Can you describe your first visit to the Omo River Valley region?
In 2004, I joined four other women on a low-level flying expedition following the great rivers and waterways that define life in Africa. We flew over 5,900 miles in the six seat Cessna 210 airplane named Ewaso
, the Maasai word for water, traveling from the Nile’s source in Ethiopia to Cape Town, South Africa. It was on this trip I first learned of Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley.
I made my first trip to the Omo in 2005, and at that time, what struck me about the cultures, people and land of the Omo River was the sense of going back in time. Time is tracked by the seasons and seasonal floods, by the moon, sun, and stars. It is not tracked with clocks and schedules, but a time much, much older.
You've said you aren't a documentary photographer. Can you share what you mean?
My projects have always started without clear goals, not by design; it’s just the way my mind works. On my first trip to the Omo, I didn’t know what I wanted to photograph. I’d go into villages and walk around telling myself that I’d figure it out, and that it was ok to not know where to begin. By the end of the trip, I felt a visceral connection to the land and people, especially the women.
Artists define their own way of working depending on their intention and objective. National Geographic
photographers receive an assignment to document a story within a given time period. My project started without an objective or intention, and through curiosity, became an act of discovery. The curiosity of discovery led to a connection with the Kara women.
You've been traveling to the Omo River Valley for eight years. How has your relationship with the women changed over time?
My relationship with the women unfolded in a gradual way. I observed that women always seemed to linger quietly in the background and I began to seek them out. We would sit together, not needing a common language to communicate. I began to take portraits of the women and photograph them going about their daily lives. A few years later, with a Kara interpreter, I began to record their stories.
When I asked if they would be willing to talk to me about their lives and culture, and about their concerns for their future, they expressed surprise and shock and wondered why I would want to talk with them. One afternoon an elder came to camp to thank me for spending time with his wives and the other Kara women. He said my time with the women made them happy and they looked forward to telling me their stories. There is no word for ‘thank you’ in Kara and he expressed his appreciation by bringing me a gift of wild honey he’d gathered from his beehives in the forest.
On my last trip in 2012, I asked Duka (pictured above) if she wondered why I kept returning to the Omo. She responded, “I know why, it is your work to work here. This is not your first time, this is your house, that’s why you keep coming
.” The past several years I’ve heard women and elders refer to their Omo village as my second home.
Through your interviews, do you find common concerns arising among younger women, and among elder women?
Elder women accept their role as wives and mothers and the constraints of their patriarchal culture. They understand that their culture is changing, that young women will want to do things differently. Young women have begun to protest against arranged marriages. They want to marry their boyfriends, the men they love. Girls openly complain to their families at being forced into marriage. Several years ago, to avoid an arranged marriage, a young Kara girl committed suicide by jumping into the Omo River. She was swept downriver inhabited by Nile crocodiles. Elders have now begun to reevaluate this tradition and parents are beginning to listen to their daughter’s wishes.
The photo essay begins with a young girl and shows her three years later after she's married. We learn she's unhappy in her marriage. Can you share more about her?
I photographed her over a five-year period and interviewed her twice. This young girl became the second wife. As the second wife, she is subservient to the first wife. The first wife has all the authority and the second wife must do everything the first wife asks of her. Her loss of freedom was an abrupt change from her free and easy life as an unmarried girl.
Before they are married, young Kara girls have boyfriends, spend time with their girlfriends, go wherever they want, and sleep wherever they choose. When a girl is about 16 years of age, her parents begin to negotiate with other Kara families to select a husband for her. The bride price is 127 goats. She has no voice and must accept the choice of her parents.
The women's jewelry is very prominent in these black and white photographs. Did you ask them about this?
Adornment is important in Omo River cultures and varies from tribe to tribe. The Kara women tell me jewelry makes them feel proud. The ‘nice jewelry’ brings them respect and recognition from others in their village, it reflects their individual artistic talents, and attracts the opposite sex. If a woman is not adorned she is seen as drab, like a widow in mourning, or an old woman, or that she is from a poor family.
Their creativity seems limitless. They incorporate found objects such as watchbands, bic pen tops, safety pins, feathers, tassels make of goat hair and roofing nails into their jewelry and leathers. The women’s shiny skin, in some of the photographs, is from clarified butter that women rub each day on their skin. They believe it makes them healthy and beautiful.
Can you share what you've learned about the voice of women in Kara culture?
The cultural role of women is rigidly defined. Women are responsible for everything except tending the cattle and goats. They do all the hard work of their community without help from their husbands or male family members. They have many children and care for them, gather firewood, cook and maintain a clean house, rise before sunrise to prepare the family’s daily coffee ceremony, and make honey beer for special occasions. Although they share some responsibilities with their husbands, who plant and guard the sorghum from baboons during the growing season, the women are responsible for the threshing and bagging of the sorghum and carrying it on their backs to the storage granaries in their village.
As a woman ages and has many children, she gains respect. Women who are close in age form women’s groups and elect a leader. They sit together to talk and socialize and get advice from each other. If they have concerns, their elected leader, or a highly respected woman, will take their concerns to the elders. Kara culture is patriarchal, but democratic. Kara elders come to decisions through consensus and respect a strong woman’s opinions. They will invite her to come to the "Gelma,” the ceremony house, to hear her ideas, though only elders are allowed inside the "Gelma" house. This is where important Kara decisions are made. Once the elders come to a consensus, women must comply with their decision. They have no choice.
As a culture without writing, their history is transmitted through the oral tradition of storytelling. The lullabies women sing to their children is one important part of maintaining the family history. Each child hears songs unique to its family, often unique to the child and its namesake. Boys hear about the bravery of their fathers and grandfathers. The beliefs of the Kara are also told in the stories of how they moved from the mountains to the riverbank “1000 years ago” and the stories of where their ancestors spirits reside, across the river in Loculan. All barely scratch the surface of their complex and rich history.
You travel to the Omo region every year now. How has your work with the Kara become an integrated part of your life in California?
The people of the Omo made me acutely aware of the integral role their river and forests have on their self-sustainability. They grow all of their own food, make their own clothes from the leathers of their goats, and forage wild fruits, seeds, and edible plants from the forest. They harvest honey from their beehives and gather medicinal plants. The Omo River provides fish and abundant water for their cattle, goats, and their communities.
Our western consumer society is largely dependent on corporations to provide most of our basic needs. Planting an olive grove and producing olive oil and planting a small a garden and growing grapes for wine has given me a sense of independence. The lessons of self-sufficiency that I observed among the Omo River cultures created a heightened awareness about the importance of my own contribution to a more sustainable way of living.