Salambo discovering Ethiopia
A great number of cities want to have their own film festival, and Addis is no exception. Addis International Film Festival tends to specialise mainly on documentaries from Africa and elsewhere, tackling problems such as HIV, immigration, uncontrolled urban development, tourism and culture clash, as well as social disparities. It is held over six days in many of the city’s cultural venues including Addis Ababa’s University, the Alliance Ethio-française, the British Council and the Italian Institute. Each documentary is between one and 50 minutes long on average. I wasn’t able to watch all of them as they run in parallel in the different venues, but I tried to focus mainly on films about Ethiopia.
The one that struck me was a documentary on a group of tourists visiting a Mursi tribe village in the Omo valley. The Omo people are famous for wearing lip plates and painting their body. In recent years, they have become a kind of tourist curiosity with an increasing number of foreign visitors going on the long journey to see them and take photographs.
The film, called Framing the other (www.framing-the-other.com) is about the business it has become. It follows a Dutch lady on a trip to Ethiopia to visit the Mursi people, as well as a Mursi woman waiting for tourists to photograph her and her people. Both women were interviewed before, during and after the encounter, explaining their personal point of view, their opinion of the actual meeting and their impression afterwards. The Dutch woman appears very emotional during the trip, not really sure how to connect with the locals other than through money and her basic camera. On the opposite side, the Mursi woman expresses her lack of understanding as to why tourists would want to take a photograph. “If I knew why they take pictures and what they do with them, I would understand better,” she is quoted as saying in the film. She explains how it has become a business for her community, how each type of picture has a set price and how much they need the income the tourists bring. Hence if tourists refuse to give them the set amount for taking a picture, they get upset, as they view it as a deal not a favour. She says that some of the ornaments they are now using are not traditional but made up to impress the tourists and get more business. Only the lip plates are genuine. Young girls in this community are having their lips cut when they are fifteen. At first their lips are hanging only slightly, but they progressively stretch them by inserting wider and wider plates. Mursi people do not count the years and therefore do not know their own age, but the age of a Mursi woman can be guessed at how much her lips are stretched, with more mature women having lips hanging over their chin.
I haven’t yet visited the Omo valley, I intend to of course, like I intend to visit the whole of Ethiopia during my stay in this country. I will have no issue with paying the asking price for taking a picture. It is deal. Why should we steal their image without giving anything in return? They are not a “curiosity”, they are people with their own needs, their own problems, their own livelihood and their own ancient traditions. How can we best respect it?