Mursi village - Day 4 of 10 - Omo Valley trip

Trip Start Jun 24, 2005
Trip End Nov 01, 2005

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Thursday, October 6, 2005

The next 3 nights we'll be camping (incl cooking our own meals) so this morning we thought we'd buy some fresh vegetables (anything alive really) to complement our never-ending pasta dinners.

Had no luck at all (a whole town with no vegetables!) but a young boy helps us buy eggs at "local price" of 3 Birr for 2 eggs. Find out later from our driver that the local price is 1 Birr for 3 eggs. Jinka people seem totally geared to extract the maximum possible Birr from tourists' wallets. (Just like Las Vegas I suppose.)

We leave to visit the Mursi tribe, famous for their aggression and their women who wear clay plates in their bottom lip. We pick up an elderly man as a guide to accompany us.

This guide speaks only the Mursi language, and Oromo the common language used in south Ethiopia. The plan is if we have a question we can ask Fuad, (he speaks English, Amharic and Oromo) who would translate from English to Oromo and the guide can then translate into the Mursi language. But at the village the two men don't stay together so we are limited to sign language to communicate.

We drive 3 hours over very rough roads to the Mursi village. Fuad says there are about 3,000 Mursi people but apparently nearly all the tourists drive to this one small village nearest the road. This has turned this village into a frenzy of villagers who make their living posing for photos and earning 1-2 Birr per shot. Along the road we see several Mursi people wanting to pose [eg small boy painted in tribal colours standing in tree with gorgeous mountain view as a backdrop; a man with yellow fruit on his head and penis]

At the village the pandemonium commences. Individuals and full families are poised in photogenic poses and accoutrement. One entire family of 7 stands in a row, each with basket on head ready to be snapped. Grannies poke two fingers in our faces asking "2 Birr, 2 Birr". About 50% of girls have the plated lower lip. Some old ladies have healed but scarred lower lips where they previously wore plates. Some have the bottom lip missing completely.

The village is about 15 huts. Cow dung everywhere. I see one woman making flour at her hut and go to her. She is grinding sorghum using two flat stones, a process we see in nearly all the tribes we visit. She lets me have a try doing the grinding. I ask (sign language) if we can visit her house. We enter via a small 'mousehole' entrance that we crawl through on hands and knees. Inside is much more rudimentary than yesterday's tribe. A small fire has a clay pot boiling water. She shows us that she puts the flour into the water and eats it ... porridge, we assume. There is a corked gourd by the wall. We ask what's in it. She pours out a little milk to show us. There's only one 'modern' item in the whole house, a plastic water bottle hung high on the hut's centre pole. There's a cow skin on the floor to sleep on.

Is this all real? Contrived? Hard to know. I give her 5 Birr and she asks for 30. She accepts 10 but not happily.

Outside is an elderly woman who I understand to be our hostess's mother. I figure I'll give her a bar of soap as a gift and then the whole family can use it. But after giving it to her our hostess makes it clear she's the mother of the next-hut-neighbour and the hostess wants a bar too. hard to get this right and do what's fair for everyone!

We walk to the furthest section of the village hoping the pushiest/meanest villagers are working the front. This section has some plastic utensils and buckets etc hanging around. The first non-natural items we have seen.

I agree with some children to pay them 1Birr each for photos but after snapping a photo they demand 2 Birr. They angrily throw the 1 Birr note I give them on the ground. I leave it there and we move back near the 'guide' assuming that defusing these disputes is one reason he is needed along on these visits.

I buy a lip plate from a girl for 5 Birr.

There are many different views on how to interact with the tribal people. Ideally I want the visits to be as natural as possible but, of course, I understand we are hardly the first tourists to visit and the tribal people have rightly come to expect tourists will pay for the hospitality given them. But my view is this should not consist of just throwing money at them (particularly the pushiest ones who practically trample their fellow tribespeople to get to the tourists first).
I set out to consciously NOT photograph any girls with cut lips because I feel photographing this will causes families to continue to cut young girls' lips so the tourists will want to photograph them. But virtually no other tourists I met agreed with me and I took a few photos of lip-plated girls so I didn't seem too stubborn. But I stick with my view: Photographing requires payment, so if you photograph a practice that you find objectionable (and I think lip-plating is one the world can do without) you are teaching them that this practice generates income and you therefore encourage it to continue. [End of Ray's soapbox diatribe]

We leave the village for Mago National Park to camp for the night. We stop at the road crossing of the Mago River to eat our sandwiches. Two Mursi girls and one young man walk up to visit. Gary buys another lip plate for 5 Birr.

This is very typical of our entire road trip. No matter where we stop, within a few minutes people seem to appear from nowhere. I take it this is because the country is very, very populous and the people simply live out of sight of the road (because they are farmers/hunters?). If you live in a remote place and a car full of tourists stops you go have a chat. These roadside visits were some of the best we had.

The Mago National Park campsite is shady and enjoyable. Equipment from our tour company is pretty broken down but we're fairly experienced backpackers and it is all tolerable (no choice at this point, we've made our bed...). We setup camp, bathe in the Mago River, cook the spaghetti for dinner that we bought in Addis.

Today we have seen gelada baboons, black and white monkeys with long fluffy white tails, dik-dik (cuuute tiny little deer about knee high), elephant dung (guide says about 100 elephants live in Omo Valley), hundreds of birds and more grey squirrels. Some taller trees are absolutely covered in hanging, pendulous bird nests. Easy to see them because the trees are not lush or leafy. Some trees have 20+ nests.

Some baboons approach, probably to see if we will feed them. We have a look but then frighten them away so they don't take our food or gear.

Fuad engages a 'guard' who will spend the night at the camp to ensure the animals (and people??) don't bother us. Fuad assures us this is a very safe place but the guard does have a rifle.

About 1 a.m. we start hearing animal grunting noises and assume it is the baboons. The guard builds up the fire which reassures us he is on duty. This also explains the streams of water I've heard falling from the trees (monkey urine). Our tent had also been christened by some falling monkey poo the day before which we took to be a good omen.
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Where I stayed
Mago National Park Campsite
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