Published in Dark Mountain: Issue 14 and The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century
In this place, Kucha says, the women are whipped by the men.
Whipped? I ask.
Yes, with sticks. Until their backs are bleeding.
I am not at all sure that I want to go to the Omo Valley. Or – if I’m being honest – I want to go there very much. The desire is like an ache, twisting when I think of it, inducing a kind of breathlessness that makes me slightly dizzy. It is a feeling very much like falling bravely in love, when you know that to turn away will make you somehow smaller. For the past four months I have worked in a small Ethiopian town and now I have travelled south where everything is different. The highlands and the misty air, the churches cut from solid rock, the mountains and the monasteries, disappeared days ago. The land ahead is yellow, sparse, and intensely tribal. The people who live in this terrain – to my eyes, a glaring desert that can hardly support life – are bewilderingly diverse. Each has found a radically different way to be human. There are women who stretch their lips with enormous clay plates. Men who gorge on blood and milk to make themselves competitively fat. People who alter their physical forms by scarification and modification to express their cultural uniqueness, to tell the world We are who we are, and not anybody else. I am curious to see such people because they sound extraordinary. But I am not sure whether I really should.
The reason for my doubt is not to do with women being whipped, because I do not know about this yet. It is to do with what I have heard referred to as tribal safaris: rich white people paying hundreds of dollars to be ferried in convoys of 4X4s to throw money at tribal people while they dance and wear ceremonial costumes. Everything about it sounds exploitative, gross and wrong. I have told myself I will come this far – to the edge of the Omo Valley, a city called Arba Minch, which means Forty Springs – to see how things look from here. Maybe it is different up close. Maybe there is another way.
There is. His name is Kucha and he introduces himself in a bar. He has a deep scar down one side of his face and the air of a desperado. He says his mother was from one of the tribes and he understands the people here, knows how to move around the land. We won’t travel by private vehicle but hitch lifts on trucks supplying the villages deep in the desert. We will sleep in truckers’ motels, travel cheaply and take our chances. We will avoid other tourists. He grins and swigs from a bottle of beer. He is clearly not trustworthy. But he is convincing. Early next morning we are on a truck thundering through monotonous scrub, trailing a plume of white dust like the wake behind a ship.
The truck bounces on and on. Kucha doesn’t speak very much. The whites of his eyes are red from staying up drinking half the night with the first part of the money I paid him. He keeps one side of his face turned away, and later I see that his lip is split and his left cheek is badly bruised. Some trouble, he shrugs when I ask. Later his mood improves.
The truck halts at a tiny village and we get out and wait for a long time, drinking sweet fizzy drinks, and then get into another truck that continues down the same road. We switch rides throughout the day, weaving our way further and further into the vast land. The places at which we stop are outposts of an incoming culture: truck stops full of hard, sullen men; plastic tables and plastic chairs; flies; casual AK47s; things being loaded and unloaded; things being bought and sold. The air is hot and thick with dust, heavy with waiting. Roads look big when you are on them and small when you are far away. Beyond this poorly tarmacked strip, which appears so slim in the immensity it wanders through, it is easy to believe that this encroachment has had no impact. There are village roofs thatched with grass; women walking in the bush with long, loping strides; herds of pale cattle flicking their enormous horns; very tall, very dark-skinned men watching the noisy vehicles pass with no expressions on their faces. Kucha tells me what tribe they are from, how they live in relation to others. We chew khat to pass the time, which produces a sense of mild euphoria cut with buzzing urgency, a desire to smoke lots of cigarettes and munch salted peanuts.
The beast below us jolts and sways. This is the last truck of the day and it will carry us through the night. We are sitting high on top of the load, on tightly packed sacks of rice, with six or seven other men dangling their legs over the sides. Occasionally one of them sings quietly over the engine noise. With a sack of rice for a pillow and sacks of rice for a bed I am shaken to sleep as the sun goes down. Later I wake to impossible stars and the motherly rumble of the truck and the knowledge that no-one in the world knows where in the world I am. The continent spreads like a vast dark sea. I feel numb with joy. This is one of the purest moments of happiness I will know.
Always this sense when travelling: Will I find it here? Will the great secret reveal itself? Is it around the next corner? There is never anything around the next corner except the next corner but sometimes I catch fragments of it, this fleeting thing I am looking for. That mountainside, that’s a part of it there. The way the light falls on that wall. That old man sitting under a mulberry tree with his dog sleeping at his feet, that’s a part of the secret too. If I could fit these pieces together I would be completed. Waking on these sacks of rice I nearly see the shape of it. The outlines of the secret loom, extraordinary and almost whole. I can almost touch it. I think: Yes, this is it, I am here, I have arrived. But I have not arrived. I am travelling too fast. The moment has already gone. The truck rolls onwards through the night and the secret slides away.
Kucha takes me to places that confound my preconceptions. He shows he things I will never forget, and things I would rather not see.
We are in a battered bus going up a long hill to see some kind of celebration of the breaking of a fast. Kucha says casually: They will slaughter bulls for the feast.
How many bulls? I ask, imagining maybe two or three.
Two hundred, he says, and I think he is joking or has got his numbers wrong until we reach the top of the hill and see the field of blood. Colourful crowds are gathered here. There is great jollity. The bulls are led, sweet-eyed and calm, into the centre of the field to have their throats cut with machetes. The process is both quicker and slower than I would have thought possible. They slump forwards, bellowing. I see their profound confusion. Some of them attempt to charge but lose strength very quickly. Within minutes their carcasses are processed by knifemen of great skill: they are beheaded, skinned, dehorned, dehooved, gutted and defleshed, divided into neat components like the sections on a butcher’s chart; slabs of pale pinkish meat, marbled fat and purple organs are laid on banana leaves to be admired and bartered for. The grass is swampy with blood. It looks like the aftermath of a medieval battle. Men and women eat raw meat and drink honey wine. People stagger, drunk on meat. The scale of the slaughter is so immense that my mind shuts it out. We are humans, they are bulls, that’s all I can really think. I am offered a cube of flesh. It tastes bland, like sushi.
Kucha takes me to a village of tall dry-stone walls that wind like a labyrinth to confuse invaders. The walls are beautifully constructed from large grey stones, an architecture unlike anything else for a thousand miles. No-one knows where, in this continent, these people came here from, bringing a language and traditions that bear no relation to anyone else’s. Outside a communal building sits a group of men wearing brightly patterned clothes and sipping out of hollow gourds. They invite us to sit with them. They are aloof but amiable; I feel more relaxed in their company than I have felt for weeks. One of the gourds is passed to me. It is full of sour porridge made from a fermented grain. Suddenly I understand the distant, tranquil atmosphere: the porridge is mildly alcoholic and everyone is slightly drunk. This is their staple food, which they consume throughout the day. I decide that I like it here, in this village of serene, permanently half-cut porridge sippers. But Kucha is keen to get away. I tell him we should stay a while, maybe ask to spend the night. He insists that we leave. We argue. He wins, of course. I follow him grudgingly.
On the way back down the hill he tells me that these people killed his father in a disagreement about the ownership of cattle. -
I know nothing about anything. It’s a relief to admit this now and let myself be led. All I see is the surface of things – the elaborate hairstyle of a man, shaved to the crown and plastered down in a clay-hardened bun; a woman’s goatskin skirt fringed with cowrie shells – and not the complex layers of meaning that lie beneath. I understand nothing of the ways in which these things fit together, how they collide or overlap. There are symbols I cannot read, lines I do not see.
We have reached a marketplace where men and women display their wares on rugs laid on the beaten ground. The area is rather small but people have walked for days to be here in order to hear important news about births, deaths, cattle, the weather, tribal politics. Older men are sitting on carved wooden stools in the shade of acacia trees, discussing matters earnestly. This is not a marginal place but the centre of a world. The women have tightly braided hair thickly smeared with orange clay. Their bare backs have a texture that I don’t understand at first, and only when we get closer do I see that it is scar tissue.
I have a camera in my hand. I want to remember everything. Will the great secret reveal itself? Is a fragment of it here? One day, an anthropologist studying late-stage Western consumerist culture might be able to explain my compulsion to take that picture. I am pointing my camera at a woman I do not know, whose life I do not understand, in conversation with her friends. As I press the button she turns and looks at me directly. She says something sharp and hard. I feel as if I have been hit by a rock. She stares at me as I back away, mumbling apologies. I feel like a thief who has been caught committing a pathetic crime. I am embarrassed for myself and my stupid culture.
An approaching cloud of dust. A fleet of white 4X4s. Their air-conditioned interiors disgorge the crudest stereotypes of tourists I have ever seen, obscene parodies of themselves: a sweat-spotted blimp of a man, white socks pulled up to his knees, sticking a camera in an old man’s face and bellowing, Hello, photo!; a six-foot blonde in tiny clothes holding her mobile phone with one hand and her nose with the other; a man aiming a telephoto lens at a woman breastfeeding her baby. It is as if my own disrespectful and invasive act has somehow summoned them, avatars of the grossest aspects of my civilisation.
A friend of mine refuses to travel to countries poorer than his own. Not because he is scared of robbery or disease, but because the inequality implicit in every human exchange induces a squirming awkwardness and corrosive sense of guilt. For him, the power disparity overshadows everything: every conversation, every handshake, every smile and gesture. He would rather not travel than be in that situation.
I have always argued against this view, because to see all human interactions as a function of economics means accepting capitalism in its totality, denying that people are driven by forces other than power and greed, excluding the possibility of there being anything else. The grotesque display of these photographic trophy hunters makes me think of him now. Their presence – my presence – here would seem to prove his point: economically powerful Westerners are using the forcefield of their wealth to behave in a way that they wouldn’t back home, to humiliate and commodify economically poor tribal people. And yet, there is something else going on. The line is not that simple.
As the marketplace disappears in the rear-view mirror of another truck, I am struck by conflicting images. These are the ones that stay with me: foreigners staggering in the heat, waterfalls of sweat pouring off them, absurdly out of place; tribespeople giggling, pointing, either mocking their ridiculous guests or else completely ignoring them; intense vulnerability on one hand and intense confidence on the other. The elaborate costumes on display are not worn for photographs. Every scar, every hairstyle, every bodily adornment says This is who we are, and We are not you. The disparity is not so much of wealth but of belonging. Those who belong, who have always belonged, and those who are profoundly displaced. It destroys my preconceptions. I find myself feeling sorry not for the poor exploited tribe but for the desperate, unsatisfied tourists. And a little for myself.
The young man is naked, tall, grave and covered in grey dust. The bulls are lined up side by side, swishing horns at one end and swishing tails at the other. The man must leap from back to back, keeping his balance as they shift, up and down the muscled line until the women are satisfied. This is to prove that he is brave and eligible for marriage.
This takes place in a clearing in a patch of acacia trees, near a dried-out riverbed a half hour’s walk from the road. There are hundreds of people here, an air of great celebration, a continual blowing of horns and jangling of bells. The tourists are here as well – the same group as yesterday – but their significance has shrunk and I hardly notice them. The jumper of bulls is the centre around which everything revolves, and outsiders are exactly that: outsiders, permitted to observe, because this ritual is a point of pride and obvious importance.
Kucha and I are standing next to a neatly dressed engineer working for a Chinese company building telecommunications infrastructure, the only other guest at our fly-blown, breezeblock-walled hotel. He is Ethiopian but an urbanite from the north, which makes him as foreign as I am. He is astonished by everything. Kucha is in his element in the role of raconteur.
It is now that we hear about the whipping of the women.
The men jump over bulls, Kucha says, and the women are whipped. It is their way of doing things here.
Until their backs are bleeding.
This explains the scar tissue on women’s backs and across their bellies, accumulated over the years. Young women have only a few; older women are tracked with them. The engineer is as horrified as me. From both our points of view there is no possible way to see this as anything other than the rankest misogyny, a ritualised brutality aimed at demonstrating men’s power, men’s right to inflict pain, and women’s subjugation. My mind will not be changed on this. There can be no other perspective.
Once again, I understand nothing. All my preconceptions are about to be destroyed again.
A woman who is harder than any other woman I have seen before – a woman who could fling a word like a rock, and knock me out with it – thrusts a switch of wood at a hesitant young man. He grins reluctantly, holding it. She bares her back to him, covered in years of scars. He does nothing. She yells at him. He gives her a few half-hearted whacks and tries to put the switch away. Seizing it from his hands, she hurls it away and gives him a larger one. He looks around uncertainly. Other women jeer at him. He hits her again, a little harder. She cajoles him furiously and it is obvious, in any language, what she is saying: Do it harder. You are a coward. Don’t be so weak. Do it more. Once he is in the rhythm of it and her back is wet with blood, the other women shout compliments. Finally she has had enough. Her face shows fury but not pain. Scornfully she turns away, without another glance at him, and goes to rejoin her friends. He leaves with obvious relief. Blood is spotted on the earth. Another woman picks up a switch and scans the crowd.
I do not understand this at the time, because I am still seeing what I have expected to see: men more powerful than women treating women terribly. It takes a little time for my eyes to override my brain. Only later, thinking about this day, do different connections form. This is not men saying to women: We are stronger than you. It is women saying to men: We are as strong as you. We can take the pain. If men are to be celebrated for jumping on the backs of bulls, women insist on proving their ability to endure. This is necessary, perhaps. Life here is extremely hard. There are tribal wars, and cattle raids, and wild animals, and drought. People who cannot accept that pain is a part of life – people who do not step into it, to learn what their bodies are capable of – are about as much use as the waddling tourists.
Of course, life is changing here. There are things I do not see. The Chinese roads and the powerlines; the dams across the Omo River; the telecommunications infrastructure that the engineer has come to build; the true cargo of the trucks, which is not rice or sorghum flour but the shrinking of time and space and exposure to capitalism, alcohol, prostitution and AIDS; the effects of climate change; the desert expanding year by year; the vanishing wildlife; the impact of outside influence not today, as I have witnessed it, but ten or twenty years down the line when the old men under the acacia trees are gone and the young men jumping bulls have grown up to take their place – when the women with few scars have become women with many scars – in an environment that can only grow more hostile.
But preconceptions can be destroyed. I have learned that twice. Who is really vulnerable here? Who has the power that matters? The people who expose themselves to pain, and contain it in ritualised forms, or the people who seek to insulate themselves from all discomfort? Those who belong, and have always belonged, or those who are displaced? On the hard ground that lies ahead, which culture will endure?
They say that travelling opens doors, gives people new perspectives. This is only partially true. People carry their doors with them; perspectives seldom truly change. But my friend is wrong. If we stay within our horizons, surrounded by people who are the same as us, it precludes all hope. We shut off any possibility of having our automatic beliefs – whether good or bad, right or wrong – smashed so their rubble can make new shapes. We will never be forced to understand that there are different ways to be human, different ways to be ourselves. And we desperately need that knowledge, even if we don’t know it yet.
Always this sense when travelling: Will I find it here? We are back on the road again, leaving the Omo Valley. Kucha’s weary, bloodshot eyes are fixed on the horizon line. The enormity of land flows past, liquidised by the speed of travel. The great secret lies around the next corner, as it always will.