After visiting the Himba tribe in northwest Namibia last fall, I have been yearning to visit and photograph other African tribes before they get completely swallowed by our fast changing modern world. I decided to plan a trip to Omo Valley in the southern part of Ethiopia where there are about 10 distinct tribes. Omo Valley is often considered “the Cradle of Mankind” before the conquest of Menelik II in the 19th century. This is definitely the “visit while you still can” kind of place being one of the most ethnically diverse and primitive places left in the world. In 2006, work began on the Gibe III dam which will in effect block part of the Omo River which would heavily impact the tribes and animals living in the area. I expected the trip to be a bit rough for sure and that I will be harassed for money here and there. From what I have read, Omo Valley is definitely more touristic than the Himbas in secluded northwest Namibia where you have to fly in to gain access as there are no roads leading to the area. I am prepared for a less than authentic experience where you pay to photograph someone and where you may not have the opportunity to chat with the locals and learn more about their culture and daily lives like I did with the Himbas. Regardless, I still want to visit them before they disappear.
I flew into Addis Ababa and stayed the night before connecting to my one-hour flight down to Jinka. Currently there are only flights to two airports in the Omo Valley region: Jinka and Arba Minch. Otherwise the drive from Addis Ababa would take a good 8-10 hours. I left most of my luggage at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa which is more like a St Regis than a Sheraton. I am only bringing my carry-on case, my backpack and a large bag of supplies. I was quite well prepared for this trip as I was a bit concerned about hygiene and conditions of the hotels in the Omo Valley. Last year, I was in Rwanda and Namibia and stayed at ultra-luxurious lodges and still ended up with a ton of tick bites and parasites. So I am being extra careful this time since there are no luxury lodges to speak of in Ethiopia. I brought along all kinds of bug sprays including flea and tick sprays for the hotel rooms. I had my insecticide covered sleeping bag liner which I slept in on top of the sheets. I had disposable pillow cases and covers for the blankets. I had all kinds of wipes including extra large ones for the body if the toilets are too gross and if the water is not clean for showers. I can go on but you get the idea. We stayed at Eco Omo Lodge in Jinka which are basically tented rooms with a built-in bathroom. Quite cramped and hot inside the tents and no sound insulation whatsoever especially when the lodge is right next to an Ethiopian Orthodox church that starts their chanting at 4am in the morning! Good thing we only stayed here one night…phew!
Early the next morning, we drove about an hour into Mago National Park to visit the Mursi Tribe. Mursi Tribe, found around Omo River and in the Mago National Park, is famous for the giant lip plates that the women wear in their lower lips. They cut a hole in the teenage girl’s lower lip (around 15 years old) and fit the hole with a wooden plug. As the lower lip stretches, a succession of larger clay plates are forced into the lower lip. The size of the lip plate determines how much the bride can fetch when she gets married. It is said that this practice began during the slave trade to discourage slave traders from capturing them because of their strange appearance. Scarification also plays a prominent row in their lives where some members of the tribe have their entire chest covered in scars usually indicating that he has killed many enemies or dangerous animals. The women often decorate their stomachs with raised scars and are considered attractive. They slice the skin and rub ash into the wounds to produce a raised effect as they heal. While Mursi women have elaborate lip plates and hair decorations as well as scarification, Mursi men are quite simply dressed, usually just covered with a blue cloth. Young Mursi men fight each other with sticks called dongas and the winner is taken by a group of women to determine who he will marry. The Mursi are cattle rearers and when there is a marriage, the cattle (usually 38 of them) are given to the bride’s father by the groom’s father. I have read prior to arrival that the Mursi can be very aggressive in their dealings with tourists and that they have a reputation for harassing tourists to take photos of them which are charged Birr 5 or US0.18 per Mursi person in each photo. For security purposes, we were advised to pick up a scout with a gun to accompany us on our short visit. I guess you have to go with an open mind, lots of patience, and a bit of good humor. Bringing some candy for the children also helps but make sure you don’t give it to them until you are ready to leave. We gave the bags of candy to a village elder for distribution and as our car drove away, I looked back and he was swarmed not only by the children but also by the adults.
My Omo Valley adventures will continue in my next post where I visited the Karo Tribe living on the eastern bank of the Omo River. Stayed tuned!
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