The Tribal Kaleidoscope: Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Omo Valley is like no other place you’ll ever have visited! Home to several, distinct indigenous tribes living in their still, more or less, traditional ways, attired in not an awful lot except multicoloured, beaded jewellery, silver earrings, lip plates and maybe even some body painting, either of the temporary, wash-off variety or lifetime tattoos and scarifications. Appearance is everything, indicating might, wealth, marital status and maybe some personal pride or vanity. It’s not only the ladies who decorate their hair with colour, braids or accessories.

Make sure you click on the first photo for a larger format: and take your time: there’s a lot of detail in these ones!

All our lives we’ve bypassed visits to tribes and remote clans: from islands in Indonesia, to around the Amazon, to northern Namibia, as it raises such difficult questions of tourism impacting traditions, so it goes against the grain to visit here and the decision doesn’t always sit comfortably with us.

As a tourist you are never going to blend in well here!

There is such an inimitable beauty all around, it’s almost “the most colourful place on earth:” every day we’re filled with amazement, surprise, curiosity and delight. It is so completely different to anything we’ve previously encountered. We only witnessed the minimum and know there is so much more to experience.

The Karo: one village beautifully set on a hill over the Omo river, with a commanding view of their surroundings. They’re experts at body painting, particularly when preparing for a festival rather than a tourist visit! This was both our most uncomfortable visit in regards to the impact of tourism mentioned above, and yet, I also had the nicest conversation with Michael, who was rightly, incredibly proud of himself for working up to 6th grade in school, saving for the books and fees himself. If I wanted to support anyone, it would be him, but that only dawned on me later.

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The Mursi: renowned aggressors, masters of fierce combat with sticks, ladies with lip plates. They are also the tribe most damaged by tourism, alcoholism is rife, bought with those lovely tourist dollars and the whole ‘tour’ is apparently humiliating and demeaning for all parties. We pass.

 

The Ari are less traditional dressers these days but we do spot the swishing stripey skirts, with a little frill around the hips, as they sashay along the roadside.

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The Banna: extravagant hair accessories. The colourful, plastic hair-clips are a modern-day novelty!  (There may be Hamer photos here, not always easy to differentiate).

Finally for us, the Hamer: women wear iron coils around their necks and arms, colourful bead wristbands, long bead necklaces and skirts of hides adorned with small cowrie shells, all with special meanings as regards marital status and rank. Their coppery-coloured plaits are caked in ochre and sticky stuff and twisted over and over again. Some other organic mix is used to smear onto their bodies too, creating a reddish brown hue to the skin.

The men stand tall and walk upright with ramrod straight backs, almost aloof. It’s quite a contrast to the women, who now carry all their goods on their backs, not their heads, as we have photographed so often in Africa. The firewood bundles look like tonne weights and when you see the elderly ladies, they are permanently bent double.

 

Our lovely guide-in-training arranged for us to observe a little harvest festival in a very small village: beginning at dark with the men in a line. As more young ladies joined in, it felt like being a teenager at a dance course, choosing partners. Flirting is integrated into the ritualised steps of jumping in front of the man you fancy, then quickly retreating to your line of ladies before he can ‘catch’ you as he jumps out at you.

Some little ones tried to join in, obviously picking up tips for later in life.

The dance continued until one of the men asked if they can stop and have supper, he’s hungry!

The markets continue to fascinate, as everywhere in the world! All of them, bar a little side section, provide for themselves, not tourists. They’re awash with vibrant colour and activity with people from various tribes mingling and loafing. Wherever in the world you come from, no market is complete without a watering hole and in Jinka there are enough to do a whole pub crawl. To the initiated: they’re recognisable by the pole stuck in the ground outside and an upside down plastic bottle balancing on top. For a change we give the home-made, very strong alcohol a miss. It’s phenomenal to observe all these people, going about their habitual chores and routines, with hardly a flicker of recognition or adaptation for the tourists.

Key Afer Market

 

Key Afer Cattle Market

Jinka Market

 

It’s a truly magnificent visit to the region and we felt it an absolute privilege to witness the people ‘at home’ firsthand.

By the time we left we were brimming over with enthusiasm and admiration for this area, babbling non-stop, trying to digest what we’d seen and heard.

This is one astounding, living world: legendary!

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