Departing Jinka we headed south and then west through Mago National Park to visit the Mursi tribes who were relocated by the government and moved from the park to the surrounding hills and mountains outside of the western edge of the park. Ten years ago and even up to three years ago the park had healthy populations of lion, leopard, elephant, bush buck, waterbuck and several other mammal species. Because of severe poaching and hunting by the Mursi the few animals that survived have moved to Kenya so there is virtually no wildlife left except for a few guinea fowl and Dik-dik, a small antelope that lives in the bushlands of southern and eastern Africa. The views from the mountains heading down into African savanna was spectacular but somehow sterile.
The Mursi women are known for their lip plates. The larger the lip plate the more attractive for the women and the more dowry for the family. After ascending the hills outside of the park we turned onto the first side road and headed to an “authentic Mursi village”. Before entering the village we were told was it would cost us 200 Birr for each camera and we could take as many pictures as we like. Fair enough I guess so we entered the village and were met by armed militia milling around, Russian Kalashnikovs hung over their shoulders. We were later told the villagers get quite drunk later in the afternoon and the militias are there to keep the peace. I’m really not so sure about that. The village seemed to be set up exclusively for tourists. There were thatched huts scattered around a mud field, the women sat around making lip plates and everyone tried to sell you these painted plates. There was a large parking lot just outside the village fences and there didn’t seem to be any indication of a functional village. Our guess is the people in the village make their way to this set up village every day to sell their souvenirs and then make their way back to the actual village(s) they live in. It was a set up and we could see it for what it was as soon as we entered the compound. Later in the evening we met a fellow from Poland who did the same drive to the area but rather than take the first turn he went further and did visit a real Mursi village. He said it was full of cow shit and flies and was not a pretty sight. We would rather have seen that than the tourist trap we saw. It was a four hour round trip journey to make the visit.
The lower Omo River Valley has recently been damed and the filling of the reservoir behind Gibe III dam on the Omo River is holding back flows needed by some 200,000 indigenous people in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya to sustain their food production and livelihoods. Then people of the Omo Valley rely on the natural flood cycles of the river for sustainable practices of flood-recession farming, fishing and livestock grazing. Desperate because this has curtailed their harvesting and grazing the area tribes have moved into Mago National Park which is creating conflict with the soldiers charged with protecting the park and the little wildlife that is left. There have been reports of deaths of these pastoralists.
Tourism is helping by supplying another revenue stream but with tourism comes serious challenges to balance a way of life without selling out to the almighty dollar. The example of the Mursi people that we saw is one that should be stopped immediately. No one should have to sell their dignity and be put on display for foreigners for a few dollars. I don’t know the solution but I do know mass tourism will only make matters worse for these people.
A little bothered by the whole set up we headed back through the park and made our way to Turmi.