TURMI, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s Hamer people, a long isolated, pastoral warrior tribe, are increasingly opening up to tourists, a move some fear could endanger age-old traditions with too much exposure to foreign cultural influence.
For centuries the Hamer lived in voluntary seclusion but are now one of the latest attractions in this east African country, which is pushing to promote tourism as one of its leading exchange earners.
With short, wavy and clay-baked dreadlocks, Warka Magi contentedly sits cross-legged on red soil as foreign visitors move their fingers over tribal wares she displays for sale.
Warka has opted out of her family’s age-old pastoral lifestyle to peddle colourful traditional artefacts to the increasing number of tourists visiting Turmi, a two-day drive south of the capital Addis Ababa.
“I’m very happy because I’m getting more money now,” she said.
Ethiopia is on an aggressive campaign to boost its tourism figures, notably putting focus on its ancient landmarks and diverse cultural practices.
Last year, 50,000 — out of a total 400,000 foreign visitors — ventured out to see Ethiopia’s famous remote medieval rock-hewn churches and its 15th-century castles.
Long seen by the West as a “famine country” thanks to photos of parched land and emaciated children during a devastating drought in the 1980s, Ethiopia is slowly emerging as a favoured African tourist hub like its more illustrious southern neighbour Kenya.
But experts are concerned that increased exposure to the outside world is taking a toll on some of the country’s traditions.
Last year, more than 15,000 visitors trekked to Turmi valley to watch the Hamer rituals such as the elaborate pre-marriage ceremonies where teenagers jump over a long line of cattle to mark their passage into adulthood.
The region is also home to the Mursi, whose women sport large pottery discs on their lower lips, go topless and bear ritual scarification marks — an exotic sight for foreign tourists.
On a grassy plain, a group of semi-naked men, with ostrich feathers tucked into their hair, rub chests in flirtatious moves with their female counterparts as they dance to the rhythm of music, blown loudly from an animal horn.
“It’s amazing. Just 10 years ago they used to be notoriously difficult to find even in their own surroundings,” a French tourist said, referring to her previous trip to the valley. “Things have changed a lot since then.”
Tafesse Mesfin, a researcher who has specialised in the region for more than 30 years, bemoans the demise of traditional attire, some made from pelts of African antelopes called kudu, in favour of jeans and T-shirts.
“You can also observe that the once ubiquitous kudu skinwear is not as popular as it used to be,” he said. “They are fast adopting a different lifestyle.”
Flamboyant tribal dancing and flashy apparel are also now reserved for special occasions such as annual festivals. And increasingly these festivals are more an occasion to showcase wares and earn money, and not the genuine cultural ritual they once were.
“They are under a lot of pressure. For instance donkeys were once part of popular dishes around here but they’ve been convinced not to eat their meat by outsiders,” said Tafesse.
This traditionally animist, and to a lesser extent Muslim community has also become a favorite destination for foreign and Ethiopian evangelical missionaries.
“It was three years ago that I made contact with believers. They convinced me that Christianity was the right path,” said Oybula Oymure, an elder from a nearby Bure tribe. “People in my tribe are converting in increasing numbers.”
Mena Wado, one of the Hamer tribe chiefs, lamented: “We didn’t have such religions before, it’s only a recent phenomenon”.
The government acknowledges the potential threat to local culture.
“Nobody would want to see the disappearance of such rich traditions, but you can’t just build a fence and abandon any kind of development,” local government administrator Nigatu Dansa said.
Just a kilometre (less than a mile) away, two young men sip fresh coffee under the blazing sun at a rundown shop named “Obama Cafe” — a sign that change has come to the once isolated region.