When photographer Jane Baldwin first went to Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley in 2004, she didn’t know what she was looking for. “It was really just about an opportunity,” she says now. A friend had invited her to visit the area, and so she went.
But what she found changed her life.
She speaks about a feeling of familiarity that hit her the moment she stepped off the plane. “This is always hard for me to put into words,” she says. “Shortly after arriving in the Omo, I was hooked. I knew when I left that I would be returning.”
Baldwin spent the next ten years forging a relationship with the Kara people, one of eight distinct indigenous communities in the Lower Omo Valley whose lives and homes are currently threatened by agricultural plantations and Ethiopia’s Gibe III Dam.
Her relationship has resulted in the haunting exhibition Kara Women Speak, currently at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in California and accessible online as a multimedia exhibit.
An Unexpected Project
Baldwin didn’t go to the Omo with a project in mind. She wasn’t an environmentalist, and she knew nothing about the Gibe III Dam. She just kept returning because the place and the people spoke to her.
The instant sense of connection she felt, she says, was both sensory and visceral. “I moved into a sense of time that was so different from what we experience in the West,” she says. “There are no calendars and no clocks. We’d go to bed when the sun was going down, and be woken in the morning by the ibis and monkeys calling to each other.”
As moving as the natural world was, however, Baldwin was just as taken with the women who befriended her. “In 2009, I started to do interviews. The women were so eager, so surprised that I was interested in them.”
Kara culture is strongly patriarchal; for many, it was the first time anyone asked them what they had to say. “They would say to the interpreter, ‘Why does she want to talk with me?’ Lale [the interpreter] would say, ‘She can’t believe you’re wanting to talk to her.’”
“Tell her I’m interested in her life, what she thinks and feels,” Baldwin would tell him, “as a woman talking to another woman.”
The women responded enthusiastically to the attention: Some would come and wait for hours to be interviewed. In the Kara language, there’s no word for “thank you,” but the photographer describes one husband bringing her a jar of honey after she interviewed his wife. He gave it to her, he said, because she’d made his wife happy.
Baldwin, who is white, emphasizes that she wasn’t interested in making an airbrushed portrait of the people and the place. “Africa historically has often been romanticized and sentimentalized in so many ways. That wasn’t my mindset. I didn’t want to have the colonial gaze. I wanted to go beyond that and get to know the women, hear their stories, what was important to them – their interests, their role within their communities. That’s actually how the project began.”
Signs of Trouble
Over the years, however, one subject came up over and over: fears about the Omo River, which they call “mother” and “father.”
“After 2010, women started to talk about their concerns about what was happening on river – they were going to lose their water.” Upstream, the Ethiopia government had begun constructing the Gibe III Dam, which today is nearly complete. When finished, it will pinch the Kara people’s water supply and choke the life-giving floods their agriculture depends on. It was already causing visible stress throughout the community.
A little background. Over many generations, the Kara, an agro-pastoralist people, have lived in close relationship with the Omo River. They’ve developed sophisticated knowledge of the river’s flow and how best to farm along its banks.
“They keep a seed bank, and they know which seed to plant depending on how much flooding they’ve had,” Baldwin explains. When the floods recede, they start planting. “How high the flood was determines what seed they’re going to plant,” she says. “It’s incredibly impressive.”
But the dam will change all that: Seasonal floods that communities have relied on for generations could disappear overnight. At the same time, foreign investment has entered the region, and companies are grabbing land and displacing people to grow high-intensity commodity crops such as cotton and sugarcane.
The plans have moved forward without consultation, land everywhere is being bulldozed for plantations, and the Kara’s relationships with the people in power are distrustful at best.
One of the women profiled in the exhibition described meeting some of the few government representatives who’d come to talk to the communities.
“She told me stories of meeting with government representatives who said, ‘Don’t believe what the firangi [white people] are saying, they’re lying to you. We won’t be taking your water, you just tell us when you need your water and we’ll release it for you.’”
The woman was not taken in. As she told Baldwin, “We may not be educated, but we know what’s going on. Every time he opened his mouth lies came out.”
A Sense of Helplessness
Still, a sense of helplessness is growing among the people.
“The women would say to me: ‘Please tell people, please help us,’” says Baldwin. “So many of them said they didn’t feel they had any alternative or any options.” They even told her that “the government should come and kill us, or we’ll kill ourselves here.”
When she got home, Baldwin started researching the dam. “I went to Google to learn more, and International Rivers kept popping up.” Baldwin had never engaged with environmental issues before, but she reached out to International Rivers to learn more, and ultimately joined our board to support our work on behalf of the people of the Omo River and many others like it.
But her first commitment is always to the women, her friends. “I would tell the women that I appreciated their spending time with me, and I would do what I could to get their story out in the world.”
She has kept her word, with a photo exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and an online multimedia exhibit that enables people all over the world to hear the voices of the Kara women. On Saturday, October 17, Baldwin will join a panel of experts on the region to discuss the developments that are threatening Kara culture, and talk about what International Rivers and other civil society groups are doing to address them.
What’s at Stake
The women’s stories can be harrowing – of beatings at the hands of their husbands, of hard work and suffering. Some of the women Baldwin knew have died in childbirth since she completed the project.
It is not a romantic picture. At the same time, Baldwin says, “I gained so much respect for how these women live within the restrictions of their culture and how they formed women’s groups.
“These cultures are so rich. They have developed over hundreds of years of oral tradition. They go about their lives with an incredible dignity.” It takes a lot of resilience and ingenuity to develop and survive in such a difficult climate, Baldwin says. “I have so much respect for how comfortably they live in the natural world. Western societies have completely lost that.”
And the place they call home is intimately tied to every aspect of their lives and identities. She describes a transformational visit she made to Omo in 2010 with a friend. When she flew in, “the entire valley was white, in bloom, belly high in blossoms. There was a sweet scent to the air that I’d never experienced in Omo before. There were butterflies, honeybees everywhere.
“The next morning, just before sunrise, I could hear the African honeybees leaving their hives. I was looking south over the river. The ibis were vocalizing, the fish eagle was vocalizing, the whole valley came alive – there were millions of white butterflies everywhere, hundreds of them lined up in little lines along the wet sand of the Omo River, drinking the water.
“I had this moment where I felt this sense of reverence. It was as if I were no longer Jane Baldwin – it was really a transcendent moment where I recognized I was just one element of an ecosystem that was in perfect harmony and perfect balance.
“I’d never had that feeling before. That’s when I took it into my gut – the fragility of an ecosystem. One thing shifts, and everything shifts.
“In 2012, when I went back, the valley had been completely bulldozed – I no longer heard the monkeys, ibis, bees leaving their hives. All those ambient sounds – the living, breathing elements of an ecosystem – were gone.
“That was a profound moment for me when I recognized the vulnerability of an ecosystem.”