Omo Valley South Ethiopia
The Omo Valley is the area around the Omo River in southern Ethiopia near the borders of Kenya and Sudan. The area is divided into East and West on both sides of the Omo River.
Omo Valley landscape
The landscape of the Omo Valley is very diverse: vast savannah with mountains on the horizon, beautiful views, the arid semi-desert, acacia bushes, hills and forests on the banks of the Omo River. Then the Omo river itself with its deep canyons and rapids, dense vegetation on the banks where monkeys, colorful birds, crocodiles and hippos reside. This is a beautiful river for wild water rafting. In the Omo Valley are the Mago and Omo National Park which are separated by the Omo River.
Tribes in the Omo Valley
In the Omo Valley are more than 10 tribes share a relatively small area. Regardless of the modern technology they walk around as (semi)nomads in their own territories with their cattle , with only a few goods like a spear (or gun), knife and small wooden stool, the Burkito, which is also used as a pillow. Each of the Omo Valley tribes has its own unique costumes, hairstyle, body tattoo or painting, jewelry, dance, music and social structure: a paradise for anthropologic research and study. In several places like Jinka in the Omo Valley, Key Afer, Turmi Dimeka and you can visit the colorful local (cattle)markets where you can find the local people buying and selling their own agricultural products and different goods such as cloth, household items and so on.
Many people in the Omo valley still live the traditional way of life. The elders still have much power and they are the greatest authority for their own people. But the central government tries to bring (economical) development into the area. More and more schools are built and the government is trying in many ways to convince people that it is necessary to send their children to school. Because traditionally children grow up in an age old pattern where everything is already predestined and where boys as well as girls have to perform different tasks and duties, it is not easy to convince the parents that it is important and necessary to send their children (and specially girls) to school. They also experience that educated young people will easily reject some cultural practices and traditions which causes a generation gap and endangers their iidentity as a member of their tribe. Indeed this fear is not unfounded. Young people who are educated are often in conflict with themselves and their tribe because of the new values and understanding of life style; they will no longer follow easily the traditional values of their tribal way of life. Thus, it is a great task to the government, nongovernment organizations and other people who are involved in the development work to help and give guidance for the tribal people.
Another problem in the Omo Valley are the tribal wars, the motives of ware are due to looting of cattle’s and agricultural land. This kind of ware among the different tribes for example between the hammer and Dassanech, and Nyangatom, Mursi and Surma has been going on for centuries.
Impact of tourism in the Omo Valley
Though tourists usually respect the value and traditional lifestyle of the various tribes in the Omo valley and they are eager to learn about the manners and customs of different tribes. But tourism has also a negative side effect. In several villages in the Omo valley which are often visited by tourists, the population see a white tourist just as someone from whom something can be earned, especially by charging fees for making pictures or selling souvenirs. In such village’s tourists are often overwhelmed by many inhabitants who insist to be photographed. Especially the Mursi in the tourist towns may behave quite intrusive and sometimes even aggressive. To avoid this kind of behaviour, when you enter the village it is better to put the (video) camera in your bag, take some more time in the village, first walking around with a local guide and try to make contact with the people and show real interest in their culture. Than finally ask the local guide if you can make photos, let the guide first negotiate the price per photo with the residents. If possible it is better to go to somewhat more remote villages in the Omo Valley, which are not often visited by tourists. In general, we advise our guests to go by walking (or with landcruiser) to remoter and non touristic villages. If possible, you can spend one or more nights camping by a village. If you stay a longer time in a village, you will be able to meet the people in their normal, daily life and they are going to consider you as a guests instead of a tourist and this makes the contact more natural and spontaneous.
Some of the tribes in or near the Omo Valley
The Konso people who live northeast of the Omo Valley life are especially known for their wooden grave sculptues, the Waga's and their beautiful traditional villages surrounded by a stone defense wall. They live in a very dry mountainous area where they maintain the scarce fertile land by making terraces on which they sow sorghum, maize, beans and plant coffee. They try to get more from their land as much as possible by sowing alternating crops, using animal manure and hard work. Their orderly villages with beautiful huts built very close together and their fields are surrounded by stonewalls to protect against erosion and floods, wild animals and enemies. Each village is divided into different communities (neighbourhoods), each have their own community house where the boys from 12 years and older sleep until they get married. This is a habit from the time that the Konso people often been attacked by neighbouring tribes and the young men were always ready to fight. Near by the town of Konso there are several lodges, hotels and campsites.
The Tsemai people: (about 5000) grow sorghum and corn in the area at the east of Weito River of the Omo Valley. They are cattle owners and everywhere you see hanging beehives for honey production. Their language is related to the Cushitic language of the Konso and that is because their ancestor Asasa came to the surrounding area of the river Weito from Konso about 200 years ago. They also have much in common with their neighbours, the Arebore people.
Marriages between members of the Hamer tribe and Tsemai take place regularly. In the village Weito there is a simple bamboo bedroom hotel and camping facilities.
The Arebore people live in the southeast of the Omo valley and are neighbours of the Tsemai and Hamer people. Through intermarriage, they are closely associated with Hammer and even Borena. These make them quite multicultural and they are often intermediating in trade and conflicts between different tribes. On the Saturday Arebore colourful market you will see not only people of this tribe but also the Arebore Hamar, Tsemai and Borena. It is possible to camp near the village Arebore.
The Hammer people (about 35,000) live in the centre of the Omo Valley and have a remarkable hair and body painting. The women are gorgeous with metal straps around upper arms and ankles, various colourful necklaces, leather skirts decorated with shells and beads and hairbraids made with red clay. When a man kills a wild animal or an enemy, his hair is decorated with a clay cap painted in various colours and adorned with an ostrich feather. Also known is the bull-jumping ceremony where a young man must prove that he is matured for marriage. He has to run 3 times over the backs of a row of bulls without falling. If he falls and the test is unsuccessful, he will be beaten and ridiculed by the girls and he may try again after one year. The girls who are family of the boy (sisters, nieces etc_, let themselves be beaten with whips on their backs by a goup of young men (the Maz) to show their love and dedication for the boy who in return will always be ready to support and help them. This ceremony usually takes place between late February and early April or mid-August and September and is attended by tourists. The traditional "Evangadi dance" is danced early in the evening by the young people. During this dance, the young boys show their interest in one of the girls and gives the young girls opportunity to get in contact with the boy of their choice. Nearby Turmi there are several campsites and a lodge.
Dassanech people ("Dassanech means "people of the Delta") These people live in the delta of the Omo River where it flows into Lake Turkana in the south of the
Omo Valley. Their main property is their cattle. When a man loses cattle by drought, disease and raids by other tribes, he and his family are now in the "Dies" it meaning is "poor people". The Dies live on the shores of Lake Turkana, where they fish and hunt crocodiles; they are considered to be as outcasts by the Dassanech. In times of famine they share their fish and crocodile meat with the rest of the tribe.
The Karo people ( about 1500 ), the smallest of the Omo Valley tribes, live near the Omo River in the southwest. They are related to the Hammer and like them, specialists in body painting for special celebrations. They use mostly white chalk and then paint it their face and body and if they use some white feathers as a headdress.
There is a campsite near the village of Kolcho so you have the opportunity to get in close contact with the people and see the everyday life. The Murill lodge / camp is also close to this area. Half an hour drive further south on a sandy track, you can visit Karo village Dus which is less touristic. It is possible to pitch your tent in the forest at the shores of Omo river near to Dus.
The Nyangatom people (about 6000) which have the nickname "Bume" live mainly in the southwest side of the Omo Valley, near the Omo river, though they also roam with their livestock in search of pasture. They are formidable warriors who regularly make war with the Hamer, Karo and Mursi. They speak a Nilotic language and are closely related to the Kenyan Turkana tribe. They make incisions in their bodies to enhance their beauty and fighting spirit, and as identification of the tribe.
The Mursi people (about 7000) are renowned for the large lip plate that the women wear. The origin and purpose of this habit are not clear. Probably it is just a way to differentiate themselves from other tribes. The widespread idea that the size of the dish indicates how big the bride price must be for the woman is proved to be wrong because a girl is married often before stretching her lip and insertion of a dish begins (around the age of 15). The stick fighting between large groups of men are known and serve as the bull-jumping among the Hammer people, as a test of manhood. The Mursi people live in the northwest of the Omo valley, partly in Mago NP.
The Ari people (morethan100, 000) inhabit a large area around Jinka in an elevated area north of the Omo Valley and speak a language closely related to South Omotic, the language of the Hammer. They grow
cereals, coffee; keep livestock and beehives for honey production. In the smaller villages in the countryside you see the women traditionally dressed in skirts made of leaves and Koisha Enset and colourful bracelets on their upper arms.
The Banna People (around 45.000) are a friendly people and they look fantastic, especially the women with their many decorations but also the proud men with a clay cap or braided hair style which they use when they have killed an enemy or wild animal. Both man and women like to decorate themselves in many different ways with. They live mostly on agriculture in upland areas to the east of the Omo Valley, adjacent to the area of Ari and Tsemai. On Thursday you can meet them on the famous market in Key Afer in the heart of the Banna area.
The Surma people (about 25,000) speak a Nilotic language and live on the west side of the Omo River on the borders of the Omo NP. They paint their bodies with white paint (made from a certain kind of clay) in fantastic patterns, giving them a ghosty look. The main purpose is to intimidate enemies. Regularly they have war against the Nyangatom giving priority to extend their territory and steal cattle. Also in this tribe the women wear clay plates in their lower lip and a young man to prove that he is worth of marriage he has to win a Donga stick fighting. It is still not possible to cross with land-cruiser by the Omo River between Mago and Omo NP. To visit Surma and other tribes west of the Omo River in the valley is only possible through western Ethiopia.
Contact us to get more information or book a tour to get in touch with the tribes of the Omo Valley. Read also our tour program Tribes and Lakes