Before traveling to Ethiopia, I knew very little about the country other than its association with distance running – Haile Gebrasaillase and the Dibaba sisters are among the greatest runners in history. I was excited to learn about where they were from.
We landed in Addis Ababa and immediately felt a huge transition from South Africa. In contrast to Cape Town, Addis was chaotic, smoggy, dusty and everything was under construction. We then took a small plane south to a camp on the banks of the Lower Omo River. Here, close to the borders with Kenya and South Sudan, tribes live much as they have for the past several thousand years.
We had a memorable visit to a local community of the Kara people. That evening they were in a festive mood because there was full moon, so the entire village gathered to dance. The men were adorned in traditional body paint, feathers, and more than a few automatic rifles. They stood in a semicircle strictly arranged in order of age. The women and children stood in the middle and sang and clapped. They invited us to dance and we joined in the celebration. Even a dust storm could not dissuade them from their celebrations.
The people of the Omo are in the midst of a tectonic change. The construction of the Gilgel Gibe III dam has disrupted the flooding cycles that they depended upon to irrigate their crops. They are now in their second year of famine, and the food aid is in short supply. The influx of automatic weapons from the conflict in Sudan has also led to the eradication of essentially all wildlife in the area. Skirmishes amongst the tribes, usually over cattle, now leave 50 or more dead. We saw a few schools but they were poorly funded and inadequately staffed. I can’t help but wonder how long their way of life can continue.