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Tribal Ethiopia - The Lower Omo Valley

After having spent nearly a month travelling around the North and the East of Ethiopia, I was eager to finally visit the South – a region so entirely different, that it resembles little the rest of the country.

The Lower Omo Valley is home to many of the country's remaining tribes, still living very authentically in rather primitive ways in remote and somewhat inaccessible villages, even with the arrival of tourism to the region about a decade ago. In 9 days, I had a chance to base myself in Arba Minch and from there, start a 6-day visit to the region – a truly unforgettable experience!

Ethical questioning – Should I stay or should I go?

I had a good three-week gap between visiting the North and the South of Ethiopia, as I travelled through the Horn of Africa region, in Somalia and Djibouti, followed by 10 days in the Middle East. By the time I had left and crossed into Somalia, I was feeling really torn, and still unsure on whether I should return to pay the South of Ethiopia a visit or not... There were two contributing factors making up for my indecisiveness. The first one was the “bad taste in my mouth" left after being constantly treated like a walking cash machine in most cities of the North, which was not only exhausting, but also prevented me from creating real connections and experiencing real local interaction.

The other was the fact that most people and guidebooks report the tribes in southern Ethiopia and the experience visiting them as a bit of a “human safari”, where visitors reach the villages on jeeps, pay some rather high costs (high in comparison to the general costs in the region) to enter the villages, and rather than learning much about what they are seeing, they just spent a bit of time there, selecting people to get paid pictures from, and then leave, moving on to another similar experience.

That is most certainly not the sort of travelling I am used to and supporting such an industry didn't strike me as the greatest of ideas, even less so under the really high costs some tour operators charge.

On the other hand, I had read and heard reports saying that as touristic and somewhat shallow as the actual interaction and experience might be, these tribes still do live in rather primitive ways, and observing them is much like being on an open air, living museum. Their clothes, hairstyles, body paintings, houses and customs have not changed much over the centuries, and even if a lot more touristic and less authentic than 10 years ago, visiting the tribes was claimed to still be an outstanding experience, and one that wouldn't last for too many years from now.

I decided to go, and to do as much research as I could to try and have as authentic an experience as I could, although, not counting much on succeeding, and accepting that already even before departing to avoid disappointments.

Arba Minch, the preparations and the departure

Once again I face a bit of difficulties being a solo traveller, needing to join other travellers to reduce costs, and independent travel in Southern Ethiopia is hard. There are no regular buses that go into the South Omo Valley regularly. Only a few villages are linked by public buses, and only on market days. Although finding out when the markets take place is rather easy, as they are advertised as a tourist attraction, local buses go packed with actual locals, so finding spots is nearly impossible. Hitchhiking doesn't happen easily as most vehicles are jeeps carrying foreigners, besides, some of the most interesting villages are tucked away and hard to reach even on a private vehicle, so visiting them independently would require insane amounts of hiking under the hot sun.

I had decided that if I couldn't join others, I would just do it independently, but I knew I would visit very little, as I also lacked the weeks I would need – I only had a total of 9 days. But I continued to try and join up with travellers through internet forums, and luckily, managed to find two really cool and like-minded travellers that were looking to take a similar tour on the same dates. Before doing that, I had spent a LOT of time contacting local guides, drivers and agencies, from recommendations from travellers I had come across the previous month.

Once I found a fair company that offered me a jeep with a driver for a price I could afford, I posted that as an option, and finding people was easier, as it was under a third of the cost that people are often quoted either online or through bigger agencies in Addis Ababa. Investing time and doing extensive research was really crucial, and the one factor that made my trip possible.

Having spoken to many travellers also gave me the opportunity of better choosing an itinerary that avoided tourist traps and coincided with good market days – I can't stress enough the importance of research when organising such an adventure, not only to save costs, but to prioritise where to go.

I met my two travel companions once I reached Arba Minch's airport, as we had all flown on the same flight from Addis. We were met and greeted by the local agency, and taken to look for accommodation.

Arba Minch felt like heaven, it was very different to what I expected. Locals were very friendly, and I was surprised to notice that people greeting me, really just wanted to greet me – it wasn't followed by either begging or offering me tour services, The nature was beautiful, as mountains surrounded the city along with really lush scenery.

Many visitors choose to visit the Crocodile Market in Arba Minch before starting their journey, but I was happy to just have a day to feel this other side of Ethiopia, and try to let go of the impression with which I had left that side of the country weeks before. A part of me wished that I had started in the south instead, so that the background of being hassled didn't accompany me whilst there.

But I was conscious of it, and happy to slowly see it fade away. I was also really happy with my two travel companions; after all, when meeting strangers to join you for 6 days, one never knows what to expect. We were all rather compatible, and all rather experienced travellers looking for the same sort of experience. The following morning, we were picked up by our driver, to start the long way towards the south.

The Tribes

Leaving the beautiful view of Lake Chamo behind, our drive started throughout the mountainous landscape of the Konso villages, towards Turmi – a village mostly accompanied by the Hammer people.

The Hamar Tribe

Distinguished by having their hair coloured in strong red dye, the Hamar were some of the friendliest tribesmen we encountered in the whole journey. Observing the Hamar is easier than most tribes, as they have many villages around Turmi, and can be seen going from their villages into town on the road, as well as in many local markets, big and small.

They are famous for their bull jumping ceremony, and although we were “invited” to attend (and pay lots) one, we all knew it wouldn’t be authentic as they actual ceremony (marking the time in which a young man turns old enough to get married, and is challenged by a crowd of observing women to jump from one bull to the other, having their abilities and braveness judged) only happens in January and the “year round ones” are just tourist traps, so we politely declined.

Seeing the Hamar in their own market was great. Surely they would approach tourists to ask to have their pictures taken (big source of income), but not all of them, and not all the time. They were really just going on about their lives, and as they were the first tribe we saw, observing the half naked women carrying clay pots on their back, and the strong men carrying spears, with feathers up their heads, was a very shocking and interesting experience.

The Karo tribe

The following day, we left just after 6AM towards the source of the Omo River, taking a very long dirt road that would finally lead us towards one of the few Karo villages in that area, on the top of a mountain, overlooking the river. The Karo are mostly distinguished by being one of the few tribes that still use a lot of body painting, in both men and women.

Like nest tribes, they are mainly pastoral, and their villages were set at the most incredible location. We were the only jeep there for a while, and although it didn't take long for them to come to us eagerly, trying to have their pictures taken, after taking a few we just sat by the river, hanging out and observing the view, as we chose not to enter their village. This allowed them to calm down, and just relax, letting go of targeting us for money. Some of the children sat by my side, touching my arm, touching my hair, and comparing it to theirs, as if they had never quite touched an arm like mine before.

It was a pretty cool experience. They sat down, sang a few songs in their language, and just watched the day go by, by our side, We were all rather pleased with how authentic the experience of letting go of the cameras and just relaxing, allowing them to calm down, had been – until the moment were the village chief insisted that we pay the village entrance fee, even though we had chosen not to enter the village. It felt unfair.

They looked at us as we looked at them. They interacted with us as we interacted with them, and still, we were foreigners, so we somehow “owned” them something. Our driver translated our feeling of disappointment over an experience that so far had been so precious, and now, all came down to money. We negotiated, paid a bit less, and moved on, trying hard to avoid having that spoil the great time we had spent there.

The Dassanach tribe

We decided to drive into the Omorate area, nearly by the Sudanese border, in the evening, to avoid driving for so many hours under the boiling sun. What we failed to consider, was that the area was hotter than anywhere else around, and we had a fairly miserable night, as none of the ridiculously basic guest houses had fans or even electricity.

Still, waking up and being there early was a big bonus, and gave us a great opportunity to cross the Omorate river by boat, and venture into the Dassanach village before other groups would get there.

They are one of the few matriarchal tribes in the area, and seemed more primitive than most. Whilst they are agro-pastoral, they hunt for crocodiles for their living. The women have very distinctive hair styles and big and colourful necklaces. Our visit to the village was short and sweet, conveniently, as it was extremely hot.

The Mursi tribe

The Mursi are reported by many, including locals and guides, as being some of the most aggressive tribes in the region, constantly demanding to have their pictures taken and not taking “no” for an answer. We had read that going there very early could make a big difference, as we would get there before they started drinking – what allegedly contributed to their aggressiveness. They are not too far from the city of Jinka, which is not a bad place to spend the previous night, for an early start.

Although reports are not great regarding their behaviour, and accessing their tribe involves cutting through the Mago National Park and paying lots for it, the Mursi are not to be missed, as they are some of the most shocking tribal people to see, for their body scarification and massive lip clay plates, inserted after cutting a girl’s lips between ages 15 and 16. Observing them was indeed a bit shocking; it gave me the creeps, particularly the scars in their bodies.

They were indeed calmer than reported, and we didn't feel them to be any more aggressive than other tribes. I would say that they are single most distinctive tribe, and the tribe that meets the most the image one may have of such people, through seeing them on documentaries or photography books.

Market opportunities – Key Afar and Jinka

Markets provide some of the most authentic experiences for observing tribal people, and in some of them, such as the Key Afar Market, one can see quite a few different tribes at once, such as The Ari, The Tesemay and The Hamar. Key Afar is one of Southern Ethiopia's largest markets, held every Thursday throughout the day. Although opportunistic touts will swear by their lives markets need to be paid for, even providing receipts, markets are free, and due to our research, we were well aware of that and just kept on walking past annoying touts that demanded money from us.

Jinka also hosts a big markets on Fridays. Markets are accessible, so low budget travellers that can't afford to hire jeeps and join excursions, can venture into Jinka and Key Afar (a bit easier than Turmi), and get a bit of the taste of what tribes are like in their own villages. If anything, I found observing them in markets more interesting and authentic anyway.

The Konso villages and the end of our trip

The Konso region is home to villages hosting many ancient Ethiopian clans, located by the Rift Valley area, not too far from Arba Minch. They are by no means tribal, but live in a distinctively traditional way, in some of the most beautiful areas in the entire region.

On our way back we drove by a big party, with tons of live music and dancing. While we stopped to check it out, locals were delighted to see us, and next thing I knew, I was in the centre of a big group of dancing women, clapping, jumping and singing with them, exhaustively. We later found out it was a funeral, and I was impressed to observe how they were handling the situation, the event of a death, to actually celebrate life, through drinking, singing and dancing. It brought great philosophical questions into my mind, and was an amazing experience altogether.

The next day we actually visited the villages, and had some of the best experiences of the whole trip. The local guide association tries to educate the children not to beg, teaching them than visitors do give back through contributing to their economy, and that results would be seen in their schools and community. I finally had a chance to really interact with people, in a normal way. We sat with children, sang with them, walked around the beautiful landscape, and I even had a chance to teach them some rhythmic exercises.

After checking out the appealing highland village architecture and the unusual landscape of naturally shaped mud towers (nicknamed “New York” for resembling skyscrapers), we returned to Arba Minch, reaching it in the late afternoon.

Certainly worth the trip, but know what to expect

Some of the travellers we met that had taken a similar trip to our one were rather disappointed, feeling that the whole thing was just a big tourist trap and that it isn't possible to pay the tribes a real visit any longer. I strongly disagree, but would reiterate that it is all dependent on the traveller's expectation, derived from the research they have done prior to venturing into the area.

One cannot expect to reach a remote tribal village on a jeep, carrying a massive Canon camera and to be treated as a local. We are tourists, we live in a very different world to their one, and we are the ones interfering with their way of life, making tourism a part of their economy. We have to know what we can get out of this experience and what we cannot.

Going there expecting much more than observing as a tourist and being treated like one is unrealistic, and will lead to disappointment, but going there, maybe taking it easy, letting go of the camera for a little while, just hanging around, and trying to interact with locals after having met their expectations of taking their pictures in the beginning, might provide a different experience. I understand the disappointment and could see myself feeling the same way had I not known what to expect, but then again, it's the traveller’s responsibility to curb their expectations according to the level of research and preparation done...

Southern Ethiopia might no longer be that untouched and undiscovered place some travellers dream of finding, but it is still an outstanding, unusual and unique place to visit, and visited by very few people in this world. The opportunity of seeing it as it is and as it comes these days remains extremely unique and my time there was truly unforgettable.

MJ Lopes

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MJ Lopes

The Wondering Wanderer

Brazilian born and raised, MJ Lopes started travelling before she turned one-month-old and hasn't...

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