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Story: Backpacking around Ethiopia for a month, I was rewarded not just with the beauty of this diverse country but with a deep connection that can only come from raw, unadulterated experience.
While most visitors head to northern Ethiopia which is rich in cultural and religious history, I travelled south to the Omo Valley. Relatively cut off from modern civilisation, this region has been home to nomadic tribes for centuries. Across luscious green valleys and off-terrain roads, I encountered five different tribes: the Hamar, Karo, Dassanech, Mursi and Banna.
This journey is traditionally reserved for the rich, or those mainly interested in photographing these unique peoples before immediately moving on to the next tribe. It’s a sad fact that we noticed when visiting the Hamar tribe, where a bull jumping initiation ritual was taking place. So many travellers took pictures of the spectacle before leaving without any interaction. I resolved not to do this. While I was interested in photographing the people of the Omo Valley, I also wanted to build a relationship with them.
Over the following days, with the help of my local guide, I visited the chalk-painted Karo tribe, the hospitable Mursi and Dassanech cow herders. With each encounter I got to know the people of the tribes well before even taking my camera out.
I spent countless hours in each village, camping overnight, playing with the children, learning about how the use of cows – not cash – for currency, and realising that no one knew their age. What’s more, I shared photos of my own life, my family and my home back in London. I gave away some of my cameras, teaching the tribespeople how to utilise symmetry, composition and lighting to capture the best photographs.
This genuine mutual exchange and sharing of lives led to a beautiful, nourishing experience both for the local people and for myself as a visitor. Our connection ran far deeper than the quick transaction of paying to take a photo.
As tourism slowly rises in Ethiopia, I believe, as visitors, our awareness of interactions with local tribes needs to be elevated as well.
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