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How do you define ‘Quality of Life”?

What about ‘Happiness’? And ‘Progress’?

It is important to understand your personal thoughts about these matters before you enter the Omo Delta of Ethiopia. Visually spectacular, it is a place where only the strongest and the smartest will survive. And yet, there are few places on earth that will rival the sheer cultural diversity of the many tribes who call each other ‘neighbor’ here.

The real surprise you may discover in this remote corner of the Great Rift Valley is that you might find all your ideas about satisfaction and contentment brutally challenged. How will this happen? Why, simply by following the rules of many successful arguments: it will present you with an alternative that is sustainable, beautiful and ruthless.

Time Travel

At first glance, we are struck by the fact that we turn a corner and just like that we can see Africa through the eyes of Livingstone, Speke, and Burton. Because the Omo Delta continues to be peopled by tribes who shun technology and proudly continue to practice the ways of their distant ancestors. Almost nothing has changed in hundreds of years, except maybe for the AK47’s… but more about that later.

The early explorers would easily recognize this savage paradise where clothes are still made from the skins of animals. As much a sartorial choice as a declaration of status. The secret ingredient in their milkshakes is blood and a typical day can bring infanticide, tribal skirmishes, decoration, intricate animal fat and clay hairdos, scarification, circumcision… and a visit from the Western strangers with their transparent skin and otherworldly hair.

Human Zoo

First, this is a lesson in trade.

The strangers take photos and leave money. In return, the Omo people will inspect watches and cameras, hair and skin.

There is no ambiguity about the difference between the visitors and the villagers, let’s be practical. But Western travelers seem as exotic to the Omo villagers as they do to us. In this human zoo curiosity and fascination is absolutely mutual. Everyone is a human animal.

It is only in the aftermath of the encounter that we will learn who has made the biggest impact. Because long after the money is spent in the Omo Valley… on more chewing tobacco and coffee husks, on sorghum and maize or firewood and metal bangles, the experience still lingers stubbornly on the edges of the guests’ senses.

The Search for Meaning

The Omo way of life is no accident. And those belonging to the incredibly select group of outsiders who have seen these communities for themselves will find that the ghosts of the Omo Valley keep returning. How do people live without any of the modern commodities that our lives revolve around in 2018? How do you survive amidst such unimaginable primitive conditions? Why are they so obviously content with their isolation? Why don’t they change? Why do they make us question everything? Why are they so clear about their destiny? How are they making a better job of caring for and living within their environment?

And conversely…

What would they think of my capitalism and consumerism? How would they explain the horrific impact the west is having on the environment? What answers would they have if they could be asked the hard questions about our inability to live together and our eagerness to wage war?

It may be fair to think that travelers who make this remote journey are the kind who ask all the right questions. The answers might be different for every individual but the Omo Valley represents the ultimate opportunity to test our understanding of the very meaning of life.

And redefine the human need to travel.

The more we learn about each other, the more we learn about ourselves.

And your chance to visit them is rushing to a close:

In the Omo, a massive hydro-electric dam named Gibe III is currently being constructed. When this project is complete the very fragile environment of the Omo tribes will be destroyed. The livelihoods of the tribes, linked closely to the river and its annual flood for centuries will be shattered. Once the Omo is forced to become dependent on international aid their cultural identity will be impossible to save.

Protest the Gibe III dam here, today.

Hidden Tribes

More than 40 tribes and 200,000 people. Every tribe has its own customs and there are many very different languages. But they also have much in common. Incredibly self-sufficient within a very harsh environment that is dependent on annual floods and a narrow strip of fertile soil along the Omo River they do not want to be invaded or changed.

It is impossible to claim to understand or summarise their humanity on one page… Nevertheless, some small introductions must always be attempted:

The Mursi

A pastoral, nomadic community and tribe of warriors living between the Mago and Omo rivers. The Mursi is everything you that the old  Hollywood wanted to teach us about ancient African peoples. Secretive, incredibly and intricately adorned but also fierce and hostile. They have no truck with technology or being told how to run their unique universe.

They measure their wealth in cattle… and as they have more than any of the other Omo Valley tribes they are considered the richest.

Mursi men name themselves for the color of their favorite cattle and wear a blanket tied over one shoulder. The women wear a goatskin dress or skirt and name themselves after the patterns on their favorite wild animal. You have seen a Mursi woman before: they are the ones who wear large plates inserted into their lips (labret). The Mursi is one of at least six tribes to independently invent this labret… although archaeological evidence reveals theirs (together with a Sudanese tribe) as the first instance of the particular decoration in 8700 BC. Mesoamerica used labrets in 1500 BC and coastal Ecuador in 500 BC. The Mursi is also one of only a few African and Amazonia tribes to continue practicing the custom.

Scarification of the shoulder, chest, and arms is a popular way to document rites of passage in both sexes. And even their most prized cattle will have extra decorative touches. The horns trained to curl in and their skin elaborately scarred.

The Mursi may marry following an arrangement, via force or kidnap and can also be passed to a male relative of a deceased husband… marriage may also be consensual. In all manners of marriage, the wedding can only happen once a male has won a ‘donga’ (two-meter long pole) through fighting their peers in a knockout competition. Serious head injuries ensue… but the winner has the first choice of wife.

A staple diet of sorghum or maize is supplemented by milk and blood from their herd. Huts are built from sticks and grass and used for sleeping, cooking and eating. Dried hides adorn the floor.

‘I will not lose my culture. I will never leave my culture. Even if I am given clothes, I will still be a Mursi.’

The Bodi

The Bodi believe in a sky God they call Tuma, who brings the rains and is the life force of all living creatures. Their oral traditions are shared with children from a young age. The tribe’s creation story tells of their ancestors crawling from a hole in the ground near the Omo River.

“Our goats are very valuable to us and a respected member of the tribe. They give us both food and clothing.”

The Arbore

This tribe has ancestral and cultural associations with Borenna and Konso peoples and Arbore women are well known for their long headdresses. The girls shave their heads to indicate virginity and only start growing hair after marriage.

The Karo

Considered one of the Omo Valley’s most endangered tribes with an estimated population of only 1,500 remaining, the Karo live on the Eastern side of the Omo River. This tribe is celebrated for using a combination of white chalk, pulverized rock, charcoal and ochre to create colorful face masks and intricate patterns on their legs and torsos to prepare for ceremonies and dances. They daube the paint onto their body, mimicking the plumage of guinea fowls.

The Nyangatom

Across the river from the Karo, through the flux moving between low banks and behind the creepers dangling like enchantments from the acacia trees live the Nyangatom tribe. People who have raided Karo land many times in the past.

The Hamer

Making their clothing out of goatskin that has been stretched and dried in the sun, the Hamer also weave beaded decoration into their fabrics.

Hamer men take part in a bull-jumping ceremony where the man runs naked over the backs of tethered bulls four times at sunset to mark his transition to manhood. After being led through a complex sequence of rituals including a blessing of each animal. Female relatives submit to being whipped to show their love for the initiates while their friends dance and blow tin horns. The old men sit and watch everything from their fog of sorghum wine.

The Dhasanech

One of the biggest Omo tribes, the Dhasanech graze their zebu cattle on the floodplains and live in groups of up to a hundred huts, raised on platforms. This allows them to sleep above the mosquitoes and store their circular bales of cattle feed below them.

As befits a successful, large tribe, they wear capes decorated in panels of colored beads and fronded with cowrie shells. Heavy metal bangles stack around their ankles and wrists and two thick iron bands around the neck of married women (first wives wears a third metal necklace with a heavy phallic symbol in service of her fertility like a figurehead on the prow of a boat).

The Chasanech

The Chasanech raise sorghum on plots near the unforgiving and inhospitable barren plains and exposed lava that held the earliest traces of mankind until paleontologists teased it from the ground. Herds of zebra and top grazed for two-and-a-half-million years next to the fossilized skull of Homo habilis.

Rendille, Turkana and El-Molo

Around the burnt shores of Lake Turkana, the pastoral and fishing Rendille, Turkana and El-Molo tribes make their living.

Some light Hutkeeping

What is with the Kalashnikovs?

The Mursi, man/ breastfeeding woman/ child, may all regularly be spotted with a Kalashnikov. In fact – some men have replaced their donga with a gun.

It is a simple equation:

  1. Guns are readily available.
  2. They will protect their cattle efficiently.

Ensuring your visit to the Omo is mutually rewarding.

The human zoo reference above? It came from the Mursi.

”they are coming to take pictures of us, as if we were monkeys in a Zoo”

There are stories of rough encounters at the village closest to Jinka, with AK-47 bearing Omo people who scare the tour guides from Addis and the visitors.

The fact that they are epic survivors does not bode well for the unsuspecting tourist either… The tribes have learned that the stranger or more unusual decorations will achieve the highest price. Their artistic and creative natures lend themselves to adorning cow horns and all sorts of other baubles with no thought of authenticity. And they are good. They have duped some of the best photographers in the business.

So, they meet visitors in ridiculous get-ups, scare them into paying up (or blatantly steal from them) and continue to scare them until they leave. Worst of all, their only reward is the couple of Birr they aggressively demanded for the pictures, hastily taken, before the tourists huddled back to safety.

The Ethiopian guides from Addis have as much in common with the Omo people as someone from Carnegie hill in New York.

If you plan to meet the Omo’s Hidden Tribes Rothschild Safaris advise you visit with a reputable local guide who can explain culture and life to everyone and ensure that a feeling of mutual gain presides.

Our beautiful images via Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration by Hans Silvester

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