Visit the tribes of the Omo Valley

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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 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.

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.

The Omo Delta, spanning the border of Ethiopia and Kenya (in a remote enclave of the Great Rift Valley) in southwest Ethiopia, is one of the least accessible but ethnically diverse parts of East Africa. Here travellers can glimpse the continent as 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 missed with milk is a staple drink; and a man’s wealth is judged by the size of his herds.

To a Westerner, life here appears unimaginably primitive. It is certainly hard, but here you will find people content in their existence, clear about their values and in tune with the environment.

Over ten distinctly different tribes exist within a 38-mile radius, each with its unique language, clothing, hairstyles and bodily ornamentation. Visiting them is a rare privilege, and a highlight is attending one of their many festivals. Here’s a snapshot of five of the tribes one can meet in the Omo:

(All images by Steve Turner, Origins Safaris)

1 Mursi
The Mursi is one of the last tribes amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear lip plates. When she reaches the age of 15 or 16, a girl’s lower lip is cut and the wound is held open by a wooden plug until it heals. It appears to be up to the individual to decide how far to stretch her lip, which she does by inserting progressively larger plugs and plates over several months.

Traditionally a migratory cattle-herding people, the Mursi place overwhelming importance to cattle. Almost every social relationship is marked by exchanging cattle.

2 Hamar
The Hamar are a highly superstitious people, known for one of the most bizarre rituals, when the women allow themselves to be whipped by the male members of their family as a symbol of their love!

The women take great pride in their appearance and wear dresses consisting of a goatskin skirt adorned with rows of red and yellow beads. Their hair is characteristically fixed in dense ringlets with butterfat mixed with red ochre, and they wear bracelets and necklaces fashioned of beads or metal, depending on their age, wealth and marital status.

The young Hamar men are famous for their ‘Evangadi dance’ and ‘Bull jumping’ ceremony (pictured at the beginning of this article), in which young men who wish to marry jump over a line of bulls to prove their worth to their intended bride’s family.

3 Kara
The Kara practice flood retreat cultivation, their main crops being maize, sorghum and beans. They paint their bodies and faces with a white chalk mixture to prepare for any ceremony, and scarification is important, effected by lightly slicing the skin and then rubbing ash into the wounds to produce a permanently raised effect.

This includes the complete scarification of a man’s chest to indicate that he has killed an enemy or dangerous animal. Women have decoratively-scarred abdomens, which are considered sensual.

4 Suri
The Suri are pastoralists, placing great value on their cattle. They are renowned for their ornate body decoration, which they achieve through painting, scarification and adornment. Suri women, like Mursi, also wear lip plates.

A famous component of Suri life is stick fighting, known as Donga. At a fight, each male contestant is armed with a hardwood pole about six feet long with which to knock down his opponents. The victor is presented to a group of girls who decide which of them will ask for his hand in marriage.

5 Dassanech
The Dassanech live in the semi-arid land where the Omo Delta enters Lake Turkana. Their name means ‘People of the Delta’. Cattle are central to their lives, providing meat, milk, leather and status, and they too use scarification as an indicator of bravery.

The tribe has absorbed a wide range of people and is now divided into eight main clans, each with its own identity and responsibilities. For example, the Galbur clan believes its members have power over water and crocodiles, and are responsible for treating diseases. One of their most important ceremonies is the Dimmi, a blessing performed when a first-born daughter reaches 8-10, to ensure her fertility in later life.

Visiting the Omo: Origins Safaris specialises in cultural expeditions, wildlife safaris and self-discovery projects beyond the beaten track in eastern and central Africa. Learn more about their cultural tours at http://originsafaris.com/cultural-immersions

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