather unfriendly immigration procedure (well, that’s not unheard of elsewhere), and then there was this guy …
My heart is heavy already as I will be leaving the southern hemisphere tomorrow. The last leg of my journey, Nairobi to Addis Ababa, from where I shall explore northern Ethiopia for a few days. And yes I’m proud – just over 6 weeks from Jo’burg to Mombasa by bus, matatu and train, then a flight to Nairobi.