Matilda talking about her work in Ethiopia
“This is not a romantic book about African tribes” warned Matilda Temperley at the beginning of her talk to mark the launch of her book, OMO change in the valley, “but it might be considered another political book about water!” In fact, it is much more than a political tract rather it is a record of the native peoples who inhabit the Omo valley in Southern Ethiopia whose identity is under threat from globalisation in particular the construction of a large dam which “a couple of weeks ago” was opened. The effect this will have for those people whose livelihood depends on regular flooding of the river is yet to be experienced but an ecological disaster along the lines of the Aral Sea in Central Asia is possible. The World Bank who initially agreed to fund the project in 2006 later pulled out because of concerns about the treatment and lack of support being given to local people affected by the building of the dam.
Matilda first visited as a tourist when she was working in the area for the Hospital for Tropical Diseases based in London. At that time, road conditions were appalling but these have since improved with tarmacking. Living conditions though are not necessarily safe with the necessity of travelling with an armed guard.
Matilda set up a mobile studio and there are a number of photos in the book that show her working in this fashion with some of her subjects acting as assistants. A remarkable feature of some of the women, those from the Suri and Murzi tribes, is the wearing of wooden plates within the lower lip which is gradually stretched over time; size matters here and some of the women sport large plates that are said to signify beauty. The practice does however result in both lisping and dribbling; the government have banned the practice though more remote groups still observe it.
Of the 12 tribes that Matilda documents in her book, the Donga tribe are known for their ritual fighting which is largely an initiatory rite involving sparring although death, far from encouraged, can occur. The men attack each other with sticks and this more violent behaviour is no longer open to the touristic gaze.
Tourists are however, welcome to photograph people in controlled circumstances. The tribals dress up not in traditional colours but sporting designs that appeal to photographic cliches. For this the local people are paid yet they wash off the decorations soon after. Matilda’s photographs are much more interesting and real such as the man who bears scars and is said to have killed another.
My own interest in Ethiopia centres around wildlife and so I put this question to her. There is not a lot of evidence of birdlife in the area but there are elephants that are now being exploited for their ivory, a trade that has become more widespread in the last 5 years and is directly related to the presence of Chinese workers. There are leopards in the area but the only sign of a leopard one is likely to see is as a skin wrapped around a human body.
Matilda’s photographs are stunning and one can not help but feel the presence of globalisation and the adverse effect it is having on theses people.
Matilda signing copies of her book after the talk
A more comprehensive review with photos from the book can be found in The Daily Telegraph.