National Geographic : 1991 Feb
On Assignment Intrepid pair, photojournalists ANGELA FISHER, left, and CAROL BECKWITH, who. chal lenged the rugged isolation of south western Ethiopia to make friends with the Surma, date their collabo ration to 1978 in Nairobi. In 1970 Angela had traveled from her native Australia to Kenya, inspired by a film on the Seren geti. She became fascinated with the Masai -as did American-born Carol, upon her arrival later from Boston. Angela's brother, Simon, engineered a meeting between the two after taking Carol on a balloon flight over a game park and realizing that she and his sister were kindred spirits with a deep love for Africa. "We became fast friends," Angela recalls. Often traveling together, Angela finished her book, Africa Adorned, on jewelry and body deco ration (GEOGRAPHIC, November 1984), as Carol completed books on the Masai and on Niger's Wodaabe people (GEOGRAPHIC, October 1983). In 1985 the two embarked on an ambitious five-year joint project: to document the major cultures of the Horn of Africa. Just published, African Ark (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1990) includes dis cussion of the seminomadic Surma. Carol and Angela rode by mule train for three days to reach the remote Surma, whose creative expression includes body painting. The artist Kolaholi, left, ranks among the best. Chinoi, in hat, is revered as a battle-scarred champion of violent stick-fighting contests known as donga. Thronged by hundreds of frenzied onlookers, Surma men flail at one another with long poles to prove their manhood and win wives. "As we photographed, donga sticks crashed above our heads," recalls Carol. "Our Surma friends, who were terrified for our safety, once lifted us into nearby trees." The crowds bristled with antiquated rifles. At one fight when a quarrel erupted, threatening a shoot-out, everyone fell to the ground. Surma women still proudly wear large plates in their lower lips. Carol and Angela became so involved with their subjects that at the end of their final visit, some of their friends asked them to stay permanently no lip plates required. But among other Surma, who felt excluded by the photographers, trouble was brewing. "We were told these angry Surma were going to ambush us when we tried to leave," says Angela. "So the day before, we invited the chief and his family to our camp for a big meal. Would they escort us in a procession? They did, and it worked, although we did see some Surma hidden in the trees-probably with guns." NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC (ISSN 0027-9358) IS PUBLISHEDMONTHLYBYTHENATIONALGEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY,17THANDMSTS. N.W., WASHINGTON, D. C. 20036. $21.00 A YEAR,$2.65 A COPY. SECOND-CLASSPOSTAGEPAID AT WASHINGTON,D.C., AND ELSEWHERE.POSTMASTER:SEND ADDRESSCHANGESTO NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC,P.O. BOX2174, WASHINGTON,D. C. 20013.