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An Ode To WOMEN

It is my belief the need for adjectives in the English language, arose out of the desire of men to describe the endless number of ways women have left their mark on them. Words like enchanting, intoxicating, stunning, captivating, mysterious, beautiful, demure, mesmerising, etc., no doubt were all invented by awe struck men, to describe women in their asphyxiated mould for beauty.

Fig. 1. This picture shows a Berber woman producing Argan oil the traditional way. After the nuts are cracked they are then grinded on a circular stone mill to squeeze the valuable oil out.

For many men in the so called civilised world, their notion of a woman's beauty has probably been conditioned by what are spewed by TV, movies, magazines, billboards and mass media advertising. Most unfortunately, and very commonly, women have been postured as a sexual object. The advertising, fashion, and entertainment industry, often portray a beautiful woman as a slim and luscious creature, which are often tantalized as the stuff of fantasies of men.

In my travels on tracks less trodden, and places lesser known, I have seen strange and astonishing measures of beauty for women. People cocooned in their own cultural bubbles will never understand the true beauty of the female sex outside of their own stereotype casts. What is regarded as beautiful in their culture may not even be the slightest bit attractive in another. What might be dreadful to them may be perfectly normal, and much sought after in another. Walking around bare breasted for women, and bottomless for men, may be perfectly normal in some cultures, although abhorred in others. The saying that "beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder" is so very true within the context of our amazingly varied Little Blue Planet.

In this segment of my Gypsetter Tales, I want to share with you a few photos of women from other cultures that I hope will persuade you that a woman is more than just a pretty face with a sexy figure. I have tried very hard to capture with my camera, the multitude of facets that I have seen women in other cultures to be. Apart from physical attractiveness, the beauty of an ordinary woman as a mother, a homemaker, an untiring and unpaid worker, and the proverbial wind beneath the wings of men, are seldom highlighted or appreciated. Concepts of beauty, esteem, veneration, respect, and adoration are so different across the many varied cultures in our world. Each of the ladies whose photos I share here is so special and beautifully fascinating in their own unique ways. And looking back, I can still vividly remember, every single moment when I shot these pictures.

Fig. 2. A Mursi Woman wearing a Lip Plate from the Omo Valley in Ethiopia.

Fig.2 is a young Mursi lady from the depths of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, with a clay plate in her lower lip. The lip-plate, called dhebi a tugoin, is a major, visible distinguishing characteristic of the Mursis, although the Chais, the Suris and the Tirmas among the 50 or so tribal groups in Ethiopia, also wear these plates. There has been much speculation about how the custom of lip plates began. Some say it was to make them ugly so they won't become a target for slave traders, but it doesn't matter. You can view it in the same vein as tattoos, and scarification which are as much an adornment for beauty and to seek attention, as well as a statement for courage and a high threshold for pain by the women wearing them. The price tag of each is simply a lot of pain.

Ethiopia has been cloaked in mystery, misapprehensions and misconceptions for such a long time that many people fear to visit the country. Over the last 20 years I have travelled the length and breadth of Ethiopia, and of Africa. I will say, Ethiopia is an unpolished jewel of Africa which is well worth a visit. I hope these three facets of women in Ethiopia will entice you to visit that country. The Mursis regard Lip Plates as attractive facial decorations, just like ear rings and nose studs are to urban dwelling womenfolk. Their men folk like them too, and it seems the bigger these plates are, the higher the dowry the bride's family can demand from a potential husband. When a Mursi girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, a horizontal cut is made in her lower lip, usually by her mother. Can you imagine having to face and endure this type of terror? You have to be very brave to have it done. The wound is kept open with a wooden plug until it heals. They seem to have good natural ointments to heal and to prevent the wound from becoming septic, and of course the girl suffers while waiting for it to  heal. Once it is healed, progressively larger and larger plugs, and eventually clay plates are inserted to stretch the opening. Plates of 10 to 20 cm are quite common. It appears the ladies themselves decide how far they want to stretch their lips. At some stage, in order to accommodate larger plates, some of the teeth in the lower jaw have to be broken.

Fig. 3. Mursi Lady without her Lip Plate showing the opening in her lower lip, and the lower teeth that had to be broken to accommodate the plate. Being the male that I am, sometimes my imagination runs riot.

Fig. 3 is a picture of another Mursi lady without her Lip Plate, illustrating the hole in her lower lip and the teeth in her lower jaw that had to be broken to accommodate large plates. She's also wearing pseudo-earrings made from Hippo teeth. Being decorated like this is the epitome of beauty in her tribe. Beside lip plates, the Mursis also practice scarification to decorate their bodies. Notice the scar pattern on the lady's left breast in Fig. 4. These scars come at a painful price, and they wear them with pride to demonstrate their bravery and high threshold of pain. It's amazing how interpretations of beauty differ between cultures. Fig 4 is an example of the painful scarification that many tribes in Africa endure to look good and to demonstrate courage. 

Fig. 4. Scarification is a widespread practice among many tribes in Africa. This sample purports to display a dragon. Must have been really painful to create and painful also during the healing.

Here's another Mursi lady, with a lip plate in place, and breastfeeding her baby on the go. I am sorry I've had to pixelate her exposed mammary glands out of respect for our, rather prudish publication rules. This is the way the Mursis dress or more accurately, don't dress. I hesitate to show their bottomless males. It's perfectly normal in their culture.  

Fig. 5. Mursi lady, with a lip plate in place, and breastfeeding her baby on the go

We men like to think that women are the weaker sex. In reality, women are far stronger and they have a far higher threshold of pain compared to men. I was witness to a strange coming of age ceremony for a young man from the Hamer tribe of Ethiopia. The totally naked young man had to jump over 12 cows as part of his coming of age ceremony. He had the easiest role in the ceremony. While he was doing this, his women relatives taunt specially appointed whippers who use long willow canes, to whip them. And whip they did. Each sickening crack across the backs of these poor ladies instantly broke the skin and bled. They are not supposed to scream and they don't, and in fact they taunt the whippers for more. It seems the more of these whipping scars these Hamer ladies have across their backs, the prouder they feel, the braver they seem to be, the higher their esteem in the eyes of their tribe, and presumably the more attractive they are to their menfolk.

Fig. 6. Hamer Women at a coming of age ceremony for a male relative where they offer themselves to be whipped as a show of honour, love and respect for their male relative.

It is scarification par excellence and a painfully strange custom. I would never want anybody to suffer and bleed like this to demonstrate their love for me. Personally, I prefer flawless skin to scarred ones. But then these scars are a projection of something more than facial beauty. Perhaps it's a display of courage and proof of the scarred person's high capacity to endure pain. Maybe not desirable qualities we so called civilised men may want in our women.

Fig. 7. Whang-Od Oggay is a 100 years-old Master Tattooist living on top of a mountain in Buscalan in the Philippines.

Fig. 7 is a picture of Filipina Master Tattooist Whang-od Oggay. She is believed to be the last and oldest mambabatok or traditional Kalinga tattooist in the Philippines. Whang-Od is from the Butbut people in Buscalan, which is a remote mountain top village in the Kalinga Mountains of Luzon, in the far north of the Philippines. She was born in 1917 and that makes her age to be exactly 100 years this year. She is regarded as a living and breathing National Treasure of the country. She has been tattooing head-hunters and women of the indigenous Butbut people for more than 80 years, but the Butbut warriors who used to earn their tattoos through protecting villages or killing enemies, no longer exist. Whang-Od now applies her traditional art form to people from all over the world that are prepared to make the long and arduous trek up the mountain to where she lives. I was privileged to see her tattooing Batchoy, a good friend of mine, and to shoot a few photos of Whang-Od at work when I trekked to her village. 

Bachoy had one tattoo done by Whang-Od on one shoulder, and another on his left shoulder was done by Whang-Od uses an ancient traditional method of tattooing, using the thorn of a Calamansi or Pomelo tree, a tapping hammer, and soot from the bottom of her cooking pot. This traditional procedure is extremely painful, but yet many people will make the strenuous trek up to her mountain top village, just to get a decidedly rare tattoo by this last Mambabatok Master. According to tradition, her tattooing skills can only be inherited through lineage. Whang-od believes that if someone outside the bloodline starts tattooing, the tattoo will get infected. She has been training Grace Palicas, her grandniece, and Ilyang Wigan, another bloodline successor, to continue her tattooing work. If you are a fan of Tattoos, you should try and get a tattoo done on you by this Living National Treasure of the Philippines. Equivalent to a Picasso on your torso.

Fig. 8. Mother and Child from the Kinh Tribe of Ha Giang

Fig. 8 is a mother and child from the Kinh ethnic tribe in Ha Giang, a mountainous province in the northernmost parts of Vietnam, bordering China. The Kinh ethnic people forms the majority of the of population in the district of Ha Giang. They are farmers. The rest of the ethnic groups are equally fascinating and include the Tho, Meo, Tay, Dao, Man, Nung, Giay and Lo Lo. I was wandering around her village shooting random photos when she invited me into her modest home for tea and a swig of an enormously wicked drink made from fermented maize. I was surprised by her hospitality. The darkened house was lighted up only by a single window. She and her daughter looked exquisitely beautiful by that window. From Vietnam let me take you to Havana in Cuba. Cuba is famous for its cigars and I was surprised to see that many women in Cuba also actually smoke cigars. 

The lady in Fig 9, in her bright yellow traditional dress, made a striking figure. Cuba is slowly opening up and you should try to go to Cuba before droves of tourists overwhelm the place. I saw Cuba at once as poor and broken, and rich and thriving at the same time. From the beat of the music echoing through towns and villages, to the bustle of Havana's glorious, crumbling streets with ancient American cars, Cuba challenges and enchants all those who make it a point to go to Cuba. I discovered local Cubans are sincerely friendly to visitors. Although the food is terrible, the human spirit in Cuba, and the appeal of a country that has been frozen in time, makes it a must visit country which should be in everybody's bucket list.

Fig. 9. Cuban lady in Havana smoking a Cuban Cigar

The mother and child in Fig. 10 are from the Hmong people who are spread throughout the Northern regions of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and the eastern parts of Myanmar. The Hmongs were originally from Southern China, but they fled to these countries as a result of persecution by the Manchus of China in the 18th Century. Even in their adopted countries they were persecuted because they took sides in local political struggles, like between the French colonialists and the Vietnamese, between the Communist Pathet Lao and the French in Laos, and between the Americans whom the Hmong supported, and the Vietcong in Vietnam. After the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of Hmongs were admitted into the US, and today there are more than 200,000 Hmongs in the US.

Fig. 10. Mother and child from the Hmong tribe, living in the mountainous regions near the border between China and Vietnam.

There are several Hmong groups in the Ha Giang region of Vietnam where I shot this photo. They are classified according to the style and dominant colours of their traditional clothes. I saw some very interesting village markets, where many colourful local tribal people come to sell their farm produce. What struck me about these markets is the fact that most of the traders are women. I noticed almost every one of them had a child in a sling on their backs. They carry their offspring wherever they go, and they sell everything from farm produce, farm animals, grocery products, farm supplies, and a very powerful alcoholic drink made from maize. They seem to be extremely friendly and I attribute that to the fact there are hardly any tourists here. This is because the border between China and Vietnam in the Ha Giang region is very porous, so at the present moment, both the Chinese and Vietnamese authorities do not encourage tourists. But Ha Giang is a beautiful place with amazing Karst mountain landscapes all around.

Fig. 11. Hmong lady trying to persuade me to buy a chicken from her at the village market.

Like Cuba, you must try to get to Ha Giang before the region is swamped by tourists. Besides the colourful Hmong, there are many other tribal groups in Ha Giang which makes for excellent photography. They are so friendly and it is a paradise for photographers who like to shoot photos of people. From Ha Giang in Vietnam, let me and introduce you to the Berber ladies of Essaouira, Morocco, who hand produce an amazing oil from the nuts of the Argan Tree, which grows only in the semi-arid areas in the mountains south of Marrakech. Argan Oil is one of the rarest oils in the world, and has earned the nickname, liquid gold. It is rich in vitamins and minerals. It is a powerful anti-oxidant, a free radical neutralizer and a UV protector for the skin. For centuries, women across the Mediterranean have used argan oil in their beauty regimen for vibrant, healthy-looking skin and hair. Argan Oil has been known to reduce wrinkles, and when massaged on the scalp, it helps to soften and hydrate the hair.

In South west Morocco in the Essaouira district, family groups of Berbers, have come together to form cooperatives to produce the famed Argan Oil. These cooperatives are owned entirely by women and they have helped women earn more income. Traditional production of Argan Oil by hand was a very labour intensive affair with low production yields. This made commercial sale of Argan Oil outside of Morocco impossible. Lately, Argan Oil co-operatives owned by Berber women have been set up by state bodies to improve the income of women in Morocco. Production methods using machinery have made large scale production possible, and this liquid gold can now be exported to markets in the developed world where the benefits of this amazing oil is being slowly appreciated. Fig 12 shows a Berber woman producing Argan oil the traditional way using rocks to first crack the nuts, which are then grinded on a stone mill to squeeze the valuable oil out.

Fig. 12. Traditional production of Argan Oil by the Berber ladies of Morocco. The dried nuts are first cracked using rocks.

From Morocco we'll go and visit the Suri Tribe who live deep in the underbelly of Ethiopia on the West bank of the Omo Valley. The lives of the Suris revolve around their cattle. And the number of cattle owned is an indicator of wealth. The cattle is usually kept only for their milk, and their blood, and is rarely slaughtered for meat, except perhaps on special festive occasions. The cattle is not considered dirty, and fresh cattle poo is often mixed with ash and smeared on the face as a beauty aid. Cow urine is often used to wash the face.

The Suris have an interesting way to stimulate their cows to produce more milk. When female cows have calves, they will constrict the flow of milk to save some for their calves. In order to induce cows with a calf to produce more milk, a Suri woman will put her entire face into the cow's vagina, and blow into the vagina while simultaneously caressing the udders. I saw this fascinating process being applied by a young Suri lady, and was told that if this is not done, they will obtain only about half a pail of milk. But doing this for a few minutes before milking the cow, always results in a full pail of milk obtained from the cow. Amazing.

Fig. 13. The Suris induce their cows to produce more milk by simultaneously blowing into the cow’s vagina while gently caressing the udders. This astonishing task is reserved only for women.

From Ethiopia we fly to Lake Titicaca to visit the Uru people of Peru and Bolivia. The Uru live on large man-made islands floating on Lake Titicaca near the city of Puno. Every three months as the bottom part of the floating islands rot, new reeds have to be piled on top. It is a never ending task to prevent the islands from sinking, and this work is normally done by the women folk. Their houses are also built with reeds, including their boats. The Urus live on their floating islands by catching fish from the lake and also eating the soft centre parts of the reeds. The purpose of the island settlements was originally defensive. If a threat arose the floating islands could simply be towed further out into the lake. Nowadays however, more and more of the Uru people are opting to live on the mainland.

Fig. 14. A typical Floating Island built with reeds on Lake Titicaca in Peru. The Uru people of Peru live on these islands.

When I visited them a few years ago, there were only about 60 floating islands left, with only about 600 people living on them. Each island has two or three families on it and they are still on the islands because these floating reed islands are now quite a lucrative tourist attraction for the Uru people. But its hard work to continuously replace the reeds to keep the islands afloat. 

Fig. 15. Uru women in front of their house built with reedson a manmade island of floating reeds

I will end my brief Ode to Women by sharing a picture of a Sudanese lady I saw at a small roadside tea shop  where we stopped briefly for tea and some food. We were on a journey driving from Cape Town to Cairo. She had this faraway look on her that was simply unforgettable. I wonder what she was thinking, and who she was thinking about. I snapped her photo but I didn't speak to her, so I didn't even know her name. As we left to continue our drive I heard James Blunt singing "You're Beautiful" in my head.