Two Women, Two Tribes, and a Journey of a Lifetime is a 9-part series penned by Lim Ka Ea about her one-year stint in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she accompanied her husband on his 9th humanitarian mission. No stranger to travel and humanitarian missions herself, she learned that Ethiopia is not really Africa and Africa is not really all about national parks or long distance-runners. She also learned that being a “tai-tai” is so overrated unless there is another “tai-tai” to get into mischief with. This 9-parter tells the story of how two “tai-tais?”explored Ethiopia and discovered their life as both an individual and a woman. This weekly series started with Part I: My first encounter with Africa, Part II: The faces, sounds and smell of Addis Ababa, Part III: The gift of a kindred spirit, Part IV – Getting in synch with nature, Part V – Hardships and Friendship, Part VI – Our first sightings of the local traditional tribe and Part VII – Irada and Ka Ea in Mursiland

Ukeletele amazed by Ngaduri's ability to strike a pose whenever a camera is in front of her
Ukeletele amazed by Ngaduri's ability to strike a pose whenever a camera is in front of her

Part VIII – Uleketele and his two wives

The Mursi man followed us around, often very quietly but not timidly, obviously observing us carefully. He had his photograph taken once by Irada but yet, he continued to follow her around, appearing to have enjoyed all the camaraderie. We could see that his intention was not motivated by money but by our company.

After awhile, we noticed that he had quietly sneaked in line with several other Mursi women, getting ready for a picture. I started laughing as soon as I realised that he had taken off his glasses in the hope that we would be fooled into thinking that he was not the same man!

He laughed along good naturedly as soon as he realised that the cat had been led out of the bag. The sparkle in his eyes told me that he is an intelligent man with a great sense of humour. I asked him for his name and he told me he is Uleketele and I wrote it down immediately on my notebook. From then onwards, he would often come to me and asked me to show him his name on my notebook and to read it out loud. It delighted him immensely to look at his own name, written in Roman alphabets and hearing the sound of it from a  farenji’s mouth.

I would always think of Uleketele with great fondness.

Uleketele was intrigued by us as much as we were intrigued by him and I think he quickly realised that I was documenting things and wanted me to meet his two young wives, Ngaduri and Urkurakoro.

Ngaduri was a very bossy woman and she was angry at me for not taking a picture of her at all. She held that grudge against me and continued to harass me throughout my whole time in Mursiland.

Urkurakoro, very young from the look of her small budding breasts, had just gotten her lower lip cut because she wore a green leaf concealing the cut, probably serving as some sort of an effective organic antiseptic. Eyob informed us that she was Uleketele’s new bride. Traditionally, a Mursi woman would cut her lip to indicate her bethrothment to a man.

Once, when Irada gave Ngaduri and Urkurakoro 2Birr each, they became unhappy since they were not fresh new notes. They started grumbling incessantly to Uleketele and being the true wise man that he is, he exchanged the old notes with his own new ones in order to appease his two wives.

After awhile, Irada realised that this wouldn’t work if she wanted some good photographs of the Mursi. She asked Eyob to let the chief know that she would pay a lump sum of 100Birr to be allowed to take unlimited number of photos and this would include the Mursi leaving her alone and getting on with their daily chores.

There were three older Mursi men sitting and observing the entire ruckus quietly by the side. I believe two of them were the chiefs judging from their age as well as superior demeanour. I have learned that in a Mursi community, there are often a priest (komoru) and an orator (jalabai) who are regarded with much respect.

Eyob came back to tell us that the chiefs, Olongkibo and Menisha agreed to the offer and on top of that we had to pay an additional 100Birr for entrance to the village.

As soon as this agreement was announced to the rest, we could see the women dispersed slowly out of our sight. Many went back to their domestic chores of cooking and taking care of the children. Irada tagged behind to get a good look of their surroundings.

Uleketele went inside and reappeared with a game they called hore, very similar to the traditional Malaysian game of chongkak except that it has 12 holes with 44 marbles; 4 in each hole. He set the wooden board down and started playing with Olibala, another younger Mursi man.  I sat there for while, trying to understand the game but since I have not played chongkak before, I could only assume that the objectives are more or less similar.

A woman cooking lunch in a pot of murky water
A woman cooking lunch in a pot of murky water

Two worlds apart

I soon got bored and decided to go into the village to see what the women were up to. Many were just lying around with their children and a few started nursing their babies. Despite being unaccustomed to the unnatural sight of lower lips hanging loosely beneath their jaws, I was touched by the natural beauty of babies suckling on their mother’s bare breasts. I saw a woman crushing grains of corn, using traditional tools made of stones. Once the grains turned into powder, she mixed them with water, kneaded and shaped them into dumplings. Then, she boiled them in murky water, presumably collected from the river or puddles. It didn’t look appetising at all and we were rather relieved that we were not extended an invitation for lunch!

The great hunters of Mago National Park
The great hunter of Mago National Park

Not too far away from where our car was parked, a young Mursi girl with a younger boy stood on an elevated flimsy platform, made of eucalyptus tree. She was bald, bare breasted and wore only a blue skirt. Like a seasoned Olympic hammer thrower, she swung a rope with a rock attached to one end, above her head and after gaining sufficient momentum, aimed the rock at an unsuspecting wild bird perching on a tree. I was impressed as I watched the boy dismounted from the platform nimbly and like a bloodhound, scurried deep into the foliage of corn field, in search of the day’s hunt.

I didn’t stay long because I was beginning to attract new attention from the women. So did Irada. For some reason, the women decided that the 100Birr agreement was officially expired and now, they had a new license to be paid individually.

Talking to them was difficult since we didn’t speak the same language. Eyob, being alone, was unable to accommodate our needs separately as he often struggled to keep up with translating for me and managing Irada’s photographic demands. However, I managed to ask Uleketele one important question.

When he was asked whether he was happy being there, he answered a simple yes. If he was being dishonest, I couldn’t tell from his expression and way of being. I personally think that he enjoys the limited but yet regular fellowship with tourists and cannot imagine himself doing otherwise. He has established his role in the small Mursi community as the one who will bring joy to foreigners.

Next: Part IX (finale) –  Ciao, my Jaala!

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. Now, she works with lawyers and human rights activists by day and watches Discovery Travel & Living by night. She writes for The Malaysian Insider during her dwindling free time. She longs for the day when someone would pay her to travel, eat and write.

Irada Humbatova was born in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on 12 July 1974. She trained and worked as a midwife from 1994 to 1997, later assisting the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent with maternal health work by training and supporting traditional birth attendants in rural areas. Since then she has followed her husband on Red Cross missions around the world, developing her love for photography into a passion and profession. Inspired by Africa’s immense beauty and its people’s suffering she moved from art photography to photojournalism. She has since grown to become Reuters’ stringer for Ethiopia and work on assignments for other news outlets and magazines. Irada is currently back in Baku continuing her work with Reuters. She contributes most of the photographs in this series.

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife...