Peripatetic Cultures: When Nomads meet Tourists


by Tamás Régi

It is an interesting event when two entirely different travelling cultures encounter each other. During my anthropological fieldwork among the Mursi in South-western Ethiopia I was interested in discovering what the local people think about the tourists that they meet. One of my findings was of the Mursi peoples’ contempt for Western tourists. The Mursi is a small-scale semi-nomadic group, one of the classic examples of African nomadic societies. It was therefore remarkable how they disdained tourists, another mobile group, because their wandering was their defining feature. “They are always just coming and going” was the basic criticism from the Mursi when we talked about the white tourists. They clearly perceived travel and mobility as different and superior to mere ‘tourism’.

Despite the fact that the Mursi often condemned the tourists’ reckless and restless behaviour, they regularly asked them to travel with them. For example, they asked the tour guides or the drivers of the tourist cars to bring them to the closest town or very near to a neighbouring settlement. They also often asked me to drive them in my rented car. It was difficult to resist these requests, and my car was usually full of people who suddenly seemed excited by the idea of travel. Once I asked a woman why she wanted to come on a long car journey but she could not give me a decisive answer. She basically said she had nothing to do where we were going and asked me to bring her back on my return. This was the point at which I started to be interested in how local people travel outside of their territory with alien visitors. Where the act of nomadism ends and the ‘sightseeing’ starts.

It was clear to see that beside the necessary journeys (for example, moving between the Omo River and the higher pastures) most Mursi were enthusiastic about occasional travel opportunities. Regardless of age or gender, most of the local people seemed to enjoy travelling for leisure, and the technological power that they associated with aliens (tourists, researchers, NGO workers, etc.) attracted these nomadic people. Tourists generated tourism; they created a situation for nomads where travel was not merely a necessity but became a sort of holiday.

With this in mind, why does anthropology still generally regard tourism as the privileged leisure form of Western, bourgeois, healthy, literate, economically powerful societies? Should the semiotics of searching, resting, seeing, gazing, and wandering rest only upon the urge of escape from the industrial epoch? Should only industrial Western societies be regarded as tourists or can we describe the Mursi’s occasional travels as tourism? Where does the idea of the ‘nomad’ end and that of the ‘tourist’ begin? How does the idea of tourism, or rather the appreciation of the tourist experience, evolve in a society where it is only recently that people have had the opportunity for long-distance travel that brings them away from their localised existences and gives them new experiences?

In the past, anthropologists and ethnographers have classified societies according to their ability and willingness to travel; as social science articles were mostly written by sedentary people nomads, itinerants, drifters and vagrants were often regarded as marginal to society. This negative portrayal of mobile societies undoubtedly stems from the idea that political and economic success is connected to a sedentary lifestyle. However, itinerancy is held in high social and cultural esteem among nomads and other wanderers, where the ability to move is often the determiner of economic success, which effectively answers the above questions, inevitably challenging the normative concept of nomadism and the taxonomy of tourism. 

The Mursi is a semi-nomadic society and, as such, often move with their cattle between different settlements or cultivation areas at the Omo River and the higher grasslands. When they have to travel, they walk. They have a great respect for walking and an unwavering knowledge attached to the act of walking. For example, only fools walk when the ‘sun is bad and burns’; a man should hold up his head as he walks and a Mursi person should be able to walk long distances. Mursi people often mimic how different people walk, how the Mursi or how the white man walks in a certain rhythm. I was often criticised by my Mursi friends for ‘flopping’ my sandals (dragging my feet) on the paths while I was walking. They said I did it in the wrong tempo, making inappropriate noises. After a while I realised that being mobile also means understanding the correct rhythm of body movement. Movement was not perceived only as a physical activity but as a multi-layered cognitive category that has a rhythm and an emotive pulse. Not everyone can move properly: at least, not according to the Mursi. Knowing the perfect time for moving from one place to another equates to successful household management. Journeying is the hub of the Mursi identity, or as David Turton states in his discussion of the relationship between the Mursi identity and travelling: “They had not made the journey, the journey made them”.

This logic would result in the following premise: tourists don’t make the travel but travel makes the tourists, namely opportunity enables the Mursi to occasionally change from a traveller (a nomad) to a tourist. Clearly there is a notable difference between nomads and tourists, both in terms of physical distance and in the perceptions of both. Travelling on the well-known walking paths between the Omo River and the higher territories is a different experience than going by road to the towns of Jinka, Konso or Arba Minch in tourist cars, government cars or recently by public transport. Travelling out of the Mursi living space requires a different rhythm than walking from a cattle camp to the Omo River. There are new noises and tempo (of the vehicles); new rhythm of the whole travel. The novel forms of travelling have allowed the Mursi to have new experiences in the form of: alcohol, food, material goods, and people. Most Mursi people distinguished themselves for this new form of travel: they wore Western style clothes, shoes and had backpack. Most of them did not travel outside their territory in the same clothes as they travelled at home. But most importantly, the Mursi had travelling tales when they returned to Mursiland. Some of them already had, hidden in their huts, a photo collection from their travels. Seeing these pictures and telling the stories customarily distinguish these new travels from the habitual ones, i.e walking from place to place: they have a different rhythm and a different pulse.

Piece crossposted with Anthropologies