The villages of the Lower Omo Valley are home to some of Africa’s most fascinating ethnic groups and a trip here represents a unique chance for people to encounter a culture markedly different from their own. Whether it’s wandering through traditional Daasanach villages, watching Hamer people performing a Jumping of the Bulls ceremony or seeing the Mursi’s mind-blowing lip plates, your visit here will stick with you for a lifetime. This is quite a beautiful region, too.
The landscape is diverse, ranging from dry, open savannah plains to forests in the high hills and along the Omo and Mago Rivers. The former meanders for nearly 800km, from southwest of Addis Ababa all the way to Lake Turkana on the Kenyan border. South Omo, as it’s also known, is not a land frozen in time as many visitors with visions of National Geographic articles imagine it, though ancient traditions still form the backbone of daily life.
The Dasanech range across a large territory following the western banks of the Omo River south to Lake Turkana Originally purely have adopted fishing, though cows are still the mainstay of life. They are one of the poorest peoples of the valley. Like their enemies, the Nyangatom, women make beads from scraps of plastic, but Daasanach women wear fewer necklaces.
The Hamer are particularly known for their remarkable hairstyles. The women mix together ochre, water and a binding resin before rubbing it into their hair. The Hamer are also considered masters of body decoration, much of it improvised: nails, mobile phone cards and wristwatch bands are all incorporated into jewelry. The women wear iron coils around their arms, and bead necklaces. The ensente (iron torques) worn around the necks of married and engaged women indicate the wealth and prestige of their husband. Unmarried girls wear a metal plate in their hair that looks a bit like a platypus bill. The iron bracelets and armlets are an indication of the wealth and social standing of the young girl’s family. When she gets married, she must remove the jewelry; it’s the first gift she makes to her new family.
With a population of about 1500 people, the Karo are one of the Omo Valley’s smallest groups. Inhabiting the Omo’s eastern bank northwest of Turmi, some of these traditional pastoralists turned to agriculture after disease wiped out their cattle. In appearance, language and tradition, they somewhat resemble the Hamer, to whom they’re related.
Traditionally the Mursi would move during the wet and dry seasons and practise flood retreat cultivation along the Omo River, though raising cattle is the most important part of their life. The most famous Mursi traditions include the fierce stick-fighting between the men (now illegal and so never done for tourists), and the lip-plates worn by the women. Made of clay and up to 12cm in diameter, the plates are inserted into a slit separating their lower lip and jaw. Due to the obvious discomfort, women only wear the lip-plates occasionally, leaving their distended lips swaying below their jaw. The hole is cut around age 15 and stretched over many months. Women’s large ear holes are cut at about age five.
Dangers & Annoyances
Photography can also be stressful. Locals love having their photo taken – because they charge you for the privilege. Posing for photos is the best and sometimes only source of cash the villagers have. They’ll often aggressively approach you, demanding that you start snapping. In fact, most of the face and body painting and elaborate headgear were once worn only for battle or special occasions, but it’s now done daily to prompt tourists to snap photos. The clothing (or lack of it in the case of the Mursi), however, is genuine.
Unfortunately, the ‘pay to snap’ mentality in South Omo has recently mutated into the rather presumptuous expectation that tourists should be willing to photograph (and pay) any local who wants them to. This can sometimes create an unpleasant atmosphere: every person you walk past seems to yell ‘faranji’ (term for all foreigners), ‘photo’, ‘birr’ (local currency) or a variation thereof, and some become quite hostile if you don’t accede to their demand.
Tourism to South Omo, while hardly large scale, is catching on in a substantial way, and it does seem to have stimulated a vociferous and often grasping spirit of commercialism that can seriously detract from what would otherwise be a fascinating experience – indeed, as one traveller pointed out, South Omo may be an interesting place to visit, but it is not much fun to travel there.
I hope you found this interesting. Please feel free to leave any thoughts, questions or comments that you might have.
Planet, Lonely; Jean-Bernard Carillet; Tim Bewer; Stuart Butler (2013-05-01). Lonely Planet Ethiopia, Djibouti & Somaliland (Travel Guide). Lonely Planet Publications. Kindle Edition.
Briggs, Philip (2012-09-24). Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guides). Bradt Travel Guides. Kindle Edition.