In the second part of the journey we get to know up close the Ethiopia’s South OMO Valley tribes, in the remote valleys of the OMO River. This is a special and unique region home of many different indigenous cultures unknown in almost the entire world; visiting it means going back in time to the origins of Civilization.
The OMO Valley is an inhospitable place, where poor rains and scorching heat are the day-to-day basis. You can say that living conditions are very difficult. Several fascinating ethnic groups coexist here, such as the Mursi, Hamer, Banna, Karo, Dassanech among them.
They suffer from lack of water all year round, and even though they have wells, do not use them; what they do daily is to walk many miles to collect water and take it home, for it they use some yellow water containers that put on their heads or backs, both women and children. They also carry the water on donkeys and firewood for the home.
The way of living of these tribes remains unchanged for centuries, when you visit their villages you feel as going back in time to the Neolithic. They have in common rituals in which they decorate their bodies with paintings and scarifications.
To get to know them in their villages, they have two forms of payment depending on the tribe. Most of the tribes ask for a fee at the village entrance that allows you to take so many pictures as you want and at whatever you want; others, like the Mursi, charge you per photo and per person once you have entered the village. In any case, what you see is really their way of life.
To enter these villages and interact with their people it’s also compulsory to pay a local guide to go with you.
Our route to reach the OMO Valley is from Addis Ababa driving to Arbaminch.
South OMO Valley Tribes
We started in the morning, visiting the Dorze tribe in the Chencha village. The Dorze in the past were warriors. Nowadays their living is based on agriculture and livestock, and are well-known for their handcrafts quality cotton robes called Shamma.
Dorzes distribute the labor among them, women spin and the men weave.
Its houses are characterized by their original elephant shape made of enset, large false banana leaves and bamboo canes, which can also be transported and last up to 60 years.
In the afternoon another surprise awaited for us. We took a boat cruise on Lake Chamo and reached the spot called “azo gebeya“ Crocodile Market, where there is a large concentration of crocodiles up to 7 meters long. They sleep with their mouths and eyes wide open, are quite impressive at close sight. We also saw four hippopotamuses that quickly disappeared under the water.
And now, on our way to Turmi, we started the visit of the OMO Valley tribes.
We met different ethnic groups when visiting the Turmi’s market, which is held on Monday. Here Hamer, Karo, Banna, and Arbore can be found getting together in harmony.
The Hamer tribe is Ethiopia’s most traditional ethnic group, engaged in agriculture and shepherding, and characterized by their elaborate hairstyles and scarified body marks (scarifications). Their hairstyles come from ochre and red mud and animal fats.
They decorate their bodies by painting them in many colors and wearing lots of beads, both men and women.
Each individual decoration reflects their social status: hunters, warriors… The hamers are polygamous.
Their initiation rites, the passage from puberty to maturity, involve an amazing ceremony: The ceremony called Ukuli Bula (bull jumping).
This ceremony lasts three days, being the very last one the most relevant of all; when the naked adolescent boys must jump over a lengthy line of thirty cows, jumping over the first one and running over the rest of the animals; when they arrive at the end, they must turn around and go backwards. If the adolescent falls, it’s considered a symbol of ill luck.
The Hamers share a language with other ethnic groups and neighboring villages, the Ari, Banna, and Konso.
Ethnic groups and their linguistic derivation:
In Dimeka’s market (Tuesday and Saturday) we also meet the tribes living together in harmony, although here mainly the Hammers trade.
Its people are nomadic shepherds who live on the banks of the OMO River. They only work the land in the rainy season growing sorghum, corn and the rest of the year move to areas with better pastures.
The region in which Dassanech people live is very arid, their houses (huts) are made of branches and covered with sheet metal, so the heat is unbearable. I was quite impressed to see their way of life. In fact, this ethnic group is considered to be the poorest one in Ethiopia.
And besides, it’s the only one that practices ablation on women and circumcision on men.
On the way from Turmi we moved to the village of the Karo. We took photos to giant termite mounds and surprised us that amid such arid terrain, could grow roses on the trees, amazing desert roses.
The Karo tribe lives in the village Korcho, at the top of the river, with spectacular views. They are engaged in agriculture, livestock and honey collection.
This tribe seemed to me the less authentic of the valley, they paint their faces with colors but since we arrived early in the morning they didn’t have had time yet. Also, wore western clothes, but some of them wore ethnic clothes too.
Continuing the route to see other ethnic groups, we headed to Jinka, the closest city to the OMO and Mago National Park.
Another market in Jinka is the Key Afar market (on Thursdays), considered the most colorful and multicultural in the entire region. There is even an area for the “faranyi” to buy souvenirs.
And also, at the top of a hill, we find the Ethnographic Museum which shows objects of the ethnic groups and describes each tribe of the region regarding their traditions, culture, clothes… It gives you a very complete idea of the varied tribes living in the OMO Valley.
In the Mago National Park, we entered the Mursi village, a tribe known for its women who insert wooden or ceramic plates in their lower lip. They are hunters and also have a lot of cattle, although they use it as a symbol of wealth and do not kill it to eat.
The guide explained to us the technique for placing the plate: the women start as youngsters by making a cut under their lower lip and put on a small plug to allow the wound to heal. Over time, place a plate made of clay or wooden, each one larger than 20 centimeters. In addition, they usually remove two lower incisors to fit the plate better.
This tradition comes from centuries ago when the ships arrived at these shores to provide themselves with slaves. The mursi were valuable because of their strength as a hunters group. To make their women look ugly and not to take them away, they inserted their plates, and it had an effect; they stopped being interested in them, rather they were scary.
Nowadays, it is a symbol of beauty and the bigger the plate is, the more valuable the women become and therefore suitable for a better marriage.
We had the idea that they could be violent and unpredictable since drink until they drop, but they didn’t insist much to us to take pictures of them, just they lined up, so we could choose them for the pictures, but with little interest.
As a matter of fact, we went first thing in the morning when they still hadn’t had time to drink…
Another interesting tribe is this one, engaged in the grazing of cows, sheep, and goats. This ethnic group leads a semi-nomadic life, growing sorghum, sesame and also beekeeping; has fixed homes in certain places. As the hamer, they celebrate the ritual of the cow’s jump.
The men take care of and embellish their hair by decorating it with clay, so it does not get damaged. They sleep on a wooden board that they usually carry with them.
THE ARI TRIBE
During our visit, the friendly tribe showed us their traditional occupations and how they worked. Pottery, blacksmithing, alcohol distillery, preparation of injera, while all the children of the village came to meet and play with us.
In the Ari tribes only the women are engaged in pottery and the men in the blacksmithing. They taught us how skilled they were working with these materials.
From Jinka, we traveled to Konso on the banks of the Sagan River, to visit its villages. The region of Konso is located on a hill at 1650 meters above sea level and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for being an example of adaptation (to the hostile environment in which they live) by keeping their cultural tradition alive for over 400 years.
These people base their economy on livestock breeding, small crops, and cultivation of fruit trees.
We visit the traditional village of Machekie which, like most Konso villages, is surrounded by crops that descend in terraces and protected by stone walls and fences built with twisted wooden tree branches. These defensive walls are 3 or 4 meters high.
Inside the wall, accessed through a single gate, the village is a maze of small streets, where each house maintains a small flower garden protected by high fences.
Yabello is the main town in the Borana region. In this ethnic group 90% are Muslims and 10% are Christians. The people, semi-nomadic, base their livelihoods on shepherding and given the scarcity of water to the artisan construction of water wells.
The crater of the Chew volcano or El Sod, stands out, a small lake of black waters in its center, where the Borana collect the salt.
We went down the crater of the volcano in the middle of a suffocating heat until we reached the lake and saw them taking out the salt. To do so, they swim to the bottom of the lake, equipped with rags to cover their nose and ears because salt is corrosive, and they come out loaded with black salt. Then, some donkeys carry it up.
Of all things we’ve seen in Ethiopia, this is the most extreme poverty we’ve ever meet…
South OMO Valley Tribes Wrap up
With this we ended our route through the south where we discovered the exciting cultures of the Ethiopian tribes, and we headed for the third part of the journey: Bale Mountains and Harar. When planning your trip perhaps you might interest the entries: Ethiopia’s guide and Northern historical route.