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  • Writer's pictureJanis Slingsby

Omo Valley Bondfriendship – The artist & Arka

“Bondfriendship, a common and culturally salient practice all over South Omo, should not be reduced to a merely ecologically/economically adaptive strategy of (agro-)pastoralists. A deeper insight is gained by addressing the narratives and imaginations at work when people set out to make friends across ethnic groups and boundaries.”

It's hot and hard work. But the Omo Valley captivated and seduced, and like a moth to light, lured us back time and again over a seven-year period. Our relationship with Arka Bokot over repeated visits, starting in 2013 and ending in 2018, personifies the captivating ‘light’ of bondfriendship, and that which sets our relationships and ensuing work, apart from others.

Image of Arka Bokot taken in 2013

The following quote explains the title of Robert’s portrait drawing series featured on his 2015 invitation to ‘I am’, a solo exhibition held at the Royal College of Art, London.

"On the 11th September 2013, having spent days in Korcho, we left early in the morning for Dus.

Dus is a very remote village that houses the parliament of the Kara people. Being the rainy season, our team included a tracker perched atop the roof rack, guiding the driver through washed away trails.

After recording what seemed like the entire community, in the midst of the overwhelming mid afternoon heat, we accepted the gesture of an old man, Parko Biwa, the elder of the village preparing beehives, to enter his hut. We were offered a bitter beverage made from coffee husks and served in calabash drinking bowls.

It was an opportunity to ask if there was anything we could do and what their main causes for concern were. It was evident from the drive to Dus that their tribal land was being bulldozed to make way for modern farming methods.

I did not get an answer, but a look. We were allowed to relax and recover and he blessed us. On the way back to our vehicle, I was passed by a woman carrying the rim of a broken pot, shielding her head from the heat.

The sun shone through the pot top opening, radiating light on the inside. As she walked past, she shouted “I am Kara, I am Arka, I am Kara.”

I had been given the answer. 'I am' "

Before each return to the Omo Valley, I prepared for the possibility of seeing ‘old faces’. Loaded onto our iPad, would be images of Robert’s portrait drawings’, to show and share original photographic images and tables with faces and identifiable names.

Arka Bokot and Robert in 2018

This interaction became a ritual that reinforced respect, love and loyalty, trust and affection, giving and sharing, communication across culture and language

- in other words, bondfriendship.

Posted 30th March 2021

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