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Cultural exchange rate


Having only eight days left before a plane would take us to Uganda and our heads still full of ideas of what to see and do in the South during the last days of our Ethiopia trip we opt once more to rent our own means of transport for a full week. The well maintained landcruiser came with the friendly driver Masfen who had recently changed his business vehicle from a local public bus to a tourist 4WD. However, our new and dearly paid freedom didn’t come without restrictions. As a faranji (foreigner) your mobility does not only depend on the steam under your feet but rather on the rules set by the local Guide Association. And those rules were rarely to our gusto. “Eh, Nick (=Nico), one more thing, eh, better you don’t go far, better don’t leave the market area at all.” – “Why is that, Masfen?” – “Well, the local Guide Association might think you are visiting the village and ask for entrance and guiding fees…” We soon learned to play the game: never take a most of the times useless guide unless he is mandatory, always negotiate hard before even leaving the car and ignore all requests for more money after the tour. Said that, I should add that we did find at least one helpful guide and some understanding staff in joyful Jinka.

The South of Ethiopia is all about visiting the different tribes and their villages, colourful markets and special events. I am not going to ponder too deeply on the subject of tourism impact on these societies on this occasion. Everybody who has ever visited a traditional village – be it in Africa or on another continent – knows the ambiguous feelings and internal arguments when it comes to this kind of cultural exchange where money is exchanged for pictures and “to see some primitive people” (as a fellow traveller from Nepal described his travel motivations). In Ethiopia neither those feelings nor the people’s expectations were any different to what I have experienced before. But it is the variety of tribes, the beauty of their dresses and decorations and the strong uphold of old customs and traditional dressing styles what makes this corner of the world special indeed. On the downside our way of transportation, the mandatory guide and the set rules made it impossible for us to get into any real interaction. Our only attempt of staying overnight in one of the villages failed and our conversation was mostly limited to business matters (10 Birr for a lip plate, 2 Birr for a picture, 150 Birr for a dance show we happened to stumble upon). On one of the rare occasions when we communicated more than money request & denials, one of the young Mursi girls curiously pulled down my T-Shirt and bra to find out what colour my breast might have. I am afraid the lack of scars or other body decorations were rather disappointing to her. All in all, I have the strange and rare feeling that our pictures for once show more than I have to tell.

PS: If you ask what I would do differently: Instead of driving from one village to the other, take one of the Jinka guides and go trekking from village to village for 10 or more days. Or if you don’t have the time or stamina to bear the heat, just visit two or three markets – which is possible by public bus and without a guide – and buy and sit and smile.

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