Racing to the Omo

Kara Tribe, Bull-jumpers, ceremony, Omo Valley

Kara Tribe, Bull-jumpers

Last Wednesday night I returned from an unexpected trip to the Omo Valley…………

Last October, when my group arrived at the Kara village of Kocho, several of the guys who ran out to meet us were wearing small skins over their shoulder. They excitedly told me they were preparing to jump the bulls.

This is a really big deal for the Kara tribe. Unlike the Hamar tribe, who has bull-jumping ceremonies almost daily, during their season, the kara bull-jumping takes place only every couple of years. In the Hamar tribe, each clan has a separate ceremony and only one person jumps at a time. In the Kara tribe a group of boys from the whole tribe jump at one ceremony, held over about a two-week period.

Let me clarify a village and clan. A clan is like a your extended family; mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, cousin, etc. A village is a group of clans (extended families) living together in one area. A tribe can have many villages within a general territory. The kara people are the smallest tribe in the Omo, but also my favorite tribe. They have only three villages. These three villages all come together at the main village of Dus, for the bull-jumping ceremony.  Generally boys from all three villages will jump the bulls making up a group of 20-30 jumpers. The groups are usually split in two and they have two ceremonies about a week apart.

Since the kara tribe first told me about their bull-jumping ceremony, on my very first trip to the Omo several years ago, I have dreamed to attend. I let them know that I would love to have permission to attend. Of coarse I probably reminded them of this every visit…LOL. So this past year when the boys let me know they were jumping, Lale Arada Bilale, one of my favorite warriors and elders, said he and his uncle would accompany me to Dus. They would represent me and ask permission from the council. My group was kind enough to allow me to go to this meeting in the morning while they were photographing in the village.

We met with about 60+ elders in a cabana type hut. This in itself was an amazing experience!! The meeting, or negotiations, took about 2 hours. There was no set date, but they would try to hold it in May, when I was able to attend. I was on stand by. I started receiving some emails from the Omo in April to let me know what was happening. I began pondering if I should attend because it was going to be an enormous expense and I was going to be headed to Northern Kenya at the begging of June. I share this with you because one thing that keeps people from having incredible experiences is they tell themselves they can’t afford it. A few supportive friends and past clients said, “you have to go!” And they were right.

When the email finally came on May 12th I had less than 30 hours notice to book a ticket and get on a plane. Thankfully, my new passport, with all my visas, arrived the next day, May 13th. I traveled 4 straight days, stopping one brief night for some sleep on day 3. I was the only one there, outside of the kara tribe, with exception to some members of the Hamar tribe and the Turkish men who works near by. I need some time to process, savor and reflect upon all I witnessed an experienced.  However, I will share that I feel I failed as a photographer, but perhaps succeeded as a human being. Failed is a strong word that I don’t use lightly, but it is relative, based on my knowledge and skill.

The people of the Omo have captured my heart, as they have with several of you that have traveled with me. I have become very close with several of the people in the Korocho village. This is a very special ceremony and life moment for all the bull-jumpers. Although I had permission to freely photograph, except in a few sacred area’s, I could not bring myself to be disrespectful by interrupting any part of the ceremony, to get the shot. I was too personally attached. It reminded me of Aaron Huey explaining how he lost all perspective as photojournalist during his experience with the Native American Indians on his long term project at Pine Ridge. You can see his talk at the Annenberg Space of Photography, here.

There were too many moments when I had to put the camera down, be in the moment, and experience every part of what was happening. I spent a lot of my time in huts with a clan, sitting with the women while they were singing, talking with the elders and being in awe of this extraordinary experience. I could have decided this was my big chance, as photographer, to capture thousands of images that not many others have ever had the chance to capture, although it was. I could have solely decided to use this as a huge opportunity to try to advance as a photographer, but the reality is, I just wanted to enjoy this extraordinary experience that would probably be once in a lifetime. I also wanted to tread lightly as guest.

There were many times I made simple technical mistakes, which is why I use a word as strong as failed, although the lighting was incredibly challenging; not to mention the 100F/38C heat and humidity.   If I were to remove all my emotions and evaluate this strictly from a professional standpoint, then I would have to determine that on several occasions, I did not shoot at the skill level I have achieved.  However, as a human, had I not put down the camera and embraced this incredible experience, I would have missed out on one of the greatest experience in my life. An E-ticket ride, on a one-way life ticket.

I guess you can say, I live as my tag line; more than a photograph, an experience. At the end of this journey, this will always be an experience that I will remember as one that took my breath away! It also did not go without meaning that the first stamp on my passport to Africa is dated May 24th, 2004 and the second bull-jumping of the ceremony was on May 24th, 2014; marking the first decade of my work in Africa.

I have begun editing through this incredible journey. I want to honor this tribe and their traditions by taking the proper time to share the stories behind the images, such as the one at the top of the post. However, I am catching a plane to Kenya on Thursday and will head up North for the Turkana festival; up to 12 different tribes will attend. I hope to start sharing these incredible moments, stories and traditions when I return to the states, in a few weeks.

P.S. I apologize for typing errors, misspellings, and wrong grammar. I read through it once and made some corrects, but I did not have time to send it to be properly edited, by a fresh set of eyes, before my departure.


20 Responses to “Racing to the Omo”

  1. Nathan Nachlas, MD

    Totally loved reading about this adventure Piper! Please take me with you next year!!!!!!

    • Piper Mackay

      Nathan the ceremony is every couple of years and would it would be difficult if not impossible to arrange having people come, but I will have some great trips to the Omo next year. I will be listing them at the end of July. I do currently have a trip for Jan 2015 that includes Lalibela during for a wonderful ceremony, the Tribes of the Omo, and the singing wells.

  2. Nancy Williams

    Piper! Wow! But I must say, as green with envy as I am…I am not surprised! We expect to soon hear your TED talk, explaining how to “Seize the Moment”. Don’t mourn the missing shots…they’re all in your head! Bon voyage à Africa!! Nancy Williams

    • Piper Mackay

      Nancy it was amazing, but would have been quite impossible to take anyone. I did throw it out there to a couple of people, but they had the same 30-hour notice and they could not make it. I actually have several of the shots, but they are soft. On the other hand I captured some amazing moments and look forward to sharing them!!

  3. Vaughn

    I am so happy you dropped everything and ran to this extraordinary experience. I look forward to seeing you soon and sharing more of these stories and images. When you reach for the stars, you never fail.

    • Piper Mackay

      Vaughn, had a asked you, I know you would have been one of the people that would have told me, “You have to go!” Thanks!! I also can’t wait to see your images and hear all about your adventure. We will get together for dinner when I return from Northern Kenya.

  4. Muriel

    Piper, Your reflection on your experience is as powerful as the image you presented. Thank you for sharing both and continuing to inspire others to take a risk, and be respectful to other cultures.

  5. Jana

    Fascinating write up. You Have made a wonderful life for yourself. You GO girl. Love Jana

  6. Ed Schuman

    Congratulations on being a marvelous human being as well as a sensational photographer! (I’m a retired documentary filmmaker.)

  7. Patte Brownell

    Wow, May 12th was a special day for many. It sounds like you captured the moments and experience in your heart, that is what is important. Thanks for sharing your journey….you will go again.

  8. G. Wayne Meaney

    Congratulations, Piper! I’m glad it was fulfilling for you. And remember, too, the photographer’s curse: being preoccupied with missing the shot. But it sounds like you’re keeping it in perspective. 🙂

    • Piper Mackay

      Thanks Wayne!! On this trip I made the conscious decision to give up some of the shots. It was a struggle as it gave me anxiety as a professional photographer, but the reality was I knew I was experiencing something extraordinary and I wanted the experience and the memories of it more, than only experiencing it through my lens.

  9. Fred

    Thank you so very much Piper for that inspirational story . As a new fan and follower of yours, I am inspired by your work and your story that helps fuel my own aspirations as a photographer.

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    I am so excited to be following all these wonderful and inspiring photos and stories

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