February/March 1998 -
They gathered around our base camp before the blazing Ethiopian sun parched the savanna. This region of low mountains covered with acacia and cacti, between the lakes of Stephanie and Turkana, is home to the Hamer tribe of Gema Gofu Province.
The Hamar are considered the most beautiful in East Africa, an agro-pasturalist tribe skilled in pottery, beekeeping and blacksmithing. Cattle are the focus of their culture. Both men and women are very concerned about their appearance, and decorate themselves extensively with cowrie shells and animal skins, embellished with beads. Beautifully decorated and spectacular to observe, the hair, is artfully twisted and coloured with iron oxide mixed with animal fat. The body painted, pierced and scarified. The arms and legs play host to an array of brass and aluminum bracelets.
'Baroo' was waiting to have her photo taken just as the sun broke the distant horizon and silhouetted the giant termite mounds surrounding our base camp. Two small fingers held against her goat skin bib indicated the amount she required to grant the permission to photograph her.
Two Birr, the equivalent of ten cents would allow me the privilege as she released her grip from her older sisters hand. It is next to impossible to photograph the tribal groups in the lower Omo Valley without paying for the privilege. They also prefer new uncirculated notes, which were difficult to obtain, unless you get them at the National Bank in Addis Ababa. Employees at the foreign currency wicket were bewildered: No one knew the whereabouts of the cashier, but all agreed he should be back shortly. Eventually he arrived with a large sheet of blank paper and stared at it for over five minutes. The contemplation complete, he acknowledges me by pointing to the wicket next to him. The line there is ten deep. Twenty minutes later I explained my request to the clerk and he directed me back to the foreign currency wicket! I pushed three hundred dollars under the wicket and ask that it be changed into new one Birr notes. He took the money and disappeared. Minutes later a young woman appears with my original three hundred dollars and advises me to try the main branch as they are out of money. On by cab to the main branch of the National Bank. Walking through the parking area people are being frisked and searched.. A smiling guard, noticing my bewilderment, waves me through, while clutching an antiquated assault rifle. Again I explain my request, the money is passed through to the cashier, who promptly passes it back, telling me that first the money has to be exchanged for Birr, and then I must come back for new notes. "Where?" I ask, "Up on the second floor," he says. A cashier on the second floor sends me to the third floor, where a foreign currency form is filled out in triplicate. Then back down the stairs. The money, now in large denominations of Birr,was passed through the wicket along with the completed forms... and promptly handed back, "Sir, you will have to wait, the foreign currency teller has gone for lunch."