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Visiting Rural Ethiopia: How to Enjoy the Thrill and Still Be a Responsible Tourist

I had bought my way into a tribe where nothing was left sacred. I came, I paid, and I left, with no romancing, no love...

by Michael Lepetit

Members of a tribe in Rural Southern Ethiopia.

The idea that as a tourist I am able to walk into a small village in Africa and get the locals to do what I want them to do by offering money is a dangerous stepping stone.  If history has taught us anything, it is that white westerners with money can, and will, get the rest of the world to do just about anything to everyone

As the dust from the Ethiopian road kicked up into our hot Nissan Safari and coated the inside of my mouth, I couldn’t help think that air conditioning would be a really nice relief right now.  But very little worked in this SUV.  I was lucky we got a breeze from the window.  What really worried me, though, wasn’t the dust, or the craggy dirt road, or the fact that the seatbelts didn’t work, but the encounter I knew was going to happen when we got to our destination. I was taking a tour of Southern Ethiopia with a friend.  Our twenty-five year old guide sat in the front next to our driver.  In a few hours we would pull over at some inconspicuous point on the road, get out, and walk to a nearby village. We had done this the day before, and it wasn’t quite what I had anticipated.  

On that first day, it was explained to me, after we left the city of Arba Minch, that certain tribes would let me take pictures of them, and then ask me for some money.  This sounded reasonable, I supposed.  If they need the money, and I’d like a nice memory, then why not?  But when I stepped out of the car while visiting our third tribe – the Hamer tribe – I was swarmed by nearly two dozen women, ranging in age from about ten to nearly seventy years old.  My guide led us into the village and pointed at the huts, the cattle, and the piles of drying sorghum that the locals grew.  The two dozen women followed us like paparazzi behind a celebrity.  When we got to the end of the village my guide said, “Well, pick the ones you think are the most beautiful, and take their picture.”  His hand swept across the mostly naked women, many with children.  My travel partner and I exchanged glances.  This felt wrong.  Yes, we were talking about photographs, and nothing more.  And the money they wanted was inconsequential to me, so that wasn’t what bothered me.  But for two white westerners to be told to pick which bare-breasted woman we thought was the most beautiful, take her picture, and give her money, seemed perverse.  

And so, with that experience behind me, I knew what was coming– and I was not enthusiastic.  That final tribe was truly remarkable.  The Mursi were originally nomads from The Sudan.  Their bodies are adorned with scars that form elaborate patterns.  The women cut and stretch their lower lips and in the piercing hold large clay plates.  The men walk around with AK-47’s that they use for hunting.  Just to know that such a tribe really does still exist was awe inspiring.  But as expected, I was poked and prodded and told to take pictures of the villagers. 

It’s hard for me to pinpoint what made me so uncomfortable about the experience.  It was not that they were naked.  I’m a firm believer that nudity is a social construct.  The women of this tribe felt no shame baring their breasts  and I respect that.  Nor did I feel that this experience was totally staged.  I have travelled from Iceland to the Amazon and I know a real experience from a fake one.  I visited four tribes on this trip.  No doubt, to a small degree they were indeed putting on a show for me.  One tribe brandished their hunting rifles, the AK-47’s, others danced around, while another sat me down and drank coffee with me. But as the people worked and went about their lives in their villages of straw huts in little to no clothing and in traditional jewelry, it didn’t feel phony.  The truth was somewhere in the middle.  Some had cell phones and many of the homes had small solar panels to power lights in the huts.  One teenager who incongruously was holding a machine gun and wearing a loincloth, explained through a translator that he was on summer break from college. Good for him, I thought!  But the patterned scars and stretched lower lips were for the most part, legitimate examples of surviving traditions in rural southern Ethiopia. 

What did make me uncomfortable was an imagined bus of tourists with prurient interests.  And even worse: the idea that my guide might help them.  Whether sex is or isn’t an option, however, doesn’t matter.  While the people hadn’t been prostituted to me, their culture had been.  I had bought my way into a tribe where nothing was left sacred.  I came, I paid, and I left, with no romancing, no love. 

It is not up to me to decide how a country organizes its own tourism economy, but as tourists we must not allow ourselves to fall victim to those who try to exploit their own country.  In Central America there are many great eco tourist lodges that take people on tours of the jungle to spot sloths in trees.  There are, however, just as many opportunists who take tourists to see sloths by chopping down the branch to which the docile creatures cling.  And as long as tourists take selfies with the sloths and tip their machete-happy guides, it will continue.  Likewise, marveling at foreign tribes and throwing money at them for their picture will continue so long as busloads of tourists unload at huts, cameras in hand.  Tourists like me. 

I felt conflicted. On one hand I thought, “if these tribes need the money, then what harm am I doing in playing along?”  But history is filled with white westerners who sanctimoniously felt they were doing “the natives” a service.  The idea that as a tourist I am able to walk into a small village in Africa and get the locals to do what I want them to do by offering money is a dangerous stepping stone.  If history has taught us anything, it is that white westerners with money can, and will, get the rest of the world to do just about anything to everyone.

However, Ethiopia and its tribes aren’t a complete write-off.  There were times when my experience was as fulfilling as I hoped it would be.  The night after I saw the Hamer tribe, we stayed in a small city on the border of South Sudan.  After dinner my friend and I went for a walk and were coaxed into a pool hall.  It was only a few tarps around two run down tables, but I was happy to join the men inside.  Some of the guys were from the local tribe.  Their haircuts gave them away despite the fact that they had changed their clothes into what seemed to be their “evening wear”. One man was wearing a shirt that said “New York”.   My friend and I were handed cues and some beers (the “bartender” ran from across the street and must have been twelve years old) and we played for hours.  Pool halls are amazing for their universality.  The rituals are the same everywhere: laugh when someone misses an easy shot, ooh and aah when someone makes a hard shot, buy the next round, shake hands after a game, and never take it too seriously.  Sharing these experiences with people whose lives appeared to be so different from mine taught me that no matter how different we are, we all enjoy a good laugh, no matter who it’s with.  Corralling tourists from one place to the other on the other hand, with no interaction other than to ogle the locals as if they were animals in the zoo, dangerously opens the divide between us by highlighting the superficial differences.  The divide that many have used to justify so much oppression and suffering loosely known as colonialism.

The world can be an amazing place and I firmly encourage everyone to take a look.  From remote tribes in Ethiopia to ravers in Ibiza, the human experience is a pantry filled with a myriad flavors waiting to be tasted.  It is imperative, however, that we as tourists remember that traveling is about experiencing reality, not disturbing it. 

On the last afternoon we took a walk through an outdoor market where the local tribes buy their necessities.  I wandered through the aisles of vendors, clothing, food and household knick-knacks spread out over blankets on the ground.  I saw people shopping, laughing, working, dancing, and even fighting. In short, living their own lives.  I was invisible to them, like a tourist in midtown Manhattan at rush hour, watching, in awe, a world that I couldn’t have imagined existed.  A world that I left as it was when I arrived.  A world that I’m not even sure cared I was there at all, and that’s just how I like it. 

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