Southern Ethiopia – the Omo Valley

The events of this story took place in November of 2017

“Do you have any medicine?” A voice whispered in my ear.

“What?” I looked back to see the lone other white person on the bus leaning over my seat.

“Like pain medicine? My tooth is killing me.” The young man said. He was clutching his face tightly. I couldn’t place his accent.

I gave him ibuprofen. “When we get to Arba Minch I’ll take a look at it. If it is an infection you will need to get it treated right away, that’s nothing to mess with.” The man thanked me and sat down. It was an unexpected start to our journey into Ethiopia’s Rift Valley.

When we arrived in Arba Minch eight hours later I inspected the man’s mouth. His name was Jan and he was from Denmark. He had come to Ethiopia on a whim after a tour of South Africa.

“Your wisdom tooth is sticking out through your gum. I’m not a dentist but I can see it pretty clearly. It is not infected. The bad news is there isn’t really anything that you can do about it here in Ethiopia. I’ll help you find a dentist to confirm this.” I told him. We spent the next hour dodging pedestrian traffic and street kids sleeping on the sidewalk trying to find a dentist. The dentist we found charged Jan $0.70 for a consultation and echoed my diagnosis. Mercifully, he prescribed Jan stronger pain medicine.

Arba Minch is a small but congested city. We were only halfway to the Omo Valley, our final destination. Tomorrow required another full day’s bus ride.

Jan after many hours on our second day of bussing.

The rift valley is thousands of miles long and stretches across multiple countries in Eastern Africa. It was formed by the divergence of two tectonic plates that will eventually split the horn of Africa off of the continent. It is home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations and tribes. Some of those tribe are still living as they have for millennia, and it was those tribes that we had come to visit.

Our bus ride the following day was like a geological kaleidoscope. Verdant valleys full of ancient terraces gave way to mars like deserts. Lakes appeared around corners and pocket forests billowed with smoke.

We pulled into Jinka, our base for exploring, after a rainstorm. Everything was covered in mud and we more slid than walked to our guesthouse.

Guides approached us everywhere we went. Their prices varied wildly, but they only offered a handful of repeating itineraries. We teamed up with Jan, pulled a name out of a hat to pick our guide, grabbed our tents and loaded up into a mini-van.

The Mursi

Our first visit was to the Mursi tribe. A long and dusty road brought us into Mago National Park. AK-47 wielding guards stopped our mini-bus frequently. Cattle rustling and tribal warfare is common here. Thus it was required that we be accompanied by a gun-bearing scout. Our package included this and we expected a scout to board the mini-bus and come with us. Unfortunately, our guide would simply hand small amounts of money to guards each time we stopped. In the end we had no scout and our guide pocketed the extra money.

The Mursi are famous for the lip plates their women wear. They stretch their lower lips over a period of 1 to 2 years until they are able to insert a plate. No one is sure why this custom started. The common theory is that it was to deter slavers. A less common theory is that the lip plates are simply a form of fashion.

It is common for Mursi to remove their two bottom-front-middle teeth. This is to combat lock-jaw that results from meningitis. The brain infection itself is usually not fatal but tribal members starve because they cannot open their mouths. The two missing teeth allow an improvised straw to be inserted and save their lives.

As we entered the village we were swarmed by women and children begging us to take their photo. Most tourists only visit for an hour. It is customary to pay the Mursi for photographs. The combination of limited time and an income stream has led to a frenzied human zoo like atmosphere that is unpleasant for everyone involved. Photos of Mursi villagers adorned with a nearly comical array of ceremonial artifacts is common, these were put on to solicit photographs and do not reflect real Mursi life.

We kept our cameras in our bags, much to the disappointment of the villagers, some of whom yelled and spat at the earth before storming away cursing.

What a great start, I thought.

We decided to sit with the men, who didn’t seem to care about us at all. For a while the women kept returning with ever bigger piles of jewelry on. We kept our cameras tucked away until they grew tired of pageantry. After a few hours normal life resumed and the women began preparing food and taking care of their children as they naturally do.

I wanted to observe The Mursi and learn about their way of life. The elder Mursi men have a good scheme going. They build fences when the village moves, fight off neighboring tribes or cattle rustlers, and negotiate any trades. In the village they mostly sleep, drink, or chat with each other.

Adolescent men take care of the cattle. They lead them to water each day and to watch over them as they graze. Occasionally, they practice stick fighting which is painful to watch but quite entertaining. The young men fastidiously remove ticks and wipe the eyes of their cattle. They seem to genuinely love them. They do sometimes wack them with long flexible sticks if they won’t move.

Women provide the vast majority of labor. With things more calm now I was I was able to wander around and watch women do their work. They groomed each other, breastfed their babies, ground grains, made fires, distributed water and repaired their homes.

I made a point to thank the women if I observed them or took their photograph. I did so by placing my hand over my heart and bowing. Sometimes I shook their hands. If they frenzied for photos I put my camera away. It became a pleasant experience after the women figured out I didn’t want them to do anything special and was more likely to take their photos if they ignored me. The techniques they use to eak out survival from this barren landscape are fascinating.

Cows are driving force behind everything the Mursi do. The number of cattle determines a family group’s wealth and status. Cows are exchanged for weapons, food staples, marriage, and to settle disputes. Villages are moved and strategically placed to protect grazing lands.

Cow’s blood is the primary source of protein for the Mursi. They use a sharpened arrow to pierce the jugular artery and collect the blood with a gourd. Once the gourd is full they apply pressure until the wound clots and the cow can go back to grazing. The blood is then ingested directly while still warm. The Mursi only a few plants and seeds that grow wild in the area. Balls of unseasoned sorghum or bulgar wheat make up the brunt of their diet. They either trade or grow these crops using rudimentary methods. Their simple diet requires minimal labor and affords the Mursi a large amount of free time each day.

The most difficult labor is the collection of water. The Mursi do not dig wells. All water is gathered from surface sources. As the rainy season turns gives way dry season grazing lands near water sources  used up quickly. By the height of the dry season the women sometimes walk up to five kilometers each way to collect water. We visited just after rainy season so the land was green, villagers were happy, and there was no conflict with neighboring villages.

Mursi villages are based on extended family groups and usually have around one hundred members. There are only around 1,000 Mursi still living traditionally. The Ethiopian government considers their nomadic tribes, which includes many tribes beyond the Mursi, as an embarrassment. Each year they restrict the land available to tribal peoples. This leads to grazing and other land disputes which all to  often end in a flurry of bullets.

Growing numbers of Mursi are rejecting their traditional lifestyle and moving to towns and cities. Unfortunately, life is not much easier for them as they are heavily discriminated against by the main body of the Ethiopian population. Local beliefs have made rape a common threat for Mursi women outside of their villages. Their dangling lower lips make them instantly identifiable, that is one of the many reasons young Mursi women rarely follow this custom anymore. Mursi men have a reputation as murderers and mistrusted by other Mursi and Ethiopians. It is a tough life indeed.

The mursi way of life, which has lasted for thousands of years, is unlikely to survive in the coming decades.

With patience I was eventually able to photograph almost every tribal member in the village. We fell asleep in our tents to the sound of grazing cows. The stars were unbelievable.

In the morning we explored another Mursi tradition. One that has influenced fashion all over the world – their hairstyles. Jan decided that he wanted a Mursi haircut, much to the delight of the villagers.

As designs were cut into Jan’s hair with a razor blade our guide began to argue with the village chief. We had been in Ethiopia long enough to recognize the numbers. It quickly became clear that our guide was trying to underpay the chief for our visit. This after we already didn’t have a scout. Eventually the chief stormed off in frustration. I often wonder if our guide as been banned from the village. It was probably the only instance in our travel history where we have not tipped our guide.

Back in Jinka Jan‘s hair was a big hit, people even wanted to take picture with him. The experience was a lot to digest, in both good and bad ways. We decided the best course of action was to get drunk and search for a TV so Jan could watch football.

The Banna

For our next adventures we contacted a guide named Suraj. His passion for the indigenous tribes was as infectious as his knowledge was vast, we liked him immediately. He knew a Banna family that we could stay the night with. The more details he explained to us the more excited we got. Soon we were in a mini-bus on our way.

The mini-bus dropped us on the side of the road. We made a twenty minute walk to the village. Because the Banna are farmers their homes are spread out across a large area, not right next to each other like the Mursi. This village occupied a green hillside with expansive views of the valley beyond.

We were warmly greeted by our host family. There were only seven family members so it was an intimate experience. Their farm had a beautiful view and we felt immediately at home. The family was relaxed and joyous. There was none of the pageantry we had experienced with our last village stay. 

The Banna eat a diverse diet of starches, grains, vegetables, and meat. Banna villages cooperate and trade with each other, allowing for a diversity of goods and spread of innovative farming techniques. Our host family proudly gave us a tour of the carrots, garlic, sweet potatoes, wheat, corn, beans, and an array of other foods they grew. 

Banna women add a distinctive red clay to their hair and traditionally wear goat skins adorned with cowry shells. Banna men have braided hair that is shaved on the sides. They wear a skirt that stops just above the knee. Finely beaded wreaths adorn their heads, often accompanied by matching bracelets on their arms.

We bought a large goat from them and watched as father and son slaughtered it in front of us. We would feast tonight! This much protein in a single meal was a rare treat for the family. They had only hosted foreigners once before. The atmosphere became festive and they began singing as they prepared dinner.

Suraj was wonderful. He was full of jokes and even some magic tricks. He told us all about the life of the Banna and was able to translate all of the many questions we had.

Suraj doing magic tricks

The goat was divided into around eight pieces and pulled onto sharpened sticks that we propped vertically over an open flame in a style similar to one used by the gaucho in South America’s Patagonia region.

Our hosts prepared goat blood for us. I cringed as I accepted the helmet-sized bowl, I was expecting a metallic taste that I typically do not enjoy, but I wanted to be respectful and try it. They had added many herbs and cooked the blood a little. It was absolutely delicious! I broke out into a huge smile and the family to erupt in satisfied laughter. I could have drank the whole thing! Reluctantly, I passed it along to Valerie and Jan who in turn passed it around the family.

Goat’s blood a la Banna – so delicious!

Neighbors began to arrive, undoubtedly smelling the meat and hearing the singing. Everyone was happy. We noticed that we were the only ones wearing shoes and we quickly took them off to show our solidarity. This was met with awe and smiles – we were not like the other foreigners they had seen at the weekly market.

Suraj had disappeared but now returned with two 1.5 liter bottles of local arak booze in tow. Well done Suraj! We passed it around, along with local sorghum beer in a gourd and the singing quickly turned into dancing.

The family demonstrated a stomping style of dance that included a lot of jumping and rhythmic foot pounding. They beckoned us to join and we did not disappoint them. We danced vigorously and howled at the moon. We were truly bonding with our new Banna friends. The father came around many times to shake our hands and hug us, which Suraj told us was reserved as a true show of respect. We were honored.

The goat was ready and, oh my, was it amazing. There were around 18 of us by this piont and everyone ate until their bellies ached. The party fell silent for a short time as we all digested and rubbed our protruding bellies. Then the mother called out with a sound that would have made Xena the warrior princess proud and the singing and dancing resumed anew.

Suraj nicknamed Jan “jungle boy” and from then on we exclusively used his nickname. Suraj entertained us with more magic tricks before a dance-off ensued. The father grabbed me and we danced round and round, interlocking arms and changing direction until we were so tired we fell on the ground laughing.

Eventually, around 1:30am we were all exhausted. The family beckoned us into their hut, but the stars were so beautiful we decided to sleep on the ground outside. This was great until a downpour came and forced us into the hut for the rest of the night.

In the morning we bid the family a sad farewell. We hitchhiked back to Jinka, stopping in small villages along the way for coffee and lunch. In contrast to our last guide Suraj had been an incredible and we could not thank him enough.

Jan, Valerie and I once again had a fun night out in Jinka that ended with Jan expanding on the virtues of Eminem and telling us his life story. He had to return to Addis Ababa to catch a flight so we said fond goodbyes. Long live Jungle Boy!

The Hamer

Still craving more from of this incredible part of the world Valerie and I caught a mini-bus to Turmi – the center of Hamer tribe territory. The Hamer are share many similarities with the Banna people and they sometime inter-marry. 

Most Hamer people don’t live in Turmi but rather in small nearby villages. They do not farm as much as the Banna and the Ethiopian government has begun exploiting this. Food assistance is provided to the Hamer in the form of 100 kilo sack of rice or other food staples. This is provided even in the rainy season in a subversive effort to undermine Hamer independence. Eventually the Ethiopian government hopes to mine minerals on Hamer land and convert the Hamer to orthodox christianity.

The Hamer are famous for their bull-jumping ritual where a boy becomes a man by jumping across the backs of bulls lined up in a row. The boy must do this three times, falling is a great embarrassment. We tried to witness one of these ceremonies but it was cancelled at the last minute due to rumor that a rival tribe was planning to ambush the celebration.

We were lucky to observe many Hamer people in Turmi. Hundreds of villagers slept on the ground around the village waiting for food assistance trucks that arrived late.

The Karo

In Turmi we met Edin Krnic He is something of a travel celebrity in his home country of Montenegro. Edin had a private car and driver, which in hindsight we should have also used. He was kind enough to allow us to join him to visit a Karo tribe that was a rough 2 hour 4×4 drive away.

The Karo are famous for their body paint and they occupy a beautiful stretch of the valley along the Omo river. The government has set up a tobacco factory adjacent to Karo land, much of the younger generation has cast aside their traditional ways and taken jobs at the tobacco factory. 

Unfortunately we did not have a very authentic visit to the Karo. As with the Mursi photography has become a primary source of income for the Karo and we were met with intense pageantry as soon as we exited the car. As beautiful as this was, and it made great portraits, we were not able to get an idea of what life is really like for the Karo. If we were to visit again I would love to spend a night or two in their village. In our experience this is only way to get past the transaction of photography and truly learn about the Omo Valley’s tribes.

It is rare that we meet people who have traveled more than we have but Edin Krnic certainly has. We will always be grateful for the advice he gave us and giving us a lift to see these amazing villagers. 

The Konso

A few days later we visited the Konso region which felt a world away from the tribes of the Omo Valley. They build maze like villages of a few hundred people and have unique traditions including a marking pole where they tie ropes around every 13 years, making precise dating of the villages possible. Some are many hundreds of years old.

The konso are famous for their terraced farming techniques and strong work ethic. The entire region is considered a UNESCO world heritage site. The konso people are much more integrated into Ethiopia’s economy and tourism infrastructure is also more developed.

We visited around midday and most of the working age people were out tending to the fields. This left the village elders and children to occupy the village. Valerie and I have always loved to speak with older generations and learn about their lives so we were in heaven. Our guide was very knowledgeable and provided excellent insight in to Konso culture and valuable translation as well.

The Dorze

For our final adventure in Ethiopia’s rift valley we visited the Dorze. Once again we found a new and  completely unique lifestyle. The men of Dorze are famous for their beautiful and intricate weaving. Their mastery of loom was mind boggling. Their homes are also woven and, incredibly, are two stories tall. The homes can even be moved if necessary. We spent two nights in a local vilage. One of the days was market day and people from all the surrounding are gathered to converse and trade.

Tej, an alcoholic beverage made of honey, is popular all over Ethiopia but we found the best Tej in Dorze. With all the tej came singing and dancing and once again danced a few nights away.

Southern Ethiopia’s rift valley is among the most interesting places we have ever visited. I would love to visit again. The government effort to integrate indigenous people into the christian orthodox majority is quickly changing traditional lifestyles and the region is experiencing rapid change. For that reason I hope is is not long before we return again to venture into humanity’s history and smile with these amazing people.

Written by:

Scott Dusek is a writer and photography originally from Seattle, Washingon.

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