Day Four – Christmas Eve With The Mursi
by John Downey
Yesterday was a long 4×4 trip through Mago National Park to visit The Mursi, tribes famous for their resilience against modernity, elaborate body paint, ornamental scarring, random headdresses and ceramic lip plates. Like most “reclusive” cultures that become tourist attractions, a lot of the mystique has lost its luster. The best encounter we had was in the morning, prior to entering the park. We met a couple of Mursi herdsmen with their livestock (above) and exchanged bread and water for a few photos. They were quiet, patient and thankful.
After entering Mago and hiring our guide, Bado, the exchanges were quite different however. We pulled into a Mursi village, flanked by two tour operators guiding a handful of Germans and Canadians. The villagers swarmed the car before we could even get out. Bado speaks marginal English, Amharic and Mursi (we lucked out because most guides at the parks’ entrance are park scouts and not necessarily well-informed guides) and was great at negotiating photo prices up front (see yesterday’s post) and warding off overly-aggressive Mursi women. Men were passive by comparison. Everyone wanted their photo taken to score a couple Birr and they were going to get theirs from us through a lot of tugging, poking and verbal haranguing. It wasn’t much fun. Thus, these first images inside the park are typical tourist snapshots. Who knows what would have happened had I broke out the strobes and otherworldly paraphernalia.
Bado then led us across the rutted 4×4 trail to the Omo River. It was a grueling two hours over lava rocks and stump avoidance. Wished I had hired a driver instead. By the time we arrived at the river, my shoulders were sore and the last thing I wanted to do was walk to another village in the 100-degree-heat (this trip defined Africa Hot), carrying a bunch of photo gear. It was especially tough on Ella, who couldn’t stay in the car this time.
The “hike” turned out to be a quick and dusty five minutes and we found the “village” – a single family outpost of two grass domes overlooking the Omo. Marginally less aggressive than the first villagers, I was determined to get the shots I had envisioned prior to leaving on this road trip. Set up a 30×30″ softbox with a 530exII and wireless pocketwizard in about five minutes which caused additional curiosity and mumbling from the Mursi. Bado negotiated four Birr per click (the Mursi have adapted to modern cameras and watch how many times your finger presses the shutter vice listening for clicks). They coordinated and calculated the cost of the shoot between one another as I snapped away.
Ji held the softbox, challenged to get it above the herdsmen’s heads, who were at least six-one, if not taller. I underexposed the background by almost two stops and then adjusted the strobe. I was very pleased with the results, considering this was the first field experience I’ve had with off-camera flash and not enough assistants to deal with a second strobe or reflector. Bado tried once with the reflector but couldn’t understand what I wanted so I quickly gave up so as not to frustrate him. He was doing a great job with the Mursi. As you can see from these images, Ji was super with the softbox!
So, from a photographic perspective, the trip is now a success and there’s still much more to experience, despite the driving. We’re having a great time. It’s 0730 in Jinka on Christmas Day and we have another six-to-eight hours further southwest to Murelle, within 100km of the Kenyan border.
Hope everyone is having a great holiday with friends and family!
Cheers from Jinka,