Ethiopia’s Omo Valley Tribes

What is it that is fascinating about Africa? I have not been to most African countries yet, but the few that I have visited totally captured my heart. Ethiopia is one of them. I spent one day in Addis Ababa and 5.5 days in Omo Valley region in the southern part of Ethiopia in the province of Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region.

After spending sometime in the Omo Valley region, it occurred to me that sometimes statistics do not mean much.  Perhaps, not everyone I met is comfortably providing for their large families, but most that I encountered look healthy. They earn very little in salary (as per World Bank data, GDP per capita of Ethiopia was USD706 in 2016 vs. a country like Singapore whose GDP per capita reached almost USD53,000 in the same year), but the tribes in Omo Valley are agro-pastoralists or pastoralists. They grow and own enough cattle to sustain themselves. One’s biggest life spending is probably the twenty-cow or twenty-sheep dowry required to acquire a bride. Neither did the Great Famine of Ethiopia in the 1980s happened in this fertile region (according to the locals).

I had a meaningful trip in the Omo Valley. There are approximately 16 tribes living in the region. I managed to see a few of them in my 5.5 days there. Here are the tribes I visited and interacted with: Ari, Mursi, Bana, Karo, Dassenach, Karo, Hamer, Konso, and Dorze.

 

Ari Tribe

The Ari tribe is the least interesting because they no longer wear their traditional costumes. Many live in Jinka and I managed to spend a few hours walking and getting to know a little bit about them. I visited a blacksmith, who in the past is considered outcast. I tried making injera (flat bread made from Teff which is the national food of Ethiopia and consumed across the country). I tried the homemade alcohol. A few kids followed us around while we explored the village.  The Ari tribe is famous for their pottery.

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Learning to make injera with a local Ari woman

 

Mursi Tribe

They are famous for the lip plates and annual stick fighting (which I did not get to see). The plates fully worn on the lips and the process of putting the plates on the lips can make a Hamer man cringe. I think they are very beautiful. Unfortunately many younger generations do not want to do this anymore. They are exposed to other cultures where any form of self mutilating is not considered beautiful. The Mursi are still pastoralist. They easily move to find greener pastures for the herd. This can be seen from the very simple huts they build.

 


Bana Tribe

I had little interaction with the Bana Tribe. While driving from Jinka to Turmi, we came across a few Bana children practicing walking on their sticks. The Bana men are easily identifiable from their green, white, red, and black headbands. We saw many in the Alduba market. Bana is very closely related to the Hamer and Karo tribes. I found some of the Bana and Hamer men quite feminine from the way they walk. Some are very skinny and leggy.

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Bana Kids  Practicing Walking on the Sticks

 

Karo Tribe

The Karo tribe is famous for the body painting and fishing, although the latter was not apparent in the village I visited.

While at the Mursi village and Karo village, I felt a bit of ethical dilemma. I felt the Mursi and the Karo really look at tourists as source of income (less with the other tribes I visited though similar arrangement is practiced). The arrangement when I went in December 2017 was 5 Ethiopian Birr (about USD0.20) per photo per subject. If a girl poses for you five times, you have to pay her 25 Birr. In a way, it felt a bit like an exploitation, a human park. On the very positive side though, it encourages the tribes people to keep their traditions. The Karo people, who are very famous for face and body painting, really put a lot of effort in their dressing.  So I did enjoy my time chronicling them.

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Karo Warriors and their Body Paints

I am ashamed to admit this, but I tried to appease my conscience by giving some money to Fitsum, my guide and owner of Omo Valley Tour who organized my trip. I let him handle the payment part after taking the photos. Do you think this is a responsible tourism?

 

Dassenach Tribe

The Dassenach women are the most beautiful in my opinion. I love how they scar their skin as a sign for beauty. Walking behind them after washing and getting water from the River was a treat for my eyes and senses.

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Decorative Scars of a Dassenach Girl

Getting to the Dassenach village near Omorate and the border of Kenya was also heart pounding. We have to cross the Omo River. The river current was pretty strong and the local boat shaky. I am a decent swimmer, but I was worried of the crocodiles if we got overturned. Luckily all went smoothly both ways.

We encountered many old and still healthy elders in the village. The oldest person is 85 years old when I visited. One can spot a mother to be easily. All pregnant women bearing their first child shave their head bald. They love to chew chat (coca leaf). The male put clay on their hair as decoration, similar to the Hamer.

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Dassenach Elders

The Dassenach are agro-pastoralists. We passed their farm on the way to the village. They have a work roster of all male villagers to work on the farm and to herd the cows, goats, and sheep. The group of men we saw in the village are the ones having their rest days.

We came across women making their huts from plastic cover and woods, or wood and branches. The plastic will trap all the heat. It was hot when we were there. If one sees a plastic bottle on a pole on top of the hut, it means a local homebrew beer is available there. The Dassenach are poligamists. The cost of acquiring each wife is about 20 cows and the man must give one house to each wife. Female genital mutilation is still practiced.

The Dassenach make beautiful bead jewelry. I bought a multi-layer bead necklace, which drew the attention of the other tribeswomen I met after that.

 

Hamer Tribe

I had most interactions with the Hamer tribe.  I went to three markets patronized by them: in Turmi, Dameka, and Alduba. There I noticed some women wore a thick metal and leather necklace. This means they are first wives. The Hamer, similar to the Karo tribes, are allowed to take two wives.

I witnessed their bull-jumping ceremony. That day the name of the boy jumping is Arbalu. Bull-jumping is a symbol of manhood. During the ceremony, paternal female relatives of the boy(s) jumping song and dance. The maternal relatives approach males that recently passed their bull-jumping ceremony to get whipped. This whipping is their tradition to show the women’s love and devotion for the men of their families/tribe. As a matter of fact, the women would provoke the men to whip them. The boys who jump are painted with clay from head to toe. Some parts of the ceremony were not open to tourists. Despite some tourists crashing these parts of the ceremony, I decided to wait around and sit with the “Uncles” and tried to communicate with them. They use clays and feathers in their hair for decoration, and they walk around with their wooden stool and rifles. The rifles are for status only. I had never met anyone more peaceful than these people and I felt very safe. Please note though that disputes involving land or cattle do occur. Pay attention to your surroundings.

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Arbalu’s Successful Bull-Jumping

I camped one night with one Hamer family. This gave me a deeper experience with the tribe. I spent a few hours visiting various traditional houses. I saw three generation of family joking around and spending time together. The family who hosted me invited me to spend time in their home. I watched one of their daughters, Sago preparing coffee. They made their coffee from the skin of the coffee bean. So the taste is light sweet, served in the dried pumpkin bowl. She also made us a dry mix of corn flour and a type of vegetable. It tasted grainy. Nothing got wasted here. When someone did not finish their coffee, they put it back into the pot for re-boiling and re-serving.

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Sago is mixing the corn flour with water before cooking it

They slaughtered a goat for me for dinner and in the process, I saw amazing things. The men and boys took turn to drink the fresh blood from the cut. A guy skinned and cut the goat in 20 minutes when I was impressed at the speed, another guy told me he could do it much faster. They grilled the goat underground under the full moon.  The goat is eaten with homemade peri peri sauce and honey wine.

The finale though is experiencing the social dance at night under the moonlight. One of the main opportunities for the locals to get to know one another is this social dancing every full moon. The dance started off innocent, but when the girls showed up, it became more sensual. The girls would move towards the boys and using leg movement, they would point to guys they are interested in, or they would move back. Some of the guys would wander towards us and got too closed. It was definitely for the young (not that I am old, mind you. Ha!).

 

Konso Tribe

I visited Gamole Walled village which is one of the villages protected under the UN World Heritage Site. In total, there are 11 villages. Konso way of villages are tiered, circular villages. They started at the top of the mountain. When the population grew, they built another layer 4 metres below the current layer. The oldest tier (or terrace) accommodates 750 people, second tier 1,750 people, and the bottom tier 2,600 people. Each tier has three entrances. This village is the largest village. There are nine clans in this village. Each clan has a chief. When a chief dies, he is mummified and his son becomes the next chief. After 9 years, 9 months, 9 weeks, 9 days, and 9 hours, the mummified body is buried and a wooden representation of the chief (called waaka) is put on his grave. Waaka is made for everyone who has died and heroes.

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Waakas

The Konso is a very structured society literally and culturally.  Each terrace has its own community houses where local disputes got heard and resolved by the terrace elders. Each community house has cultural items, such as swearing stones, majority stones, and generation trees.  Each generation tree marks how many chiefs have ruled and therefore, they can be used to date the age of the village. The tree I saw had 22 generations marked on it, which is equal to about 400 years. Apart from dispute resolutions, the community houses are also used for games, meetings, gatherings, and hosting guests. Boys aged 12-18 sleep in the community houses to guard the village. Each family has their own compound on a tier.

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A Generation Tree

The Konso already assimilated themselves with western clothing, but a stroll around the village shows how socially advance people is. And I enjoyed looking at the waakas and the charming traditional houses.

 

Dorze Tribe

Our visit to a Dorze village (Dorze Haizo) was short but very memorable. The village we visited has a population of 7,800. They live up on the mountain and they buy their cotton from the lowlands. They are famous for their cloth called Dongoza. The red, yellow, and yellow colors symbolize blood, hope, and skin respectively. Girls start making yarn from age 7. Boys learn to weave from age 10. I bought a Natala which is two Dongoza combined together.  The Dorze village we visited is famous for one of its resident Rasta.

The elephant shape house is also another uniqueness of the Dorze. The house we visited fit a family of 7. They have a smaller hut nearby called the Honeymoon hut for the newlyweds.

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Elephant House of Dorze – Termites are the biggest threats to these structures

The Dorze dance is very different compared to the other tribes’. Their movements are driven by the movement of the hip. Erstwhile, in the other tribes, the shoulders are the main body parts that move.

During our short stay in the village, we tried their typical Korcho bread from the enset tree (also known as fake banana). They make the enset into flat-breads and serve the bread with sweet (honey) and spicy (ginger, garlic, dried pepper, peri peri spice) sauce.

The Dorze also makes local alcohol called Ala or Borde (made of wheat and anise). They put this in the calabash (pumpkin container) and being it while they walk to the market. The ration is one calabash for two people.

Before I left, they insisted that I had Harake, local alcohol made from maize, anise, and sorghum. Harake can be medicinal for tummy issues. Harake must be consumed in threes. The first symbolized “welcome”. The second means “nice to meet you”. The last is “goodbye and welcome back soon”.  I could only take one. So I guess that is why my heart never left Ethiopia.

 

The best way to experience Africa is to look at the pictures. Please visit my Instagram and Facebook photo album for more images.

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