I didn’t coin the phrase “the human zoo” – many writers have used it to describe the experience of visiting the tribal areas of southern Ethiopia, and particularly the Omo Valley. There groups such as the Mursi, Hamer, Karo and others have long recognized that their exoticism to Westerners is a marketable commodity, and we travelers have done our part by eagerly consuming it. Numerous accounts had prepared me for the drill – portraits are for sale at an established price, and we enter the arena with pockets full of Ethiopian birr, feeling – and dispensing – like walking ATMs.
Let me be clear – no one begrudges the sellers the right to be paid for their time and image, and the amounts involved are trivial – 3 to 5 birr (15 to 25 cents) for adults and 1-2 birr (5 to 10 cents) for children. What no one had prepared me for, however, was the chaos, physicality, and competition that ensued when our group of thirteen travelers would arrive in a village and its entire population – some hastily applying paint or finery – would begin jockeying for our attention. With limited time and, truth be told, patience, we were placed in the unseemly position of hastily choosing some, rejecting others, running gauntlets of grasping hands, and removing opportunists from already agreed-upon tableaux. With all this frenzied attention we were often left wondering which of us were the more exotic species.
A far more troubling aspect of this marketplace, however, was the inequality it created among the greater and lesser photogenic. Among the Mursi, for example, women with lip plates, particularly if they are young and bare-breasted, make money hand over fist. The men of the group, in contrast, despite their often magnificent adornments and scarifications, are definitely the also-rans, and grow increasingly frustrated and aggressive as a result. I wondered if the money earned was shared with the wider family or group. But I saw no evidence of this, and the locals I asked were of the impression that it stayed with the recipient.
At no time did I doubt that the lifestyles I observed were genuine, or believe that they were in any way a quaint reconstruction for tourists. But when naked two-year-old children stream from their huts at the sight of visitors crying “Photo 2 birr” I despair for the future of these proud people.
So I offer these portraits from the Omo Valley. They show some of the most remarkable people still living traditional lives in the world today. I’m privileged to have seen them. I only wish the experience hadn’t come at the cost of the dignity of both parties.