The southern tribes... of Ethiopia

| September 13, 2018

It is October, and we are back in Addis Ababa. A year before we were with a small group visiting the historical north. The rock-hewn churches, frescos and the historical sites exceeded our expectations but there was another fascinating aspect – the country’s rich and diverse flora, fauna and dramatic landscapes, and, in most cases, gentle and unaggressive people.

The visit to the southern nations, the tribes of the Omo valley and surrounding areas seemed a logical extension but impossible at the time. Our very personable guide Eyob met us and we flew south to Arba Minch to pick up our 4x4 and driver. Arba Minch overlooks the two biggest rift valley lakes in Ethiopia – one pink, one blue.

Early the next day we went on a boat trip to Lake Chamo, where the biggest concentration of the largest crocodiles I have ever seen is interspersed with regimented rows of pelicans and menacing marabou storks. A lonely fisherman paddled by on a fragile log raft – a dangerous job as each year some are attacked by crocodiles.

Pelicans, Lake Chamo

Pelicans, Lake Chamo

Some of the southern tribes – Mursi, Hamer, Karo, Dassenach – have retained traditional customs and clothing. Those nearer towns like Dorsi and Ari adopt the western lifestyle and their children go to school. The Dorsi, living in the damp mountains by the lake, are spinners and weavers selling colourful hats and scarves by the roadside. Some live in woven reed houses resembling the head of an elephant, the eyes being the chimney. Like most of Africa, there were old women bent double, carrying huge bundles and small children with large jerry cans of water on a muddy road trampled by goats and zebu – the local humped cattle. The Ari people further south live in more conventional rectangular houses, distil a passable Arak – a West Asian alcoholic spirit – and most children go to school. A troupe of delightful children did a spontaneous tribal dance, not for us but as play.

Mursi tribe

Nearer the Kenyan and Sudanese borders are the more traditional tribes. Spectacular pictures of the Mursi, Hamer, Karo and other tribes are prolific on the web and reflect their plight. Take the Mursi for example, who were displaced from their traditional lands by the government. The land was wanted either for commercial use or to restock tourist game parks as the wildlife had diminished. Moved to poorer land, they still manage to herd cattle and some subsistence agriculture. They are spectacular in full ceremonial tribal dress and now make money from tourists by demanding a small fee for photos.

The Karo on the banks of the brown Omo river are similarly spectacular for tourists. In the tribal markets, most retain their traditional tribal dress. The Hamer with red ochre hair wear goat skin tops and shell necklaces, whereas the Bani wear gourd caps or coloured beaded head bands and are reluctant to be photographed. With care, consideration and plenty of small change, excellent photos are possible, but in any case the whole spectacle is a feast for eye and mind. Observing the daily life of a tribe and their ceremonies is a privilege reserved for anthropologists, a few intrepid trekkers, campers, and my wife and I!

Our ingenious guide, ears to the ground, tracked down a Hamer coming-of-age ceremony. Miles along a rutted dirt track, not far from Lake Turkana, we arrived at what seemed like a ceremonial tree. Several women wearing beaded head bands, goatskins and bells around their ankles were dancing, singing a repetitive chorus or blowing small copper horns. We followed them to the village centre. Small naked children ran around their singing mothers who were sat where the food was cooking. One of them boiled coffee in large clay necked pots. An unhappy looking boy of about 17 or 18 was the initiate. We caught him crying in a corner later.

Traditional women's dress from the Hamer tribe, Omo valley

Traditional women's dress from the Hamer tribe, Omo valley

At the ceremonial tree, a group of young men were grinding rocks to make white and ochre face paint. Teenage girls were bare to the waist with their hair shaven in patterns and rows of coloured beads. They watched the men with long canes, who whipped the backs of the prancing and trumpeting older women until some were crisscrossed with blood. The women asked for more because it is proof of their love for the boy, who was a family member. Further up the hill, young men and woman were dancing in a circle. Meanwhile the older women, backs scarred and bleeding, were rounding up 40 or 50 bulls, making a lot of noise to confuse them. After an hour or so, seven bulls had been lined up side by side by force.

The initiate who was completely naked, stood worried at the side. Suddenly, he ran at the phalanx of bulls. He jumped on to the back of the first one and then jumped to another one. He went back and forth, jumping across the bulls’ backs, five or six times. In four minutes his initiation was over. Now he’d be allowed to marry his first bride, who would be chosen for him, and own cattle.

Young Karo girl

Young Karo girl

I personally don’t think that these tribes can maintain their traditional ways of life for many more generations. Apart from practices that are not palatable to modern societies, there are still inter-tribal conflicts exacerbated by gun-running across the Kenyan border and the government coveting their land. Pressure from government, missionaries, the arrival of electricity and tourism will destroy these societies. Go and see them while you can.

Find out more about Cox & Kings’ holidays to Southern Ethiopia here.

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