Saturday, April 7, 2012

Another anthropological journey, rainbows and a microbiological news flash

Gama-Gofu statue in downtown Arba Minich.

Greetings from Hawassa!
Just two days back from a magnificent journey to Ethiopia's Southwest, the least developed and most ethnically diverse part of this intricately woven country. On Saturday we left with friends /neighbors/colleague Walelign Tadesse and Beza Negewo in an old Toyota Landcruiser with a worn-out battery that always required push-starting, bald tires, no windshield wipers or horn and several doors that didn't/usually didn't open/close driven by a khat-chewing man who spoke only Amharic. Without Beza and Walelign we probably would have been roadkill. With them – Wale an Ethiopian anthropologist/historian and Beza a gender studies expert – life was sweet, the journey pleasant, and the learning process at its max.
Ell, Beza and Marty with collected kids next to an abandoned graveyard in Arba Minich.
The Southern Omo Zone of SNN (Southern Nations and Nationalities Region) has the reputation among urban Ethiopians as the wild and wooly west (although southwest), the region of tribal peoples where women wear amazing body ornamentation and men carry AK-47s. The Omo is one of Ethiopia’s four main rivers (with the Nile, the Awash in the northwest where Lucy (Denkenesh in Amhara) was found, and the Shabelle which flows into Somalia in the southeast). Ultimately the government hopes to dam all these rivers for hydroelectric power and irrigation agriculture, for food and export crops (rice, sugar cane, biofuels). This does not forebode well for the tribal peoples who live there.
Ethnographic map from South Omo research Center

The Omo River flows into Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya – it is a dry sparsely inhabited region, with anthropologically fascinating groups including the Mursi (the folks with the lip-plates), Hamer (where women were beautiful red dyed ringlets), Nyangatom, Bodi and about a dozen other small tribes. They are all cattle people, some with cultivation along the river beds, some more nomadic, and they all have reputations for being very fierce in battle and demanding of tourists.

Our first day took us through the town of Shashemene (where Haile Selassie invited Jamaican Rastafarians to live) where we turned west through the region of Muslim Alaba people where men wore tall straw hats instead of toqiyahs (Muslim cap). We then passed through the Wolayta region with its central city of Sodo. Wolayta were severely punished for their resistance to the Menelik empire at the end of the last century and now are allied with the Tigrayan government.
Walelign and Beza have a drink and conversation
Little boy with crippled leg in Arba Minich.
Our goal for the night was Arba Minich (“40 Springs”) a town between two of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley lakes, Lake Abeya and Lake Chamo. Lake Chamo is famous for its crocodiles, and Elliot had traveled there earlier with Adam and Emilia where they saw crocs that were fourteen feet long. This time Wale, Beza, Marty and Elliot went to the “crocodile ranch”, a funky place in the woods and swamp next to Lake Chamo which housed hundreds of young crocodiles in wet pens . This was a state-owned farm, and the croc hides are sold (probably to China) and their meat keeps the next generation going. (“Sorry Dad!” Gulp.) Actually it was quite awesome, as some of these photos show.

All we need is love at Crocodile Farm on Lake Chama.

Hard not to anthropomorphize with this one: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Crocs decide we are too skinny to bother with
Baboon eating our bread
Wild wart hogs munching near the Crocodile Farm.

 No battery, no wipers, bald tires, but hey, it's a ride!
The people who live in the area around the lake are the Gama-Gofu. This is a rich agricultural area that produces the bananas that feed the rest of Ethiopia, including the satisfied passengers in our car. Banana king Elliot was in heaven.
Gama-Gofa banana market next to the lake approaching Arba Minich.
The next day we headed to Konso, the name of the town and the people who live around it. The Konso live on the top of mountainous ridges in amazingly dense, sculpted villages, each with neat stone terraces for crops and stone-walled neighborhoods. Everything is made from rocks. These hamlets are very old – people have lived there for hundreds (if not a thousand) years. As the population expands, the inhabitants make a new ring around the old village, on and on until there are about seven or eight concentric walls with dense neighborhoods inside them. Our colleague at Hawassa, Awoke (pronounced a-who-kay), had worked to help make the Konso villages into a UNESCO World Heritage site, a major achievement which adds these villages to the three other UNESCO sites in the orthodox north of Ethiopia - Lalibela, Axum, and Gondar. Awoke said the Konso built these walled towns as a defense against raiding neighbors, they were considered quite wealthy last century although they looked pretty impoverished to us. The village had very narrow pathways, creating a maze of routes past houses or open men’s areas, where elders sat and drank local beer and played the ubiquitous mankala board game. 

Konso meeting house
Men sitting outside their houses in Konso village.
Konso man plowing with oxen in valley
As with much cultural tourism in Ethiopia, we had to pay a fee to the local tour cooperative, which was fine as we had a very good guide take us to one of the villages. We had tried earlier to enter the village, but did not have our paperwork (as the tour office was closed) and Wale argued with local residents. But when we returned everyone was friendly. Actually the cooperatives are a good way to organize the tourism, although Walelign says most of the money goes directly to the federal government and not to the residents of the villages. 
Wale demonstrates his masculinity lifting enormous stone that
 Konso young men must throw in initiation rites.
Ell, assured of his masculinity, 
need not lift heavy rocks.
Young girl braiding her sister's hair in Konso village.
Little boy uninterested in the tourists.
We slept that night in an “eco-friendly” lodge (of sorts), actually an organic farm started by an Irishman and his Ethiopian wife, with seven or eight bungalows on the hillside. Beza was a bit frightened (she’s a city girl) worrying about hyenas coming into her banda (house), but the only critter we saw was a cute kitty cat who tried to get into our house during a rain storm. Actually it rained on and off during much of our trip, which was good as Ethiopia really needs its spring rains, which were late and light this year. But sometimes as we drove we saw beautiful cloud formations, a bit hard to capture from a moving vehicle

Clouds coming out of the Rift Valley.

Clouds over the Rift Valley.
Lake Ayalo from the Dorze mountain.

The third day we drove across the flat and hot Rift Valley floor then up again to Jinka, a lovely town high on the western escarpment. This is the gateway to the Mago Park and the Mursi people on the Omo River. Marty vividly remembers at age 6 seeing pictures of Mursi women in a National Geographic with their huge, protruding clay lower lip plates. Do you remember it, too? But the trip would have been long and arduous, and people (and the Lonely Planet) said that visiting the Mursi villages was an ordeal as everyone hammers tourists for money to take their photo. That is the kind of tourism none of us like, so we let it be.
Mursi woman, National Geographic photo from the web

In Jinka we did visit the very interesting South Omo Research Center, a museum and center on top of a hill overlooking Jinka built by German anthropologist Ivo Strecker (who studied the Hamer people) with funds from German development (GTZ). The museum has wonderful exhibits, not just the artifacts of all the tribal people who live there (which were cool) but dialogue and texts written by Ivo’s students, including interviews with women comparing their roles and powers cross-culturally. Hamer women are expected to be beaten at the time of men's initiation, and scarring from that beating – and facial scarring as well – is a source of pride. Yet some also admitted that they feared it and some had foregone it. Another set of interviews explored the Mursi women's continued wearing of lip plates, a practice preserved though the government would like to see it abolished. Elliot has to admit that it is a huge leap of cultural relativism to accept the plates, which cut a hole below the lower lip and distort it so far that the woman can stretch her lip over her head. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but objectification of women can really go too far.
Hamer women at market.
Hamer women with cowry belts and gourd hat in market.
Hamer man in market.
Sulky Hamer teen (yes, it's universal) in market.
Adolescent Hamer girls.
The third leg of the tour took us back into the Rift Valley to visit the Hamer people, pastoralists who do some farming. After a long and hot drive, punctuated by a visit to a great local Hamer market, we came to the small town of Turmi. We had a pleasant lunch in an outdoor but shaded restaurant. This is Lent and all but the most westernized restaurants serve only fasting food with njera. Elliot had an egg sandwich and French fries that everyone dug into.

We hired a local guide and visited a Hamer village, which included a half dozen houses with large cattle kraals (but the cattle were out grazing,). These people are really spectacular looking: women with their hair in long twists augmented by red ochre, all wearing goatskin skirts with beadwork on them, and yellow and red neck and chest beads. We were surprised at how un-assimilated they were, at least in terms of dress, and what artifacts they had in their houses. This is different from Maasai and Samburu people we know from Kenya, who although still wear their beautiful beadwork, also wear western clothes.
But it got annoying when we were surrounded by teenage girls wanting their photo taken, for two birr each – not much, but when five to eight girls line up shoulder to shoulder, it adds up. We really wanted to see the village at its normal self, or at least have some explanation from the guide, but it was only a visit for photos which we got tired of. This is a new kind of tourism,sometimes called cultural or ethno or eco-toursim which brings well heeled Europeans, Americans, Japanese, etc. to exotic ethnic locales - a Maasai Village (or a Hamer village), or a visit to an Indian reservation, etc, that allows westerners to get a glimpse at how the 'other' lives. On one hand, it can be a good thing, it educates and maybe allows some empathy, but more often, as with our visit to Hamer, it beomes a commercial transaction, a quick photo shoot of the exotic that just reinforces stereotypes and prejudices. Yes, we had our photos taken also, but still felt this was a commodification of both women and non-westerners.

Young Hamer women.
Beza and young Hamer girls.
Young Hamer man recovering from initiation rite "jumping the bulls" the previous day
Hamer child and his pup (coveted by Elliot).

 Our visit was saved when  a male elder took Walelign by the hand to his house, and Wale came out and got Marty. Inside the traditional house lay a child, a girl about 8 years old, with a severely infected burn on her thigh. Marty said she had a very high fever and needed to get to a clinic pronto, so we ended our visit and  took the girl and her father back to Turmi to the local health clinic. Marty said that was the best part of visiting Hamer.

Taking a young girl and her dad to the health clinic
We headed back towards Arba Minich, in our rental car that could not start. (We had to push it every time it had been turned off. A Landcruiser is a very heavy car.) Around sunset we passed by a spectacular thunderstorm; we could see the whole Rift Valley as we ascended the very curvy road into back into the highlands. Elliot was genuine worried as he sat in the front seat. At least he had one of the two functioning seat belts on. Thoughts were on those bald tires.

We ended the trip with a visit to the Dorze, who are famous weavers living on the mountainside above Arba Minich and the two lakes. Dorze village has a local cultural tour, run by two brothers who have organized the village into weaving cooperatives. They first showed us their grandfather’s house, which was tall and spacious, designed, they say, like the elephants that used to roam the hills. We entered the dark house and when our eyes got used to darkness, the brother explained Dorze culture, showing us the gourds and butter packet, the place for a cow inside the house, the sleeping loft. 

Dorze"elephant" house at cultural center.
Dorze woman kneading ensete flour.
Outside in the garden, women demonstrated how they make and eat ensete, the ‘false banana” that sustains so many people in southern Ethiopia. They peel the broad leaf and stem (about three feet long) scrape the carbohydrate off the fiber, let it ferment for a month, and then make it into flatbread, pancakes. We then joined them in the big courtyard where they have bungalows for tourists – we were the only ones there during “off-season” -- and they served us their local liquor. It was like vodka with a garlic taste, make of sorghum and hops. Walelign liked it so much, he bought a bottle for his dad who, although 85 years old, likes to knock back a swig now and then. Marty and Elliot bought some of the beautiful woven cloths to bring back home.
Dorze cloths
An Ari woman under the rainbow as we return home.

We came back greeted by a double rainbow over Hawassa that announced a lovely storm that had brought the rains so sorely missed. The grass is turning green – it had browned again after an earlier small rain had not ushered in more – and the animals are eagerly going after it. We expect plowing and planting soon in the fields next to our guest house. Life is renewed with the intensity that one can only feel in a rural, agricultural land. As if in celebration, last night the hyenas, whom we hadn’t heard from in awhile, awakened us with their wild chortlings underneath our bedroom window.

And FLASH: THIS JUST IN! The breakthrough that Marty and her colleagues have been waiting for! Marty returned to work yesterday to find a terribly sick 16-year-old on the ward, comatose and with a fever and stiff neck from meningitis. The child had been admitted the day before and the procedure Marty had worked hard to establish – send the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) to the lab for bacterial culture – was implemented by the interns. And, low and behold, the culture produced results: The child has meningocccal meningitis. Marty knows her colleagues are saying “That's good news?! One of the most horrible, deadly diseases known to affect humans?” OK, you're right. It's bad news. But the further good news is that today she woke up and was eating a banana when Marty and students walked into the room. But the further bad news is that the staff suspects we may be facing a mini-epidemic of the disease, since the only other time we were able to test CSF successfully, with Gram stain, it showed the same. Soooo.... there may be a cloud inside of the silver lining inside of the original cloud. Life moves on. More next blog.
As always, we love you and miss you and would love to hear from you.
Marty and Ell
Mandatory beautiful cattle photo


  1. So glad you're able to travel with all of your other responsibilities...and what good photographers you are! Favorites in this post: the crocs and the cattle.

  2. Glad you like it, Michaelann. The cattle are Ell's passion. See you in a couple months. Keep up the great work.