Actual date: March 30

Picture from lissanonline.com

The Mursi. Picture from lissanonline.com

Once upon a time, the Mursi used to stretch their lip and ear piercings to the size of small saucers. They used to paint their bodies with clay and use scarification as a means of beautification. These practices were an important part of their traditions and culture.

Today, the Mursi still stretch their lip and ear piercings to the size of small saucers. They still paint their bodies with clay and use scarification as a means of beautification. Yet they do so because they know that these practices attract tourists, photography, and money. Much of the cultural significance has been lost.

In the Omo valley of southern Ethiopia, my friend and I went to visit the Mursi. The second we got out of the car that took us to the village, we were swamped by people saying “Camera!” and “Money!” and shoving the clay lip plates in our faces for us to buy. We ignored all this and asked our local guide to translate some questions for us. We wanted to learn about the culture first, and take pictures at the end. Unfortunately, our guide was rude to the people and refused to translate much of what we said. When we did strike up long conversations, people demanded money for talking to them. No one would show us their houses or tell us about their traditions without a price. Taking pictures was the most expensive. I felt like I was in a zoo.

It greatly saddens and angers me that demanding money from foreigners has become so ingrained in the Mursi culture that it has destroyed its original beauty. Foreign aid has created an expectation for hand-outs. The Mursi I visited seemed to bask in the fact that tourists treat them as zoo animals because they can demand money. They don’t seem to care anymore about their reasons behind their traditions, as long as they can suck money out of all people with light skin and embrace the Western value that money means everything. I’m sure that the really isolated tribes have escaped this, but I wouldn’t underestimate the reach of globalization. I left the Mursi village with strong negative feelings towards tourism and aid in general.

I also left without paying to take any pictures.

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