Suri & Bume, Southwest Omo

I returned yesterday from my two week trip to the Suri and Bume in Southwest Omo, and send you here my travel report. This was largely the same trip that your correspondent Trevor Cole made in January 2009, and I endorse much of his report. I will try to complement what he wrote then.

Firstly though I must say that, despite desperately poor infrastructure, this is a magnificent trip, quite on a par with the best of Ethiopia. The countryside is lush, green, always interesting and much better than that of the more commonly travelled South East Omo. It was of course just after the big rains which helped, making even the lower 600 meter savannah areas around Kibish green. Further north the higher 1600 meter tropical rainforest areas around Bonga, Mizan Aman (no longer Mizan Teferi) and Bebeke are stunning, a quite different Ethiopia.

There are two roads south from Mizan Aman, although all maps including the one in Bradt’s 5th edition, show only the one if they show any. The missing one is ironically the one described in the 5th edition, and by Trevor Cole, via Bebeke, Guraferda, Dima, Koka, Tulgit and Kibish Surma, which goes on to Kibish Bume (the “other” Kibish marked on the map in the 5th edition). This road is of course only suitable for 4x4s, but is perfectly passable with only one seriously dodgy river crossing ( a group passing in the previous week had had to wait 7 hours at this point but did finally get through). We were only able to continue to within 25 kilometers of Kibish Bume, virtually on the Sudan border when the mud and water became too much for our excellent drivers. The side road to Mui and the Omo National Park was also impassable so we returned to Kibish Surma, after visiting two deserted Bume villages, the Bume still being mostly nomadic.

The highlights were visits to two Suri villages (Koka and Regge) to see how they (actually the women and children) lived and to witness the scarification of a girl’s arm,with razor blade and thorns, and their singing and dancing, and later with the men the shooting with a bow and arrow of the jugular vein of a bull and the drinking of its blood and then with the children and young adults their face painting with really creative use of local plants (see Hans Silvester’s brilliantly photographed book!). We then spent the afternoon watching the Donga stick fights a kilometre outside Tulgit. Donga is actually the Mursi name, the Suri here call it the Zegine stick fight. This is a fascinating spectacle watched eagerly by the villagers of both sexes, about 95% posturing by muscular naked males, with pretend fights, and lots of chanting in groups of about ten men, then suddenly 5% of pure violent action with no holds barred, then suddenly nothing, as one of the contestants acknowledges defeat. It is by the way absolutely not true what several guide books about the Donga say, that if someone is accidentally killed in a Donga fight, the oppponent is thrown out of the community. Just not true said our Suri guide.

As we had not been able to do our trip to the National park we went instead to a Suri gold mining area on the Kibish river, a fascinating experience right out of medieval Europe, deep deep holes with makeshift ladders, and men hacking away at soft layers of stone and sand, passing up wooden trays of gold bearing earth to others who take it down to the river where (mainly) women pan it in the river for a few flakes of gold. These are then sold to a middleman in Kibish. The whole enterprise doesn’t bring much to the miners who risk life and limb, but presumably it brings enough for them to continue doing it.

We stayed in a not-to-be-recommended hotel in Mizan Aman (Bench Frey Hotel) as the Bebeke plantation guesthouse on our programme had received such negative reports from the previous group. Thereafter it was camping in Koka (OK but no toilets or other facilities), Kibish Surma (in the municipal compound, so reasonably secure, filthy toilets, poorly maintained with rubbish everywhere) and Tum (quite the best, beautifully clean toilets, shaded , secure, in the grounds of an evangelical church about three kilometres outside Tum). We saw and rejected two other campsites, one at Tulgit, which was very pretty with a beautiful view, in the police compound, but our Oromo guide refused to let us stay there as the police guide was armed and rolling drunk (a lethal combination in his view!). The other we rejected was on the airstrip at Tum village, but with no shade, no facilities and a hundred inquisitive and probably acquisitive children it didn’t feel right.

We returned from Kibish Surma via a cross-road West to East , first retracing out path north to Koka then going across to Tum on an almost impassable route which was mercifully only twenty or thirty kilometres. This brought us on to the Eastern of the two North-South roads, which we then returned on to make a loop to Mizan. However we stayed two nights in Tum and in between travelled south on the “main” road to the only sizeable town in South West Omo, Maji, which was in magnificent hilly country (2100 metres above sea level with Maskal daisies in full bloom, a tiny bit of Northern Ethiopia in the South, even the natives being dressed as in the north). If this were in any other country of the world it would be designated a National Park and tourists would flock to it for its clear air and magnificent views. I stayed in the town to visit a school but others in our small group went for a two hour walk to a local waterfall with views over the savannah to Kibish and the Omo National Park. A really nice place. We visited the village of Akem, beautifully situated on a hill, with a really friendly Dizi family who invited us in to see their compound. Here there is much agriculture.

We returned to Mizan via villages of the Dizi (around Tum) and the Me’ent (further north around Batchema), both interesting but not of course as spectacular as the Suri. Overall the West Omo peoples were pleasanter to us than the East Omo ones, who of course see vastly more white faces and act as if are milk cows to be milked for all we are worth. I found the Mursi exceedingly unpleasant in this regard, and their cousins the Suri considerably pleasanter. The Dizi and Me’ent were uniformly friendly and welcoming, and only occasionally were we bothered by the usual “you, you, you” of children.

The Eastern road is marked on most maps even if only as a dotted line, but this is going to change bigtime. Most travel guides have not yet caught up with THE social phenomene of Ethiopia (and elsewhere in Africa) of 2010, and that is the Chinese.

I cannot emphasise enough what this is doing to Ethiopia (and my contact with this country goes back to 1970 and Haile Selassie). The Chinese are everywhere. The country is in an orgy of infrastructure building, roads principally, but also dams (the third Gibe dam is now going ahead on the Omo) and in the cities apartment blocks and shopping centres. And everywhere this is fuelled by massive investment from China, with lesser pockets of Indian (principally trade and services)and Japanese (principally the new Milennium bridge over the Blue Nile).

To give an idea of the scale of the Chinese input you need look no further than the Mizan-Maji road, over 100 kilometres of new road, all being built simultaneously, replacing a muddy single lane track with a 20 meter wide four lane road of motorway proportions with massive stone culverts for every stream, driving new routes through hills and across valleys. It is quite literally awe inspiring. And this on a road where we passed (I was counting) six non-construction vehicles in four days!! The villagers think it wonderful that after generations of promises they are finally going to be linked to the outside world, but, old cynic that I am, I only see a future stream of Chinese lorries carrying off cheaply gained African resources to fuel development in China. I fear a new sort of colonial exploitation. But whatever it is it will change Ethiopia for good, or for ill.

Adrian Greenwood

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