The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 4th November 2008

The Fish Eagle’s Lament: Travels in South West Ethiopia

Given by - Gerard Pillai

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


Tribal women flaunt all their jewellery when they visit the local market (Omo Valley)
Photo © Gerard Pillai

There is much much more to Ethiopia than the wonderful Christian culture that bestrides the centre and the north of the country: "I do believe the world belongs to the people of the south Omo. It's so wonderful to spend time with people whose happiness does not depend on material possessions" - our speaker proclaimed.

Gerard Pillai was born in Sri Lanka and most of his family are in Australia. He first visited Ethiopia in December 2002, primarily to watch and photograph African wildlife and birds. He soon found out his first love was for the people.

The evening's talk concentrated on the Konso, Suri, Mursi, Surma and Hamar.

Most of these tribes are animist pastoralists and Gerard's excellent presentation of their cultural attributes centred upon his magnificent collection of slides.

His journey began at Konso, the last highland town. Unlike the other tribes to be visited, Konso are agriculturalists. We were shown Konso homes made of rock and wood, ancient ploughs and their unique rock terracing. Perhaps practising a culture of 'divine kingship', the Konso mummified their king for a period of nine years, nine months and nine days maintaining that he was 'ill'. The significance of this particular period of time is uncertain.

Moving down to the south Omo river, Gerard related how each tribe had its own culture and members of one tribe rarely intermarried with another. He became fascinated with the flair for fashion he noticed, among both men and women, describing red earth, charcoal pigments and butter as 'Mother Nature's vanity case'.

"When I first arrived, I thought the tribes dressed up just for tourists. I was wrong". Besides red earth and charcoal, married women adorn themselves with heavy metal bangles. Famously, Mursi and Surma women further adorn themselves with plates in their lips and wooden discs in their ear lobes. Some believe the plate-in-the-lip custom was instituted to make married women unattractive.

Face painting is done using a splayed twig or fingers (Omo Valley)
Photo © Gerard Pillai

Mursi and Surma men are famous for stick fighting with the ultimate prize of the choice of the village's best women. The tribes practise cicatrisation using razor blades or thorns with ash or juices from local plants. The number of scars indicates how many men a man has killed.

The large and appreciative audience were shown superb slides of the cattle. Staple diet for the tribes is blood and milk. Cattle are banded together for the male initiation rite. This consists of jumping onto the backs of the cattle and effortlessly clearing as many as possible (at least four) in a hop, step and jump procedure. Attentive television viewers will have seen the indefatigable Bruce Parry 'having a go' reasonably successfully (Tribe - Adventures in a Changing World BBC TV).

Most perplexing are the Hamar women. They proudly display gruesome whipping marks on their backs. Women who are unblemished are looked down upon. No satisfactory explanation for this custom has been put forward. Indeed, that might apply to any custom.

Gerard took fine pictures of the local markets - as he said, an excellent place to peoplewatch: people milling about, barbers at work, story tellers story telling, as well as all the local produce, spices, textiles, on show.

Gerard has visited the area so many times that he has become personal friends with the locals. We met his friend Arbo, his wife Munte and their fives sons. Their sixth son has been named after Gerard.

A wonderful evening, greatly enjoyed by a large audience. We thanked Gerard Pillai for putting his incredible talent at our disposal. Gerard, who is a member of the Society, reminded us that the whole Ethiopian scene is resplendent with wildlife, the most prominent symbol, for him, being the magnificent Fish Eagle and its plaintive cry with which all of us who have visited Africa - Ethiopia and elsewhere - will also be acquainted.

First Published in News File Spring 2009

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
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