The Vanishing Tribes of the Omo Valley

A Perilous Journey?

Tonight S and I leave for the Omo Valley, Ethiopia. The area is one of the wildest, remotest and ethnically diverse places on Earth. Some areas are harsh and inhospitable. So why am I doing this trip? Having been brought up on a healthy diet of National Geographic and The Untamed World, my childhood was filled with the wonders of this earth. Now for the first time, I embark on a journey which will be a true adventure.

This is a photography expedition – my first. We will be joining four other like-minded photography enthusiasts from various parts of the globe in Addis Ababa. We will be led by a professional photographer and a local guide. We will travel deep into the parched bush, to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley where we will visit five tribes – the Konso, Mursi, Karo, Dassanech and Hamer. Here are extracts of the description provided by the tour organisers:

The Hamer 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. The women take great pride in this.

The Karo practise ‘scarification’ – this means the complete scarification of a man’s chest with which to indicate that he has killed an enemy or a predator animal. 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.

The Mursi tribe is 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 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. I feel little or no apprehension, who knows perhaps it will creep in later? The important thing is to not let any Hamer man take a liking to us and I do hope that my crooked front teeth does not signify some bad omen!

Cheers!

 


The Cradle of Mankind

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The sky was a breathtaking orange, red and blue as we descended on Addis Ababa early this morning after an uneventful 4-hour stopover in Bangkok and uncomfortable cramped flight from there. We were so tired that we slept almost immediately and woke up with cricks in our necks. My seat wouldn’t recline so I slept sitting upright … but here we are!

It was a lovely cool morning. At an elevation of 2,355 m (7,726 ft) Addis Ababa is pleasant but the early mornings and nights are cold. We were picked up and driven to the Jupiter International Hotel where we were met by Dale Morris, our lead photographer. We realised how lucky we were that immigration and customs were hassle-free, in fact it was uneventful. Dale had his entire camera gear confiscated and was setting off this morning to retrieve it and he wasn’t quite sure what that was going to involve. (He did get it back through the offices of the Ministry of Tourism weighing in on the Customs Department to release it!). We had our first taste of injera at lunch – a local staple, which is a flatbread made of sourdough (a bit like our local dhosa). It is eaten with a gravy of beef or other meats. Quite delicious.  We also met the rest of the group – Geri, an American who lives between Nairobi and New York, Tim (who is a professional photographer) from Georgia, U.S., Saskia and Dirk  from Belgium but live in Spain. The dynamics of this group is going to be interesting as we could already pick up idiosyncrasies and strains.

The original plan for this afternoon was to go to Mercato (the local market, said to be the largest open air market in Africa) but we decided on the National Museum instead to see Lucy! Ethiopia is the cradle of mankind, the birthplace of coffee, the purported resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and home to Lucy, the 3.2 million year old hominid that has become the world’s most famous fossil. Lucy returned home to Ethiopia after a 5 year tour of the U.S. Sadly, the original bones are no longer displayed but a replica is kept in a glass case in the National Museum of Ethiopia. There were displays of other bones of hominids found around that time too. It was fascinating and humbling too that these are the remains of our ancestors. Lucy was a diminutive 3ft 7 inches. She was named ‘Lucy’ as the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was playing over and over again at the party celebrating her discovery. So these scientists with their vast intellect decided to call their greatest discovery, Lucy. Incredible. I far prefer the Ethiopian name for her – “Dinknesh” which means “Wondrous One” which has more dignity and a ring of respect to it.

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Lucy

We drove around Addis Ababa and it reminded me of India … the mayhem of animals, pedestrians, cars, lorries all moving along cheek by uneasy jowl. ‘Qat’ chewing men walking around in a daze was a common sight. ‘Qat’ is a flowering plant common in the Horn of Africa and has amphetamine-like properties. They were completely wasted and yet qat chewing is not illegal here. I saw one guy lying in the middle of the road, languidly chewing his qat seemingly unaware of where he was. Tomorrow we go to the Mercato and then take the flight to Abra Minch in south Ethiopia. That is where our adventure will begin.

Addis Ababa

Now I truly understand the meaning of chaos. Never have I experienced such mayhem as I did at Mercato! The Mercato (or Merkato means market) is said to be the largest open air market in Africa – 118 hectares of mostly small stalls and shops brimming with just about everything – textiles, electronics, food, fruits, vegetables, coffee and all sorts of agricultural produce. The flow of people carrying goods twice their height and weight hurtling down narrow crowded paths was hazardous to an unsuspecting gawking tourist especially when donkeys were also fighting for the same space! We haplessly wandered around with our cameras, amazed at the teeming life around us.

Some welcomed their photos being taken, while others were quite firm in their refusal to our polite requests. Known for pickpockets and other petty crimes we had body guards in plain clothes! They were quite effective I must say. One chap had harmlessly approached me and our security guy appeared out of nowhere and stood protectively between this chap and me. Despite the chaos and crowds, I never felt threatened or uncomfortable. Even though we stood out like sore thumbs, people just carried on with their busy lives.

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Mercato

After a couple of hours of wandering around, we set off to the domestic airport terminal for our flight to Arba Minch after lunch in a lovely restaurant which was in an art gallery. The queue at the domestic terminal was long and snaked all the way out onto the road. Security was very tight and we were told by Melkamu, our excellent and genial local guide that it was suspected that the dreaded Al Shabab had infiltrated Ethiopia. We definitely didn’t mind the heightened vigilance on hearing that. Our plane was a Bombardier (propeller run) and we watched as the landscape below changed from green to arid.

We were met at Arba Minch by our three drivers in Toyota Land Cruisers, our vehicles for the next few days of rugged driving. Arba Minch which means ‘Forty Springs’ is a dusty agricultural town surrounded by mountains and forests and wildlife. We stayed at the Paradise Lodge. A comfortable accommodation of ‘tukuls‘ (rotundas with thatched roofs common in North Africa).

 

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Evening traffic, Arba Minch

That evening as the sun set, we had a lesson from Dale on how to take panorama shots.
Paradise lodge is perched on a mountain overlooking the beautiful lakes Abaya and Chamo. Their placid shimmering surfaces belie the dangers of gigantic crocodiles lurking beneath.

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Lake Abaya

I see nothing redeemable or attractive about crocs. (actually, I’m just plain terrified of them) and wasn’t too enthusiastic about the boat ride we were going to take on Lake Chamo in the morning.

That night, S and I were thankful that we were on Malarone (anti-malaria medication) when we saw that the mosquito nets weren’t going to give us much protection seeing as it wasn’t long enough and had tears in it making easy entrances for the anopheles. We sprayed ourselves with the 30 percent Deet repellent we had come armed with and discussed if the real reason for malaria still being endemic in Africa was because of ignorance of the proper use of mosquito nets!


Crocodile Market and the Road to Konso

Arba Minch

When I’d first read that we were going to the ‘Crocodile Market’ I thought it was going to be a market which sold tacky products made of croc skin. It was only later when I read a bit more that I realised that this misnomer was actually describing the crocs of Lake Chamo! There are hundreds of them and they are Big! 7-8 metres (22-26 feet) long!

After breakfast at 6am, everyone except me, was eager and looking forward to the boat ride on Lake Chamo.  Seeing that sitting on the banks of this crocodile-infested lake wasn’t an option, (as they sit on the banks with their mouths open, regulating their body temperature) I braced myself for the ride. There was a lot of light- hearted banter about my being the perfect low calorie snack for the crocs etc and Dale tried to assure me that the crocodile’s reputation is worse than the reality. He has gone scuba diving with crocodiles! I wasn’t taking any chances (after all he’s only an anthropologist specialising in primates) so I placed myself firmly in the middle of the boat with no finger, hand, toe, camera strap hanging over the side. It didn’t take long for me to relax and enjoy the sheer beauty of this lake – pelicans, eagles, hippos and yes, crocodiles too. Throughout, Dale guided us on aperture and exposure settings etc … It turned out to be such a lovely experience.

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We then drove two hours to Konso. Lunch was at the scenic Kanta Lodge surrounded by beautiful mountains and valleys. I discovered the local spicy dish of ‘tibes’ and relished it! (I must’ve eaten it nearly everyday since then!). The road to Konso was an interesting one. All along the way kids would run along the side of the road shouting “Highland! Highland!” We asked our driver, Million (yes, that’s his name) and he explained that Highland was the brand of the first bottled water in Ethiopia and the word ‘Highland’ now is synonymous with ‘bottle’ and what the children wanted was our empty mineral water bottles. Little boys also did acrobatics on the roadside, standing on their heads and waving their legs about in the air! All the villagers along the way would wave and children would also scream “you, you, you” (meaning exactly that) as we drove by.

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‘Highland’ boys

The first village we visited was the walled village of the Konso people. Their village is located on hilltops and is split up into communities, with each community having a main hut. In order to enter a Konso village, you must pass through a gate and a series of narrow alleys and concentric stone walls. This is part of their security system, making the village difficult to access. The outer wall is where the young men who guard the village live in a communal main hut. In the middle are the middle-aged men, women and children and in the inner and highest part of the hill is where the elders live.

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As we were entering the village, a Konso woman grabbed hold of me and spoke rapidly to our guide as I stood by helplessly as she took firm hold my hand and put her arm around my shoulder. Apparently, she wasn’t after anything, but just wanted a photo with me! At the end of the photo shoot, she gave me an unexpected kiss, which left me looking sheepish and feeling quite awkward, much to the amusement of everyone else!


We wandered around the village taking photos after negotiations were done and permissions were sought. We respected the many who didn’t want to be photographed. The next leg was a long five-hour drive to the town of Turmi. We made an unplanned stop at an Aerbore village. We were totally enveloped by the children all demanding for “birr” (the Ethiopian currency). Once again, Melkamu had to negotiate with the village headman before we took any photos.

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Aerbore girls

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Aerbore boys with guinea fowl design

The rest of the journey was through rugged terrain, mainly dirt tracks and several crossings through dry river basins. It was already late evening and we had to get to Turmi before dark, not only because of the rough terrain but also because this was a lawless area. On the way we saw some Hamar men with Kalashnikovs herding their cows along the road.

Thankfully, Million had a good selection of lovely melodious Ethiopian music playing throughout our journey that kept our mood buoyant. It was dark by the time we reached Turmi and the Buska Lodge where we were staying. We were greeted with much needed refreshing cold towels and we swigged down chilled St. George’s (local beer). The lodge runs on generator which shuts down at 10.30pm so we had to quickly shower and have dinner before lights out!


The Karo and Body Art

Turmi

 

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Karo village

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Karo warriors

Karo girls – they found us amusing:-)

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Grooming

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Karo elder

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Women and children

Termite Hill

 

The Hamer – Whipping and Bull Jumping

Turmi

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Hamer women dancing

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Wife No.1

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Whipping

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The scars are borne with pride

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The initiate

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Bull jumping

 


 People of the Delta

Omorate

It was a two hour drive to Omorate, just 28km away from the Kenyan border. We were visiting the Dassanech tribe and to get to their village we had to take a boat across the Omo River. Our transport came in the form of a unique ‘S’ shaped dugout canoe. To my surprise the boat was quite deep and as I sat down I could barely see above it!

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The Dassanech live where the Omo River delta enters Lake Turkana and their name means ‘People of the Delta’. Despite the lake and delta, this is an incredibly dry region. The village was a fair walk and the sun was white and intense.

Here’s a short account of the Dassanech: “Dassanech girls are circumcised young, at around 10 or 12 years of age. If they are not circumcised, a girl can’t marry and her father won’t receive her bride-price, so he has a direct interest in her going through the ordeal. Until they are circumcised, girls are called ‘wild animals’ or ‘men’ to tease them – the thinking is that their clitoris has to be removed before they act like women. Girls may be circumcised in their mother’s house, or in another village, but always with other girls of their age going through the same ritual. The cutting itself is usually done by an older woman who will be helped by the girl’s relatives. She’s held down, and a leather strap is tied around her ankles. It is kept tied to restrict the girl’s movement, until the wounds have healed and the pain has subsided. When the ritual has been completed, the girl is given sour milk to drink and a necklace by her mother. From then on, she is allowed to wear a leather skirt to show she is now considered an adult. Marriage for girls often takes place soon after”.

I walked with Geri and she wisely reminded me to suspend judgement: “Remember, do not have an opinion. It is their culture and they need to live and belong in their society, not in ours. Besides, what do we have to offer them?”.

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Dassanech village

We spent the morning in the village. With the sun so intense and causing all sorts of lighting issues for photography, Dale came up with a rather contrived solution of a cloth backdrop. Not the most authentic of settings but from a photography point of view, we managed some decent shots with some lessons from Dale on portraiture photography. The women use very interesting and eclectic mix of things for their elaborate hairdo – bottle caps were the decorative item of choice and we also spotted watch casings, watch straps, keys, tweezers … 🙂

We headed back to the lodge for lunch and check out and then it was off to Jinka which was three hours away. As it was market day, we stopped at the Turmi market on the way. This was the only time I felt slightly comfortable as folks came up to us and were touching and pushing and intruded into our personal space, (the irony of that statement is not lost on me) but we carried on walking about anyway and did some souvenir shopping for tribal bracelets.

We got to the Omo Eco Lodge in Jinka late in the evening. It was cold and sweaters were needed. Our accommodation was a tent on a raised platform. When I went in for a shower, I realised I didn’t know how to operate it and only then did I see a curious sign saying that someone would come to show how the shower is to be operated.

It was the most intermittent shower I have ever had! It was a time-release tap, so each time you pressed it, you got water for about a minute, then you pressed it again and when it finishes you press it again – you get the picture. Except one had to be cautious not to go on pressing as the water got hotter with each press and you risked being scalded!

After a lovely evening of dinner and drinks and good conversation (as it was on most nights on this trip), we retired into our tents and here too lights went off early but we were so tired it didn’t matter. It was pitch dark here and I found it rather disconcerting that I couldn’t see my hands right in front of my face! It was best just to sleep.


“It’s Better to Die Than Live Without Killing!”

Jinka

The Mursi warriors live by the credo “It’s better to die than live without killing!”. The men are known for their fierce and bloody stick-fighting which still goes on till today. The women are famous for their fascinating lip plates. A girl’s lower lip is cut, by her mother or by another woman of the tribe, when she reaches the age of 15. The cut is held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. It is up to the girl to decide how far to stretch the lip, by inserting progressively larger plugs over time. Some girls persevere until their lips can take plates of 12 cms or more in diameter. One historical explanation for this practice (according to Melkamu) is that the girls and women were deliberately disfigured to make them less attractive to slave traders.

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Mursi women and children

The Mursi number around 10,000 and live in isolated parts of the region, and that’s where we were headed this morning – into the far reaches of Mago National Park. (When the national park was gazetted it included the area where the Mursi live. It is said that the Mursi were coerced into giving up their land without compensation.)

It was a long (almost 2 hours) drive into the area where they lived and we had to take along an armed park ranger as escort. We were so early that the Mursi village was just waking up and many were just getting dressed and putting on their head dress, lip plates etc on when we arrived.

It was a beautiful scene of a community doing things together and for each other. We weren’t allowed to photograph as we hadn’t yet negotiated our entry price. Their livestock was penned alongside their huts and the whole place was swarming with flies. The pesky creatures were everywhere – face, hands, mouth and we were continually swatting them away ineffectually with our hands. The Mursi on the other hand were quite unperturbed and flies settled on every part of their anatomy undisturbed.

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Lip plate and flies

We finally saw the scarification that we had read about. The scars indicate the man has either killed a wild animal (only big animals count) or an enemy. The women who have scars are wives of men who have earned it.

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‘Scarification

Many of the women had no lower front teeth. We learnt later that the teeth were removed to accommodate the plate. There were one or two who had neither plate nor lip as the lip had severed with the continual stretching to wear bigger and bigger plates!

Like the other villages, the AK47 featured prominently. It served as a reminder that while these people have allowed us into their villages, it was best not to antagonise anyone. These are fierce and violent people.

Despite this fearsome reputation, at no time did we feel threatened by anyone in any of the villages we visited. A smile is a universal ice-breaker and a friendly nod can go long way. The men tended to maintain their reserve while the women and especially the children were more open to engaging with us. We spent the morning there and finally left after dropping off our ranger escort.

We were absolutely famished as we had left at 6am with only a banana each for sustenance. A suitable spot was found and breakfast was set up – complete with folding chairs and table. Once again, our drivers did a magnificent job. We had a very long drive ahead of us to Arba Minch. It seemed like weeks since we were last there! We had seen so much and done so much in just a few days!


Arba Minch

We had a late start – 8am – what decadence! This was meant to be a free day but after a short Photoshop tutorial with Dale, S and I opted to go to the Nech Sar National Park.
What a lovely forest walk it was! We saw baboons, colabus monkeys, vervet monkeys … things that we would normally walk past were brought to our attention by Dale – there was this spider (I forgot the name) that was so small that we missed it but when Dale demonstrated macro photography the detail and colour of the spider took our breaths away and we reacted with a collective ‘Wow!”!

Dale managed to make even the activities of a dung beetle interesting!

We walked through one of the forty springs that Arba Minch gets its name from. We tried to take photos of the ‘ethereal glow’ coming through the leaves to the forest floor. We didn’t try to take photos of a group of naked young men sunning themselves by the spring (we wanted to though – a shaft of light shone through the leaves bathing them in perfect light – it would have been a great picture!). It was such a magical walk in the forest.

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We flew back to Addis Ababa in the afternoon. It was time for farewells and the long uncomfortable journey home tonight.

This trip was a once in a lifetime experience. Ethiopia is not an obvious choice as a holiday destination. When I talked about going to Ethiopia, it was not the tales of King Solomon and Queen Sheba that came to people’s minds, or the magical rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, or the beautiful diverse ecosystems or the dying tribes of the Lower Omo Valley – the thought that came to people’s minds was starvation and abject poverty.

The enduring image is of the famine of 1984-85 when more than a million people died. I was a student in London then, watching the Live Aid concert which was beamed around the world. Songs like “We Are the World”, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” were constantly played on the airwaves.

That was then. Ethiopia has moved on and made great economic and political strides since then. As Melkamu said, he and his family have never gone hungry. The spotlight is now on exactly where we went on this expedition – the Lower Omo Valley. The Gibe III is a massive hydroelectric dam that is currently under construction on the Omo River and it will displace the tribes that we visited. Their future is bleak. The dam will completely destroy their environment and livelihoods. It is in the Omo Valley that many hominid fossils were found.

One young man told Shyam during the trip – “You are not just visiting Ethiopia – this is where it all began, you have come home”.  Perhaps we do have an ancient ancestral link with these tribes. I feel fortunate and privileged to have been able to see these spectacular and culturally unique people. It was more than a photography expedition, much more …

For more photos of this trip, go to:http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/Ethiopia-Nov-2013
POST SCRIPT:I have received many interested queries about how I went about organising this trip. I went with ORYX – Worldwide Photographic Expeditions, based in South Africa. They are a professional photographic safari company specialising in wildlife, landscape and cultural photographic tours.Their tour leaders are all award-winning photographers who genuinely love sharing their expertise with others and are great fun to travel with. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a professional photographer to travel with them! Here’s their contact info: Website: www.oryxphotography.com
Email: info@oryxphotography.com  

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