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ethiopia photo tour

Ethiopia – Vanishing Tribes of the Omo Valley with Mike Dexter

A lifetime of family, friends and easy laughter shines through her eyes, in stark contrast to the lifetime fraught with conflict, drought and famine that is deeply etched in the creases that line her face. Her braided hair and leathery skin shine with a fresh treatment of ochre and animal fat, that concoction that creates the signature look of all Hamar women. Her dress is a statement in colour and texture; animal hide, beadwork, cowrie shells and an ancient chequered blanket and her jewellery is robust and weather beaten, harmonious with its environment and rich in meaning. The iron collar around her neck denotes that she is the first wife, a marked status symbol, one which she has worn since her wedding day as a teenager and will wear until the day she dies. Despite her age she sits easily on the hard swept earth outside her hut, back straight, head high. I’ve joined her on the ground for this eye-to-eye moment and my less experienced knees are complaining but this is the Omo Valley, where you need to reshape and redefine what you consider discomfort.

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Her’s is a small village, serenely set on a hillside with sweeping views from the blue Buska Mountains in the east to the orange glow of sunset in the west. Cattle bells and goat bleats announce the return of the herds and the nonchalant stick/Kalashnikov yielding youth who mind them. It’s also time for us to return to our incongruously nearby lodge, a mere 15 minutes away. Our first day in the Omo Valley has come to an end.

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The next morning we rise early as our destination, a Karo village, is a bit of a drive away and we want to be there at sunrise. The Karo are artistic, creative people. This is evidenced not only in their intricate face and body painting but also in their appreciation of natural beauty. The village sits on a high bank on the outer edge of an oxbow bend in the Omo River. A point from which the views are simply spectacular, as is the light when we arrive. Good light is fleeting here so we need to work fast. The village is slowly coming to life and over the next 2 hours we photograph and engage with girls and boys, men and women, young and old. I’ve always found the Karo to be friendly and welcoming and this morning is no different. Beautiful photographic opportunities aside, it is a fun, light-hearted and deeply rewarding experience.

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We visit two more Hamar villages in the subsequent days. They are larger than the first, with numerous people coming and going and the inevitable crowd of curious onlookers. The photographic possibilities are endless so I focus my energy on choosing the best subjects for my client so that she can focus on capturing each and every decisive moment. We shoot for as long as the light allows, reluctantly leaving only when the sun is too high or too low for us to continue.

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Our second morning sees us up well before dark. We are heading to a Dassanech village in no man’s land between Ethiopia and Kenya. After passport inspection at the border town of Omorate we cross the Omo River and stop on the outskirts of the small village. The Dassanech are very different to other Omo Valley tribes, both in appearance and culture. They are tall slender people, reminiscent of the Lake Turkana tribes and the Samburu, to whom they trace their heritage. Their dome-shaped abodes are constructed of corrugated iron sheets and animal hide and from a distance the village could be mistaken for a refugee camp. There is a disproportionate number of children, which is both concerning and rewarding, concerning because resources are scarce and the climate is unpredictable, rewarding because they are friendly, playful and love to be photographed.

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Our local contact has caught wind of a Hamar bull jumping ceremony that we may attend in the afternoon, something which not all visitors to the Omo Valley are fortunate enough to witness. It is a coming of age right of passage for every Hamar man. To be eligible for marriage he needs to jump (run across the backs of, to be more precise) a number of bulls standing side to side. There is however far more to this ceremony than the bull jumping alone. Most controversially there is the whipping of the women. Yes, you read that correctly. The female peers of the initiate incite a small group of young men to whip their backs with long, thin pliable sticks. They provoke the men by jumping and blowing horns in their faces, berating and pushing them, even forcing the whips into their hands. It’s a difficult practice to witness and I find myself wincing even though the women themselves show no sign of pain, all the while blood streams from the open wounds. It is a full sensory spectacle, a cacophony of sound, colour and frenetic energy that needs to be experienced to be understood.

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After 3 nights at Buska Lodge we’re on the road to Jinka – the time has come to visit the most iconic Omo Valley tribe, the Mursi. They live far from western influence, deep within the Mago National Park, with the constant threat of tribal conflict which has earned them reverence as a warrior tribe, as people not to be messed with. Our experiences with the Mursi are nothing short of magical, even if somewhat overwhelming. The overwhelm is due to a combination factors; the shoulder-to-shoulder interactions with people in full body paint and elaborate headdresses, the woodsmoke from cooking fires, the shrill of cicadas and buzzing of flies, the ubiquitous clink of cow bells, the sheer number of photographic opportunities and the outright remoteness of the place.

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After 3 nights in Jinka it is sadly time for us to return to Addis Ababa. Sad that it’s over but ecstatic that it happened. Each time I visit the Omo Valley I am struck by the seemingly inexorable infiltration of western technology. I do not blame the tribes for this. Their lives are exceedingly challenging and anything that brings a little more comfort or convenience is understandably desired. What it means though is that they truly are the “vanishing” tribes of the Omo Valley, making it a “before it’s too late” destination.

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Mike Dexter, ORYX Photo Tour Partner

 

To join Mike on a privately guided photo tour, email [email protected].

 

To join Mike on one of his group scheduled photo tours, email [email protected]

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