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Tales from the Road: Fleeing from the Mursi Tribe in Ethiopia

The Omo Valley in Ethiopia. This is your National Geographic moment: Hundreds of tribes living in the remote Southwest of Ethiopia without water, electricity or “modern” technology like cars or TVs. They are still wearing their traditional clothes and jewelleries. Finally something 100% authentic you think. These tribes are not dancing in their traditional costumes in front of you like in many other places in Africa and changing afterwards in their Jeans and T-Shirts. No, this is your true Africa experience.

Well, the guy in Jeans and T-Shirt is probably as authentic as the tribes in Omo Valley. It is all a reality. This is Africa: A mixture of old traditions, voodoo beliefs, Christianity, just trying to survive day by day. And even though the Omo Valley tribes are still wearing their traditional clothes they also do what every African does: trying to survive day by day. And so they have quickly learned that a picture is not for free: Two Birr (around 10 cents) for kids, five Birr for adults.

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Our first visit is the Mursi tribe: One of the most hostile and violent tribes in the Omo Valley. But tourists still want to visit them as they are the tribe with the famous lib plates. Who doesn’t want to come home and show their own pictures of pretty girls looking somehow magical with their lib plates and necklaces? I have to admit, I feel more in a zoo than most of my times in Africa. I fight over the longing having pictures and instead just try to talk to them. I want to know more about their life. And I fail epically. They are conditioned to earn money and if you don’t want to take pictures they are getting aggressive. Most of them are drunk and my fellow Ethiopian tour guide finds out that during night they might be fighting against another village. I am discussing our plan to stay with the tribe over night with him and we soon make a decision to go. Some of them are carrying guns and we observed a fight between two men earlier. As we start packing up the Mursi get more and more aggressive. They want to earn money and they clearly see that their income will decrease if we are leaving now. They start to throw rocks and the situation escalates. We manage to jump into our truck and rush away…

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Our second attempt to get in touch with a tribe is working out for the better. The Hammer tribe agrees on a fixed amount of money we will be handing over to them at the end of the day. We can hang out with them for a few hours and take as many pictures as we like. And this time I cannot resist. These people look too stunning and magic. The girls and women have beautifully braided hair, red and shiny thanks to a mixture of oil and certain minerals. They are wearing leather and fur and many necklaces and bracelets. I am taking pictures and I also get to attend a coffee ceremony as well as the famous bull jumping ceremony, an initiating tradition for young men before they are allowed to marry. I get to see their homes, taste their food and see how they milk their goats. The kids are starting to bond the quickest; they invite me to play with them. The teenage girls and boys are curious and shy at the same moment. For a few moments they seem not much different from western teenagers standing in the corner, giggling and looking at us and chatting away in their funny sounding language. And this is also the limit: I don’t speak their language and they don’t speak mine. For the most part we will both stay in our world and just have a glimpse into each others lives. And I start to realize that I probably get to know more about daily life in Africa speaking to the guy in Jeans and T-Shirt as he most probably at least speaks a few words in English or French.

This intense experience leads to the very simple question I am asking myself over and over again: Is it right to enter their world? As much as we don’t want to leave no other prints than footprints we do influence their lives. On the other hand the world has grown together as a matter of fact. Africa is part of the world and of course they have the right to learn about our western world, too. But as a result Africa now tries to survive day by day combining their ancient traditions, social structures and believes with money, democracy and plastic bottles…

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