Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Journey to the Omo River

Chencha, a village of the Dorze, is located high above Lake Abaya, close to Arba Minch. The Dorze are accomplished house builders. The structure of the houses, which can reach 12m and look like an elephant head, is made of bamboo intertwined with banana leaves. As termites do their work, the house gets lower and lower, requiring the entrance door to be adjusted. When no more adjustment is possible, the house is moved to the side and used as a kitchen to leave the space for building a new house.

Inside the house, two partitions separate sleeping space, storage space and space for the animals, which will offer warmth during the cold nights.

The Dorze produce thick cotton cloth adapted to their mountainous climate. The thread is spun by the women, who start learning it at age 7, and woven by the men, who start at age 9.

Gabore village is on Konso land, at the top of a finely terraced hill. The Konso, a tribe of about 280,000 people, terrace their hilly lands to enhance the crops. Adepts of permaculture, they try to achieve sustainable development in their agriculture, heavily dependent on the amount of rain. They plant various crops (cotton, papayas, maize, sweet potatoes, cassava, chili, etc.) so as not to overwork the soil and control the growth of their settlements, the construction of a new house being bound to the obligation of building a new stone wall around it as a fire protection and protection against wild animals.

The community house, in the middle of the village, houses the guests who have no relatives in the village, for young people to sleep, and for husbands whose wives have given birth to a baby.

After the birth, men are to stay 2 years in the community house as a family planning measure, but polygamy is allowed. Taking a new wife implies feeding her three months long “on trial”. If she looks good and does not complain about the treatment given to her, she can marry the boy.

A big stone placed close to the community house is also a test for young boys. If they are strong enough to put the stone on their shoulder, they can get married.

The generation pole placed in front of the community house is made of several tree trunks replaced regularly (termites!) and refer to the responsibility of each member of the community. A new trunk is added as a member of the community reaches adult age. He has new rights, but also more responsibilities and duties.

The Konso have very elaborate funerary and burial practices. When an important person such as a village chief dies, he will be dried, his abdomen taken out and his body treated with honey, butter and incense. This mummification process takes 9 months, 9 days and 9 hours.

For the burial ceremony, the abdomen will be buried together with the body but in a separate jar so as to prevent the decay of the mummy. A grave marker called waga will be erected, remembering the deeds of the deceased with wooden sculptures of himself, his wife or wives, the enemies he has killed, etc.

The Nyangatom live on the other side of the Omo river and are related to a tribe living the South Sudan. They are nomadic people living in small villages of about 20 round huts, with approximately 150 people (a very approximate figure since humans are not counted, only cattle!). Goats are very important, and warring over them and food with other tribes is frequent. Scarifications and glass beads from Kenya are the main adornment of the Nyangatom.

The weekly market in Turmi is a gathering event for the Turmi people who come from the villages nearby and far. Some travel over a day to reach the market. Goods are exchanged, but it is also a social event where young men can meet young women, where the news are exchanged.

Tobacco, coffee husks used to make “tea”, chili, grinded ochre mixed with butter and incense for hairdo, cows, sorghum are the main articles.

The Karo, a small tribe of about 1,500 people living in 3 villages, are pastoralists. The village of Korcho was founded 10 years ago as people moved across the river in search of new grazing land. Sorghum and maize is grown on the fertile lands on the river banks, goats and sheep graze around the village. Barter with the Hamer is carried out over sorghum and milk.

The cattle does not sleep in the houses, but in a special enclosure close to the houses. The crops are stored in small huts, one per family. Inside the houses, only a few goat skins for sleeping, a few calabasas for water and food, a small chimney hole to cook tea and coffee.

Dimeka market has the same traditional goods like Turmi market, plus “modern” goods such as Chinese mirrors, batteries, torches, t-shirts, textiles. This abundance of modern goods translates itself in the way of dressing. Scarifications and body painting are still present, but so are bras (worn atop) and football shirts!

The Mursi live on territories inside the Mago national park. Their villages are more accessible than they were before due to sugar cane plantations being developed, using the Omo river water. There are about 12 Mursi villages with a total population of approximately 6,000 people. The Mursi are known for the lip plates worn by married women or women of marriageable age. These lip plates are made of dry clay. Being heavy, they are replaced by plates made of float wood when the women have to travel. The incision for the lip plate starts around six months before marriage. The lower front teeth are taken out to allow the round plate to fit, a cut is made below the lower lip to put a small plate. This small plate will be replaced by a bigger plate later.

Younger girls wear ear plates, mostly made of wood. Women who could not “grow” a lip plate have big ear plates. These plates are felt as a symbol of beauty and status, a woman without a plate being less desirable. Among younger women and younger men, there are critical voices, too. Men might felt that women look ugly when the plate is taken off, nothing stooping the flow of saliva. Women sometimes perceive the hanging lip as disturbing and not justified in terms of beauty.

Here, tourism plays a double-edge role. The Mursi know about their being photogenic, and this source of income will probably allow the plates to survive longer. The income from tourism is also a small development bonus, some of the money being collected in the community for investments such as a water delivery system, or diesel pumps and water tanks.

South-Western Ethiopia, December 2011/January 2012.

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