Neil Shea


Omo River

Africa's Last Frontier | in National Geographic | Winner of the Gold Lowell Thomas Award

Dunga Nakuwa cups his face in his hands and remembers his mother’s voice. She has been dead nearly two years, but for Dunga’s tribe the dead are never very far away. In the villages they are buried just below the huts of the living, separated from hearths and sleeping skins by only a few feet of dry, depleted soil. They remain near in the mind too. This is why Dunga still hears his mother: When will you take revenge on your brother’s killer?

When she was alive, she had occasionally asked this, each time giving the vendetta new life just as Dunga was trying to escape it. He had become the eldest son after his brother, Kornan, was killed by a member of an enemy tribe. It had been an ambush, a choreographed execution. The nature of it, so premeditated, only deepened the insult.

Dunga’s father had also been killed by a warrior from the same tribe, and the duty of vengeance had fallen first on his older brother. But after Kornan was killed, the double weight fell to Dunga along paths of tradition worn as hard as the trails leading down to the river. Men from his tribe, the Kara, are renowned marksmen. They had resisted the invasions of the far larger and better armed tribe, the Nyangatom. In both tribes a man who kills an enemy is decorated with special scars dug into the flesh of his shoulder or abdomen. Faced with the murder of his kin, a man would demand vengeance.

And so, in his mother’s question, Dunga hears another: When will you finally become a man?

Dunga is small, slender, not yet 30. His hands are soft from years spent reading books, not living in the bush. He wears a silver crucifix, a symbol of newly acquired beliefs. We sit in a small restaurant in a town several days’ walk from his homeland, his face knotted against the memories. Knowing that I also have brothers, he asks, “What would you have done?” In the West revenge is left to courts. But in this corner of Ethiopia, there is little history of such institutions. There are only the demands of the dead.

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