Wednesday, February 22, 2012

South Omo

The roads are not bad, the buses have seat numbers and a 3+2 seat pattern so it's not as squishy as I had in Cameroon. The scenery really is great but the journeys are long. Really long. The first trip to Jinka took 2 days. They sell you the ticket all the way to Jinka and it is the same bus but they don't push through and keep going. We stopped in Arba Minch for the night after 10 hours of driving. The next morning at 5am I returned to the bus station to find the bus already nearly full but it still didn't leave until 6am. We made it 2 hours further down the road to Konso before stopping for breakfast. At 9am the bus started out of Konso and quickly turned back because of something wrong. I had met 2 local guys on the bus so we hung out waiting to find out what the deal was. At least we were in Konso still so we could find a little cafe across the street to relax at. By 10:30am they announced that the bus was hopelessly broken, would not continue, and started partially refunding tickets. We continued to chill and contemplate our next move. Normally by that time further transport to Jinka would be finished. There was an Estonian couple on the bus that showed up at Arba Minch so they joined our little waiting party also. They were like me in that they didn't have much of a plan and were going to Jinka first to see about arranging things further.

With Shimels in Jinka.

At noon, 2 minibuses showed up at the little minibus station to carry the half a busload of people onward to Jinka. It was much more uncomfortable sitting behind the passenger seat facing backwards for the 3 ½ hr ride just trying not to get motion sickness as we zoomed along the relatively good road around the mountain. It's a bit strange but Konso is up high as is Jinka, but to get there you have to make a long descent and cross a valley before ascending the plateau on the other side. The scenery is pretty, but for some reason I was expecting something more tropical instead of scrubby savanna with acacias, hornbills and cattle herders. Actually, I was expecting the cattle herders as some of the tribes are famous for such things. After all that is why people come here, to see the tribes. I've been told there are something like 18 different groups in the area as one of the guys I met on the bus and later hung out in Jinka with told me. He was doing his thesis on the people in the South Omo valley area. Not all of them can be found or seen in Jinka, but it's the administrative centre for the region. It's mostly a quiet dusty little town with not a whole lot to do but use as a base. It's at 1600m I think so not too hot and not as cold as Addis.
There is a considerable amount of package tourism to the region (and few budget travellers) and it has obviously affected the region. We were quickly mobbed by tour guides, children and drunks when we arrived. We were hours later than we should've been which was unfortunate because Saturday is the main market day in Jinka and I'd been hoping to see some of the tribes in town for the market. Instead it was late afternoon and we (the Estonians and I) were not yet organized and found ourselves having to deal with tour touts. I immediately put on my best defensive tactic (to be obnoxiously non-serious) to weed out the really annoying and find those with a sense of humour to deal with further. Since I didn't really know what the deal was in the area other than there are tribes scattered over a pretty broad area, I listened in on the quotes the Estonians asked for, for transport to nearby places. The lowest quote was for $160/day for a car, driver and guide (or maybe that was without the guide while they were bargaining). This of course is completely outrageous and way out of my budget, even splitting it a few ways. But this is how things are done in Ethiopia. Most tourists seem to rent a car and go on a tour and pay in the range of $120/day for a vehicle and driver. I asked out of curiosity about a motorbike and was quoted $50/day for a ride only slightly longer than the ride to Rhumsiki in Cameroon which cost me $7.
I've heard that the price is so high because the import taxes on vehicles in Ethiopia are ridiculous, but even so, I question the sense of spending $2000+ to see a couple tribal villages by the time you drive down from Addis and back. There are entry fees for every village, photo fees for every person you take a picture of, fees for the chief, road fees, National Park fees, etc etc. Add to that the behaviour of the people, with every kid in Jinka demanding money or a football, the tribal people walking up and demanding you take a photo of them and pay them, hassle from random touts and all the other hassle and it really is no wonder that the Omo valley now has the worst reputation in the country for hassle and being annoying.
But it must be interesting or people wouldn't keep coming. Personally, I'm generally against “people safaris” and have never felt comfortable going to a place specifically to see people or getting in someone's face to take their picture. It's one thing when it's the country or region as a whole and you are visiting for other reasons as well, but to specifically go to a place, treat the people like freak shows, take their photos and run off seems a bit much to me. It affects the subjects and spoils the whole thing. I've been disappointed almost every time I've gone specifically to see tribes so I doubt I'll do it anymore. Thus I never went to see the pygmies in Cameroon specifically, though it's possible to see their villages near Kribi (I'd like to see them at one point but more in passing), and I didn't really want to go invading villages here either. I much prefer the “market” tactic as I did in Pouss. Go to the market where different groups come in to trade, make yourself a non-presence and observe the creatures “in the wild” so to speak, doing what they would normally do. I think it's much more respectful and interesting as long as people leave you alone enough to be able to just observe. Of course that gets ruined too when it becomes a tourist market and there are more tourists than locals or the market is all geared toward selling souvenirs.
So I ended up dumping my stuff in a simple pension and heading over to the market to see what little might be left in the late afternoon. I still saw some of the groups, Banna, Hamer, Mursi, Aari, Bodi, and who knows what else. I actually didn't know because I don't know how to tell the minor ones apart. Sometimes a tout would tell me and I've seen photos of Hamer and Mursi before.
The Mursi and the Hamer are the most obvious and famous in the region. The Mursi are the lip-plate people where the women slice their lips and stretch them to insert a disc. I didn't realize they also did their ears and had some very interesting scarification on their shoulders, arms, chest and belly. They are used to foreigners in Jinka and so while I sat and watched things go by, whenever a Mursi would spot me they would come over and start posing for a photo and asking for money. There really is no point arguing with them. The “money for photo” mentality is so ingrained in the culture here that I just had to accept, take a shot and refuse to continue taking more and more. It is interesting to see for sure and I did take a couple of photos.




The Hamer are not really in the area of Jinka but are a little further southeast of Jinka. I saw 2 in town and maybe saw a couple in the countryside herding cattle when we were driving in. They are famous for the “cow jumping” ceremony where the boys become men in a ritual that involves running along the backs of the cattle. It's possible to see re-enactments of the ceremony or perhaps the real ones themselves, but as I was not in the right area it wasn't really an option for me.
So I just decided to stay in Jinka a couple days. I figured I could probably see what I wanted to see, tick them off the list more or less and generally relax. Because of the distance and because domestic flights in Ethiopia are relatively inexpensive (if bought within the country) I had considered flying one of the directions from Jinka. I'd asked about it but flights are no longer in operation to Jinka for some reason. It's too bad because it would've been cool to see. The airfield is a long, open grass and dirt strip right in the middle of town. I guess when the plane was expected they used to just sound a warning so people could move their animals and themselves off the field.

View over Jinka from the museum. Note the airfield in the middle of town.

I had a nice little room in a pension on the main street a couple minute walk from anywhere I needed. I spent most of my time hanging out with Shimels, my newest friend from the bus. I am enjoying eating injera again with all the various options that go on it, but fortunately for me the long fasting period for the Orthodox Christians here has started so I can get vegetarian “fasting food” all the time. I prefer this option anyway. The meat had been good, but you never know what you'll get with meat.
Speaking of religions, I suppose I have to mention missionaries again. It seems to be a common theme this trip. The other local guy I met on the bus down here from Addis was on his way to Jinka to start prepping for a “gospel crusade” that will occur in Jinka at the end of March. Apparently a huge group of multi-denominational protestant missionary groups (mostly from the US) have made peace with each other enough to head down to Jinka. Apparently they will even have a helicopter to help drop them into different communities and start trying to spread the word. I can't help but shudder when I think of this. Ethiopia is very Orthodox Christian or Muslim depending on the region. The tribes around Jinka in the south Omo region are very traditional and worship whatever. The tribal groups number from in the few thousand to about 100,000 at the largest and are under increasing pressure from tourism and governmental development in the region. There is a large sugar factory being built right in the middle of the Mursi area right now (which is also in the middle of Mago National Park) that is expected to bring in thousands of outsider Ethiopians to settle and work. The government has also toyed with outright banning many of the more controversial tribal practices like lip-plates and female circumcision. So as you can imagine there is already strain in the region toward finding a balance between cultural sensitivity, preservation and progress and then there will be a blitz of missionaries coming in to “save their souls” in no doubt a very ethnocentric way. By the time you retire all this will be no more.....
I was invited by Shimels to go to Mursi town (aka Hana. It is not a Mursi village but a small town.) where they are building the sugar factory as that is where he is basing himself during his work. I got on the bus to go with him but was stopped at the entrance to Mago NP. It seems that even though I'd just be transiting the park, I would still have to pay the park entry fee. The problem was that I couldn't pay it there at the entrance, but had to pay it at the park HQ which is quite a ways off the main road. The bus wouldn't be going there so I couldn't pay so I couldn't enter and had to turn back. Lame. But I did try. Instead I went back to Jinka to hang out some more and make friends with a handful of crazy little kids near the market. It's funny to see them rubbing your skin and then theirs like the whiteness will rub off on them. Most of the time they seem mostly obsessed with either pulling my arm hair or playing with my many necklaces.

The kids are cute once you get past the money issue...

I'm now in Arba Minch again as day 1 of my 3 day journey to get to Harar got me this far...


At 1:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great photos of such unusual individuals of a very unique culture! Making local friends can be the best experience of all. Keep up the good work on the informative blogs. :-)

At 6:27 PM , Anonymous James said...

Did you learn the word "ethnocentric" from me?


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