A European in Ethiopia
Omo River Basin
Omo River Basin
Owner of Travel Ethiopia
Alison M. Jones
NWNL Director and Photographer
All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
Since 2005, I have been charmed and amazed by Ethiopia. On my third expedition to this country that was once called Abyssinia, I was fortunate to spend time with Tom. and learn his unique slant on the story of Ethiopia.
NWNL You have a compelling story. What brought you, your parents and older brother to Ethiopia in 1950?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH I was born in Yugoslavia, but due to the Second World War, we were displaced to various parts of Europe. After the war, we settled down in Germany until 1950 when Emperor Haile Selassie sent a delegation inviting refugees to come to Ethiopia.
People who had certain professional backgrounds were preferred and so we came to Ethiopia. For me, it was a very good change. As a young boy in the country mixing with population, I acquired the understanding, the mentality and the differences in mentality. I had a very good time, learned the language quickly, and was well received by the population. For my parents, it was more difficult because they were not at the age where they could adapt as easily as I. They were a bit disappointed.
Haile Selassie, before and after becoming Emperor of Ethiopia (courtesy of WikiCommons)
I married and had children, establishing my family in Ethiopia. I very much enjoy being here. I was fortunate to have met Haile Selassie and knew him for a number of years. Having traveled to many parts of the world, nowhere did I ever find another Ethiopia. Sometimes there are certain disappointments; but then again, when you choose a place, you must choose the good and the negative at the same time, which I did. Basically, I’m very happy to be in Ethiopia.
NWNL What do you think makes Ethiopia unique in Africa and in the world?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH My definition is a personal definition. I’m not a scientist and have no right to express myself in a categorical way, but I can begin by saying the country itself is most beautiful. The people are very different from any other country in Africa. We may have differences in understanding and considering certain issues, but they have the right to decisions in their own country. Just as when my wife and I disagree, there can be a slight difference in mentality that does not make anybody right or wrong, just different.
NWNL I believe your wife, Samaret, was born in Ethiopia?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH She was born here in Addis. Her parents are of two different tribes: Tigrayan and Amharic. Her looks and her thoughts are more Tigrayan. But she is foremost Ethiopian. She does not believe in tribalism and tribal differences.
NWNL Is tribalism waning or at least less pronounced today in Ethiopia?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH There was a tribal division within the country 15 years ago when the present government took over. There’s hope this is being minimized and will eventually dissipate since tribal divisions are not healthy for a country.
NWNL Can you describe differences between Upper Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Basin and Lower Ethiopia’s Omo River Basin. There seem to be quite distinct, and yet many people don’t realize that there are two parts to Ethiopia.
THOMAS MATTANOVICH To my perception, Ethiopia in general was strongly influenced by Egypt’s pharaoh period. Egypt was ruled by more than two Ethiopian Pharaohs. In the north, sculptural skills in that period resulted in monoliths. Even within the Christian religious structure of the country you can see a Pharonic influence in Ethiopia of Egyptian structures, prayer sticks and the number of other things.
In the south, a more pastoralist influence seemed to move into Ethiopia about 5,000 years ago, when there was a different climate in Ethiopia. There was more rain, which created an interconnection between the White Nile River Valley lakes to the west and Kenya’s Lake Turkana to the south, now filled by Ethiopia’s Omo River.
During those periods of more rain than today, when southern Ethiopia and the White Nile were interconnected, it happened that pastoralists were moving upstream from Egypt southwards along the river and then into the Omo region. This is very evident because in southern Ethiopia’s Omo region, you have a lot of local jewelry, utensils, sticks, etc. which were also found in Tutankhamun’s grave Tutankhamun’s grave in Upper Egypt.
Ethiopia’s Omo women today wear heavy necklaces in the same style of Ancient Egyptian women – albeit, without jewels!
THOMAS MATTANOVICH I first went to the Omo in 1967. An American friend and I drove down in my brand-new Land Rover. The road was absolutely impossible. At one point, we had to cross a river with a small indention – a hole. The water, maybe 20 inches deep (50 cm), was swift, but looked simple to cross.
I should have planted a stick in that hole, because as I drove into the river, I landed right in that hole. The car started sinking; the water was moving fast; and the sand underneath was loose. The whole structure of the car was soon under sand.
I unloaded my books and everything else, knowing any place with another vehicle would be far away. Then unexpectedly a truck arrived with about 30 policemen. A young officer stepped out and said, “I assume you need help.” I said, “More than that.” Wrapping a cable around the car, they pulled it out – but only because there were so many of them. I’ve remained friends with that officer ever since.
NWNL Did you get to the Omo Region?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Yes, we did. Despite no roads, we climbed uphill to Turmi, the heartland of the Hamar tribe. Once there, we saw the lifestyle of those people had not changed for thousands of years. It was incredible to see such a nature-oriented people existing as they must have lived thousands of years ago.
Things have changed since then. The people have modernized, which is natural, and they are accepting new behaviors. Yet for people observing the Omo people today for the first time, their way of life and way of dressing is still very interesting. All the Omo Valley people have an ancient background. It’s very interesting to meet with them and talk.
NWNL What characteristics of these Omo tribes have washed away with time?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Well, just as back in centuries and millennia, their way of dressing and exposure of nudity was absolutely normal and innocent. They “dressed up” in their own way. They were very forthcoming and very friendly. They did not ask money for having their pictures taken. Basically, they behaved very naturally. All that is now slowly changing.
NWNL How do they care for and feed themselves – and how does their livelihood today compare to what you saw in 1967?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Well, there were less people at that time. Consequently, the cattle and wildlife which were around took care of their requirements along with corn and other crops. There’s not much difference between then and now, except that since there are more people and they require more.
NWNL Can you describe the Omo Valley traditional methods of flood-recession agriculture? I’ve read about this but have always visited during flood season.
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Yes, just as the Egyptians knew flood sediment left on the banks was very, very fertile, the Omo tribes depend on their floods to bring rich soil. As the flood waters go down, planting is easy because the soil is then so soft. They make a small hole, drop in a few kernels, and corn grows. This method is still used today; but the banks are now crowded with higher concentrations of people. Possibly in time to come, that system will be abandoned and changed to some other form of agriculture. That of course will alter the landscape all together.
NWNL I’ve just witnessed the big beautiful fig trees along the river being cut down and burned to make more room for agriculture on the banks of the Omo River. What will be the impacts as the Omo’s riverine forest disappears?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH That definitely is not good. It will be very damaging for those ecosystems.
NWNL Halewijn Scheuerman, an Omo guide also interviewed by NNWL, told me that this tree removal isn’t bad for the local people. I worry that the loss of those felled trees will destabilize and erode the often 60-feet high riverbanks. Halewijn’s response was “Yes, but then more land will be covered with sediment and can support crops to feed these increasing numbers of people.”
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Well, I cannot agree with him because I think the trees are very, very important for many reasons. For example, we have a piece of land that was absolutely deluded of everything, even grass. It was just soil and stones, so my wife and I planted about 20,000 trees, and we are still planting trees in other places. Today, that area looks like a forest – a jungle with many different plants. It’s absolutely beautiful. Somehow those trees water the soil, so the soil has improved because of the trees. Many things have changed.
Trees make an extremely important difference to the whole area. So, cutting forests in order to allow flooding and more land for people to cultivate is a very unfortunate approach. It should not happen because the climate will change, and many other things will change.
NWNL What will Ethiopia do with the increasing Omo population’s need for food?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Obviously, large, modern farms will be developed and require more than the sediment along the riverbank. They will cultivate the whole interior of Ethiopia.
NWNL Will there be irrigation schemes in the Omo Valley to allow expanded agricultural lands or dams to provide water for their irrigation?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH During the Derg regime (1974-1987), there was a North Korean farm developed near the small border-customs town of Omorate. You may have seen evidence of some of its irrigation canals. Trees were cut; land was cultivated; but the farm was abandoned. I don’t know why…. Now bushes and trees are growing. Maybe they will start another farm there.
Obviously, the Omo Valley will be considered for agriculture. Fields will be spread with heavy machinery. There’s no doubt that the area will change.
NWNL I hear they’re planning a bridge at Omorate to create a road connection between southern Sudan to Kenya. [Ed Note: South Sudan was not formed until 2011.]
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Yes, it will go through part of southern Sudan into Kenya.
NWNL What effect will that have on the Omo River and its people?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Well, we can’t expect people there to continue to live as they lived thousands of years ago. They will want development and that will transform the area with agricultural activity. I think the immediate result will be beneficial for the population. However, who knows in the long run what is going to happen after hundreds of years – or maybe even less, maybe fifty.
Since when I came to this country in 1950 and today, there has been an absolutely tremendous difference – and it’s not for the better. Therefore, when I say hundreds of years, that’s exaggerated. I should say big change will occur in tens of years. What’s going to happen will be another question.
NWNL How do you assess the effects of the Gibe Dams now being built on the Upper Omo River. One is finished and in operation. The second is just finished and now being tested, and I’ve just flown over the third that is now under construction. What will these dams do to the Omo River’s downstream flow?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH I hear a lot of information about destruction of ecosystems, biodiversity and such things. I have to admit it will be destructive, but we must feed our people. In 1950, Ethiopia had twelve million people, I think. Today, we have around 70 million people to feed. Therefore, we must develop this country’s agriculture. Consequently, dams will be built and water will be more heavily utilized. To a certain extent, it’s a destructive process; but at the same time, it is also constructive for the people in the short term.
It is impossible to say, “We must keep the ecosystem as it was for thousands of years.” We cannot say, “People should not use water or use their resources.” We cannot stop the growth of humanity and we can’t stop development, whether positive or negative. We can’t change the future, and definitely we can’t go back.
NWNL As the Omo Delta channel moves, the buildup of silt changes as the water from Ethiopia’s Omo flows into Kenya’s Lake Turkana. It’s predicted that as the Delta grows, its land will shift across the boundary between Ethiopia and Kenya. Will there be conflict as that land shifts between Ethiopia and Kenya? Will Ethiopia and Kenya disagree over the use of water and building of dams on the Omo that could reduce Lake Turkana’s water levels?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH I don’t think so. I haven’t heard any complaints yet. The last time I was in Kenya visiting Lake Turkana, I went to the wildlife department at the lake, and bought a small booklet describing the changes of the lake’s levels. Across millions of years, it dried out completely and then filled up again – drastic changes throughout the eons with no human interference, just due to natural phenomena.
I don’t think water irrigation in Ethiopia will change the present situation of the lake very much, unless of course it is really polluted. If pollution occurred, it would be very unfortunate; but that isn’t going to be the case.
Ethiopia and Kenya have had a very good relationship for many, many years. Their only problems arise when people cross from one country to the other in order to rustle livestock. That has been also going on for many, many hundreds of years. I just think it’s a phenomenon which exists that you cannot very well control.
NWNL Speaking of such conflicts over livestock, are there tribal conflicts within in the Omo Basin over access to water?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Yes, the Hamar tribe has a shortage of water where they live up in the hills. There is less rain less than there used to be. Three or four months ago, I brought a film group from Italy to interview one of the Hamar chiefs. It was interesting to hear his regrets on how life has changed.
He had left home and when he returned to Hamar hill country, he realized how pitiful it was to be that far away from the Omo River. When there is rain, there is water. But when there is no rain, there is no water and they then have to move down to the Omo River – which belongs to other tribes. He said, “The only place I can go is to the Karo tribe, because the Karo are very friendly and consider themselves related to the Hamar.”
I was really surprised to hear him talk about how unfortunate it is having to depend on rain in the Hamar Hills, which may or may not come. Well, the rain may be less, but what he does not understand or accept is that their population and their livestock numbers are increasing. So, water which was sufficient for their livestock is not sufficient anymore because of the increased numbers.
NWNL What about the online disputes between those advocating setting the Omo National Park aside from any settlement, and tribes saying, “This is our land, and we need access to this water.” Are you aware of Omo National Parks taking control of tribal land?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH I am aware of it, but not involved. Those working in camps and lodges there changed as long as parks that exist for the sake of conservation exclude the local people, there will be problems. The local people will feel they have been robbed of their land if it is converted into park.
NWNL Is there a way to give them new opportunities as tourism comes to these parks? What might compensate for their loss of that land?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve has a system whereby the Maasai own the park. The park’s tourism income – which is substantial – basically goes to the people. Their share may not amount to quite to the extent that it should, but the Maasai are happy. They welcome the presence of wildlife and tourists because they understand wildlife brings tourism dollars.
My wife and I visited Maasai Mara about 10 years ago. The service people in the Maasai Mara changed their roles and appearance with the time of day. At breakfast, lunch and dinner, a Maasai was a waiter in a white uniform. During tourist walks through the park, he was a “Maasai Guide,” wearing his red Maasai shuka. When Samaret, my wife, asked their reactions to losing grazing ground so tourists could visit the park, they answered, “We are losing land, but the park gives us a different way of life because it gives us an income we wouldn’t have otherwise.” This is the kind of system that should be established by the African Parks managers in Ethiopia; but I think it will be difficult.
NWNL Kenya’s government owns all the country’s wildlife; but the Maasai own and lease much of the Kenya’s park land to the government. In Ethiopia, who owns the land and who owns the wildlife?
THOMAS MATTANOVICH The answer to that is qualified. The land belongs to both the government and the regional government. For example, a hunting concession request must first acquire permission from the regional government. The federal government says, “If they agree, we will discuss the concession.” Otherwise, there is no concession.
I think that has to be cleared up. The people have to understand that what they call their land may or may not have been grazing land for their ancestors. Maybe their ancestors weren’t even there at that time. The government should tell the people that land utilized for wildlife will guarantee them a much better income than they have now.
NWNL That involves an educational process.
THOMAS MATTANOVICH Since the federal government is responsible for introducing new systems into its regions, this problem must first be fully understood by the federal government. Then the federal government must produce results, because only the federal government can determine whether something is accepted or rejected.
NWNL Tom, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Your lifetime of experiences in this part of Africa offer a great perspective on today’s issues.
Posted by NWNL on January 24, 2020.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.
Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.
All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.