Curiosity, circus and crumbs

Guess you know the situation: you look at pictures and immediately you want to be there. You want to know more about it. This happened to us when we saw photos about different ethnic groups in the South Omo Valley in Ethiopia like the Mursi, Abore, Surma, Nyangatom, Hamar or Karo. By the way the old Greek philosophers believed that curiosity, the urge to look “behind the things” is the start of any philosophy.

Karo tribe at the Omo river, © Petra Dilthey, ethno e-empowerment (

Month later seven o’clock in the morning sitting in a SUV on our way from Jinka to a Mursi village we learned that we are not alone in our curiosity. There was a “caravan” of almost 20 four wheel driven cars with people from all over the world which are heading for the same goal: seeing the Mursi and taking photos of them. When we finally entered a village a kind of “show” started – it was basically the script for the whole trip: Our tour guide, whom we have paid for, goes with the local guide to the elders and asks for permission and hands money over to them. Then we are allowed to enter the place which looks “kind of empty” but all of a sudden children and women appear – mostly decorated – and present themselves asking for money (Birr = the local currency). Now we have two options: either we directly pay 5 to 10 Birr per photo (it is about 30 Cents or 0,3 Euro) or we give the guide several hundred Birr and he is organizing the pay out.

Mursi woman with lip plate (the bigger the more beautiful), © Petra Dilthey, ethno e-empowerment (

Curiosity turns into a circus. But we wanted to look “behind the things” and not only watching a performance. We show them our eBooks because we want to know, if they grasp the content, if they like our playful, interactive approach.

Showing our eBooks in a Mursi village © Uli Schwarz, ethno e-empowerment (

Often we got positive feedback and could start a discussion but there was also this woman in an Arbore village who bluntly said: “Stop talking (and wasting our time), take your photo, give the money and go (so we are ready for the next tourists to come)”. OK, we learned the lesson; it is all about a performance for tourists to make money.

Tourists watching a Hamar ceremony, © Petra Dilthey, ethno e-empowerment (

Once you accept the show – which was difficult for us as we wanted to know more about their culture, their lives and feelings – so once you adopt to the situation, we asked ourselves who benefits the most from this? Here the “crumbs” kick in. We know how much we had to pay for our overpriced and poorly guided trip and we can easily calculate how little the pastoralists are getting. It is in the range of some percents. Now we understand the meaning of “trickle down” economy. It is not about a fair share but rather about “crumbs” for the majority while the big chunk goes to the tourism agencies in Addis Abeba and others. The pastoralists in the South Omo Valley – the reason why tourists are coming – don´t really benefit. We haven´t seen good infrastructure like electricity, access to water, health services and schools, etc. There ought to be fair tourism like fair trade …

Maybe that could be a task for the new prime minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali?

Uli Schwarz