“If he could wish for anything, anything at all; what would he make happen?”
“He says that if a spirit gives him this power, the spirit will also tell him what to do.”
* * *
She didn’t like him. Something about his laugh. It was somehow off, shallow, fake. To me, he seemed like the coolest king ever. A bit simple maybe, but that’s not his fault, right?
After our meeting at his place, standing out from the other huts Freo showed us so far only by having much more space around it, King Lale was leading the way through thick vegetation on unmarked trails.
Ancient trees lent refuge from the equatorial sun, bird calls reverberating through the otherwise untainted tranquility. Every now and again, Freo exchanged a few words with the king, who was carrying his little chair and sucking on a piece of wood.
I let myself drift behind as we penetrated deeper into the bush, walking alongside dried out riverbeds and climbing over the occasional goat fence, made out of thorny bushes.
The agaves were humongous. Taller than myself, their flower shoots were more like entire trees. Leafless elephant trees were enshrined by the ethereal light, giving the branches a sharp, cutting contrast against the cloudless sky. The trees here had a presence; full of soul, of being, of memory.
We walked for about an hour, until we heard it in the distance. Freo stopped, turning around: “Can you hear it?”
“Yeah, what is it?”
“It’s the welcome!”
“For us.” And after a pause:
As we approached, it began to grow louder and louder. Singing, chanting, bells ringing.
Suddenly, the bush gave way to a clearing. On it stood a single big tree and a hut. Around the hut, 20 or so young girls were parading in formation, celebrating. Each of them had their hair done in intricate braids, some had their faces painted, and many wore little rattles made of coke lids around their ankles that clattered with each energetic footstep.
They cared little about our arrival, continuing the fanfare. Instead, we were greeted by two elderly men, and promptly seated on a cow hide in the shade of a bush. It didn’t take long for her to be taken away by the girls, leaving me alone with the two old men, King Lale, Freo, and, the Jumper.
He looked like a teenage boy, verging on becoming a young man. Just exactly how old he was, no one knew; birthdays and age not existing in this world. A serious look, slightly tense, hardened his otherwise clear face. Sharp features promised handsomeness to come. I turned to Freo: “Can you ask him how he feels today?”
A little smile eased the boy’s face, surprised by the question, and for a moment, that first layer of seriousness gave way to something behind it; something more tender, more vulnerable.
“He says he feels a little nervous.”
“Aha!”, I said emphatically and nodded encouragingly to the boy. He returned a shy smile, before the mask of adulthood put itself back into place.
Soon, the mother brought a big, wooden jug. King Lale was the first one to drink, handing it to me afterwards. Out of politeness, I wet my lips, pretending to drink. I had already tasted their warm, homemade beer, made out of sorghum or maize, once before. I had no interest in doing so again.
The jug was passed round and round in a circle, and as it did, the men got merrier and merrier. King Lale, eyes glassy, seized the chance to play with Freo’s smartphone. He was holding it upside down, sliding his fingers across the black, locked screen, imitating what he must have seen Freo do. He was chuckling to himself all the while. I loved him.
I tried to ask, using sing language, if one of the two elderly men in the circle was the Jumper’s father. I was surprised to learn that neither was, wondering why the father was missing on such an important day.
With nothing else to do, the men talked, the conversation ebbing and flowing. Like the ants aimlessly crawling on the floor, it seemed to have no discernible purpose; yet it radiated a soothing serenity.
There were dirty pots and half full water canisters to our right. Periodically, chickens appeared and began pecking at bits of food left over in the pots. Once their commotion grew louder, it would snap one of the old men out of the trancelike conversation, who would energetically shoo them away. I watched as this scene repeated many times.
My back ached. The heat pressed down on us. The rhythmic conversation seemed to loop. Time stretched, expanded, unfolded. A moment of horror overcame me.
The absolute lack of running water, of toilets, of any hygiene. The day drinking, the sleeping on the floor, the unbalanced diet. To eat whenever hungry, to sleep whenever tired. To never have been more than 50 kilometers away from the hut. To think all foreigners are from “Ethiopia”. To have no clue what Europe is, to never have used the internet. To not read or write. To not care about the outside world at all.
I excused myself, going into the bushes to pee. But there was no relief, despite the change in setting. For I took myself with me. Why the judgement, the horror? Something within me couldn’t take it. The simplicity, the oneness.
To see life so naked, raw, stripped of all the “civilization” around it. No supermarket. No insulated houses with electricity. No fancy clothes, no 150 dollar shoes, no perfumes and no deodorants, no watches and no necklaces, no hair-dye and no dentist, no running water and no fridge, no mattress and no smartphone.
Something rebelled, was repulsed and scared. A part of me that needs. That wants. These people didn’t seem to. As if they existed in a different reality. The environment seemed eternal, and so did they. Molded out of the earth, they get absorbed back into it. There was an overwhelming pointlessness to it, threatening to crush me.
* * *
Shaken, I went to check on her. She was sat in the shade under the big tree, surrounded by all the girls. They were braiding her hair. She was smiling.
The sight of her struck me. All the questions that had been waiting, pushed away by everyday life, fermenting there, lurking for their time, began pouring through the cracked shell of my self.
How could I love her? How could I love her, as individual? Do I even want to? Am I even able to? What does love even mean?
Who was she? What was she? I tried, I really tried, to focus on her. I tried to get down to her core, to her essence. To find something real, something true.
To look past all of myself that sticks to her. Past my images, opinions, conclusions swirling around her. Past the resistances and resentments. Everything that I didn’t accept about her, judged her for. Everything I wanted to be different about her. Everything that blocked me from seeing her.
I had seen much more of her during this trip. All the situations, outside of our comfort zone at home, not revealing anything new or shocking, but more depth, more texture to what I had known before.
But what was she, really? What was behind this personality? Behind her awareness and consideration for others? Behind her love for animals? Behind the complete faith in her feeling, her intuition?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know how much I could ever know something that wasn’t me. But what was this?! Why was I even with her then? My own preoccupation with myself, my sometimes ruthless focus on myself, my cold rationality.
Staring at her from a distance, shutting everything else out, I really tried to know her. I tried for her to not just be a concept, a lifeless shadow on the wall of my mind.
And indeed, there was something. Something I couldn’t quite grasp. Something so subtle, yet equally beautiful.
The depth of her. How I had felt it during our first hug. The tremendous, silent strength in her being. The hidden fragility on its surface, the delicacy of a flower that only blooms once in a century.
* * *
I sought refuge in the hut. Inside, it was damp and dark. The heat was a little less penetrating as I lay down on the stiff cow hide the Jumper prepared for me. There was nobody, except for a newborn sheep. She was fresh to the world, half here, half there; frail.
I was alone now. Alone, in a place so far away, so far removed from anything familiar, so different, that I felt equally far from myself. Pictures of myself on this trip appeared in front of me. I saw myself in third person, from the outside, as if I was another.
I observed how something in the outside happens, a situation, an encounter, and how I react. How this reaction happens instantaneously, how it is not me that does it, but how it simply comes out of me.
How this reaction fits into my “personality”. How the reactions are predictable to some degree. How they repeat. How this is what I usually think of as “me”.
I began to sink deeper. What am I below all these reactions? Below all the needs and opinions and desires and fears? Digging through this layer, something within me didn’t want to let go. But I persisted.
I came out the other side, darkness greeting me. Nothingness. A void. But the void was not empty. There was something. Moving, forming. Something bodiless, fine; yet unspeakably real. The superficial stream of thought that usually occupies my mind stopped, unable to make sense of this experience.
In this moment, I felt an immense amount of possibility. From far away, in a single, instantaneous, timeless knowing, I saw the patterns of belief and thought, reaction and behaviour, which govern my life, which create my reality; and I knew that it is in my power, of the real me, to change absolutely everything.
Outside, the girls began parading again. She entered, her hair all done.
“Can I come?”
She lay down next to me, and asked me how I was. A long pause followed, in which I pondered how to get across in words what had just taken place within me.
* * *
The forest behind the Jumper’s hut stretched out perfectly flat. It was almost tropical, probably had been so when the rains still came frequently.
We were walking along the path, speaking about men and women. What it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman. And what it means for the two of us to marry, to become husband and wife.
There were two little girls coming our way on the trail. They made big eyes at the two foreigners, here, in the most unlikely of places. They passed us in complete silence, but after some distance, they shouted at us. A mix of surprise, incredulity, and daring in it.
A game of chase unfolded between me and them. They started running towards me and I would run away. They screeched in joy; until I started running towards them, and their faces turned into shock.
Reaching the end of the little plateau the forest was on, we were rewarded with a view over a forested plain, hemmed in by rolling hills in the distance. I saw people moving here and there.
Overlooking the picture, I took in its tranquility. It seemed everlasting. There are no seasons. The temperature always hovers around the same 24 degrees. The sun is always there. Sometimes it rains, and sometimes not. The unchanging environment supporting a life of abundance. A life that was never forced to change, to invent, to modernize, to grow. At least until now.
Two men passed us, heading in the direction of the celebration. After hesitating at first, they waved and smiled. I looked after them for some time. They were home. Where they were born, where they have lived all their life, where they will die.
And I could tell. They were exuding a naturalness with every fiber of their being. They were. Even while walking, they were in harmony with themselves and everything around them.
Stunned, awed, confused, challenged, I wondered if they reflect about themself, if they have fights within themselves, if they want to grow. From the outside, it didn’t look like it. They seemed so whole, so one.
I looked back out onto the plain. A deep peace was weaving itself through this place, laying bare the interconnectedness of all its individual parts; rocks, plants, animals and humans forming a whole.
There was a crystal on the ground in front of me. I picked it up, happy to have found it.
* * *
We started walking back, in order not to miss the arrival of the Mazas. Nobody knew exactly when they would finally come. And yet, everybody was waiting for them; for without them, nothing could be done.
They were the ones responsible for the initiation, Freo had told us. Absolutely nobody else could do it. They had some kind of near-godlike status, it seemed. A Maza only drank milk and blood, only ate meat and the finest food. They did not work, and preferred to be in their own company. This heavenly state did not last long, however. For the Maza needs to choose a bride and get married; to fully become a man.
Yes. A Maza is a boy that successfully went through the bulljumping ceremony. He is in between boy and man. And only he can initiate another boy.
Upon our return, we found more people had gathered. There were women too now, standing apart from the girls by their hairstyle. As soon as a girl gets married, she will start wearing her hair in a specific style of braid. For the rest of her life.
There came a middle-aged Israeli couple too, with their guide, who promptly layed himself down on a cowhide, leaving the Israeli man to proceed to take an excessive amount of pictures.
The man was continuously taking pictures with his DSLR, switching to his iPhone for selfies, and occasionally doing a panorama with his selfie-stick mounted GoPro. He was getting up close to the girls, who were parading once again.
This was fact. A huge part of the tourism in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley was a kind of a human safari. Depending on the quality of the guide, “visiting” a tribe would consist of taking as much pictures as fast as possible, and perhaps getting your face painted, before leaving without having learnt anything, all the while feeling strange and awkward with the tribe members.
I’m afraid I’m speaking from experience.
But thankfully, Freo was different. He was a young guy, approaching his thirties. He was from the Bana tribe himself, but had grown up “in town”. He liked to spend as much time with the tribes as possible, even when he doesn’t have any clients, and is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about the tribes; especially his own, the Banas.
Thanks to Freo, we learned about the fire of the Bana people.
Once, while he was sat around the fire at night in one of his friends huts, he lit a match, in order to enjoy a cigarette. Afterwards, he innocently threw the match into the fire, to the shock and exasperation of all the tribe members around. They yelled at him, and quickly extinguished the fire, lighting a new one by starting it with the one that was burning outside of the hut.
He didn’t understand, so he asked what the commotion was about. They explained to him that the fire has, like everything else, a spirit. And that the spirit of the fire is sacred. That there is one man responsible for keeping the main fire of the tribe; blessing it, tending to it, never letting it extinguish.
All the families get their fire from this holy source. Even at home, the women always keep at least one fire going, never letting it extinguish. In case it were to, they wouldn’t just start a new one, but rather go to their neighbor’s home, to take a burning log form there, in order to have the original fire again. All fire that doesn’t come from this source, and especially the one from the city (matches, lighters), is considered evil.
He told us another story:
When a boy dies young, before he has a chance to become a man by getting initiated and married, he gets buried, like everybody else. But, if the family is wealthy enough, and actually remembers him years after, something rather macabre and amazing will happen at the time the deceased boy would have reached the age of initiation: The initiation will happen.
His remains will get dug up out of the ground, a modified version of the ceremony will be held, and later on, a suitable wife will be found, the appropriate price negotiated by the elders (the price for a bride at the very least consisting of a machine gun and livestock), and they will get married.
Since the decease is, well, deceased, a male family member of him, usually a brother, will do the deed; consummate the marriage by sleeping with the bride, and father children.
However, while the male family member will take care of the woman and kids (next to his own family), he will never once say that they are his wife or his children. They are the wife and children of the deceased, which is their husband and father in spirit. So he lives on in them. Everybody understands and accepts this.
Equally so, if a man is disabled or sick, or can’t have sex for whatever reason, a male family member will help out.
Avoiding second hand embarrassment, I took distance from the other tourists and found King Lale. He still had that stick in between his teeth and was sucking on it. I pointed to it, to which he responded by pointing at a tree.
Picking up on my interest, he beckoned for me to follow him. Leading me to the tree, he cut off a little branch. With a big knife slung around his belt, he proceeded to cut away some of its bark , and then, voila; I had my own little stick to chew on. It had a pleasant, minty taste, and Freo would later tell me that they use it as a kind of a tooth brush.
* * *
As the sun was nearing the horizon, the Mazas appeared. Freo excitedly led us to a place some minutes away, where we found five or six young men standing around, looking rather skeptical.
They had their faces, arms, and chests painted in intricate ways with white color. Freo approached them and explained that there were “faranjis”, foreigners from Ethiopia and Europe that were here to see the ceremony. He continued to explain that they might take some pictures, but that they were paying for them.
He had to make sure that the Mazas accepted this, otherwise they might simply leave, causing big trouble for the Jumper and his family. Having used a considerable amount of their food storage to host the feast, they could not afford to do it again.
After the Mazas agreed, an extremely serious middle aged man began talking to the Mazas, and then to the Jumper, who had been patiently waiting a little to the side.
Freo explained that the man was an intermediary; the Mazas would not speak directly to the Jumper. Any request or demand they had, they would tell to the serious man, who would talk to the Jumper for them.
And indeed, after the man had communicated the Mazas’ message to the Jumper, he went off running back to the hut; presumably to tell his mother a specific wish of the Mazas concerning the coffee or food.
While we were waiting for the Jumper to return, I exchanged occasional glances with some of the Mazas. They struck me as a mixed bunch. Some of them still young, while others must have already been in their 20s.
Their skeptical stance towards the strange white man seemed to ease into curious amusement when they saw the stick in my mouth and the little tribal chair I was sitting on.
Some of the girls, the most bold and eager, had arrived in the meantime, and were dancing provocatively in front of the Mazas. They were carrying whips made of wood, which they were trying to get the Mazas to take. The Mazas, however, didn’t show much interest, only occasional smiles playing on their lips.
Upon the Jumper’s return, the serious man carried his message on to the Mazas. They talked amongst themselves for some time, during which the girls were singing, dancing, clapping. Their anticipation was growing. The show was about to start.
* * *
Things happened fast after this. The Jumper, sitting on the ground, had his legs stretched out in front of him. The Mazas were standing around him in a circle. A white liquid, presumably milk, was put over the Jumper’s face, shoulders, arms and chest. He was being purified.
The initiation starts with a complete purge, a cleanse of all past sins. Hence why the Jumper, after succeeding the trial and becoming a Maza, will be considered holy, and only fed the best kinds of foods.
In addition, a bracelet was given to him. Freo explained that the Jumper has to swear an oath: To give himself completely. To never leave this land, to never leave this people.
Meanwhile, one of the girls, who were all getting progressively more pushy with their whips, had succeeded in getting a Maza to take her whip. And to beat her across her bare back with it.
After whipping the girl, he simply let the whip fall to the ground. The girl would then pick it up and try to force it back into the Mazas hand; in order to get whipped again.
The whipping, at this point, seemed rather halfhearted, the Maza barley putting in any force; even so, the tip of the lash managed to penetrate the skin, and leave the girl a little bloody. It was then that I noticed that most of the girls, except for the youngest, already had scars on their backs from previous whippings.
This did not come as a shock to us. Freo had already told us about this part of the ceremony.
When the time comes for a boy to become a man, the preparations start. The family of the boy will ask related families and close friends if their girls would like to be part of the active ceremony: Dancing, singing, parading, welcoming; and getting whipped.
The symbolism behind the whipping being that the unmarried girls support the trial and hardship of the Jumper through shared suffering; they bleed for their friend and possible future husband in encouragement. It is considered a big honor for the girls, who wear the scars proudly as proof of being a worthy bride.
Only they themselves can give their whip to a Maza in order to be whipped. They decide by whom and how many times they will be whipped. Violence against women is otherwise unheard of amongst the tribe, such crimes severely punished by the elders.
And, quite frankly, the girls seemed to be loving it. After an entire day dancing in the sun, they were fighting amongst themselves and aggressively pushing the Mazas to whip them.
After the Jumper swore his oath, it was time for coffee. The Mazas took refuge from the frenzied girls and the rest of the village in a shelter specifically made for them out of bushes and trees. There, the mother brought them coffee, which they drank at a leisurely pace, while the girls were going crazy around the shelter.
When the Mazas emerged out of their tent, it seemed like more and more people had come. Around one hundred tribes member had gathered, and even some domestic tourists from Addis Abbab could be spotted. Time to get naked, of course.
The Jumper stripped off his loincloth, and so did three of the Mazas. He then sat own the ground, feet stretched out in from of him. One of the Mazas straddled him from behind, feet going alongside the Jumpers. On the opposite side, the picture was mirrored. Two Mazas, one straddling the other.
There came a kind of a push and pull game with rings and sticks, the Maza straddling the Jumper and the other Maza holding and directing the hand of the guy in front of them. The whipping of the girls by the remaining Mazas had lost its initial tenderness. The pain could be seen in the girls faces, but equally so their determination.
The commotion around us at this point had reached a new level, everybody’s adrenaline surging, for the finale, the test, arguably the most important moment in the life of the Jumper, was about to follow.
* * *
Suddenly, the Jumper was up, running into the woods, a crazed look on his face. Everybody started following him, and I saw around 20 or 30 cattle there, half of them bulls with big horns, their backs as tall as my chest.
The Mazas, along with some young men, began herding these bulls together. It took time, for some of them kept escaping. The Jumper was helping out too, occasionally running after a stray bull, otherwise anxiously waiting, covering his intimate parts with one hand or getting a friend to stand in front of him. His gluteus was truly maximus.
Once the heard was together, the bulls were aligned in a row, side by side. Each bull was grabbed by the horns in front by one or two men, and so too in the back by the tail and legs, fixing them in place. In the end, there were about 15 of them in a row. It was time.
The girls, completely unhinged, were jumping high up in the air all at once and stomping their feet, shaking the ground, whirling up dust, and singing so intensely, I felt nervous for the Jumper myself.
As the Jumper took his position, the crowd got quiet, even the girls forgetting about their commotion for a moment. Standing about 15 meters away, he started running full speed towards the bulls. At the last moment, when it looked like he was just about to sprint into the bulls, he jumped, leaping up on the back of the first bull, who was a little bit smaller than the others. On top, his own momentum propelled him forward as he staggered over their backs, arms vertical to keep his balance, before jumping off the other side.
From the other side, the Jumper repeated the feat. He sprinted again towards the bulls, leaping up on their backs, balancing precariously. He did this a few times in a row, demonstrating his ability to the tribe.
The girls were exalted, and the crowd seemed content. The Mazas, though, had one last demand: That he walks slowly across the backs, touching each individual bull with his feet.
The Jumper actually failed this test halfway through on his first try, the slower speed making balancing more difficult. He misstepped, falling in-between the bulls. Getting up immediately, his face showed anger and determination to fulfill the last task. And on his next try, he did.
The bulls were released, and the Jumper was allowed to put his loincloth back on. He was now a Maza.
* * *
I sat down with her and reflected on what we had just witnessed, on our whole trip to the tribes. How fragmented they seemed. A distance of 40 kilometers separating two tribes from each other, one of them hardworking, thriving off their mangoes and bananas. The other completely reliant on international food aid for survival because of drought, most of their members perpetually drunk.
How even within the same tribe, people across the hill can be considered dangerous, mere hundreds of meters apart. How violence is not unheard of, a killing or so happening most years: jealousy, or a dead cow that needs to be avenged.
The simplicity of the people. How intimately connected they are to their land, to their tribe. How content they seem, how little conflict they seem to have within themselves. And yet, how little individuality there seems to be.
Asking a tribe member what the most important thing in life is to him or her would yield virtually the same answer: “Cows”, “Beehives”, “Farming”. An answer that reflects back on what the most important thing for the tribe is. How the tribe is their identity. How they know and care so little about the outside world. How the tribe is their world; the only one that matters.
Asking a person of the western world what the most important thing in life is for them, it usually leads to a variation of the following answer: “Inner peace”, “Happiness”, “Purpose”.
We are looking for these things. Released, to some degree, of having to constantly worry about where our next meal will come from, our need is now a few steps higher on Maslow’s pyramid.
We are searching for something, on a restless quest, never content with the present moment, driven by a missing piece within ourselves. We are looking for peace and meaning, drowning in materialism, escaping through distraction, numbed by artificial stimulation.
The tribe member doesn’t struggle for meaning. He knows exactly what his purpose is and each of his actions is a purposeful one. He takes care of the cows, he values the rites, he lives according to the elders’ law. In this way, he takes care of the tribe, values the tribe, lives the tribe. He is the cell of a larger organism, actively working for it. He is not really aware of any of this. The meaning is constantly engulfing him. Like a fish in the water, he doesn’t think about meaning, because it’s always there.
The tribe member is whole on the inside. He is the way he is, never reflecting on his actions or belief systems, never doubting himself, never questioning his urges, needs, thoughts, desires. In other words, he is at peace with himself.
Western man is cut off. He doesn’t have a tribe anymore. He is not connected to any larger self. He is split; from nature, from the tribe, from himself. This means friction, suffering; the division of labour denying satisfying work that is intimately connected to survival; the anonymity of the city and superficiality of social media eroding real social bonds; the conceptual state made up of lifeless number unable to provide any personal guidance.
Through suffering comes growth. Growth in awareness. Individualization. Nobody initiates us anymore. Nobody tells us what it means to be a man or a woman. Nobody tells us what life is about and what the meaning of it is. The answers are not given to us by a tribe, a religion, a state; we have to find them within ourselves.
The tribe members of the Omo Valley are just starting their journey of disconnection. The exposure to tourism, the collapsing ecosystem, the allure of technology forcing it on them.
It was our beginning, the cradle of humanity, the tribe. And all over the world, to varying degrees, humanity is on its way. On its way to walk the long and arduous journey of becoming whole again. Of reuniting, within as without, as individual and as collective; on a whole new level.
After our visit, I can never romanticize tribal life again. These people and their way of life can neither be judged, nor idealized. No people, no way of life can be. We are all on our way, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we want it or not.
* * *
While we were exchanging our thoughts with each other, dusk encroaching, a small circle of young men formed. They were clapping, chanting, and dancing. As time went on, more and more men, young and old, joined, and as the circle grew bigger, so did the volume of the chanting. They began jumping in union, stomping back on the ground with both feet hard. Dust filled the air.
Soon enough, girls came. They stepped into the middle of the circle, surrounded by men, and began to join in the rhythmic clapping. More and more people joined. Then, just when the sun set, the game began.
Some of the girls would step out of their group in the middle, hopping like a bunny toward the guys in the outer circle, and taunt them by hip thrusting in their direction. The guys would respond by chasing the girls, also bunny hopping, thrusting their groin in their direction when they’ve closed the distance. The girl would have to turn her hip sideways, “evading” the attack. Only if she liked the suitor and he had put in enough effort would she not evade anymore; would she let herself be caught. This, coupled with an additional confirmation by the girl, in the form of a small piece of wood passed into the suitors hand, would mean it’s on.
For this was the “evangadi” night dancing, always taking place after a bulljumping ceremony. The one time where any tribe member could freely have sex, with whomever they chose, regardless of being married or not.
In fact, a bride must not be a virgin. As proof that “everything is alright down there”, as Freo put it so elegantly, a girl must have had sex before getting married. A special plant is used as preventative on the evangadi night, and the bush serves as romantic getaway. (Even a married couple never has sex in their home; they go into the bush for privacy.) And it’s truly a free for all. The tribe members are not restricted to their own kind; as long as it is consensual, everything goes. So Freo told us to join in.
Hesitatingly, we separated, Freo ferrying her off to the girls in the middle, me taking place in the outside circle. It was dark by now, a half moon illuminating the amused face of the tribe member next to me. Focusing on getting the rhythm of the clapping right, I felt the intoxicating energy all around me. Everybody seemed so alive. For a moment, I glimpsed what it must be like. To live here. To belong to a people. To partake in shared ritual. To be whole.
While exhilarating, it wasn’t quite enough for me to follow Freo’s lead and actually “get in there”, as he insisted.
* * *
We went back to the hut soon afterwards, where we found Freo, King Lale, the Jumper, and some other elderly men sitting in a circle, talking seriously. Money was exchanged. I decided to give them some space, but eagerly awaited my turn to speak to the busy man of the night. When Freo finally brought him to me, I was giddy with excitement:
“Alright, please first tell him that I think he is very strong and that I wish him a good future.”
“We have two presents for him. The first one is from a land to the north of here, where there is a huge desert and big stone buildings.”
I gave the Jumper a little scarab trinket, telling him it brings good luck and fortune to the family. The Jumper looked at it, and showed no response what so ever.
“Okay. Now, I bring him something from my people; from a land with high mountains, snow, green grass, and very fat cows.” I hesitated. To Freo: “Does he… does he know what chocolate is?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Alright, then just tell him it’s something sweet and special.”
I opened the Lindt Dark Spicy chocolate, battered by a month in the backpack, and took a piece myself. Freo had told me this is a must when offering food to a tribes member, especially when it’s something he didn’t ask for and doesn’t know. I ate the piece and, stopping the Jumper from also eating the aluminum wrapper, watched as he ate chocolate for the first time in his life. A curious look on his face turned first into confusion, then pleasant surprise, before ending in slight repulsion. I don’t think he appreciated the journey of bitter, sweet, and spicy.
Following Freo’s command, the Jumper muttered a thank you, before going off with his chocolate, trailed by a crowd of curious kids (and adults) that had gathered to watch the strange faranjis bring their strange gifts.
* * *
While we were walking back through the bush to spend the night at King Lale’s hut, I wondered: Where had the Jumper’s father been the whole time? The answer not only explained perhaps some of the curtness on the Jumper’s behalf, but also the tense mood in the conversation of the men before: The father was drinking in the local village.
“He has a problem with alcohol.” Freo told me. King Lale actually paid some money that the father would usually pay for his son after the ceremony, getting things up and running for the Jumper to start his own family.
And here again. It’s not the father that initiates a boy into manhood, it’s not the king; it’s the tribe. The Mazas, other members of the tribe that maybe have never even seen the Jumper, conduct the most important rite of passage there is.
* * *
The next morning, walking back on the main road, I ask Freo: “What do you enjoy most about living here.”
“I can live without money. We can sleep at friends or family, we can eat with them. Everybody grows their own food, has their home. It doesn’t take money to live.”
Soon, I call for a rest, my stomach upset from a month of constant new information. We sit down next to the street, waiting for a car. A tribe member studies us from under a tree. Freo and he begin to talk. Freo laughs.
“He asks what is wrong with you. I told him that you have a problem with your stomach. Then he said: Why doesn’t he take the medicine? He is the one who makes it!”
I walk up to the tribe member, smiling. Separated by a natural hedge of huge agaves, he stands under a tree, picking leafs off it and eating its seeds.
He was standing there like the rocks, the agaves, the trees. As a given. Nothing needed to be said, nothing needed to be done. Silently watching each other, I felt immensely curious about him. To Freo: “Can you ask him what he is most afraid of?”
“He says nothing; he is afraid of nothing. He asks why you ask this. Does he look like a scared man?” I smile again, awed by the perspective.
A truck passes on the street, interrupting our conversation. The tribe member points at it, shouting: “China! China!”
I look, and indeed, there are Chinese characters on the truck. I spot a white man with Asian features in the passenger seat. “Do you know what the Chinese are doing here?” I ask Freo. He shrugs: “I don’t know.” After a while: “Maybe building some road.”
I shudder inwardly, doubting that the Chinese have the tribes best interest at heart. I point in the direction where the truck disappeared, looking at the tribe member, saying: “China! China!” He nods. I ask: “What does he think of the China people?”
“He says they never stop here and talk to him, so he doesn’t know.”
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Thank you very much for reading! I hope you enjoyed it 🙂
This one took only little time to write, but a long time to edit.
(No AI generated content in this writing, hah.)
If you ever find yourself in the Omo Valley looking for a guide for the Bana people, we can’t recommend Freo enough. It felt more like being shown around by a friend than having a guide.
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