In Search of Savages
His yelling woke me up. As I slowly opened my eyes, I saw him standing over me. He was naked and hopping mad. The fact that he had a Kalashnikov slung over one shoulder and not a single strand of hair on his entire body just added to the bizarre scene. Was I dreaming? And his woman was not much better, in her animal skin “dress” which exposed a withered left breast.
I had ventured to the Gamo-Gofa region in southern Ethiopia with hopes of seeing some of the colorful local tribes. Out of the 30,000 overseas visitors in Ethiopia last year, only a small percentage made it to Gamo-Gofa. Local transport is limited and arduous over the region’s rough, untarmacked roads, so most tourists who make the journey end up organizing their trip through a tour operator in the capital city of Addis Ababa. At a minimum cost of $100 a day for a 4WD with driver, it isn’t cheap. Add to that the fact that Ethiopia is a vast country, with an area comparable to Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico combined, and that only 15% of the nation’s roads are paved, and you are counting a minimum journey of nine days to the south.
Fortunately I was able to hook up with three other travelers while in Addis Ababa, and we decided to organize an expedition together. There was Aidan, a 25-year-old Irish student who had recently graduated from college and who decided to tour Africa before facing the realities of finding a job. Werner, a 33-year-old Belgian, had just returned home in January, after having traveled around the world for the past three years. After only six months, he was itching to get out again, so he came to eastern Africa for two months. And then there was Guy, a 22-year-old pilot for Britain’s Royal Air Force who had just completed his service and was going to become a commercial pilot. But before that he was going to overland from Cairo to Cape Town.
That afternoon, day four of our nine-day odyssey, we had driven through Mago National Park for hours with the hope of spotting members of the Mursi tribe, one of the most sought-after tribes by the tourists who come to Gamo-Gofa. They are an isolated and distinct people who continue to live much as their ancestors did. Nomadic pastoralists, they roam the rugged land with their livestock in search of pasture and water. The women, with their spherical lip plates, are the main attraction. They have the reputation of being aggressive, touchy and downright mean; yet it is the Mursi who everyone wants to see.
Our driver, Theodros, and guide, Hapte, informed us that we may or may not find them that day. Guy, Aidan and Werner were anxious with anticipation as we sought out what we had jokingly termed these “noble savages.” As for me, I was suffering my first gut-wrenching stomach virus and was attempting to find comfort while curled up in the fetal position in the back seat. Riding in a cramped 4WD with five men looking for the Mursi was not what I wanted. Fortunately, sleep overcame me, and I found some solace. But the man’s yelling suddenly interrupted my slumber. From the looks of things, we had finally found the Mursi.
We sat in the Toyota Land Cruiser, in shock, as Hapte got out to talk with the man. They went back and forth for what seemed like an eternity, with the man waving his rifle and becoming more and more agitated as the minutes ticked by. The woman started to call out with a strange clicking sound of her tongue, and it was clear she was beckoning back up. Finally, we managed to find out what was going on: they wanted their picture taken and they wanted money. Simple enough, we told Hapte, but they couldn’t agree to a price. It was a tad disappointing the woman was not sporting a lip plate, but at that point I was ready to give them whatever they wanted.
We knew that we would have to pay for photos and that the going rate was 2 birr (roughly 25 cents) a picture. Sometimes it is possible to bargain them down to 1 birr, but only if you have brand new notes. For some reason, the tribes turn their noses up to old, worn bills. Armed with spanking new 1 birr notes, we hopped out of the Land Cruiser and agreed to the price of 8 birr for a photo: 4 birr for him and 4 birr for his lady friend. We clicked away, and thought that we could now finally move on. But no, he wanted more money.
Guy, Aidan and I, a bit nervous by the man’s ranting and raving, settled back into the Land Cruiser, while Hapte tried to soothe the “savage.” Werner, who had experienced numerous tribes, from South America to the South Pacific, stoically stood by Hapte and would gently push the man’s rifle towards the ground when it was raised in the air. Not even knowing how much more money the man was demanding, Werner forked over another 4 birr and made it clear that the negotiations were over. A smile spread over the man’s face as Hapte and Werner jumped in the vehicle. Theodros started to drive away, but the Mursi man motioned for him to stop. Did he want even more money? No, he just wanted to shake our hands.