National Geographic Photographers: Randy Olson
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - National Geographic Photographers: Randy Olson
Ethiopia’s Omo Valley
Africa’s Last Frontier
This is a fairly simple and sad story—a snapshot of cultures in southern
Ethiopia that will disappear. The north-south axis of the story is the region’s
life-sustaining Omo River, which will be choked by a dam in 2013. And the
east-west axis of the story is the arms trade traveling across this area
between Sudan and Somalia. So in 2013 when the Gibe III dam goes online
this culturally distinct area will be starving and heavily armed.
The Omo River tribes are only 200,000 people standing in Ethiopia’s way of
having steady electric power for 11 million. Steady electric power equates
directly to GDP growth and surprisingly often decreases population. When
there is electricity, there is something else to do at night. The dam that will
provide electric power for Ethiopia will also choke off the food supply for
these tribes that rely on flood recession agriculture. Because the arms trade
between Sudan and Somalia goes directly across their territory, every grown
man in this area owns an AK-47. These cultures that include the last of stick
fighting, bull jumping and lip plates, have always been ruled by ritual and
revenge. These tribes were already killing each other across the river over
cropland before their food source was stressed.
An elder of the Kara tribe, his body decorated with crushed minerals, peers out over the Omo River at dusk. His people once controlled land on both sides of
the river, but an enemy tribe has gradually encroached on their territory.
The bar is walled in mud, its floor a cement of spit, sweat, and old bottle caps. But for this Suri woman, drinking honey beer over her traditional clay lip plate,
a frontier saloon offers novelty. As strong, cheap alcohol is trucked to areas where it was once scarce, excessive drinking has become a problem.
Contact with tourists, missionaries, and merchants means Omo tribes now have increasing access to foreign goods—from clothing and weapons to nails
and water pumps. On the morning before a local festival one young Kara woman debated whether to add a bra to her costume.
Cattle and goats have pulverized the drought-prone Omo region into dust. The animals are prized symbols of wealth; in many tribes men cannot marry
without paying large bride-prices of livestock.
Faces painted with clay, necks wrapped in coils of beads, women of the Nyangatom tribe prepare to dance at a ceremony along the bank of the Omo River. The
ceremony had been organized to celebrate a new peace treaty between the Nyangatom, who live west of the Omo, and the Kara, who live on the opposite bank.
In a landscape of shifting alliances, where fierceness is regaled and most men are armed with rifles, the tribes had been battling over land and were tangled in
blood feuds. After several years of intermittent fighting, the neighbors finally agreed to a cease-fire with help from an NGO and pressure from the Ethiopian
Crushed minerals are dusted over a Hamar girl's locks. Mixing butter, red mineral pigments, and sometimes incense, Hamar women roll their hair into thick,
A young Kara boy surveys the crowd at a wedding party, where guests of all ages are offered sorghum beer by the families of the betrothed. Celebrations
depend on the season and resources—in times of plenty, festivities abound and can last several days.
Checking the flex of his whips, a young Banna man prepares to deliver blows to a young woman during an initiation ritual, while in the background
his counterpart winds up to whip another woman. Among the Banna and Hamar tribes, it is customary for women to be whipped during the
ceremony to initiate a boy into manhood. Female relatives of the initiate play a crucial supporting role—singing, dancing, and preparing food. The
scars resulting from the whipping are a mark of pride for the women, showing solidarity with the boy who is enduring his own trials to become a
man. Women sometimes sing songs, taunting the whippers and urging them to strike harder.
Bleeding from a gash on his head, a Suri boy locks eyes on his opponent during a stick fight near the village of Tulgit. Called sagine, traditional pole battles are
often held between the men of rival villages or clans at the end of the harvest season; they can include dozens of combatants and huge crowds of spectators.
Austrian travelers click souvenirs near the town of Jinka. With its rich culture still intact, the Omo region has seen tourism boom—and tensions between
visitors and residents rise. "They know that tourists want to come see them because they are viewed as savages," says one anthropologist. "They are angry
The village of Dus is washed in dust as men and women of the Kara tribe gather for an evening dance. In remote villages, hours away from roads and electricity,
celebrations like this provide a shared moment for gossip, courtship, and relaxation. Dances are especially common under a full moon, when the day's heat
breaks and light pours onto the savanna.
Chanting songs of victory, young Suri men parade with weapons in hand. After the harvest, crowds of men from Suri clans compete in bloody ceremonial pole
fights. This particular battle—out of season—was called by rivals vying for a girl's favor.
A half-moon of fresh, ornamental cuts ooze on a Suri girl in the village of Tulgit. Made with a thorn and an old razor blade, this girl's wounds will heal in a
raised pattern of scars, like those above her other breast. Among the Suri such scars are considered attractive, and many girls desire designs of their own.
Men scar themselves too, though the patterns are usually different and may tell stories—of the number of enemies a man has killed, for example.
Despite recent peace deals between Omo tribes, most remain well armed and proud of their fierceness, as revealed in scars running down the center of this
Nyangatom man's chest. The scars, and others on his shoulder, offer a warning: He has killed at least two enemies from other tribes.
Clouds of dust—flooding the lungs, coating the mouth, burning the eyes—don't stop Kara women from dancing outside an improvised beer hall as their sons
prepare for initiation into manhood. Married Kara women share relatively equal status with men but often perform more physical labor.
Cow blood and milk, and sorghum, keep these people alive. Nyangatom (Bume) are pastoralists who keep their livestock in boma-like, thorn-fenced areas.
They shoot the cows with an arrow and then collect the blood, which is their major source of protein. They sometimes mix the blood with milk.
This is a peace ceremony in a Nyangatom village called Lokulan, which is next door to Lumale camp. Nyangatom are sedentary agriculturists who practice flood
recession agriculture on the banks of the Omo. They were fighting the Karo across the river up until last year until a peace agreement was reached. The
Nyangatom are having a village meeting and have invited the Karo to celebrate. This is also the time of their community meeting and festival.
Another argument for not choking the Omo is that there are long periods of drought all over East Africa and many of the rivers dry up during droughts and the
only options for water becomes the Omo River.
Baby getting drunk: This is a pre-wedding celebration in Korcho Village. The entire village—even children— were drunk on sorghum beer. This child is drinking
sorghum beer by sucking on the head of a sorghum plant that is soaked in the gourd of beer that his parents are sharing.
Many women in the village outside Tulgit have lip plates although the tradition is dying and is most often found in remote villages. The origin of lip plate tradition is
debated, but most likely it was simply for adornment. Most agree that the lip plates are staying in fashion now because it is a prime tool for getting photographed
and making some money from tourists.
Lost In The Stampede
The Serengeti may be one of the healthiest ecosystems on the planet. But
while many work tirelessly to save the land and its wildlife, almost none are
looking out for the rights of the local indigenous people, the Maasai in
Tourism in Serengeti is a serious business. Tour operators await visitors
who arrive in Lear jets, can pay $2,000 a night, and want to observe an
infinite sea of wildlife. A private army owned by one of the tourist camps
does routine and illegal house-to-house searches for poached meat,
squeezing the local and hungry population to insure the wildlife levels
remain high. But there is too much unnecessary human suffering and anger
is rising in neighboring communities.
Tourism employed only three Maasai in 1995 with only a slight improvement
since. The crater is Tanzania’s foremost tourist attraction. Lions crawl under
your car. You have to slap zebras on the butt to get them to move out of the
way. And there are serious traffic jams. There is a place where you are only
allowed out of the vehicle to open the hatches on the top of the land cruiser.
Maasai, who are supposedly in the crater on a “day pass” to get salt for their
cows, hit up the tourists there. With spears in one hand and cell phones in
the other, they stand and watch the solid line of traffic, and all the
comparatively large, white people jammed into, or hanging out the tops or
sides of land cruisers.
Maasai. A seminomadic ethnic group indigenous to northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, the Maasai people own herds of cattle, sheep, and goats, which
they follow seasonally in search of new grazing grounds. Tribesmen are adorned in red-checked blankets called shuka
Tourists, Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Camera-wielding visitors pour into Ngorongoro Crater to stalk lions, elephants, and other survivors of a wild Africa
that is fading. A top attraction, this extinct caldera brings welcome revenue to Tanzania, one of the poorest nations on Earth. But the tourists also crowd
narrow roads, strain scarce water resources, and disrupt wildlife.
Hoping For Peace
Sudan is the largest country in Africa. Two and a half million Sudanese
have died—the most casualties anywhere since WWII—in a seemingly
endless civil war that finally led to division in 2011.
During the recent civil war, northerners kidnapped southern Africans
and forced them to fight their own people. Most in the North acted as
if there wasn’t even a war going on because it just didn’t affect them.
Meanwhile in the south, brother was killing brother.
Rebel Soldiers | Ruweng County | Southern Sudan Ruweng County is an island surrounded by enemies. It is the last stand for the rebels in the existing oil field
area. They hike in plastic shoes that are taped and tied together and slog thru swamps with the goal of putting put a mortar shell or two into an existing oil
operation. Armed with Kalishnikovs, they prepare to fight.
Government of Sudan Bombs Ruweng County | Southern Sudan. In February, Government of Sudan (GOS) dropped bombs from an Antonov (a Russian plane
and one of the largest aircraft ever built), wiping out an entire village and all of the livestock. They target livestock because they know it is the last resource in
times of famine. The goal of the GOS is to force southerners from their villages into garrison towns where the people can be controlled. They also kidnap the
El Kurru Cemetery | Northern Sudan Egyptian empire began to decay in 1000BC and in 660BC Kingdom of Kush ruled an empire stretching from central Sudan
to the borders of Palestine. This is the Tomb of a ruler, in northern Sudan who controlled Egypt in the 25th dynasty. Rome and Greece were little bitty players at
this time. El-Kurru was one of the royal cemeteries used by the Nubian royal family.
War Torn Sudan | Boys Covered in Mud Only Have Leaves to Eat Living in the dust - In war-torn southern Sudan, boys who have only leaves to eat pack mud
onto their hair to kill lice.
South Sudanese Hide from North Sudanese Military Africans hide in acacia forests from northern forces. They know the acacia forest harbors a flesh-eating
parasite that will kill them, but they prefer their chances here rather than on the savannah. It is easier to escape motorized ground troops-the trees slow them
Sudan Oil Fields | War Refugee Serves Tea | Southern Sudan There are little encampments of refugees living around Rig 15 and moving with it as it moves.
These refugees are mostly women living under scraps of plastic with a pot to boil water and 3 or 4 tea glasses. The try to make a little money by selling tea to
the oil workers.
Ruweng County War Zone | Only Leaves and Swamp Water | South Sudan This war zone in South Sudan has been so hammered by the Northern Government
that they have no supplies. They have eaten all the leaves out of the bottom areas of the trees – now they are in the tops of the trees to get the last leaves to eat
– They only have this and some rancid swamp water to boil them.
Rebels With Ancient Machine Gun | Ruweng County | South Sudan Ruweng county is an island surrounded by enemies… it is the last stand for the rebs in the
existing oil field area. They hike in their plastic shoes that are taped and tied and slog thru swamps trying to put a mortar shell or two into an existing oil
Perilous Refuge Driven from his home near Biem by fighting, a Dinka boy seeks shelter among acacia trees six hours' walk away. His family's few remaining
animals supply cow's milk and, occasionally, goat meat or beef from animals that die of disease. If the boy keeps up his strength, he may survive. If he becomes
weak and malnourished, he will likely contract kala-azar, a parasitic disease that kills many southern Sudanese, who usually have no way to get treatment in the
country's war zone. Most of the two million people who have died in Sudan's civil war have been southern civilians who perished from disease and famine.
Starving Dinka Girl in Juba Garrison Town | South Sudan A starving Dinka girl came to the garrison town of Juba as a last resort. Still living in fear, she hides
with her family on this island in the middle of the Nile. She hopes to escape harassment by the northern government of Sudan.
Ituri Forest Pygmies
“Pygmy” refers to any human group whose adult males reach less than 150
cm (4 feet 11 inches) in height. They can be found in many places, but the
highest density anywhere in the world exists in the Ituri Rainforest in the
northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly called Zaire).
Pygmies are the “canary in the coal mine” for forest ecology in the last
forests of Africa. As the forest goes, so go the Pygmies.
Most people believe Africa is full of Tarzan-style jungles. The truth is that
there is only one strip left in the middle of the entire continent. The most
pristine forest in that strip is the Ituri.
Dancing Pygmy Boys Wearing Circumcision Skirts | DR Congo These boys are going through the end of the circumcision ceremony called nKumbi. The boys
always wear the ceremonial skirts for their circumcision ceremonies and when the skirts are taken off at the end of the ceremony they will be hung in the trees at
the entrance to their village.
Blind Pygmy in Manhood Ritual | Epulu, DR Congo, Africa This blind Pygmy boy is not excluded from the nKumbi manhood training. Like the other boys, he is
whipped every morning for five months. When the boys run along the trails he does also, with his hands on the back of the boy in front of him.
Pygmy Boys in nKumbi Manhood Ritual wear a leaf mouthpiece to keep them quiet near Epulu, DR Congo.
Pygmy Boys in Manhood Ritual March Through Ituri Forest | DR Congo The nKumbi Pygmy group goes off into the forest to accompany the net hunters. These
Pygmy kids will have five months of training and then they will have to survive on their own and feed their families. It’s like when they drop off the marines in
some remote jungle with three matches and a fork and they have to survive for a week, but this is not a week-long exercise, it is for the rest of their lives.
Pygmy Girls Use White Clay Body Paint | Epulu, Democratic Republic of Congo Pygmy girls paint each other in support of their brothers who are going through
a manhood initiation ceremony.
Pygmy Leaf Hut – Double Leaf Construction | DR Congo This is the double leaf construction of a Pygmy leaf-hut, which makes it more impervious to rain.
These folks all built shelters for the night in about two hours.
Pygmy Boys Learn to Fish | Forest Hunting Camp in Ituri | DR Congo These boys pull a small hook out of their skirts and get a vine and a stick—they know
where to dig for worms. They catch five or six 2inch long fish and eat them raw for lunch.
Net Hunting Pygmy Smoking Dope | Ituri Forest, DR Congo
Medicine Man Bantu Fake Pygmy in Salate in nKumbi | DR Congo
Girl Pygmies Hide From Whipping in Salate Village | Ituri Forest The nKumbi is also a courtship ritual. The boys are set free from the woodland camp
periodically to come into the town where they try to sneak up on girls that they like and whip them. This somehow shows affection. These Pygmy girls are trying
to hide from the boys that are running through the town.
Bantu Leader Whips Pygmy Boy | Manhood Ritual | Ituri Forest, DR Congo
The whipping is more severe on the last day of the nKumbi and includes a ceremony where the boys are secluded within a phalanx of men all carrying whips.
The men are met halfway thru the village with women carrying whips and a melee ensues, the intent is to control the destiny of the child. The women want the
boy to stay a boy and the men want the boy to be acknowledged as a man. The men win. The boy is now a man and cannot be claimed as a child anymore by
his mother. There is also ritual scarification on this day and each boy is paraded, one by one, thru the village accompanied by a masked elder and someone to
collect the money being thrown at his dancing feet.
Pygmy Boy Examines Scarring after 5 Months of Whipping | Ituri Forest
Scarification is Part of the Pygmy Manhood Ritual | Ituri Forest I had been prepped for the whipping, but then they pulled out two dirty razor blades and ritually
scarred a line of cuts around the Pygmy boys chests.
Trio of Pygmy Boys waiting for Whipping | Ituri Forest, DR Congo These are photos from Salate at the end of the nKumbi Pygmy manhood ritual. The Pygmy
boys have been secluded for 5 months… they are whipped every morning.
cast National Geographic Photographers_Randy Olson
images credit www.
Music Bob Marley Africa Unite_live
thanks for watching