The Omo River Valley of southern Ethiopia.
Home to eight different tribes whose population numbers approximately 200,000. I spent a week exploring this ethnographically rich part of the world in October 2016 and left with two prevailing questions: What is beauty? At what point does modernization and cultural assimilation cross the line from welcomed to forced?
What is beauty? To a Mursi woman, it is her lip plate—a handcrafted ceramic that fits snugly in her stretched lower lip and distinguishes her from me, the urbanites of Addis Ababa, and even her fellow tribes in the Omo River Valley. Of the 82 tribes in Ethiopia, only two (Mursi and Surma) continue to use lip plates today. Mursi women have long considered lip plates to be beautiful ornamentation; they each craft their own plate and take pride in its size and design. But contemporary culture is infiltrating the far reaches of southwest Ethiopia, and many young women are abandoning the practice as well as traditional clothing in favor of western norms and western garb.
Automatic weapons are a symbol of wealth and prestige around these parts, and they are used to protect prized livestock from lions and hyenas. When asked whether or not the Mursi use these weapons against neighboring tribes (internecine warfare is common), the answer is a definitive “never”.
In addition to stretching their lower lips, many Mursi women chose to adorn their bodies with scars as a means of signifying their entrance into adulthood. After the initial cut, wounds are rubbed with sap or ash so that they heal as raised flesh.
What is beauty? To Hamar women, it’s mixing butter with red ochre and lathering their hair to spectacular effect. This practice is used to shield their scalps from the blazing sun as well as hold dreadlocks in place.
Like the Mursi, the Hamar are historically nomadic pastoralists with their own language and rich traditions. Yet it takes only a few moments in a Hamar village to discern the impact modernization is having on this culture. Foreign direct investment projects, such as a huge pipeline that siphons away water from the Omo River and funnels it to nearby urban areas, dot the landscape. New roads that facilitate easy travel for tourists, of which I am admittedly guilty of using, cross land traditionally used for cattle grazing. The Ethiopian government benefits from these changes, but it’s hard to see how readily the Hamar people do.
Some argue that this cross-cultural contact undermines traditional Hamar values while others say it’s one of the best way for long-term cultural preservation, as the money derived from tourist traffic helps the Hamar interact and benefit from an increasingly market-driven economy in the Omo River Valley. The pragmatist in me sees validity to both sides of the argument. More often than not, though, the conversations I had with both Ethiopians from Addis Ababa and tribal members in the Omo River Valley led me to believe I was capturing images of lifestyles and traditions that are decidedly swimming against the current of modernization. And the prevailing current always overpowers in the long run.
What is beauty? Using white chalk and red ochre, members of the Karo tribe paint intricate designs on their faces and bodies to highlight beauty, make a personal statement, and augment sex appeal. Lacerations and scarification are also common among the Karo. Piercings and cuts are highly esteemed because they indicate courageousness and strength.
The Karo is one of the smaller tribes in the Omo River Valley. Those I visited were living near a wooded area in a seemingly more hospitable place than the sun-scorched environs of the Mursi and Hamar.
As with all travel, cultural misperceptions abound. Words fail; communication is flawed. It’s particularly daunting to be a photographer, a white foreigner-photographer, who flies in and speeds through a region seeking to document a myriad of people and capture them as they really are, which is a richly complex, beautiful, and highly emotive slice of humanity. I often wondered if my presence—and certainly the presence of my camera—annoyed more than enhanced the quality of my interactions. Are the tribes of the Omo River Valley pleased with tourism and the money/attention it brings to them and their cultures? Or do they feel like novelty acts performing the same routine week after week?
So with that admission out of the way, I close out this photo essay of the Mursi, Hamar, and Karo with one of my favorite shots of the trip: When cross-cultural communication fails, as it surely will, you can be forgiven for a great many offenses and your own ignorance if you’re capable of provoking a smile and a laugh from the person standing across from you.