Story Behind a Photo in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley

This photograph of a woman licking the last drops of beer off her lip-plate was the culmination of about 2 months of work to make a different photograph in this area. There will be more and more journalists here as it approaches 2013 when these culturally distinct groups will have their food supply cut off by a dam. They depend on flood-recession agriculture and without floods, there is no agriculture. The arms trade between the warlords in Sudan and the warlords in Somalia goes directly across their turf. So in 2013 these people who have the last of the lip-plates and other culturally-distinct traditions will be heavily armed and starving to death.

Almost all of the photographs you see from this area are people posing for the camera. There is a reason for this. Women see a camera and they cover their lip-plate with their clothing until they are paid to pose for a picture. There have been some famous photographers in here that brought along their stylists to make the body paint look ever-more perfect. In short… it is a mess. I did a survey across the entire region on my first trip and I ended up in “survival mode” to make photographs… used every trick I know… not pleasant. But my second trip I concentrated in a village with one tribe where my buddy Lale was the strong man of the village… it was still tough… but at least it was possible to photograph people actually leading their lives…


This is from a popular photography magazine… everything I read said it was impossible to make real photographs here.


Stick fighting in the lower Omo Valley. Tourists should be VERY careful to make sure this is an ACTUAL event and not something they are doing because your guides are paying them money. In this fight for girls (notice the penis-shaped sticks), the men can get injured or even killed and I hope your tour guide knows you don’t want that on your conscience.

To give you an idea what this trip was like, this is the last entry in my journal as I was getting ready to get on the plane home.

Today is my day to clean the vomit off my camera bags.
I have two working camera bags… a teardrop backpack with my main working camera, raincoat that wraps around a tertiary copy of every photograph I’ve taken here, sunscreen, sunglasses, small satellite phone and water.
Some child in a hut vomited all over it… not such an interesting story…
The other camera bag has a backup camera and wider lens, batteries, passport, CF cards, money, backup sunscreen, strobe and remote triggers…
That bag has a more interesting story because I was at various ceremonies (wedding and fourth day after birth ceremonies) where the women all go in a hut and drink coffee laced with something that induces them to puke… I did not know this initially and in later events like this I learned to stay near the door… But this particular camera bag’s straps have been drug thru the combination of mud and vomit that make up many of the floor’s that people sleep on in this area.
It sounds bad, but this has NOT been a particularly difficult assignment because we have had such good help. But I am reminded that I AM getting older for this kind of thing where the basic drill is that you get up at 4am, do your best to smear on sunscreen, hack up a lung from all the dust ingested the day before, get in a vehicle or walk for a couple of hours to some event or community AND before the sun even breaks the horizon you are sweating like a pig and your sunscreen is already full of dust.

Blazing sun and choking dust… I am on my second round of antibiotics for lung infections…

BUT, today I am in a decent hotel in Arusha waiting for my international flight and realizing this is the first time my feet have been clean in six weeks.

It’s ridiculous to be complaining… this was an expensive trip and we had enough money from NG to insulate ourselves from most things. I counted 11 people helping us at one point. This was expensive enough that the writer and I could not work independently. And he NEVER complained… He had been to Iraq and blown up by IED’s and shot at regularly etc… His brother is a mountain guide (as he was) who is spending the summer pulling people up Everest. Nothing seemed to faze him.

The outfitter would send flatbed trucks from Addis on a four day journey to bring food, a freezer, tents, beds, tables, food, a cook… all that stuff… and while we were finishing in one area there were drivers moving in to the next area… also driving many days… and we would charter there by small Cessna and just keep working. This seems excessive… but there is NOTHING in these areas and the way this outfitter worked was actually very efficient. We tried ONCE to get a car LOCALLY (by locally, I mean the same country… Addis, the biggest town… and not brought in from Nairobi)… this guy showed up whose brain wasn’t wired quite right to the rest of his body. We found out in the middle of the desert that his car engine was wired exactly like his brain… there were boxes of extra wires twisted together and taped poorly and going EVERYWHERE… there was no way to save ourselves from this car’s total electrical system failure. He had picked us up at the airstrip in Kenya where the Leakey’s are working… I was in Kenya for two days doing aerials, so most of my equipment was back at the camp…
My small satellite phone only had a quarter charge so I called Melissa at 3AM her time and gave her all the numbers for Nairobi for people that could help us and that made me feel better knowing that one person who cared knew we needed to be saved.

We were lucky that we were not 20KM further down the road where a car might come every 3 or 4 days and we could have spent three nights sleeping in the bushes. We had two days worth of water but if the breakdown HAD been more remote, walking would not have been safe with that little water.

BUT, our breakdown was on the main road about a ten minute walk from a VERY SMALL village and two trucks came thru that day… both going in the wrong direction… I spent many hours on the porch of a clinic whose TOTAL medical supplies were two condoms. One truck came back thru and gave us a ride to a town that was WAY out of our way… so I bounced around on sacks of sorghum in choking dust, blazing sun, etc… and then we were able to hire a car in that town just to get back to camp… getting back late in the night, but back nonetheless… Oh and it was Friday the 13th… I thought I had survived it because that morning I was shooting aerials from what can only be described as an armchair jammed sideways into the cargo loading area with the doors stripped off of a Cessna 206… My pants are ripped because I let my legs dangle a little after they started cramping up…

So… that is a long intro before I explain where I am… The Omo Valley runs close to the Sudan border in Ethiopia and ends where it empties into Lake Turkana in Kenya.


This is a slide donated by an NGO to this remote community… I wish this were a Quicktime VR so you could spin around and see nothing but SAND and this solitary-well-used slide.

There are three main issues affecting cultural identity in this area: Development, Food Security and weapons trafficking.

Basically AK’s are coming in from a now dormant war in Sudan into tribes that until last year were trying to kill each other if they tried to plant a farm on the opposite side of THEIR riverbank.

It’s funny… I think I know the war lord thugs that are actually selling their stockpiles brought in by John Garang and this weird Norwegian NGO… AK’s are now also coming in from Somalia. Weapons traffic is the EAST WEST component of this. The NORTH SOUTH component of this is development. Ethiopia has plenty of mountains and plenty of fast water. There is a plan is to build a series of huge hydroelectric dams and they want to sell power all over their part of Africa. The third and biggest dam is in production now. The only problem with this is that people in this valley rely on flood recession agriculture. The Omo floods for about three months in the summer creating huge layers of wet silt that can be planted up to three times without having to water (did I mention it is friggin hot here? Lake Turkana evaporates at one inch a year)… this practice goes back to Egyptian times… 5000 years ago.

When the Omo rises it signals the beginning of the calendar year for these folks.

So, if the newest dam on the Omo plans to do a 10 day fake flood every year, that is not enough… it will put a heavily armed population with old tribal tensions in a situation where they will have to fight and kill each other for food. They were doing it without this incentive just a year ago. But there are only 200,000 in this valley and probably only 50,000 are directly affected… so these folks don’t have a chance.

Yesterday I was at the only boarding school for the Hamar tribe. For women this is a safe place to run to if your family is marrying you off to an old man (old men then farm the bride off to a relative with the idea that she will pump out HIS children)… anyway… a kid hands me his textbook and it falls open to an explanation of the STONE AGE… seems the STONE AGE had three “cenes” and the description of the third one sounded a hell of a lot like the valley I had just been working in…

Actually it is amazing how well AK’s integrate into this particular stone age… you can drop your AK out of the pirogue and it can float downstream for a while and when you retrieve it, it can still shoot… some of the weapons we looked at seemed to have date stamps of 1967…

But without a flood, the government’s main alternative is PUMPS for irrigation… PUMPS do not work particularly well in the stone age… they require regular maintenance, O-rings etc.. etc.. We are aware of three pumps in the valley… none are working… It’s kinda like that government clinic with the two condoms… there is a program to make sure there is staff at the clinic at all times… they just can’t do anything to help anyone…

Steady power equates directly to GDP growth and the dam will bring electric power to some rural areas… this could also be good because Ethiopia is classically OVER populated and populations usually go down when they get electricity because there is something else to do at night. Ethiopia is the classic “empty pockets” place that pumps out more children than it can afford to support… unlike the “empty nests” of Europe where they can support them but just aren’t having them… Ever since communist rule, land is owned by the state… if you have more kids you can clear more and lay claim to more land (not quite that simple but kind of…)

The other alternative to pumps is food aid… that is a problem because everyone is already drinking sorghum beer… alcohol is a huge problem here. There were always harvest festivals and a time of the year for drinking… but then during the “hungry times” there was no grain, so no alcohol… with food aid there is always something to ferment and year-round alcohol.


First Bra in Omo… The writer and I both agreed that we saw ZERO bras on our first survey trip of the entire valley. On our second trip these women were just figuring out what to do with these things.

And of course the CHINESE are building roads for more oil exploration… their oil fields in Sudan are not that far away. And there is a relative super highway going thru the area being built by the EU and World Bank that I think will be asphalt… the next set of photographers to come thru here won’t need the kind of support we needed… tourism, development will follow these roads that will be finished in 2012.

The roads right now are being used as the biggest sidewalk in the world… but kids are already practicing for handouts for all the cars these roads will bring… They stand in groups with hand made stilts and body paint waiting for the one or two cars that will come thru on the track next to the new road to get a few pennies from the tourists.

I realized this trip that African children in many areas are taught to come at white people or foreigners in one of two ways… either with their hand out begging directly or by waving so that when you wave back then they can hold their hand in a beggar position. I can’t tell you how many community leaders in my various trips in Africa have said, “We are waiting for your culture to fix this.” When you ask them why they don’t have a water pump… why their bridge isn’t fixed… etc… etc… You can’t build a democracy or a community if you don’t have strong, independent PROUD people… holding your hand out as a child and then continuing that thru adult life has none of those values. And tourists just play into this in a very disgusting way.

Ethiopia is 45 percent Muslim, 45 percent Christian and 10 percent animist. So the Muslims are competing with the orthodox Ethiopian Christians for who can have the loudest speakers on their buildings. The Muslims start their speakers caterwauling at 4am and the orthodox Christians start theirs at dawn… it sounds like the frigging people are in your tent with you screaming at you… It is generally people who can NOT sing coming at you from what sounds like electrified TIN CANS… incredibly distorted sound…

So, as I get ready to head back to the Arusha airport I remember the 1st day of this job when I was LEAVING the Arusha airport to go to Addis… The British family in front of me in the immigration line had bought a small pizza and they were trying to figure out how to push the luggage cart thru the line and eat the pizza at the same time… the problem seemed to be that whoever touched the AFRICAN luggage cart had to immediately use hand sanitizer so all the cooties from the cart would not touch the pizza… and the line was moving pretty quickly so when they juggled the hand sanitizer and the cart and the pizza a lot of the pizza just hit the floor… the father finally figured out that if he pushed the cart and they just pushed food in his mouth it was easier…

Oh well… all cultures have their problems…