I awoke in total darkness, gasping for air and wondering where I was.
The heat and smoke were stifling but as I sat up and banged my head against the thatched curving wall I saw dying embers from the evening's fire and remembered I was in the hut of a Mursi elder and asked myself, "What am I doing here?"
Bertrand and I had arrived in the morning after a restless night in the bush and a previously aborted attempt to enter a different village that he decided was too dangerous due to the random gunfire and drunken singing that turned us in another direction.
The gunmen of this village were not yet drunk upon our arrival and in fact had been slightly welcoming, totally out of character for them, when they heard Bertrand speaking their dialect. Suddenly they were as curious of us as we were of them and I prayed a silent thank you that I had hooked up with this formidable ex-legionnaire paratrooper.
I found Bertrand in Addis Ababa, a happy expatriate from Paris who was earning a living by guiding people like me into the Omo valley of Southern Ethiopia to see one of the most isolated and unpredictable tribes on the planet. He was as tough as the landscape and welcomed unexpected adventures with an understated, bone-dry sense of humor. Before entering their grass hutted encampment he had warned me to take off my watch and any jewelry including a wedding band, secure my wallet, hold onto my camera, and to stand my ground or be overpowered. But warnings can never really prepare you for an all- out assault.
The Mursi are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd cattle in the summer and grow crops along the Omo River in the winter; they number less than 9,000. Known for being armed to the teeth and wild body painting, their main claim to fame is the large round clay lip inserts the women wear. They are a photographers dream and many of them are welcoming to the rare trekker who enters the Omo, but we have come to see a particular tribal band known for settling disputes with their rifles and their 'in your face' attitude. While it is common for tribal cultures to ask for money in exchange for taking their photo, this tiny band of entrepreneurs has raised the bar to a whole new level. Taking their photo is a blood sport.
Two Dollars, Two Punches, Three Kicks a Photo
They do not just demand money for their photos; they push, scratch, kick, bite, and threaten with guns to get it. Bertrand assured me they would not turn overtly violent as long as we stayed calm and kept paying them, and in fact this behavior is exactly what we had come to observe. They would not accept a blanket price for photographing in their midst but insisted on bartering for each individual shot, holding up fingers to indicate dollars, their all- consuming pursuit.
I had stuffed my pockets with small bills so as not to have to produce any large amount at a given time and as each Mursi agreed to a photo they would strike as martial a pose as possible, always holding their rifle. But there was more to it than that. They were just as aggressive with each other as to us, both the men and women pushing and yelling to be the first to be photographed and once done, retreating into their grass huts to emerge in a different outlandish costume to repeat the process.
Their muscular ebony bodies were magnificent, painted all over with white abstract designs that have religious and social significance to them. Head gear ranged from bunches of dried corn to dead birds and seemed to include anything over the top enough to command a photographer's attention. The women were as aggressive as the men, pinching me constantly and thrusting their extended lips in front of my lens.
As soon as a photo was taken, the subject wanted nothing more to do with us unless it was to pay for another photo and after the initial fury of the first shoot, all of them seemed to lose interest, wandering away to count their money that the women collected in beautiful hand woven baskets decorated with porcupine quills. It was then, and again, only for a price, that I was allowed a peek inside one of the grass huts and was startled to find stacks of dollars, euros, and francs, piled as though in a steel bank vault.
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