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Boy Overlooking River
Jennifer Knight

I fell mute after visiting Ethiopia. Nearly six months after my visit, I have been unable to finish one post about my experience there. I have never stared at a blank page without doing it some justice. But then again, I have never come across a country that was indescribable—until now.

Perhaps the combination of wanting something all your life converging with the reality of living it is stifling. Even though dreams may be our refuge, you eventually need to leave that place of comfort and live life. Let’s face it, adventure is the unknown. It’s bold, it’s messy and requires you to leap without any guarantees.

As I boarded my flight, I was nervous and excited to visit this fabled African land where my imagination was fed by photographers who pointed their cameras toward the dramatic. If dreams are a launching pad, I had taken off—and up and away I went into the darkness of the American sky.

A few plane changes and many exhausting hours later I looked out onto a patchwork quilt of green stretched before me as the sun glinted off the mighty Omo River that snaked its way along the Southern part of Ethiopia. I squinted my eyes to take it all in and noticed little plumes of black smoke dotting remote areas—no doubt campfires from locals cooking their morning breakfast.

Make sure to view the photo blog of Southern Ethiopia.

IS ETHIOPIA DANGEROUS?

Westerners are a cautious lot, to begin with. We watch news that conditions us to worry about dangers which keep us at home. Ethiopia is a troubled country economically and politically, but it is not any more dangerous than taking your chances on a U.S. highway.

Nonetheless, the obligatory warnings from friends and the U.S. State Department seem to be how I start out every trip. This time, it wasn’t to be taken lightly. It is important to get the best guide possible. Originally, I was set to travel with the National Geographic group but decided against it because I did not want to travel with a group that got the same pictures as me. I’m selfish that way.

At the time, there were protests in the lower Omo Region where I was going. I took that under advisement and made a point to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment program, aka S.T.E.P. program, an early warning system that pushes notification of any trouble to your phone.

Next, I got myself a chip from the local telephone company so I would have service anywhere in the country.

Lastly, I did my research and found a great local guide. There are many tour companies that operate abroad, but locals are the best. They typically have friends in every city you are visiting and call ahead to make sure there are no problems. My guide Melak Tadesse and our trusty drive “Bennie” of Omo-Turkana Tours did that for me and more.

T.I.A. (This is Africa)

I was all too happy to leave Addis Ababa behind and get on the road. We were ushered out with black ribbons of exhaust fumes that choked everyone stuck in the stand-still traffic. I kept my mind on what awaited me.

My eyes have soaked in the foreign scenery of goat herders and village dwellers wearing old dresses with scarves that swoosh around their necks and heads to cloak their hair. Of men plowing the fields with an ox and a sharpened piece of wood. I watched bails of grass as high as a hut piled on top of an old woman walking for miles. It is a punishing life for most people in Ethiopia but one that is likely less isolated than the one that Westerners live.

After several hours in a car, I found out that gas station bathrooms don’t come often. I had to leave my lady-like ways behind and settle for the side of the road. As my guide told me, “T.I.A.” This is Africa! Learn to travel with your own toilet paper and pull up a bush.

We rested in Jinka for the night. Here, a world away from home, I was in a hotel bed swathed in mosquito netting, quietly grappling with my unrealistic aversion to bugs and trying to put everything in perspective.

That morning, we left town and drove the Toyota SUV into a river as several men ran up and began to wash it. My guides went downstream and began to lather up and bathe. At the same time, little girls came to gather water and a Mursi tribesman who was bathing began playing a game of catch with a Nerf football while naked. There was literally no shame in his game. T.I.A.

A VISIT TO TRIBAL SHANGRI-LA

Following a short visit to see the Ari Tribe where we saw the local blacksmith make knives and enjoyed a dance, we pushed upwards into the mountains to see the Dorze people with one slight setback, a flat tire.

Walking through a bamboo forest was a small village made of beehive-shaped huts with elephant ears. The village was neatly kept and swept with chickens running around and the smell of smoke coming from inside a nearby hut.

We were welcomed inside by a local woman who had prepared some injera bread made from the roots of a local banana tree. She shared some homemade beer that was served out of a gourd and then we ate. Shortly after, the guide gave us each a shot of locally brewed liquor. I finished my shot of seemingly pure alcohol when the host said, “You have to drink another one and say the cheer!” This went on for several shots until the bottle was gone and I was very drunk. It wasn’t a head-spinning, speech slurring, stumbling kind of drunk but a happy ethereal drunk. We walked out of the village into a clearing and the sun was setting.

Everything took on a crisp tungsten glow. How long we had been here I didn’t know. I felt like Alice who had just fallen down the rabbit hole and all my time was drained away by this magical land. The only affectation of my drunkenness was when I turned to the guide and said, “I could live here forever.” He generously offered to build me a hut but I politely declined (for now). On our way out some local kids followed me, so I took a knee and hugged the small group that had lined up. It must have been, “Hug a drunk white woman day” in the village and I was it!

THE MIGHTY MURSI

Our next tribe would require all of my wits. A rocky ride down into the Omo Valley region brought us to the Mursi tribe. The gifts we brought were bananas, tobacco and razor blades. This tribe, known for their lip plates and gauged ears. They are tall, muscular, striking and fierce—not in a Beyonce way, but in terms of survival. They are known for sometimes killing their enemies with little thought. It seems the Mursi adopt the same rules people do in the streets, never show fear but strike fear.

These are a people with a proud history. After all, they escaped being enslaved by purposely marring their bodies and piercing their lips so that traders wouldn’t find them valuable. They can also be found on the side of the road throwing stones at the constant stream of trucks the hum by on their way to sugar plantations that are eating up their land and forcing them out of their ancestral land.

The Mursi have their own language, but I bridged the gap by starting a game of patty cakes with one of the girls and started to spin around one of the smaller boys. A few of the teenage girls looked me up and down and pointed to my hair. I thought she wanted to touch it, but she wanted to shave it. “No, no, no,” I told her. She promised she would make a beautiful design in my head. The Mursi can’t stand hair. They think it’s ugly. They carve intricate rings or circulars designs on their heads and matching patterns are scarred into their skin. That was what the razor blades were.

The most off-putting part of my visit was the nagging. They wanted pictures. Everywhere I walked, they lined up to take a photo. One girl, in particular, was bugging me, saying “photo money.” To them, I am a walking ATM. And soon, I realized my niceness was mistaken for weakness as I smiled but ignored one teenage girl. She pushed, poked me in the side, on the nose, and in my face. I finally looked at her and said neen-née-yah which means No. I found myself in a staring contest with her staring blankly back at me. I matched it.

From the moment you arrive, the Mursi test you. They size you up and feel you up. Several people, young and old came up and put their hands on my chest and then casually walked away. Another young girl shook my hand and then tried to arm wrestle with me. Strangely I fared well against this girl who worked regularly at grinding corn on a flat stone all day. Everything during my visit turned out to be a negotiation.

We set up camp a few hundred yards from the village. One of the Mursi’s joined us and made a fire. It was simple, basic living. We walked an average of five miles a day. We ate when we were hungry and we were actually tired by the end of the day.

Leaned against a tree, my guide Melak became my arm chair. I leaned the back of my head against his chest and we shared music. He braided my hair and fed me and we talked about our lives. I laughed as I played a Cuban rap song for one of the Mursi’s and heard him mimic, “Bada Bada Bing bang!”

We ended the night laying on mattresses under the stars hearing the distant ringing of cow bells and watching fireflies. It brought me back to my childhood where things were simple and the real entertainment was nature and human contact.

THE SECRET OF NATIONAL MAGAZINES

We said goodbye to the Mursi tribe we packed up and visited several villages over the next few days. We saw the Bull Jumping Ceremony of the Hamar people and brought candy to kids in the Dassenach tribe.

Our last trip landed us on the banks of the Omo River where we set up camp and visited the Kara people. It was a long bumpy ride along a dusty road filled with ant-hills that were sometimes two-stories high.

As we sat down with the tribe, I noticed they were playing a game with rocks in holes that looked like a crude version of Chinese checkers. I got a stick and started to teach the only game I could think of, tic-tac-toe when a tiny dot appeared on the horizon. It was a boat. The man next to me, Shoma, began to explain that they were two German tourists. Both of them I had run into at a ceremony the day before and had irritated me because they got in my shot. How did he know all of this? I was amazed. He told me that they know every person who goes up and down the river. He was literally dialed in with everything going on with a cell phone.

He gave me a tour of the village, showing me the hut where his family lives. During my tour, I see a truck backed up to a hut offloading racks of beer and coke bottles and picking up the empty ones. “You want a drink,” he says. After too much dust and sun, the hissing of a semi-cold bottle of coke opening was music. This was the life, I told him.

They were rich in terms of goats, had many travelers like myself visiting and were able to have a bar, a generator and cold drinks with a kitchen that churned out food for hungry tourists. It was rustic and modern at the same time. It was a lazy day but there was work being done by many of the villagers. And at sunset, I lined up my shot. An old man who I had found earlier agreed to pose for me. Nothing is free there, least of all a photo. Even though I knew from my days as a journalist, you never pay for a photo because it compromises you, I found out that all of the famous photographers pay up. And there it was.

That night I finished up dinner and Shoma asked to friend me on Facebook. As I watched night fall along the Omo River and the only light came from the stars, I was fulfilled. I had chased down and found the places in the covers of magazines that had brought me here. I found out that everything is not as it seems. While this tribe holds onto tradition, many like me have sought them out turning it into a lucrative enterprise where they have embraced modern conveniences. I wondered what would become of their traditions in the future. Would they be relegated to this history books like our American Indians, relics of the Cradle of Civilization?

As I left, I wished them well and was somewhat happy to be able to keep in touch with them. Perhaps I will find out through social media what is next for these proud and changing people.

(See my Photo Blog of the Tribes of Omo Valley)

J. Knight

The author J. Knight

A solo traveler with a soul-- I used adventure to face a tragic loss and found my way again. I'm now putting my experience to work as a former journalist to share my transformative travel tales with you. If you found that travel is your cure, share your story or come along with me.

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