Covering a vast area of south-western Ethiopia, the remote Omo Valley is a cultural melting pot of ethnic tribes living on the lowlands surrounding the mighty Omo River. These tribes each have unique and varied beliefs and cultural practices which they have maintained for centuries.
During your safari in Ethiopia I highly recommend taking a few days to travel along the Omo River with Lale, an expert local guide who has spent years getting to know the various tribes and building trust with them. He will enable you to spend time with the local peoples in a sensitive and respectful manner, staying at his tented camp and fly camping on river banks along the way, an incredible adventure!
Some of the diverse and distinct ethnic groups which you may meet include the Mursi, Bodi, Kara (Karo) Hamar, Dime and Dassanech. Some of these tribes descend from distinct linguistic origins - Nilo-Saharan or from Afro-Asiatic branches such as the Orotic and Cushitic.
My travels in the Omo Valley falls across two very different experiences. My first visit was along one of the main tourist routes, and whilst it was fascinating and certainly eventful and unforgettable, my interactions felt more scripted and not entirely ‘true’.
Recently I visited again, this time to explore a more untrodden area of the Valley, where the tribes are nearly entirely unchanged by the modern world. We explored the great expanses of this sometimes inhospitable region to meet tribes who rarely see an outsider, yet were welcoming and most definitely as curious about us as we were about them.
This is a journey for the adventurous though, as one travels along the Valley, sleeping in various fly camps. These are very basic, but for me, this was one of the highlights of the journey - just to know that you are in the middle of nowhere with no sounds around you except for bats flitting overhead, you are on your own.
The Dassanech live in the most southerly part of the Omo valley on the edges of the Omo River and in the delta region of Lake Turkana. We explored the delta for birdlife, which was abundant, and also saw many crocodiles. Though the Dassanech have cattle, we also saw camels and goats and they also supplement their diet with fish and crocodile meat; there is no shortage of crocodiles in the Omo!
One event which we were privileged to encounter was a little of the Dassanech Dimmi ceremony, performed to bless the first-born daughters. Many Dassanech families with daughters of a similar age, generally 8 to 10 years old, congregate near the banks of the Omo River during the dry season, when the Dassanech move their dome-shaped huts into a huge boma shape.
Around three or four times a week towards sunset, the men gather, adorn themselves in ochre and white paints, plumes of ostrich feathers for their hair and wild animal skins on their backs, to dance and chant from one family hut to the next, gathering more and more men.
The women follow with their pleated and beaded skirts. The chanting is mesmerising, the feathers sway, feet stomp and the atmosphere builds, is palpable, until the entire village is moving as one, around and around, swaying, gyrating, lost in the importance of their tradition.
Whilst the elders, called buls, make the blessing, the older elders sit on their haunches in the centre of the ground and are held in high regard by all as they watch the ceremony. Fathers whose daughters have been blessed will now become elders themselves. As the sun sets the movement suddenly stops, the families disperse and home fires are lit.
The Karo people came to visit our camp one afternoon and showed us their body paintings. The men helped to paint each other in white clay, using stripes, spots and zig zag patterns, and the women and children painted each other too using more colour. The patterns have no meaning and are instead according to their own preferences, and are for ceremonies and parties.
The following day we travelled down river by boat for two hours to a fly camp which had been set up on the riverbank. En route one passes the confluence of the Omo and Mago rivers which forms the boundary to Mago National Park. You also see a small village on the river banks of the Kwegu tribe. The landscape is semi-arid but the riverside vegetation is lush, with long roots hanging down the steep riverbanks, and home to many such as Pels’ fishing owls.
We stayed in the camp for three days and were fortunate to meet some people of the Mursi tribe who visited us from their village, a sixteen hour walk away! The Mursi are one of the most unique tribes of the Omo and this was a wonderful experience to spend time with them and learn about their culture.
Through the use of scarification and lip plates the women of the tribe often modify their bodies in various ways according to their preference. The women have very few possessions except for a blanket which they wear as clothing and sleep on as a blanket at night, and a lip plate if they choose to use one.
We were lucky to hear the Mursi singing and dancing together privately one night after we had all gone to bed. The following day I sat with the women in the camp for a while in the afternoon and they were so genuinely curious about us, they were interested in our western clothes which they inspected, as well as our hair, hands and feet! We showed them a book about the various Omo tribes which they found fascinating as they’d never seen one before.
That evening we took a boat ride up the river and watched the cattle coming down to drink in the dust which made for great photographic sunsets.
In an afternoon we walked to the Karo village where the entire village was dancing. They all had their faces and bodies painted and invited us to watch them dance and perform. Some dances were for the men and were to show how high they could jump, where as other dances allowed the ladies to dance flirtatiously and get the men’s reactions. We stayed until nightfall and then walked back to camp for dinner.
Whilst the Omo is still mostly unexplored by outsiders, there are changes afoot in the landscape and way of life. The Ethiopian Government have already built three bridges across the Omo River and three out of the five planned dams have been developed with the fourth currently under construction.
The dams will bring an end to the seasonal flooding of the Omo Valley on which the tribes rely, and in addition will supply water to large commercial farms and estates which are expected to stretch all the way down to Lake Turkana. This will change the whole dynamic of the area and it is thought that access to the river will be highly limited for local tribes for their own needs. The Omo Valley peoples are concerned that they will be forced away from their lands and their way of life farming with their livestock.
The best times of year for the Omo Valley are October and November (when it is great to combine the Bale Mountains with your visit) and in May through to August (which is also wonderful for walking in the Gheralta Mountains to see the cliff churches).
If you would like any more information about safaris and vacations to Ethiopia and visiting the Omo Valley please do feel free to contact me.