Ethiopian light and shadow – an alternative vision.

Written as a daily blog to compliment my photography whilst travelling in the South of the country in September/October 2012.B&W 411

I was expecting change in Addis Ababa. Two years absence is a relatively long time in the context of an African city environment and where growth should be manifestly evident. It wasn’t. It appears unchanged to me. The roads are still decrepit, the traffic flows in fits and starts, the vehicles are still predominantly old and their emissions are still black and noxious. People fill the streets and the number of beggars has certainly not diminished. Costs, however, have risen and the gap between those that have and those who have not has widened. All this in an economy we are led to believe is booming? Those that have the wealth appear oblivious to the poverty around them. The streets are still filled with those whose sole purpose seems to be to strive to survive. They grasp on to a tenuous link to life. Their faith may be immense and this gives them hope but their reality is despair and destitution. And we in the minority world complain! Take a look at the world beyond our bounds, the reality of a continent, which needs hope and above all change. The country is ‘occupied’ by outside interests, the Chinese, taking what they can and giving to the few. The rich get richer and more isolated from a sea of humanity, slowly sinking. I suspect those in power and those in positions of privilege know little of the reality of the demography and geography of those on the margins. They certainly haven’t been there, in any sense.



And yet the country draws me in. The people exude warmth, despite adversity. The smile is still there even when deluged with deprivation.

Here I can eat simply with the locals and they give with genuine benevolence. I can also indulge my western aspirations and wants. I can eat in the best restaurants and frequent the best bars. Costs translated into foreign currencies are low.

The second morning and I am still adjusting to the 2400m/8000ft altitude. Like yesterday I chose to walk to absorb, feel and see my surroundings. I still feel there is little change. The naked girl being pulled along by the police, (she is clearly mentally disturbed), the sale of fruit and vegetables in small pyramidal piles, the small convenience shops constructed of rusted corrugated iron and piles of sheep heads covered in flies – a local culinary delicacy (not the flies!). My destination – The Hilton, for a swim in the thermal pool. The contrast from ‘hovel to Hilton’ is sudden and startling. Yet, it remains unseen to many.

I walked a street yesterday, which is a honeypot of new enterprise and investment. Yet the planning has been given little thought. The buildings are densely packed and reflect designs, which were seen in Europe in the 1970’s. Those that were built two years ago are already worn and discoloured from the sun and wet season.


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I was the only ‘farangi’ (foreigner) on the streets this morning. Yet, there is no feeling of discomfort. The itinerants beg and occasionally hassle but smiles are ubiquitous and people respectful. But as the gap widens the crime rate increases, an eye for the predator is essential! I sit now on the Hilton lobby soaking the world I know. Businessmen, tourists (not many!), local expatriates and wealthy Ethiopians availing themselves of the facilities. I now become, like them, a person in need of my own chill out time.

The Addis Hilton was in decline two years ago, now it has resolutely continued on this path to decay! The pool and bar however are still focal points and faces are still the same. ‘Mr John welcome back!!!!

Society here is still, even in urban areas, misogynist. Females play a submissive role and it is only when they are highly educated that they stand a better chance of achieving equality. In rural areas the girls suffer greatly from gender bias and 80% of females are still subjected to FGM (female genital mutilation). A horrible and archaic practice, which transcends all religions. Ethiopians are still predominantly agrarian with on excess of 80% of the 90 million people still working on the land. Urbanisation which stands at 50% globally is only about 15% here. Addis has industrial development but it is limited and ‘low tech’. It is, after all, one of the least developed countries.

I continue to walk the streets of Addis. It is busier than before but it seems like the city acts as a gravitational pull for those who have little. They flock from the rural areas in search of hope and sustenance. They often end up on the streets or, in the case of girls, selling themselves and facing the risks of disease or abuse. The streets are lined with tiny bars all with ‘streetgirls’ attached. I went to a club for an hour last night and watched an age old game unfold. All pubs and clubs here generate prostitution and it mirrors society itself. Those with more appeal and knowledge of language frequent the better hostelries. Memo’s is one such place. Great to have fun but the game is always on. The girls are often very striking and watching them target the older male expatriate market is both sad and amusing. These girls are surviving the only way they can or know – there is little choice. By day they may get work in a hair salon (the art of hair here is the best in Africa) and at night they are on the game. Last night I was approached on numerous occasions and they are well practised in the art of baiting! It is something that exists everywhere but here you sense that this is their only refuge from abject poverty. I always walk away pondering solutions and knowing there are few. A depressing thought.


The rainy season is still here and in the afternoons the clouds build their cauli-form domes into anvils, which reach to the heavens. Thunder, lightening and torrential rain gullies the paths in makeshift slums and carries the waste into torrents of turbid effluent. Sanitation and sealed surfaces are still absent in many areas and sewage is simply channeled in surface drains which overflow.

Today, in the morning, the sun shines through cleansed skies giving hope and clarity for a new day. A new day is needed here to create a more sustainable urban DNA.

Last night I savoured one of the new venues of Addis. These places serve the minority of those who are in the ‘have’ category. For me it is still cheap by western standards. The bar, called the Flirt lounge, is 21st Century in decor and appeal. The Jazz was truly outstanding with an American saxophonist of some repute (in the US!) married to an Ethiopian and now living here. What a musician and what a band. It is bizarre to step out at the end of the evening and negotiate a path through puddles large enough to swallow a car (slight exaggeration!) and then get into a 1970’s Lada taxi, which is way past it’s sell by date but has good air conditioning in the form of holes, and get half way back before the vehicle expires! The paradox of living it up and then living it down. From high rise high tech to low rise no tech, all juxtaposed in the African urban melee.

A place to come to see just how we truly exist in the realm of a minority world.

The journey south. Travel in ethiopia is chaotic and can be traumatic. Roads are surfaced, but with distance they decay and ultimately the potholes give way to corrugations and craters! Plan A, became plan B which became plan C!! In other words the first and second landcruisers broke down! Where was my defender? We eventually departed the concrete urban chaos and the transition to a more tranquil Ethiopia was palpable. We travelled through linear villages which serve as market places and stopovers with convenience shops. People and donkeys throng the streets and plastic waste is everywhere present. If it is market day the people walk for miles to interact socially and to trade their surplus produce from their subsistence holdings. The sides of the roads are scenes of trade in whatever the area specialises in. Pumpkins, tomatoes, bananas…..Ethiopia is, by default, organic! The farmers cannot afford fertiliser.

The donkey in Ethiopia deserves a special mention. The second largest population of donkeys in the World reside in Ethiopia. They are used to transport people and goods everywhere. The beast of burden truly exists here as it has done for millennia. Oxen still plough the fields and the human is essential as a source of labour. The tractor is a rarity and when, and if, it comes the people who till the land will be redundant and the push to migrate to the urban environment will ensue. The squatter settlements will mushroom and humanity will loses the threads of its roots. The attachment to the land and nature is an integral part of Ethiopian life.

Our destination, a village of the Dorze tribe, was reached at 10pm. The accommodation basic and altitude at 3000m/10000ft coupled to make the evening a little cold! All semblance of western comfort was gone. The tukuls (huts) in the village are extraordinary. Their morphology is based on the elephant and the visual impact is inimitable. The villages now have, in addition, corrugated iron structures which, in my view, are much less sustainable and are visually offensive especially when corroded. They do not maintain the ambient temperature in the same way and are poor in terms of insulation. The tukuls breathe, blend with nature and are created by artisanal skills, which disappear with prefabricated materials. However, the tribes are empowered to make their own choices and ‘image’ (a product of advancement) induces change.

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The morning light was crisp and clear. The local orthodox church had been issuing prayer all night on its Chinese PA system so sleep was elusive. Fresh air and sunshine, however, are tonics to body, mind and spirit and so the day began on a bright note. We walked in the post dawn light towards the ‘Meskel’ celebrations. I had seen this before when I resided in the country a few years previously. The Dorze were dressed in their best and streams of them made their way in a desultory way to and from the church to offer prayer. Meskel is an annual celebration which focuses on the finding if the true cross. Nonetheless a farangi also strolling, camera in hand, draws attention. Children asking for photographs and as soon as you take one they say ‘one birr’ (about 3p) and I then ask them for one birr and laughter ensues. The children are beautiful and the day brings out the best in everyone. The tribe are famous for their weavings and the white garb worn on celebratory occasions is magnificent. They are also known for longevity – many in the tribe are over eighty but most don’t have a certificate of birth! The fresh air, lifetimes of work, organic food (diet), altitude and perhaps attitude to life promote old age. All the above are unproven and simply my own theory! After the prayers at the church they walk to a nearby hill top and the ceremony continues in all its glory. I also had an opportunity to go into one of the compounds. The tukul is dark and smokey but your eyes adjust and the home scene materialises. Calabashes on the wall, coffee being roasted over the fire (coffee is an integral part of Ethiopian life), the sheep with lamb in one corner and a welcome which leaves you humbled. They took us with pride to show how they use ensett. Also known as the false banana they use it to roof, make flour, weave – it is found almost everywhere and is arguably the only banana plant which is endemic to Africa. All the others are exotic! They strip the fibre from the trunk, cut it up and bury it to let it ferment into kodjo (sp?). It is an acquired taste not disimilar to gorgonzola – not for me!

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A great start to the day and venture. I am now, a few hours later(Wednesday 26th September) in Arba Minch in the Great East African rift. Arba Minch means forty springs. The lakes here team with some of the biggest crocodiles in Africa, so the rusty boat had better be without holes!

It didn’t have holes but health and safety are given absolutely no thought. You either do these things or you miss out. No life jackets, a spluttering engine and smiles which are wonderful but do not instil any confidence. When you have ten crocs disturbed by a boat, the only boat in the area, and the boat rocks perilously you begin the process of life’s self appraisal! Last week a fisherman was taken for lunch, I hoped we were not seen as speciality of the day! The crocodiles are huge, the largest in Africa – some of them in excess of 4 metres and a girth to match. Wonderful! Fish eagles, pelicans and a few hippos added to the sightings. Tourists? Just me! There are some around but tourism is still in its infancy here and it is exclusively small groups – a niche.

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Meskel in Arba Minch was celebrated with a huge fire with the locals holding torches of the ‘live flame’ variety! A spectacle to behold but with a little too much intrusion into personal space when holding a camera!

The next morning (27th) we set off to watch the sunrise from a viewpoint overlooking the rift valley lakes of Abaya and Chamo. Alas it was not to be, due to a blanket of rain laden clouds!

Onwards towards Jinka. The early morning road was empty of traffic and full of herds of cattle, in their thousands, heading to grazing land beside the lake. It was slow going for the first hour but the sight was one to savour.

En route to Jinka we stopped at Konso to visit one of the tribal villages. Before doing this, however, we went to the meat market. This only occurs on celebratory days and this was one of them. This is not a sight for a vegetarian or indeed anyone of faint heart! The meat in some cases was still pulsing as the nerves settled – a little unnerving! The butchery was in full progress. Cow heads were part of the process and it was as if their eyes were, in a detached way, observing their own dissection for the good of humankind.

My guide and friend Belete together with Wondewossen the Head of Art from the school I used to teach at, spotted a local hostelry with the locals imbibing sorghum beer from calabashes. A bar in a style which is local and nothing like the image of a bar, which you might conjure in your mind. A row of men drinking and accepting our offer to buy a round of drinks for everyone to enable a little photography. This cost me the grand sum of £1 for 15 beers! One of those inimitable moments where the scene is digitally recorded for posterity.

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The Konso village we visited was beautiful. Dry stone walls, small defensive ramparts, beautiful thatch and wonderful communal meeting areas. The tribe have their own parliament and farm very effectively using terraces. The area is now a UNESCO world heritage site. The people, as ever, were welcoming but now, and from now on, I was asked for money when taking photographs. This was started by early tourists years ago and the legacy has disseminated to all tribes in the SNNPR (Southern Nations and Nationalities People’s Region). The only thing that has changed since my first visit in 2000 is the cost!!

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Whilst travelling south a few changes are worthy of note. The road surfaces have improved markedly, the tribes are now more accessible and the Izuzu trucks are bringing in ‘western goods’. As a result the wonderful tribal attire, which blends with nature and looks great under over time and under duress is slowly being replaced with the blazoned logo T shirt and within a short space of time they go from ‘riches to rags’! The Konso tribe wear dresses from decades ago which were introduced by missionaries. I guess it is not my prerogative to make judgements on aspirations to look a part of western homogenised and cloned society. I hate it!

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From there we went to Key Afar and a tribal market. Just like any other open air African market but the colour of the local tribes change the vista totally. Beads, leather and the use of bits of other objects to make jewellery. Fruits, spices, vegetables and many other items were there to be traded. These people, the Benna and Tsemay, are resilient and tough. They know nature and they are hardened to a life we have left behind centuries ago. Their bodies reflect hard physical duress and they come to the market to strut and flirt. The market is the meeting place and the game is on. Who needs an iPad when you can interact in a world where social interaction is still the main means of communication? The tsunami of change is, however, on it’s way. Cattle are sold for guns, motorbikes (Chinese) and cell phones. The government, as part of its strategy to acculturate ‘primitive tribes’ has built new roads, erected communication masts and taken tribal land for commercial farming of sugar cane. Or they lease it to Malaysians, Chinese or Europeans for other forms of Agribusiness. This takes land out of subsistence food production and changes the indigenous way of life forever. Do they have a choice, they certainly don’t have a voice – except perhaps through organisations like Survival.

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Rant over, I am now in Jinka with the prospect of more tribal lands to cross and hope that zooification is not causing irreparable damage. Am I an agent if change or can I, through geography and photography, do some good?

The Hamar. This area has so many different ethnic groups. This was the fourth or fifth I had visited in three days. The Hamar are proud, hospitable and are finely tuned to their environment. I had visited the tribe before and there was little change apparent apart from the outbreak of T-shirt acquisition! As I said before they look tattered and worn out in a short space of time. They harbour lice and very sadly it is also tourists who trade their clothes for Hamar beads.

Today, however, was a day celebration. A bull jumping ceremony to mark a young man’s coming of age and his rite of passage enabling him to marry. The women colour their hair with red ochre from the soil and butter, however they can only do this when married. Once the men achieve their goal of jumping a series of cattle naked they become Meza – men of substance. On the day of ‘jumping’ the sisters and girls who are close to the young man antagonize the Mezas to whip them. Their backs are covered in fissured lesions and keloidal scars. Today I saw young girls put themselves forward with real courage, conviction and pride for this traditional whipping. The whipping stick is thin and flexible and is only used once. It cuts a swathe of red across their backs and disfigures for life and yet it is culturally an integral part of tribal life. Is this misogyny? Is it a patriarchal cultural tradition or is it a rich part of a culture and society in which we have no right to make judgements?

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The Mezas lose their title once married and can take several wives if they have sufficient cattle to pay the dowries. Marriage is early here. In Ethiopia as a whole the average age is 16. As soon as a Hamar girl reaches puberty she has the freedom to have sex. If she gets pregnant she aborts the baby and it then seen as a potential ‘fertile’ wife! She is then ready to play her role in Hamar society.

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Prior to the bull jumping the men of the tribe dance and sing. Their dance is a form of sinuous jumping and the melodies of their voices leave you transfixed. Sonorous, deep and passionate. And there is always an element of humour. Their lifestyle keeps their bodies toned in ways that going to a gym would result in shortcomings. Obesity does not exist here. The body is harmonised as it should be, in equilibrium with work ethic and output. We are, in the majority, out of shape totally in tune with our indulgences.

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The young man jumped the bulls and he is now a Meza. He can take pride in knowing that his future is assured. He is a man!

The indigenes know so much, in ways diverse from us, and have enviable cultural roots. They are animists inextricably connected to life in its broadest sense. We appear to have lost our way. Home for the majority of people living in developed countries is the urban jungle. Unsustainable with an ecological footprint, which exceeds the capacity of the Earth to support us. If all seven billion people lived at the same level of consumerism as Americans it would take six worlds to support us. Does it pay to keep the poor impoverished? Without them who would produce our goods cheaply!

Coming to Ethiopia you see a different wealth. The wealth of living with strong cultural ties and traditions. Yet the government of this country view, without knowledge, these people as primitive and backward. I say that their knowledge is a form of wealth and understanding and these people could, in fact, be the key to our future existence. They are rich and westernisation or acculturation degrades them!

Today (29th), we leave our campsite and travel to a Karo (tribe) village perched above a meander on the Omo river. I have visited this place before in 2006 but this time we are camping overnight.

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One major change is the extent of the phone network. This is new and the tribes will soon be aspiring to have mobile phones, despite having no electricity! A market for solar chargers! As a geographer I would hypothesise that a mobile network and internet access will add to the impact of acculturation and globalisation. But who can deny them this change? It will also reduce isolation and perhaps have health benefits? Small businesses will materialise to sell mobiles, accessories and phone cards. But will it add to social divisiveness in microcosm? I was surrounded today by an inquisition. They had never seen an iPhone! We do live in another reality! There was now a bar in the village! Cases of empty coca-cola and beer bottles lay outside the tukul! It was temporarily closed as the generator had failed. To see coca-cola in the village was just another indicator of the tsunami to come. Has diversity been lost to the homogenisation caused by capitalism and the TNC’s?

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While I write I am sitting looking down over the Omo river in full moonlight. The experience with the Karo has been one where Belete (my guide and friend) bargains hard to enable me to take the images I want. Luckily he too enjoys ‘capturing the moment’ and I impart as much knowledge as feasible to help him improve. The Karo like to adorn themselves with clays and paint their faces. This is a component of tradition but tourists promote a little embellishment of the process in the hope of earning a few birr.

The young men of the Karo reach manhood by taking the whip from their elders. Respect for the generation above is a mainstay of the culture.

I arise before dawn to see the sunrise but again it eludes me. This time the hills hide the hues and the sun emerges to enlighten the Omo. Later in the morning two tourist cars arrive full of Japanese tourists. I watch the wind of change as they emerge. The tribe, within 10 minutes, are there in full regalia hoping that they will be chosen for a photo or two! The human zoo in action! I was glad I camped in the village as my immersion was, I think, more meaningful. Tourism is here but can it be sustainable. The locals are trying to capitalise and time will result in decay of the tribal honeypot. The pattern in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam was exactly the same. The Japanese were paying more and they had camera gear to die for! Canon and Nikon at the very top of the pro range and lenses to match. I was envious but smiled wryly as the best of the earlier light had been mine!

Onwards! We crossed the Omo in a small boat and walked for 40 minutes to a Nyangatom village comprised of small grass huts within a compound. Within a short space of time the villagers closed in and I became the zoo!

While at the village, a man came seeking his wife who had run away to take refuge with her mother after being married. Marriages are largely arranged by families and dowries are paid for with cattle. Girls marry at a very early age, as young as 10, to men who are much older. In this case she had been found, was being pushed in front of her husband while he was stripping the leaves and small branches off a stick to beat her. Beating is part of life and these beatings scar. Love? What’s that got to do with it?

I took a few images to add to the burgeoning repertoire of portraits. I seek faces that are characterful or may have photogenic appeal.

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Tonight I an back in Turmi. There is a Hamar market tomorrow. I had a ‘déjà vu’ moment this afternoon. I showed Belete a photo of a Hamar boy I took in 2000, 12 years ago. He knew him and today brought him to meet me. Incredible. The young man was now urbanised in the western sense but with little real change in his face or physique from the image I showed him on my iPhone. It is a small world.

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Market day for the Hamar people in Turmi. Gale – the guy I met 12 years ago walks the road with us. Although changed in terms of attire his cultural roots run deep. He has become a man by jumping the bulls and is soon to be married. I asked him about the changes which are so rapidly occurring. The young people are not allowed to go to church or school with traditional attire. The bare breasted girls are becoming a thing of the past and the natural goatskin and beaded attire is disappearing in villages where education and indoctrination are in place. Their animistic beliefs are derided in favour of protestantism or orthodoxy. They are not empowered to choose.

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As I said earlier the T-shirt turns to rags and is culturally undermining. I hadn’t realised that school, church and government, in collusion, are part of a deliberate force in acculturation. Add the forces of the global giants and homogenisation is inevitable. A distressing and horrible thought. Self empowerment is no more. My images may capture dying moments which will be inimitable except for a ‘tourist show’. This genuinely upsets as the changes are forced by church, education and government. Will their language also become extinct? They are forced to learn Amharic, the language of government. There are 80+ languages in Ethiopia – it is imperative to retain them but not in the eyes of those who need and strive for control. I can only feel anger and disbelief.

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The mission statement on the sign for Turmi primary school states ‘Lets minimise unprogressive tribal custom through education’! Which I read as ‘change your primitive ways if you want to make progress’. There is a film made about Ladakhi culture in the Indian Himalaya where the past is looked at as a means of creating a more sustainable future. This is needed here. We have so much to learn from indigenous people and we are out of touch with our own planet. The title, very apt, is Ancient Futures.

The market was good with more portraits of a people taken for posterity. Many were dressed in full tribal attire which was revitalising. They have a wonderful way of expressing their distaste of having photos taken. A false anger which is a prelude to bargaining. Tourists who pay the asking price make it difficult for those who strive to pay a fair price after banter and a touch of ‘craic’! Without my friend and guide I would be in dire straits!

After camp dinner we went to a local Hamar village to immerse ourselves in a post bull jumping party. Incredible. We went into one of the Hamar tukuls and I just watched family life. The ceiling is no more than 1.3 metres above floor level. Everything is eaten and drunk out of calabashes. The women and children sleep on cow skins on the hard floor and men outside! My eyes could see them vaguely in the smokey firelight but I realised that my night vision was not as theirs. Gale, the Hamar boy I met 12 years ago came with us and whilst there I was introduced to a Hamar girl (now married with two children) whose photo I showed to Gale earlier. There was a huge amount of excitement as I showed her the twelve year old image. One of my favourites, even now. A surreal experience and one I wasn’t expecting.

The dancing and singing were incredible. All voice and hands but the rhythm and beat were ancient and the honey wine was allowing inhibitions to dissipate. This was all about the young men and girls of the tribe having a party in the bush. A dance in the moonlight which emulated the thought that this truly was a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire. After midnight they melt into the bush to fulfil their aspirations with their chosen partner of the night. To watch them dance was both ancient and modern. There was only moonlight, music from heart, soul and spirit and clearly the desire to fill one of natures needs.

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We arrived in Omorate on the 2nd only to find that the bridge had collapsed and the ferry that had temporarily replaced it had a snapped cable. This is Ethiopia! Nonetheless we crossed the Omo by dugout which always unnerves me as they seem so unstable and the thought of crocodiles and camera gear is an added stress. On the other side we walked through a windswept dustbowl to a Dassenech village. They grow sorghum in the wet season, graze a few cattle and hunt crocodiles all the way down to lake Turkana in Kenya. The tribe transcend the border. Their village was surrounded by a thorn fence and huts very simple. Thatch in some cases had been replaced by corrugated iron which had blown from a nearby town. This turns the huts into ovens and gives the village an impoverished look. The tribe do appear more malnourished than the tribes further north.

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Now we are implementing plan B – backtracking to travel to the land of the Suri as crossing the river was denied us. The roads are congested with people, the countryside is lush and the flat topped acacias quintessential African savanna.

Sodo to Jimma, a 12 hour ordeal on roads designed for donkeys! But beautiful and a road I had never been on before (there are many!). Belete informed me that there were several ethnic groups along the route. He also stated that ‘The church had come and their cultures had disappeared’. This is something I have seen all over Africa – proselytizing by missions. It truly scares me that they think that there is only one belief system and that others are wrong. The tribal groups who are still animist believe that the bio-physical environment is imbued with spirits and that everything is connected. They understand sustainability. They may have some rituals which are alien to us but who are we to judge. Their God is surely our God? The God of all living things. How we see this and interpret it are a reflection of culture and environment and we should respect diversity of belief. Of course they don’t follow Christianity or Islam but there are serious issues and questions which are deserving of consideration. Does one religious group have the right to change another’s beliefs by indoctrination. They do it here. Of course they bring medical care, perhaps clean water, better ways of sanitation but is this used as a tool of persuasion? Why do mission schools insist on western dress, western style education and values which are unrelated to the original cultures. These wonderful people now walk around in rags. The magnificence of their goatskins, beads and bodies exposed to reflect the tropical climatic regimes are an anachronism. This together with roads, TNC’s, the media, tourism and government directive spell the end for diversity and the onset of a cloned world.

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I start the morning (4.10) in a local cafe as has become the norm if we are not camping. Fresh coffee, avocado juice with lime and beans or eggs. My system has taken a while to adjust to Ethiopian cuisine again but ultimately a little bacteria builds up resistance and is cleansing. I think our western diets have become so sterile that we make ourselves vulnerable to western diseases which weaken our immunity. We are at the diseases of affluence stage in the epidemiological transition!

Since I was last here, two years previously, the extent of asphalt has improved markedly. But again I see this as a major agent of change in that accessibility results in the dissemination of global or western traits. The roads are being built to serve the new agribusinesses where huge tracts of land have been taken from the tribes and devoted to cotton, sugar cane or palm oil. Malaysians, Indians and Chinese interests are more important than ‘primitive’ cultures! The irony is that Ethiopia needs all it’s land to feed its exploding population. A population, which will double from 90 million to 180 million in 30 years. Foreign interests and the income from them are more important! I am resigned to the fact that the rate of change is gathering pace and cultural extinction is inevitable.

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Tonight I am staying in Bebeka, last stop before the land of the Suri tribe where there is a biophysical line demarcating the lighter skinned highlanders from the Suri. Bebeka is known for its coffee plantation – the largest in Ethiopia. This area Kaffa is the home of coffee, where Kaldi the goat herder discovered that his goats became hyperactive after eating the coffee cherries (beans). And thus the story of coffee began. It is one of Ethiopia’s most important exports but, in my view, there is so much more they could do! The coffee here needs better branding and an image to match that of something like Guinness in Ireland! It tastes so good and deserves its place as a prestige product.

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5.10. Now, in the land of the Suri, there is no network. I am staying in the same village I camped in two years previously. This village is right in the bush and the people live a very simple life, even if tainted now by outside influences. They still grind corn by hand using two stones, they roast maize in clay pots to make a kind of porridge – their staple diet. They supplement this with meat intermittently. They are very healthy in general although a few of the older women smoke from a calabash shisha as well as chewing tobacco.

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Already I have seen faces photographed before and some remember my face! Again I am the only tourist. These people are warriors, only the fittest survive but Belete has such a good rapport with them that they greet me with handshakes and hugs, tribal style! There are a few changes. The government are using the village as a model to create huts with corrugated roofs. Ignorance and idiocy all in one as they will again lose the sustainability and insulating properties, which have evolved in response to the savanna climatic regime.

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I saw a little wildlife today – grevit and colobus monkeys, baboons and a gazelle. At the village there was also a chameleon, which I had never before seen in Ethiopia. The children are very playful and they know that I will produce my camera eventually and as a result make a few birr. I had forgotten the impact that lip plates make when seen on the women and also the body scarification. The patterns are decorative and may have some spiritual meaning, which is lost on me. There is hope that there may be a donga (stick fight) and also a wedding in a couple of days. If so I will be ecstatic and my camera will go into overdrive. The stick fighting is their way of becoming men and fulfilling their rights to marriage. It is an awesome spectacle but very dangerous and deaths are not unknown.

The light tonight was beautiful and I went down to the heart of the village to take a few photographs. The whole village comes out to watch and the children clamber to have their photo taken and get a few birr.

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In the morning they return adorned in clay paint and flowers. Whilst taking a few photos a few government officials arrive and state (to Belete) that I am treating them as a zoo! The government directives anger me. They say that tourists can no longer watch the scarification, or stick fighting. They want them all to develop into ‘normal’ human beings with a culture like theirs. Idiots, but they don’t see it. I belong to an organisation called survival which protects the rights of tribal people not disempowers them. The culture of the Suri is rich and inextricably connected to the land and the tribe is cohesive. It is illegal for me to watch the stick fighting (I have seen it before). It is magnificent, if violent, and is it any different from rugby, boxing or other martial arts? Not so refined for sure but who are we to judge, who are they to implement change outside of their own culture? Acculturation is to be despised. My photography is intended to capture moments, which in a short space of time may no longer exist. Inimitable moments – I hate the idea of zooification. Tourists do promote it but surely photography together with documentation can help sustain the need to respect and preserve some of the last remaining islands of cultural diversity on this planet. Would Americans and Australians have managed their indigenous populations differently if they knew what they know now? I think and hope, yes.

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The donga did take place but in the end it was decided that it would be sensible not to go. There were a number of fairly serious mitigating factors. Since the war in South Sudan there has been an endless supply of Kalashnikovs to the tribes in Southern Ethiopia. When tempers flair at Dongas and the fights are between rival villages there is the occasional outbreak of shooting and killing. A tourist was shot in the arm four months ago! A second factor is the cost of taking photos – it used to be that there was a fee paid to the organisers of the host and visiting village but now the costs have escalated as they are not really in favour of having tourists there, so they make it prohibitive, even by western standards. The third and final factor are the government representatives. Those that are prohibiting everything tribal! They are doing everything possible to clone the tribes. They threatened our local (Suri) guide and I with imprisonment if I went to the donga!! As I had been to one 4 years previously it was less imperative for me to go and the thought of being in a local jail or shot were good reasons to stay and enjoy the photography in the village. I think I have a few portraits at this stage!!

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Today (7.10) I went to a Suri wedding festival. The women dance all day and all night. The bride stays in a relative’s tukul (hut). The dancing at times is frenetic and once again these people make music from bracelets, jerry cans and singing. Their dancing is as ever based on wonderful African rhythms. They dance as soon as they walk! A substantial dowry is paid to the brides family – in this case 30 cattle and one kalashnikov! A kalashnikov is now an expensive weapon as the supply from Sudan as come to an end with the termination of hostilities.

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The government representative was kept out of the village and no one argues with a Kalashnikov! The women fired one into the air twice during the dancing – part of the party but it nonetheless made me jump out of my skin! To see the women dancing with lip plates moving as they do was a sight to remember. I saw one girl with a lip plate, as big as I have ever seen, which must have been eight inches in diameter! They knock at least two of the bottom teeth out and stretch the lip around the plate over time. I am used to seeing it now but it still shocks. Once again the government have banned the practice and it is dying out but I think the force of change is predominantly the diffusion of other western traits.

Today we drove into the wilderness in search of a Nyangatom village to camp  overnight. The village had moved; the tribe migrate with the seasons in search of a water supply. I had however been to one of their villages earlier in the trip so it mattered less. It is hard to describe this area, there is no traffic, the road is largely overgrown and it looks like any African bush seen, except for the absence of wildlife. This area should be teeming but the Kalashnikov has seen the end of virtually all game. The tribal instinct to hunt with a spear is sustainable, to hunt with guns is terminal.

There is another economic activity in this area. Gold mining and it is predominantly young girls who walk for two days to reach the place on the river where the alluvial gold is deposited. The area next to the river is like a Swiss cheese with holes from which clay is manually extracted and then washed in river pans. At £25 a gram it is worth their while to make the arduous trek, in bare feet, in the heat, carrying all they need for a few weeks. The girls are from the Suri tribe and they showed me small sachets of gold which they will take back to invest in improving their lives. This is where I would have an argument with anyone who states that this is ‘child labour’. Independence and adulthood comes early here and again I think it is right to reserve judgement in the light of the cultural context.

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We agreed a price to take a few images. These girls know the value of money and are not scared to say no if they feel they are being cheated. It was one of those moments again to watch them swilling the water to separate the clay and gravel from the higher density specks of gold. They pointed these out to us and they washed them into their own receptacle. Once they had skillfully separated the gold, childhood returned. They went swimming – this was a ‘golden’ moment to see the girls play and then dance and sing in the river. It is very difficult to ever see the Suri smile but this was magical. Neither the guide or driver had seen this happen before!

Now we are camped beside a police outpost in the middle of nowhere, overlooking the acacias and bush of Ethiopian Savanna a few kilometres from South Sudan. Apart from the handful of Suri girls, and a few local Suri men, we are in splendid isolation.

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These people are juxtaposed between a life which is hard, bonded to nature, agrarian and the onset of a global tidal wave. They dance to an ancient beat on an empty track into a wilderness but as connectivity improves the wilderness recedes and the cultures which are in the way of progress will melt into uniformity. Roads, tourists, government directives, Isuzu trucks, communication networks and the church all create change and this change is imminent.

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Whilst writing my blog I drew the attention of a tribal gathering to look at my iPhone again! I showed them the touch screen and then a few images. I will never forget the moment of showing an image of a mountain gorilla in Rwanda and them jumping out of their skin with fright! Their world is very small and they know only local. Global is, as yet, a concept beyond their realm or vision.

Camping at the police station may have seemed like a good idea at the time. But, more and more gold miners emerged from the bush and the dancing on the road became a party. They appear to have boundless energy and there was only a short interlude in the night when silence fell. Sleepless in deepest Surma! They were up with the dawn and the sun rose red in the Eastern sky. I cannot help but admire their fortitude and resilience. They are fine physical specimens who face a hard days work in the heat without qualms. They are square of shoulder and carry huge burdens on their heads. Their feet are like leather, cracked and splayed to improve grip in mud and resist intrusion from thorns. We do live in a World apart. An alternative vision. We are soft and now conditioned to a sedentary lifestyle. Our bodies reflect this and so too our ability to cope with the challenges of nature. Our roots are detached, we are urban clones.

Omo 1781

Like us they want change for the better and they should be empowered to make these changes. We all aspire to have new things but are these changes, the ones which are materialising so quickly, sustainable and for the good of the tribes?

Bonga. The last remaining stretch of cloud forest in Ethiopia and home to the original coffee tree. Six hours very tough trekking and I was in the midst of a stand of the oldest coffee trees on Earth. That is quite a thought when you think that a goat herder and a few lively goats started a huge global industry! A lot of the rainforest, despite being a UNESCO site, is under pressure. People, roads, farms and a rapidly increasing population. Will the last stand of beautiful forest, which represents the remaining one percent of primary cover in Ethiopia, also disappear? Unless the government is proactive in adopting strategies which are sustainable then yes it will go. We will wake up when it is too late and only then will we realise that we have undermined life itself and the connections essential to the functioning of our ecosystem. Drinking coffee helps, in a strange way, to keep this area sacrosanct!

Omo 2002

Travel in Ethiopia is always a challenge. You have to expect the unexpected! Flash floods, road works, blocked roads, collapsed bridges, insurrection in peripheral areas. Hotels are often dire by western standards although on the main tourist circuits (only 300/400,000 tourists a year) there are now some nice, tasteful, lodges being developed. If you want to go remote then the only option is to camp or stay in abysmal local hotels with sanitation from the dark ages. Holes in the ground which are cesspits filled with flies and human waste. The bush is a much superior option!

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The photographer in Ethiopia has a wealth of opportunity. The country is so physically, ethnically and biologically diverse. The Simien and Bale mountains, the Danakil depression (Afar), Afro-montane forest (Menagesha), montane rainforest (Bonga), the 4th city if Islam (The walled city of Harar), the tribes of the Omo valley, the great East African rift valley and more.

Omo 2042 - Version 2

The climate allows the photographer to play with light. There is the bustle of some of the best markets around, there are people everywhere making portraiture a must and a pleasure. The bird life is renowned and there are a number of endemic mammals including the Gelada baboon and the Ethiopian wolf. Mountain and forest landscapes and the bizarre sulphur springs in Dallol together with the spectacle of Erte Ale, a shield volcano with a permanent lake of molten lava. The tribes, whilst changing rapidly, give you a chance to photograph life as it was with cultural traits reflective of environmental determinism. With light, location and a little luck you are guaranteed a photo shoot which I regard as inimitable.

Omo 2059

Back in Addis Ababa. Relatively speaking it is another World from the one I have just been to but it is also another world from the one I am going back to. Here the electricity fails frequently, cars make their way in sinuous paths across the city belching fumes and adhering to rules, which exist only on paper. The roads are potholed, under construction or unsurfaced. Quality of construction and design, even in the nebulous CBD, is poor and a magnitude 4 on the richter scale would cause an unmitigated disaster. And yet there are places to go which are havens of modernity. The young and rich have their iPads and wireless networks and bars that keep prices high to ensure that the elite remain segregated. These are those who weald power and influence and who deride the ethnic minorities who live on the periphery. The primitive tribes, who in their eyes are not truly Ethiopian. I know I am being cynical but we are at this moment, in the anthropocene age of the geological timescale, killing off biodiversity. This applies to human as well as fauna and flora. The power is held by the few and so too the wealth and influence. It has gone too far, is the balance already tipping in favour of the greatest extinction that the planet has ever known? Discuss!

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The tribal peoples of Ethiopia, and indeed the World, should be the change they want to see in themselves, not change wrought by others, which is a harbinger of adversity.

Trevor Cole 2012

4 thoughts on “Ethiopian light and shadow – an alternative vision.

  1. Pingback: Ethiopian light and shadow – an alternative vision. | trevcole's Blog

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