Famine threatens extinction for one of world's oldest tribes

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The Independent Online

Three long days' drive to the south-west of Addis Ababa lies a lost land where today one of the oldest peoples of Africa are facing extinction, forgotten by the world.

Three long days' drive to the south-west of Addis Ababa lies a lost land where today one of the oldest peoples of Africa are facing extinction, forgotten by the world.

As drought tightens its grip on Ethiopia, threatening famine for 8 million people, the focus of the relief effort lies in the Ogaden region in the south-east, where hundreds of children have died already. Nutritionists are also conducting regular surveys to monitor the increasingly precarious condition of the highland peoples of Wollo and Tigray to the north, which was the seat of the terrible famine in 1985 in which a million are said to have died.

But the world appears to have forgotten the region in which lives some of the oldest tribes in Africa, thought by anthropologists to be the remnant of the original inhabitants of the continent.

In the south-west of Ethiopia the people of the Mursi tribe are receiving no food aid at all. Its women and children have been reduced to eating leaves from the dusty trees. The fear has suddenly arisen that the present drought could bring extinction to the remaining 5,000 members of the Mursi.

Their tragedy is taking place in desolate privacy, for they inhabit a land cut off from the north by the 13,000ft Abyssinian mountains, from the west by the impenetrable swamps of the Nile, and to the south and east by the endless barren plains of the Kenyan/Ethiopian borders.

To reach them you travel down from the southern highlands, through deep gorges and green swaths of semitropical forest alive with white-tailed monkeys and flashes of the colourful plumage of gigantic birds.

Eventually, at the bottom of the great African Rift Valley, you arrive at the river Omo, whose waters never reach the sea but enter Lake Turkana where they evaporate in the 40C lowlands heat.

At about noon on the third day of the bumpy journey, on a baked dark plain that seemed like the end of the Earth, a few small flimsy shelters of bent branches and grass came into view in the distance. As the four-wheel-drive approached, their occupants emerged and stood waiting.

There were about 20 of them, people whose skin was several shades blacker than those of the Ethiopian Somalis whose misery has filled the world's television screen in recent days. There was an almost blue quality to their skin - where it could be seen, for though they were mostly naked their torsos were covered in elaborate swirling patterns in an ash-grey daub. Several of them carried bows and arrows.

Three of the older men came forward. In contrast with the two young men to the side - who were entirely naked apart, bizarrely, from their AK47 automatic rifles - the elders wore a cloth knotted at shoulder, dangling ineffectively before and behind. By the huts the women looked on. They were either old or heavily pregnant girls of 14 or 15. They were bare-breasted, wearing only tanned goatskin skirts. Their bodies were adorned with scars in great raised patterned welts. Their lower lips were pierced to carry clay discs four or five inches across, which dangled below their chins.

Traditionally the size of the disc, which is inserted in gradually increasing sizes six months before marriage, reflects the bride-price her parents expect for her. The bigger the plate, the more cattle required. But there were no cattle to be seen on the scrubby plain now.

The frail, white-bearded elders came forward to greet the local tracker who had guided the vehicle to the spot. He introduced to them his chief passenger, an elegant Mauritian named Rodney Phillips, the deputy regional representative of Unicef. The tracker translated their greeting in a language that is, linguistically, entirely dislocated from those of the rest of the region.

Where were their cattle, the Unicef man asked. The rest of the community had gone off with them in search of pasture, was the reply. They had left behind the old, the weak, the pregnant and the children who were too old to need breastfeeding and yet too young to herd animals.

They had gone to the river? The UN vehicle had passed a herd of black, tan and brindled cows there. No, that was another tribe. The Mursi had gone to the east.

Why? The old man became evasive. "The river belongs to another tribe," the tracker explained, to avoid any more embarrassing questions. To reach it the Mursi would have to cross land belonging to an enemy - and that meant a fight.

In years of plenty that would be no obstacle. The Mursi are often at war with their relatives in the Bodi tribe. Sometimes the two make peace to fight the Hamar, with whom they are always at war. Fighting is a normal part of their cattle-raiding culture. The crescent-shaped scars on the upper arms of many of the men were, each one, a badge of honour to show that they had killed a member of another tribe.

But now the Mursi were too weak to pick a fight. In the merciless heat all they could pick were the browning leaves from the few shrubby trees on the plain and then eat them. They had no nutritional value but they filled stomachs.

The Unicef man reached out and put his thumb and forefinger around the arm of one of the children. His fingers met around the scrawny circumference. The child's skin was covered in a rash. Most of the people had skin disorders or abscesses. There was no water to wash with. They could only just get enough to drink by scrabbling for hours with their bare hands in dry river beds.

A day's ride up the road, further north, there had been a distribution point for government food aid. About a thousand people from the Ari and Mali tribes had been queuing patiently for their meagre monthly ration and then immediately stuffing the dry grain into their mouths.

"There is not enough food aid," Mr Phillips said later. "There are 14 distinct tribes here and around 150,000 people in the area are at increasing risk of starvation."

Perhaps because they are animists and do not fall into the obvious Christian or Muslim groupings, nobody seems to want to know about it.

For the Mursi, however, there was not even this inadequate ration of food aid. Why don't you eat your cattle, the Unicef man asked. A cow could only be slaughtered on a special occasion, the elder replied. They had to be kept alive because the Mursi drink their milk and blood. An arrow was shot into the jugular of a heifer and enough blood drawn off to fill a calabash before the wound was staunched with mud.

They did not need meat. They needed maize to eat and sorghum to plant. They had planted their last sorghum over a month ago but there had been no rain and it had not germinated. They would have been better off eating it.

The old man bent down and scooped up a fistful of the dark, dry dirt and dropped it into the hand of the man from Unicef. "Why hasn't the rain fallen? Why?" he asked mournfully.

It was a question to which the great sky god gave no answer, even to "the people of the morning" - those who had been made first by the sky god, here in this valley where archaeologists have discovered the remains, two million years old, of man's first humanoid ancestors.

Did the man from Unicef want to buy the plates from the women's lips and ears, the elder asked, in an offer that seemed to sacrifice something from the very soul of this ancient symbolist culture.

Perhaps, Mr Phillips asked in reply, they would like to swap their guns for food? Never, said the old man. They would rather die. All too soon that grim alternative may come to pass.