As the morning sun rose to bake the valley most of the tribe retreated into their huts where Bertrand assured me the men would commence drinking. We were offered a hut for the evening probably on the grounds that they knew we had more money to spend on photos. We mutually agreed the experience was worth braving a night of drunken, heavily armed gunmen who were after our cash, at least until they started shooting.
I wanted to sleep outside as the huts were like saunas, filled with smoke from the ever-present charcoal fires in a central pit. Bertrand insisted we sleep inside as the smoke was a deliberate deterrent to the numerous leopards and puff adders that share the local valley. We slept inside as I listened to his tales of the Mursi.
According to Bertrand this particular band do not spend money on anything they deem frivolous such as housing, clothing, or schools for their children. They only buy necessary items such as AK47 assault rifles, ammunition, and homemade local vodka. They pursue money for no other reason than having it, believing the mere possession gives them face among neighboring tribes and identifying them in my eyes as the living epitome of capitalism.
So what caused the evolution of this tiny enclave of old spear and loin cloth Africa to the fanatical pursuit of the almighty dollar to the exclusion of all else?
From Circus Freaks to Rock Stars
Bertrand related it to the 1920's when the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus brought two Mursi women with their oversized pizza lips and clay inserts to New York and put them in their side show, most likely against their wishes. They were a huge hit and put the tribe on the international map, calling them Ubangis for reasons now lost; an unfortunate name that is still erroneously applied to them.
The public was fascinated by these strange looking people and wanted to see more but there were no roads into the Omo until the mid-1960's and by then the tribe had attained mythical status known only to a handful of intrepid trekkers.
Safaris to see the Ubangi with their monstrous lips and automatic rifles were springing up and they became the bush equivalent of rock stars, and just like many practitioners of the latter profession, the Mursi did not handle fame or fortune very well. Because of their sheer isolation, not only from the outside world but from neighboring tribes, their social skills were limited to their own inbred ways that usually clashed with those of their visitors.
These strange white people from another world who arrived in unbelievable machines and carried metal devices that could only contain magic offered them valuable paper for their pictures and most of the Mursi understood this as an easy way to make a living, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Bertrand was one of those early visitors to the Omo and found this one roving band who equated the acceptance of money from outsiders as the transference of power to them. He claimed it akin to the ancient warrior ritual of eating a piece of your dead enemy to absorb his prowess. Bertrand believed it began with a tribal elder named Oligache who claimed he magically drew white people to him in order to take their essence, their money, and the more he got the more he wanted, so over the years his tiny band became the "in your face" people we were now amongst.
Photography as a Contact Sport
Our second day was a repeat of the first. I pushed and shoved with one hand while clicking the shutter with the other; got my photos and have the bruises, cuts and one permanent scar to show for it. I have told friends since then it was like trying to photograph in a school of feeding Piranhas. When I ran out of money the Mursi simply turned and walked away as though we were never there, to await their next cash cow.
But this little band is an anomaly among the greater tribe who even have their own website now to promote tourism at www.mursi.org, sponsored by England's Oxford University, and tours to see them are beginning to proliferate.
Still, for those still up for a very physical confrontation, in the wilds of the Omo valley there is a single roving band of the most aggressive capitalists on the planet, a people who would be the envy of any Wall Street trader.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
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