The issue of photography in places such as the Kaokoland is actually a complicated one. Is it proper to exploit the Himba in such a blatant manner? Can we simply point cameras and invade their privacy?
Reverse the situation. How would you feel if a tourist invaded your private space and started taking pictures of you? Many South Africans, especially those in vellies, rugby socks and two-tone shirts, probably look like a strange species to visitors from abroad. How would these individuals react if they were casually snapped by tourists who wanted to go back home and show their friends what the “locals” looked like?
I am truly not sure. Many perhaps wouldn’t care. You are what you are, after all, and if people want to take pictures, why not?
Yet certain idiosyncrasies and anachronisms are often used by indigenous tribes to earn some money. This is happening more and more in Namibia, especially with the Himba, but also with the Herero women. Today the Himba women parade themselves in Walvis Bay and Windhoek for foreigners who do not want to travel all the way to Kaokoland to see them. And sadly, more often than not, the money earned during this parade is spent at the liquor store.
Nowhere in the world is this practice more evident than in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia.
During our last journey, Voetspore in the Great Rift Valley, we spent some time in this south-eastern corner of Ethiopia. The valley is known for its diversity of tribes. The Konso, Mursi, Dassanech, Ari, Hammer – each tribe has its own practices and beliefs. Each tribe is vastly different in appearance. The Mursi are perhaps best known because of their massive lip rings. The Hammer are known for their bull-running ceremony.
Our first stop was in the southern part of the valley, near the border town of Omorate. We wanted to go to Omorate to visit the Dassanech tribe.
Their village was in the open on the other side of the Omo River. We crossed the river, the main source of the Turkana Lake, by dugout canoe. Then we approached the village, inhabited at the time by women only. The male Dassanech were in the veld, looking after the livestock. They only occasionally visit the village.
As we approached, we noticed frantic activity. The women had seen us, and were getting ready to be photographed. Mostly with clay pots on their heads, they stood ready for the cameras. But there were strict rules – 10 birr (the equivalent of R5) per photograph. And do not for one moment think you could take two pictures. Then the price was 20 birr! If there each had to be paid 10 birr. The plan therefore was to select a lady, take her to one side, away from the others, take a picture of her, and then pay her.
Our guide told us about some of the cultural practices of the Dassanech, but generally our visit to this dusty village was overshadowed by the nagging thought that perhaps these people maintained their practices and dress code just to earn money.
In this part of the world we did not see any liquor stores, but the same could not be said about our quest the next day to find the Mursi with their lip rings.
To see the Mursi, one needs to enter a reserve where a fee has to be paid. Of all the tribes of the Omo Valley, the Mursi are apparently extra special.
Our guide took us to the town of Jinka. It was market day, and some of the Mursi were sure to be there. The guide went looking for them. The only place where he could find them, though, was in the bars. It was around midday, and by now the Mursi women were so intoxicated that they did not even bother to put their lip rings in and pose for a picture.
A few days later we were fortunate to observe the whipping and bull-running ceremonies of the Hammer. These two ceremonies, I’m glad to say, had nothing to do with tourists and their cameras. These were pure practices of ancient customs.
It was fascinating, even though it was brutal. But it was not for show. It was the reality of a young men being emancipated and their female relatives being whipped as proof of their love. Difficult to comprehend, yet fascinating to observe.
For travellers on the African continent, the diversity of its people is part of the fascination. It is our job to photograph and film this diversity, yet at times it leaves us with an uneasy feeling. I am not always sure that we are making a positive contribution in the process. There are no easy answers to this one…