Ethiopia is like nowhere else on the planet, a beautiful country blessed with a peerless history, fabulous wildlife and some of Africa’s most soulful people. Ethiopia has all the essential elements that call travellers back here time after time – wildlife you just don’t find elsewhere, epic landscapes of rare beauty, an endlessly fascinating historical tale that provides depth and context to any journey through the country. But there is something else at large in Ethiopia, a spiritual dimension that infuses every aspect of travel here and brings ancient stories and landscapes to life in a way that you will never have encountered anywhere else on the continent.
History of the Omo Valley
In 1980, UNESCO declared the Lower Omo Valley a World Heritage Site in acknowledgment of its uniqueness: Nowhere else on the planet do so many genetically and linguistically diverse people live as traditionally and in such a small space. It has been a crossroads for humans migrating in many directions over many millennia. Improbably in an era of cloud-based businesses and Internet revolutions, 200,000 Omo pastoralists, cultivators, and hunters still pursue preindustrial lifestyles in a region that until now has been judged by outsiders too scrubby and remote for exploitation. Possessing few items from the modern world besides plastic jerry cans for carrying water, the men, women, and children here ritually adorn themselves to express status and tribal identity, sculpting their hair with animal fat and clay, scarifying limbs and torsos, wearing jewellery of beads, bone, and metal, and painting their entire bodies with white minerals, black charcoal, and red and yellow ochre. The unlikely survival of these customs and of still-authentic rituals such as bull jumping and gladiatorial stick fighting attracts a few hardy missionaries, anthropologists, and, increasingly, photographers and curious travellers.
The significance of the Omo tribes is more profound than their visual appeal. Amid layers of cracked mud and volcanic tuff along the Lower Omo’s banks, paleontologists have discovered precious remnants of our shared heritage: the oldest known remains of anatomically modern humans, who hunted and gathered here an astonishing 195,000 years ago. DNA analysis suggests that every person now living is related to a single woman from the Omo Valley; some who travelled away and some who remained. Those relatives who remained behind branched into fourteen genetically distinct founder populations from which all African ethnic groups descend. If Ethiopia is humanity’s womb, the Omo River is its umbilical cord.
Peoples with Proud Traditions
Nowhere in the world is as well endowed with traditional and tribal cultures than Ethiopia. Our cultural expeditions take you into this remote region of the African continent, where you will be immersed in an array of tribal lifestyles. Many are like living museums and it is often hard to draw the line between participant and observer.
Spanning the border of Ethiopia and Kenya (in a remote enclave of the Great Rift Valley) lies the Omo Delta – a forgotten corner of Africa. Here travellers can glimpse the continent as the early explorers found it: an Africa peopled by exotic tribes proud of their traditional lifestyles and ancient customs. Central to these pastoralist cultures are their herds of cattle and goats: people dress in clothes made from animal skins; blood mixed with milk is a staple drink; and a man’s wealth is judged by the size of his herds. Body scarification, female circumcision, infanticide and tribal conflicts are just some of the cruel realities of life.
The first and predominant reason that the Omo Valley is like nowhere else on earth is due to the multiplicity and strength of the indigenous cultures that exist here. Not many other places (if any) have so many different groups of people still following the traditional lives of their ancestors with such earnest and in such close proximity.
The tribes that live in the Omo Valley are among the most fascinating tribes on the continent and around the world. Venturing into these communities and staying among them is akin to receiving a privileged initiation into a forgotten world. In the Omo Valley it feels like time has stood still.
The people of the Omo Valley region are extremely sophisticated in their skills, rituals and lifestyles – they have to be; for in this harsh, arid and scorching environment survival isn’t easy. A highlight of any trip here is witnessing one of the many festivals that are an integral part of their traditional culture.
When it comes to human cultures, Ethiopia has an embarrassment of riches. There are the Suri, Mursi, Kara, Hamar and Dassanech; whose ancient customs and traditions have remained almost entirely intact. A highlight of any trip here is witnessing one of the many festivals that are an integral part of the traditional culture, from age-old ceremonies marking rites of passage to Christian celebrations of singular passion, the impact upon those who witness such events can provide travel memories to last a lifetime. And the longer you spend here, the deeper the respect for the people you have.
Tribes of the Omo River
Renowned the world over for its decorated tribes, the Omo Valley is a stop on many a tourist route in Ethiopia. But visits to the area can cross ethical boundaries, and few tourists are allowed the pleasure of a genuine experience with local people.
Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is one of the wildest and most ethnically diverse places on Earth. Sadly, development and the ravages of modernization are threatening these unique peoples, and as such the Omo Valley tribes is a ‘capture it while you can’ destination. This harsh and inhospitable place has over ten distinctly different tribes existing within a 38 mile / 60 km radius each with its own unique language, clothing, hairstyles and bodily ornamentation.
The Suri tribe, who due to their remoteness, are one of the least visited of the Omo Valley’s tribes. They are pastoralists, placing much value on their cattle, which they protect vigorously against theft from neighbouring tribes. The Suri tribe, however, also steal livestock from their enemies, and in recent times there has been more pressure on their grazing lands due to input of people from adjacent Sudan who have been displaced by civil war, resulting in not-infrequent fighting in the area.
The Suri people do not make wood-carvings, statues etc., and instead are renowned for their incredibly ornate decoration of themselves, which they achieve through painting, scarification and adornment. The paintings are dynamic artworks varying greatly in design, and are truly fascinating to photograph! Virtually no area of the body is left out, and nakedness is a standard and acceptable part of daily life for the Suri, who regard Westerners concept of clothing with fascination!
Possibly more famously, Suri women, like Mursi tribe women, wear lip plates. In her early twenties, an unmarried woman’s lower lip will be pierced and then progressively stretched over the period of a year. A clay disc, which has its edge indented like a pulley wheel, is squeezed into the hole in the lip. As the lip stretches, a succession of ever-larger discs are forced in until the lip, now a loop, is so long it can sometimes be pulled right over the owner’s head! The size of the lip plate determines the bride price with a large one bringing in fifty head of cattle. The Suri women make the lip plates from clay, colouring them with ochre and charcoal and baking them in a fire.
Another famous component of Suri tribal life is stick-fighting, known as Donga. At a fight, each male contestant is armed with a hardwood pole about six feet long and with a weight of just less than two pounds. The men paint their bodies with a mixture of chalk and water before the fight. In the attacking position, this pole is gripped at its base with both hands, the left above the right in order to give maximum swing and leverage. Each player beats his opponent with his stick as many times as possible with the intention of knocking him down, and eliminating him from the game. Players are usually unmarried men.
The winner is carried away on a platform of poles to a group of girls waiting at the side of the arena who decide among themselves which of them will ask for his hand in marriage. Taking part in a stick fight is considered to be more important than winning it.
The Hamar tribe is one of the most well-known Omo Valley tribes in Southern Ethiopia. They inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages in both Turmi and Dimeka. They are especially well known for their unique rituals, including a cattle-leaping ceremony that the young men have to undergo in order to reach adulthood and to marry.
They are a highly ‘superstitious’ people and are known for one of the most bizarre rituals on Earth. This is when the women allow themselves to be whipped by the male members of their family as a symbol of their love! The scars of such encounters are conspicuously evident on the bodies of all Hamar tribe women.
These Hamar tribe women take great pride in their appearance and wear traditional dresses consisting of a brown goatskin skirt adorned with dense vertical rows of red and yellow beads. Their hair is characteristically fixed in dense ringlets with butterfat mixed with red ochre. They also wear many bracelets and necklaces fashioned of beads or metal, depending on their age, wealth and marital status. The men wear woven cloth wrapped around their waists, and many elders wear delicately coloured clay head caps that are fashioned into their hair and adorned with an ostrich feather.
The young Hamar tribe men are famous for their “Evangadi dance” and “Bull jumping” ceremony (it is as part of this ceremony that the afore-mentioned whipping occurs). This ritual entails young men who wish to marry jumping over a line of bulls, thereby proving their worth to their intended bride’s family. It also signifies their advent into adulthood.
The Kara tribe lives along the east bank of the Omo River and practice flood retreat cultivation, their main crops being maize, sorghum and beans. Unlike the other Omo valley tribes, they keep only a small number of cattle due to the prevalence of tsetse flies. Like many of the Ethiopian tribes in the Omo, they paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for any ceremonies. The chalk is mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore and charcoal to make its requisite colour. Facemasks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns adorned with feathers.
Scarification is also an important part in the Kara tribe people’s lives. This includes the complete scarification of a man’s chest with which to indicate that he has killed an enemy or dangerous animal (Amongst the Kara tribe, killing one’s enemies isn’t viewed as an act of murder, but as an act of honour!).
This scarification process involves lightly slicing the skin with knives or razor blades and then rubbing ash into the open wounds to produce a permanently raised effect. The Kara tribe women have decoratively-scarred abdomens, which are considered sensual and very desirable.
The Mursi Tribe is famous for the clay lip plates that the women insert in their lower lips; the Mursi tribe is probably one of the last Omo Valley tribes in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear these large pottery or wooden discs or plates.
Similar to the Suir tribe, the lip plate (dhebi a tugoin) has become the chief visible distinguishing characteristic of the fascinating Mursi tribe people. The Mursi tribe as we know them today are the product of a large-scale migratory movement of cattle herding peoples in the general direction of the Ethiopian highlands. The Mursi tribe people attribute overwhelming cultural importance to cattle. Almost every significant social relationship – particularly marriage – is marked and authenticated by exchanging cattle. The “Bride wealth” (ideally consisting of 38 head of cattle) is handed over by the groom’s family to the bride’s father, who must meet the demands of a wide range of relatives from different clans. This ensures that cattle are continually redistributed around the community, thereby helping to provide for the long-term economic security of individuals as well as their families.
The Dassanech are the most southerly tribe living in Ethiopia’s Omo valley. The lands of the Dassanech are semi-arid and they live where the Omo delta enters Lake Turkana. Their name means People of the Delta.
Cattle are central to the lives of the Dassanech, just as they are for the other tribes of the Omo valley. As well as meat, milk, leather for clothing, houses and mattresses, they provide status in the tribe, and the bride-wealth that allows a man to marry. The Dassanech tribe is not strictly defined by ethnicity. Over time the tribe has absorbed a wide range of different peoples and it’s now divided in to eight main clans. Each clan has its own identity and customs, its own responsibilities towards the rest of the tribe and is linked to a particular territory.
The largest clan is the Galbur, or Water and Crocodile clan. The Dassanech believe its members have the power over both water and crocodiles and are responsible for treating diseases throughout the tribe. The Turat clan is responsible for dealing with burns from fire. They have power to ward off snakes and cure many diseases, and also have the ability to keep their enemies away from their animals. Another important clan is Turnyerim, which has powers over drought. They pray for rains during dry periods and they can also cure snakebites by spitting on the wound. Other clans claim to have healing power over eye infections, scorpion bites, muscular problems, and so on. Members of the same clan are forbidden from marrying or indeed dancing with each other.
Dassanech women wear clothes made from leather. The men wear sarong–like garments. Both men and women of the tribe adorn themselves with beads and bracelets. Men can often be seen carrying a small stool or headrest, which is pretty ubiquitous in this southern region. The extensive scarification of the Dassanech men means that they have killed an enemy in battle.
One of the most important ceremonial events is the Dimmi. The Dimmi ritual is a tradition associated with the blessing of the first born daughters. Dimmi is performed when the girl reaches the age of 8-10. Each clan has their own special site where they perform the ritual. Girls of the same age and clan are blessed together. Before the ritual begins, temporary huts are built. Goats and cattle will be brought to slaughter at the ceremony. The girls’ fathers are expected to be well decorated. The blessing is made by a group of elders known as ‘buls’. The main purpose of the blessing is to ensure the girls fertility in their future life. Following the ceremony the father becomes an elder.
The Omo Delta of southwest Ethiopia is one of the least accessible and least developed parts of East Africa. To a Western mind, the life of the people of the Omo Valley and Kenya’s northern frontier district appears unimaginably primitive. It is certainly hard, and at times harsh, but you will witness fabulously rich and diverse cultures, content in their existence, clear about their values and in tune with the environment.
There is so much individual beauty found within and between the different cultures, as reflected by their spectacular bodily adornment. However the reality of photographing the tribes of Ethiopia is so much more than simply capturing images of the wildly varied peoples of the valley. It is about connecting with the people – with the tribes – whose traditions are being tested by a fast-changing world, while simultaneously experiencing ancient and beautiful cultures that may not be here in the near future.
Join Origins Safaris on the most amazing cultural expedition of your life. You will see customs, cultures and lifestyles totally unaffected by the western world and you will feel nothing but sheer privilege at being able to travel amongst them. To travel to Ethiopia’s remote Omo River Valley is to wade into a morass of moral ambiguities. You will be on a safari where people—not wildlife—are the attraction. You will observe traditions that seem exotic, and at times shocking.
About Origins Safaris
Origins Safaris specialises in cultural expeditions, wildlife safaris and self-discovery projects beyond the beaten track in eastern and central Africa. At Origins Safaris we are passionate about wildlife, cultural heritage, adventure and exploration. We customize each and every safari to your personal requirements and expectations, ensuring an exclusive, unique and authentic experience every time.
Origins Safaris is a family business, founded in 1963 by Don and Margaret Turner. It is managed today by two subsequent generations of the family, and predominantly by Don’s son, Steve. We are so much more than just a travel broker – our years of experience, professionalism and reliability means that we go the all important extra mile, to make sure your dream safari is safe, memorable, educational and most of all great fun. We are renowned for our meticulous safari planning from start to finish, and the highest standards of natural history.
Origins Safaris provide that crucial “sound advice and impeccable service” so seldom found by other companies. We have 50+ years of authentic African safari experience and the know-how to make your trip run as smoothly as possible.
Let Origins Safaris help you to experience this extraordinary untouched African wilderness. Contact us on https://originsafaris.com/cultural-immersions/ for more information.
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