The Omo Valley in Ethiopia is remote and difficult to access, which is why quite a lot of indigenous people are able to live there in relative peace. Fossiles of human remains show that this has been an important place for many years. And it’s got a remarkably wild landscape.
The beating heart of this region is the Omo river. It flows from the mountains of the southern Ethiopia, through vast savannahs and the desert, and after about 1000 kilometres it flows out into Lake Turkana in Kenya. It never reaches the sea.
The river basin of the Omo Valley is very fertile, even a small patch of land can contain a lot of crops, and many indigenous people from different cultural backgrounds live there together. Anthropologists believe this was once an important trail for nomadic people and that various groups decided to stay here in a distant past.
Nowadays, most of these people are nomadic or semi-nomadic. They travel through the savannahs and forests with their herds. They differ in traditional household habits, in hunting and agricultural techniques and in the manner in which they make appliances and jewellery.
However, most remarkable to other cultures are the ways they decorate their bodies. They use special techniques, such as piercing of parts of the body, most prominent with women. They may wear clay plates in their ear lobes or lower lips, and to wear this ornament, they often have their lower teeth removed. With some cultures, a metal jewel shaped like a nail is worn under the lower lip, pierced through the chin. People here consider earrings, bracelets and necklaces to be popular esthetic ornaments.
The scarifications are also very special. These are ornametal scars men and women have on their bodies. They ar the ultimate decorative ideals: physical beauty acquired through pain. Besides this, men often have their bodies painted. They use paint to apply all sorts of decorative shapes to each other. They also regularly wear a headdress of dried clay. Learning about these cultural traditions makes a trip to the Omo Valley truly unique.
The different cultures in the Omo Valley:
Mursi: The Mursi are among the most well-known people in this area. They call themselves Mun. The women wear Suri dishes through the lower lip as decoration. They also regularly decorate their face with paint, and deliberately apply scars for decoration if they have defeated an enemy. At present, less than 10,000 Mursi live between the Omo River and the Mago River.
Suri: The Suri are known for the large plates in the lower lip in women, which can be up to 15 centimeters in size. For this, their bottom teeth are usually removed. The clay dish is often decorated with various motifs. They live in small villages in the Omo Valley. These people has often been hunted for the last centuries. The Suri, Mursi and Me’en (or Bodi), are often described as being similar because of their corresponding culture. The languages are also similar.
Hamer (or Hamar): The Hamer are among the best-known people from this part of Africa. They breed cattle and are world famous because of ‘bull jumping’: an ancient ritual in which come of age and show their strength by jumping over cows. The colourful women usually dress in two animal sheets. These are exquisitely decorated with beads and cowry shells. Both men and women regularly decorate their hair with grease and ocre. Girls wear aluminum decorations on the forehead. The Hamer live around the Omo River.
Bana (or Benna): The Bana dress in animal skins and live in one place. The men wear clay loincloths and sometimes wear braided hair. They keep cattle and live east of the Omo River, above the Turkana Lake located in neighbouring Kenya.
Konso (orXonsita): The Konso are mostly known for their wagas, which are timbre carvings in the form of wooden ancestral images. As an important person dies, the best artist makes a waga. Most Konso live in the village of Karat-Konso, often just called Konso.
Daasanach (or Geleb): Within the Daasanach, especially the unmarried girls stand out. They sometimes wear dozens of metal rings around the ankles and calves. The men decorate their hair with coloured earth and feathers. TheDaasanach keep cattle and live along the Omo river, near the most southern part of the Omo Valley, just above theLake Turkana. These semi-nomadic people suffers from drought and floods. When a farmer loses his cattle, he hunts Nile crocodiles. There are about 25,000 Daasanach in the Omo Valley.
Karo: There are not many Karo people left. According to official counts, there are no more than 1,500 tribal members. Both men and women adorn themselves exuberantly with paint on their entire bodies. In addition, the women often pierce a sharp metal object into the chin as decoration.
Bodi (or Me’en): The name Bodi is actually a collective name for the Mela and Chirim peoples. Although they grow sogo (grassland) along the banks of the Omo, they are mainly dependent on cattle breeding. Their appearance is less exuberant than in other cultures. Women often pierce their chin as decoration, and men have scarifications (decorative scars) on their bodies. The men often put on extra weight, as it is a sign of strength. In addition, the average length of the men stands out. This is about two meters. Most Bodi live near Bachuma and east of the Omo River.
Tsamai (or Tsemay): The Tsamai are a lesser known people from this area. They decorate themselves with colourful beads. There are less than 10,000 Tsamai people. Scientists have learned that theTsamai are closely linked to theDaasanach and the Arbore peoples.
Ari: The Aris attire is considered to be the most colourful in the area. The women’s skirt are made of twigs, grass and straw and then stained with red loam soil. The Ari are also famous for their pottery, which is popular with tourists. The Ari live in the northern part of Mago National Park.
Dizi: The Dizi are some of the few farmers in this area. They grow sorghum (a kind of corn), corn, taro, yam and beans. The Dizi live on the edge of the Omo National Park, in the cooler highlands. A large number of them live in the village of Adikas. The tribal members often use the colours pink and purple in their robes.
Bumi: The Bumi are famous for the men’s scarifications. Women wear jewellery through their chins, mostly of copper. The men wear jewellery as well, but made from ivory. The Bumi have about 6,000 to 7,000 members and are known to be quite aggressive to the neighbouring cultures. They live south of the Omo National Park.
Thanks to the river, this isn’t just home to lots of people. This safari area is also home to many animals, though their number is in decline due to poaching. A safari here is quite different to one in Tanzania or South Africa, and spotting wild animals is still really a matter of luck, and it’s quite an experience. Scientists have counted more than 300 kinds of birds in the Omo Valley, but they say there are many more.
Must do! tips:
Learn about the scarifications from the different cultures
It is an extraordinary way to decorate your body: scars. For instance, when you visit the Karo or the Mursi, you might witness the men using razor blades to decorate each other’s skin. You will see the works of art taking form on their chest or back. If you take your time, you will be able to witness the entire ritual. A small fee will be required to take photographs.
Photograph the cultural colours
The people in the Omo Valley are generally happy to have their picture taken. However, a group of tourists with cameras can be quite intimidating and may even be considered undesirable. So it’s always best to ask if it is okay to take a photo first. Often they ask you to pay a small fee. Ask your guide to help you communicate. You will soon notice the people will also be interested in you. Show them the pictures you take on your screen, and share your cultural habits with them.
Go on safari in the Omo Valley
A safari in this area cannot be compared to safaris in countries like Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa. The infrastructure is much less developed and the number of animals is limited. Also, they are less used to travelers.
Nevertheless, a safari here is an exceptional experience, because you will meet very few other tourists and the animals will show a lot of natural behavior. You can go on safari in both Omo NP and Mago NP. In both cases it is recommended to get a jeep in order to explore the area.
Witness local traditions
Many people in the Omo Valley have become used to tourists. Some cultures allow you to spend the day and observe their customs. For example, with the Daasanach, you can see how they attach dozens of metal rings around their ankles.
At the Karo you will see how they paint their faces and bodies. And there is so much more to discover. In fact, only one thing is really important. Make sure you have enough time to spend time with these extraordinary people, and share your own culture with them.
See the Hamer boys jump over cows
When a Hamer boy reaches adulthood he is required to jump over a herd of cows. This sign of strength and courage will prove that he is ready for life as a man. He will be allowed several attempts, because the first jump does not always succeed. If he eventually fails, he will be flogged by the women with sticks.
The best place to see this age-old ritual is Turmi, but there are other places as well. It is often held just outside the village so it is best to ask your guide about this.
Attend a wedding ceremony of the Hamer
It is possible, with a bit of luck, to witness a wedding ceremony of the Hamer. Watching the entire community celebrate is a really incredible experience. During the festivities it is quite common for the men to display their strength and courage by jumping over cows. So if you missed the initiation ritual of a boy, you could have yet another chance to witness the jumps. The village of Turmi is the best place for this as well.
Find an extraordinary souvenir
The Omo Valley is renowned for its handcrafts. The various cultures make masks and entire statues carved out of wood, but also many other objects like shields and headdresses. They have many colorful jewels as well. Ask around when the next market will be held in the area you visit.
Visit a Dorze family
A house in a Dorze village is also referred to as ‘elephant house’. Its shape resembles an elephant and can be as high as 12 meters. You could also say that they are resemble a beehive. They are made of timber frames with bamboo walls. Banana leaves are also used for ventilation. If you ask politely, you may be allowed to take a look inside.
You will find that not just the people live in the house, but the cattle sleep inside as well. If you visit this village, ask about the story behind these huts. The elders of the village, in particular, will be able to explain to you what the importance of the house is for a family.
Go shopping at a local market
If you are touring around, you will quickly notice when there is a market in the village ahead. The closer you get to a village, the more people you see walking along the road with cattle or other goods. The local market is an event in itself. Here you will see how clothing, jewellery and fresh produce are sold.
People will do their shopping here for more than one day. They often come on foot, sometimes from dozens of kilometers away. The towns of Turmi, Konso, Key Afar, but also the various smaller villages, are good places to experience a local market.
Go rafting on the wild Omo River
This may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of rafting, but the Omo River has the perfect conditions. It is not a very difficult ride as the experts give it a Class III, maybe a Class III+ rating, which is ideal for enjoying the landscape as well. Excitingly, you’re likely to see animals like hippos and many birds. And of course the different people who live along the Omo river. It is best to arrange these trips in advance.
Paddle through the Crocodile Market at Nechisar
The ‘Crocodile Market’ in Nechisar National Park is the habitat of the Nile crocodile, the hippo, the olive baboon and various species of birds like the marabou and pelican. The park and lake are on the edge of the Omo Valley. The somewhat peculiar name comes from the hundreds of Nile crocodiles basking in the sun in Lake Chamo.
It is an impressive and also scary sight. These are animals up to 6 meters in length, with extremely sharp teeth. And they will not move aside for a boat … Inquire about the possibilities to book this trip in Arba Minch and make sure you have enough time on the lake. The best time to go is in the early morning or late afternoon.
The condition of the roads is the most important thing to reach this remote area. The best time is September, October and specifically November. This is the dry season, when the roads will be reasonably accessible and the weather will be temperate.
The rainy season lasts from from March to May. Some of the roads will be inaccessible then.
Most people are reasonably well adapted to tourists, but as a common courtesy, please ask if it’s okay before taking their picture. Pay a small sum for this. People will then be more inclined to cooperate with you and they may show their way of life.
Things can get rather heated here when the various cultures might be involved in a dispute of some sort. This will not lead to war, at least not in most cases, but some strong discussions and different displays of power may take place.
How do I get there?
The Omo Valley certainly is not easy to reach. Most often it will be included in an organised tour, offering a mixture of culture and nature.
Usually tours will have Omo National Park as well as visits with some of the people in the region. Sometimes the Mago National Park is also included in the tour.
You can rent a car yourself, but generally this is rather troublesome, especially with all the bad roads. You can rent a car and driver quite easily and it saves a lot of hassle.