Olisarali Olibui, Tesfahun Hailu, Shauna LaTosky, Alexandra Genova, Ben Young

This collaborative project between researchers and creative artists is using performance and theatre to explore and imagine what political representation and integration of ethnic groups in Ethiopia might look like against the backdrop of radical reforms and government commitment to indigenous theatre. The project focuses on the Mursi (hereafter Mun, or Muni, sing., a self-designation), a group in the peripheral areas of Southern Ethiopia who have never had a Member of Parliament in the House of Peoples’ Representatives and remain excluded from local, regional and national politics.

Olisarali is a Mun leader who travelled to Australia to learn English. He returned with a video camera which he used to portray Mun life and culture. ‘Shooting with Mursi’, produced by Ben, has become a historical record of a moment of change for the Mun. Following this, Olisarali became interested in art as a mechanism for advocating for reduced inequalities and marginalisation of the Mun.

Olisarali participated in an intensive theatre training workshop, organised by Wolkite University and the South Omo Theatre Company, which became a milestone in his theatre training and where he experimented with song and storytelling as a medium for teaching others about his culture and people. Alexandra reflected on the university’s theatre course as a catalyst for positive socio-political change and bridging ethnic tension in an article for the Guardian newspaper.

Olisarali is now working with Tesfahun to script and stage a play written in the Mun language, and performed by Mun people, at the national theatre in Addis Ababa. The aim is to bring greater awareness about Mun to Ethiopian people more generally, and to influence and change opinions amongst policy-makers regarding the persistent exclusion of South Omo from national politics. The play is informed by interviews and group discussions conducted by the team in Mursi, Addis, and Wolkite about the ways in which the Mun achieve and maintain effective governance, and why and how they believe these are changing both within the community and through external pressures.

This coalition plans to create a new partnership with SOAS colleagues and Meron Tesfaye, at Wolkite University, to perform the play, document the process with film and ethnography, and enhance policy-makers’ understand of (a) the situation of the Mursi, (b) the value of indigenous theatre in political debates, (c) decolonising international partnerships.

About the team

Olisarali Olibui is an agro-pastoralist from South Omo, and a member of the Mun ethnic group. He is an award-winning documentary-maker, whose film ‘Shooting with the Mursi’ provides the context for this new project imagining what political inclusion of the Mun might look like. Olisarali has an avid interest in sharing Mun indigenous knowledge with others, and has also translated school books, cultural books, and veterinary and clinical books into the Mun language.

Tesfahun Hailu, a playwright and filmmaker from Mekelle University, to produce research-based creative outputs designed to positively impact South Omo political inclusion as Ethiopia struggles with democratic transition. Olisarali and Tesfahun combine their efforts with host organisation, South Omo Theatre Company, whose broader set of aims includes promoting indigenous performance, participation, and integration into Ethiopia’s theatre scene.

Shauna LaTosky is a cultural anthropologist who has been working with the Mursi intermittently since 2003. She has substantial field experience and knowledge of the Mursi people, culture and language. Her publications include, for example, Predicaments of Mun (Mursi) Women in Ethiopia’s Changing World (2013)‘Customary land use and local consent practices in Mun (Mursi): A new call for meaningful FPIC standards in Southern Ethiopia’ (2021) and ‘The Social Role of Purging in Mun (Mursi)’ (2021). 

Ben Young is an award-winning filmmaker, editor and sound designer who received an International Emmy nomination for his work on a documentary about young actors with Downs Syndrome. He has directed, filmed, and edited several broadcast documentaries about remote and marginalised peoples for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel; and in the 1980s and 1990s he worked in music production across Europe. Ben’s affiliation with Olisarali dates back to their discussions and shared interest in representing threatened indigenous communities through film.

Alexandra Genova is an independent journalist and filmmaker who has worked for platforms including the Guardian, Al Jazeera, National Geographic, NYT, and broadcast channels like ITN, ITV and Channel 4. She has also worked on assignment with Magnum photographers including Martin Parr and reported around the world from Ghana to Ethiopia. Alexandra has a Masters’ degree in magazine journalism and has a particular interest in social and racial justice, agriculture and food, and indigenous peoples