Photography Tour to Omo Valley Tribes – 6 Days
Day 1: Arrive Addis
Today is set aside as an arrival day in the wonderous land of Abyssinia for our Omo Valley tour. After arrival in Bole International Airport and taking care of passport control and luggage formalities, you will be met by our representative and driven to your hotel nearby.
Overnight: Addis Ababa
Day 2: Fly to Arba Minch, visit Dorze Village
At a time to be advised you will head back to Bole International Airport to check in for your flight to Arba Minch, which is the gateway to the Eastern Omo Valley and our first stop on our Ethiopia photography tour.
After settling in at our hotel, we will visit Chencha, a “city” lying atop the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley and inhabited by the Dorze tribe. The Dorze are famed weavers who live in tall huts that resemble a giant elephant head. All around Chencha are smaller Dorze villages, which were grouped around the “city” when it was the regional capital. These people have a staple diet of a type of bread made from the fermented false-banana tree.
Men are occupied in the day by many tasks including the weaving of their brightly coloured cloths. They are also a farming people who terrace the hills around their villages for crop growing. Women look after the children, spin cotton, collect firewood and prepare food for the family. The traditional clothing of the Dorze consists of cloths called “shammas”, which have gained popularity throughout Ethiopia.
Their uniquely shaped and impossibly tall grass huts last for many years. We will have the opportunity to enter these huts and visit with traditional and friendly Dorze people as they go about their daily chores, as well as taste their traditional food and fiery brews!
Overnight: Paradise Lodge
Day 3: Drive to Turmi, visit Hamer Tribe
This morning on our Omo Valley tour we have an early start as we depart Arba Minch shortly after breakfast for the town of Turmi. The Hamar is one of the most well-known tribes in Southern Ethiopia.
They inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages in both Turmi and Dimeka.
They are especially well known for their unique rituals, including a cattle-leaping ceremony that the young men have to undergo in order to reach adulthood and to marry. They are a highly ‘superstitious’ people, and to this day they consider twins to be babies born outside of wedlock, while children whose upper milk teeth develop before their lower teeth are deemed to be ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’.
For this reason, such children are discarded in the bush and simply left to die, as they would rather lose a single child than inflict any disaster upon their community. The Hamar people are also known for one of the most bizarre rituals on Earth. This is when the women allow themselves to be whipped by the male members of their family as a symbol of their love! The scars of such encounters are conspicuously evident on the bodies of all Hamar women.
These women take great pride in their appearance and wear traditional dresses consisting of a brown goatskin skirt adorned with dense vertical rows of red and yellow beads.
Their hair is characteristically fixed in dense ringlets with butterfat mixed with red ochre. They also wear many bracelets and necklaces fashioned of beads or metal, depending on their age, wealth and marital status. The men wear woven cloth wrapped around the waist and many elders wear delicately coloured clay head caps that are fashioned into their hair and adorned with an ostrich feather.
As mentioned, the young Hamar men are famous for their “Evangadi dance” and “Bull jumping” ceremony (it is as part of this ceremony that the afore-mentioned whipping occurs). This ritual entails young men who wish to marry jumping over a line of bulls, thereby proving their worth to their intended bride’s family. It also signifies their advent into adulthood. This is a rarely seen event, however with luck, we may hear of, and even be invited to attend this landmark event.
Day 4: Karo Village & Hamar Village
The Lower Omo Valley is situated within Africa’s famous and, geologically speaking, rapidly expanding Great Rift Valley (which will eventually split the continent into two landmasses). Here, in south-west Ethiopia’s awkwardly named “Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region”, bordering Kenya and Sudan, the great Omo River dominates this dry savanna valley, resulting in some of Africa’s most well developed and best preserved arid-zone riverine forests.
The Omo River rises from the Shewan highlands to the north (much of Ethiopia consists of high-lying mountains and fertile plateaus, despite the impression created by some international media bodies that Ethiopia is predominately desert!). It flows 470 miles (750km), mostly southwards, before entering Lake Turkana (previously Lake Rudolf) near the Kenyan border. Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake and also the planet’s largest alkaline lake, has no water outflow, so in effect it’s a dead-end for the Omo River. The importance of the Lower Omo Valley has been recognized by UNESCO, which has declared it a cultural World Heritage site. It also contains two massive national parks and several important bird areas.
Here, our tribe of interest on our Ethiopia photography tour is the Karo, another tribe known for its elaborate body and facial paintings. These people live along the east bank of the Omo River and practice flood retreat cultivation, their main crops being maize, sorghum and beans. Unlike the other tribes, they keep only a small number of cattle due to the prevalence of tsetse flies. Like many of the tribes on our Omo Valley tour, they paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for any ceremonies. The chalk is mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore and charcoal to make its requisite colour. Facemasks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns adorned with feathers.
Scarification is also an important part in the Karo people’s lives. This includes the complete scarification of a man’s chest with which to indicate that he has killed an enemy or dangerous animal (Amongst the Karo, killing one’s enemies isn’t viewed as an act of murder, but as an act of honour!).
This scarification process involves lightly slicing the skin with knives or razor blades and then rubbing ash into the open wounds to produce a permanently raised effect. The Karo women have decoratively-scarred abdomens, which are considered sensual and very desirable.
In the afternoon, we will head back to the nearby Hamar Village to continue photographing on our Ethiopia photo tour this fascinating tribe in all its glory!
Overnight: Buska Lodge
Day 5: Dassenech Tribe, drive to Jinka and visit Omo Child
The Dassenech Tribe are the most southerly of the tribes, roughly 28km from the Kenyan border. The area where they can be found is where the Omo River delta enters Lake Turkana, which gives rise to their name, meaning “People of the Delta”. Despite the lake and delta, this is an incredibly dry region and is classified as semi-arid.
Cattle are central to the lives of the Dassanech as they utilise the livestock for meat, milk, leather for clothing, houses and mattresses. The amount of cattle also provides status in the tribe, and the bride-wealth that allows a man to marry. When members of the Dassanech tribe lose their cattle and goats, and with them their livelihood. The way they deal with this, by switching to an alternative means of support by the shores of Lake Turkana, is an example of how life has to adapt in fundamental ways in the face of some of the most inhospitable conditions in the world.
The Dassanech survive in this environment by cultivating crops when the rains arrive and the Omo river floods. They also manage their cattle herds well, slaughtering the older ones in the dry season, when grazing is limited, and the meat is most needed. But in this dry land, survival is precarious. When Dassanech people lose their cattle to disease, drought or a raid by a neighbouring tribe, they are unable to sustain their usual way of life. Instead, they become the Dies, or ‘poor people’ and turn for their livelihood to Lake Turkana, where they fish and hunt crocodile and even occasionally hippopotamus.
The Dies’ place in Dassanech society is unique. As cattle are a central status symbol, and they have none, they are looked down on. On the one hand, they are considered members of the tribe yet economically, and to some extent culturally, they are set apart.
The Dassanech tribe is not strictly defined by ethnicity. Anyone – man or woman – will be admitted, as long as they agree to be circumcised. Over the centuries, the tribe has absorbed a wide range of different peoples. It’s now divided into eight main clans, which to some extent reflect the wide-ranging origin of its members. Each clan has its own identity and customs, its own responsibilities towards the rest of the tribe, and is linked to a particular territory.
Once our visit with the Dassanech is complete, our Omo Valley tour continues as drive back to Jinka and visit Omo Child, an organisation for rescued Mingi children from the Kara, Bena, and Hamer tribes.
Mingi is the ritualistic killing of infants and children believed to be cursed by the male elders of their tribes. These leaders traditionally believe if allowed to live, these children will bring death and widespread suffering to the entire tribe. Cursed Mingi babies are identified as children of unwed mothers, twins and those born with abnormal teeth. Omo Child’s mission to provide a safe, nurturing home and quality education for rescued Mingi children.
The founder, Lale Labuko, was born into the Kara tribe in Ethiopia’s OMO Valley and was one of the first of his tribe to receive a formal education. This exposure to the bigger world led Lale to realize the devastation of Mingi and the critical importance of ending this outdated tribal practice. Outlawing – and stopping – Mingi has become Lale’s life mission. Through OMO Child, he is working hard to make sure his generation of tribal members brings an end to Mingi forever.
Their hope is to bring awareness about the practice of Mingi and to see to its elimination in all 3 tribes of the Omo Valley; Kara, Bena, and Hamer by the year 2030.
Overnight: Eco Omo Lodge
Day 6: Visit Mursi, fly to Addis & depart
On the last day of our Ethiopia photo tour, we have an early morning start as we enter Mago National Park at 06:00 in order to reach the Mursi Tribe while the light is still soft. Most famous for the clay lip plates that the women insert in their lower lips, the Mursi are probably one of the last tribes in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear these large pottery or wooden discs or plates.
The lip plate (dhebi a tugoin) has become the chief visible distinguishing characteristic of the fascinating Mursi people. A girl’s lower lip is cut, typically by her mother or another woman of her settlement, when she reaches the age of 15 or 16. The cut is then held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. It appears to be up to the individual girl to decide how far to stretch the lip, which she does by inserting progressively larger plugs over several months. Some girls even persevere until their lips can take plates of 5 inches (12 cm) or more in diameter!
The Mursi and their neighbours became part of the Ethiopian State in the final years of the 19th century, when Emperor Menelik II established control over the southwestern lowlands bordering Kenya and Sudan.
This was an area inhabited by several small tribes with fluid identities, highly adaptable to environmental conditions and capable of easily absorbing outsiders into their communities. The Mursi as we know them today are the product of a large-scale migratory movement of cattle herding peoples in the general direction of the Ethiopian highlands. Three separate movements may be distinguished in the recent history of the Mursi, each the result of growing environmental pressure associated with the drying out of the Omo basin over the last 150 – 200 years.
The Mursi attribute overwhelming cultural importance to cattle. Almost every significant social relationship – particularly marriage – is marked and authenticated by exchanging cattle. The “Bride wealth” (ideally consisting of 38 head of cattle) is handed over by the groom’s family to the bride’s father, who must meet the demands of a wide range of relatives from different clans. This ensures that cattle are continually redistributed around the community, thereby helping to provide for the long-term economic security of individuals as well as their families.
After a morning’s photographic session of the Mursi, we will fly back to Addis and our incredible Omo Valley tour comes to an end!