The Peoples of the World Foundation

Education for and about Indigenous Peoples

Opinion Editorial Calendar September, 2018: Giraffes Are Insincere
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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.

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I don't know why giraffes are insincere. I suspect that the song the lyric comes from, "At the Zoo," is one of Paul Simon's many examples of playing with rhyme. He will continue to play with rhyme, but will perform live for the last time in a few weeks. I do believe it's true that he is the greatest songwriter of the pop-rock-gospel genre.

We miss an opportunity when we visit a zoo: we overlook the fact that the animals represent different branches of evolution. 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 year, we can now see how that same 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, my approach to my work is to travel initially to just a few communities. This is 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 a year ago.

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 heavily, I rested at 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 — perhaps since they woke up or perhaps throughout the night. A few Ethiopian tour companies had placed their advertisement stickers on the refrigerator from which the beer bottles were being served; nobody in the hut knew what these stickers represented.

The rain stopped and I headed into the village with my guide. Dozens of the villagers 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 "hello, photo?" ceremony was taking place. In this ceremony a tourist pays a token amount of money for each photo taken. I was mobbed by adults and children alike, who were fighting each other for the attention of my camera and my wallet. After three photos I put my camera away and decided then and there to end my South Omo tour after just five days. My experience was just like it had been in all the previous indigenous villages I'd visited in the past four days: 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 had I seen a setup like the one in South Omo. There is a de facto tourism mafia in place there 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 without a guide and for an extended period of time. I call on tourists to boycott this region. Tourism here is having a negative effect on the indigenous people including the promotion of alcoholism among adults and school absenteeism among children.

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