julia dimon/for metro toronto
One of the best-known tribes in Southern Ethiopia, the Mursi have become a cultural symbol of the Lower Omo Valley. Images of their iconic lip plates and colourful dress are plastered all over vacation brochures to lure hordes of snap-happy tourists every year. But with some tour companies falsely claiming to have Mursi speaking guides, tourists are being fed a meal of misinformation.
Shauna LaTosky, a B.C.-based PhD student in cultural anthropology, has been studying the practices and traditions of the Mursi people over the past three years. She hopes to correct some of the inaccuracies out there and establish a sustainable relationship between outsiders and the Mursi.
Shauna begins our telephone interview by qualifying something I wrote in a previous column. “Though tourist dollars do supplement the Mursi lifestyle,” she explains, “tourism isn’t their main form of income.” They are pastoralists and hoe cultivators who are becoming more dependent on market exchange. The Mursi are completely self-sufficient, but, come tourist season, many do look to pick up a little extra Birr by posing for tourist photographs.
Maganto, a Mursi village on the way to Omo National Park, is the main tourist hub where photos and lip plates are sold. A visit here can sometimes turn into a confrontational, almost aggressive experience. “Since they know tourists will only stay for a brief period and then disappear again, they try to attract the attention of tourists by pulling and tugging,” Shauna explains.
At the price of two Birr per photo (20 cents Canadian), the Mursi solicit tourists to take their pictures. Since the most exotically dressed people attract tourists’ money, it pays to get “creative” with their costumes. In one photo, a woman wears a child’s beaded apron like a hat. Though it may look authentic to the untrained eye, Shauna explains “it’s the Western equivalent of wearing a diaper on your head.” The Mursi don’t consider the look beautiful or representative of their culture, but it brings in Birr.
In order to connect with the Mursi and go beyond the typical and tourist encounter, Shauna offers the following advice:
- Stay longer and spend some time at Maganto. Don’t just hop out of the 4x4 safari truck and snap a few photos.
- Bring sorghum and coffee in exchange for photos.
- Respect people’s wishes and don’t begrudge paying for photos. Tourists don’t have free reign to capture a person’s image without payment. Be sure to travel with a stack of 1 Birr and 5 Birr notes. Don’t forget to pay the elderly for photographs, not just the most exotic-looking people in the group.
- Check out Aisosh, an organization that supports students from the region so it can assist its communities in the future.
- Learn about Mursi culture and contemporary land issues by visiting www.mursi.org (a great site by longtime anthropologist David Turton) or visit the South Omo Research centre www.southethiopiaresearch.org.
- Watch Julia’s experience with the Mursi in Southern Ethiopia tonight on Word Travels. The show airs at 10 p.m. on OLN.