Continued... Some days later we pulled into the Karo area late in the afternoon in a two-jeep convoy. Two Karo warriors appeared out of the bush and stopped us. They were clearly expecting our arrival. They instructed us to collect Moyle as she was at the livestock area outside the village tending the cattle and goats. The warriors jumped into the jeep to guide us, one through the open window not knowing that the door could open. David was thrust an AK 47 to hold as there was little space in the now crowded vehicle. We then careered through the bush, thorny branches scraping our windscreen and causing our guides to duck under the dashboard, as they were unfamiliar with the protective qualities of glass.
The scrub gave way to a clearing revealing a scene that could have been taken from any point in human history. Goats and cattle were being milked and herded by boys and girls with long bendy branches. The sun was low and the dust and natural soft sounds of the cattle lowing created a magical atmosphere as the equatorial dusk quickly faded.
Moyle was milking a cow, and looked rather non-plussed to see us, but once in the back of the jeep, her dazzling smile brightened the gloaming as she delighted in the novelty of being in a vehicle.
Karo Labuk, Moyle’s village, contains about two hundred souls who live in domed grass huts. The Karo have no access to modern technology of any kind – that is of course with the exception of the AK-47s carried by every adult male. These were an unfortunate side effect of the Sudanese war close by which saw guns flooding into Ethiopia and turning what used to be tribal stick fights into deadly shoot-outs.
We parked outside the village and setup camp there so as not to intrude, while Moyle skipped off through the huts to tell her father of our arrival. Soon, a tribesman came back with a stern look on his face. Tim and David were being summoned to see the chief, and he wasn’t happy. The summons was delivered to David rather than Tim as his silver hair made him the de facto elder of our group. It also transpired that our non-Karo, Ethiopian guide was particularly unwelcome as he was from the North and considered of a lower class than the Karo, he was directly told not to enter the village.
Sensing at this point that we were somewhat vulnerable, David & Tim followed the messenger in silence as he led them through the blackness of the village night to the central compound, the chief was sitting on a goatskin rug surrounded by flaming torches staked in the ground around him. He looked displeased, and they realised that we were completely at his mercy, as bands of men with white facial war paint stood behind him fiddling nonchalantly with their guns. He told them to sit. Addressing David, as the groups elder, via a translator, he explained that he was offended that we had camped on the edge of the village. As his wedding guests of honour, he ordered that we bring our tents into the chief’s family compound; we were to be part of his family now. With great relief David was able to explain that we had acted on our English customs and we were only too glad to oblige.
The chief relaxed and smiled. He introduced each of his closest relatives who sat one by one and, much to everyone’s relief, laid their guns to rest. A goat was dragged over and slaughtered in front of David & Tim – an honour reserved for honoured guests. It was hacked to pieces with machetes and the pieces unceremoniously skewered and placed in the fire.
With the increasingly welcoming body language, a rusty tin of rocket fuel alcohol in one hand and a whole goat leg –part chard part raw – in the other, ‘Mr Tim’ reminisced with the chief over their previous meeting and Moyle’s forthcoming wedding. Fear melted into a warm sense of awe at the timeless scene in which they now found themselves. As the rocket fuel flowed, so the translator’s role was made redundant and the shared humanity and talk of the wedding the next day powered laughter late into the evening.
In the early dawn light our domed tents looked coincidentally like a canvas version of the Karo’s grass huts. Sunrise brought activity all over the of village and the start of the festivities. We were permitted into a day shelter, a communal hut used for escaping the searing heat of the day, where the bridal party was gathering. Normally only the fairer sex are permitted, but as photographer and honored guests they made an exception for David & Tim. We immersed ourselves in an endless medley of rhythmic songs as the girls plucked eyebrows and eyelashes, applied ochre to their tight curls and drove nail-like spikes through their lower lips as is their tradition. Meanwhile the men gathered in another day shelter and continued their consumption of home brew accompanied by vibrant singing.
Gifts of beads were brought to Moyle as she prepared herself with coatings of fine red ochre powder mixed with sheep fat to make her skin gleam. Some of the older women of the village began dancing to the beat outside the hut, flashing and flicking their beaded hide garments in flirting style. Soon the men joined the party. The dust rose with the stamp of their feet and the atmosphere grew.
A sheep was slaughtered in Moyle’s honour and served by the young warriors. As it’s throat was slit a small child watched on, quick to indulge in a coagulating lump of the blood spurting into the gourd on the ground.
The ceremony continued through the immense, consuming heat of the day. I found a moment to slide away for a moment of feminine privacy. Once away from the village I relaxed and selected a reasonably private bush to squat behind, just at that moment I noticed a movement off to my left so I shuffled round a little to remain from view as a herder wandered past with his goats. Two seconds later a fast low whistling sound shot past low overhead. I’d never heard a bullet in real life before but I instinctively knew what it was bearing in mind my surroundings. I kept low thinking what to do. Then I spotted the warrior striding towards the village, so I stayed put until all was clear. As I made my way back to the village thinking about what had just happened more shots cut through the thick hot air, this time over in the village. I hurried on knowing that David was immersed in his photography and may be caught up in something. I noticed his hat as he disappeared from sight behind a hut so I knew he was ok. It transpired that someone had died at the other end of the village and the gun ho warrior was ‘paying his respects’ firing off rounds as he made his way to see the family.
David meanwhile had been fully immersed in his subject, pleased that he was officially avoiding the offers of more of the lethal home brew. Through the lens he was able to get up close and personal without invading the peoples privacy. Only the younger girls were curious as to his actions and once they saw their images they clamored to be in shot. Making eye contact with some of the warriors, albeit through the lens was quite disconcerting and something David will never forget as he witnessed the fierce, raw wildness in their eyes, bloodshot from living in a harsh arid environment.
The wedding party procession surrounded Moyle as she made her way through the village to her waiting groom. It was difficult to tell whether she was happy and it was unclear whether she had had any say in her choice suitor, but she unquestioningly followed in her people’s tradition. The groom and his best man waited alone at the edge of their end of the village. As the party approached they walked backwards leading the way to the groom’s parents hut. The groom’s mother had prepared the customary ceremonial coffee, prepared from coffee husks and drunk from a large hollowed gourd, and handed it to the male guests. Moyle ducked low and entered the hut, a cheer went up and the marriage was sealed. She would remain in her in-laws ‘charge’ for the next three months, working as a daughter to them before she and her husband would finally be together – for better or for worse.
It wasn’t until much later that we learnt that the wedding ceremony would normally take place over 3- 4 days but on account of us having traveled so far the chief had seen fit to condense it into one day. The interpreter who also seemed a little confused thought it also had something to do with it coinciding with the cycle of the moon and a vague connection with timing and the inter Karo annual ceremony. It was all very confusing and I couldn’t help feeling a little bit guilty as to whether we’d unknowingly cheated Moyle of her one moment in a male dominated world, cutting short her moment of glory and prolonging her youth, or had we enhanced it, we shall never know.
As dusk fell and with a vehicle overloaded with singing, inebriated, AK 47 yielding warriors, we drove across country to a nearby village were we joined Karo from other villages, to witness an annual contest to determine the best groups dancing and singing skills. Over a thousand clan members who were in fierce competition with their neighboring clans attended the ceremony. Feeling like gatecrashers we tried to stay inconspicuous, keeping a low key bystander profile at the periphery, with some relief they hardly seemed to notice so intent on their mission to out perform the competition. Standing behind an admiring group of young women and children as they eyed the young warriors we felt more at ease, then without warning a sudden burst of high velocity gun fire shattered through the resonant sounds of the male voices as they sang. The women’s reflexes were quicker than ours as they ducked and hit the ground, rising almost immediately, laughing at their reaction to the over exuberant enthusiasm of one of the dancing warriors. It was testament to how they have come to respond to their men folk’s obsession with guns and their tribal conflicts.
Our translator advised us not to film any of the event, as he wasn’t sure how the warriors would welcome it and like us he sensed how volatile the crowd were in their heightened mood of competitive enthusiasm. However, he took the camera from me offering to do it, as he would be less conspicuous. Admitting he’d never used a camera before, David resisted the urge to give him a quick lesson in photography feeling then was not the right time and we watched with amusement as he wielded it around filming randomly, which made for some fun footage!
Our senses were on overload, the deep golden glow of the sinking sun gliding to the horizon, the dust, the resonating beat creating an atmosphere and evoking thoughts that have to be felt not photographed and written about. We were privileged to be in one of the wildest and remote parts of Africa and to experience a unique moment, to witness the Karo and their ancient cultures, and some long-lost ancient values that go along with them, a remarkable culture so far from our own. The hardship in which they live, and their expertise of living from the land, should be an inspiration for all of us who live less sustainable lifestyles, including ourselves. Long may they thrive as an example to us all.