The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 28th April 2005

Travel in the Omo Basin - Friend or Foe

Given by - William Jones

Reviewed by - Julian Kay


William Jones who spoke to the Society on 28th April after the AGM was not only 'a long-time friend of Ethiopia' (as he put it) but a benefactor. As an experienced practitioner of well-managed tourism as a means of stimulating grass-root economies, he had done and was doing a lot of good in Ethiopia. Well-managed tourism - hence the name of his small travel company, Journeys by Design, which specialized in remote tailor-made safaris to the African continent and organized so as to promote local African conservation and development and not threaten a region's indigenous forest and wildlife.

He worked as a volunteer with CARE International in the area of Awash as an environmental scientist in the early l990s before moving to the eastern shores of Lake Langano where in conjunction with FARM Africa he initiated Ethiopia's first tented camp and ecotourism project. This was Bishangari (or 'sweet water'), the country's first community-managed nature reserve and which in the space of four years provided the finance for the community's first clinic and school, two small nurseries for both indigenous and fast growing tree species and of course as a consequence employment for 45 local Arsi-Oromo Ethiopians.

Of the estimated 30,000 tourists who may visit the country every year there could be, say, 4,000 who go to the south-west, to the lower Omo basin. This area is home to two dozen or so different tribes, some numbering tens of thousands and others numbering no more than 500. Each is culturally unique. For foreign tourists and indeed for Ethiopians in Addis Ababa, the Omo Valley and its peoples (eg. the lip-plated Mursi, the body-painting Karo and the bull-jumping Hamar) have always been considered a final frontier and presented by many travel companies as an area almost untouched by the western world.

The expansion of tourism in the area had helped trigger local industries thus bringing about a healthier cash economy on an ad hoc basis. However as most of the tour operators were based in Addis and owned by northern Ethiopians, payment for most holidays remained in bank accounts in the capital and little filtered down to the grassroots, into schools, clinics and other village services.

A very worrying concern of the speaker was the extent to which tourism in the lower Omo would undermine the area's traditional cultures and the perspective the inhabitants had of their own position in the world.

The Mursi who number less than 10,000 are one of the last groups in Africa where it is the norm for women (from 16 upwards) to wear large wooden or pottery lip-plates in their lower lips. These plates either indicated bride wealth or were inserted to deter early Arab slave traders, so it was held, but David Turton, probably the world's leading Mursi anthropologist maintains they were meant simply as an indication of feminine maturity and cultural identity.

There is pressure from both central government and from within the Mursi to abandon this practice. It symbolizes their backwardness and surely must inhibit their social and economic inclusion into the Ethiopian state.

“Are these people Ethiopians?” I was asked a few years ago by a young Ethiopian attending one of our meetings in London when we displayed slides (kindly presented by Paul Salt) of south western Ethiopia. But the lip-plate has become an economic asset and the young women of the Mursi will adorn themselves in a most exaggerated manner to please the photographer. Photography is predatory, rich westerners taking photographs of the poor African.

The speaker quoted from a recent Sunday Times article (by Amanda Jones), “Most visitors make a 6-hour round trip drive from Mago National Park to see them..., jump out of their cars with cameras blazing..., create a riot (handing out Birrs), get scared, jump back into their cars, lock the doors and take off again in 15 minutes. The Mursi have this down to a fine art.”

This kind of interaction is highly embarrassing for the tourist, the Mursi they have come to see and all who are anxious to encourage responsible tourism. The speaker hoped for some form of village organization to set guidelines on the collection and payment of funds in return for, say, photographs, cultural dances and crafts.

There were a number of responsible operators in Ethiopia and as William Jones reminded us, some superb Ethiopian guides, but sadly they were in the minority. Most were in the tourism business for a fast buck and cared little for local community development. Hence the need for vast improvement in this field - and for practical hard-headed visionaries like our speaker.

First Published in News File Summer 2005

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