Omo Valley Village Exchange
Photographing tribes in the Omo Valley was the reason for the trip. I hoped for a personal exchange with the Mursi women as their culture could not be further from my own. We are by all senses complete opposites. Traveling solo offers many advantages including one-on-one experiences that would otherwise be impossible.
The day was clear with flat lands intertwined with rolling hills as far as one could see. Really, I could have been driving anywhere. Robel, my guide, Mulugeta my driver and I were on what I’m sure was our 15th time listening to Akon’s Sorry. They were learning the lyrics to all of my favorites and I was offering my best attempt at learning theirs. We had developed quite the rapport and now I was just traveling through Ethiopia with old friends. Village stops were always filled with surprises and each was unique and special in its own right.
This one stop in particular however proved to be an experience I will never forget and one that have shared on many occasions. Why write about it now? I was watching TV and there was a commercial on about a particular person and they said, “I have a story and it should be heard”. It made the craziest impact on me. I have so many stories and I know they should be told.
So back to this beautiful day. A village craftsman decorated only by striped body paint was sitting under a shaded tree whittling away. I sat next to him watching carefully with a serious, stern face matching his as if looking in a mirror. I remember lifting an eyebrow with curiosity. As we could not speak to one another we shared verbal cues with body language and eye contact. I mocked his seriousness only to see him loosen up a bit. I showed my surprise and raised a side of my lips as if to ask is it ok to smile. Oh, he got that. With his head cocked to one side, and min the other, we broke out in a friendly exchange of laughter. He had a great sense of humor and I felt as though my acceptance and willingness to join him, landed me in a feeling of respect and trust. He showed no sign of embarrassment that he was naked and I showed no sign of embarrassment over my modesty and need to hide my God given body. We just accepted each other as is. That was a great exchange and lead in to one of my most memorable experiences on the road ever!
I strolled through the small village and tried to develop a rapport as opposed to just being a tourist with a camera. It was an honor when the Matriarch invited me into her small Tepee like hut. I was pretty excited. The children kindly lifted the fabric door and I crawled in to sit on some homemade straw mats. They piled in silently after me with curiosity. The Matriarch was the last to enter. I was told by my guide that she said I sat on the mans side but it was ok for me as their guest. I nodded with thanks and said I wished to respect their customs so I inched myself over to the female side of the hut. They nodded with approval and appreciation.
It was like a scene from I Love Lucy. It was English to Amharic, Amharic to Local Language and Local Language to the villagers dialect. I asked them to translate that I was very grateful for the invitation and was very happy to be there with them and if they had any questions for me they could ask freely.
Well, it didn’t take long at all. One child asked if I was married. I said no. They wowed a bit with one another as that was really not understood. Please note I was 44 so that was pretty unheard of. Now, they do not track their birthdays so they do not know how old they are but they could tell I was older. Another young girl asked if I had children. I explained that I do not but I have a cat and I love him and he is my baby. I could never have predicted what came next.
As I said my words, my guide translated to the local guide who translated to the Matriarch. I should explain here that I was told it is impolite to ask the name of the Matriarch so of course I respected that and nodded. She saw my acceptance and nodded when it was explained to me down the line of bilingual translators.
I looked across to “Mama” and she had her arms crossed out in front of her as if rocking a baby, swinging side to side. She uttered some words and I watched each guides interpretation until the literal words were spoken to me… How does the cat attach to the nipple? Now mind you, nobody was laughing. my words were taken literally as they speak the truth without embellishment or lies. I found myself embarrassed and yet was touched at the honest mistake I had made. I apologized and said I understand how that was not clear. I used my arms and body to emphasize the true meaning of my words. I said I do love my cat and call it my baby because I do not have kids but he is my pet. I charaded that I put a bowl of water on the floor for the cat to drink and I put a bowl of food on the floor for my cat to eat because he is my pet. Oh, she sighed. I understand she said. “We have pets too.” We have cows, sheep, goats and dogs. With flailing arms and a directive voice, she summoned a child that quickly ran out of the hut returning promptly with the cutest brand new puppy. I was so touched. She carefully put the puppy in my lap for me to play with and pet while we continued our exchange.