Going Tribal (2008) BBC / Discovery Channel

Dassanech: Crocodile Hunting

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Video Description

The lands of the Dassanech have seen severe and sustained droughts for many years. In August 2006, in the harshest of ironies, their lands were struck by severe flooding. Reports have estimated over 100 Dassanech lives have been lost. The Dassanech are a people living on the margins, having to constantly adapt to their changing environment. 


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This is the most southerly of the tribes who live in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. In this harsh world, there are times when members of the Dassanech tribe lose their cattle and goats, and with them their livelihood. The way they deal with this, by switching to an alternative means of support by the shores of Lake Turkana, is an example of how life has to adapt in fundamental ways in the face of some of the most inhospitable conditions in the world.

From Dassanech to Dies

Cattle are central to the lives of the Dassanech – just as they are for the other tribes of the Omo Valley. As well as meat, milk, leather for clothing, houses and mattresses, they provide status in the tribe, and the bride-wealth that allows a man to marry.

But unlike the lush green hills of the Suri and Hamar, the lands of the 20,000-strong Dassanech are semi-arid. They live where the Omo River delta enters Lake Turkana - their name means ‘People of the Delta’. Despite the lake and delta, this is an incredibly dry region: there is nothing but desert to the west and southwest, daytime temperatures hover round 35 degrees centigrade, and malarial mosquitoes add to the discomfort. The Dassanech survive in this environment by cultivating crops when the rains arrive and the Omo river floods. They also manage their cattle herds well, slaughtering the older ones in the dry season, when grazing is limited, and the meat is most needed. But in this dry land, survival is precarious.

When Dassanech people lose their cattle to disease, drought or a raid by a neighbouring tribe, they are unable to sustain their usual way of life. Instead, they become the Dies, or ‘poor people’ and turn for their livelihood to Lake Turkana, where they fish and hunt crocodile and even occasionally hippopotamus. The Dies’ place in Dassanech society is unique. As cattle are a central status symbol, and they have none, they are looked down on. On the one hand, they are considered members of the tribe yet economically, and to some extent culturally, they are set apart.

The different members of the tribe do, however, help each other. In times of need, Dies provide food for the Dassanech families as well, sharing crocodile meat and fish with the villages. The Dassanech, in turn, give the Dies meat from goats or cattle. Dies do have access to livestock if they really need it. For instance, a man still needs to exchange ‘bride-wealth’ with his wife’s family in order to marry. Most Dies have relatives with cattle, and as bride-wealth is repaid over long periods of time, the cattle can be drawn upon over months and years as new calves are born. In good times, Dies can acquire livestock again and return to being herders, by exchanging goods for small stock and acquiring more and more livestock over time. Ideally, being Dies is only a temporary thing until they can return to ‘being’ Dassanech again. For some, a generation or more is needed to complete the transition back to cattle herding. But for others, the shift has become permanent. It also follows that in times of plenty, there are fewer Dies. As famine spreads, their numbers increase. For those who have lost their cattle, there is another option. That is to cross tribal boundaries, which have always been fairly permeable, and join with another group where an individual might have a family connection.

Dassanech Society

Within the village, it’s the women who build and take down the huts during migrations. They are semi-circular constructions with no interior divisions, made up of sticks and branches called miede. The first part of the hut to be constructed is the ‘store’ - actually a small box-like structure made from reeds and rope from cow skin. This also the box used for moving items on the donkey back. It is set by one side of the hut and used for storing tobacco, coffee and other important items.

These huts are well ventilated, as it is important to have airflow through in such a hot environment. There is only one entrance, a small opening that is closed by animal skin – that way it is extremely difficult for an enemy to go through the opening un-noticed. Inside the huts are a hearth, an area where animal skins are laid for sleeping on, and the store. Women also claim the right-hand side of the hut (and of the porch outside) as their own.

Hunting for Crocodile

Those Dassanech who have lost their herds and turned to fishing also risk their lives hunting for crocodile at night in the shallow waters of the Omo River delta. Even a small crocodile can provide a good meal for a family. In fact, the fishermen are in some ways luckier than their herding cousins, whose livestock is often at risk from the enduring drought now affecting the Lake Turkana region. They can still obtain good sources of protein from fish during even the harshest droughts. The men hunt at night from small dugout canoes. They hunt in silence, making occasional hand gestures to instruct the oarsman to change direction. Using a torch – their only concession to modernity – to pick out the crocodiles’ eyes in the darkness, they slowly manoeuvre their canoes close to the crocodile before letting fly with a harpoon attached to a rope. Once the barb penetrates the tough skin, the crocodile has little chance. It is hauled alongside and repeatedly speared until it is safe to haul it inside the canoe. As Bruce found out, sometimes the crocodiles can be very large indeed and it requires great bravery and skill to ensure no one is hurt. The tribes here have always traded between each other, for beads, food, cattle, cloths and so on. More recently, the trade has been in guns and bullets. Inevitably, as roads are made through the area, other goods like beer and food find their way into the villages.

Dassanech Culture

The Dassanech tribe is not strictly defined by ethnicity. Anyone – man or woman - will be admitted, as long as they agree to be circumcised. Over the centuries, the tribe has absorbed a wide range of different peoples. It’s now divided into eight main clans, which to some extent reflect the wide-ranging origin of its members. Each clan has its own identity and customs, its own responsibilities towards the rest of the tribe, and is linked to a particular territory.

The largest clan is the Galbur, or Water and Crocodile clan. The Dassanech believe its members have the power over both water and crocodiles and are responsible for dealing with diseases of the glands across the tribe. The Turat clan is responsible for dealing with burns from the fire. They have powers to keep away snakes and to cure many diseases, and also have the ability to keep away enemies from their animals. Another important clan is Turnyerim, which has powers over drought. They pray for rains during dry periods and they can also cure snakebites by spitting on the wound. Other clans claim to have healing powers over eye infections, scorpion bites, muscular problems, and so on. Members of the same clan are forbidden from marrying – or indeed dancing - with each other.

Dassanech girls are circumcised young, at around 10 or 12 years of age. If they are not circumcised, a girl can’t marry and her father won’t receive her bride-price, so he has a direct interest in her going through the ordeal. Until they are circumcised, girls are called ‘wild animals’ or ‘men’ to tease them – the idea is that their clitoris has to be removed before they act like women. Girls may be circumcised in their mother’s house, or in another village, but always with other girls of their age going through the same ritual. The cutting itself is usually done by an older woman who will be helped by the girl’s relatives. She’s held down, and a leather strap is tied around her ankles or in between her legs. It is kept tied to restrict the girl’s movement, until the wounds have healed and the pain has subsided.

When the ritual has been completed, the girl is given sour milk to drink and a necklace by her mother. From then on, she is allowed to wear a leather skirt to show she is now considered an adult. Marriage for girls often takes place soon after. The biggest ceremony in a man’s life is called Dimi. Its purpose is to celebrate and bless his daughter for fertility and future marriage. When he has gone through Dimi, a man becomes an elder. About 10 cattle and 30 smaller animals are slaughtered and other stock is traded for coffee. Men and women dress in animal fur capes to feast and dance, and the leaders of the village bless the girl.

Dimi ceremonies, with their need to slaughter cattle, take place in the dry season – when cattle aren’t producing much milk, and grazing has limited value. Slaughtering cattle at this time of year provides meat when other food sources are low.S

Source: BBC

Documentary Description

Tribe (known as Going Tribal in the United States) is a documentary television series co-produced by the BBC and the Discovery Channel, and hosted by former British Royal Marine Bruce Parry. In each series, Parry visits a number of remote tribes in such locales as the Himalayas, Ethiopia, West Papua, Gabon and Mongolia, spending a month living and interacting with each society. While there, Parry adopts the methods and practices of his hosts, participating in their rituals and exploring their cultural norms. This often enables him to form personal bonds with the members of each tribe. Parry tries to learn the basics of the tribe's language but is also accompanied by a translator.

The series is co-produced by BBC Wales and the Discovery Channel. A second series aired in July, 2006 and the third began on 21 August 2007 on BBC2, and ended on 25 September 2007. No further series have been made, though Parry's 2008 series, Amazon has a similar synopsis. Parry was awarded the BAFTA Cymru "Best On-Screen Presenter" award in 2008 for his work on the 'Penan' Episode. A BAFTA Cymru "Best Camera: Not Drama" award was also awarded for Gavin Searle's work in the same episode.

Going Tribal follows former Royal Marine and expedition leader Bruce Parry as he tests the physical limits of living with ancient tribes in some of the world's most remote areas. Parry sheds social trappings (and sometimes his Western clothes) by living alongside people from the virtually unexplored areas of the Himalayas, Ethiopia, West Papua, Gabon and Mongolia. To the degree possible, while spending a month immersed in each society, Parry also tries to adopt the methods and practices of his hosts. Parry enthusiastically embraces jungle hunting and the rituals of the warrior, being taught by strangers how to survive using bows, arrows, blowpipes, dogs, spears, traps, snares and clubs. He must cook and eat his catch using traditional methods such as hot stones, waxy leaves and bamboo pots.

Parry is accompanied by a translator, but learns the basics of tribal language. The series is accompanied by subtitles. Viewers hear unique languages and watch the sometimes-graphic practices of living and surviving in the jungle among some of the world's disappearing cultures.

Going Tribal is co-produced by the BBC Wales and the Discovery Channel.

Sources: Discovery Channel, Wikipedia


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