The long version of my Observer Magazine article - Tourism in the Omo.
The cultural heritage Ethiopia’s Omo Valley and Kenya’s neighbouring Lake Turkana basin has, until recently, been relatively untouched by globalisation. Thousands of years as a crossroads of human migration has resulted in a marked diversity. At least ten distinct ethnic groups occupy the borders between Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia. Like most photographers, I was drawn to the Omo Valley not by its landscape, but by these inhabitants. The ochre-skinned Hamer, the lip-plated Suri and Mursi, and the painted Karo amongst them.
Since my first visit to the Omo Valley in 2007, I have witnessed a change in both the landscape and its inhabitants. While modernisation is inevitable, in the Omo it appears to be at the expense of the inhabitants rather than at their hands. The scars are visible in the hundreds of thousands of acres of bare earth waiting to be planted by multinational corporations as subsistence agriculture is replaced by large-scale industrial farming.
The fate of the Omo Valley was sealed in 2006 when, upstream of the valley’s arterial Omo river, the Ethiopian government began constructing the ‘Pride of Ethiopia’: the highly ambitious and controversial Gibe III hydroelectric dam. The dam allows for large-scale commercial farming through irrigated agriculture and has been described as a potential humanitarian disaster for the estimated 500,000 people who live along the Omo River, and around Lake Turkana.
To clear traditional grazing grounds for farming the government has embarked on a policy of villagisation, moving people into new model villages. This process is non negotiable, and has come with many reports of human rights abuses. The Suri warriors are being turned into beggars, living on food hand-outs. No land allowance has been made for the Suri’s cattle herds, nor for subsistence agriculture. Without the cultural identity that land and livestock provides, the fabric of their pastoralist society is being destroyed.
Yet ironically, while eroding the Suri’s culture, the government also promote them as ‘unspoilt tribe’. It is estimated that the Suri receive less than 1,000 visitors a year, mostly photographers and filmmakers hoping for a more ‘authentic’ experience. In reality there is little authenticity in a visit to the most popular Suri villages. When I entered Regiya it was impossible not to be struck by guilt at being a participant in the performance that followed. The Suri women, renowned for their ceramic and wooden lip plates, rushed to collect face paint. Plastic bottles were put aside and t-shirts removed. Children formed tableaus along the path, shimmying up trees to look dreamily into the distance. A huddle of toddlers joined the parade, lying belly-up in the long grass. In the pursuit of ‘photo money’, women piled pots, pans, horns and bushes onto their heads; flowers were placed in mouths, stuck in ears and onto nipples. Offers to scarify themselves, form singing groups and add paint ensued. Susan Sontag’s words about the ‘predatory nature of the photographic act’ resounded.
The fancy dress parade I witnessed in Regiya fuels fantasies of exoticism, but is performed solely for the benefit of the tourist who pays for the privilege of photographing it. Natterre, a former Suri spokeswoman, said wryly, ‘We do it for tourists because they ask us to, when the tourists leave we wash our faces and go to the town”. Hans Silvester’s Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa, a book on tribal decorations that made waves in 2009 might be one reason why outfits in the touristic villages have become more elaborate in recent years. A tide of photographers followed, and local guides are often expected to provide replications of the images, from the face paint to the foliage. Suri women only usually paint their faces for weddings.
On the other side of the valley, dressing up for tourists has long been normalised. There the tourist dollar is a way of life, and convoys of 4x4s snake into villages, gate crashing ceremonies and bribing the participants. East of the Omo Valley, popular with tourists, encounters with the lip plated Mursi women are often described as aggressive and uncomfortable. Having watched a 4x4 convoy arrive in a village at first light, and the ensuing scramble for pictures followed by a hasty retreat 20 minutes later, it is easy to see why. There is no pretence at social interaction. Adding to the objectification of those with lip plates is the fact that it is hard to find a translator, and so for most tourists it is impossible to breach the little common ground available. Although the Suri are not yet subject to such large numbers of tourists, it is poignant that the local guides describe those in the most-visited villages as “looking like the Mursi”, in finery exotic to both us, and to them.
In another Suri town, Kibish, upturned plastic bottles on poles indicate when there is local beer or honey wine available in the huts that crouch alongside the town’s main streets. By dusk the town seems to sway, and as I listen to chatter, drumming and occasional gunshots, Abdi and I discuss the future of tourism in the Omo. He says; “five years ago I thought we could be responsible, now it’s obvious that people like the Mursi would be happier without tourists. I hate bringing people here now.”
Whilst Ethiopia’s industrialising government is by far the biggest threat to life in the region, as a photographer I am also partly responsible for what is fast becoming a human zoo.