Far from utopia: Stills from Ethiopia capture tribes in unrest

Siddhi Jain

New Delhi, Nov 6 (IANS) Ethiopia, Africas oldest independent country, is home to several tribes, some of which have been brought to the mainstream. The remaining are engaged in a constant battle between century-old traditions and an impending gun culture, modernisation and state interventions.

This clash of the past and the future is among the several subjects vividly brought alive in an ongoing exhibition at Bikaner House here.

Titled "OMO: Where The Time Stood Still", the exhibition features 240 photographs captured by India's first woman wildlife biologist, Latika Nath, who holds a doctorate on tiger conservation from Oxford University.

Living in and around the Omo Valley, the focus of her study are some of the oldest tribes known to man such as Hamer, Bana, Mursi, Suri, Kara, Dassanech, Arbore and Nyangatom. While they number only about 200,000 in total, these tribes continue to live in much the same manner over hundreds of years.

"The focus of the Ethiopian government is to introduce the tribes to modern lifestyles and education. They also want to remove certain rituals and practices that they perceive as harmful, (such as) genital mutilation, practices around the body, infanticide since some children are considered unlucky or evil, and the traditional fighting between tribes," Nath, known for her documentation of the big cat species in India, told IANS.

During multiple visits, Nath captured over 60,000 images in Ethiopia. Her photographs show that the lifestyle of tribes, their culture and customs is unique, revealing aspects of their lives seldom revealed to the world.

Building of roads in the Omo Valley and construction of dams on the Omo River, Nath implied, may have been a difficult choice to make but they ultimately affect their lifestyle.

"Omo Valley has the largest dams in Ethiopia. With the coming up of dams, the annual flooding -- on which their whole cycle of agriculture is based -- has reduced. But again, Ethiopia as a country needs the water and hydel power. So it's a difficult choice."

One of the photographs by Nath, who focussed on capturing "action, movement, expressions, and life", shows a tribal with an AK-47 gun in his hand, with a gunbelt packed with ammunition tied to his waist.

How did modern weapons infiltrate into their tribal lifestyle?

"There's a lot of inter-tribe rivalry, and as men, they take pride in how many people they've killed.

War takes place over cattle and land. The guns came in because of the unrest in Sudan and Somalia. The Sudanese people used to come in to raid these areas, and then through bartering, the weapons came in," Nath responded.

She said that a "crazy" monetary system has developed around areas exposed to tourism.

"You are supposed to pay per photograph that you take. If you even take a group or general shot, they expect to be paid for it," shared Nath, who was assisted by her guides to pay close to "20 cents" per image she clicked.

All in all, the multiple visits she made to Ethiopia turned out to be "quite an eye opener" for her. Along the journey, she came across tribes that were "warm and welcoming", whereas she also encountered some that were aggressive to the point that they would "manhandle, and even throw stones" at her.

"OMO: Where The Time Stood Still" opened for public viewing on Monday and will remain on display at Bikaner House here till November 12. Entry is free.

(Siddhi Jain can be contacted at siddhi.j@ians.in)

--IANS

sj/ss/vm/hs