Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Ethiopia is home to approximately 83 languages — so there’s at least that many tribes. From Oromo (the majority) to Amhara to Tigray to Afar to Somali, these tribes all have regions specific to them. But Ethiopia’s also got the Southern Tribes Region, which is jam-packed with tribes that speak completely unrelated languages, practice wildly different customs, and choose to live traditionally with little taste for modern amenities. Most notoriously, many of these tribes practice various body modifications and adornments, ranging from body painting to scarification to lip plates, believe in animism rather than organised religion, and often wear little to no clothing — all the kind of stuff you see on documentaries, as if some uncontacted humans isolated from the rest of the world. (They’re not.)
Unfortunately, in recent years it’s become sort of a human zoo, with hordes of package tourists arriving in villages in their 4x4s and minibuses, picking photogenic villagers — who often go beyond traditional dress to be more eye-catching to tourists — from a lineup, snapping pictures, and leaving. The tribes themselves have turned it into an income source, which they should, but some tribes take it too far by demanding tourists take photos then demanding cash, often getting into altercations about payment.
With a bit of reluctance, I decided to go visit the Omo Valley anyway. I held out some hope that there would be something more rewarding than just pictures of “exotic looking” people, and I’m very glad to say that there was indeed so much more than that.
(Warning: some images below may be considered not safe for work.)
With no other travellers to group up with, I chose to go on the back of a motorcycle with a driver/guide for three very, very bumpy and dusty days. As 4x4s, minibuses, and tractor-trailers from Djibouti zoomed by, my guide, Ben, and I were literally left in the dust and exhaust, but we were safe and were never run off the road. I’m not sure how legal it is for motorcycle drivers to take tourists into the valley, given that Ben did lie at a police stop and say we were working for a Chinese company, but it’s definitely the option less taken: of the hundred tourists we passed by, I saw only one other tourist on a motorcycle like me. While the motorcycle option meant not being able to visit some of the tribes in more remote areas with poor roads, the big benefit was avoiding the masses and choosing some stops a little off the beaten path. We visited many of the same tribes as the masses, but in smaller villages that receive guests less often.
I’ll start with the negative. The Mursi tribe are probably the most famous of all: many of their women wear lip plates, with incisions cut in their lips around the age of 15 and stretched from there, up to 12 cm in diameter. The lip plates are quite uncomfortable and worn only on special occasions, but during village visits, many of the women just put them on to beckon tourists for photos. Ben and I did not visit a Mursi village since it wasn’t possible with the motorcycle, but we did see some Mursi people hanging around Jinka, with the women under a tree and the men heading out to drink (in the early morning!). As much as I wished for it, there was no room for conversation: just snap a picture, pay, and leave. Well… here you go:
The Tsemay tribe, the poorest of the South Omo tribes, also gave me mixed feelings. As Ben was unable to speak the Tsemay language, he arranged a local guide for me in their village near the town of Weyto. While initially nice, all he wanted to do was take me to every member of his village and snap photos of them, and I was not able to converse with them (mostly due to the language barrier) or learn anything about their culture beyond the adornments they put on: women have extensive facial tattoos (as opposed to the little crosses that many Ethiopian Orthodox women have on their foreheads and chins), and men typically wear beaded headbands. It’s understandable that they want some income though — as Ben tells me, the Tsemay are nomadic and usually are forced to abandon house and move every year due to floods in their land.
But happily for me, things get a lot more interesting from there.
The Konso tribe, with 11 of their 43 villages listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are famous for their use of rock terraces, both to retain moisture for their crops (otherwise rainwater just runs down the hillside), and as a design element of their villages. With a very friendly and informative local guide, I visited the village of Gamelo, which is laid out like a target of four circles. The first and oldest, situated on a hilltop, began some 400 years ago with around 700 residents. Built in a fortified circle to prevent invasion from other tribes (in the old days, the neighbouring Dorze would steal their herds), when the circle became too full, descendants of the original residences began construction their own just outside the circle. This process continued, and the second circle contains 1500 people, a third circle contains 2600, and currently, there are about 900 people living outside of the third circle.
These fortifications are anywhere from 50cm to 6m tall, with very few and narrow entrances into each of them! Additionally within each of the village’s circles, each residential compound (also with narrow entrances) is fortified. Tightly packed together, walking around each circle becomes more like walking around a giant version of those circular maze toys with the marbles in them: again, narrow passageways were used as a means of slowing down the enemy. There are no longer any tribal conflicts here now, so all that remains for them to continue building residences so densely is tradition.
Each of the village’s circles has a generational pole (with one new tree trunk added on every 18 years), a swearing stone (kind of like a village court of justice), and several community houses, which all unmarried young males older than 12 must sleep in (traditionally to guard the village, now just a tradition). Every family compound seemed so orderly, and houses were all topped with a decorative pot — except the chief’s, which is topped with an ostrich egg. Wandering around was a very pleasant affair, passing by playing children, random wandering livestock, people farming on their terraces, and some men weaving cloths that the Konso are famous for. I still have no idea what this is about though:
Another wonderful experience was seeing the Bena and Hamer (closely related, with different dialects of the same language and slight variation in dress) go about their normal lives. It was surreal to ride through the cities of Jinka and Key Afar, modern places home to traders and government workers and the associated city amenities and modern buildings they expect, and see city folk mingling with village folk in their traditional dress (plus shirt and pants) bringing their animals around and their goods to the market, having walked the 30 or so kilometres to the city. Both the Bena and Hamer are especially visible: the men have indescribably distinct haircuts and often decorative feathers, while the women all have ochre (red sand) and butter rubbed into their hair, which sways like a heavy bead curtain. The Thursday market of Key Afar is a vividly colourful affair, with Ari (mostly modernised), Bena, and Hamer people from all the surrounding villages gathering in one place.
In the immortal words of Robin Sparkles: “We came here to shop, and we came here to flirt.” Thus it goes for the Ari, Bena, and Hamer! The Ari are master blacksmiths, while the Bena and Hamer are master pottery-makers, so the tribes buy such tools from each other, along with tobacco, honey, rope, ochre, and animals. The rest of the market is filled with more modern things, like western clothes, plastic containers, and also souvenirs for the tourists. But really, the market is where the tribes mingle: villagers of the same (or even different) tribe but different village meet, and while some are greeting friends, others are really out looking for a potential mate, dressing up for the occasion!
I visited the Bena village of Kaya during the day, when the men were out tending to their flocks but some of the women and children were around, taking care of the house and their crops. I was greeted by a mother and daughter, who ushered me into their rather wide house, complete with a second level/shelf and raised sleeping surfaces covered in goatskin. They invited me for “coffee tea”, brewed from the leaves instead of the beans, which they sell for more money, and pulled out a pot from their rather large collection, offering me fresh honey they harvested. While the visit was short since most of the villagers were out for the day, their hospitality was palpable.
But by far my highlight, and one of the most interesting days of my life, was spending a night in the village of Dembayete, home to a relatively small 300 people of the total 60,000 Hamer tribe. It was clear that they were very friendly with Ben despite him not being Hamer, as he greeted everyone like family. But they were just as friendly to me, the only foreigner around. While it was clear that they’re accustomed to hosting visitors, as they had a hut just for tourists to sleep in, they swept me right into the day they were having. Aya, the village elder with only one tooth left and no idea how old she is, invited me for coffee tea with a warm smile, clasp of my hand, and a blessing. I also later found out that my hut was within the compound of Yelaman, the son of one of the ten Hamer kings.
The men were still out but just about finished with their day, so in the meantime, the children still around the village came out, wanting to chat and play. I had no idea what they were trying to say, but as they swarmed me and started playing with my hair, I didn’t need Ben’s explanation:
“Hey, this guy’s a little different from the other visitors!”
“His hair is so thick and spiky!”
Not a single cry of “China!” or “faranji” or “photo” or “birr”. They didn’t care who I was but we just enjoyed each others’ company.
When the men didn’t return at sunset, we learned that they, along with some of their wives, were a ways downhill, holding a celebration for receiving permission from the government to clear some more forest for their own land. When we arrived, they were passing around gourds full of corn and sorghum beer, while roasting a freshly slaughtered goat. They gave me one of their tiny traditional stools to sit on, which I promptly fell off of to sympathetic laughter, but they pulled me right into their circle of conversations, even with the language barrier. One man noticed my smartphone in my pocket and wanted to play with it — he immediately managed to turn on the flashlight. While the South Omo tribes tend to shun modern technology, they’re not ignorant of it — I noticed that two men had old Nokia phones along with a solar charger, and another man had a motorcycle!
The goat was soon ready and the aroma was irresistible. Despite being completely covered head to toe (and hands) with dust, dirt, and exhaust, with no opportunity to wash my hands (they didn’t seem to have any water…), I happily obliged and am forever grateful that my stomach cooperated, because it was all delicious. The kids kept coming up to me with handfuls of corn, the men continued to pass me pieces of goat even though I was totally full, and the gourd of sorghum beer kept being passed to me — I couldn’t refuse what was offered. But Ben and I, tired from hours on the road, had to retire for the night, and so we headed back towards the village.
But before I could go to sleep, one kid who continually passed me corn asked me, “Hello! Gadi?” Poor Ben was about to pass out and wasn’t there to translate, but I soon learned what he meant. By now it was nightfall and pitch black, but I could hear children chanting in the distance. Waking Ben up, I coerced him to bring me over, and it turns out the kids were having an evangadi — night dance. Their chant, translated? Beckoning anyone who hears them to come, and to join them in for singing and dancing. Simple but effective — worked for me, plus all the other kids, as the group got larger and larger. Clap clap clap jump jump jump. They did it for an hour. I joined in for about five minutes before I completely exhausted myself, to their complete amusement.
That was New Years’ Eve, though I doubt anyone around knew or cared. I slept at 9 pm, and so did everyone else.
Waking up before Ben at 6 am to the first sunrise of the new year, Yelaman and his wife invited me in for coffee tea. He, his wife, and his children were all in various states of mostly-undress, and yet nothing about it felt uncomfortable or abnormal. We smiled wordlessly, drank our coffees, then later said our goodbyes.
While I didn’t get to see all the South Omo tribes, the ones I did see were in good moods and states of celebration, and it was simply amazing to see the emotions manifest within their traditions. But what I didn’t get to see in person, I could see by circumstancial proof: scars.
The South Omo Research Centre, an excellent museum in Jinka, covers many of the tribe customs. Of particular interest is the featured interviews with women of all tribes, discussing their duties, their ideas of intelligence and strength, and their ideas of beauty and of expectations.
The Hamer tribe are famous for the jumping of the bulls ceremony, meant for a boy ready to marry. Girls will line up to be brutally whipped, with the intention of inducing scarring, to show their devotion to the boy — either because they want him as a suitor, or because the boy is a brother. The Ethiopian government has been trying to tame the practice, but whenever no one’s watching, they willingly continue. (Men are often whipped too, but in other, less public contexts.)
A video documentary of two Hamer girls about to marry was particularly revealing. Both cried, as the village celebrated around them. A few days prior, when asked what they enjoyed about being girls, they said the opportunity to socialise and to dance with their girlfriends, and the company of their family. A married woman next to them described their life ahead: married girls belong to their mother-in-law who will raise them as their own, are not allowed to see their family for the first three months, aren’t allowed to talk to their husbands until then, are later expected to have children, and to withstand (and give) any beatings that may occur during arguments with their husbands. “Your father is the best pastoralist with the biggest flock. Live up to his name, show that you are his daughter. Take any beatings you receive with pride, it will taste sweet like honey.” And yet, at the same time, after a few months: “Your family will forget you. You will forget them. You will learn to love your new family.”
As an idea of beauty, Mursi women choose whether to cut their lips and insert plates. Most of the time, there is social pressure to do so. And yet they do so willingly: “When the government or foreigners come, we will say we won’t cut our lips anymore. But when they leave, we will continue to do so. If they come back, we will hide our children until they leave again.”
Nearly all tribes practice some form of female genital mutilation at various points of childhood or adulthood; the rate is above 90%. “Everyone is cut, our grandmothers, mothers, and other girls. If it is not done for me, I wonder why not, if I have done something wrong, if I belong to my tribe.”
Other tribes practice ritual, patterned scarification, like dotted lines on the back or stomach. Some have their bottom teeth pulled for aesthetics. “When my friends do it, they will ask why I don’t. It is painful! They will make fun of me. But then I think, what am I afraid of, I can bear pain, and so I do it too!” “It is a symbol of strength!”
Only 4% go to school. There are schools in the cities, which the Ari go to, but most tribes choose to keep their children out, to take care of the flocks and fields and family, to maintain status.
They know how it is in the outside world; they mingle in the towns, and they receive plenty of tourists. They even vote in federal elections. While some may run away and start a new life and some may have more openness to western ideals, the significant majority remain in their traditions. This is their modern world and their identity: they live in the 21st century as we do, but they choose their life, and they won’t have any outsider decide it for them.