The celebrated day of visiting South Omo’s flagship tribe had arrived; today was Mursi day. Before we would see them though there were several hoops to jump through, and disappointingly, we missed the first. We pulled over in Jinka whist Biruk leaned out of the window and had a quick chat with a guy and a girl. He told us that they were the tourist office people and they’d agreed he could pay when we returned later on. George Michael was singing ‘Careless Whisper’ on the radio as we pulled away. Two hundred metres down the road and we had found two problems; the first was that the road had literally disappeared in the rain, last year we assume, and the second was that whilst we wondered how to ford the dry but large and impassable gap we were set upon by a young man on a motor bike who seemed particularly aggravated that we were off to see the Mursi. “Time can never mend careless whispers...” but the music had imparted no sensibility on this young man’s occasion. He was very angry and speaking in Amharic. Biruk laid into him, but the young buck gave it straight back. “There’s no comfort in the truth, pain is all you’ll find...” Biruk was flying back into him and still there was only the crescendo. “Tonight the music sounds so loud, I wish that we could lose this crowd...” George was getting emotional and as we reached the final verse Laura and I were shouting out of the window in support. It all ended a little bit messily with us telling him to shove his Mursi up his bottom and we’d go elsewhere rather than be attacked as visitors in a foreign country. “I’m never gonna dance again, guilty feet have got no rhythm...” We did a u-turn, turned the radio off and found a cafe for some coffee and the chance to dissect an arsehole.
The escalation of fees had become ridiculous, and we were rapidly growing to hate tourism is South Omo, we longed to see the Hamer and their smiles again. For our Mursi trip we would each hve to pay to get permission from the tourist office, we’d then each have to pay to get into the ‘national park’, Redvers would need a permit too, we’d need an armed guard, nobody knew what for, job creation perhaps as there isn’t a single bleeding animal for a hundred kilometres in any direction, then we could expect village fees payable to the elders all before we took pictures of the Mursi and paid them on a ‘per click’ basis. One photo cost 5birr (20p) per person in that photo. A photo with five people in would cost a quid!
In the red mist we were angrily supporting each other, “Sod the bloody Mursi, sod the escort, sod the park and sod paying every sodding one to have an uncomfortable experience with a people who are incommunicable bar for charging you after counting the clicks.”
Somers and I slipped very easily into our new plan of not visiting the Mursi village and instead attending the market and enjoying more local cuisine; we even had a crazy American miracle worker to watch; but Biruk had taken the drama personally and told us it was never good to leave a situation unsettled. He made his apologies and informed us that he’d be back in ten minutes.
He soon returned. He’d paid our ‘tourist office’ fees, settled the problem with the young fella’s boss and we were golden for heading to see the puckered up beauties of Mago National Park. We drove to the gates of the park where we paid our entrance fee as well as paying for the services of the mandatory armed guard; we realised that we hadn’t paid for a comedian but the big gun in his hands had more charisma than our new travelling companion; his heart just didn’t seem in it. Biruk and the guard and the big rifle got exceptionally cosy in the passenger seat whilst we continued our adventure into a park that claimed to possess two hundred elephants and twice as many buffalo. In truth we wouldn’t see a single animal in three hours of driving.
Finally we pulled up in the village of Hayloha. Clearly the Mursi were the world’s worst kept tribal secret as there were at least three four by fours that had made it ahead of us. What followed was weird, uncomfortable and probably morally and culturally wrong. For an hour and a half we, and the other Faranji’s, wandered around a village that was basic even by rural African standards. We were besieged by individuals who had actually mutilated each other in the name of tradition and beauty. There is not one single thing, to our minds, that is beautiful about a woman who has slit her lower lip and proceeded to stretch the loop of tissue until it can accept a clay disk 15cm in diameter, her earlobes have similar discs in the stretched orifices of the original piercing and her lower front teeth have been removed. Kissing clearly didn’t feature in the nuances of Mursi loving. On top of the physical damage, the ornate head dresses added colour and originality and included animal horns, metal work and anything else from plastic fruits to ceramic jugs, all atop their heads and all competing with each other for camera friendliness. We took photos, and we bartered prices, and we successfully showed those Southern Ethiopians that if they continue to mutilate themselves, and continue to wear ornate head dresses, white men will come and they will pay handsomely to gasp in shock. Well done us.
In what was probably a selfish motion, we did attempt some idle chit chat; a guide even stepped in to tell a young girl that it was rude just to request money when we asked her a question; but looking at her elders, she had no role models. We tried to draw a map of the world in the dirt to show where we’d come from and where we were going, but to be honest no one really cared. We were told that the pastoral duties have been handed over to the children because the older people are making too much money to follow the animals and work the fields. Rather they sit in the village, dressed up in full regalia, taking tourist receipts
We drove back for an hour to get to the gate of the park, tackling steep sections of dried talcum powder dirt only to discover at the exit gate, that we could only pay at the park headquarters. They were twenty five kilometres back into the park. Biruk had missed the turn, he apologised profusely as he went to speak to the guard. The guard turned out to be a complete jobs worth. He simply couldn’t take our money. He was going to the HQ the next day, but he didn’t want to be seen to accept money when he wasn’t allowed to. Biruk offered him a little extra, but still he stood firm. We spent the next two hours driving along bad roads and rattling our car to pieces in order to find the park headquarters, which were nowhere near anywhere. We paid, we complained that the park was staffed by people unable to think outside of the box, and we got a look that said “There’s a box?” Somers then wrote an essay on tourism and park management in the comments book.
Hours later on a day of hypocrisy and arguments we arrived back in Jinka and went to a local spot for a bite to eat, a plate of fasting food, a few beers and an education on the popular music of Ethiopia. Biruk was a passionate man, and in a strange Ethiopian ‘Alan Partridge’ style he repeated the words, translated, of the soppy love songs we were listening to. Dinner for three, including three coffees and four beers cost us £3.50. We needed the food; we had ambitions that were greater than our energy. We were going to be healed.
We raced each other along the tar, switching to running bare foot when the flip flops became restrictive, until we found a tuk-tuk that would take four to the Jinka stadium. There we found a crowd of people gathered around a stage with rudimentary flood lights and a sketchy sound system. Already the dust had begun to rise from under the feet of the amassed crowd. The pastor chap was already speaking as my belly began gurgling. There was a whole world of Jesus-based ‘saving’ going on. But only the righteous were on the list; and my belly was feeling more in need by the minute. You had to raise your hands up if you did believe and if you could feel Jesus then you were half way there. As we watched, a young lady stood up and did a little sacred pop number before the pastor was back up ‘feeling the faith.’ I had a young girl on my shoulders and Somers had a child on each hand as our pastor asked people if they beleived. With their hands raised the pastor shouted to them. “There is a too-murr leaving over there, sick-ness is being healed over there, paa-ra-lie-sis is leaving over here. Jesus saves. Hallelujah.” ‘Dear God’ we thought.
As the first woman asking for a miracle got on stage the frenzy was building. The towering column of dust had risen with the dancing and the atmosphere was raucous. The lady apparently had been the owner of a paralysed leg, but tonight, after seven years, it was dancing. Hal-hay-loo-yah! More dancing followed whilst Biruk asked Laura and I if we now believed. I tried explaining I’d been brought up Catholic and what we were seeing had nothing to do with Jesus, but he seemed offended. He’d taken leave of his senses and told us that he’s very serious when God is involved.
The fact was that what was happening was actually a great uniter of people. A ten thousand strong crowd were singing and dancing and enjoying their lives, and not one was thinking violent thoughts towards another. They did all think the white guy was God’s worker though. My funny belly had turned to nausea and dizziness and I put down the child and sat down in the dirt worried that I would fall over if I didn’t. I needed saving but there were no miracles for the non-believers. Jesus wasn’t saving me, He was busy saving a man with goitre, He’d defied modern medicine and reduced those glands in the space of one evening. He was the Creator after all; if you made it then you can fix it. I didn’t care anymore, I needed a toilet, I was stood in a crowded stadium in a country whose toilets, as a rule, are nothing short of appalling. We were past code red and I didn’t know which end was going to pop first.
Biruk led me out of the crowd as I shuffled, crossed my legs and wretched. The last thing I heard was a chap with ‘sickness’ (as proved by his journey to Addis Ababa to see the [unsuccessful] doctor) was also cured. His mate was telling the crowd just how sick his friend had been. Somers, for some reason hadn’t followed, she’d stayed in the crowd with a new found friend. I was dragging my feet, I didn’t want to soil myself, but it was rapidly becoming a distinct possibility. We were aiming for the nice bar in town. It was too far. I had to call time. I knew I wouldn’t make it. Biruk asked a local shop owner, who, thank God, was full of Christian spirit and showed me around the back of her shop to her back yard and at the very bottom of the yard she led me to a dark damp corner with a hut. It was in that hut that she showed me her commode. It was too dark to see so she gave me her phone, switched on its light and left me.
I struggled inside, phone in mouth, unbuckling my jeans, pulling them down and stepping out of one leg simultaneously, as is necessary when the toilet is a small hole in the floor. It was then that I realised the whole floor was awash with a blend of fresh and stale piss. The rank stench of ammonia burned my nose and my eyes, the small pieces of turd that streaked the jagged concrete rim in my weak torchlight, added an extra dimension to the smell sensation that was assaulting my already nauseous brain. It was around this time, as I was buckled over one of the most disgusting toilets on the planet, gagged by the phone in my mouth, wondering whether to vomit, crap or piss myself, asking Jesus where exactly he was in my time of need, that Jesus was actually busy just a quarter of a mile away, making sure a deaf and dumb ten year old could utter his first words to ten thousand believers. In the end, I did nothing. I left having ‘paid my penny’ and had nothing to show for it. Jesus saves.
I made it back in time to find Laura, safe and sound, and to see the pastor and his entourage leave in their big flashy Land Cruisers; they still had two more nights of miracle-working. It turned out the pastor is filming an ‘On the Road’ reality TV programme about his journeys in Africa. It’ll be worth a watch on a comedy basis alone.