Jane Baldwin’s recent body of work titled Kara Women Speak: Stories from Women, distills ten years of travel in the Omo River Valley photographing and recording stories from the women of indigenous communities living in southwestern Ethiopia. The Omo River Valley is home to roughly 12 indigenous cultures that have evolved over hundreds of years. All are intimately connected to the natural world. Oral tradition conveys the narratives of their ancestry and family histories, and women are the keepers of this oral tradition through their storytelling of myth, proverb, and song.
Baldwin’s work is an intimate portrayal of the women of the Omo River Valley who have lived for centuries unaffected by colonialism or modernity. Since a woman’s point of view is rarely sought in these patriarchal societies, their stories often go untold. Yet, women are the nurturers and sustainers of their families and communities. They are valued for the number of children they bear and their hard work, but their thoughts and ideas are seldom heard. As a witness to the rich cultural lives of these women, Baldwin presents their stories to the outside world with integrity and respect. Her work reveals a sense of the women’s strength and dignity, giving voice to their lives and stories, thoughts, and feelings.
Communities along the Omo River, practice flood-recession agriculture and depend on the river’s natural flood cycle to replenish their land for farming and grazing of livestock. Ethiopian government contracts have been awarded to foreign construction firms to build hydroelectric dams on the Omo River for energy exports. Gibe III, the largest dam of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, will drastically alter the river’s flow and decrease essential flooding to this fragile ecosystem. Vast tracks of rich farmland have been leased to foreign investors to farm crops for export, forcing indigenous people to abandon their ancestral lands without consultation or compensation. They are possibly the last generation to live according to their culture. The livelihood of all agro-pastoralists living in the Omo River-Lake Turkana watershed is now endangered.
“The human rights concerns and environmental threats to the Omo River Valley-Lake Turkana watershed is urgent,” comments Baldwin. “It’s my hope this photo essay will encourage interest in the issues facing the people of Lake Turkana and Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley. The global drive for dwindling natural resources, and destruction of healthy ecosystems, of water, soil, and air will potentially affect us all.” These issues reflect the uncertain fate of all people in the developing world.
For more information on the environmental, political, and social issues facing the people of the Omo River Valley and Lake Turkana watershed, please visit International Rivers, Berkeley, California.