Tribes of the Omo Valley
“Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is without a doubt my happy place in this crazy upside down world we live in. After more than 5 years we have finally earned the trust of the various local chiefs and their people. We treat each other with respect, the hardship we all endure in our respective worlds, a world of surviving and succeeding against all odds. I escape to ‘The Omo’ when I need her most; she keeps me grounded and humble. Every time I enter this forgotten piece of Africa and share her raw beauty with my clients and fellow adventurers it reminds me how fortunate I am!” Marius Coetzee.
Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is one of the wildest and most ethnically diverse places on Earth. Sadly, development and the ravages of modernization are threatening these unique peoples, and as such the Omo Valley tribes is a ‘capture 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.
The Surma tribe, who due to their remoteness are one of the least visited of the Omo Valley’s tribes.
The Surma tribe is pastoralists, placing much value on their cattle, which they protect vigorously against theft from neighbouring tribes. The Surma tribe however also steal livestock from their enemies, and in recent times there has been more pressure on their grazing lands due to input of people from adjacent Sudan who have been displaced by civil war, resulting in not-infrequent fighting in the area.
The Surma 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 Surma, who regard Westerners concept of clothing with fascination!
Possibly more famously, Surma women, like Mursi tribe 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. Surma tribe women make the lip plates from clay, colouring them with ochre and charcoal and baking them in a fire.
Another famous component of Surma tribe life is stick fighting, known a Donga. At a fight, each male contestant is armed with a hardwood pole about six feet long and with a weight of just less than two pounds.
The men paint their bodies with a mixture of chalk and water before the fight. In the attacking position, this pole is gripped at its base with both hands, the left above the right in order to give maximum swing and leverage. Each player beats his opponent with his stick as many times as possible with the intention of knocking him down, and eliminating him from the game. Players are usually unmarried men.
The winner is carried away on a platform of poles to a group of girls waiting at the side of the arena who decide among themselves which of them will ask for his hand in marriage. Taking part in a stick fight is considered to be more important than winning it.
The Hamer tribe is one of the most well known Omo Valley 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 Hamer tribe women.
These Hamer tribe 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 their 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 tribe 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.
The Karo tribe lives along the east bank of the Omo River and practice flood retreat cultivation, their main crops being maize, sorghum and beans. Unlike the other Omo valley tribes, they keep only a small number of cattle due to the prevalence of tsetse flies. Like many of the Ethiopian 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 tribe 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 tribe, 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 tribe women have decoratively-scarred abdomens, which are considered sensual and very desirable.
Mursi Tribe is famous for the clay lip plates that the women insert in their lower lips; the Mursi tribe is probably one of the last Omo Valley 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 tribe 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 tribe and their neighbours became part of the Ethiopian State in the final years of the 19th century, when Emperor Menelik II established control over the southwestern lowlands bordering Kenya and Sudan.
This was an area inhabited by several small Omo Valley tribes with fluid identities, highly adaptable to environmental conditions and capable of easily absorbing outsiders into their communities. The Mursi tribe as we know them today are the product of a large-scale migratory movement of cattle herding peoples in the general direction of the Ethiopian highlands. Three separate movements may be distinguished in the recent history of the Mursi tribe, each the result of growing environmental pressure associated with the drying out of the Omo basin over the last 150 – 200 years.
The Mursi tribe people 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.
There is so much individual beauty found within and between the different cultures, as reflected by their spectacular bodily adornment. However the reality of photographing the tribes of Ethiopia is so much more than simply capturing images of the wildly varied peoples of the valley. It is about connecting with the people – with the tribes – whose traditions are being tested by a fast-changing world, while simultaneously experiencing ancient and beautiful cultures that may not be here in the near future.
Photo Tour: Omo Valley Photography Tour
By Marius Coetzee
Marius Coetzee was the overall winner of the Nature’s Best Africa Photographic Awards 2015 for the covoted African Culture category with an image capture in the Omo Valley titled ‘Karo’. He has a deep love for Ethiopia’s Omo Valley tribes, having guided many photo safaris to this exotic, one of a kind destination, and his vast experience here make him the natural choice to lead photo safaris to this incredible country.