Clarity on an Ethiopian Airstrip

A dispatch from the Omo Valley

By / March 2015

A chicken kept brushing against my feet. There was the smell of spiced butter in the air. I was on a bus headed out of the capital, Addis Ababa, for the Omo Valley region of southern Ethiopia. I had a single bottle of water. I had a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese. I had laughably minimal language skills.

As evening descended on the Ethiopian countryside, picturesque huts and villages flew by my window one after another. With each stop, more passengers crammed into our little minibus. As we careened around the corners of gravelly cliffs, I began to rethink my push for a night ride. I thought of my mother. She would be so angry if I were to die in the Ethiopian bush.

Nineteen hours later, we arrived in Jinka, a small market town near the Kenyan border. The settlement was tiny and similar to many other outlying towns in the rural areas of Ethiopia. But this one was particularly rich in cultural heritage. A museum sat atop the mountainside detailing the traditions of local tribes like the Hamar.

Photograph by Kaela La Farge 2

Chief among them are their bull jumping rituals which are believed to catapult young men into adulthood. At the ceremonies tribal women voluntarily receive whippings, an expression of their love for the men. These controversial acts, inexplicable to western sensibilities, result in broken skin and scarred bodies. But to the locals they are marks of beauty, along with thick, iron ring jewelry.

One day during my visit, I took another bus ride, this time two hours out of town to a tribal market. The area was secluded enough to be deeply entrenched in ancient traditions yet exposed enough to the outside world to offer tourist traps. The market attracted vendors and customers fully garbed in weathered animal skins and colorfully beaded clothing. Some even had painted white handprints across their dark chests. The locals’ wooden masks, large iron knives, puka shelled sashes and striking white face paint stood in sharp contrast to the pale-skinned tourists with their exceedingly large Nikons.

That night, when we arrived back in Jinka, we headed across town to the local airstrip. Rarely used by planes, the grassy field swarmed with young men and their soccer balls. Strapping teens faced off with one another. Smaller boys joined in and tried to showcase their skill. I watched as they expertly weaved in and out and around lazy cattle grazing in the field. I was amazed at how they avoided collision.

As the sun set across the western sky, I realized how far I had come. The quiet of the evening, interrupted only by the playful sounds of children, set me at ease. I felt as if I could finally exhale after months of hustle and bustle in the smog of Addis. The children of the Omo Valley were contented with playing simple games in the evening air. I felt that despite the language barriers and cultural incongruity, it was a message I could understand. It was the pleasure of being alive.

 

This is Kaela La Farge’s first submission to EthnoTraveler.

 

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