Portraits from Rivers of Change: Gumuz Communities on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia
This page contains two galleries. The copyrighted digital images were taken in 2012 on location of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam construction site as part of my PhD research with Oregon State University and appear as part of my dissertation published with the Oregon State University Library. The second gallery contains painted photographs I created and showed in galleries in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale in 2017: digital photographs painted with acrylic, gold leaf, and ink on canvas.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is the largest dam project on the African continent. The project is designed for the purposes of generating electricity, with a hydroelectric potential in excess of 6000 MW, triple the online capacity in Ethiopia when I visited in 2012. With governmental permits, I visited and documented what I could of the 20,000 local people living in communities slated for displacement because of this project. The portraits capture life largely unaltered from the traditional lifeways in this remote river valley. The local communities I met with are mostly composed of the Gumuz ethnicity, an indigenous group of about 200,000 people living in contemporary Ethiopia and Sudan along the Abey or Blue Nile River. Gumuz living in this valley are linguistically and culturally isolated from the larger Gumuz identifying populations along the Blue Nile and refer to themselves as The People.
The valley is remote, in Benishangul-Gumuz State, bordering Sudan. The local people were unfamiliar with electricity, unconnected to economies outside of their immediate vicinity with the exception of gold traders, and before the dam, had minimal contact with non-Ethiopians. The Ethiopian Government had devised a resettlement package for the communities moving them outside of the river valley. However, as I have witnessed around the world, there is no way to really compensate a loss of lifeways, culture, identity, and river community such as it is in these images and was for generations before 2012. The area where these images were taken is now clearcut and flooded. The 20,000 people, including many of the people pictured here, lost their homes and way of life on the river forever. Only the future can tell us what will become of the Gumuz People.
The Gumuz People
The Renaissance Dam Project Site, Blue Nile Valley, Benishangul-Gumuz, Ethiopia. 2012
The Blue Nile River Valley is lush green in the rainy season and I am told fades to brown during the dry season, though the Blue Nile River (or Abey as it is known in Ethiopia) never stops flowing. Mountains ring the landscape and trees dot the floodplains, some of the Baobab trees are hundreds of years old. Birdsong fills the humid air, but as you approach the industrial din of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam 24/7 operations, this peace recedes into noise and chaos of a serious construction site. The Renaissance Dam began in 2011 and will start to fill in 2017. Some twenty thousand local people will be relocated out of the flood-zone to government provided resettlement villages.
Areas to either side of the road to the dam open up to reveal small clusters of round huts made of mud and straw with thatched rooves. These huts are called tukuls, are made of local materials, have a single entrance and no windows, and must be refashioned about every two years. Cookfires are stoked inside with poor ventilation and whole families may live with their animals together. The carefully swept areas surround the tukuls and women and men can be seen tending to gardens, chopping wood, or relaxing under the shade of a tree. Children are strapped to their mother's backs or peek from inside darkened doorways, curious and polite.
One afternoon I stopped in an area where people had already been relocated downstream of the dam project. "God gave us this place and I am happy to stay here. I am happy that the government gave me a new house, moved all of my things." one woman said as she led me to her new tukul. We stand outside in her yard, with her children, to admire her garden of rain-fed crops.
"I don't have a place yet to farm in the riverbed, I must wait for the permission of the people who live here." she said. Relocation is a tricky thing. Land ownership is by clan or family group and prime planting areas along the river banks are spoken for.
Most of the 20,000 people who will be relocated are of Gumuz ethnicity, an ethinicity mostly defined by the Gumuz language group. The Gumuz themselves have very dark skin, wide-set eyes, the men wear short cropped hair, the women sometimes wear braids. Women wear colorful beaded jewelrey that they make for themselves and their children, and mismatched wrap around skirt and top. Many men wear traditional muslim dishdasha, a long white gown common in Sudan and Egypt, and white skull cap. Some people wear plastic sandals. They are as a group, small and thin in stature.
"Do you think it is too late for me?" said a an older woman I interviewed about changes in her life because of the dam project. "This was not a priority to me when I was younger, and so I never learned. Do you think I can still learn?" My heart twisted with the questions the woman had. We had just finished up our interview and she stopped me before going, looking intently into my eyes. She had never learned to read or write. The whole time she was speaking to me, I was writing what she said. Now, inspired, she wanted to know if this was something she could learn. "Do you think I can learn to read and write?"The majority of the Gumuz People I spoke with in what will soon be under the Renaissance Dam's reservoir had not had more than one or two years of education, most of the woman had none.
"My daughter is clever! She is going to that school there. She will go out for the next level next year!" another woman said as she stood next to her beaming fourth grader, already a full head taller than her proud mother. She explained that her daughter would leave to the nearby administrative center, Goba, some two hour's drive away out of the valley. Out of the valley is where some of the displacement communities are planned. The climate is immediately different, as is the soil and vegetation. The Gumuz People may not have a formal education, but they know how to survive with what the Nile gives to them.
I stood in Wednesday Market, the name of a settlement and an event, laughing with the man who presides over the whole affair. He was easily in his 70s and fancied that I should become his new wife, beyond the two he already has, and stay living with them there next to the Nile River. Another man approached me and asked my translator if he could have a word. We stepped away from the group and my translator listened to the man and shook his head before turning to me to tell me what he wanted to tell me. "He says to me everything you see here in this market - it come (sic) from the river. Everything we do, we do it in the river. This place, this water is everything we have and we are. God knows and gives this to us. If we no longer have this river, we have nothing." my translator said. I looked at the man, he wasn't angry. He wasn't sad. He was very matter of fact. "I needed to tell come to tell you this, in the case that you don't hear this yet. Our lives are in this river!" he said. He had heard there was someone coming through asking about the river and he invited me to his village on the other side of the river.
All the houses, materials, and food are derived from the water resources of the Blue Nile River. Even the few things that were sourced from outside markets, were paid for by trading panned gold. The Gumuz don't use mercury or any fancy practice, they simple go to the riverside, dig sediment, and rinse it out in a large shallow wooden bowl. When they separate the gold flakes, they adhere them to thin sheets of metal to dry in the sun. They then collect the flakes in a semi-transparent piece of paper and bring this to the market to be weighed and traded. Everyone pans for gold, some families pan all year and include all their children. Other families feel it is too dangerous for children, some have died diving for sediment in the middle of the river, where the richest deposits are found, or in landslides when banks have been excavated for sediment.