We were waking up early in Jinka to travel to the Mursi Tribe the next morning.
I’d heard crazy things about this tribe. “They are violent, aggressive and should be treated as wild animals” said one German tourist. I was assigned an armed scout in case anything was to happen. When I heard this initially, it upset me. Of course these people will act like animals if they are treated like them! We were meant to be staying the night in Margo National Park not far from the Mursis. But I requested that we see what the situation was at the Mursi village in the morning, because if I could tent next to their village, I would prefer this, as it would give me more time with the people. More time for interaction.
We parked under a tree about 150m from the village. I had been told that the villages demand money for photos. So I decided I would leave everything in the car to begin with. No camera, no money. Just me. As we approached the tribal village, the people ran towards us. My scout quickly shuffled in front of me with his gun held firmly in both hands at his chest. Seriously, did I really need this kind of protection I thought.
The kids started grabbing me and my body guard started hitting them off. I grabbed his hand and said “Achali! Achali!” Meaning ‘its ok’! The scout stepped back finally and I got down on my knees to make eye contact with the children, shaking everyone’s hand with both of mine. I memorised a few words so I could introduce myself and thank them for welcoming me into their village. I had introduced myself to everyone and made eye contact with every person around me.They began asking for a photo and money. I said innocently and quietly, “No camera, no birr”. The children just looked at me blankly.
I was still on my knees when I suddenly felt a strong hand on my shoulder. I turned and looked up at the stern face behind me. My smile disappeared as I stood up. I put my hand out to shake his hand. He was obviously some kind of village chief. He ignored my gesture completely and repeated the words “Photo. Birr.” To which I calmly replied, “No photo. No birr”. He had a feather in his hair, a painted face and the most angry disgusted eyes. He raised his hand and shoved me on my shoulder. He flicked his wrists and gestured that I leave immediately. My scout stepped in again and screamed at him what I assume was along the lines of “Don’t touch her!” The tall old man glared at me for a moment, then bent down to pick up a rock and held it high above our heads.
I was absolutely mortified, hurt & offended. I turned immediately and marched straight back to the car, with my scout following close behind. I was very upset. I was not welcome here nor did I want to spend another second with these people. But I slowly realised then, that the only people to blame were the tourists – me. Granted, I was disrupting their day, coming into their village. However I didn’t expect this treatment. I have been to many tribes on my travellers and never experienced something like this. I sat in the car for a while to calm down. Dave explained that these people are not interested in making friends, especially with tourists, ” these people are animals and we have to treat them like this”. It did take some time but I gained a level of understanding from their point of view. I got out of the car for the second time, with my camera and money and proceeded to do what every tourist does. Take photos, pay and leave. We were on our way within the hour.
The Mursi people have killed off every wild animal in the national park. 15 years ago there were lions, leopards, elephants, ibex, zebras and many other beautiful wind animals. They have hunted every one of them, the park is now completely empty. They drink the blood of cows and milk, not because it means anything, but because it’s cheaper than water. It was very disheartening and disturbed me on may levels.
The clay plates in their lips signify once again the strength and beauty of a woman. The bigger the plate, the more pain the women have endured and the more capable they are of living life and overcoming the hardships. This is attractive to the men.
Although it is a symbol of beauty, the women only cut their bottom lip once they have been married. The men choose their bride and only if the woman accepts his proposal is the marriage to go ahead. After the marriage, the man and woman build a house together and although they live together in the house, they may choose to still be intimate with anyone in the village. There is no such this as adultery. This sort of ‘swinging’ is accepted by this particular village I went to. The men are said to discuss the women and their ‘skills’ during intimacy.
You must understand that men are considered kings in their culture and that women are forever trying to impress them. As wrong and disturbing as we may think this is, this IS their way of life. The women accept this way of life.
Another question is “when a society is not exposed to education, do they have the ability to see the value of long term benefits? Of course not! So, should we make education compulsory? MOST DEFINITELY ! But how?”
I firmly believe that grassroots action on a local level is the answer. But where and how to start?