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The International Writers Magazine: North Africa Travel

Exotic Omo – Tribal Encounters in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley
Linda Barghoorn
Ethiopia’s Omo Valley lies just 300 miles southwest of the frantic, pulsing capital of Addis Ababa, but it might just as well be on another planet.  It takes two days - mostly on rough dirt track - and a complete mind-shift to put those 300 miles behind you and enter into the other-worldly reality of the Omo.


Arriving here is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass into the pages of an ancient African history book.  While this region may belong geographically and politically to a 21st century nation, the tribes who have lived here for centuries cling to a way of life that has little to do with lines on a map or modern society. But the modern world creeps ever closer, bringing potentially profound change for which the tribes are unprepared. 

Leaving Arba Minch, a lively town on the shores of Lake Chamo, we felt the final thread of connection to civilization slip away as we drove the last 100 miles to the Omo Valley.  As the landscape relaxed into the vast acacia savannah, asphalt relented to rough dirt track, modern development gave way to isolated villages of mud or straw huts, mobile phone coverage slipped away, electricity towers disappeared and road signs vanished.  I felt like wide-eyed Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz... ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto’... 

We had four days to explore this remote region, following a circular route mostly on unmarked track through the villages of Weita, Jinka and Turmi.  Dani, with six years experience leading tours here, was our driver and guide.  Our first stop was the Thursday market in Key Afer, a bustling, colourful, weekly marketplace where hundreds of Bena, Ari, Tsemai and Hamer tribes-people come to trade anything from honey, eggs, sorghum and maize to cows and goats.  Women wore goatskin skirts and tops adorned with large cowry shell sashes; men wore t-shirts and bright swathes of fabric wrapped skirt-style around their hips.  Both genders wore brightly-coloured beadwork – necklaces, armbands, leg-bands, earrings, headbands – as if to compete for the title of ‘most elaborately accessorized’.  Several women sported large, hollowed-out half gourds on their heads, as if an armadillo had climbed up for a nap.  A guide walked us through the market and helped negotiate the mandatory fee for taking anyone’s photograph in the Omo – one to three Ethiopian birr, approximately 10-30 cents.  I snapped the camera shutter voraciously and handed out payment.  It was clear that the thick wad of birr notes, our photography budget, was not going to last long. 

We left the market to cover the final stretch to the town of Jinka and the Jinka Resort, where we would pitch up for the first night. 

An early start was mandatory the next morning in order to visit the notoriously fierce Mursi tribe, whose women are famous for the frighteningly large clay plates they wear in an incision intheir lower lip, stretched over time to accommodate increasingly large plates.

Omo child The larger the lip plate, the larger the wedding dowry they can command – as much as 50 heads of cattle.  We’d been warned to arrive early to avoid the nastier Mursi behaviour, which comes from having imbibed too much bordé, a home-made brew of fermented sorghum.We pulled up to a tightly clustered village of straw huts resembling hairy, upside-down eggshells, where a small gathering of tribesmen (already clearly intoxicated) nestled under a tree playing a crude, wooden board game.  After a quick greeting - in which they granted their permission to enter the village – we turned toward the huts.  In a procession that suggested this was a daily ritual, a mass of women and children appeared in anticipation of the tourist onslaught.  We were the first on today’s agenda, armed with a further round of crisp birr notes. 
Some women had inserted their lip plate, while others arrived with long lower lip dangling hideously below their chin.   Several sported elaborate headdresses with large animal tusks dangling like large, ivory earrings and thick rows of metal bands wrapped around arms or legs.  Upper torsos were bare; only a large blanket-like cloth was wrapped at their waist.  There was nothing delicate about these women; only bare chests and stretched lips gave a hint of their gender.  Omo Woman

Surrounding us with demanding stares as they jostled for the attention of my camera lens, they were an intimidating lot.  They glared intently into the camera lens as I took their photos and accepted payment with a soft grunt as if to express their disgust at the whole process, before turning dismissively back to their huts. 

The few men on hand appeared dressed in similar blanket-like skirts wrapped higher around their chests, with AK47’s slung casually over their shoulders.  Cattle, once the traditional measure of a man’s wealth and status in the Omo, are often traded for modern weapons, as wars in neighbouring countries have spurred an influx of automatic weapons via the black market across the borders.  An AK47 costs roughly the equivalent of one head of cattle.     Guns have largely replaced sticks and spears as traditional hunting and fighting tools, and intertribal conflicts – for which the Mursi are infamous - have become increasingly violent and lethal as a result.    
With picture-taking done, the Mursi began to disappear.  Our pockets emptied, we were no longer of interest.  Whatever cultural interaction I’d anticipated in coming here – an exchange of words, ideas or culture – seemed suddenly absurd.  We were here for such a short time that the opportunity for any meaningful exchange was minute and the Mursi knew it.  They’d learned to manipulate the most from our visit - to exchange photos for cash, which in turn at least partially funded their bordé production.  Alcohol abuse has been one of the sad spin-offs of the availability of hard currency brought by tourists. I wondered:  who was exploiting whom?

Leaving the village, we began the 180 kilometre journey to Murulle. By 4 pm we made the final turn off the main road and turned on a barely discernable track toward Murulle.  But several hours later, with the sun dipping quickly below the horizon, we were lost.  To me every acacia, every termite mound, every track etched in the earth looked like the next and I wondered whether we’d be spending a night in the vehicle in the middle of the remote African savannah.  Dani stopped several tribesmen for directions, who were clearly drunk and looked like they’d sooner take us for trophies than help us find our way.  Just as dusk settled in, Dani miraculously found the track and Murulle Lodge appeared, like a delicious mirage, minutes later. As we pulled into the site, it was deserted and the rather shabby white bungalows looked as if they’d seen better days.  A cook and guard were the only staff on hand; we were the only guests.  Eerily quiet, it seemed to whisper, ‘No one else is here. Why have you come?’ 

The safari group that manages Murulle strongly advised against travel here during rainy season when the roads can become impassable – a muddy quagmire – but we had decided to take the chance.  No one else had made the same gamble.   In this, at least, we’d been lucky.

Dinner started with an enormous bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese, which we mistook for the main course, heaping our plates hungrily after a long day on the road.  But the real main course was still to follow:  a surprisingly articulate rendition of beef schnitzel accompanied by crisp green beans and mashed potatoes - a slice of ‘western heaven’ in a place where a green vegetable seems as rare as a Gucci bag.  By 9pm we were tucked safely in our cabins; at 9:30 the generator was shut down, plunging us into a midnight abyss.  Sleep followed quickly and we were serenaded through the night by a chorus of screeching guereza monkeys in the trees overhead.  

Day 3 took us to the nearby village of Kolcho, home to three hundred of the Karo tribe, whose numbers have dwindled to a thousand.  Woven reed huts with cone-shaped thatched roofs dotted the riverbanks high above the Omo River, where they cultivate sorghum and maize crops.  Plans to dam the river further upstream – to produce much-needed electricity for modern Ethiopia – threaten to reduce the river here to all but a trickle, with catastrophic effects on the tribes’ ability to farm crops and cattle.  Without the river’s annual flood waters, the future of the Karo (and others) is in jeopardy.

Karo girls The Karo were once elaborate body-painters, covering their bodies with elaborate, white patterns to imitate the plumage of a guinea fowl.  It is a dying art, although several of the children appeared with upper torso, face and arms decorated with rather unsophisticated patterns.  Women and children were the dominant presence once again, although one male condescended to pose for us, wrapped in the now familiar short version of the man-skirt, the mandatory gun slung across his shoulders. 

His hair was fashioned into a small, ochre-coated knot on the top of his head, crowned with several ostrich feathers to indicate a recent ‘kill’ – either animal or enemy was unclear. The women’s necks were adorned with more rows of colourful plastic beads than I could count, worn with pride, as if it were Cleopatra’s gold dripping around their necks.  Several sported a long, thin nail, pierced through the skin between their lower lip and chin, making a kiss a potentially dangerous affair.  Hair was shorn short, with some having twirled theirs into a multitude of tiny knots, each coated in ochre - as if a thousand ladybugs clung tightly to their scalps. 

The women and children clambered around us as we took pictures, accepting payment and coaxing any extras we might have on hand – a pen, a (highly-prized) empty water bottle.  One cheeky young woman saddled up close, proclaiming ‘You my friend,’ the sequel of which soon followed:  ‘Give me t-shirt’.  When I declined to give her the one I was wearing, she suggested I could get another from my bag in the jeep.  While Ethiopians have traditionally been known for their generosity, the Omo tribes have learned to play on faranji (foreigner) guilt.  They know we carry more possessions in our travel bags than they own in the entire world.  Their boldness in soliciting ‘gifts’ has caused concern that tourism is creating a culture of begging.  In the tourist’s defence, it’s hard not to give in to a sea of outstretched hands.  The gnawing concern about the influences I was unwittingly unleashing here as a tourist grew.

Our final stop would be the village of Turmi, where we would spend two nights.  We visited the Dasanech and Arbore tribes, taking more pictures and handing out the last of our birr notes.  But the highlight was an invitation to attend a bull-jumping ceremony by the Hamer tribe.  They take enormous pride in their herds of cattle, whose size dictates both a man’s status and his wealth.  But in order for a young man to be eligible to either marry or own cattle he must demonstrate his manhood by leaping onto and completing several laps back and forth across the backs of a series of the tribe’s bulls.  Failure to do so successfully means humiliation and a year’s wait to try again.  

As we ate lunch at our lodge, a blaring symphony of horns sounded in the distance, signalling that festivities had started.  Jumping into our jeep, we drove to the site where we were assigned a guide for the afternoon.  A young Hamer man by the unlikely name of Paul Anka was introduced.  (The ‘real’ Paul Anka is a Canadian singer who was popular in the 1960’s).  Dressed ‘western’ in a navy blue tank top and baggy shorts, his command of English suggested some level of formal schooling.  Proudly proclaiming that he had already ‘jumped the bulls’ but was not yet married, he seemed to comfortably straddle the enormous divide between modern and traditional tribal life.  The introduction of schools and formal education by the government – designed to bring these tribes into the modern world – has meant an increasing exodus of educated youth heading for the cities in search of a job and their place in the global market.  Paul Anka seemed to have found a way to fulfil his role in the tribe while stepping carefully into the modern world.  Others will have to learn to do the same, or jeopardize the future of these tribes.   

A tightly-packed cluster of magnificently clad tribes-women gathered on the far side of the riverbed, dancing, chanting and jumping in celebratory high gear, apparently oblivious to the blistering 95F degree heat.  Fortune-cookie-shaped metal baubles were fastened to leather straps, which adorned their calves and jangled like sleigh bells as they jumped.  Several women held crudely-made horns, like metallic party favours, which they trumpeted loudly, persistently.  The only modern clothing concession – brightly coloured t-shirts or halter tops – were tied up bra-style to expose their backs, the purpose of which was all-too-soon clear. 
A young warrior resplendent with elaborate face paint and a headband festooned with feathers approached the group and was quickly surrounded.  As a collection of long, fine reeds was handed out to the women, they stepped back from the warrior to face him in a single line.  One by one they handed him their reed and taking it, he raised it high over his head before bringing it down with a quick flick of his wrist to meet the bare back of each woman with a sickeningly sharp crack, like the explosion of a firecracker.  I cringed with each blow while Paul Anka explained that the women encouraged these blows as a demonstration of their love and respect for the bull-jumper, to whom they were related – a sister, a cousin, an aunt.  Perhaps the sorghum-brew they’d been drinking since the morning to induce a trance-like stupor dulled the pain?

Under a cluster of trees nearby a group of warriors kneeled in pairs, painting each other’s faces with a variety of natural pigments ground on the rocks collected around them and softened into a paste with water.  Brown pigment was smeared on cheeks with a fingertip to create wide arcs, onto which delicate white spots were added with a q-tip – a crude animal mask. 
The finale took place in a nearby clearing of acacia trees.  We made our way there – an eclectic fusion of attendees in western clothes and tribal costume, cameras slung around their necks or Kalashnikovs over their shoulders - and formed a semi-circle around the perimeter of the clearing.  A large herd of bulls was led in by the painted warriors, who grabbed dangerously sharp horns and pushed the enormous bulls roughly into place until something of a straight line was created.  And then there he was – the bull jumper - wearing nothing but his confidence, a strip of grassy reed criss-crossed over his chest and a wild, bushy hairdo shaped like a huge halo around his face.  Taking several quick, long strides, he pushed himself up onto the back of the first animal and stepped lithely across the backs of the dozen or so bulls in the row, making it easily across before turning back again.  With an exultant jump – hands high in the air – he leaped to the ground after a successful first run, only to return and complete a second.  With two laps behind him the elders declared him successful and the afternoon came to an astonishingly quick close as guests prepared to make the long walk (or in our case, short drive) home. 

We left Turmi and the Omo, to make our way back to Addis and the modern world, which lay just days and galaxies beyond this mystical place.  If Africa is a place that gets under your skin, then the Omo is like an obsession.  It is at once dramatic and ruthless, exotic and fierce, beautiful and severe.  We left reluctantly - an exotic collage of faces and places etched permanently in our memories – determined to return to the magic of the Omo as soon as possible.  Just how long it will wait for us is the question.  With the 21st century lurking on its doorstep it seems inescapable that the Omo is on the brink of profound change.  As I boarded our plane home days later I wondered how long will this exotic corner of Africa ‘as it once was’ will be allowed to remain – just as it is?

© Linda Barghoorn October 2010 
London, UK
linishak at

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