Responsible Cultural Tourism on the Omo River

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Cultural sensitivity is a subject close to our hearts and one which fuelled much discussion during our recent visit to the Omo Valley. Is there ever an acceptable time to take photographs of people without asking? What is the best way to try and achieve some sort of meaningful interaction? How can we set the right tone and avoid photo-money exchanges and/or the begging culture which helps no one much in the long run?

Tourism in the Omo Valley is tinged with negative connotations due to the artificial photography commonplace in the region. There is a culture of “photo money” whereby locals demand you take their photograph in exchange for payment - the remnants of an unsavoury interaction between “them” and “us”. However, we believe there exists a way to enjoy the Omo Valley and connect with some of its inhabitants. It begins with keeping the camera zipped away... for now.

We are some of the privileged few to have been invited to the Omo Valley by Wild Philanthropy on a week-long expedition by road and boat all the way to Lake Turkana. They are working with the Kara community to support community-based conservation travel and the aim was to learn a bit more about their take on responsible cultural tourism, conservation in the area and sustainable development projects. Our base was Lale's Camp on the eastern banks of the Omo River where owner, Lale Biwa, seemed without doubt to hold the key to much of what we were able to see and do during our visit. Alongside Lale and our superb guide, Graeme Lemon, we were in the best possible hands in terms of creating a meaningful experience.

This is an unexpectedly beautiful part of the world. The Omo river itself is an exquisite waterway edged on either side by an abundance of riverine forest. Time has seemingly stood still in these parts where communities have retained their traditional lifestyles. Yet, sadly they exist under the threat of encroaching modernity and the continued looming environmental destruction which we will explore further in a separate blog post.

Milling around on day one navigating an awkward stare-off with members of the Hamar tribe felt uncomfortable. What were we doing wandering around their village intent on finding some sort of common ground? “Such lovely goats” I found myself saying out loud like a complete moron. They couldn’t understand a word that came out of my mouth and I doubt would have been remotely concerned with whether I thought their goats were lovely or not. Thankfully it turned out my three travelling companions were on the same page and we resolved to make our next experience different. 

Day two and we spent a glorious few hours on the riverboat journeying towards the first fly camp experience amongst the Mursi. We realised here that some of this particular group had very little prior contact with outsiders (I say “particular” as this is quite unusual). Instead, we managed to communicate by drawing the letters of the alphabet in the sand and spelling out the name of the village chief.  Trying to memorise each other’s names, learning the Mursi names for different animals, and joining in some dancing with the other women, it dawned on us all that this was a social interaction. In a very tiny, minuscule way, there was a genuine connection for that short time when we’d not been interested in taking photographs so much as enjoying being in the present moment. And whilst this might seem like the most obvious thing in the world to the majority of readers, the truth is that this is virtually impossible here in a world which has been described as a “human zoo” and “fancy dress parade”. These are people who have been exploited in the most appalling way and we have a moral responsibility to acknowledge it.

This type of trip is not for the faint-hearted. It is remote, extremely hot, and at times you really feel you’ve reached the ends of the earth. Yet, it is a place where time has stood still in many ways, where nature is untouched, and the dawn chorus almost heart-stopping in its magnificence. It is Africa at its wildest, most remote and adventure-driven. Yet, with the damming of the Omo River, food shortages an ever-increasing reality, and traditional lifestyles at risk of destruction, the region faces increasing threat to its cultural and natural environment. We are looking at news ways of bringing tourism to this corner of the world in an ethical, responsible way, alongside trusted partners with a shared vision for preservation. Together we believe conservation begins first and foremost with people.