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When she was alive, she had occasionally asked this, each time giving the vendetta new life just as Dunga was trying to escape it. He had become the eldest son after his brother, Kornan, was killed by a member of an enemy tribe. It had been an ambush, a choreographed execution. The nature of it, so premeditated, only deepened the insult.

Dunga's father had also been killed by a warrior from the same tribe, and the duty of vengeance had fallen first on his older brother. But after Kornan was killed, the double weight fell to Dunga along paths of tradition worn as hard as the trails leading down to the river. Men from his tribe, the Kara, are renowned marksmen. They had resisted the invasions of the far larger and better armed tribe, the Nyangatom. In both tribes a man who kills an enemy is decorated with special scars dug into the flesh of his shoulder or abdomen. Faced with the murder of his kin, a man would demand vengeance.

And so, in his mother's question, Dunga hears another: When will you finally become a man?

Dunga is small, slender, not yet 30. His hands are soft from years spent reading books, not living in the bush. He wears a silver crucifix, a symbol of newly acquired beliefs. We sit in a small restaurant in a town several days' walk from his homeland, his face knotted against the memories. Knowing that I also have brothers, he asks, "What would you have done?" In the West revenge is left to courts. But in this corner of Ethiopia, there is little history of such institutions. There are only the demands of the dead.

DUNGA WAS BORN at Dus, a village of stick-and-grass huts set on a bluff high above the Omo River. From the central highlands the river flows wide and deep and fast toward the country's southwestern border, where it pours into Kenya's Lake Turkana. In its 500-mile course the river curls through gorges of volcanic rock and channels of ancient mud.

Near the Kenyan border the Omo carves serpentine oxbows as the countryside flattens, and ribbons of forest appear along its banks. Riverine creatures, including crocodiles and hippos, become more abundant. The landscape grows thick with tribes, including the Kara, Mursi, Hamar, Suri, Nyangatom, Kwegu, and Dassanech, a population of roughly 200,000. Herdsmen drive animals through the bush, and farmers pole upstream and downstream in lumpy canoes. Depending on the season, the riverbanks are golden with the stubble of past harvests or sheathed in the moist green of new crops.

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