I always believed that in this age, all people are considered equal and that everybody – be it a European city dweller or a tribesman living deep in the jungle - has the same right to choose his or her own way of life. Recently, Ethiopian officials showed me I was wrong. It was during my last visit to the Surma (Suri) tribe in summer 2012.
The Lower Omo Valley is a fascinating region because of the many tribes living there, each of them practising their own unique culture. Many still live their traditional semi-nomadic cattle-herding lifestyle and they would like to keep it that way. However, this is not consistent with the government's plans for economic development of the region. A massive hydro-electric dam is being built on the upper Omo River (Gibe III), tribal land is being leased to foreign companies for agricultural or mining projects, and there are plans for a new road from Southern Sudan. Traditional cattle herders are in the way of the ’progress’.
Since our previous visit in 2010, the Ethiopian government has visibly increased pressure on the Surma people to abandon their culture, which is inextricably linked with their traditional livelihood and core to their independence. It would seem that the authorities have people’s best interest in mind when they are building schools and teach the Surma to adopt intensive farming. But unlike the traditional pastoralism – self-sustainable even in the arid landscape of the southern Omo – intensive farming techniques require massive irrigation projects and heavy use of industrial fertilizers most local people cannot afford.
The state-sponsored education is designed not to empower the tribal people and prepare them for challenges of the modern world, but to assimilate them into the society where they are treated as second-rate citizens. On the other hand, Surma cultural practices like decorative scarification, traditional stick fights Donga, or the lip plates worn by women are declared illegal and punished.
It is not important what we think about such practices; for the Surma people they are important parts of their ethnic identity and it should be up to them if they want to continue stretching their lips (not all the girls choose to do so), or scarring themselves using sharp razor blades. Donga fights are an important rite of passage for young Surma men, while serious injuries during these fights are rare - it might be safer than competitive boxing.
The problem is that by prohibiting these practices, the Ethiopian government is suppressing the rights of tribal people. Even more worrying are the reasons why they do so. Officials are not really concerned about better living conditions for the Surma men and women. Instead, they want to turn them into helpless beggars who would give up their land for a small handout. The Surma are not interested in financial compensation (even if the government really was going to pay any, which I doubt); they need their land for livestock, which is their biggest source of wealth and social status. With no land and no cattle, previously proud people all too often turn towards drinking.
Even more disturbing is that the Ethiopians feel they have the right to ban tribal practices from the position of a superior culture. "This is not a human being", a policeman in Kibish said to us with a jovial smile, pointing at a Surma woman with a lip plate. His comment left us feeling disgusted but not surprised; we had just been treated to a thorough explanation about good (Habesha) and bad (Surma) culture by the Kibish police chief!
The Surma are not alone in this, all the other tribes in Omo Valley have a similar story, as do many others around the world. The Botswana government cannot tolerate the ’primitive’ Bushmen who want nothing else but to live their own way in the Kalahari. The Indonesian government is suppressing Papuan tribes because of their land, timber and the mineral riches of West Papua. In many countries, laws against nakedness are used to prejudice against tribal people who don’t share the same social stereotypes.
More often than not, tribal people gain very little by adopting our civilization in exchange for the loss of their cultural identity, their independence and their place to live.
Original Czech version available here