The Peoples of the World Foundation

Education for and about Indigenous Peoples

Op-Ed September, 2017: Giraffes Are Insincere
Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

I don't know why giraffes are insincere. I suspect that the song the line comes from, "At the Zoo," is simply one of Paul Simon's many examples of playing with rhyme. We might miss an opportunity when we visit a zoo; we tend to overlook that the animals represent different branches of evolution including our own. The latter stages of our evolution appear to have taken place in what is now Ethiopia. Thanks to tribal tourism as well as the lifting of the state of emergency there last month, we can now see how that evolution has regressed.

Often, different indigenous peoples live in relative proximity to each other. That is the case in the South Omo region of southern Ethiopia. The region is named after the Omo River that forms the backdrop to this month's photo. When a region is this rich in diversity of indigenous peoples and cultures, my normal way of working is to travel briefly to a few communities. I regard this as a form of location scouting, after which I will choose where to work more extensively later. I was location scouting for a planned ten days in South Omo last month.

The subjects of the photo are indigenous Karo people. After a dusty and bumpy two-hour drive on a badly maintained dirt road, I entered their village of a few hundred people. Since it was raining, I stopped first in a communal hut. It was about 10:30 in the morning and already a group of six young men were showing the effects of the beer they'd been drinking. A few Ethiopian tour companies had placed their advertisement stickers on the fridge from which the beer bottles were being served; nobody in the hut knew what these stickers were.

The rain stopped eventually and I headed into the village proper with my guide. Dozens of Karo had already painted their body in white limestone paint according to Karo ceremonial tradition. But no traditional ceremony was taking place in the village that day. Instead, the modern, daily "hello, photo" ceremony was taking place. In this ceremony a tourist pays a negligible amount of money for each photo taken. I was mobbed by adults and children alike, who were almost fighting each other for the attention of my camera. After taking three photos I put my camera away and decided then and there to end my South Omo tour after just five days. Like all the previous indigenous villages I'd visited in the past four days, this was a sickening experience akin to being in a human zoo.

I have been visiting indigenous communities around the world for almost twenty years. Never before have I seen a setup like the one in South Omo. There is a de facto tourism mafia in place that preciously protects its profit margin, exploits the indigenous people and gives little in return to the villages. If I ever return to this part of the world it will be in the context of the only way to experience true cultural interaction — living in a village for an extended time. I call on tourists to boycott this region. Tourism here is having a net negative effect on the indigenous people including the promotion of alcoholism among adults and school absenteeism among children.

The Peoples of the World Foundation is a non-profit organization registered in the United States under Internal Revenue Service code 501(c)(3).

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