I was very nervous about this trip. There were so many opinions out there: amazing, life-changing to human safari and exploitative. I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be honest, I’m still not sure how to process it all. But I’m very glad that I did. For one, it made me think a lot. And any trip that makes me think and try to really understand and explore is a good one in my books. I had spent hours and hours before this trip looking through other photographers’ blogs and websites for photos and how they approached the people. I felt really stressed out- as if this one trip might make it or break it for me as a photographer. As if that actually happens. A photographer’s job is to tell a story. Or many of them. And honestly, I barely scratched the surface with any of the tribes to feel any right to say anything about them.
However, the visit did raise some ethical issues and dilemmas for me personally- surrounding interconnections between tourism, culture, development and globalization. As someone who works with farmers in Ethiopia on a regular basis, it bewildered me that people would stop to gather and ask for me to take their photos in exchange for money. It made these photos feel… unreal. But there is reality here too. The poses, the looks- they are all a part of the tribal consciousness and what the world wants to see. It was a challenge to get them interacting with me normally. When I did- the photos turned out better. The photos are also a story of a traditional culture that is meeting a globalized audience thirsty for versions of authenticity, of indigeneity in it’s purest form. Culture is never static. It is evolving as it interacts with forces within and outside. The challenge is to look beyond these photos which are constructs and instead to focus on the people and the story of evolution, of why these photos are being taken and of changing communities in the Omo Valley struggling to define who they are in a changing world.
This visit was also overshadowed by recent events in Ethiopia. A few days before going, the government called for a State of Emergency across the country. Our friends who were supposed to come out weren’t sure and decided to go elsewhere. We debated long and hard about whether we should still go. In the end, it was extremely safe and we had no issues surrounding security. I’m so glad we went.
Day 1: Dorze Lodge Welcome
Our flight to Arba Minch in Southern Ethiopia was a few hours late and we arrived during Golden Hour. Our first night, we stayed at this amazing (under contruction) Dorze Lodge which is about 20km from the main town in the mountains overlooking the two lakes- Abaya and Chamo. The bajaj (motor rickshaw) driver blasted some great Ethiopian music while we climbed higher and higher into some of the nicest, most idyllic countryside I’ve ever seen.
Dorze Lodge is an amazing eco-lodge built in the mountains near Arba Minch in collaboration with the local Dorze people. Sadly, the main lodge burnt down a year ago but they were actively rebuilding while we were there. The owner, Tsehai, welcomed us and made us feel right at home in our little huts for the night. The huts are built using local construction techniques and materials- even the blankets are woven by the expert local weavers.
As night approached, I was drawn to a fire near the entrance of the lodge where men and women were gathering. It was the night right before full moon and as it rose, the whole landscape was illuminated with the women wearing their white gabis (traditional cotton blankets) against the darkening sky. The air was fresh and a little cold as we were close to 2,700m. It was glorious!
I sat down next to them and attempted to chat. Most of them didn’t speak a word of Amharic but smiled and laughed as I introduced myself and just listened to their gossip (I love listening to gossip in languages I don’t understand- the tones are same, the shock, the anger, the excitement).
Soon after, as I was comfortably sitting and listening, a tour group with about a dozen people arrived. I was panicked. This was definitely not the experience I wanted. The staff from the Dorze Lodge pulled up a bunch of chairs (thankfully I was hidden in among the women) and the group sat while they built up the fire and started drumming, singing and dancing. In the end, the tourists didn’t detract from the experience at all. They were happy to mingle, to dance and interact with the Dorze. Their energy was matched by the Dorze and it made for a lovely evening. I’m pretty quiet myself so the experience would have quite different with just me around! Sometimes, you just got to be ok with whatever comes. If the large group hadn’t arrived, there almost certainly wouldn’t have been this amazing campfire of song and dance!
My favourite part of the singing was at the end. Really though, the Dorze would say finish off songs by the main singer saying, “Yo Yo yo Yo Yo….” and be answered by “Yoooooooo”. Kind of like a group of rappers. But mostly little old Dorze ladies. It was amazing.
We slept like babies in the comfort of our little room with warm gabis to snuggle under, resting up for the big adventures ahead.
Ethiopian Airlines flies daily from Addis Ababa to Arba Minch
A bajaj from the airport to Dorze Lodge will cost 400ETB (~20USD)
Dorze Lodge bookings can be made at http://www.dorzelodge.com/
Our trip was arranged and organized by the amazing Steven Olsen and his tour company EthioGuzo. You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org