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Mursi people in Ethiopia: Bad tourism for a good cause

In the south-west of Ethiopia, Mursi warriors and plate-lip women can be photographed for cash. Money, which is mainly spent on liquors and Kalashnikovs. A dangerous mix.

The first rays of sun throw the Kudu antelopes into a light dither. Nothing but flat, parched land as far as the eye can see. Dust clouds pass over the prairie. It slowly gets lighter and the outlines of the round straw huts, scattered around a few trees, gradually become visible. The Mursi people in the secluded Omo Valley in southwestern Ethiopia are waking up.

Like many other tribes, the 10,000-strong Mursi people live as nomads on the lower valley of the river Omo, around 800km from Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian capital. The individual village communities set off again after 9-18 months, depending on how quickly their cattle grazes the land. Everything here in the Mago National Park still looks very green.

First, you see the cattle. They arduously nibble at the sparse thorn bushes around the simple houses at the tree. Tribal members slowly emerge from the round mud huts, loosely clothed in a cloth that they have just used as a blanket for sleeping. This is the only clothing that Mursi men, women and children tend to have, as jewellery is more important to them.

One accessory makes the indigenous Mursi people stand out in the world: colourful, painted clay plate that women put into their lower lip, many as large as saucers. This cultural curiosity draws them a lot of attention.

Models with tradition

“Photo? Yes, photo?” we hear from all around, directed at the visitors to the Mursi village. The women are vivid sights to behold, and the main reason that tourists make the trek over the boundless mogul field in a 4×4 vehicle.

There are many theories about the original of the lip plate tradition. One says that the Mursi men wanted to guard their women by making them unattractive. Whether it’s true or not, a girl must still undergo a long procedure to get the identity mark characteristic of the tribe. The lower lip is slit open as early as puberty and the plate, called a dhebi, is inserted. The girl must not only make, bake and paint the dhebi, but swap it for a new one over the years, so that the mouth area grows with it. The most painful part, however, is when it rubs against the lower incisors, which can break off at random. For the past few years, young girls have been able to decide for themselves whether to go through with it, rather than have it forced upon them by men. As for the men, they go into ceremonious battle, as is tradition. They are armed only with a two-metre long wooden stick called a donga, duelling with men from other villages. Sometimes blood is shed and sometimes it lasts for days. To achieve the right appearance, they give themselves decorative scars. For the Mursi people, becoming a living work of art is an important part of their development.

As extraordinary as the Mursi people may be, the way their culture is treated is dangerous. It may be the irony of history that their way of life is responsible for their gradual decline.

When Western tourists started travelling sporadically to the Mursi homeland in the early 2000s, two vastly different worlds collided. Some visitors gave a tip as thanks for permission to take a photo. The Mursi people soon realised that their appearance was unusual and a photograph was worth money. Each one costs five birr, or around 20 cents – even for small children. This price applies at a per-person rate for group photos.

Swapping cash for photos creates more profit than breeding cattle. Even agriculture is no longer attractive. Why should it be, when the model job is more lucrative? While the income from tourists is overtaking agricultural income by far, millet and maize fields lay bare. For years now, cattle have been sold instead of reared. And even the women’s lip plates are largely Made in China.

Posing for cash: 20 cents a photo

The Mursi people accept cash for nearly everything. On top of 200 birr per head for entry into the village, the journey through Mago National park costs 460 birr per vehicle. That’s not forgetting the essential local travel guide, who asks for 300 birr, and the scout who wants 150 birr. It doesn’t take long until you’re 1000 birr out of pocket – and that’s without the 50 birr for the chauffeured 4×4 ride there.

That’s enough money for all kinds of antics. A large part of the photo and entrance money is spent on kalashnikovs imported from neighbouring countries Kenya and South Sudan, for as little as €50. Those who don’t have the money can exchange 10 cows for one. The rest of the income goes towards schnaps, which the Mursi drink heavily during the day. They are know for their alcohol-influenced behaviour. In fact, tourists are often advised to visit early in the mornings, when the inhabitants are still half-asleep. Later in the day, some are inebriated from home-brewed areke, a milky, maize-based drink with a very high liquor content – or, indeed, Western alcohol available in the provincial capital of Jinka. In the afternoons, the atmosphere is too heated to let visitors see the Mursi. Or maybe the other way around.

Machine Guns and Alcohol Abuse

Since the arrival of industrial alcohol and machine guns in the Omo Valley, tourists have only been allowed into the villages when escorted by scouts from the Ethiopian army. Of course, they are also armed with kalashnikovs. It’s better not to think about the worst that could happen – or at least, try to blank it out with areke.

But what actually happens with the money they’re getting? The tribal leader proudly explains it is distributed fairly – except for the photo tip, which is each person’s “own little business”, he says, laughing. Big business, though, is his area of expertise; he and his brother spend half the year travelling around the world, giving lectures. This has taken him to six countries, while his brother has been to over 20. As a Mursi ambassador, he waves the flag for his brothers and sisters, spreading the message of their way of life. It’s a wonder that the culture hasn’t changed so quickly when it’s being promoted by these two.

Are the Mursi doomed to die out?

For a while, the Ethiopian government has been wanting to integrate the Mursi people into the modern world: sending children to school, providing work for adults in the city, or even better, in their backyard. The government is building a huge sugar cane plantation, poised to be the biggest in the whole of Africa. The local tribes will want in on it, the Mursi included. They are to become sedentary, do “proper” work and arrive in the technology-ruled present.

The moral of the story is the contradiction that is tourism. In the end, tourists hinder development as they show interest in the Mursi, while financing them through their visit. Without this money, the Mursi would have gone from their centuries-old tradition a long time ago and found a way to do conventional work in the cities, assimilated into modern life.

We could go around in circles wondering what would happen when the toughness of the government clashes with the pride of tribal members, the stubbornly obedient military clashing with the armed, drunken Mursi people. We mustn’t forget, after all, that the Mursi are a warrior people.

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