Ethiopia Photo diary from Omo Valley

May 4, 2017

 

The minute I saw their photos, I became obsessed with them. The obsession continued throughout the years and made me restless. It became part of my thoughts, bound to become reality soon... everything has it's own time and that time finally came...Omo…Name that was always on my mind..The most mysterious part of Ethiopia... Completely different from each other by traditions, language, behavior, appearance, these tribes are scattered across one huge valley. What they have in common is amazing sense of esthetics.
First question that aroused was -where can I get visa? I called up a friend- it appeared that he had more to say that what I expected.
-You know, Mindia, our first ambassador was just assigned in Ethiopia and I will try to arrange meeting with him for you.
And I got to meet the Ambassador.
Such a precious feeling when project is just starting and you feel all the encouragement and support from people around you.That was exactly how Ambassador VakhtangJaoshvili said good buy to me: We will meet in Adis! (Addis Ababa)

There are tons of things that need to be done for this kind of project: visas, tickets, printing, gallery space, and last but not least: finances... I got few sponsors' back and path to project fulfillment was paved. TBC Bank, LiveTime, Photo Center, Gurieli, National Museum of Georgia and Georgian Embassy in Ethiopia- They all wanted the project to come out successful and now everything depended on me.
Got call- visa arrived. My heartbeat changed for a second I went there and saw that instead of February, it said- January! When I got my passport with visa, it was already third week of January. Nothing is accidental- I guess I had to be in Georgia in February...

 

My passport travelled back and forth to Tbilisi- Ankara, but Ethiopian Embassy in Ankara just wouldn't admit and fix mistake. Time went by, no answer. Ministry of Foreign Affair really tried to fix the problem.
-You have no idea what is going on in here, but I'll try my best so you get the visa at the border- said Mr. Shako Datiashvili, our councilmen in Ethiopia. He told me about a place where I had to pick up my papers, but believe me, it's pretty hard to describe the chaotic scene of the office there. Wayward line was stretched from the building to nearby street, can't even imagine what was going on inside...Finally, after plastering them with multiple requests, I got the answer- Mindia, you can come now. I was on the plane in two days. Without the hard work of our Councilman, my Ethiopia would've been farther and farther from me.

Mursi, Ari, Tsamai, Dassanech, Karo, Dorze, Arbore, Hamer...some of the tribes that reside on this valley. It's called Omo... It was called Crossroads of cultures of different countries, south part of Ethiopia. Out of all places in Africa, Omo was always without competition for me.
Thousand thoughts were crossing my mind. How? when? where? and so on... I had to clear all the details in Adis. Everything worked out like a clockwork. I felt rush of energy and I started following my dream step by step...

-How long until you get here? -Texted the driver. Super punctual person, (not really) named Dejeen, DJ in short...
Capital is 2355m (7,725ft) above the sea level, so temperature is very Spring-like. We are going towards south, where Omo's blistering hot valley is waiting for me...8 hours to first destination, but time doesn't go conventionally while looking around and shooting new places.

 

I really like the way houses are layered across the road-you can see whole village in front of you.
Of course their main road is the only road, which makes me happy:)
It's getting hotter, climate is changing and Africa is getting closer...We are following banana plantations for few hours. Baboons are staring at us unhappily, since we are interfering with their relaxation right in the middle of the road.

 

We have to turn toChencha. Thats's where Dorsi Tribe (knitters) village is located. Huts that resemble elephant heads are hiding in palm trees, with smoky interiors and relevant aromas. At the entrance of the village situation is quite annoying and touristy: Dorsi people trying to impress with their skills, get photographed and paid in Biri.

Here is a little info about local guides: every village has a guide. You can't enter a place without them. You have to pay to village and to a guide separately, which makes sense- you do need a guide to interact with locals, but I have to say, very few of them are really helpful. They are trying to finish up with you in 15 minutes, interrupting whenever they can- during photoshoot, etc.
My first guide announced very shortly that our tour was over! :))))) He had high hopes it was finished, but I literally charged inside like a bull- to shoot of course!
-Are you tired?
-no!
-can you walk fast?
-yes, of course!
-then come with me and show me the REAL village. This facade is not interesting to me.
He was pretty sure he would get rid of me soon, so he agreed. It makes me laugh writing this, cause after 2 hours he walked panting to my driver and complained-who is this and what does he want? My driver also laughed it off, but I was really happy that I got to see the real village!

Men are really skilled knitters here. When I asked why men and not women, answer was- it's really hard to knit that way and women can't keep up with it. Just watching for few minutes how Dorsi Knitter men execute 10 intricate combinations the same time will exhaust you.

People are friendly, happy and I assumed you really don't need any kind of guidance in this place.
Not bad for the first day, but I'm not quite satisfied.. I want to work from Dusk to down, nonstop. That will make me happy.

Coming down from Chencha, I said good bye to my dear guide and headed to Arbaminch. Later I am asking my driver:
- so what time is a start tomorrow?
- around 8-9am.
-what time is the sunrise?
-around 6am.
-ok, so we leave at 7 am every day and will stay till down.
-are you a photographer? because you don't look like a regular tourist.
-yes, I'm.... meet you at 7am tomorrow!

Key Afari Market... shoes made out of tire rubber, red clay to rub into hair, oily tobacco packs, cows, goats, handmade knickknacks... noise and loud sounds in few different dialects- Tsamai, Hamer, Bena, Beshada...these tribes exchange and buy things here. And of course -guide. This time my driver warned him that it won't be too quick and he seemed understanding.

I left some parts of my camera-blitz, grif, behind, since I didn't want to get extra attention. Women from Hamar tribe get really scared.:)))) As soon as they see that someone is taking a photo, they start this high pitch screaming and hand waving. There is a belief that if your photo is taken by someone, so is the part of your soul. But, that's the word I like-But!- as soon as they hear Biri rustling they calm themselves by- Biri will cure us :)

So I pick the main subject, but look at the person next to it, this way they are less anxious. Direct your camera and you have exactly less then a second to shoot, cause she will start screaming -Biri, biri - any second. I don't care about Biri as much as I'm worried they are going to spoil my shot. This way they are more relaxed and I get one more shot in my collection. They still might start screaming, but too late- can't get that shot back! If you want special photo session, with backgrounds, outfits, etc- you have to pay, of course!

 

It seems like there is a magnifying glass installed in front of sun-it's burning mercilessly- I feel how my skin is getting tight on my face. You say sunscreen? yes, I did think about that. Thanks, but no- I also remembered that when you have a sunscreen smeared all over the face, where you have a camera touching all day long- that means your lovely Canon covered in lotion too! So I decided that better let several layers of my skin peel off then make my Canon greasy. :))
I have to say I got very useful experience at this market- I saw how different tribe members react to camera.

-What time is it?
-almost 7 pm.
But how? It's only midday. Ethiopians have their own unique way of perception of time. They count time from 6am in the morning, which means 7am is 1 am. It's very confusing when you ask what time is it and they say- It's 8 pm, but it's only 2 pm.

It's very interesting information for ladies- especially for the ones who are concerned about their age and say- "You can't ask a lady how old she is" They can relax- because in Ethiopia, as soon as you cross border, you are 7 years younger, automatically. There are 13 months in Ethiopia. All of them 30 days, only 13th month is 5 or 6 days long. Life is beautiful! You are naturally younger, only in Ethiopia!

We all know where village Abasha is ( in Western Georgia). I really didn't know the history of the name. Greeks and Persians called Ethiopians "Habasha" which means "burnt people", most likely " tan people". During the Arab invasion in Georgia legion of army with Ethiopian fighters (Habasha) were camped where today's Abasha is. That's why it's called Abasha. I think we should add H- to name- to be more authentic.

Jinka.
I sleep only 3-4 hours during night. Emotions and heat are getting to me. I analyze whole day and try to improve whatever I can next day. Today I'm more anxious then before-Main reason I came to Ethiopia is just 2-3 hours away...Mursi. I admire this people. Amazing, incredible artists. There is nothing like them anywhere.  I have not met them yet personally, only tons of photos and videos... mainly I admired them from distance.. It’s time to get acquainted!

We left really early from Jinka, passed Mago National Park on our way. Our car got stopped by armed men. They speak in Amhar. They check my park admission tickets and say, I need to hire bodyguard. Basically one Mursi with machine gun to protect you from whole armed, 2 m tall 30  Mursi tribe men. Real smart:)

Whole deal was just symbolic, financial tourist trap, I thought, and it proved right.

I had whole bag of bread from Adis, it was delicious. I completely forgot about them, so they were untouched all the way to Mursi village. It’s funny to me now, but at that moment I truly thought they were gonna bit my hand off…I was pretty sure of it J)))) As soon as car stopped, I was surrounded by kids. I thought I will give them bread one by one, I took one bread out and lowered it to their reachable height- and that was it- lots of little hands grabbed my hand with bread and tried to stuff it in their mouths.. I realized I just had to give up the whole bag, in fears of being devoured myself together with bread. I have seen this kind of scene only in cartoons- big human pile, with random hand, foot or bread stuff dusty face sticking out ..it lasted for a few second until whole bread was vanished.

We became instant friends! Simultaneously!

Mursi can’t be described. You have to see Mursi.  Great accessory designers and highly energetic. They have highest “fees”, knowing they are special. 5 biri for 1 photo. They count by camera click sound, so they really didn’t like my shooting style- they would burst out 5, 10 , 20 , 100!!! Golden rule here is that if you give someone 10 Biri, next time they start haggling for 20 and all this will be really disruptive for my shooting.

Take my photo, me, me, me , me, me ……This is endless. To get more noticed, they are doing lots of crazy things and everything looks very creative… But if you dare and give more attention to somebody, they start pinchingJ) That’s one more way to get attention.

Soon some tourists showed up with cars, so attention was divided. I got to quietly choose my objects and places for shooting. I found out that as soon as tourists tried to leave, because 99% can’t stand the situation, their fees went down-as much as 2 Biris.

The difference in between tourist and photographer is that the later takes many photos and stays longer. That is why the whole village walks around behind you, around 30 people, tagging along are domestic animals…My guide and my “bodyguard”, which was wondering around aimlessly, were totally unlucky by being stuck with me.

After one village, I decided to go to another…I knew there were total of 7 villages in that area. Next village, same story- nobody besides me stayed there, no tourists, just me surrounded with all the tribe people. That’s all I wanted…

He was hanging from the tree, very quiet, different from others. I loved the composition and started shooting him. Surprisingly,  he never said anything, just a shy smile. Handed him 5 biris.. He started walking toward more secluded place, kind of chose places for me to shoot…I continued taking photos and he stayed calm and quiet, I gave him more money and followed him wherever he went…

I stayed long in that village and worked till my energy and memory card were both drained.  Before leaving my strange and interesting respondent came to the car and handed me clay figure, smiled and run away. It was very unexpected and also very touching moment for me… I asked the driver what could the figure mean, but he didn’t know. It was dear to me anyways so I stored it away carefully.

Later I was told in Jinka, that Japanese have opened a great museum and that I should go and see it. That’s where I saw similar figurines in the midst of creations from different tribes. I was told that since cow product is main source of food for Mursi, it is very valuable and that’s why you can find Mursi making cow figures very often.

 

I archived my material. It takes 2 hours and because of high temperature my laptop is almost melting, can’t really cool down properly. Looking at all my photos, I already can outline favorites…Today I’m going to see more Mursi villages. Picked up our snacks and got on road. Sun was really bright that day, compared to previous day and was spoiling my images. I see differently decorated Mursi in every village, mainly women and children.

In one village there are only couple of men sitting under a tree. I see no one else.. I decided to go to different village. We turned the car and in front of us are standing two interestingly  decorated ladies. We stopped the car for couple of seconds and I took their photo. Then I see that armed guy comes to my driver and says- he took one photo, that means he has to pay village entry fee. In all this commotion all of a sudden bunch of Mursis appeared out of nowhere. I would lose a great opportunity if they showed up a bit later…They were hiding in huts because of heat and came out since they heard tourists.

It was an excellent photoshoot- traditionally accompanied with loud screams and chaos. I enjoy working like this more and more…

Next village was completely empty- migrating Mursis moved to another place. So we went to next village. It’s already a midday. My driver and guide advising me to go back, since most Mursi men are drunk for now and it’s not very pleasant environment. The advice was not in vain, but I decided not to follow it anyways…

Basically what happens is that really drunk Mursi stand in front of you and demands-Photo me, me! Photo, photo! If you don’t take his picture, he gets angry, if you do, he demands 200 birisJ))

One drunk men got angry just like this and first started throwing send at me, screaming, arguing, then went and plopped himself under a tree, all annoyed. It was a very funny sight. At this time of day besides kids and women, there are few drunk men that walk around you humming: Photo, photo….

Everyone has different story about Mursi appearance. They think that lip plate is beautiful. One version is that they did it to keep themselves from slavery, or to keep their women from being kidnapped by Kenyans. One thing for sure, they like it and do it by their own will. Once I witnessed  a fight, where 2 Mursi girls showed up with their lip plates, Jinkas didn’t seem to be impressed and I even got to shoot a video of their arguing.  Later I asked my driver what where they talking about, he said it’s about their appearance and high fees. They were arguing that Mursis demand very high fees for photos, and what makes them so special.

Well, they are truly special.

Some young Mursi protesting lip plates, because after that it will be hard for them to develop, find other ways in life. Lots of traditions are disappearing slowly, like Mursi men’s stick fight, that was forbidden by government, for the reason that sometimes it would end in fatality. They will stop wearing lip plates, piercing ears, etc and their uniqueness will vanish…even though Mursi is still fascinating, their culture is slowly descending.

Ari Tribe.

Quiet, peaceful, hardworking people. Sitting and busying in the yards shadowed by palm trees, they don’t talk, just gift you with smile…

What’s very strange here that no one is mentioning Biri. Little kids follow me, finally only one boy behind me and he mutters “Biri” really quietly. He was soo cute, with eyes just like that kitten from Shrek. As soon as I handed Biri, his face immediately changes and he starts yelling like loudspeaker- I can distinguish only to words- Pharanj( Foreigner) and Biri… Meaning tourist is here and he is giving out money. J)) In the matter of seconds I was surrounded by 20 kids that were staring at my every move.

-This here is our drink.

-What does is called?

-“Arake” same in Georgian "Araki"

It’s like Grappa. So basically I’m witnessing their Grappamaking.

One of the kids is standing upside down. I like the pose, pick an interesting background and ask him to repeat it. After some good modeling, he got paid too. Other kids, watching us, decide to stand on their heads and literally stick their heads in the ground.

Driving here is not the safest thing, especially on the asphalt roads. Speed is higher there and locals have different tricks to make money, like shooing the cattle in front of moving car, so if you hit them, then they start asking for money…Once they scrammed goats in front of us, other time I saw clearly how someone threw a dead lamb at us- he wanted to blame us, but it didn’t work out.

There are people who try to make money in more honest way-by walking on the road with stilts, trying to get your attention with funny movements and dancing.

When two friends go out to eat, there is a one big plate on a table with wide, canvas like bread, called “Injara”. They always greet you with joy. Where are you from?  Georgia. Pretty sure they have no idea where it is, but will tell you “welcome” and goes on. “Salamno”  means hello, you will hear it a lot here. I like  the way they greet each other- first shake hands, then slight touch of right shoulders, lots of smile, no one bothers you with anything.

Before leaving, I asked what kind of vaccination I was going to need for going to Ethiopia. I received a list spread on several pages. The list included around 10 vaccinations, (cost 700G Lari) . Ministry of Healthcare provided the most necessary one ( Thank you for that) and rest of them I trusted my luck and overall hygiene. Some vaccine was not even available in Georgia, for Malaria you have to take pills called “Malaron”, that I couldn’t buy in Tbilisi. So that was it. I had to deal with it. Every night I was listening mosquitos having a ball behind my bed net.. I heard Malaria mosquito doesn’t have a sound, it just bites you either in the morning, or evening, but now it developed mutation and bites even in afternoon.

How much special spray can you use? Cook has malaria so today food is not that great. Besides the fact that it was not malaria season, you will hear that word very often. Getting disease is basically on personal agreement in between you and mosquito.:))))

It’s a dry season, so I guess I survived, or we can wait until 2 week incubation period. J You definitely have to think about right season before going to Ethiopia, otherwise risk of diseases are higher.

Turmi.

Deserted, hot and quiet…People are so different, with beautiful face features and strangest traditions. Air is filled with smell of spoiled butter.

Villages of Hamar tribe, clay color women…With huge water containers on their backs… Hair is smothered with red clay mixed with butter, which gives them such a distinctive look.

We will see bull jumping, if we are lucky- says my guide. I learned a lot about Omo tribe’s traditions before coming here, so now I just have to pray for good luck to see them with my eyes. Today is a lucky day, as soon as we reached Turmi, we started towards Hamar village.

Bull jumping is Hamar tribe’s oldest tradition. After this ritual Hamar becomes a man, Maza, as they call it and then he can get married. People come from different villages to participate.
I see Hamer people sitting in the shade at the river, calm, waiting something to happen.

Photoshoot?Impossible. Only if I shoot without them noticing, otherwise they start protesting.

After one hour wait one woman starts singing, then another, then all Hamar tribe’s women are singing and dancing…sound is getting stronger, then I hear sound of horn, which means that young men are coming with bunch of sticks in hands. Everyone is running towards them.

Women are begging men to hit them with the stick on the bare back. More scarred and bloody woman is, more respected and loyal she is… This process goes on for quite some time, because there is no luck of sticks or women who want to get whipped. Finale is pretty bloody. I can shoot freely, because everyone is in trance and the only thing they see is whipping stick.

Preparation for the main ritual starts before sundown. I hear nonstop horns and bell sounds. They hold bulls by horns , tongue and from the other side by tail. 10 bulls are lined up and bachelor man is concentrated, calm. He has to run over them 6 times. It will be shame for a whole family, if he falls. Even more shame when women whip him…

Everyone is fixed on him..he shouldn’t fall… he only has one chance…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…crowd breathes out in unison and starts congratulating the bachelor. At the end of the day I have only two clicks left on my 40 GB memory card…

 

Today they continue the ritual. It’s Ivangadi – celebration of successful bull jumping ceremony.  I’m lucky again, because I’m the only foreigner here and there are no tourists on the background during shooting.

-Would you like some beer?

I  was warned not to drink their beer, which you wouldn’t want anyways after seeing it. Most of them are drunk and noisy for now. They don’t bother you like Mursi- you are a guest! They keep for themselves.

Young people line up. Ivangardi starts. Singing and dancing. Girls on one side, guys on the other. It looks like they are having conversation with their bodies. Today a woman will choose a man. If she touches him with two knees, that man is hers all night. That’s how they get sexual experience, which makes them more valuable for marriage, which literally means that men will pay with more cows for them. Everything here is measured by cows.

As soon as they start dancing, rain pours down. We are hiding under a big tree, they gave me traditional chair and I’m sitting there listening to Hamer tribe sounds. Ivangadi is interrupted by rain. Such a strange feeling, when you are the only foreigner, but no one makes you feel like outsider.

Rain stops soon and celebration continues. It is a rare pleasure to shoot in this environment. Total freedom. It’s getting late, I change a lens on my camera. This is a photographer’s goldmine. Should I shoot photos or video? I want both, and I clearly need another Mindia. Sun is down, women were still continue choosing ceremony as I was leaving.

Yes, that’s how woman chooses man and result is horrifying sometimes. Mingi- that’s how they call a baby, born after this union. They get rid of him as soon as they are born. They believe that baby born this way will bring hunger and disaster to village. But real horror is that child is left in abandoned desert all alone. He is destined to die there. Besides Hamar this superstition is also spread in Karo and Bana tribes. Karo tribe elderly recently announced that there will be no Mingi tradition in their tribe, with the involvement of organization “Omo Child”. Also they opened up a shelter near Jinka where many surviving kids live. Around 300 babies died a year because of this tradition. I hope Hamar and Karo tribes will do the same and abolish this horrific ritual. Government tries to regulate this kind of traditions here- Mingi, stick fight, whipping…

My driver warns me that we have to leave before it rains, otherwise we are stuck here, there will be a river on the road. He really knew what he was talking about.

-It’s ok, we have plenty of “snickers” bars, we will survive today- I told him.

Sun is vicious, just like before rain, which is not happening yet. We approached Karo village. Big mountain side sprinkled with huts. It overlooks the Omoriver, zigzagging the valley. It’s very pleasant-breath, this space…

Karo is famous for body painting skills. They really kept up to their praise. They created different natural ornaments on bodies right in front of me and were looking all proud.

I discovered if you want the interaction to happen, you have to repeat with same intonation whatever they are saying. From beginning, they are looking at you in awe, thinking you speak Karo language, then they realize you are joking…J That was one easy way to relax them and make them smile- after that working is easy.

I observed that most interesting models are the quietest ones. I took photos of a little one, he was covered in white paint all over, he became my favorite… I imagine his huge portrait on a wall of a big exhibition place. I looked him in the eyes for a long time… he is so strange, so… calm…I wrote to my friend that I just shoot my dream portrait.

While driving back, road awarded us with bumps and big chunk of bumper broke from the front of the car. Only option we had was to attach it to the roof  of the car. I already told you how locals adore their cattle, because their main food souse is form cows-milk products, meat. Our car resembled 4 wheel bull from far. Our journey became more cheerful seeing all their astonished faces.

We travelled quite a long distance with this car adorned with bull horns and we were laughing that all Omo cows were chasing us.:)))

I thought for a long time what to call the stare, look… I call it magnetic. I think this is most natural beauty I have ever seen. Untouched, unattained and magnetic….

I spend most of my time in Arbore tribe to shoot her. We took few breaks, I analyzed few locations and continued shooting.

One Arbore tribe man approached me and asks- Do you like her? Yes. – Do you want to take her with you? It’s my sister. – What if she misses here? – Are you going to take her far? –Yes.

That’s when he got quite. I think he believed that I could take her.

-It’s ok, pay me 3000 Pounds and take her. (Probably he has heard that pound is the best)

-Maybe she doesn’t want to come with me? ( He talks to her a little bit)

-Yes, she will come with you.

I mean, it is not surprising-It costs around 36 cows to get married. There are alternatives too-they can exchange can happen in rifles, which is a lot there and of course –in pounds.

 

I got to fulfill my emotional, hot and dusty dream. We drove 2500 km-s from AdisAbeba and same back. I got to see my favorite tribes, I met them, made friends. Besides hot climate, terrible roads and unpleasant conditions, my main dream came true after so much trying and waiting. Instead of exhaustion, I’m filled with energy. I will use this energy to organize the exhibition and I will meet you soon in the space, where “Omo” will be closer. I want to share with you this amazing people, place and experience and photo will give perfect opportunity for it.

I would like to thank everyone who helped me in this project and believed that “Omo” will be very interesting and different. Besides all the companies that I listed in the beginning, there are my friends who support me every time an try to help me with my projects.

Thank you to everybody, very soon Omo Valley will spread in the exhibition hall of Georgian National Museum.

Sincerely,

MindiaMidelashvili

 

 

 

 



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