Trip Start Jul 02, 2008
60Trip End Jun 19, 2009
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I just returned from probably the most unique experience I have ever had. I spent 8 days travelling throuhg the Lower Omo Valley visiting the tribal villages of Ethiopia. Supposedly only 10% of travellers visit this area. This could be because of the long arduous journey of dirt roads that require a 4WD hire, or the expense of the car hire (which luckily I split with three other girls), or it can possibly be the in your face culture shock of the tribal way of life. Whatever their reason, that 90% of people are missing out on an incredible experience and what I consider the most memorable part of Ethiopia.
The first and last days of the trip were long driving days to/from Addis and the Omo Valley. The other days consisted of a lot of driving as well to the various villages and markets but there were many diversions along the way. Other than the incredible scenery, about 10 times a day we'd see kids along the road dancing to hopefully make some money out of us, or selling fruit or handicrafts, or asking for water bottles which we usually always had some empties to hand out. As we would pass, the kids would chase after our car, many of them completely naked. Speaking of naked, I haven't seen so many tits and dicks in such a short span of time in my life. And with the immense heat in the south, us 4 ladies, at times, almost joined the topless tribeswomen.
These remote tribes all practice ancient customs and traditions that have remained almost entirely intact for hundreds even thousands of years. Most of the tribes believe in animism as their religion and each village has a chief that serves as the leader and all conflicts are resolved among the tribe. Tribes are broken down into various clans where each clan consists of one extended family. Marriages stay within a tribe but two members of the same clan cannot marry.
With most of the tribes I noticed body scarification. This is done with a stone, knife, hook, or razor blade and ash or charcoal is rubbed into the open wound so that when it heals a raised, bumpy scar remains. Men scar themselves only after they have killed one foe. Women believe that men find scars on women desirable and sensual.
We had to pay entrance fees to visit each village and hire a local guide to lead us through and explain how the tribes live. In addition we had to pay each person usually one or two birr (10-20 cents) to take his/her photograph. This made the visits more like business transactions since as soon as we would drive up kids would surround the car begging to have their picture taken. And they would continue to follow you around the village repeating "Photo one birr". Other than "hello" this is the only English they knew so it's a shame that this was the only understandable interaction we would have with the tribes people. In every village and in every market little kids would just want to walk around with you and hold your hand. As long as they didn't beg for money I would let them, but as soon as we returned to the car I would use hand sanitizer to wipe off whatever germs may have remained.
I will now do my best to describe the different tribes and what makes each of them unique.
We stopped in front of an Arbore village and were suddenly surrounded by about 20 boys yelling and pushing each other to have their pictures taken. We didn't visit the village because they were asking for a huge amount of birr to visit and we found them very pushy. I was able to take a couple of pictures of a few boys outside of the car with painted faces.
We crossed the Omo River in a local boat to visit a Dasenech village. They live very close to the Kenya border. Unfortunately our guide didn't have much to say about their way of life. I don't think there's anything that unique that distinguishes them from any other tribe. I found them extremely friendly and welcoming.
The Dorze live in the mountains at an elevation of 2900 meters. They are renown for their tall beehive shaped homes and for being excellent cotton weavers. Their home can be up to 12 meters/36 feet tall and are made from all organic materials such as bamboo, grass, and enset (false banana) leaves. The homes can last up to 60 years. Termites eat away at the base of the huts so over the years their homes shrink. The entire structure can be picked up and moved. The Dorze are subsistent farmers and every home is surrounded by a garden of crops and at least one loom for weaving. We spent the night in the village and in the evening we ate, drank local tej (honey wine), and danced played the drums around a campfire. It was an incredible evening.
The Konso people also live in the mountains and build rock terraces on the slope of the mountain to grow their crops, they use animal dung as fertilizer, and utilize crop rotation. Their villages are enclosed by stone walls about 2 meters/6 feet high. Each village consists of 9 clans and each family compound is surrounded by stick walls that create a labyrinth of narrow alleys throughout the village. When a chief dies notice will go out to the village that he is ill. He will then be embalmed and kept in his compound for 9 years after which the village will be informed of his death and his eldest son will become the new chief. Every 18 years a new generation begins and a tree is brought to the common area of the village and planted with the all of the past generation trees. By counting the number of trees one can tell the age of the village. I believe I counted 9 trees, so this village was 162 years old.
About 8 kilometers from the village is Gesergio, a landscape of sand formations. The towering pinnacles resemble skyscrapers so this sight is commonly known as "New York".
The Hamer total about 50,000 people. They are very similar to the Banna tribe and these are the only two tribes where inter-tribal marriage is allowed. The Hamer are recognized by their leather clothing with red and black beads (the Banna wear blue and black beads) with cowrie shells. The women wear copper bracelets and necklaces which indicate the wealth of the family. These must be removed before marriage and given to the husband's family as a gift. Married women then wear thick copper necklaces that have an extra piece jutting out from the neck. The women twist their hair into thin strands and soak them in red clay. The men are more plainly dressed but paint themselves before a special ceremony. You can tell how many wives he has by the number of holes and earrings in his ears. The men wear clay hair buns and an ostrich feather in their hair to indicate that he has killed a person or a dangerous animal in the past year.
One evening we went to a Hamer village to watch a ceremonial dance. Luckily this wasn't a tourist show, but their regular Sunday night ritual of teaching the young boys the traditional dance. Every boy in the village must be present or else he will be beaten. The men stood around a campfire singing, clapping, and hopping up and down. There were about 7 unmarried girls present. A boy would walk up to a girl to proposition her to dance. If she was interested she would step forward and he would dance around her while she ran around and played hard-to-get. If she wasn't interested in dancing she would step backwards to express her disinterest.
The Hamer people are known for their Bull Jumping Ceremony, a 3 day long rite of passage for young boys. Thirty bulls are lined up in a row and the boy, who is completely naked, must stand on the back of the first bull and jump on each and every other bull until he reaches the end. He then turns around and must jump back to the beginning. This is then repeated once more or until he has proved his worth. If the boy falls he's whipped and teased by the women. During the ceremony the boy's young female relatives beg to be whipped. They believe that the deeper their scars, the more love they show for the boy. Unfortunately it is not Bull Jumping season, it starts after the harvest, so I couldn't witness this traditional ceremony.
The Mursi tribe is the most fascinating and shocking people to observe, yet the most aggressive and the most expensive to visit. They are the lip stretchers...well the women are. At the age of 20 a slit is cut between the lower lip and the mouth. In the next year the gap is progressively stretched until it's large enough to hold a small circular clay plate to be inserted between the the lip and the mouth. As the lip stretches the plate is replaced with a larger one. This continues until the gap can hold a disk of about 7-8 inches in diameter. The larger a lip plate a woman can wear the greater her value when she is married. Some believe that the lip plate was traditionally done to make women as unattractive as possible to potential invaders who may have raped the village women.
Men can't marry until he has won a Donga, or a stick fight where two men painted in white fight with heavy poles. Traditionally they fought to the death but now one fighter submits before things go that far. The winner is carried off to a group of eligible unmarried girls who get to decided which will marry him.
I never had problems paying entry fees into villages or paying for photographs, I always knew this was part of the experience. But things are changing fast, especially with the Mursi. They are starting to ask for 5 or 6 birr per picture while other tribes only ask for 1 or 2 birr. I personally don't mind paying whatever it is they are asking. They have every right to ask what they want. I'm sure they know, in some form, that their portraits are hanging on the walls of people's homes around the world and they are being judged and probably criticized for their way of life. I'm just wondering what will happen to the Mursi, as well as the other tribes, in the future. In order to survive you must evolve with changing times, but how far and to what extent will these tribes evolve? Of course electricity, cars, cell phones, and computers are far from being even a remote possibility to these tribes, but what about their clothing? Their hair styles? The lip plates? Wouldn't those be the first things to change?
Remember I told you that one of my photos was going to be featured on Travelpod's home page? Well, we all missed it. It was featured while I was down south in the Omo Valley. Oh well. Maybe they'll want to feature another one in the future.
Tomorrow I leave for Rwanda so the next you hear from me I will be in country #5!!
Happy Birthday Jodi and Orly!!!