Take only pictures, leave only money

Dassanech women waiting for the call

(Greg) The Southern Omo Valley in Ethiopia – just north of Kenya and just east of Sudan – is a tough place to get to. That is exactly why we are here. It is so remote that its indigenous cultures have been largely unspoiled by modern civilization. Until recently.

With the exception of a few plastic jerry cans, water bottles or rifles, most of these tribes live as they have for centuries; in small grass huts lit and heated by fire, tending to crops and livestock. They prefer goat skin and beaded jewelry to Western t-shirts although the occasional Manchester United jersey or abibs (an adidas knock-off) shirt could be seen on the more au courant guys in the local market.

Our plan was to use our tried-and-true village visit system: arrive in a small village, smile, hang out, ask questions and get to know how these people live. Our kids would often sing a song or pull out the soccer ball as a good ice-breaker. This technique had worked well in Southern Africa and South America, India and Asia. Just after we were paddled across the fast-flowing Omo River to visit the Dassanech people, we discovered that our usual get-to-know-you techniques would be woefully inadequate.

The minute we landed on the far bank we were approached (besieged?) by 2 or 3 ladies with babies looking stern and asking “photo, photo?” (pronounced as Kunta Kinte’s father did in his initiation ceremony, “present your fotos”). After those three ladies, more came then lined up in the village adorned with lots of traditional garb, holding goats and spears and babies, all of them wrangling to be chosen – and paid – for pictures. The kids tugged on my pants, “photo, 5 birr,” the equivalent of about 25 cents. It was uncomfortable and made more so by the distinct feeling that we were reenacting a more benign version of the old slave market with Africans lined up being selected based on physical beauty and strength. It was not good.

In our family meeting afterward we debriefed on the experience. Everyone was uncomfortable and highly disappointed. If our week in the Omo Valley was to be like this, we had made a big mistake. It was suggested that perhaps if we left cameras in the car and proceed with our standard village visit system (enhanced by the addition of Super Pinky bouncy balls) we might at least be able to defer the “photo, photo” business element until the end of each visit.

Playing the Name Game to break the ice

This strategy worked and we came away with great learning, personal interactions and yes, in the end, photos. But I am conflicted and confused by the implications of all of this. Tourists some years ago must have given a few birr as a thanks for a few pictures. This practice blossomed into an expectation and a material revenue source for these people. While we pay, on average, 750 birr to the village as a whole for the right to visit, this money does not go directly to individuals. So the more aggressive and authentic and visually interesting the photo subject, the more that person makes.

The cat is out of the bag on this one and it will never be reversed. It will likely get worse; with photo prices rising and photo subjects eventually changing from western clothes into goat skin just as the visitors arrive. We call it the Epcot-ization of the planet. It is inevitable. And why shouldn’t these guys have the right to wear what they want and make some money off their culture? It’s just a bummer for those who would prefer the world not homogenize. At least the six of us were able to see it while it was close to being really real. In three years, the Omo River Dam will be complete, the tribes will likely be relocated, their traditional way of life drowned and they will have no choice but to fully embrace Epcot.

Alexandra teaching Karo kids a dance move

Postscript: Ethiopia is a beautiful place with beautiful people. But never have we seen so many children wave to us with their hands out. And never have we seen so many NGO’s in a single country. The correlation is unproven but reasonable.

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