Until recently the Omo Valley has been inaccessible to all but the most determined and wealthy of travellers. It is considered one of the world’s last frontiers. However, a hydroelectric dam, a sugar plantation, and rumours of oil in the hills have opened up the area to outsiders in the last few years, and with new asphalt roads giving easy access to the diverse array of local tribes, tourism here is no longer for just the superrich or super-intrepid.
The clay lip plates worn by the women of the Mursi tribe are probably the most iconic images from the Omo Valley. Contact was only made with these people in the 1930s and as such most of their ancient way of life is still intact. In contrast to, say, the hospitable Bana tribe (see previous post), the Mursi are not sociable with other groups, do not attend markets, and are often rallying to war with other tribes. Our guide made this very clear as we drove to one of their villages. This was going to be a quick visit: get out of the vehicle, look around the village, take some photos and leave. I didn’t ask why an armed park ranger came with us.
The whole visit couldn’t have lasted more than half an hour. After quietly looking around their village, nodding to the residents as they began their days and admiring the women’s famous lip plates, the men’s traditional body paints and their ubiquitous AK-47s, a few of the tribeswomen insisted that I take some photos. Initially hesitant, I obliged, quickly understanding that they were well-acquainted with tourists, as they demanded 5 Birr (less than twenty pence) per shot. A few of the others in our group took some tentative shots for a few Birr too. However, as we took more shots, more money was demanded by men, women and children, until it became an unruly photo frenzy and we were cleaned out of small change. This didn’t stop the Mursi; they continued badgering us with increasing aggression (their warlike reputation transmogrified to the realities of the tourist trade) to keep taking more photos in exchange for a burgeoning number of Birr. The only respite from the demanding mob was back on the minivan where I waited behind their taps on the windshield until we skidded away.
Was this an enriching cultural experience or a “human zoo”? I’m honestly not too sure. Yes, there is a dehumanising element to this type of tourism. However, it’s perhaps naive to think that tribes like this will be able to continue in isolation as they have done for thousands of years without interference from the outside world. If handled sensitively I’m sure tourism could be an incentive to keep many of these traditions alive, especially if the oil industry starts offering jobs to the future generations. It’s a delicate balance between respecting a tribe’s past as well as their own choices for the future – one that will need to be handled with care. For myself, I feel privileged to have been able to spend a few days in the Omo Valley and witness these tribes as they have been for millennia, however long this may last. Did my visit degrade their culture? I don’t know.