Ethiopia specialists Peter and Ben reflect on their experiences of travelling to the Omo Valley
06 Mar 2020
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Ethiopia specialists Peter and Ben reflect on their experiences of travelling to the Omo Valley, a beautiful part of Southern Ethiopia and home to fascinating tribes. Whilst there are undoubted challenges of travelling to this part of the country, when done correctly it is an incredibly rewarding addition to time in the North or a fascinating trip in its own right.
Peter reflected on last year’s visit to the Omo by saying: “In stark contrast to the dry and dusty highlands of Northern Ethiopia, the South of the country, and the Omo Valley in particular is an area of lush, verdant valleys, perennial rivers and the lakes of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. The attraction for visiting the area is undoubtedly the chance to see some of the tribes of the Omo Valley, numbering some two-dozen in total, spread from the area around the small town of Konso all the way down to the border with Kenya where the Omo River flows in to Lake Turkana."
Pete continued, "Many of the tribes of the area remain incredibly secretive, choosing to move away from the expanding network of roads and smaller towns in to the deep bush to avoid contact with the outside world, whilst others openly tout their unique position to visitors looking to get an insight in to their fascinating way of life”.
By working with a hand-selected and vetted group of guides whom we have travelled with ourselves, we aim to give our guests the most authentic experience possible of the Omo Valley, including visits to the following tribes:
The Mursi – Perhaps the best-known of the tribes of the Omo Valley, The Mursi are some 8,000 in number, living in the area between the Omo and Mago Rivers. The most distinctive feature of The Mursi (which has lead to their notoriety) is the tradition of their women sporting disced lips, a process which starts in their early teens and stretches far in to womanhood. Whilst the origins of this tradition are disputed, many believe it to have been an exercise in stopping their plundering by slave raiders, who chose their victims very much based on physical appearance. For Mursi males the path to manhood is no less painful, with a series of fighting rituals to be undertaken before they can choose their wife. The Mursi are renowned for being one of the more “upfront” tribes when it comes to asking for money for photographs and village tours, so bear this in mind when visiting their villages.
The Konso – One of the hardier of the tribes of the Omo Valley, the Konso are largely agricultural people, growing their crop of sorghum on their specially adapted terraces in the steep, rocky hillsides around the town of Konso, from which they take their name. Unlike many of the other tribes of the Omo region, the Konso aren’t renowned for distinguishing themselves with body modifications or any distinctive ceremonies, but more for the order of their society, which is more Western than many other tribes, with a strict hierarchy driven by wealth and status. Their orderly villages are amongst the most picturesque of the Omo Valley and arguably a more striking photography subject than the inhabitants themselves. This is not designed to paint a picture of the Konso being boring, their resilience to exist in one of the less fertile regions of the Omo Valley is to be admired and an hour or so spent with them when passing through breaks up the journey down to Jinka.
The Karo – Formerly a pastoralist tribe who lost their cattle to pestilence some years ago, The Karo people now survive as crop growers and have an association to the neighbouring Hamer people. Relatively easy to access from the village or Turmi, The Karo are renowned for being interesting photography subjects, driven by their tradition of scarification, as well as their colourful body art and extravagant hairstyles. The scarification, much like the lip-discing of The Mursi may well have its roots in discouraging the slave trade, whilst the daubing of their bodies with a white chalk is clearly a celebratory act. Arriving when one of these celebrations is taking place would be rare to say the least, but for a small fee you can witness a more “contrived” dance by villagers. They also boast intricate hair styling, which is bound up in to tight buns atop their heads which, for the men signifies a victory in battle or the killing of an especially dangerous animal.
The Hamer – One of the most celebrated tribes of the Omo Valley, the Hamer people number some 70,000, occupying a large area from the Omo River in the West, across to Lake Chew Bahir in the East, including a number of villages in the area immediately surrounding the small village of Turmi. The latter point makes them one of the easiest tribes to visit, with Turmi acting as the main base for exploring the Southern part of the Omo Valley. The attraction of visiting the Hamer people is threefold, starting with the fascinating hair styling, which involves moulding a thick ochre clay in to the hair, which then sets solidly atop their heads. This is then decorated with all manner of coloured items, from beads to bottle tops to make them fascinating photography subjects. They are also renowned for their tradition of scarification, in both men and women, which although it can appear disturbing, is an important part of Hamer life.
Perhaps the most celebrated feature of the Hamer people though is their bull jumping ceremonies. In short, these are a part of the “coming of age” of young men of the Hamer, to proceed their marriage to a female of their choice. The jumping itself is the culmination of a three day ceremony, usually taking place to coincide with the harvest periods between February to April and July to September. Participants are required to jump along the backs of a line of bulls, continuing to do so until they are deemed worthy of marriage by their elders. The ceremony itself is a much longer, and often raw display of Hamer culture, but the bull jumping is a popular site for visitors to the area and, as long as it is viewed as a key part of their lives, is an interesting spectacle.
The Dasani – The semi-nomadic Dasanaech people, who are believed to have their origins on the shores of Lake Turkana in neighbouring Kenya, now have a small outpost on the Western banks of the Omo River, accessible by boat with a local guide. Being semi-nomadic they live in small, lightweight huts, designed for easy movement if the village changes location and are an interesting side-trip if you have made the journey all the way down to the Omo River.
The Aari – The Ari are the largest of the tribes of the Southern Omo, numbering some 320,000. The Aari people are also arguably the most westernised of the tribes, within many of them eschewing traditional dress for more western clothes, although the women still adorn themselves with traditional colourful jewellery. In part this westernisation can be attributed to the proximity of a number of their villages to the town of Jinka, the largest and most significant in the Omo Valley, so modernisation is in a way inevitable. They sustain themselves with a mixture of agricultural and keeping livestock, as well as being renowned as bee keepers, producing excellent honey that can be bought from their villages.
Ben, pictured below says – Whilst much conjecture exists as to whether visiting the Omo Valley, and the tribes in particular, is the “right” thing to do, it is undoubtedly an amazing area and an incredibly rewarding one to visit. We are confident the work we have done in selecting and vetting guides avoids any issue of tourism creating conflicts for the tribes and allows you to see them in an authentic and undisturbed environment.