The Tribes of the Omo Valley
ORYX’s Vanishing Tribes of the Omo Valley Tour will take us to one of the wildest and most ethnically diverse places on Earth – the Omo Valley. This is a cultural photo experience during which we will interact with several tribal communities who still live almost exactly as they did hundreds of years ago. Sadly, development and the ravages of modernization are threatening these unique peoples, and as such the Omo Valley is a see it while you can destination. This harsh and inhospitable place has over ten distinctly different tribes existing within a 38 mile / 60 km radius each with its own unique language, clothing, hairstyles and bodily ornamentation. Our photography tour focuses on 4 of these tribes: the Suri, Mursi, Karo and Hamar.
The Suri Tribe
Due to their remoteness, the Suri are one of the least visited of the Omo Valley’s tribes but they certainly are the most photogenic and fascinating to photograph! They will be our first stop on our Omo Valley tour.
The Suri people do not make woodcarvings, statues etc., and instead are renowned for their incredibly ornate decoration of themselves, which they achieve through painting, scarification and adornment with flowers and other natural objects. The paintings are dynamic artworks, which vary greatly in design, are truly fascinating to photograph! Virtually no area of the body is left out, and nakedness is a standard and acceptable part of daily life for the Suri, who regard Westerners concept of clothing with fascination!
Possibly more famously, Suri women wear lip plates. In her early twenties, an unmarried woman’s lower lip will be pierced and then progressively stretched over the period of a year. A clay disc, which has its edge indented like a pulley wheel, is squeezed into the hole in the lip. As the lip stretches, a succession of ever-larger discs are forced in until the lip, now a loop, is so long it can sometimes be pulled right over the owner’s head! The size of the lip plate determines the bride price with a large one bringing in fifty head of cattle. Suri women make the lip plates from clay, colouring them with ochre and charcoal and baking them in a fire.
The Hamar Tribe
Our next stop on our Omo Valley tour will be to visit the Hamar is one of the most well-known tribes in Southern Ethiopia. They inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages in both Turmi and Dimeka.
They 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.
These women take great pride in their appearance and wear traditional dresses consisting of a brown goatskin skirt adorned with dense vertical rows of red and yellow beads. Their hair is characteristically fixed in dense ringlets with butterfat mixed with red ochre. They also wear many bracelets and necklaces fashioned of beads or metal, depending on their age, wealth and marital status. The men wear woven cloth wrapped around the waist and many elders wear delicately coloured clay head caps that are fashioned into their hair and adorned with an ostrich feather.
As mentioned, the young Hamar men are famous for their “Evangadi dance” and “Bull jumping” ceremony (it is as part of this ceremony that the afore-mentioned whipping occurs). This ritual entails young men who wish to marry jumping over a line of bulls, thereby proving their worth to their intended bride’s family. It also signifies their advent into adulthood. This is a rarely seen event, however with luck, we may hear of, and even be invited to attend this landmark event and capture it on our Omo Valley tour.
The Karo Tribe
During our Omo Valley tour in the Lower Omo Valley, our tribe of interest is the Karo, another tribe known for its elaborate body and facial paintings. These people live along the east bank of the Omo River and practice flood retreat cultivation, their main crops being maize, sorghum and beans. Unlike the other tribes, they keep only a small number of cattle due to the prevalence of tsetse flies. Like many of the tribes in the Omo, they paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for any ceremonies. The chalk is mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore and charcoal to make its requisite colour. Facemasks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns adorned with feathers.
Scarification is also an important part in the Karo people’s lives. This includes the complete scarification of a man’s chest with which to indicate that he has killed an enemy or dangerous animal (Amongst the Karo, killing one’s enemies isn’t viewed as an act of murder, but as an act of honour!).
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.
That last tribe that we will visit on our Omo Valley tour is most 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 (dhebi a tugoin) 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. Some girls even persevere until their lips can take plates of 5 inches (12 cm) or more in diameter!
The Mursi attribute overwhelming cultural importance to cattle. Almost every significant social relationship – particularly marriage – is marked and authenticated by exchanging cattle. The “Bride wealth” (ideally consisting of 38 head of cattle) is handed over by the groom’s family to the bride’s father, who must meet the demands of a wide range of relatives from different clans. This ensures that cattle are continually redistributed around the community, thereby helping to provide for the long-term economic security of individuals as well as their families.
Join ORYX today on a Omo Valley photo tour that captures four distinctive tribes and photograph some of the most colourful and bizarrely-adorned villages on this planet.
The tribes in Omo Valley’s cultural identity, and indeed very way of life, is being placed under increasing pressure from the outside world, and it really is a case of “explore and photograph the Omo Valley while you can.” ORYX has been guiding in Ethiopia for over 8 years, and a local knowledge of the region coupled with a strong relationship with the ground team, ensure the ultimate photography tour experience.