Visiting the Mursi in the South Omo Zone

Posted by on Apr 5, 2011 in Ethiopia | No Comments

Negotiating with the Mursi

More than anything else on the road, I’m interested in seeing how local cultures live and how they dress. Textile design and traditional costuming are something I will go out of my way to see and the Mursi are known for their atypical adornments. Because Mursi women are so well known for stretching their lips with heavy clay plates they are used to seeing tourists. However, this is pretty far off the main road—it’s a 3-4 day drive to Jinka and another 3-4 hours outside of town.

The Mursi are not too welcoming and we were required to pay a national park fee, hire an armed Mursi guard and pay entrance to the village itself. Throughout our eleven days in the South Omo we only saw one or two other tourist vehicles and never ran into any tourists out and about. There the three of us stood in front of a village of painted Mursi, all asking to have their picture taken.

The whole situations was odd, with each snap of my camera requiring a 1bihr payment (approximately $0.12 USD). I prefer portrait photography when traveling, especially with such interestingly dressed subjects, but as they posed it felt all wrong. I don’t deny their right to request payment and I didn’t feel taken advantage of in this select case. However, paying per shot for each person in a shot makes casual and spontaneous pictures impossible. I was glad that I had the foresight to go to a bank in Addis to purchase stacks of tiny 1bihr notes. The Mursi were serious about payment, did not give change and turned away damaged bills, even as they tucked them into their mud covered clothing.

There we all stood, asking individuals to pose while they counted each press of the shutter—no double exposures! One woman posed for me and popped out a baby hidden on her back at the last second, then demanded payment for the baby as well. I was taken aback but there was no arguing when you’re surrounded by men armed with rifles and machetes. As we prepared to leave some men began to rock our car and threaten to push it into the river unless we paid them a special fee. We had never intended to not pay but they got their point across.

We gave two teenage women a ride to Jinka to exchange money and buy supplies. With hours to kill they loosened up and joked around with us, looking through my Lonely Planet guidebook and gasping in horror when I showed them my tongue piercing. You’d think women with stretched earlobes and lips dangling past their chins wouldn’t be shocked by the metal stud in my tongue!

Mursi Girls in the Trunk from Megan Kearney on Vimeo.

More photos of the Mursi village can be seen in the gallery. Photo of girl braiding my hair by my travelmate, Jay.