Tribal people in Ethiopia take photos of their world

August 10, 2018

Bonnie hands me a calabash filled with lukewarm liquid brewed from sunbaked coffee leaves. Two weeks into my travels, I sip, and gird my bowels. I am a guest in her home, which is about 4 feet high and constructed of sticks. It rises from the red-soiled plain overlooking the Omo River, near the border of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan.

I am on her turf, a settlement of the Karo ethnic group of Ethiopia. Tourists have descended on her settlement with cameras trained on its residents; the arrangement discomforts me. But just as Ive entered her world, Bonnie (my spelling) is about to enter mine. We dont yet know it, but together we are about to turn a lens on the human safari.

Last fall, my husband, Todd Melby, and I booked three weeks of adventure and sun in Ethiopia. Our interest in the country percolates from our Minneapolis neighborhood. People from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Oromia, a region of Ethiopia, glide by my window. The women wear tie-dyed hijabs or gauzy scarves; the men, embroidered caps and beards hennaed the color of persimmons. On sidewalks, we pass and say Salaam, and we grew intrigued.

To prepare for our trip, Todd and I bought the Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia and Djibouti. We dined with an Ethiopian expat and got poked with a startling number of vaccines. We departed on Valentines Day and, 28 hours later, arrived in the depth of night in the capital city, Addis Ababa.

Todd did not stay in Ethiopia long enough to get its groove. He is practiced at countries like India, but his taste hews toward mega cities. This trip began with a four-day trek in the countryside near the holy city of Lalibela, during which his distrust of nature (and poor sanitation) was confirmed: It will liquefy you. He bought a one-way ticket back.

I stay. I hire a guide to tour the Omo Valley, a border region that is home to many of Ethiopias indigenous people. Mihiret Awdie, 28, is a rare female tour guide who speaks Amharic and English and whose passport has stamps from Vietnam, Thailand and Israel. She weighs about 100 pounds wet and favors shirts with sparkles. We click.

In the south, we meet our driver, who goes by Wushu or little pup. For the next six days, his Land Cruiser defines our existence. A continuous loop of music plays as the rugged landscape passes by, goats and cattle weave in and out of our way, and the road shifts every so often, and briefly, from gravel to pavement.

From our base in the town of Turmi, we visit remote settlements. To reach the Daasanach, I get a ride in a canoe hand-hewn from a tree trunk. The river doesnt so much flow as ooze. The Daasanach are nomadic, their camp a locus of rounded shelters molded of thatched sticks and corrugated metal. It bakes under a ferocious sun, without a single tree to offer relief.

Residents in T-shirts, goatskin skirts, striped sarongs rush to high-five Mihiret and knock shoulders in greeting. Before long, other tourists and guides appear. Faranjis like me, these visitors Israelis, Koreans, Italians, Belgians point their lenses to within inches of peoples faces and snap away. As if on a human safari. I wince.

To absolve myself, I pass my smartphone to a Daasanach girl. I point at the big white button. I lift it before her eyes and press. She immediately understands. I leave it in her hands. Rapid fire, she frames herself, her grandmother, the soil under her feet, me looking disoriented and smiling too large. Then she takes a slo-mo video of shadows.

This technology transfer becomes my way to cope.

In Turmi, my hotel room has a mosquito net over the bed, but its punched with a big fat hole. There is a fan, but no electricity. I smother myself in DEET and use a head lamp.

One day, we visit a nearby Hamer settlement, where people keep sheep and goats in fenced yards around their squat homes. The women wear their hair in cavatappi curls coated in a glittery copper-colored butter. I learn to identify a first wife by her necklace: it wraps her throat and forms a silver knob at her Adams apple.

With a mischievous look, Mihiret waves me over to a home and invites me to enter. Two women squat on the earthen floor. One, a newlywed named Iylo, looks as if shes been dipped in milk chocolate. She wears the knobbed necklace of a first wife. Iylo pats a goatskin, encouraging us to sit. The tang of goat hits me.

Hamer tradition dictates that a bride spend six months confined in her home, Mihiret tells me. I can only figure the custom is designed to control her reproductive activity. The reason Iylo glistens is another marital rite: she must daub herself in the same shimmering butter used in the womens hair. From head to toe, her skin is lustrous. I am fascinated and horrified.

I do what I do when I can no longer stand my voyeuristic self: I hand my smartphone to a local. This time it goes to Ayka, a lanky Hamer teen who has driven with us from Turmi. He occupies a liminal plane between town and tradition. A day earlier he joined us for a Hamer bull-jumping ceremony. When he is ready to marry, hell teeter across the backs of bulls like other Hamer men who have made that rite of passage. On that day, he watched with us from the sidelines.

Ayka takes off with my device. Im not worried. I feel lighter without it.

That night, at the hotel restaurant, Ayka gulps down a Coke while I drink a beer. He is eager to show me what his eye and my phone have captured. He flicks past pictures, frame by frame. Most are of young women with coy grins taken during the golden hour, when the sun is low and the air suffused with light. Their skin glows. The subjects are lovely, relaxed, and so are his photographs. He teases me by speaking English in a falsetto voice, and I am reminded he is just a boy, years away from jumping bulls.

Still, hes a good photographer.

But it is Bonnie, of the Karo people, who will flip the formula.

We reach her settlement after two hours of rugged driving. (African massage, Wushu calls it.) Bonnie greets Mihiret with a sisterly embrace, then welcomes us into her home, where her family rests in the shade.

She wears her hair shaved except for a palm-sized circle at her crown, making her face an especially expressive canvas. Piles of yellow and white beads ring her neck; metal bracelets line her wrists and upper arms. Her clothing is a tan goatskin trimmed with rows of white cowrie shells.

Other folks peek in and sit down with us, too. By custom, the Karo people paint facial decorations using white clay. Their cheeks are adorned in amoeba-like patterns. In the darkness of the hut, the patterns appear to float.

I sense an opportunity with the intimacy of the moment. Through Hadish, a Karo-speaking guide, I ask Bonnie how tourists like me can help her people.

She narrows her eyes, pausing thoughtfully. Take pictures, she answers. Pay us to take pictures. But ask questions. And share your stories. We want to know about you and where you come from. Looking at me directly, she adds, We want you to help us expand our world.

I hand Bonnie my phone. I show her pictures of a bitter-cold Minnesota day, the sky white and unyielding. She gives a mock shiver and a look that says, Oh, no. I show her my adult stepsons, standing next to Todd. She mimes a scruffy beard, noting theirs.

Then I show Bonnie a video of my dog, luxuriating in the fresh-cut grass of summer. Her eyes grow big, her face cracking open. She whoops. She hands my phone to her mother, a strong woman with a feathered headdress and a nail protruding from under her bottom lip. The nail rises and falls rhythmically as she laughs. I expect these women are thinking, Who could imagine a creature so ugly, rolling around in grass so green?

The phone passes from one hand to the next, all around the room. Everyone laughs. All I can do is entertain them for a few minutes. Its all I have.

About the photos in this storyPeople from Ethiopias ethnic minority groups earn much of their living through photography fees paid by tourists like me. Despite that, I was discomforted by the sight of visitors wielding cameras and snapping away with little real interaction. My response was to hand over my smartphone to locals so they could capture their world. By doing so, I realize that I shirked responsibility for the photographs taken on it, but still got the spoils. I must live with that. My commitment is to credit the photographers, as best as I am able, and to not claim credit for their work.

Diane Richard is a Minneapolis writer. She wrote about Kolkata, India, for the Star Tribune in April.

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