Tribes and traditions in Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Karo men poses with impressive body painting and kalashnikovs, Omo Valley
Karo men poses with impressive body painting and kalashnikovs, Omo Valley

A beautiful, shaking and thought-provoking visit

Hamer tribe:

Heilu from the Hamer tribe in Omo Valley
Heilu from the Hamer tribe in Omo Valley

A young Hamer man has caught my attention and with clear body language he shows his interest in my camera. With help of our guide, Mamaru, I learn that his name is Heilu. I take the camera off my neck and place it over Heilu`s neck while I show him how to look into the viewfinder. Heilu laughs and grabs the camera with great enthusiasm and directs it out towards the crowd. But he does not dare to put the eye close to the viewfinder. I try to push the camera closer to his eye as I show him where to tap to take the picture. He takes pictures repeatedly and smiles at me. The images are very unclear, but it does not matter. Heilu is a happy guy.

Heilu and I are getting along!
Heilu and I are getting along!

So am I. I’ve got something else to think about and feel that Heilu and I have a sort of communication, despite the fact that Mamaru has to help a little. Heilu has a ribbon of beads on the head and pearl chains with tassels around his neck. He has a piece of striped cloth around his hips and like all other men in the Hamer tribe, he carries his little chair and combined headrest on his wrist. Heilu is a very handsome young man.

We are in a dried up river in the Omo Valley, southwest in Ethiopia. The Omo Valley is considered one of the most unique places on earth and has the widest variety of tribes still living according to their old traditions. These traditions include Mingi; killing infants, female circumcision, whipping of women, scar tattoos, body painting and bull jumping among many.

We are here to attend a bull jumping ceremony and have already been here for many hours. As part of the ceremony, the female members of the family of the young man who is jumping the bulls, get whipped. I have trouble dealing with this and choose to turn my back to the whipping as Heilu approach me.

The background for our “expedition” into the Omo Valley lies a few years back in time. During a visit to Germany we bought the book “Kleider der Natur” by German photographer Hans Silvester. His images from the Suri and Mursi tribes in the Omo Valley grabbed us immediately with their aesthetic beauty. But we were not at all prepared for all the other aspects of these tribal peoples’ traditions.

The Omo river meander for more than 600 km from the high mountains further north until it ends in Lake Turkana near the border to Kenya. The river forms the basis for living for all tribes in the Omo Valley. The lower part of the Omo Valley was in 1980 listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, the oldest finds of Homo sapiens were found during excavations from 1967 to 1974. These findings are the most important findings we have in order to learn more about human development.

We meet our young guide Mamaru and the driver Gobi in Addis Ababa an early morning in December 2017. Mamaru is himself from the Omo Valley and he believes he is 21 years old. He belongs to the Bana tribe and was one of the few in his village who was sent to school. Today he runs his own company, Mamaru Ethiopian Tours, and takes tourists to visit the tribes of Omo Valley. Today we are visiting the Hamer tribe, one of the largest and most famous tribes in the Omo Valley. The Hamer tribe consists of approx. 50,000 people living in scattered villages around the small town of Turmi.

At the Hamer tribe, we visited Averra, the head of his family, and spoke with his two daughters in law Modo and Nori. They are both first-wives to his two sons. They show this by wearing a metal necklace with a prominent tip. Below this necklace they wear two other chains and none of these chains will ever be removed.

Both girls have lubricated red clay mixed with animal fat into the hair and on large parts of the body. They have goats’ skin decorated with copper and plastic beads worn as a skirt. Metal bracelets on both arms look very decorative. On Modo’s shoulders I can see patterns made of scar tattoos. This tattoos is common with many of the tribes of the Omo Valley.

We are served coffee brewed on the shell of the coffee beans. It tastes more like tea than coffee and is served in a calabash jar. With help from the local guide Gino, I try to start a conversation with the girls. I ask how many children they have and what food they eat. I also ask what they think about tourists visiting. I don’t manage to get much conversation out of it, but we feel welcomed and when Per asks what the drawings on the wall mean, they giggle and tell us, it is only the kids playing with chalk on the walls. No secret symbolic meaning at all!

Hamer boy in deep concentration before his bull jumping ceremony
Hamer boy in deep concentration before his bull jumping ceremony

After the visit to Averra we move on to the dry riverbed where the preparation for the bull jumping ceremony is in progress. The local guide Gino, who is also from the Hamer tribe, tries to explain what’s going on. The young boy, soon ready to jump is naked. Both sides of his head are shaved and he has only a Mohawk left. Around the chest he has a thread of bark, baraza, which will give him protection and happiness. Prior to this he is rubbed with sand to be cleansed of his sins.

The bull jump, called ukuli, is required for him to be considered an adult man ready to get married. If he succeeds he will be a maza for 2-3 months and only live on milk, meat and honey together with other maza boys from other villages. In this period it’s the father’s task to find him a wife. Meanwhile, the task of his and other maza men is to whip women during bull jumping ceremonies throughout the area.

A maza is painted before hi can perform his tasks with the whip
A maza is painted before hi can perform his tasks with the whip

Back down in the dry river, the mazas are swinging the whip. The women dance towards them, show their backs and receive the whip as they sing, jump up and down and blow their little brass horns. That’s when I turn my back. I do not want to photograph this. The atmosphere is quite aggressive and several of the women bleed from the wounds on their backs. Dino explains that they wish to be whipped. “It’s part of our culture,” he says, but he does not look very comfortable either. I notice that some of the women are crying, but try to hide their tears with louder song and faster dancing. The level of noise increases, the dance becomes more intense and I can see both madness and panic in the eyes of some of the women.

The whipping results in scars on the back and this is considered a symbol of their love for the family and thus becomes a status symbol. To endure the whipping is also a way to put the boy in debt. In the future, he must always stand up for the female family members who got whipped during his bull jumping ceremony. The women provide a guarantee for the future.

The women of the Hamar tribe sing and dance, Omo Valley
The women of the Hamar tribe sing and dance, Omo Valley

Being a tourist in this dramatic scene is problematic and I decide there and then that I will not fall for the temptation to beautify or exoticize when writing about it. It was uncomfortable to be in this situation with other tourists who ran eagerly after the whipper to get the best pictures of a bloody back. As a woman, I just could not see that my fellow sisters were treated in this way. I could not intervene, but I could explain to our guides why both Per and I chose to turn our backs. We do not have to support all kinds of cultural traditions.

The bulls are on their way!
The bulls are on their way!

Eventually the men bring the bulls through the dry river. They walk in a cloud of dust. The women of the family dance and sing upwards towards the village and we are spectators along with the village’s other families. Arriving in the village, the family’s men gather around the boy and give him a blessing. Before the sunset, he will hopefully become a man.

I can see his nervousness as he walks among the bulls and try to collect energy for the upcoming bull jumping. The bulls are lined in a row; he must jump over 8 bulls. The men have a good grip on head and tail on every bull and then the boy is ready. He concentrates and jumps so high that he hits bullet two before he quickly runs with long steps all over the line. But he is going to run back too and then he has to do it once more, four times all together. Second time he almost fails. He hits a little bit wrong with one foot and lose balance for a moment. But not long enough for him to fall. Had he fallen, it would not have been dangerous; it’s just the credit at stake here. The jumping itself is possible for most boys to manage, but a certain style is required. For the bulls, there is no danger at all; they have no trouble carrying a young boy at full speed over their backs. Then he is done, a helper is taking him and as proof that he has finished in style, and one of the maza bites off the bark threads around his chest.

The old tribal traditions can be brutal. Life here is tough and everyone struggle to survive. The Hammer tribe is still practicing Mingi; killing babies and children, even though Ethiopian law prohibits it. The Karo tribe stopped practicing Mingi in 2012 after pressure from its own tribal members. A very good documentary; Omo Child, The river and The bush, is made about this theme and the Omo Child organization is working to stop this custom. A Scaring number of children are killed in Omo Valley every year; some stipulate the number to approx. 300.

A child who is defined as Mingi will cast curse on his family and on the whole tribe. The child must therefore be eradicated. It is thrown into the river or left in the bush after the mouth is filled with clay. There are four types of Mingi children; twins, children born outside of marriage, children born in marriage, but without permission from the elders and children who get their teeth in the upper jaw before the lower jaw. Grotesque reasons and completely inconceivable that mothers and fathers have accepted this for generations. But it is based on fear, superstition and on the traditional leadership of the elders.


Karo tribe:

Karo women posing by Omo River in Omo Valley
Karo women posing by Omo River in Omo Valley

Mamaru wants us up early. “It is important that we come to Korcho before other tourists,” he says. The village of Korcho is beautifully situated on a hill overlooking the Omo River. This is one of three Karo villages. The other villages are Duss and Labuk, all on the eastern side of the Omo River. The Karo tribe is one of the smallest tribes of the Omo Valley, among 3,000 individuals.

We arrive around 8:00 after driving through a beautiful savannah landscape with the highest termite mounts I have ever seen. Once we park the car, many of the tribal members have already lined up in perfect poses, a dream for any photographer. They are artificially painted with white limestone, red ocher and clay mixed with yellow minerals.

On the river slope with the Omo River as a beautiful backdrop, the Karo men are proudly posing with their Kalashnikovs. They are covered with impressive body paint, beads and feathers. Fixed rate is 5 birr, a little less than one dollar, to be allowed to take a picture. The money is well deserved, but the situation feels uncomfortable and I have trouble dealing with this well directed tabloid. Nevertheless, I end up taking some pictures and Per has a pocket full of 5 birr notes that he hands out. Body painting is a tradition of the Karo tribe and something that is done daily regardless of whether tourists come or not. Still, the whole situation feels unnatural and I no longer feel like taking pictures.

Kalashnikovs is a status symbol, but also a necessity to protect both the herd and themselves. At regular intervals, the Karo tribe is in conflict with its neighbors, especially the Nyangatom tribe on the other side of the river. In the Omo Valley, it has been easy to get to Kalashnikovs because of its close proximity to Sudan and the warships there.

We move away from the river slope and walk around the village together with a young boy, Logica. He goes to school and speak some English. We enter through the low doorway of one of the huts and meet a woman with her young children. Mamaru helps me with the conversation. She says she is the only wife, has four children and her responsibility is around the house and the children. They fish in the river and sometimes they manage to catch a crocodile. But she likes fish better than crocodile. I tell a little about myself and we manage to have some kind of communication. I feel a bit better here in the dim light in the small hut than out in the staggering heat, where the hassle of being photographed for a 5 birr, are constantly buzzing around you.

Karo children plays Mandala
Karo children plays Mandala

The Karo grows sorghum, corn and beans and keep small herds of goats. Their lives are severely threatened by the Gibe III hydroelectric dam and plans for even more dams in Omo River and by an increase in the number of plantations close by. In recent years, the Ethiopian government has rented or sold large areas to Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Saudi Arabian investors for large sugar cane and cotton plantations. Close to the village, we could see how they were developing a big cotton plantation.

The Karo and Hamer tribes have a close relationship and speak almost the same language. The traditions are quite similar and both tribes practice bull jumping ceremonies. But in the Karo tribe, the bull jumping takes place for a large group of boys and men with many years of space, while in the Hamer tribe it takes place every time a boy is reaching the age for marriage.

Bana tribe:

The Bane tribe counts around 27,000 members. They were originally semi nomadic moving with their cattle herds in the dry season. Today they are mostly living in one place and grow sorghum, corn, beans and bananas while retaining their cattle herds. They also do honey production and like many other places in Africa, they hang the beehives in the big acacia trees. They are closely related to the Hammer and Karo tribes.

Our guide Mamaru is from the Bana tribe and comes from a small village near the town of Keyafer. We stopped in Keyafer for lunch and were served delicious goat meat in the traditional way. At the same time we are introduced to some of Mamore’s friends. Keyafer is in the mountain approx. 1600 meters above sea level and the climate is comfortable. We notice a difference from further down the valley and we enjoy the cool breeze and do not miss the burning heat in the lowlands. The scenery is impressive and beautiful. The Bana is sometimes referred to as the Mountain people.

We are invited to a Bana family just outside of Keyafer. Mamaru has agreed on a payment and ensures us that this will be exciting and enjoyable. The head of the family welcomes us with his two wives and some young children. They are just going to eat and invite us for lunch. They serve corncobs cooked on the fire. The taste is delicious, but I’ve been having a problematic stomach for some few days and have to say no thanks. I’m trying to explain why, but I’m afraid I’m perceived as rude.

We are shown around the property where they grow, bananas, sorghum and corn, as well as some coffee beans and sunflowers a little here and there on the fields. They extract oil from the sunflowers. They also have cattle herds and it is the kids’ responsibility to take care of the herds. Each wife has her own house where she lives with her children. Also grown up children with their own wives live nearby and the whole family is sharing the resources.

Daasanach tribe:

Daasanach village in Omo Valley, near the border to Kenya
Daasanach village in Omo Valley, near the border to Kenya

A few days later, in early morning, we arrive at the border town of Omorate, just 20 km from the Kenyan border. We have to stop by the local police station to get our pas ports checked and our personal data is very carefully and exact listed in a special form. Omorate is a small, dirty city characterized by unsuccessful investments in cotton plantations in the period after Haile Selassie, during the Mengistu regime.

But after all, it’s still a city with shops, market place and small cafes where you can buy Cola, Fanta and many types of beers. It is primitive, but still part of the modern world. We will only move 500 meters before we are a thousand years back in time.

Daasanach women is fetching water in Omo River
Daasanach women is fetching water in Omo River

We cross the Omo River in traditional canoes hollowed out from one log. The river flows quite quickly and is dark brown in color. It is a bustling life on both sides of the river. Small children pick up water in large yellow plastic cans while ensuring that the goats also get to drink. The women wash clothes and themselves and some boys have found it fun to slide in the mud and straight down into the river.

In the middle of a flat desert plain, the Daasanach village is located within an enclosure made of logs and twigs. It is early in the morning and it is already burning hot. It is only 300 meters to walk from the riverside to the village and as we walk, more and more children follow us with curiosity.

The small primitive huts are lined up close to each other inside the enclosure. Most of them are made of corrugated iron and metal plates. But some are made of branches and grass and used during the day for shadow. Small groups of women and children sit outside the huts and the atmosphere seems apathetic. The kids do not look healthy. What we see is pure poverty. I feel an intense sadness and a lot of frustration about the kind of tourism I am now a part of. My desire to learn more about the many tribes in the Omo Valley and gain some insight into old and traditional cultures in an area that is believed to be the cradle of humanity has not been particularly successful.

According to Ethiopian authorities, Daasanach counts about 48,000 members scattered along the lower part of the Omo River and around the north side of Lake Turkana. They are semi nomads and move the herds around. They also cultivate the soil during periods when the Omo River floods and they fish in the river.


Thoughts about tourism in the Omo Valley:

The question if my vacation is successful or if my wishes are met, is completely insignificant in a broader context. I live in a world of luxury and I am so privileged that I can travel around the world. The meeting with Ethiopia and the tribes of the Omo Valley became more brutal and shocking than I had imagined and I realize that my presence as a tourist in this area hardly has any positive significance for those struggling to survive in tough conditions.

On the positive side, I do contribute a few pence every time I choose to take a photo, but how this eventually affects the culture of these tribes we know little about. Several claim that the way in which their bodies are painted and other decorations has changed over time and that the tribes have become more and more similar. The reason for this may be that the most photographed expression is what becomes the last “fashion” because it brings in the most money.

Today, it seems that the tourism in Omo Valley is completely out of control and certainly not based on respect for the people and tribes you visit. It should be encouraged to communicate more and given more opportunities for tourists to learn about the area they visit and the history and culture of the tribes.

The photogenic culture of the tribes can be their Armageddon, well helped by Ethiopian authorities. Dam construction in the Omo River is already under way and several more dams are planned. This will have a major impact on the livelihoods of the tribes and the ability to maintain a life based on simple cultivation of the earth and animal herds on pastures.

Several groups have already been forced to move to new areas where they are entirely dependent on government assistance. But the assistance works poorly.

Through Mago National Park, a road is built to transport sugar cane from a plantation on the other side. This entails a lot of heavy traffic and conflict with the Mursi tribe, which lives inside the national park.

The Mursi tribe was the main reason we went to Ethiopia and a visit was on the itinerary. We went to the city of Jinka; which is a good base for trips into the Mago National Park. Unfortunately, we had to change our plans. The same evening we arrived at Jinka, we were told that there had been a traffic accident on the road through the national park the same day. A Mursi had been hit by a truck and killed. The next morning we heard rumors that 15 people were killed by revenge. The police blocked the national park and it became impossible to get in. Such conflicts happen on a regular basis we were told.

View of the Omo River from Korcho Village
View of the Omo River from Korcho Village

It was a reminder of how vulnerable the relationship between old tribal traditions and the modern community is. It is so quick to destroy thousands of years of tradition and it is completely impossible to rebuild what has already been destroyed. The conflict of interest goes deep. For the usual Ethiopian, dam development will probably lead to better access to power and make life easier. But for the tribal people in the Omo Valley, the same development will have irreversible consequences and their way of life will hardly survive the next 10-15 years.

We do not regret that we were traveling in the Omo Valley. It was an experience we will never forget. In addition, I have learned a lot about how different conditions we humans live under and how many challenges these people face. The Omo Valley tribes face major challenges in the next few years in relation to the modern community and modern development. Not all traditions deserve to be passed on, but the way the tribal people in the Omo Valley live in close contact with nature, the river and the seasons, have a value in their own right that they should be able to maintain for as long as they want to.

Dam construction and plantations:

In 2006, the Ethiopian government began the construction of the Gibe III hydroelectric dam that allows for large plantations through efficient irrigation systems. The dam is now in operation and two new dams are planned. You can read more about this here:

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