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Of Rivers and Rituals

Touring Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, with a sustainable travel outfitter.

By Andrew McCarthy

“Your George W. Bush came here two years ago and not a person recognized him.”

“No one?”

“No one knew who he was.”

“Would they have known Nelson Mandela?”

“No. No one here would have seen TV. No one here thinks beyond Omo.”

I was speaking with Lale Biwa, a member of the Karo people, in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. We were surrounded by low, circular huts made from sticks, with pitched grass roofs, in his home village of Dus, on the banks of the Omo River. A woman, heavily adorned in beads and bracelets, ground sorghum on a large stone in the nearby shade. Men, some carrying AK-47s, sat in clusters. Small naked children scampered past. Goats and cattle roamed freely on the dusty flood plain. There was no electricity, no running water, no cars. Mr. Biwam, who guesses his age to be “about 40,” looked around. “It is a good place,” he said. “The people are true.”

I had come to the Omo Valley with the innovative tourism entrepreneur Will Jones to get a view into the lives of some of Africa’s most traditional tribes. “I’m particularly interested in the Omo,” Mr. Jones told me. “It’s an at-risk ecosystem, with at-risk communities. But it is still a very wild place.” Mr. Jones was born in Nigeria of English parents, raised in East Africa and educated in England. “When it came time to put on a suit and go into town,” he said, “I came back to Africa.”

Mr. Jones, 45, has been creating customized tours to the continent for more than 20 years. Wild Philanthropy is his latest venture — an enterprise designed to build sustainable tourism with a mutually beneficial exchange between visitors and the people and land they visit. Mr. Jones also operates the only permanent tented camp in the Omo Valley, not far from Mr. Biwa’s village.

This southwestern corner of Ethiopia is home to seven primary tribes who coexist with varying degrees of peace. The land is largely dry savanna, with the Omo River cutting a nearly 475-mile-long swath down to Lake Turkana on the Kenya border. The discovery of human remains dating back nearly 2.5 million years prompted Unesco to dub the Lower Valley a World Heritage site in 1980.

But today the Omo is a region on the precipice. The Ethiopian government has recently completed the third of five proposed dams upriver. The dams threaten to alter the lives of the communities that have inhabited this valley for millennium and depend on the river’s moods for survival.

“This was the second year in a row that the flood crop failed,” Mr. Jones told me. “It is the only time anyone can remember that the river never rose.”

The area has also fallen victim to hit-and-run tourism — people driving down from Addis Ababa, storming into villages, cameras blazing, then leaving in a cloud of dust. I encountered one such scrum at a local festival. Witnessing the feverish pursuit for documentation of “otherness” reflected back at me my own motives for being there. It is an issue every traveler to remote or indigenous regions needs to reconcile.

“There is a circuit of exploitation here,” Mr. Jones told me. “It’s one of the reasons we cultivate relationships with the local people, trading with them, trying to create a mutually beneficial exchange. And it’s why we’re primarily using the river as our road. The river allows us access to villages inaccessible any other way.” In the six days we spent on the river we saw one other motorized boat — carrying supplies for an NGO downriver.

With Mr. Biwa as our guide, we headed to a small village inhabited by the Hamar people. The Hamar, numbering 45,000 throughout the valley, are known to be pastoralists. The village was overflowing with cattle. As in Dus, the dwellings were simple, built of sticks and grass, and well ordered. Young men tended cattle while a woman skinned and butchered a goat with the help of her toddler, who hung pieces of the animal on a fence beside an AK-47 and a belt of ammo.

“The AK-47 has replaced the spear,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Biwa nodded. “As long as you have AK, you are respected,” he said. “Your family feels safe and proud. Someone with no AK, people look down on them. If you do not have AK your family will go to someone who does.”

They were American-made, I was told, gathered during the war in neighboring Sudan.

But they are not cheap,” Mr. Biwa said.

“How much do they cost?” I asked.

“Five cows,” he said.

Beside firearms, I witnessed few other accommodations to the contemporary world in the Omo. Yet for a place so far off the grid, news traveled fast throughout the valley. While in the Hamar village we heard word of a nearby bull-jumping ceremony. The bull jump is a ritual initiation to manhood for both the Hamar and Karo communities. We headed east.

AT THE END of a long, deeply rutted road we came upon a dusty village in the midst of a celebration. Old men and women gathered in the shade. Young men painted their faces red and white. Young women were draped in skirts and wore large bells wrapped around their calves. Their hair was ornately done in rings caked with ochre-colored mud. Each carried a small horn and blew it incessantly.

When one young woman turned away from me I noticed fresh welts on her bare back, dripping blood; she seemed unaware and continued to dance. Then I saw her approach a young man, stand close in front of him, and blow her horn in his face. She began to jump up and down, her bells clanging, her horn blaring. The young man bent to the ground and picked up a long switch and raised it over his head. The woman blew her horn more insistently, then suddenly stopped. She stared at the young man. He struck her with the whip, which snapped around her body and lashed across her back with a sharp cracking sound. She did not flinch. She lifted her horn, blew it in his face and danced away, fresh blood rising on her back. The same performance was repeated again and again by many of the young women. Their backs were covered in old scars and new welts, yet none of them displayed any outward signs of pain.

As the sun was setting, a dozen bulls were led to a clearing and aligned flank to flank. The women clustered together and began jumping, their bells ringing out, their horns blasting. Others began to chant. Suddenly a naked young man leapt up on the back of the first bull and raced across the spine of each. He jumped down after the last bull, but then he was up again, racing across their backs in the other direction. He repeated the back-and-forth exercise three times. If he fell it would be a disgrace he would carry for life, Mr. Biwa had warned me. But the youth never faltered — the next morning he would awake a man, able to sit among the elders.

The women continued to blow their horns and the celebration continued on into the night. We drove away under a moonless sky, the Southern Cross hanging low, silence filling our car.

THE NEXT MORNING we headed up river to a small village of the Nyangatom people. Relations between Karo and Nyangatom have long been strained. Intertribal conflicts over cattle rustling and grazing land have kept the valley bristling with internal strife for decades, passed down from generation to generation, Mr. Biwa said.

“Where we are going, this was our land until 15 years ago,” Mr. Biwa said as he throttled our engine through the brown water. “The Nyangatom are fierce fighters. They pushed us across the river. Our women tell us we are weak. Not just with their words. They dance — in front of everyone. It is a shame we wear.”

We passed large crocodiles cooling themselves on the muddy banks, their jaws resting open. Black-and-white colobus monkeys leapt from branches of fig trees. A dugout canoe sat unattended on the riverbank. A Goliath heron lumbered into the air.

In time the heavy foliage lining the river thinned, then grew sparse. Thirty-foot cliffs began to rise up and the landscape turned parched. Ahead, on the west bank, bony cattle were drinking from the river, kicking a choking dust high into the sky and across the sun, casting everything in an eerie patina. Atop the cliff, two men stood sentry. One had an AK-47 slung from his shoulder; the other wore what in a more urban setting might have been called a hipster hat. The tribes wore a mishmash of clothing — brightly colored traditional wraps, animal skins and adornments, mixed freely with Chelsea football jerseys, rakish caps and fatigue shorts — creating an all too apt picture of Africa’s disparate influences, all vying for dominance.

The men on the cliff greeted us with stares, and we set out across the arid land. Distant hills of Kenya were visible to the south. Three young girls with water jugs balancing on their heads silently caught up with us. One carried the designs of scarification — small, raised scars created by rubbing charcoal in deliberately administered cuts, causing the skin to welt in intricate patterns. They made this two-mile walk to and from the river twice daily — in Africa carrying water is women’s work.

At the outskirts of the village, a half-dozen expressionless men loitered. The tallest sported a vaguely military-looking beret, worn at a jaunty angle, and an AK-47. The rest held long sticks. Some wore rubber sandals made from scavenged truck ties; the others were barefoot.

Many Nyangatom are seminomadic and this village appeared haphazardly thrown together, as if built in a rush, without care. There was no central meeting area, no sense of organization. Children did not rush to greet us. We huddled with the men in the scant shade of a scraggly date tree. Cigarettes were passed around and smoked.

In time, more than a dozen women emerged from the honeycomb-shaped dwellings that looked as if they could neither contain nor shelter life. One old woman began to chant, then just as suddenly stopped. All wore heavy ropes of beaded necklaces piled high and were wrapped from the waist in once colorful cloth, and several held small children. Fatigue hung in the blistering heat. It would have been difficult to imagine daily life clinging closer to the edge of existence.

“The cradle of mankind is no Garden of Eden,” Mr. Jones said softly as we tracked back cross the barren land to the boat.

Back down the river, the mood was more celebratory — a ceremony was underway in Dus. Two hundred men from Mr. Biwa’s Karo community were gathering in a large semicircle on a bluff above the river. Seating was arranged from the youngest to the most senior elder. I was offered a spot in the dirt much too far along the timeline for my liking.

A bull was being roasted over an open fire in the center of the gathering. Three men with machetes hacked the animal to pieces. Chunks of meat and fat, clinging to large bones, were deposited onto small beds of leaves before the assembled. A part of the animal I couldn’t identify was dropped in front of me. The old man beside me with heavily pierced ears and a pointed stick protruding below his lower lip offered me his knife. He watched as I sliced into the mysterious blob, then grinned as I put it in my mouth. Just beyond the circle a dozen hooded vultures gathered.

When the entire animal had been consumed, one of the elders got up and began to speak.

“He is making a prayer for the river to rise,” Mr. Biwa told me.

“Don’t they know about the dam?” I asked.

“It is a difficult thing to understand,” he said.

The elder kept talking as Mr. Biwa translated. “And now is a prayer for rain. For the women and children. A prayer that all bad feelings be carried off across the river.” After each invocation the assembled replied in a deep, guttural moan.

Finally, the three men who had carved the bull sliced open the only remaining part of the animal. They reached in and produced globs of warm dung and dispersed them. Each man began to spread the excrement over his legs and across his chest in a commitment to protect those they love.

Afterward, I slipped away. But hours later, in the dusk, I walked back alone from our camp and entered the village again. As was usually the case, a small child was the first to greet me. The light was fading quickly, as it does near the Equator. A group of men huddled near the Parliament and Ceremony House, but otherwise the village was quiet. The small boy shadowed me and I began to hear a loose kind of chanting. I turned toward the sound. There was a soft breeze in the gloaming; the heat was finally off the day. Then the unmistakable register of an AK-47 rang out.

I leapt into the air. My head snapped in all directions, looking for the origin of the gunfire. Was I going to be shot as an intruder in the night? My young companion laughed at me. He looked directly up into the sky, indicating the direction of the shot. I tried to smile, and, more slowly now, continued toward the sound of the crowd. My small friend reached up and took my hand. The voices became more insistent. It was nearly dark. Then I heard it again — this time, a rapid barrage of gunfire. Then another. The boy smiled in reassurance. I dropped his hand and beat it back to the campsite.

The next morning, as we loaded the boat for our trip farther downriver, I learned that a village elder had died suddenly and the gunfire had been part of the mourning process.

We set out before the heat of the day. For seven hours heavy bush lined the banks. Occasionally children splashed in the crocodile-infested water and villages were visible through the foliage. Baboons scampered up the steep banks. A rare Pel’s fishing owl swept overhead. At the dire river outpost of Omorate, we had our passports inspected, paid the local graft and carried on.

“It’s a bit of a no man’s land from here to Lake Turkana,” Mr. Jones told me.

The heavy bush yielded to a more open flood plane. Large villages of the Daasanach people, whom we had come to see, began to line the river. These villages differed from others we had seen in the bizarre- seeming platforms, 10 feet off the ground, that had been constructed to store and protect the sorghum crop from the annual flooding — flooding now in jeopardy because of the damming upriver.

We set up camp on a high bank. The local villagers assumed free run of our site and we were absorbed into daily life. Dugout canoes, listing and overfull with people, were constantly crossing and recrossing the river. Voices carried back and forth across
the water long after dark.

On an excursion farther downstream, the river began to splinter. Dusty land gave way to the high grass of the delta. Soon pelicans swarmed, then Lake Turkana was upon us. After the confines of life on the river, the expanse of the inland sea was daunting.

Here too, the environment is threatened. “It’s said Turkana could drop 20 feet with the dam,” Mr. Jones said. “The effect on the delta would be anyone’s guess.”

FROM FISHERMEN AT Turkana we learned that not far upstream, numerous Daasanach communities had begun to gather for a Dimi ceremony. They had come from miles away for an event that happens only every few years and lasts several weeks — culminating in the act of female circumcision.

We left the boat and were immediately confronted by two dozen teenage boys, each with a bow and arrow. After an initial standoff, they happily showed us the sharp tips of their weapons. We carried on across land littered with the bones of what I assumed to be cattle, through heat so intense it was difficult to breathe. The earth shimmered and huts began to materialize on the horizon.

The Dimi gathering was in the early stages; only a handful of families had arrived. Outside the temporary huts were poles hung with leopard skin cloaks and ostrich plume hats for men, and colobus monkey capes for women. The skin of several people who came to greet us was already painted yellow in preparation for the dancing that would accompany the coming ceremony.

Back by the boat I encountered a man with his entire chest and stomach covered in the well-ordered markings of scarification.

“This is to indicate that he has killed in battle,” Mr. Biwa explained.

The man glared at me. When I extended my hand to shake his, he broke into a toothsome grin.

On our last evening, the sun was hazy near the horizon over Sudan. I walked into the village behind our site, and then kept walking to the next village, and the next. Children began to follow. Soon their numbers were more than a hundred, the bolder ones shook hands, some touched my hair — then ran away giggling. Eventually I began to chase them — the boogeyman to their delighted
screams — as the sun fell.

On the way back, on the outskirts of our campsite, I came upon an old man setting fire to a dead tree near a clearing. In the morning I told Mr. Biwa what I had seen.

“It was a prayer,” he said. “A prayer for the river to rise.”

We climbed into our boat and headed back upstream on a river that was unlikely to do so.

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Texas Teen Book Con | Houston, TX

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Monday, April 3 at 7pm
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Tuesday, April 4 at 7pm
Book Passage
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Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm
Talk of the Stacks Series
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