Gabra, into the heart of tradition

French photographer Stéphane de Rouville has been fascinated by different cultures since childhood. For the past 15 years, he has focused his craft on taking pictures of different cultures around the world. In particular, his “Gabra, into the heart of tradition” series hones in on the tribal life of Gabra people.

We had the chance to exchange words with Stéphane to get his impressions of the tribe and learn more about his important work. Read on for our exclusive interview.

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©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: Could you tell us about the background of the pictures? Why did you decide to shoot the Gabra tribes?

This series is about the logical continuation of what I am doing since 15 years: following the "last caravans" all over the world.

One day, I read a short article about the Gabra tribe, depicting them as very traditional people, quite reluctant to the modernization and the "outside world", and quite difficult to approach. I also saw an old and very impressive picture of their camels loaded with all their belongings. That was enough for me to decide to travel to their land and try to spend some time with them.

©Stéphane de Rouville

©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: Are there any impressive stories between you and the Gabra after three months getting along?

Yes, a lot in fact. One of the most impressive was when I reached a camp at night where ten young camel herders were living. They asked me if I already drunk camel blood. I replied that I never did. So they asked me to have a try. Then I learned that when those young guys are in the bush and don't have any more solid food to eat (usually "Ugali", a simple dish made of maize flour cooked in boiling water), they use to drink camel milk mixed (50/50) with camel blood. They can survive like this for nearly one month. So they laid down the camel, collected one liter of blood that they mixed with one liter of camel milk, and offered me the recipient containing this pink mixture. I tested it, and passed the recipient to the nearest guy next to me, thinking it was for everybody. Then, they told me: "no no, all this is for you"! At that time I was not hungry or thirsty at all, and could hardly imagine drinking two liters of anything...But I forced myself, drank the maximum my stomach could, an left a little, explaining that I was really sorry...They told me "no problem, you will finish tomorrow morning"...The next morning, the blood and milk had coagulated, it was not very appetizing, but with no other choice, I drank it. When you want to be accepted by people you must act like them.

©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: The Gabra people you captured are hardworking and optimistic. Could you tell us about the difference between their real life and modern civilization?

The difference is absolutely huge. They dedicate all their time to their animals, which are, as very often in nomadic or pastoral communities, the center of their economy. It's of course a hard life, and, unlike an idea that is too prevalent in the "modern world", it is not a life of freedom, but instead, a life of non-choice. When there is no more grass for their animals, or no more water around their camp, they have to move. Furthermore, they are directly and severely impacted by the climatic change. Droughts are becoming more and more frequent and much stronger. This creates big tensions with the neighboring tribes (for the control of water points and the grass), and localized arm conflicts are omnipresent. Death is integrated in their mind since they are very young because they witness it and listen to stories. Despite all this, the Gabra have a strong sense of belonging to their tribe, and are very proud of their culture. Although the gap is huge between the "modern" Gabras (those who settled) and the one living in the bush, they all feel Gabra before everything else, and speak about themselves as a whole, an entity, that modernization and outside world will never break...Solidarity, traditions, and peace among the community are very important for the Gabra. And, for the settled ones, they must assist the most important ceremonies, otherwise it would be very badly seen by the entire community.

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©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: Did the life of local people be affected by modern civilization?

Of course, now, more and more young Gabra are attracted by the "lights of civilization", and dream about the outside world, but the Elders are wise and strong. One of them (already settled) told me: "In my village, we are refusing since years the wind power that some companies are ready to install for free". I was surprised and asked him why. He replied that, "We saw the huge damages brought by the construction of the concrete road passing through our village: new ideas came with the road, new unaffordable dreams, new products, new food, new people, new sicknesses...new everything. The changes have been so brutal and unpredictable, that now, we are afraid and mistrustful concerning new things like this".

Nevertheless, some Gabra now, when they can afford it, will tend to buy an old car or truck that they will use to move and transport their belonging on long distances (when they have to assist a faraway ceremony for example, like a wedding), instead of walking with their loaded camels.

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©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: How did you gain trust from the people you shoot?

You have three main keys: time, communication (being able to communicate, if not perfectly, at least a little), and contacts (mainly the ones you make "on the ground").

I learned, before traveling, the basics of Swahili language, which is, with English, the official language of Kenya. Although the Gabra living in the bush only speak, for the majority of them, their own language (which is "borana"), it helped me to be in touch with some "already settled and educated" Gabra people who led me to the "traditional" ones.

Then, you have to prove you are able to walk on long distances, under harsh conditions, to sleep in the bush on the (sometimes scorpions infested) ground, eat the same basic food, and also help them.

When I travel in nomadic communities, I always bring some photocopies of my previous trips so that people can understand that it is my passion and that there is no "hidden" interest or goal.

After a time, if they feel you are not a danger to them, or won't be a burden, they accept you.

©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: In terms of the expression of work, what do you mainly focus on?

I try to describe what, according to me, represents them best, and try to focus on the core of their culture. And I want to show something that is rare and that will probably disappear in a "not so faraway future". I try to do this in an aesthetic way.

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©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: You took many pictures of children, and what do you want to express?

They are the strength and future of the Gabra tribe. They are the ones who will lead and defend, morally and physically, the community. An old Gabra man (50 years old is already an advanced age), is very much respected and listened to, but has no "decisional power" among the community, only a consultative function.

©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: What impact did this shooting project have on you? Please share your feelings.

As each time I spent time with nomadic tribes, it has been fantastic. I get the impression to have something more, to be richer emotionally...and also to have something less because a part of my soul stayed there, with them...But I think, the question should also be: "what impact it has on them?" For me it's very important trying not to disturb those "remote people", not to have any impact on them...Of course we have an impact, but trying to adapt to them, by sharing the same life for a moment and without "importing" our "way of life" or "way of thinking", is the best way to minimize it.

©Stéphane de Rouville

GP: What do you expect to gain through photography?

I decided to dedicate my photo work to those “last” caravans and nomadic way of life, and more generally to the endangered cultures. It's part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and I think that it is a “must to do” thing in order not to forget where we humans come from, and in order to give a testimony of the cultural richness and diversity of our world...Could this make some people think differently, could this make others dream , could this make people aware that our world is full of incredible cultural richness but also very fragile and that we have to preserve and protect it, could this bring a piece of peace...This would make me happy !


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