The night was short. I woke up at 3:30 by the screaming loudspeakers of the neighboring Orthodox church. Apparently the mass in Ethiopia starts at 4am and won’t finish until 7:30. Not a good start for what I was afraid to be a challenging day.
I had read a lot about the Mursis and how aggressive they can be, so I was really worried. I was afraid of getting disappointed and destroying one of the visions of my youth. I took up on photography while studying at the university, when I read an issue of the French magazine PHOTO that had a story on the Mursis or the Suris. Since that moment, I always wanted to travel world, meet locals and document my travels. My expectations were high and my fear of disappointment disturbing.
The average tourist visit lasts for about 15 minutes as they are really pushy in soliciting photo opportunities, grabbing visitors and asking for all sorts of things, from your wrist watch to your shoes and t-shirt. I guess this their way to show their dislike for the human zoo experience that developed over the last thirty years. In a famous interview in 1991, even before the tourism started arriving in waves, they quoted to the Belgian film crew: “why do they want us to be your children?” They feel intimidated by the photo frenzy that takes place as most of the tourists get out of the car, snap pictures and leave quickly. It might be that communicating with Mursis is a real challenge or that they are threatened by the giant cultural divide, or that the Ethiopian guides are also afraid by this unique tribe and prime the tourists accordingly.
There is an excellent paper from the anthropologist Jon Abbink, the Return of Exoticism and the Commodification of an Ethiopian “Tribe“ that describes and cites how professional journalists and tourists misunderstand and broadcast the wrong image of the local cultures.
It does not have to be this way and fortunately it wasn’t for us. When we arrived in Shambel we parked the car at the entrance of the village and got out without cameras and bags. We walked past the men circle and approached the women who were sitting under a tree. We were lucky that one of the girls, a young mother of two, by the name Kucho – or something close – could speak Amharic that she learned in school, in Jinka. She could even understand some words in English. We started discussing with her through Wegderes and before long we were invited to sit on a stone and join the circle. She said that she was happy to return to the village after her school years and reunite with her family. Clearly, she did not want to leave. The conversation went on for about forty minutes and took a genuine interest in us. They asked where we come from and whether we produce milk at home, since we politely denied to drink the goat milk they offered us out of a plastic bottle that contained a very visible dead fly. They felt at ease and became friendly, smiling and showing hospitality. When they asked about photos we told them that we were not there for that. No problem..
But of course, I was not leaving without the pictures I dreamed since my college years. I went to the car and brought the cameras together with my Fuji pocket printer. I snapped a picture of Kucho and her little daughter, then of her mother, printed two copies and handed them over. Now they were happy. Then I proposed to photograph all the women and kids for a flat fee. We negotiated 500 birr, for about 50 people and after a short discussion with the other women they said accepted. Now, this is unthinkable for the Mursis. They never negotiate flat fees, so it shows how open they can be if you show them a little respect.
After the photo session it was time to say goodbye. I was very moved by the elder ladies that were kissing my hands for the money. Normally tourists do not pick older women for photos, so they rarely get the chance to earn some birrs. The men, were a bit less open and even tried to pull some extra money, but it came down to a very friendly goodbye.
Kucho surprised me when she asked for some soap. I did not have any and promised to send her some when Wegderes returns to the village. I did not think that personal hygiene was something they care for, but obviously I was mistaken.
In the afternoon we visited an Ari village, walking distance from the lodge. Aris are agriculturists and more westernized than the rest of the valley tribes. They have electricity but the living conditions are still ages behind. We spend time watching how they do pottery, distill alcohol and grind sorghum to make flower. I was particularly moved by a 30-something old lady, a mother of 10 kids that was abandoned by her husband and had to grow her children with 200 birr per quarter in alimony. I was very surprised that she did not ask for any money for showing us how she made the pottery or for the pictures or for allowing us to enter her hut. She did not even try to sell her pottery. I proposed to buy something and grossly overpaid for a small pot. She returned a big smile and a bigger thank you. The best money I spent in the valley.
Even the kids that followed us everywhere were happy to pose and never asked for money. Ari people seem to be different than the pastoralists of the valley.