This story appeared in the March 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine. In October 2010 it won a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers.
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.
DUNGA WAS BORN at Dus, a village of stick-and-grass huts set on a bluff high above the Omo River. From the central highlands the river flows wide and deep and fast toward the country’s southwestern border, where it pours into Kenya’s Lake Turkana. In its 500-mile course the river curls through gorges of volcanic rock and channels of ancient mud.
Near the Kenyan border the Omo carves serpentine oxbows as the countryside flattens, and ribbons of forest appear along its banks. Riverine creatures, including crocodiles and hippos, become more abundant. The landscape grows thick with tribes, including the Kara, Mursi, Hamar, Suri, Nyangatom, Kwegu, and Dassanech, a population of roughly 200,000. Herdsmen drive animals through the bush, and farmers pole upstream and downstream in lumpy canoes. Depending on the season, the riverbanks are golden with the stubble of past harvests or sheathed in the moist green of new crops.
Dus lies three hours by truck from the nearest road, and in the wet season it is islanded in a sea of mud. Like many settlements along the Omo, the village is a cluster of huts with goat pens and grain cribs set at the periphery, everything sun bleached, everything washed in dust. Some days dust devils gather outside the village, pacing in the bush like malevolent spirits, spitting soil into the air.
Cattle and goats are a family’s most meaningful possessions here, but it is the crops, nourished by the Omo River, that sustain the people of Dus and other villages. After the Omo’s seasonal floods soak and replenish the riverbanks, Kara farmers pierce the dark mud with sticks and drop in seeds of sorghum or corn. It is simple, ancient, little different from what the Egyptians did along the Nile. If the floods are meager, the harvest is poor, but the system has kept the Kara here for a long time. The river’s predictability allows the 2,000 or so Kara a life without the restless movement of some of their neighbors, who must constantly drive their animals to new pasture. The name of the village—Dus—means, roughly, “I have seen other places, but it is good here. I’ll stay.”
For generations the tribes of the Omo were shielded from the outside world by mountains, savanna, and by Ethiopia’s unique status as the only African nation never to have been colonized by Europeans. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, anthropologists began recognizing what that meant—people living near the river had largely escaped the colonial blundering and conflict that shredded other societies. The tribes remained intact, migrating, warring, and making peace in ways that had vanished almost everywhere else. Hints of this Africa still appear in the ornamental clay lip plates worn as symbols of beauty by Mursi women or in the seasonal dueling contests of the Suri, who tie on armor made of goat hide and fight each other with long poles. There is still the Hamar ritual in which women demand to be whipped until they bleed, and there’s the cattle-jumping initiation rite, in which boys run along the backs of cattle to prove they are ready for manhood.
Today the Omo Valley is a destination for wealthy tourists who cross vast, uncomfortable distances to witness those same rituals—vanloads of white faces, most from Europe, hoping for something of the Africa that exists in the Western imagination, all wild animals and face paint and dancing. Tourists say they have come to see the Omo before it becomes like everywhere else, as though a McDonald’s might suddenly descend from the sky.
Yet it’s true: The Omo region, still one of Africa’s most intact cultural landscapes, is changing. The big game are mostly gone, hunted out with weapons that flow in from wars across the borders in Sudan or Somalia. Aid organizations deliver food, build schools, and plan irrigation projects, all of which make life more stable but inevitably, unstoppably, change the way it has long been lived. The government, which for generations essentially ignored this place, now works to modernize Omo tribes, and some officials speak as if timetables have been drawn up describing exactly when and how the old ways will be replaced. Not long before my visit, government representatives offered new incentives to tame the warring tribes and incorporate them into the nation. Blood feuds, like the one tugging at Dunga Nakuwa, are meant to be a thing of the past.
IT WAS THE CATTLE that betrayed Dunga’s secret. When he disappeared, leaving his family’s herd in the bush, the beasts circled around and grazed their way home, a cloud of dust rising behind them. At the village, Dunga’s brother, Kornan, was surprised the animals were returning so soon—without Dunga.
This was in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Lions, leopards, and hyenas roamed the savanna. Elephants and buffalo occasionally came bulldozing out of the bush. Enemy tribes patrolled it too: The Nyangatom, the people who had killed the brothers’ father, had been pushing into the area, armed with automatic rifles. Since their father’s murder, Kornan had taken charge of family matters, but he wasn’t worried about his brother’s safety. He had an idea where Dunga had gone, and he was furious.
The brothers had grown up as Kara boys do—chasing animals through the bush with bows and arrows. They pulled guard duty in the sorghum fields, slinging clay pellets at thieving birds. They learned to beware of crocodiles during the wet season, when the Omo runs high and dark with sediment. And they learned the foundation of male responsibility: care for the herds.
Along the Omo, cattle and goats embody wealth and prestige. Without them a man is considered poor and, in most tribes, cannot get married because he has nothing to offer as a bride-price. In time of famine the animals can be sold for food or their milk, and blood can be slowly siphoned off, like interest. Abandoning your cattle is like dumping your family’s savings into the river.
Kornan selected a slender stick, then marched to the nearby schoolhouse and found Dunga there. The brothers were close, but this? Leaving the herd for school? Kornan beat Dunga until the boy wept. Some 15 years later Dunga tenses as he remembers the blows. The next morning, sore and chastened, Dunga led the cattle to water at dawn. But a few days later he ran away to school again. And Kornan beat him again.
“I loved Kornan,” Dunga said. “He was a father for me, he was everything. But my mind was going to school.”
The beatings hardened Dunga’s resolve, but they seemed to soften Kornan’s. He had been to school himself for a few years, and he eventually realized punishment wouldn’t dissuade Dunga. They struck a deal. The boy could go to school as long as he achieved good grades. If his performance fell, he’d be back in the bush with the herd. Dunga was ecstatic. He advanced to a boarding school in a nearby town, each grade taking him deeper into a new world. He returned home less frequently.
Meanwhile, Kornan had become a respected young leader. He had a wife, several children, and a reputation as an unrivaled hunter. The wives of other men presented Kornan with bullets and said, Take this and go hunting for me. They placed orders for meat or skins. But the task of avenging his father’s murder still lay ahead. Relatives, friends, and elders urged him to set things right. You’re a strong hunter, people said. When will you go after your father’s killer?
THIS IS ONE WAY change is coming to the Omo: In the wilderness, amid swirling dust and the gnawing sounds of heavy machinery, a dam is being built 320 miles upriver from the Kara homeland. The construction site is enormous, with camps, bunkhouses, cookhouses, and winding service roads. The dam, called Gilgel Gibe III, will be one of the largest dams in the world. It will create an equally massive reservoir, and the water will be used to generate up to 1,870 megawatts of power that Ethiopia plans to sell to energy-strapped neighbors, such as Kenya and Sudan. It is not scheduled for completion until 2013, but contracts have already been signed.
Gibe III will bring cash to Ethiopia and produce much needed electricity in a country where only 33 percent of the population has electrical power. But it will also reduce the river’s flow and tame the seasons of flood and recession that the tribes living downstream, such as the Kara, the Nyangatom, and others, rely on to nourish their crops. The indigenous tribes have little power to oppose a project that has official blessings and massive momentum. Many are unaware of the dam’s potential to transform their lives; many others support the government, even if they do not fully understand its plans.
In Dunga’s village each month around the new moon, near where the Omo River empties into Lake Turkana, the man who speaks to crocodiles descends in darkness to perform a short ceremony that protects his people from the massive creatures that cruise the Omo. He carries a bundle of leafy branches, dips them into the water, then shakes them upriver and downriver, while speaking with an authority not given by men.
“You, crocodiles! Listen! This place is mine, from my father, from my father’s father. Stay away from here. Let my people and their herds come down to drink, and let the children swim. If you come close, my bullets will find you!”
He then lays the branches on the mud and steps down into the black water, joining its silt and its secrets, and he bathes.
The man has a special relationship with the ancient reptiles, as his father did before him. The ties between human clan and crocodile are strong and deep. The crocodiles even speak to him in his dreams.
“What do they tell you?” I ask.
“That is none of your business,” he replies.
Whatever the crocodiles tell, they also listen, for as far back as collective memory reaches, no crocodile has taken a human below the village. A wave of nods from old men arranged in a circle around us on their wooden stools attest to this truth. “What about the pregnant woman who was killed last year?”
“Well. She didn’t listen.” The man waves his hand downriver. “She was killed over there. I do not protect that place.”
The elders nod, the caveat is plain. The woman had strayed onto someone else’s property.
I ask the man about Gibe III. Suddenly the scene changes, as it always does when I mention the dam. A crowd presses in. Some have heard of this thing. The man asks, “What, exactly, is a dam?”
And then they all want to know what it will do to their lives.
ONCE THE KARA controlled land on both sides of the Omo River, but gradually the Nyangatom pushed them across to only the eastern side. A seminomadic tribe from southwestern Ethiopia, the Nyangatom were one of the first groups in the region to gain access to automatic rifles, mostly from Sudan. During the 1980s and ‘90s they enlarged their territory, bullying neighbors, like the Kara, who still carried spears. Their population grew. They began changing the order of the Omo.
The Kara didn’t give up territory easily, however. By Dunga’s last years of secondary school, most Omo tribes had guns, and tensions boiled. The Ethiopian government did little to stop the intertribal warfare. Kara sharpshooters hid in trees along the riverbank, sniping at Nyangatom who approached the water. The Nyangatom sometimes crossed in small raiding parties, setting their rifles on automatic. Other times they crossed in massive groups. It was during this time that Kornan went with his cousin on a hunting trip in the bush. Much of the big game had been decimated, but the bush still sheltered gazelles, kudu, bushbuck, even elephants in places. It was a matter of stalking through thickets of thorn trees and seeing what awaited.
When the hunters came upon a group of Nyangatom warriors, a firefight erupted. Kornan shot a Nyangatom in the stomach before retreating, and the man later died. He had not intended to kill the man, so it did not fulfill the vendetta for his father’s murder. At the same time, Kornan knew what he had begun. He knew that now he would be hunted too.
DESPITE THEIR WAR the Kara often bought ammunition from the Nyangatom. It was complicated, but even conflict didn’t prevent a good sale. Kornan had given a man from the Kwegu, a small tribe that lived on both sides of the river, money to buy bullets. The Kwegu man never delivered, and Kornan grew angry. After a while the dealer invited Kornan over for coffee at his hut on the Nyangatom side of the river to settle the matter. It was a normal request; tribes all through the Omo do business and make social calls over gourds filled with a weak, thin liquid brewed from coffee-bean husks. Kornan took his AK-47 and his borkoto, the small saddle-shaped stool Kara leaders carry at all times, and he crossed the wide, brown river.
Kornan was in enemy territory, so he would have been alert. But he didn’t know the meeting had been arranged by the younger brother of the warrior he had killed that day in the bush. Kornan met the Kwegu man under a shelter of sticks. Coffee simmered in a clay pot; the men chatted. When a group of Nyangatom approached and sat nearby, making small talk, Kornan was on guard, but nothing happened. It was hot, even in the shade, and eventually he relaxed, setting his rifle aside.
The conversation wandered. The Kwegu man said he had been hoping to carve a large gourd into a bowl. Would Kornan help him? Even if he was irritated with this Kwegu, Kornan was a man of action. He took the gourd and began cutting. The Kwegu said he needed to relieve himself and ducked out of the shelter. It was a signal. Kornan, focused on the gourd, missed it.
He didn’t notice one of the Nyangatom stand and slowly walk behind him outside the shelter. The man fired once into Kornan’s back, then fled as he bled into the dust.
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for news of Kornan’s murder to spread. Enraged Kara spilled across the river, attacking the Nyangatom. If they saw the irony—that their actions would only prolong the revenge cycle that had claimed their friend—they ignored it.
Kornan’s friends ferried his body back across the river. That evening they sought out Dunga in the town of Dimeka, but the Kara do not deliver bad news directly. There’s a problem, they kept saying. You must come home with us now. In darkness the group traveled toward home, Dunga fearing the worst. The next morning, as they neared Kornan’s village, the men finally told Dunga his brother was dead.
In that moment Dunga became responsible for everything—his family’s land and its herds, the well-being of his mother and Kornan’s wife and children. He became responsible for vengeance. He couldn’t sleep under the weight of it. Whenever he returned home, revenge was waiting for him, in his mother’s inquiries, in all the history of his people. Killing a Nyangatom would be easy; the bush was so enormous. You might wait in ambush by the river, when the cattle were driven down to drink. Or in the fields of sorghum lining the bank. Or along one of the lonely trails at night, leaving the body to hyenas in the starlight. Vengeance lay one bullet away. Why, God, have you brought this upon me? Dunga thought. It is a test. It must be a test.
He considered dropping out of school but decided against it. He was in college now, and after years of education, most based on Western thought and influenced by Christianity, Dunga had grown. In his Western clothes and sneakers, he appeared more like a highlander now, a member of one of the ethnic groups that control the government. His ideas had changed as well. He spoke the highlanders’ language and several others, assimilating the ideas embedded within them. He’d begun learning about Western notions of law and justice. He’d been raised in a culture where killing was accepted, but now he lived in one that considered it immoral. When he thought of becoming a man according to Kara custom—enduring a long set of rituals—it was in the gauzy way one daydreams of the future. He thought less and less of revenge. Dunga knew he would always be a Kara, but he no longer felt bound by the authority of the tribe.
THE MAN THEY CALL KING SITS just inside the door of the large, mud-walled hut on a white, plastic grain sack that bears the fading seal of the U.S. Agency for International Development. It is an unlikely throne, donated by a people who do not know his highness exists and who certainly have not heard of his power to control the elements, the animals, even the reach of death. He taps snuff from a plastic bottle. His hair, slick with butter and brilliant with crushed minerals, is perfect.
“If there is a problem, with cattle, people, the land—I resolve it,” the king says. He inhales the snuff. In his face is a rare and complete confidence. “If there is a problem in my kingdom,” he says, “the solution is me.”
From his hut high in the Buska Mountains, Wangala Bankimaro rules some 30,000 members of the Hamar tribe. The Hamar are mostly pastoralists, herding cattle and goats across a broad bushland east of the Omo River. They also work small fields of sorghum and corn. They are neighbors and allies of the Kara. In an environment that is not forgiving, the Hamar have managed to thrive, growing into one of the region’s largest tribes. For this the Hamar thank the rain, which feeds their cattle and crops. For rain they thank Wangala Bankimaro.
Hamar women, their hair rolled into gleaming red-dyed braids, tell me Wangala commands the respect of even the Ethiopian government, which rules from a distant capital. Hamar men, rifles looped over their shoulders, say Wangala’s curse is feared more than bullets. Bullets can miss. The curse guarantees death.
When I meet Wangala in his hut, he is just back from a rain ceremony. It has been a success. Rain will come, he says, shifting his weight on the grain sack. Brass coils wind around his wrists. He wears a T-shirt, white shorts, and sandals made from old tires.
I’ve never met a king before; I am not sure how to behave. In the dim, smoky hut, one of the king’s wives boils coffee over a hearth. I ask the king why, if he can summon rain, he has not done it earlier to avoid the looming drought. He looks at me with the expression of a man humoring his guest.
“The people did not come to me,” he says. “They did not make sacrifices to ask for rain.”
Rules. An error of protocol. Like straying into crocodile territory.
Slowly, as the Ethiopian government has extended its influence and its legal code into tribal life, federal officials have worked to win Wangala’s support. When they need him, they send a truck to pick him up—no small feat in this distant, asphalt-free region. One government plan aims to abolish what have been termed “harmful traditional practices.” These include, ironically, the very things most tourists come to see: the ritual whipping of women or the stick fights or the cattle-jumping ceremony.
The list of targeted practices includes female circumcision (which is not practiced by the Hamar but is common throughout Ethiopia) and something called mingi killing. Mingi is a kind of very bad luck. In southern Ethiopia many tribes believe it is a bad omen if children are born deformed, if their top teeth erupt before their bottom teeth, or if they are born out of wedlock. Tradition dictates such children must be killed before mingi spreads. I met a Kara woman who gave birth to 12 children before she was able to be married; she said she killed all of them. Parents do not necessarily want to obey, but communal pressure is strong. Sometimes the child is abandoned in the bush, its mouth filled with earth; sometimes it is hurled into the river.
The Kara are discussing the practice with the government and with an NGO that works to save mingi babies. But Wangala has already made up his mind. Not long ago, after heavy government lobbying, he decided to support a ban. “Now there will be no more mingi killing among the Hamar,” the king tells me. “I have made it so.”
He says it without arrogance. Tradition, magic, and fear wiped away. Discarded like old clothes that no longer fit. The solution is me.
LATE ONE AFTERNOON last March, in a shaded clearing high on a bank above the Omo River, some 200 Nyangatom gathered to celebrate peace with the Kara. Clay paint the color of flour streaked their bodies, rendering them ghostly, pale, skeletal. Beyond the clearing, enormous slabs of beef roasted on spits, dripping and popping. Beyond the fire, men from both tribes had stacked their automatic rifles in a gesture of goodwill and as a simple, practical matter. Given their history, it was better to keep the guns out of reach.
An old man paced before the crowd, waving his hands and shouting, the paint on his legs turning gray with dust.
“You, Nyangatom people! You must want peace!”
A small false beard, like that of an Egyptian pharaoh, pierced his lower lip and fluttered in his excitement. He turned to another section of the audience.
“You, Kara people! You must want peace! Let no one destroy your peace!” the elder shouted.
“So let it be!” the crowd chanted, the men’s voices a low roll of thunder, the women heaving under pounds of necklaces coiled around their bone-thin shoulders.
“So let it be!”
Spears of meat were thrust into the ground before us. Soon the dancing would begin, and the clearing would shake with the rhythms of feet thudding into the tired earth.
At the celebration I met a young man named Ekal, who had recently become an elected leader of the Nyangatom. He was under 30 and college educated, like Dunga. He wore an oversize polo shirt, baggy slacks, and a baseball cap slightly askew. While his people danced, all of them nearly naked, Ekal filmed it with his cell phone. He looked like a hip-hop star on safari.
Ekal said that the days of war were over and that the government was firmly establishing itself here. Even those who talked of upsetting the new balance could be arrested, Ekal said, and he told of a Nyangatom man who had recently bragged that he would cross the river for a Kara killing spree. Ekal sent the police. The man landed in jail.
The Omo region was transforming. The peace deal was part of it, and the proof was visible where we sat. This clearing on the west side of the river had once belonged to the Kara. Now, under the terms of the truce, the Nyangatom would remain on the land. The river had drawn them in and, like the Kara before them, they had decided dus, we will stay here.
WHEN I MET DUNGA several days after the celebration, he told me his mind was finally clear. He wanted no part of revenge. “To me it must be the same as if a snake bit my brother in the bush. As if my father was hit by a car. Revenge is not my path.”
The tribal elders supported his decision. They saw the changes sweeping the region. They had heard of the dam being built upriver and of the programs the government had begun to control certain customs. They saw the trap of tradition that awaited Dunga, the one that had claimed Kornan. The elders understood Dunga was now more than a man caught in a blood feud—he was an educated representative of his people, a future leader and role model. Cool yourself, they told him. You have many responsibilities, to your family, to the tribe. Do not think of vengeance.
It was the answer Dunga had always hoped for: his old world acknowledging the power of his new one. In addition to courting established leaders like Wangala Bankimaro, the government recently implemented a program to promote law and order by putting young, freshly trained professionals in positions of local power. When he graduates, Dunga will be the first lawyer in his tribe; he is likely to be sent back to the Omo Valley as a judge or a government prosecutor. He is aware that he will be a kind of missionary, and it has become his personal mission to modernize the Kara people and prepare them for the future as part of the Ethiopian state. He even invokes one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s election slogans.
“Change must come,” he said. “I have a big responsibility to change my tribe in a big way. My revenge is to make the killing stop.”
SEVERAL MONTHS LATER I return to Dus and find the peace holding, at least among the Ethiopian tribes. The Nyangatom, former aggressors, are now suffering at the hands of the Turkana, a Kenyan tribe that has crossed the border and is said to have rustled more than 13,000 cattle. Few of the Kara gloat. A drought is settling over the land, and one day I watch as several Nyangatom pole across the river and ask Kara friends for help. Immediately the Kara provide their former enemies with sacks of grain.
But all is not forgiven. In Kornan’s village, his young widow, Bacha, is still haunted. After his murder, Bacha entered traditional mourning; she removed her jewelry, let her hair grow untamed, wrapped herself in rough leather skin. Bacha mourned for two years—longer than custom requires—refusing to emerge until elders and friends practically dragged her out. Eventually she cut her hair and slipped on her bracelets and necklaces again, but she was not healed. A suitor approached; she rejected him. She has kept many of Kornan’s possessions—clothing, beads. She keeps his AK-47.
One day I ask her about the rifle. Bacha’s face is striking, unlined, her eyes like almonds. A roofing nail protrudes through her bottom lip. She doesn’t want to talk about the rifle. Her face remains dark and smooth as the river.
“I keep it so my sons will see it,” she says finally, twisting her callused hands in her lap. “So they will grow up familiar with it.”
She seems unimpressed with Dunga. He is technically the head of the family, but it is she who is in charge of day-to-day affairs, with the help of her two young sons, both under ten.
“My sons will know their father was killed by a Nyangatom,” she says.
Before I leave Ethiopia, I reach Dunga in Jinka, a bustling frontier town where he had attended boarding school. He is giving his nephew, Bacha’s younger son, a tour of the place. He plans to send the boy to school there, to follow in his footsteps. I mention what Bacha said.
“She’s not free of this idea,” he says. “Sometimes when I explain it to her, she says ‘OK.’ But she’s not saying it from her heart. It seems sometimes that only revenge will make her happy.”
Dunga thinks of it simply as an argument he must win. If he cannot persuade Bacha, he will persuade her sons, using his lawyer’s skills, his missionary’s zeal. Dunga has not officially become a man according to Kara tradition, but in the eyes of the Ethiopian nation he is more than that. He is the future.
Before we hang up, Dunga says that it has been decided that Bacha’s older son will remain at home, like Kornan had, tending to herds and fields and family matters. He will live with Bacha and grow up among his father’s old friends. Certainly he will dwell for a time in Kornan’s shadow. I think of Bacha’s face, the set of her jaw, the stillness of her gaze. When her son is old enough, she will tell the boy his father’s story. Then, probably, she will give him his father’s rifle.