The Omo Circus

Warning: many of the commentaries and opinions that you will be about to read might sound very harsh, but I promise they are the most accurate account of the frequently miserable experience that is crossing Ethiopia by bicycle. Given the radical difference that exists between those of us who travel by bicycle across this country (and those who walk the world too) and those who travel by any kind of motorised transport, I don't feel particularly well predisposed to accept any objections coming from those who haven't crossed it in the same way.

Translation courtesy of Pato Stickar

The departure from Addis was the starting point of our long scape from Ethiopia. We had already spent a month and a half in the middle of the country, and our general state of mind and predisposition was exponentially decreasing each extra day we spent there. Leaving Addis was unusually calm, we passed pretty much unnoticed and barely bothered by anyone. So much that, at the end of the second day, a fresh optimistic air filled our lungs; the worst seemed to had been left behind and the last days seemed as though they were going to be good. We were on our way to the remote and inhospitable lands of the tribal countries and one of the most enigmatic crossing borders of the continent, but to get there, we would discover that the worst hadn’t yet even happened.

A hell that never ends

The third day after leaving Addis we arrived to Shashamane, the home place of the Rastafaris in Ethiopia. They arrived there from Jamaica in the forties invited by the grand Rastafari, Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia for 44 years. It’s a place of bad reputation already, and there, hell would start (or continue) . If the north of Ethiopia sometimes looked like a zoo of uncivilized people, the south was more likely an outdoor madhouse full of lunatics.

The people, this damn devilish Southern Ethiopian people added to the already remarkable habit of their northern counterparts to throw stones, a much bigger and varied repertoire of harassment. We got out of Shashamane and the hordes of children harassing us just for fun became the worst of all. Not only for how many they were, but because here, unlike in the north, adults just stand aside laughing their asses off while watching how their children make our lives miserable as we pass by. They encourage them, cheer them and watch pleasantly how we get furious. Now they were running alongside us, sticking sticks in our wheels, hanging from our bicycles, shouting us and pushing them for us to fall. Teenage girls would smile at me in a charming way as they saw me coming, but would surprisingly hit me hard in the arm when I passed by them. The youngsters approached up to a few centimeters of our faces and burst out in hysterical laughs that seemed of psychiatric nature. Going downhill, the only time when traditionally nobody could do us anything, this time they would throw trunks and branches on the way so we would fall while going down at high speed. As if it hadn't been enough, the last touch: going downhill at high speed, an Ethiopian little devil of some 11 years old, managed to fiercely whip Julia's back, with those long leather whips used for herding cows. Julia screamed in the air and luckily she didn’t fall off the bike, while those pre-teenagers Ethiopian bastards sons of a bitch kept rolling on the floor laughing their asses off while watching how they had left a 40 cm bruise between her back and her butt. Some kilometers later, a child about 9 years old who was caring firewood, suddenly picks up a stone from the ground and strongly throws it to me from a distance of about 2 meters and hits me in the chest. It’s useless to chase them, they keep vanishing in seconds.

During the three days that would take us to get to Konso, at the gates of the Omo Valley, we would end up riding with our bamboo sticks permanently in our hands, wielding them like a sword we used to threaten those who approached us, so that we could keep them at a distance from us. Later, when we reached Arba Minch, feeling our body sick of hatred, we came to realize very quickly that the people there had a higher cultural level, their English was better: to the "give me ... this or that" now they added the frequent "fuck you faranji" (fuck you white man) followed by a burst of hysterical laughter mockingly arrogant.

The redemption that I had slowly begun to grant to this country through the experiences of Wukro, Mekele and Addis, now would be buried forever. I confirm what again and again, cyclists and walkers and even many other people say about Ethiopians: most of them are really pieces of fucking shit, at least those we've crossed these so incredibly-hard-to-describe 52 days.

Entering another planet

After the hellish days we had spent and with our spirit badly damaged by many poisonous feelings, we arrived to Konso. After a last long climb we had in front of our eyes the legendary Omo Valley, which is said to be the cradle of civilization. It was on the banks of the Omo River where the first fossils of Homo sapiens were found, and until today is home to a population of some 200,000 people spread over more than a dozen different tribes, who maintain ancestral customs and live primitively.

Out of Konso and down into the Omo valley feels already like a partial departure from Ethiopia, and is the most similar to entering a parallel universe. Ethiopians are reduced to a small minority, the landscape becomes more arid to gradually become a desert, the road becomes completely flat and after a while of rolling around, we started to come across their inhabitants. We are no longer in any country, we are in a world apart.

One thing is having watched the tribes of the world in the fascinating documentaries of National Geographic, but quite another is to be riding in one of them. It's an indescribable feeling to go on these dusty roads and suddenly, out of nowhere, come across with a young Konso guy who strangely watches you and soon after one Hamar woman with the body exquisitely decorated passes by, then a Karo child watching the bicycles as an object from outer space. Gradually one is slowly surrounded by people whose ways, customs and image, make you feel like as though you have just left the place you, until now used to recognize as the world itself. This is another planet.

We left the road that is being paved by the Chinese to go to Turmi and go through the Arbore villages. Pretty much every time people see us, they either choose between completely ignoring us, or to stop and watch us with the same curiosity with which we look at them. It is the first place in the world where what I feel is a moment of mutual fascination. These people seem to come and go from nowhere. You look around and all you see is a vast desert with dry bushes, but life is present everywhere.

Not everything is rose-colored though, the effects of tourism quickly become visible, not that much on the roads we travel or the people of the tribes who we come across in them, but when we reach specific villages, where there are groups of tourists arriving in air-conditioned 4x4's without a grain of sand in their hair. Watching the arrival of them to one of these villages is a scene worth of being filmed to clearly see the destructive effects of irresponsible tourism. Tourists get off while the whole village is already waiting for them. As soon as they open the doors of their fancy Land Cruisers, people jump on them shouting: "PHOTO, PHOTO, PHOTO PHOTO ME ME ME ME, pick me!". People are desperate to be chosen for the photo, and the proudly tourists take their cameras to pose next to this "so exotic" people. The members of the tribe that were chosen then tell them the price per photo! While the photos are taken they even count the number of "clicks" !!!! When tourists are done, they run back to the enclosed tranquility of the 4x4,  while villagers chase them grabbing their clean shirts telling them to pay for the 8,10 or 14 clicks they’ve heard !! The saddest thing of all is when the tourists agree and pull out the cash. As a person, I left these villages with my stomach feeling unsettled, and as a photographer, I left having lost all desire in taking a photo .

Then there are the villages where weekly markets take place. There, members of all the tribes of the region come to sell the characteristic products that each of them produces. They are fascinating places until one tries to go to walk through them and an Ethiopian teenager approaches you to tell you that the walk in there requires a guide, and that it will cost 10 dollars. "Ten dollars for what?" - I told one of them while trying to contain the internal fury that wants to grab him by his neck and snap it. - Because it's the law here – he answers and adds - "if you want to walk through this market you need a guide". A guide for what? - I repeated! For walking ???. Yes – he answered defiantly. I won’t pay a penny, go away. And they don’t leave, and one walks with three or four of them trying to escort you outside the village. They are not people of the tribe, they are opportunistic Ethiopians who just want money for themselves, at the expense of those who live there.

Finally there are the rituals like jumping on the backs of the bulls, dances, cow blood drinking, whipping of the women, children circumcisions and so much more. Events that are sold to tourists with the same frivolity as any other circus show. I have no doubt that they might be very interesting, and a part of me is completely willing to participate in them. However we’ve chosen to give up all of them, because paying for them would mean to perpetuate the trivialization of these traditions and to contribute to undermine the habits of these people, which in turns goes against the very principles of those of us who intend to travel in a way that has the least impact on local tradtions.

Along the road, where the 4x4’s pass at120 km/h leaving us all covered under a choking cloud of dust, the situation is very different because the tribal people just ignore us or look apathetically silent. But even so, when trying to engage them in a dialogue or anything that would result in a photograph, the demands of money for it are imminent everywhere you are. It’s cents they ask for, but still the whole situation becomes very little genuine. It is perhaps one of the most fascinating places in the world where I’ve been as a photographer and paradoxically, the one where fewer photos I've taken in my life. The whole situation is likebeing splashed with a big bucket of cold water for those of us who like to engage in an intimate and disinterested bond with the people we photograph. As a photographer, I have also changed the idea I had about the photography, often impressive, that I've seen of these tribes in the past. But above all, it has changed the idea I had of those photographers who passed through here. Now that I know what goes on here in the background with photography, those same photos that I once found dazzling have now lost all their value for me.

The advent of an impending catastrophe.

This extraordinary cultural amalgam of ancient life that has found a way to stay alive in the XXI century, is finally to receive one of the worst hits in its history in the name of false progress. In 2006, the Ethiopian government closed a multimillion dollar corrupt contract with an Italian company to construct the Gibe III dam on the Omo River. When operational, it will destroy the entire ecosystem and the livelihood of the tribes that have lived here for centuries. It will force internal displacements and inevitable inter tribal conflicts for land in a place that, despite its historical infighting, was always essentially peaceful. Two hundred thousand people spread over more than a dozen ancient tribes will probably see the end of their lives and their tradition itself. All cultural legacy will eventually be seen in a museum, while the last inhabitants will probably end up begging in Ethiopian towns, and others will eventually leave their attires to join the immense chain of accumulators of stuff to which we belong. Saddest of all, perhaps, is that none of these people whose universe is so radically opposed to ours, has an idea of what it is to come to them. Everything is done behind their backs in the name of progress. A progress that kills as it very well explains the excellent report from Survival International:

Progress can kill

To inform your self better about the devastating effects of "progess" in the Omo region,

have a look at this dedicated report from

Survival International

The experience of crossing the Omo Valley by bicycle has made me feel as much as dazzlement as sadness. Being around these people and live on their land during our journey, has revolutionized my world and has turned it upside down again and again from head to toes. I could clearly feel how our way of living and our school of thought, run through radically different levels from that one of these people, making this place literally a planet apart. However it is a fascination that was accompanied by a strong sadness. Sad to know that this whole parallel world is going to be destroyed with impunity, extinct, wiped off the face of the earth forever by us. And on the other hand, to prove once again the destructive effects of irresponsible tourism, which serves people who pay fortunes to be brought for a human zoo experience in an inhospitable place viewed from the comfort of a 4x4. They pay to watch these people and their customs and rituals of daily life as if it were a show on Broadway.

The excess and irresponsibility with which the access to this place is handled, has undermined the very values f these cultures that are so fragile to our influence, causing many of these people to become mere pathetically desperate beggars, who are willing to fight for a few coins. Coins that are thrown to them by those who come here in order to later return home, with the photos of that very rare woman with lips and lobes stretched, filled with colored necklaces, bare breasted, that walks barefoot, sleeps on the floor in a thatched hut and that eats the same tasteless food every day. They go back happy with the photo of the "exotic" places they visit in exchange of some pennies thrown into the air and by which the tribal people fight to pick up. Meanwhile, they paid hundreds of dollars to some Ethiopian agent who is only interested in making money by trivializing these cultures, taking them in a 4x4 "little adventure". Everything is shaping up to get even worse, since the Chinese are paving almost all roads leading to the most remote tribes. With asphalt, the end of innocence will reach even those that still live deep into the bush.

After several days we finally arrived to Omorate, a small filthy and unattractive village which is again full of evil Ethiopians. This distant corner of the globe marks for us the long-awaited end of this damn country. From here we have to cross the Omo River and now, venture in one of the most fascinating stretches this world has to offer, but also one of the most unpredictable, unstable and insecure: the triple border between Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya, a tribal planet. We will have a huge corridor of inhospitable sand all along Lake Turkana. It is one of the moments that I have most anxiously waited for to reach in my life, and that moment is finally there, under the wheels of my bicycle.