The Omo Valley
Few experiences anywhere in Africa prepare visitors to the southern Omo Valley. It’s an area with extraordinary cultural diversity in which the people here are defiantly traditionalist. Many are nomadic agro-pastoralists who were scarcely aware that Ethiopia even existed less than a century ago. The region is safely explored by road from Addis but only seasoned travellers should tackle this part of the world.
The “Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region” is a vast marginalised area of over 21000 km² with a population of around 600000. It includes the World Heritage Site inscribed as the Lower Valley of the Omo.
The Omo valley has been described as a living museum with around 18 ethnic groups representing four of Africa’s major linguistic groups. The so called Omotic-speakers are endemic to the south Omo and include the Ari, Maale, Daasanach, the Hamar-Banna. An incredible reminder of an Africa that hasn’t yet seen modernisation. With dozens of tribes here representing four of Africa’s major linguistic groups, the cultural diversity shows what life was for nomadic groups ranging the plains. Some of these are as endemic to this valley as the Walia Ibex is to the Simien Mountains.
The market towns offer the best opportunities for meeting local tribes people as they go about their trade and business. The villages are the best places to witness traditional ceremonies and gain a better appreciation for the diverse cultures and ways of life.
The best way to explore this region is by road between July and March when time is spent visiting the local markets or exploring the remoter villages. The long rains, usually between April and May make travel very difficult, practically impossible if there’s been exceptional rain.
Unusually for Ethiopia, trips to the Omo Valley have specific seasonal timing. The rainy season all but destroys the roads, making them impassable and unstable, and it is impossible to travel on them during April and May, and inadvisable in March or June if the rains have been particularly bad.
The food in the valley is normally traditional Ethiopian; there are a few places in which to get passable Western food, but for the culinary expert this is a delightful place to try something different. If this does not appeal to you, it is fairly easy to cook yourself.
There are four main tribes whom you are likely to see during a visit here; the Tsemai, the Ari, the Hamer, and the Mursi.
The Tsemai are one of the least-known ethnic groups of Ethiopia, and they live along the western bank of the Weita River. They practice flood cultivation and keep cattle and bees. Boys between the ages of 11 and 22 become adults, and there are initiation ceremonies that they must go through in order to pass into adulthood. This tribe frequently intermarries with the Hamer tribe, and they look similar to the Ari people.
The Ari have the largest territory, and farm various grains and livestock, including bees. In built-up areas they largely wear Western clothes, but in rural areas the women wear traditional gori, a dress which is made with leaves from the enset and koisha plants. This tribe wears a lot of jewellery in the form of beads and bracelets wrapped around the waist and arms. Many of the men have shaven heads with many piercings in their ears and characteristic red and blue or black and orange bead necklaces. They also wear gold or silver bracelets, which are striking against their dark skin.
The Hamer are one of the most typical people of the valley, and they decorate their bodies with many of the practices that are associated with this area, except the clay plates in their lips. Women wear the most adornments, with thick plaits of hair that is coloured ochre, copper bracelets fixed tightly to their arms, beads hanging from their waists and thick copper necklaces with circular wedges projecting up to 10 cm out the front if they are married. They also scar their bodies heavily using ash and charcoal placed into cuts. The men also scar their bodies, but are less adorned unless they paint themselves with white chalk for tribal ceremonies. If they have killed a person or a dangerous animal, they wear a clay bun on their heads for a year. These people are cattle herders, and are closely linked with Ancient Egypt and highland Ethiopia. For boys to become men the Bull Jumping Ceremony is held, in which they must jump between the backs of bulls, then beat the woman to pass through childhood.
The Mursi are pastoralists who are famous for their lip-plates, which is a way of measuring a woman’s worth; the larger the diameter of the plate fitted in between the lip and the mouth, the more valuable the woman. These are typically about 15 cm in diameter, and she should be able to pull her lip over her head when the plate is not in place. For men to marry they must win a fight in which two contestants beat each other with 2 m long sticks.
There is a Mursi settlement in the south of this park which is one of the most accessible ways to see this tribe.
Cultural fascinations aside, the valley holds other attractions too, and one of these is the Mago National Park. Named after the Mago River, which bisects the park and flows into the Omo River at the southern boundary, the land is mainly populated by dense acacia woodland, with small areas of open savanna and a singular large swamp. With 100 mammals in the park, some of the most spectacular are the buffalo and elephant, whilst the most common are Defassa waterbuck, greater and lesser kudu and a few other antelope. Leopard, jackals, cheetah and lion are also known to be around, whilst Olive baboons and vervet monkeys are also present in some numbers. There are around 300 species of birds here including the Egyptian plover, Pel’s fishing owl, black-rumped waxbill and dusky babbler.
The remote and relatively inaccessible Omo National Park is home to people from the Dizi, Me’en, Mursi, Nyangatom and Surma tribes.
Mago National Park is on the east bank of the Omo River and holds a great variety of wildlife and over 300 species of bird. The Mursi people are regulary found in the area.
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Likely encounters in the Omo Valley
The Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region is a World Heritage Site which includes the lower Omo Valley. It’s believed to have been a crossroads for thousands of years as various cultures and ethnic groups migrated around the region. The diverse people here include the Turkana, Dassanach, Hamer, Nyangatom, Karo, Kwegu, Mursi, Bodi, and Me’en.
The tribe’s most identifiable trait is the tradition amongst their woman of placing large clay plates in their lower lips. The men are known to be aggressive and combative doing battle amongst themselves with 2m long sticks called Dongas as a rite of passage before they can marry. The Mursi are agro pastoralists moving between the Omo and Mago rivers twice a year between summer and winter.
Archetypal of the Omo, the Hamar share most cultural practices of the valley people with elaborate body decorations. They’re best known for the bull jumping ceremonies which are a rite of passage for men coming of age. Usually held in late February or March before the long rains. These agro pastoralists are found east of the Omo River with two important market towns at Dimeka and Turmi.
With the largest territory of the Ethiopian tribes, these farmers keep livestock and bees, and farm various grains. They are known for their jewelery and piercings, which create a stark contrast against their dark skin. The colourful glass beads used in their jewelery are well-known globally.