There is no knowing exactly where in East Africa Homo sapiens evolved because ever since Homo erectus, our ancestors were moving around. Fossils of early modern humans have also been found in Morocco and South Africa. Morocco being an outlier, this leaves the three countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania in the Great Rift Valley, and – to a lesser degree – South Africa as possible homes to the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. In these four countries, UNESCO has recognized five World Heritage Sites of importance for the evolution of mankind: The Lower Valley of the Awash and the Lower Valley of the Omo Rivers in Ethiopia, the Lake Turkana National Parks in Kenya, the Ngoro Ngoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, and the Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa.
Mankind includes all our extinct ancestors since Lucy: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, archaic humans, Neanderthals. Homo sapiens is only the latest and last of all these humans. And like the ‘Homo‘ of Homo sapiens, the ‘man’ of mankind means ‘human being’. So, ‘mankind’ means the ‘totality of human beings’, the ‘human species’, the ‘human race’, or ‘humanity’. I should say meant. Today, we live in gender conscious times. We must be sensitive to sexism also in language and avoid any and all discrimination against women. Now, feminists claim that the term ‘cradle of mankind’ evokes the image of a cradle with a baby boy in it and only men standing around it. And this absurdity has consequences. In general, ‘man’ must lose its original gender-neutral meaning and be replaced by ‘human’ and, in particular, I should be looking for the ‘Cradle of Humankind’. – In theory, I’m okay with that. Forbid, womankind was to replace mankind. But in practice and with your indulgence, I will continue to call it the Cradle of Mankind.
Apart the Lower Awash River Valley, the list of UNESCO could also have the Lower Omo River Valley bring the Cradle of Mankind to Ethiopia. To get there, from Lake Ziway in the Ethiopian Rift Valley, from where we head north into the Awash, we head south. Following the string of lakes in the Rift Valley, we come to Lake Langano. We would sometimes spend a night or two there. Birdwatchers prefer Lake Abyata. But this time we continue south, pass Lake Shala and stop in Shashamene. Shashamene is not only an important intersection, but it also stands for the Ethiopian contribution to the ‘Back-to-Africa Movement’.
Long before independence, many Afro-Jamaicans were disenfranchised with the prevailing British colonial culture. Among these, a mix of Black Nationalism, Christianity, Afrocentrism, and the Back-to-Africa Movement took root: Rastafari. This is a fringe interpretation of the Bible, promising salvation from the western society – Babylon – in The Second Coming of Jesus Christ and The Promised Land. As the Bible records, Solomon, the son of King David of Israel, was a womanizer. He is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and still, when the Queen of Sheba visited him in Jerusalem, he tricked her into his bed. She became pregnant and upon return to her Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia, she bore him a son, Menelik. Solomon made him King of Ethiopia. Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia since 1916, was the last member of this Solomonic dynasty. And when in 1930, he was coronated ‘The Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Elect of God’, Rastas saw in him the reincarnation of their God ‘Jah’, and Ethiopia as The Promised Land.
Haile Selassie was a leading figurehead of Pan-Africanism. In 1963, he brought the seat of the Organization of African Unity, today the African Union, to Addis Ababa. And already immediately after World War II, he had made a generous gesture to the Back-to-Africa Movement. At Shashamene, he offered land to anyone of African descent wanting to return to their African homeland. As was to be expected, the response was modest. This changed after a visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica, in the sixties. After his visit, several hundred Rastas took up the offer and moved to Ethiopia. Since then, Shashamene has a Rastafari tinge. The Ethiopian colors of red, green, and gold that adorn the town are joined by the black of the Jamaican flag. Ska and reggae together with alike Ethiopian music, that distinctive scent of cannabis, and ‘livity’, the Rastafari spiritual life-force, are in the air. We would look in on the church of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, where Bob Marley played on his visit to Ethiopia, and the many artisans. From one of them, I have a sculpture of the Lion of Judah, from another a collage of the African continent with every country cut from a banana leaf of a different color. And yet another showed me a photo of himself on percussions in the Ethiopian band of Bob Marley, when he played for African Unity, in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia was already my third ambassadorial assignment. But only then did ‘The Department’ – this is how we used to refer to our ministry – discover that they had missed to screen me for the required security clearance before my first appointment. They asked me to report to the Security Ministry for the assessment, at my next stay in Bern. When I did so, I told a young officer that in spite of being in the same political party as our Foreign Minister, I did not hold her in very high esteem, and that I was not money driven. I outed myself as having lived a little bit of the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll of the late sixties and seventies. I told him that I had visited porn sites on the internet, and that being fortunate and in general good health, the only drugs in my current life were alcohol and marijuana. I told him that I drank red wine with every dinner, and sometimes an aperitif, and that on Friday at six, a gin and tonic with friends was a family tradition, and that sometimes I took a nightcap of whisky. I told him that I had a Rasta friend in Shashamene who would sell me a few joints, when I needed, and that from time to time over the weekend, I would smoke pot after lunch and then do a siesta.
I didn’t hear anything for over a year. Then, a call came from our Human Resources Manager. He scolded me. I should not have told the assessor about the joints from Shashamene. They had not cleared me. Fortunately, I had studied law and many of my friends practiced it. So, I called a lawyer friend of mine who had already given me good legal advice in other awkward situations. He told me not to worry and to play for time; the Security Ministry should not have given the results of their assessment to the Department before having shared it with me personally. And in a few months, smoking marijuana would only be an infraction and not a misdemeanor anymore. With that advice and thirty-five years of experience in the federal administration, I knew how to manage the situation. A year later, I took up my final assignment as the Swiss Ambassador to Somalia. – With security clearance.
Heading south, at Shashamene you have to decide: The main road, which is a trunk of the Cairo - Cape Town Highway, takes you to the Kenyan border at Moyale. But we turn west and then south, along three more lakes in the Ethiopian Rift to Arba Minch. For devotees of crocodiles, Arba Minch is a must. It boasts a crocodile farm and the ‘Crocodile Market’. A visit to the farm, though, is a rather sorry affair. The crocodiles are cramped on concrete slabs with tiny concrete water basins – as if the human super-predator, in his role of monster among the animals, was punishing his former competitor. At least, the Crocodile Market is not what the name seems to imply. In East Africa they do not eat crocodile. It is a splendid bay in Lake Chamo, surrounded by reeds and with sandbanks teeming with crocodiles. Here in the wild, amongst the pelicans and other water birds, and further out in the lake the hippos, the Nile crocodile reigns supreme.
South of Lake Chamo, the valley of the Ethiopian Rift ends. Keeping south, we climb into the mountains of Konso. To get to the Lower Omo River Valley from there, we descend almost a thousand meters, south-westward, into the northern end of the Kenyan Rift, north of Lake Turkana. As a son of alpine Switzerland, it beats me why humans chose to evolve in the lowlands. At under 400 meters altitude, the Lower Omo River Valley lies even lower than the Lower Awash Valley, where Lucy was found. And here, in a rock formation called Kibish on the eastern side of the Omo River, the oldest fossils of Homo sapiens were discovered, ‘Omo 1’ and ‘Omo 2’, some 195’000 years old. On Ethiopia’s political map, this is the Region of ‘Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’. It is home to twenty or so different tribes of the oldest living peoples of the world. The tribes are small in their numbers of people and diverse in their culture and traditions. Mostly they are Nilotic, of the Nilo-Saharan population cluster. Some are of younger admixture and scattered groups of the Omotic people could be older. Given all the living humans and human fossils found around here, maybe this is the Cradle of Mankind.
The Mursi are one tribe of these old peoples. They are mostly known for their women: The lip and ear plates they wear, their white painted faces, and the iron rings and beads they weave into their hair. The men paint white patterns all over their bodies and perform stick fighting. Traditionally, these ornaments and activities were reserved for special occasions and certain social events. Today, they generate a little revenue from the rare tourists. And the men no longer stick fight, they carry Kalashnikovs. We visited a group of them, in a camp, hidden in the bush. Our guide arranged for us to sit on cow hides in the shade of a tree with the leaders of the group. Over several hours we engaged with them in a sluggish back and forth, with interruptions for translation, with clarifications and explanations, and spans of silence. We live in different worlds. Twice we had to move the cow hides to stay in the shade. The atmosphere was solemn. Forget the lip plates and the body paint, the story they told us was one of defiant expiration.
Ethiopia has a heavy environmental footprint along the Omo River. Three dams have already been built on it, for electricity and irrigation schemes for plantations. And two more dams are planned. Already, the existing dams and irrigation schemes have reduced the flow of water in the river. The Omo River no longer floods. Dry channels, some main ones cemented, are cutting through the land adjacent to the river, waiting for the water from the future dams. The Mursi’s and their neighbors’ land is being requisitioned by the government. Without consultation, without compensation. These ancient tribes are in the way of the economic development the Ethiopian government is planning for the country and the Omo Valley. The Mursi still hunt and gather but they have also become proud semi-nomadic pastoralists and flood-dependent agriculturalists. They are not ready to give up their ancestral land and their way of life. They are resisting resettlement and fighting back against the government. Some with the Kalashnikovs they had lying next to themselves sitting on the cow hides with us, some with a site on the World Wide Web, for which they gave us the visiting card.
Whether the Mursi stay or leave, the natural environment that guaranteed their livelihood is broken. The integrity and peace between them, their land, their ancestors and the spirits and gods of the Omo River and the valley are forever disrupted. And their neighbors share the same fate, be they the Bodi, Kwegu, Suri, Karo, Nyangatom, Hamar or further to the South and reaching into Kenya, the Dasanech or Turkana. In our modern times, there just is no more space for their ancient way of life.