Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

African adventure a time warp

Pictures come to life in Ethiopia's South Omo Valley

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I am sitting in a tour operator's office in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, awaiting my turn.

Three faded photographs grab my attention: In the first, a half-naked woman hugs a baby to her breast. A CD-sized circular clay plate is jammed behind her stretched to-the-max bottom lip.

Next, a young girl grins from under a "ladder" of colourful plastic hair slides running from the crown of her head to the bridge of her nose.

The third shows a cheeky child balancing a hollowed-out calabash cap on her ochre-coloured locks.

As soon as a tour staff member asks what I would like to experience, I point to the pictures on the wall and blurt out: "These people. I want to see these people. Do they still exist or are they running around in jeans and T-shirts now?"

"Oh, so you want to go to the South Omo Valley," she replies, barely missing a beat. "I can arrange a car and driver. You'll need a guide and nine days to do the job properly. I will work out an itinerary. Come back in an hour."

I hand over a huge wad of birr, the local currency, obtained from a bank at the smart Sheraton Addis hotel. (U.S. dollars are OK but Visa has yet to cut it in this emerging country.) My heart is pounding with anticipation. I am about to launch into a serious adventure -- to hell with the cost.

Twenty-four hours later, I am in the front seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser. Tesfaye Mideksa, my guide, is sitting behind explaining the significance of cows.

"Cows buy wives, food, coffee beans and most of all they buy status," he announces. "Without cows a man is nothing." And -- as if to prove his point -- the road ahead is jammed with cows heading for distant pastures.

Herders range in age from 10-year-old boys, hardly able to see over the backs of their charges, to men carrying smartphones and windup radios. Pass one lot and face the next and the next.

Heading south, we pass golden wheat fields and saline Rift Valley lakes. Men load bananas onto smoke-belching trucks. Beehives, shaped like oversized beer-barrels, hang from perfectly proportioned branches of Acacia trees. "Honey is an aphrodisiac," assures Mideksa with a grin. "We don't need Viagra here."

We stop for lunch. The boys attack injera, pizza-sized fermented pancakes with the consistency of foam rubber -- the staple diet of Ethiopians. Liberal amounts of chili-based wat sauce kill the vinegar aftertaste -- and the roof of a ferengi's (foreigner's) mouth.

The Chinese have been busy black-topping Ethiopia's roads, but it still takes a day to reach Jinka, the administrative capital of South Omo. Dust from ongoing highway construction covers everything. The dodgy town generator is having a meltdown, which means no showers, no light, no Internet and no cold beer until it gets fixed.

After a good night's sleep and a hot shower, I am really pumped. Today is Thursday -- market day in Key Afer, a few kilometres down the road. We park the car. Mideksa hands me three brick-sized wads of one-birr bills worth a total of $15.

"You will need money to pay for photographs," he explains. "I will help you negotiate."

We walk down a dirt pathway between buildings. The pictures have come to life. Hamer women are decked out in goat skin bikinis, cowrie shell belts and copper bracelets. Those who are married wear a thick copper necklace -- two if they are a second wife. Tsemay people favour "dollar store" hair slide ladders on their faces. Hairdressers apply a mix of ochre, clay and butter to the braided locks of their female customers.

I rationalize that tourists, like me, love to photograph these colourful people who are stuck in a time warp. Sure, we might buy a bauble or two in the markets, but paying for every shot does create something of a barrier. Perhaps it's just an exchange of goods? Are we as much of a commodity to them as they are to us?

After lunch we head through Mago National Park, picking up a gun-wielding scout along the way. I now have three men and a large SUV on the payroll.

For a while, the road follows the flat Rift Valley bottom before turning up into the mountains. Mursi people, with lip plates, ear plugs and painted faces appear at the roadside hoping for photo bucks. When we reach their village, I am a target.

"Take my picture -- five birr," says the old lady. "Mine too" says the woman with a massive clay lip plate, two sheep horns hanging from her head and a baby sucking on her breast. Other tourists arrive and share the heat -- phew!

Over the years, the size of the plate is increased. The bigger the plate, the more she will fetch as a wife. A woman with a real whopper can bring 50 head of cattle to her family. Unfortunately, big plates are uncomfortable and often removed by the wearer, who then goes around with a sad, droopy, lower lip.

Men have their own problems. None can marry until they have won a donga (stick) fight, which used to continue until one contestant dies, but now a severe wounding is considered enough.

On the way home we drop into a Hamer village. I get to play with the kids and look inside a few simple huts. I notice many of the women have thick welts on their bodies made by cutting themselves and treating the wounds with ash and charcoal.

One girl is particularly unfriendly. She turns her back and I see she has scars that have become septic. I ask Mideksa what happened.

"Her lashes from a bull jumping ceremony never healed," he replies simply. "She can't sleep."

When a Hamer boy reaches marriageable age, a three-day initiation takes place. The third day begins with the women getting drunk in preparation for being beaten with sticks out of respect for the boy.

I offer to buy medication and we head to the medical centre, but she is still not happy. Mideksa explains, "She will be lashed again tomorrow at her brother's ceremony. She has no option."

The next afternoon we follow the crowd to a hollow beside the road. A group of men are decorating the face of a boy who looks tense. Other young men chat quietly in a corner. Each holds a freshly cut sapling.

The thunderous ringing of bells gets closer. Chanting women dance down the road wearing bells strapped to their legs. Finally, the young men head into the group and the whipping begins. Any man who refuses is taunted by the women with comments like: "What sort of a man are you? Whip me."

I find my girl and turn her around. Her eyes are glazed. Her back is running with blood. I am told she took all the medication in preparation for today's event.

The crowd moves into a clearing where seven bulls, chosen by elders, have been lined up side to side. The young man, with a freshly painted face, appears. Now naked, he races toward the bulls and leaps onto the back of the first one and then runs across the backs of the other six. To qualify, he must do this three times without falling. Otherwise, the women have the right to beat him.

Visiting the South Omo Valley is amazing, sometimes horrific but, without doubt, fascinating and unique. Men here are proudly marked as heroes for killing another for his cattle. Women are sold as wives. Photos cost. Sometimes each click of the camera is counted. Whether you agree with the customs or not, the people and their traditions are real.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 E1

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