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Visiting the tribes of the Omo Valley – Ethiopia

Visiting the tribes of the Omo Valley – Ethiopia

Off to Ethiopia and it got off to an excellent start. When I got on the plane there was someone already sitting in my seat. I thought there were going to be problems and I’d end up being squashed between 2 large, sweaty men. When the stewardess came, back however, I found the nice man at check-in had upgraded me. So there I was in business class ‘glass of champagne before take off madam’. It was all a bit bizarre. The flight was full to the brim to Damascus. At Damascus however, nearly everyone got off and very few got on. I ended up as the only person in business class. This was fortunate as when I got to my hotel at quarter to 3 in the morning, I was told breakfast was 6.30am and we’d be leaving at 7.30am for the 10 hour drive to the South. I was okay until I realised it wasn’t a joke. The drive was brilliant and our driver and guide were lovely, big smiles, full of information and stolling for lots of photos. It kept me going. We saw people selling Chat leaves. The leaves if chewed are a stimulant with an effect similar to caffeine. They are, widely used here. 

Local chat seller
The scenary was spectacular and changed constantly, lakes and mountains culminating in the lush green vegetation of the valley, with its wealth of crops and banana palms. The hills were more barren but equally as beautiful with small huts and farms dotted everywhere. We were mobbed by children whenever we stopped, some just curious but many asking for money or pens. Everyone was really friendly with lots of smiles and laughter – mainly at our, expense.
There’s no health and safety rules in Ethiopia.
I tried the local food this eve in, with mixed results. It is served with Injera which looks, like a, large pancake but unfortunately, doesn’t taste like one. It is a little non-descpript but is served with lots of accompaniments, some spicy, some not, some very tasty, some not so. As there was no electricity I had no idea what I was eating. I did get used to Injera. One thing I did love in Ethiopia was the avocado shakes – delicious. The beer wasn’t bad either.
The next day we were off to the National Park on some of the most challenging roads I’ve ever been on. There were some very steep drops too, not good when the car is lurching all over the place. Now I know why they invented 4 wheel drives. There were some great views over the lake. We drove for hours without really seeing anything, being thrown around and burnt by the sun streaming through the car windows. Eventually we saw some zebras, then more zebras and more zebras. At one point we could get out of the car and I managed to walk up very close to them. Magical.

There were also antelope in the distance. After a short time in was unfortunately, time to get back in the vehicle and back to negotiating the dirt tracks, up and down, side to side, swerving everywhere. It’s a good job I like zebras. There was a dik dik I spotted on the way back but by the time I shouted we were too far past and hurtling down another pothole. After a lunch of fish from the lake it was off to meet the Dorze tribe – it was market day. The market was brilliant and like everything else in Africa, very colourful. We were mobbed though by children, beggars and people wanting their photos their photos taken for a small fee of 1 bit or about 7p. I tried to oblige but was immediately mobbed by people trying to grab the money. I was rescued by one of the guides. There were so many spices being sold and lots of groups of women standing chatting. Apparently later everybody gets together drinking. The Dorze live in great houses, conical structures built from bamboo.
One of the young guys from the village who is at university and speaks better English than me, showed me round the village. He told me all about their lifestyle and culture, it was fascinating. We got to try some of the food, made from the false banana tree, so called because it doesn’t produce fruit. It does however retain water, so ensures drought doesn’t affect these people. It grows prolifically and they use every part of the plant as food or building materials. We were treated to a display of dancing – they’re fantastic dancers, with lots of rhythm and lots of hip action going on. I was persuaded to join in and gave it my all. They so loved dancing, everyone joined in, from the oldest women to the smallest children. There was lots of laughter. I had a brilliant time.
We’d driven to the village up and up to 2,000 metres and the temperature became more bearable. Children were running from everywhere, doing little dances in the road, and asking for pens, money and water bottles. I’m not sure what I think of this type of tourism. I know people visiting brings income to the village which is much needed and the atmosphere was welcoming and very friendly. But it needs doing responsibly. Although I feel privileged to have, seen and learnt what I have today, I still feel I’m part of some damage that is being done, some precedent being set. Things are changing though with or without tourism. So many rural people and farmers are moving to the city. So maybe tourism is helping to preserve their culture too. I don’t know what is right. My overwhelming memory of Ethiopia will be of goats, cows, donkeys and even camels everywhere, always swerving to avoid them or being held up as they pass, brilliant. On the way back to town we saw monkeys and Maribou storks in the trees lining the city.
There have been so many times today that when I thought that it wasn’t possible to be any happier. As the drivers and guides said – I smile all the time. As I pointed out so do they. They are great guys and I know I’m going to wish this trip were longer. It’s so full onthough, we have no free time and not much sleep. I’m losing track of the days, we fit so much into each day it’s, hard to know where to start. This morning we went for a boat trip on the lake and it was amazing. An incredible array and variety of birds, storks, pelicans, flamingos, fish eagles and egrets to name a few.
This bird is called a superb starling, I can’t think of a, better name. There were also lots and lots of crocodiles, some, extremely large!
Also lots of hippos we had to be very careful of – the last thing we needed was a hippo overturning our boat. There were more crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank, getting their body temperatures up. An incredible start to the day.
We were driving to Jinka. The drive was long and incredibly dusty. As we got further into the valley the temperature became even hotter until it was 97° in the, shade. We had the windows down in the vehicle but it was like sitting in a hairdryer. The breeze coming through the window was so warm. The scenary started with lots of farming terraces, then became more arid before becoming green again. There were enormous termite mounds.
As we got further into the valley we started to see people in tribal dress, fantastically plaited hair, colourful clothes and adornments. They’re willing to let you take their photograph – at a price. It was fantastic to see though and very good humoured. We were so glad to arrive at Jinka so tired and dusty but what a day with so many incredible sights.
Wow, no sleep last night, loud music, banging, children crying, dogs barking and the early call to prayer. A lot of Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians but there has also been an influx of Islam. This morning we were visiting an Ari village. I didn’t get a good feel about it. There seemed to be 2 or 3 older boys who acted, like the local mafia. We were also mobbed by kids. It all seemed too touristy, too set up. We did visit the school too which was lovely.
A long and even hotter and dustier journey through the National Park brought us to the Mursi village. En-route we met our first Mursi tribes women and some very decoratively and interestingly adorned locals.
The bigger the mouth plate the more attractive it’s deemed to be and the more she is worth at marriage . We arrived at the Mursi village, the woman resplendent with their clay plates in their mouths. The bottom wlip is cut and a small plate is inserted, then gradually larger and larger plates to stretch the lips. The process normally begins when a girl is 15 or 16. The men don’t have these but they do have tribal tatoos. There were various weapons, spears and guns. We didn’t have time to take it all in though, as we were immediately swamped by tribes people wanting us to take their photo for money, then asking for more money. It became overwhelming and there was much disagreement and bartering over price. All the time people were tugging at us. -we just had enough. At one point we just refused to take any more photos, which gave us a little respite and meant the price suddenly dropped. I met a lovely old lady though, we warmed to each other and I escaped from the throng and had a little peace sitting with her outside her hut. In the end though it was too much for us and we beat a hasty retreat.
It was another long dusty drive to the campsite, there was no respite from the sun beating down into the car. Finally I arrived and I cooled down in the stream until I had my toes nibbled by fish. We saw baboons with a tiny baby and black and white colobus monkeys with long, white, furry tails.
The next day was excellent. We met the Hamer and the Karo tribes and, the atmosphere was so different. These tribes aren’t used to visitors. Most of the year the road we came on (actually it wasn’t a road or even a track) is impassable. When the rains come vehicles cant get through, so must go back to Jinka and take the main road bypassing these villages. The first people we met were some Hamer men and women coming along the road. They were so excited. The men and boys jumped up and down, giving us their traditional greeting. The women had fantastic plaited hair and many adornments, beads and shells.
The Karo were equally excited and welcoming. They decorate their faces and bodies with a white dye, forming lots of patterns with dots. They adorned their hair with sweetcorn. They also had lots of guns on show. There are still disagreements with other tribes and the Karo are one of the most endangered, which I found very sad. They were very friendly and funny. They had great fun adorning our guide.
We saw so much wildlife today, more colobus monkeys, dik dik, kudu, warthog, a huge Marshall eagle, scarlet bee-eaters and lots of baboons, some very closely.
It was another very hot and very dusty drive but I didn’t care. It was 107° in the shade unfortunately, we didn’t spend much time in the shade. When we got to the campsite there was an outdoor shower – I’ve never been so happy. After 2 days on those dusty roads it was heaven. If I thought the last 2 days had been dusty I was about to find out I hadn’t seen anything yet. The next day was like being in a sandstorm. We drove for one and half hours with dust coming in through the windows. En-route we saw a vulture feeding on a not long dead dik dik. Seeing a vulture running along the ground was bizarre – it looked like someone in Halloween fancy dress.
When we got to our destination we had to cross the Omo river by dugout canoe.
The Geleb tribe were waiting on the other side. The first thing I noticed here was there were more elderly people. I asked how old one woman was and was told 56. Apparently some in the village live into their 70s.The chief was very old too. This in a place where the average life expectancy for women is 42 and for men 38. We were shown around and it was very interesting. We spent time inside the huts and learning how to tell the difference between married and un-married women and how women showed they were available. Also little plaits in their hair signified how many children they had. If a man was interested, he has to visit the prospective wife’s parents, bringing a decorated piece of pottery. This is signifying he has 50 cows, so is a worthy prospect. The wind was now whipping up huge sandstorms which were extremely unpleasant. With nothing to block their path, they hit us with their full force. The drive back was equally dusty, in the distance we could see huge tornadoes of sand. They were rising up everywhere on the horizon. I was glad to get back to camp and again the shower was so welcome.
Where do I start? Coming up was an incredible couple is days – almost overwhelming. I spent it with the Hamer people and they are by far my favourite tribe. It started with a walk to a neighbouring Hamer village. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming with big smiles. We saw more of the Hamer dancing. They obvious all enjoy their, dancing. It’s also a bit of a courtship ritual. The men would jump up and down in the air. One of them would then choose a female and pull her into the circle, while she tried to avoid him, running rings around him – literally and acting all coy. Everyone was singing and even the tiniest children were clapping their hands to the music. Everyone was having a lot of fun, including me. I learnt a lot about their culture and a couple of unpleasant facts. They practise male and female circumcision. Also it is considered extremely bad luck if a baby’s 1st teeth appear on the top row. If this happens then the child is abandoned in the forest. They did say that now often these children are, given to missionaries. The middle tooth on the bottom row of a girl’s mouth is also pulled out. If a girl is married she wears a leather throng round her neck with a protruding lump of metal. The hair of the girls and women is coloured with a mixture of clay and butter and rolled between the hands to form plaits.
The following day was market day for the Hamer, in one of the local villages. As we drove there the road was filled with tribespeople walking to the market. On sale were goats and cattle as well as clay pots, cloth and everyday items. At the market there is a lot of drinking of the local beverage called Tej – it’s a honey wine similar to Mead and is lovely. I had 3 glasses and felt nice and mellow.
Then it was probably the highlight of the whole trip. We had found out there was going to be a bull jumping ceremony. Basically when a boy comes of age, to prove he’s a man he must jump over the back of a lot of bulls. He leaps onto the 1st bull’s back and then runs along the the backs of the other bulls which are all in a line. He must also be naked when he does this. Before this happens however, there is a huge build up. The women dance and work themselves up into a frenzy. The female family members of the jumper then goad the men to whip them. They verbally abuse them and push them until they relent and whip them with a tree branch. The sound was horrific, as were the results, huge welts, cuts and open wounds leaking blood. It was hard to watch or understand but the women didn’t even flinch. They do this to show their love and devotion for the jumper, who is their relative. The most wounds, the more devoted. I saw women with horrific scars on their backs. It is hard not to find it barbaric. It’s the women who initiate the violence.
The hair of the girls is amazing and their faces incredibly beautiful. The young men’s faces are painted with various patterns.
The whippers are all men who have already jumped the bulls but are not married. They were quite young. All this went on for over 3 hours. Then it was off to a covered platform to sit on goatskins and 1st drink a kind of coffee made from husks. Then out came the beer, made from barkey. I tried both. The beer was served warm and both it and the coffee had the appearance and consistency of mud. The beer wasn’t too unpleasant in taste, if you could get past the appearance.
I was sitting in the midst of everything but no-one seemed to mind and I was included in all the drinks. I was sitting next to the whippers who very very amenable and smiled at me. There was more goading and more whipping until eventually the cows appeared. It took some time to round them up and get them in line. Then the jumper and some of the cows had to be blessed before the jumper removed his goatskin and was ready. I missed the 1st jump, it was so fast. The whole thing must have been over in 20 seconds, which was a slight anti-climax. Fortunately, he made several jumps all of which were completed successfully. This is fortunate as otherwise he would have been whipped and would have had to jump again. The jumper now goes out into the forest alone and comes back a man. The village will be partying all night.
The day was incredible. I can’t help feeling though that this will soon turn into a tourist exhibition put on to order regardless of seasons, harvests or coming of age. There were already some tourists earlier acting extremely disrespectfully. I had such mixed emotions about today but I did feel privileged to witness it. The next day the tiredness was starting to catch up. We were visiting the Arbore and then the Kon so tribe, both are well acquainted with tourism, living very close to tarmac roads and towns. It was all too much for us, the constant prodding, poking, pulling and shouts of Highland (the water bottles they try to cadge off tourists) or photo, photo, wanting photos for money. We were surrounded by a mass of women, men and children constantly tugging at us, all we wanted was to get back to the car as soon as possible. We’ve left our lovely tents, beautiful campsite and the friendly Hamer tribe behind and are staying in a flea pit of a hotel with no water. My room was like a tin box and it was stifling.
The next day we drove to Yabello. It’s only 100km but it was worth it – a lovely hotel and comfort. This afternoon there was a visit to a salt Lake to see the minerals extracted. The hotel had beautiful gardens with lots of beautiful birds. I opted for an afternoon of bird watching with a cold beer, a shower, a nap and a good book, good choice. I was very refreshed. There was some fantastic scenary and a lot of laughs on the way back to Addis Ababa. I will miss our guides and drivers, we’ve got on so well and had a lot of fun. Tonight is a final feast of local food washed down with a little more Tej.
It was an incredible trip, so full on and at times almost overwhelming. I felt privileged to have and learnt so much. I saw the effects of the exposure to tourism and still don’t know how I feel about that. There is talk of a road being built which will give access to the other tribes and that makes me feel sad



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