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At home with the Mursi: in Ethiopia’s tribal south

I traveled to Ethiopia for the first time in January 2011. I was eager to learn about a tribal world hidden in what was supposed to be one of the most remote corners of Africa. The primitive way of life of the indigenous groups, their desire to keep on living isolated from modernity and their strength to survive in a harsh land, intrigued me.

Back then, I wanted to stay with the tribes to experience their culture and their struggle first hand, but I couldn’t do it because I arrived in Ethiopia sick with a pulmonary edema I had acquired while climbing Kilimanjaro.

Although sick, I made it to the Omo Valley and visited the tribes, but left wanting to know more about them.

I knew I would come back eventually. In January 2012, I quit a secure job, leaving behind a comfortable life at home to become a full time explorer. My first stop: Ethiopia.

Despite the killing of tourists in the Danakil Depression and the two journalists in jail, I flew with a professional cameraman to Addis Ababa, where we met our team for this journey.

My driver’s name was Asfo. He hardly spoke English, but never hesitate to smile or to respond my questions even if he had no clue of what I said. He had big lips, big nose, big jumping eyes and big hands. He was nice and, most important, a good driver. He was in his late 40s. He was fit, but his dry skin and his dying black frontal tooth made him looked probably older. Although he had a wife and two kids, Asfo had a weakness for tribal women! Every time we arrived in a new tribe, he dressed like a local tribe man, succumbing to the exotic beauty of the indigenous girls.

My guide’s name was Yegeram. I was supposed to travel with Tariku, the owner of a travel agency who took me to the tribes last year. Tariku and I became good friends since then. I was disappointed when Tariku told me he couldn’t come.

“Don’t worry I have a guide who worked with BBC and knows about professional filming,” Tariku assured.

With Macha and Oligache

Tariku didn’t know about TV, but he knew me, he had seen me interact with the tribes, he knew all what I had given up at home to come to Ethiopia. Not only I was in Africa to experience the tribal world, but for the first time my experience was going to be put on film with the help of a professional cameraman- something completely new to me as I have always traveled solo for 14 years.

Would it work? Would local people open to me just as much as when I travel on my own? I had many questions, but I had to give this a try…

I was ready to once again fully immerse myself into a way of life that was alien to me with the desire to bring people –those who would later watch the story- closer to these remote tribes, to make them care about these cultures and to learn about these ancient traditions.

When Tariku introduced me to Yegeram, I had my doubts about him. Yegeram talked fast with his eyebrows often plunged into a frown during the conversation. He had a strange accent –although sober, he sounded drunk.

“Shure. Shure. I know. I know really. Trust me,” he repeated.

Yegeram was married and had one kid. He was in his mid 30s. He was short with small frame, yet he was full of energy. His teeth were stained dark brown, probably result of chewing Khat, which are leaves with amphetamine-like stimulant effects, but which are legal in Ethiopia.

With Yegeram

Despite that impression, Yegeram proved me wrong. He was indeed not the right person, but the perfect match for the job. He was professional, smart, well-read, fast, witty, a hard worker and a fighter. Although he had worked with a TV crew before (featuring animals and nature), filming people –and tribes- was a completely different thing, but he stood strongly behind me at all times. He was with me when I dealt with the local authorities, local guides and tribes. This adventure proved to be more challenging that we both imagined, but we became a strong duo. Throughout this journey, Yegeram became my guide, my fixer, my translator, my photographer, my alternative cameraman, my psychologist (to help me put up with the pressure!), and at the end a dear friend.

Before heading to the Mago National Park to go camping with the Mursi tribe, we stopped at the market in Jinka, a small town in the south of Ethiopia, in the heart of the Omo Valley.

Two mursi girls with lower lip plates asked me for money to pose for a photo and a young male covered with scarifications entered a bar and ordered alcohol although it was not even 9am.

“We need to get an armed guide from the park if we are going to camp,” Yegeram said Yegeram as we walked around the town.

“OK. That’s fine. The last time I saw the mursis were very armed. I read sometimes it gets dangerous because they drink a lot alcohol,” I replied.

As we crossed the park,the bumpy and narrow dirt roads were now wise and flatten by large trucks still at work. More trucks -carrying men in the back- passed us.

Getting into the Omo Valley still took us two days as it did last year, when a very bumpy dirty road left me a couple of bruises and body aches. This time the new roads were allowing big trucks in, which were everywhere as we traversed what used to be one of the most remote regions of Ethiopia.

With a population of about 10,000 people, the Mursi tribe is supposed to be one of the wildest in the Omo Valley. These nomadic cattle herders live near the Sudanese border. They are famous for its body decoration and ferocious culture. The Mursi women wear big clay plates in their lower lips, and the Mursi men are known for their scarification and for being fierce warriors. From all the tribes I visited last year, the Mursi were the ones who intrigued me most and the ones who I connected quicker despite their aggressive reputation.

“We must stop here to get a ticket for the entrance and the camping before getting the armed guard,” said Yegeram, who quickly got off the car.

I joined him. As I walked to the headquarters, I saw about a dozens of park rangers relaxing under the shades of a hut.

With the permit and the entrance in hand, we were ready to continue.

It was noon and the heat was a killer. The sun was burning and there was no breeze to cool us down. All around of was dry grassland.

We stopped at a place with a sign that read “Mago National Park. Don’t visit without a scout”

In there, a couple of Mursi women with big plates in their lower lips welcomed us. They were curious and playful. While Yegeram looked for a good guard, we sat with the women. An armed Mursi man came to under the tree -where we were with the women- and looked at us with distrust.

I stood up, approached the Mursi man with a smile, shook his hand and said my name. He cooled down and sat with us.

“OK, I found a scout. He will stay with us. He says he knows a place where there are no tourists,” Yegeram explains.

“That’s great!” I said.

“What is his name?” I asked.

“Atanefo,” Yegeram said.

“Is he Mursi?” I asked.

“No, he is from the Bana tribe,” he responded.

“The Banas don’t live in the park, do they? I met Bana people in Key Afar, they are similar to the Hamer tribe, right?” I replied.

“Yes, but these people are being hired by the park so they don’t poach. Many of the armed scouts you see here, they used to be poachers,” Yegeram added.

I looked at Atanefo and although he was all dressed up in camouflage clothing and had a huge riffle in his back, he seemed like a really nice person. He was tall, muscular, black like an espresso with white shinning teeth, big warm eyes and flat wise nose.

Saying bye to the Mursi women, we jumped in the car and drove further into the park, making sure we were away from the touristy Mursi villages.

We crossed the valley and droved to the hills where there was what it looked like a small town.

“The scout says this is a new village, but there are both Mursi and Bodi people living here,” said Yegeram.

“Yegeram, we should go to a pure Mursi village. But we need a translator. Maybe we can find one here?” I said.

“Do we really need one?” said Yegeram with that funny tone that always made me smile.

With Kalimadere: english speaker

“Yes, Yege. We need one. Last time I came, I couldn’t talk to the Mursis because they didn’t speak English or Amharic. We need to ask them questions to understand their culture,” I said.

“Of course. We will find one,” said Yegeram.

We stopped to eat in the town. We met a guy who supposedly spoke Mursi, but he disappeared. We drove around looking for him, but when we found him, he changed his mind. Assuring he knew someone, a kid jumped in the car, but when we arrived in the place, there was no mursi translator. The boy just wanted a ride.

After a lot of driving around, Yegeram found a translator. He was short with a petit frame. Never smiled and walked fast. Although he was in his mid 20s, he looked much younger. He squeezed in our car, carrying just a small backpack in his back. His name was Ageño, but we baptized him as “Mr. Translator” On the way to the Mursi village, Mr. Translator said to Yegeram that he was a trader. He made business by trading things in the market. We later realized that his small backpack was packed with Birr notes (Ethiopian currency). We teased that Mr. Translator was probably richer or would become richer than all of us together.

We drove down the hills towards the valley. It was so hot and arid that it was hard to imagine how anyone could survive such harsh conditions.

Following the directions of our armed guard, we left the main road to take a dirty path. We came across a Mursi village. Although we were very far from the park’s entrance, a 4WD vehicle was stationed there.

“I though there were no tourists in this area,” I said.

It seemed tourism had arrived everywhere in the valley.

We drove further and found a tourist-free community.

Leaving the cameras in the car, we went to meet the people. The Mursi tribe looks different from the other ethnic groups. The Mursis have low foreheads, flat noses, big lips and short necks. There is almost no hair on their heads or bodies. In the absence of locks, women decorate with intricate headdresses made of branches, mollusks, dried up fruits and animal’s horns. The men wear just a cloth around their hips, holding sticks in their hands and carrying AK-47 on their shoulders as if they are backpacks. Young boy paint their naked bodies with white clay.

Surrounded by the Mursis, I felt happy to be back in Ethiopia. I was eager to experience the Mursi life and learn about the famous (or infamous) Mursi warriors!

Yegeram talked to the men of the village. To our surprise, they were very receptive to the idea of us camping and living with them. Although they were cool, the chief of the tribe had the last word. He was supposed to be in the crop field.


Hours later, Oligache, the chief of this Mursi village, arrived. He was tall and slim. I thought he would be older, but Oligache was in his late 40s or early 50s. He had a big nose and a big gap in his frontal teeth. His big eyes were popping and the white of his eyes were darkened, even a bit bloody. He wore hoop earrings, a yellow cloth in his head, a worn-down vest with squares print and another piece of cloth around his hips with black and green stripes.

Yegeram, Mr. Translator and I talked to Oligache. Other armed Mursi men surrounded us. Although it may sound scary, it is very common to see tribesmen with riffles in this region. These guns have been smuggled in through the border with Sudan in the 80s and 90s, and served them to defend their land and cattle from other rival tribes.

I faced and looked deep into his eyes.

“I am here because I want to learn from your people and your culture. I came to Omo Valley last year but I was sick and couldn’t stay with the tribe, but I came back. Please allow me to stay with your people…” I continued my pledge.

Suddenly Oligache stood up, held my hand and walked away with me, holding a machete on the other hand and taking me to the bushes. I held his hand tight, walked with straight posture showing confidence.

Everyone stayed behind under the tree. I had no idea where we were going or what he was doing (or was going to do) but I couldn’t show any fear to him. He was a Mursi chief, a Mursi warrior. I had to win his trust… to show him strength and determination. For some strange reason, I didn’t have any fear but wondered what the heck was going on.

He stopped near a tree and start cleaning the tall grass with his machete. Yegeram and the rest of team joined us.

Oligache said something and another Mursi came with a machete.

“You can stay here seven days, ten days, a month… as much as you want,” Oligache said. “Achale!”

“Achale” means OK. Although, later on I would learn that it meant more than that. “Achale” was used to say hello, nice to meet you, bye, thank you, etc etc etc. Well, maybe it didn’t mean all that but it seemed to work for all situations!

While settling our camping site, Oligache assigned Baulu, a smiling Mursi man with shaved head and a missing tooth, as our Mursi guard -this was additional to our armed guide Atanafo.

Suddenly an old tall man with tough facial features showed up and started yelling at Oligache. His name was Macha and supposedly he was also a chief. I approached Macha and introduced myself “Achale”.

Macha looked at me with suspicion.

“Achale, Dani,” I held his hand. He calmed down bit, but continued to argue with Oligache. Macha finally left, visibly annoyed.

“So, who is the chief Yegeram. Is Oligache or Macha?” I asked.

“It seems both. Macha is from another village nearby,” he responded.

Some kids and tribesmen came to our camping site with curiosity.

Among them, we met a Mursi who spoke some English. His name was Kalimadere. He lived in another village, but he went to school in Arbamich where he learned Amharic and some English. He wore an ear amplifier. We were not sure if he had hearing problems or how he had gotten one in the first place! He was heavier than an average Mursi. He actually had male boobs due to the extra weight.

“You are Uitijoli,” he said to me. “That’s your name. Mursi one,” he explained.

“What’s that?” I laughed. It sounded like “ajonjoli” in Spanish (“sesame” in English)

“It means white goat,” he smiled.

“Oh man, I am that white!” I laughed.

Always kind and smiling, Kalimadere was very helpful. He mediated between us and the Mursis, who can get heat up quickly without no specific readon. He also aided us the translation as often Mr. Translator was no place to be found when we needed him. Kalimadere’s English was not good enough though to have a fluid conversation, but it was good to have a Mursi like him around us.


While cleaning the camping site, Oligache introduced me his son Kissy. He was about 18-years-old Oligache said something and walked away. Everyone laughed.

“What did Oligache say?” I asked Kalimadere.

“Oh, I cannot say it. It is too bad. Too embarrassing,” Kalimadere blushed but kept on laughing.

“Come on Kalimadere. I can handle it,” I insisted.

“He said “now my son can screw you! Oh, oh, I am so sorry,” Kalimadere put his hands on his mouth as he had cursed.

Freaking out or getting offended by the comment wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I’d just arrived. So, I made fun of it.

“Oligache!!!!” I said out loud, approaching him. “I know what you said,” I smiled looking at his son and then at him. “How can you say that? Bad bad bad! You are supposed to protect me,” I said in English and Kalimadere translated.

Oligache laughed out loud and said “Achale, achale!”

Last year a young Mursi warrior wanted to buy me for 50 cows to my guide. Now the chief of the tribe was offering to his son! I may not fit their standards of beauty but it seemed I had a chance to pair with the Mursis –not that I wanted though!

Throughout my stay though, Kissy turned into a pain in the butt. When sober, Kissy just smiled at me shyly. But when he was drunk (which was often), he tried to “charm me” Mursi style. And let’s say I didn’t find the Mursi “hitting on technique” very attractive but rather scary. When I ran into the (mild or heavily) intoxicated Kissy, he smiled with his mouth open and his tong softly sticking out. He looked at me straight, rolling his eyes and pointing with them to the bushes… going into the bushes meant sex. I pretended not to understand and quickly walked away.

Perhaps realizing his suggestive invitations were not working with me, Kissy came to the camp once and while saying hello, he grabbed my hand and started rubbing my inside of my palm with his finger. His eyes pointed at the bushes again. I once again pretended I didn’t understand, and went for protection to Yegeram, whom always laughed at Kissy’s moves on me.

I kept certain distance from Kissy, but I gave myself with no reservation to other Mursis! With the camera rolling or not, I always enjoyed going to the village, where women and kids embraced me with warmth and curiosity.

“Dani, Dani, Dani,” kids screamed with such excitement when I passed by, and followed me.

Before wandering free and alone, I first visited the village with Oligache. It was a hot and busy afternoon. Men were either out in the field or gathered under the trees while women worked hard cooking, carrying water or taking care of the kids. There were about 14 huts made of thatch and rounded shape. The entrance door was hardly foot high and everytime I was invited to come into a “house”, I had to crawl in on my knees.

When Oligache introduced me to the village, he put his arm firmly around my shoulder, making sure his people knew I was his guest.

Most tourists keep distance from the mursi (enough to take a good photo). The flaccid loop of skin hangs down to their chin and the guns often disgust or scare foreigners. Yet those same things fascinated me.

With Oligache at my side, I introduced myself to as many members of the community as possible, shaking hands, saying “Achale” followed by my name, and asking in my broken Mursi their names.

Oligache and I sat in front of his house to talk about his village and the Mursi.

The Mursi are pastoralists and cattle herders. They have their own language (Mursi) and most of them are Animists, believing that plants, animals and some inanimate objects that possess spirits. Cattle is extremely precious for them. It shows the wealth and the status of the Mursi man. Even marriage depends on the amount of cattle. To marry, a groom has to give at least 38 cows to the bride’s family. I asked him about their traditions and the changes in the community. He said that before Mursi wore no clothes now they do. His answer about tourism wasn’t clear to me, but he didn’t seem bothered. The reality is that nowadays tourists equal money. The Mursi, like other Omo tribes, have learned to charge money for every photo taken and to every person in that photo.

While I chatted with Oligache, a skinny woman of small frame but big strength suddenly started putting some heavy cow skins on me, interrupting the conversation. I had no clue who she was, but I went with the flow, as I would always do when something unexpected happened. This woman turned out to be Oligache’s wife Nalosho. Her head was completely shaved. The white of her eyes were darkened –just as Oligache’s- and her pierced lower lip was sagging dropping some saliva she couldn’t contain in her mouth. I felt honored by her gesture but the amount of skins on me was hard to bear considering it was HOT, really HOT.

Thanks to the translator –who was finally around!- I understood they wanted to show me the traditional Mursi attire for woman. Nowadays they don’t use them anymore only for special occasions. Modernity has brought textiles to the tribes, and a cloth around their hips or across their chest is the norm now.

Next morning, Nalosho and her daughter Komodoro took me to the well to get some water. The day of a Mursi woman starts veryyyy early. It was 6:30am when we left the village. Before leaving, the women of the village gave me a big yellow plastic bottle and something rounded made of straws to put on my head. We crossed the grown grassland at sunrise. It was a cool and beautiful morning. I followed Nalosho and Komodoro as they quickly walked through a narrow path surrounded by dry and high grass. After about half and hour, we made it to the well. Other mursi women had arrived earlier. The water looked contaminated with insects on the surface, but Komodoro and Nalosho filled our bottles. In a water-starved region with mainly thorn trees and spiky plants, this is indeed a precious well.

Preparing for Donga

When they were done with the filling, they improvised a shower. They didn’t only clean themselves throwing water on their dry and dusty bodies, but also on me. Nalosho took water on her hand and scrubbed forcefully my face and arms. I was caught off guard with the unexpected shower. I laughed and let her wash me.

Cleaned and refreshed, we brought the water back to the village. My bottle was actually the smallest, and yet I was the only one in the group struggling to keep balance with the water on my head.

Arriving triumphantly with the water intact on my head, the women smiled at me in response of approval and encouragement.

Needing some rest under the shade, it was a perfect time to chat with three of them: Komorro, a beautiful woman of fine facial features, Kamodoro, a younger woman breastfeeding her baby and an old woman called Sudan.

There were so many questions I had, but it was difficult to have a fluid conversation with them as they keep on interrupting and repeating “Dani” and “Achale”. The translation process was complicated. I asked in English to Yegeram, then he asked the same question in Amharic to Mr. Translator, who translated my question to the women in Mursi. For the answer, it was all the way around. I even had to oversimplify my questions to be understood so having an in-depth conversation was out of question. This struggle was with every conversation I had with the Mursis.

Realizing that a woman-to-woman confession was not happening, I decided to ask about the most obvious: their lower lip plates. The Mursi tribe is one of the few tribes in the world who still does it- the other tribe is the Suya people in Brazil and this is performed by both men and women. For the mursi, it is only women.

Girls start piercing their lips at the age of 15 or 16. Each time the wooden plug is bigger and bigger, increasing gradually the size of the hole until is stretched enough to put bigger and bigger plates.

Komorro said that the process was painful, but not now. She took the disc on and off as just another accessory. She also explained that the plate helped her to bring food for her husband. That was the first time I ever heard the use of the lip plate that way. I wondered if she was serious or kidding…

It is said that the Mursi started cutting the lips of their women as a deliberate disfigurement so slave traders would find them ugly and would not take them. But when you asked a Mursi, they don’t seem to know themselves or even understand the question!

If this story is true, it would be ironic that what was considered ugly then has become the beauty standard of today. The bigger the lip plate, the more beautiful and more valuable the woman is as her family will get more cattle for such precious big-plate bride.

Besides the lip piercing, Mursi women do not have their lower frontal teeth. Some say it is “for beauty enhancement” while others say that this to avoid way the plate knocks the teeth. With their lower lip hanging and no lower frontal teeth, their tongs stick out like a lizard.

I wondered how a Mursi couple kissed, but our concept of kissing is unknown to them.

One guide smiled and said to me “Mursis go straight to the point” (sex!).

Well, now I knew that by experience after the recurrent invitations of Kissy!

After mingling with the girls, I returned to the camping site. The afternoon heat was taking over. The weather in this part of the Omo Valley is so strange. At night, I was shivering in my tent. It was that cold. But at daytime, it was burning HOT. Even under the shades, it was hard to bear with the heat.

Between noon to 3pm, I often saw the mursi warriors resting or sleeping under the shades of trees holding their big automatic guns. That was a strange sight as I would picture the Mursi warriors, hunting, herding and defending their land! On the other hand, it was really hot. Maybe they needed a rest?

One afternoon, I approached a group of Mursi men gathered under a tree just outside the village. I sat with them and the conversation of course was basically “achale, achale, Dani, and what’s your name?” They offered me something to drink. It looked clear. I thought it was water. I took the bottle and drank a bit because I knew the water –if coming from the well- was contaminated. To my surprise, it was pure alcohol! I burned my lips and throat.

“Oh wow. This is hard!” I said in English. They couldn’t understand me, but my facial expression said it all. They all laughed.

It turned out that the Mursi, who were lying on the floor were not sleeping, they were drunk.

As I spent more days in the village, I realized that this was not an isolated case, but sadly the norm.

A Mursi Warrior, not too ready for war

The famous and fierce Mursi warriors were often drunk. They started at noon and by 6pm, it was best not to get close to the village, especially considering that they were armed and had a volatile temper. Even women got drunk. Once, in a late afternoon, even Nalosho, Oligache’s wife, got aggressive with me because I wasn’t wearing her skin clothes. She was just very drunk. Oligache calmed her down.

Although some traditions are weakening, others remain strong, such as drinking fresh blood from living cow!

I am always open to new experiences as the point of my trips is to immerse myself in different cultures. I love to be out of my comfort zone, but this was beyond that. Considering that I have been a vegetarian for 17 years, this was a big deal.

Cattles are so precious to Mursi people that they don’t eat them. They drink their milk and blood.

Baulu, my Mursi guard, and other men held a cow while Oligache opened a small incision in the neck of the animal to pour the blood. The dense liquid was put in a half calabash pot.

Oligache, Baulu and I sat in the grass. The blood is considered an exquisite meal that gives you strength, yet the thought of drinking it made my knees weaken.

“It is precious to them. It is part of the experience. The cow is alive. This is like drinking milk,” I said to myself.

Drinking blood

I drank the dense bubbling red liquid. I was disgusted but tried not to show it in front of Oligache and Baulu. It was salty and very heavy. When we finished we rested under a tree.

“They (Oligache and Baulu) say it is not good to be under the sun after drinking blood. Your belly will bloat! It is good for health Daniela, gives you energy,” explained Yegeram.

I didn’t have any pain in my belly or felt bloated. I just felt strange.

Drinking blood was actually nothing compared to what came next.

While hanging out with Oligache and Baulu, Nalosho came with food: a heavy brownish flour made of sorghum and some green leaves spiced up in salty water. I was offered to eat with them.

I knew where the water in there was contaminated, but I had no choice. I took a bit of the tasteless sorghum flour and put some leaves in it, and ate it SLOWLY.

When I finished and before I could say no, Oligache grabbed a big ball of sorghum flour and put it in my hand. Additionally to the contaminated water, I couldn’t help but think of what was in that piece that Oligache had just handed me…wearing just a piece of cloth around their hips, I often saw Oligache and men touching their balls, or picking their noses. Water is so scarce that washing their hands was unlikely- actually it wouldn’t make sense. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t help but think of what Oligache had touched and not touched before we ate. The picture in my head wasn’t pretty. But if I drank blood, how would I fail on this? I ate as if it was OK.

I was prepared for the worst, but I had tons medicines. However, my body proved to be stronger than what I imagined and after a month in Ethiopia, living with the tribes, mingling with them and consuming “questionable” foods and drinks, no illness, no stomach ace, nothing.

“It is my mom’s intense praying Yegeram. She may be driving Jesus, Mary and all saints crazy for my protection. Well, it is working so mom keep it on!” I said

“Ayayay Daniela,” Yegeram laughed. “You are made for Africa. You are very good with people,” Yegeram often said.

Sometimes I thought it was best to keep some distance from people, but surrounded by their kindness, their eagerness to touch me, and their gesture to either dress me or feed me, I just couldn’t resist and immediately put my guards down. At the end, I had come to be with them and like them. If I got sick, I could get cured at home!

When my team wanted to have a rest from filming and stay at the camping site, I often went by myself to the village. The reality is that an explorer cannot settle. We strive to be in constant movement. We don’t wait for the story come to us. We constantly search for stories.

“Dani, Dani, Dani, Dani,” an army of kids screamed and followed me.

Just two day after my arrival, I didn’t need to go with Oligache, Baulu or Yegeram to the village as the locals had already embraced me. Although we had to film, it was always more fun when I was alone. The locals were so relax, inviting and openhearted when I was on my own, but they became very tense when they saw the camera around.

“You go with the camera. It helps with the filming. They relax when you are around,” insisted Yegeram.

What Yegeram said, often worked. The locals got cool down and distracted when I was around and greeted them, while the camera was rolling for generic images. Yet I wished there was a way to capture in film those candid moments I often had when I had some lonely strolls around the village…

In one of those visits on my own, I ran into a group of teenagers. These young Mursi drank alcohol while one of them performed a scarification. His name was Michijoli. He was about 16 years old, perhaps a bit older. He had s boyish face and a warm smile. His friend cut his skin with the blade. Instead of tears, a big smile glowed in Michijoli’s face. It had to be painful, but for this Mursi boy was not. I was shock and fascinated at the same time.
My understanding was that scarifications were done to show how many enemies a Mursi warrior had killed –and that could be a member of a rival tribe or an animal. But Michijoli said that he was doing it in the preparation for the Donga or Stick Fighting, a ceremony in which Michijoli would show his strength while confronting another warrior using wooden poles. If he won, he would be able to pick the girl he wants to marry. Although considered extremely violent, this tradition brings prestige to Mursi men. They take it so seriously they are willing to face serious injury and even death. In recent years, the Dongas have become more dangerous as it has been reported that due to the consumption of alcohol the guns have been used as well during the ceremony.

Before going to the Omo Valley, I was told that filming a Donga was prohibited by the government, because it was considered “bad culture.”

“So the Donga happens, but it cannot be filmed? Or the government has banned the ceremony,” I asked when I was first heard about this law, but no one could truly verify this. It was very confusing.

Like it or not, violent or not, this ritual is key in the identity of Mursi and a crucial moment in the life of a Mursi boy, wishing to turn into man and to marry.

Usually the Dongas takes place right after the harvest season when young fighters are well fed with blood and milk and prepared for combat.

Michijoli invited us to see him training. For the occasion, he and his friend –who had already participated in the Donga- dressed just as they would in a real ceremony. They wore a skirt cut into strips,a cattle bell tied round the waist, rings of cord to protect the elbows and knees and a leopard skin over their chest. Their heads were protected by cloth wrapped around it. They held their two-meter long sticks –whose top were shaped in the form of a penis as sign of virility- and started the combat. Oligache acted as the referee. The training didn’t look as brutal as the Donga has been described, but well, this was not the real thing, just a preparation.

“I wish you luck Michijoli. I hope you win the Donga and can pick your future wife,” I said to him before leaving the site.

After six days with the Mursis, it was time to continue my journey in Ethiopia, and with other tribes.

At the moment of decamping, a heated argument -between Oligache, Yegeram, Mr. Translator, the guide from Jinka and other men of the tribes- exploited.

I don’t know if it was the heat, the screams, the challenges that I had endured with the filming or the issues I had with some members of the team, but I suddenly said out loud “Enough” and unexpectedly tears came out of my eyes. I think this was the first time I had broken down in tears on a trip! Everyone turned to look at me. I walked away embarrassed by my vulnerability and walked quickly into the car.

Many women, children and men were there. They were shocked, especially the Mursi women, whom –according to Yegeram- got very angry with the men and yelled at them for making me cry.

Some of the children and women came to where I was and even cleaned my tears. At that moment, I wanted to cry more not because I was upset anymore but because I was so moved by them.

Suddenly Oligache came to the car, pushed by his wife Nalosho, hugged me and said “Achale”. Even Macha, the elderly who fiercely opposed initially to our stay in the village, came to give me a hug.

With everyone cooled off, we left. I said bye to the mursi with mixed feelings. I was frustrated by how unpredictable the Mursis were and how difficult they made the filming with the professional camera around. I was disappointed but mostly very sad to see the legendary Mursi warriors turned into lazy drunks. I was frustrated that despite of having a translator, I couldn’t have a deep conversation with them. But I was also very happy to have spent with them, to have seen humanity in them where most tourists just see aggressiveness. I was happy to leave knowing them by name, and to know that they knew mine. I will never forget each and one of them, and I hope –and think- they won’t forget me.

As tough as it was, I hope to meet Oligache and his people again one day…

Much more by this intrepid traveller on her very excellent blog.

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