In Ethiopia’s Imperiled Omo Valley, Tribal Rituals and AK-47s

“The AK-47 has replaced the spear,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Biwa nodded. “As long as you have AK, you are respected,” he said. “Your family feels safe and proud. Someone with no AK, people look down on them. If you do not have AK your family will go to someone who does.”

They were American-made, I was told, gathered during the war in neighboring Sudan.

But they are not cheap,” Mr. Biwa said.

“How much do they cost?” I asked.

“Five cows,” he said.

Beside firearms, I witnessed few other accommodations to the contemporary world in the Omo. Yet for a place so far off the grid, news traveled fast throughout the valley. While in the Hamar village we heard word of a nearby bull-jumping ceremony. The bull jump is a ritual initiation to manhood for both the Hamar and Karo tribes. We headed east.

AT THE END of a long, deeply rutted road we came upon a dusty village in the midst of a celebration. Old men and women gathered in the shade. Young men painted their faces red and white. Young women were draped in skirts and wore large bells wrapped around their calves. Their hair was ornately done in rings caked with ochre-colored mud. Each carried a small horn and blew it incessantly.

When one young woman turned away from me I noticed fresh welts on her bare back, dripping blood; she seemed unaware and continued to dance. Then I saw her approach a young man, stand close in front of him, and blow her horn in his face. She began to jump up and down, her bells clanging, her horn blaring. The young man bent to the ground and picked up a long switch and raised it over his head. The woman blew her horn more insistently, then suddenly stopped. She stared at the young man. He struck her with the whip, which snapped around her body and lashed across her back with a sharp cracking sound. She did not flinch. She lifted her horn, blew it in his face and danced away, fresh blood rising on her back. The same performance was repeated again and again by many of the young women. Their backs were covered in old scars and new welts, yet none of them displayed any outward signs of pain.

As the sun was setting, a dozen bulls were led to a clearing and aligned flank to flank. The women clustered together and began jumping, their bells ringing out, their horns blasting. Others began to chant. Suddenly a naked young man leapt up on the back of the first bull and raced across the spine of each. He jumped down after the last bull, but then he was up again, racing across their backs in the other direction. He repeated the back-and-forth exercise three times. If he fell it would be a disgrace he would carry for life, Mr. Biwa had warned me. But the youth never faltered — the next morning he would awake a man, able to sit among the elders.


Scarification — small, raised scars created by rubbing charcoal in deliberately administered cuts, causing the skin to welt in intricate patterns — is common among tribes in the Omo Valley, including the Daasanach (a tribesman is pictured here).

Andy Haslam for The New York Times

The women continued to blow their horns and the celebration continued on into the night. We drove away under a moonless sky, the Southern Cross hanging low, silence filling our car.

THE NEXT MORNING we headed up river to a small village of the Nyangatom tribe. Relations between Karo and Nyangatom have long been strained. Intertribal conflicts over cattle rustling and grazing land have kept the valley bristling with internal strife for decades, passed down from generation to generation, Mr. Biwa said.

“Where we are going, this was our land until 15 years ago,” Mr. Biwa said as he throttled our engine through the brown water. “The Nyangatom are fierce fighters. They pushed us across the river. Our women tell us we are weak. Not just with their words. They dance — in front of everyone. It is a shame we wear.”

We passed large crocodiles cooling themselves on the muddy banks, their jaws resting open. Black-and-white colobus monkeys leapt from branches of fig trees. A dugout canoe sat unattended on the riverbank. A Goliath heron lumbered into the air.

In time the heavy foliage lining the river thinned, then grew sparse. Thirty-foot cliffs began to rise up and the landscape turned parched. Ahead, on the west bank, bony cattle were drinking from the river, kicking a choking dust high into the sky and across the sun, casting everything in an eerie patina. Atop the cliff, two men stood sentry. One had an AK-47 slung from his shoulder; the other wore what in a more urban setting might have been called a hipster hat. The tribes wore a mishmash of clothing — brightly colored traditional wraps, animal skins and adornments, mixed freely with Chelsea football jerseys, rakish caps and fatigue shorts — creating an all too apt picture of Africa’s disparate influences, all vying for dominance.

The men on the cliff greeted us with stares, and we set out across the arid land. Distant hills of Kenya were visible to the south. Three young girls with water jugs balancing on their heads silently caught up with us. One carried the designs of scarification — small, raised scars created by rubbing charcoal in deliberately administered cuts, causing the skin to welt in intricate patterns. They made this two-mile walk to and from the river twice daily — in Africa carrying water is women’s work.


Scarification and colored beads on a Daasanach woman.

Andy Haslam for The New York Times

At the outskirts of the village, a half-dozen expressionless men loitered. The tallest sported a vaguely military-looking beret, worn at a jaunty angle, and an AK-47. The rest held long sticks. Some wore rubber sandals made from scavenged truck ties; the others were barefoot.

Many Nyangatom are seminomadic and this village appeared haphazardly thrown together, as if built in a rush, without care. There was no central meeting area, no sense of organization. Children did not rush to greet us. We huddled with the men in the scant shade of a scraggly date tree. Cigarettes were passed around and smoked.

In time, more than a dozen women emerged from the honeycomb-shaped dwellings that looked as if they could neither contain nor shelter life. One old woman began to chant, then just as suddenly stopped. All wore heavy ropes of beaded necklaces piled high and were wrapped from the waist in once colorful cloth, and several held small children. Fatigue hung in the blistering heat. It would have been difficult to imagine daily life clinging closer to the edge of existence.

“The cradle of mankind is no Garden of Eden,” Mr. Jones said softly as we tracked back cross the barren land to the boat.

Back down the river, the mood was more celebratory — a ceremony was underway in Dus. Two hundred men from Mr. Biwa’s Karo tribe were gathering in a large semicircle on a bluff above the river. Seating was arranged from the youngest to the most senior elder. I was offered a spot in the dirt much too far along the timeline for my liking.

A bull was being roasted over an open fire in the center of the gathering. Three men with machetes hacked the animal to pieces. Chunks of meat and fat, clinging to large bones, were deposited onto small beds of leaves before the assembled. A part of the animal I couldn’t identify was dropped in front of me. The old man beside me with heavily pierced ears and a pointed stick protruding below his lower lip offered me his knife. He watched as I sliced into the mysterious blob, then grinned as I put it in my mouth. Just beyond the circle a dozen hooded vultures gathered.

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