Going to Ethiopia, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. When you think about Africa, you conjure up images of giraffes munching on leaves up above, lions grumpily growling, or the majestic migration of wildebeest. What is easy to forget is the human side of the continent and how incredible the people are once you get to know them.
What makes Ethiopia uniquely different from the other parts of Africa is that it is less of an animal safari and more of a human safari. That probably sounds a bit strange and at times it really does put you in morally ambiguous situations where you question whether you’re completely disrupting a society’s existence or bringing about positive improvement. The beauty of travel though is that it really does get you thinking about humanity at a broader level, puts you out of your comfort zone, and forces you to think about the simple values of life.
A Little About Omo
The region of Omo Valley of Ethiopia probably deserves a little bit of an introduction. I certainly didn’t know much about it and after a bit of research I knew that I couldn’t miss this opportunity.
Omo Valley is truly one of the last surviving group of people where modernization has hardly touched them which feels impossible in an era of Internet and . For centuries, 200,000 or so Omo Valley tribespeople have pursued preindustrial lifestyles that until more recently have been left alone to their own devices because the land was considered useless and too remote for exploitation. Beyond the gifts of tourists and garbage left behind, men, women, and children all express themselves in their own tribal identity.
What makes them so fascinating is the fact that in such a small area, there is an incredibly diversity of language and genetics that also live as traditionally as they currently do. With 14 tribes, each carries its own language, customs, and heritage. It also may not be a coincidence that the oldest Homo Sapien fossil fragments were found here.
It’s the curiosity that bring travellers like myself to the region for the chance to witness rituals such as bull jumping and gladiatorial combat.
All About the People and the Tribes
With that, I thought what better way to introduce my experiences in Ethiopia than to introduce to you all of the incredible people I met along the way. It’s the new faces, friendly handshakes, and unexpected hugs that make for the best travel experiences and Omo Valley truly punctuated that.
Note that the photos below aren’t meant to be graphic but an inside look at a hidden culture so I hope no one is offended.
Our guides Solomon (left) and Melak (right).
Our Lake Chamo boat operator was all smiles.
Scouts of Ethiopia. I wasn’t clear on whether they were military or not but while there was a heavy security presence in some areas, we were told by the locals that these scouts were really just there for show and to collect money.
When your 4×4 breaks down on the streets of Arba Minch, the locals come out to give you a hand.
Ethiopians take their coffee seriously. Instead of Starbucks you have these coffee stands where a young woman is there to prep the incense, crush coffee beans by hand, boil hot water, and pour your coffee right in front of your eyes.
Driving from Arba Minch to Jinka, the streets were lined with kids selling random trinkets, fruits or some form of twerking.
My new Rastafarian friend that accompanied us the one morning when we went up to the Omo Valley museum.
This kid was fascinated by my solar power bank and ended up following us all the way down. He told us that he was on break from school and was walking to the hospital to visit his Mom.
At the local convenient store shack, I bought a few postcards to send home. They didn’t have small change so I got a few lollipops instead. I gave them to this kid along with $5 to buy some text books to for school.
We stopped by the side of the road to take a photo of the valley below and these kids came bursting out of nowhere for photos. Luckily the negotiation of fees was negotiated by our guides. This was the start of the awkward photo taking where you juggle the morals of whether photography is an economy driver for growth or a catalyst to the corruption of culture.
The haunting look from a member of the Mursi tribe we were staying with and the grinding of the source of life in Omo Valley – sorghum.
The Mursi were perhaps the most aggressive of all tribes in the valley. I was bombarded with “Photo, photo photo!” and “Five bihr” as I started to make my way around the village.
The clay-lipped plates are what distinguish the Mursi from all other tribes. We learned that in this case, bigger is better, as women don their plates in order to attract male partners.
Plates aren’t always on and so this gives you an idea of what happens with their elongated and sagging lips.
Children of Omo Valley.
Photobombed by many kids.
In the middle of the day, you’ll find most members of the tribe literally just chilling.
Kurchikov’s are not an uncommon sight in these parts. They are mainly used for protection and “in case there are lions” I was told. Now that made me a little nervous as we walked through the bush to get to the watering hole.
Water is the source of life here and during dry season is it were when I was there, it is part of the daily routine to caravan jerry cans of water from watering hole many kilometers away.
What made for such a great experience with this tribe was that we got a chance to catch of a glimpse of their daily lives and get a tangible feel for the every day hardwork that’s required to stay alive.
This is Lala to the right, one of our auxiliary guides that joined us to this village since he was the one that had the relationship with the chief that gave us permission to stay with him and be under his protection.
Chief Nogali showing us how brushing your teeth works out in the valley.
At the crack of dawn, men of the village including the children start their daily routines. Kids get trained early to herd cattle as they make their way out to graze.
Unexpectedly, we found out that Donga had been called, a meeting of each villages top fighters, to battle to certain glory (or severe battle wounds). We get passed by many as we make our way through the African plains to get to the middle of nowhere.
Warriors prepare for battle by donning armour made of rag-tag items found in the village.
The one thing you immediately notice when you get to tribes like the Mursi is that they are built completely different from the modern Ethiopian. Instead of scrawny marathon running machines, you have hardened warriors built like tanks.
The Donga tournament is rife with energy and rhythm as a circle is made for opposing warriors.
The coming together of many for Donga is something I never expected to see.
Women cheering on.
Anxiously watching and wincing with every strike.
Chief Nogali, a multi-champion himself, looking onwards.
Even Donga has referees.
We were only there for a couple of hours under the sweltering sun but this would go on for the rest of the day until dusk.
Our guides had many friends in town including this kid. He hung out with us on several occasions although I was to be honest, I questioned whether he was just in it for charity which definitely came up towards the end.
The adorable kids of the Ari tribe village we visited.
Looking onwards as the women of Ari laughed at Steve’s attempt at pottery.
Son of the blacksmith jamming to some tunes.
The next Cirque du Soleil. On the side of the road you’ll find all sorts of attempts to make money from tourists. While not culturally accurate in any way, I give these kids props for trying.
Caught in an thunderstorm, we ducked inside this hut of the Hamar tribe for some tea and company.
How can I forget Billy, our superstar driver. Always full of energy and particularly loved singing to Katy Perry.
Why grind sorghum by hand when you can come to the Dimeka Market to have machines do it for you!
Man’s best friend out here.
The Hamar salon is open for business. A mix of butter, red soil is used to give the women of Hamar that unique red, braided, and dreadlock hair style.
Hamar villages from all over come to this Saturday market to “Facebook” in real time and trade their wares.
The Maza getting decorated for the start of Bull Jumping Ceremony.
The man of the hour, bull-jumping extraordinaire, and about to become a man.
The coming together of family and friends to celebrate.
Alcoholic beverages being passed around.
The entering of new family.
The energy is palpable.
Women are begging the Maza to get whipped.
Women take pride in their whipping scars. The more you have the more beautiful you are said to be.
The final ceremonial huddle for the boy that is to be a man.
All of a sudden he’s butt-naked and there he goes!
There’s a moment of reprieve as the bulls get lined up in a field nearby.
He makes several good passes of “bull jumping” which has him launch up and in succession hop and skip over the top of these bulls.
An overwhelming sigh of relief.
On our way to the Dassanech tribe, we bumped into Elof and Nana who were biking their way south all the way from Sweden to South Africa. Quite the amazing stories we heard from them including having spears thrown at them in Ethiopia.
Women of the Nyangatom are known to be garbed in large number of bead necklaces. I thought it was going to be just a few loops but this was way more.
Master-level head balancing.
A look inside life inside a Nyangatom hut.
The haunting stare of a Nyangatom woman.
The Nyangatom kids were quite the curious bunch and were especially interested in my carabiners.
The Karo tribes really have it good here along the Omo River. They even have a bar complete with generator set up. This is me hanging with a few of the guys there.
Men of Karo.
Karo tribe do a lot more face and body painting over the other tribes I visited. These kids that followed us around wanted to paint us as well.
Kids of Karo with Omo River in the backdrop.
This is Shomadore giving us a tour of his family’s home. We learned that he was quite the fan of hip hop and rap.
You know all those famous photos of tribesmen with Omo River behind? They’re all taken here at this Karo tribe.
Morning tea with wife #2 in the Hamar village we camped overnight with.
Kala was our guide throughout our time in Turmi and this was his home.
Fascination with my GoPro Hero 4 Silver.
And this is how you fill up on gas.
It’s the people that make every trip special and this one was no different. A trip to Omo Valley truly immerses yourself into all the different tribes and you’ll see things that are so unique that you’ll think you’re on an episode of National Geographic.
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