More Tribes that Time Forgot

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July 29th 2010
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Even though the first half of my journey to the Omo Valley introduced me to vastly different cultures, the second half would see me meet some truly extraordinary tribes. The next destination was a village called Kolcho inhabited by the Karo tribe who are renowned for their body painting. Our vehicle encountered the roughest dirt road conditions so far, and we occasionally needed to navigate around huge holes and carefully negotiate near vertical drops into dry river beds – Tsegaye’s driving was superb.

After much jarring of bones, we arrived at Kolcho nestled near to a stunning lookout with a magnificent panorama over the Omo River. This was one village worthy of an entrance fee, for not only were the views impressive, but so too was the village. Covering a large area with a multitude of huts, it was a tremendous place to explore, and I spent half a day in this locale.

Along with the Hamer tribe, the Karo people are the most pleasant, it was possible to walk around unaccompanied and receive only occasional, polite requests for photographs. In this village with neither electricity nor water supply, I was allowed to quietly glance at Karo life; women would grind grains for dinner and larger children would play with their younger and smaller siblings by sitting them on a large piece of metal and drag them along at speed. It was an idyllic scene of simple and unaffected contentment.

The Karo people deserved their title as the region’s best body painters as they sported elaborate and full decorations but the reason for this artistry was never fully explained to me, apart from the obvious atheistic and decorative aspects. This was also my first exposure to a village where men carrying guns was the norm, so if one was nervous around weapons, this was not the place to be. Apart from one woman who spoke to me in perfect English (what a shock that was) the rest of my communication was conducted by gesturing, and it is heartening to know that genuine warmth can be established between people from extremely different cultures and different languages within a brief time frame.

The only town of note in the Omo Valley is Jinka – it even has mobile phone coverage. Rambling past the cattle grazing on the uneven dirt streets one late afternoon, many friendly people approached me who keenly wished to talk and swap stories. When the sunset’s scarlet light painted the buildings with its soft hue, I returned to my room where I saw my reflection in a mirror for the first time in many days and was surprised at my gaunt appearance. Subconsciously I had reacted to the average state of the food and the worse state of the toilets by eating little, thus allowing me to minimise my exposure to both. This approach and my post-Yemen illness had combined to see me lose ten percent of my weight.

The final tribe was the most famous and feared in the Omo Valley; the aggressiveness of the Mursi is known by any visitor here, and I have heard of other travellers unwilling to visit them due to episodes such as stone throwing and their predilection for alcohol. However, they also promised an unforgettable experience, so undaunted our vehicle proceeded to the Mago National Park where the tribe resides. A sign at the park’s entrance states: “No Automatic Weapons”, but this regulation is flagrantly ignored by the Mursi.

At the final checkpoint we were required to acquire the services of an armed guard, and whilst organising
Karo warrior - Kolcho, Omo Valley, EthiopiaKaro warrior - Kolcho, Omo Valley, EthiopiaKaro warrior - Kolcho, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

We established a real bond in the short time I was in the village.
this service, we met a departing group who had stayed with the Mursi the previous night, who reported the evening as “difficult” with “very little sleep”. We continued our journey and encountered another small potential peril. Apart from the Omo Valley’s malarial mosquitoes this area is home to the Tsetse Fly, and when one of these brightly coloured insects appeared in the car, the guard became most agitated when it approached him too closely. An agitated armed guard is never a good situation regardless of the cause.

We reached our destination to scenes of frenzied activity as two vehicles with a dozen tourists had already arrived, and the Mursi were swarming around them like a pack of sharks closing in for a kill. Women were particularly aggressive in physically seizing you for a photo and the prices asked for photographs (4 Birr or 30 cents) were sometime double the usual amount. This was more confrontational than the Arbore tribe, and in order to manage this situation it was thought best to withdraw until the other tourists had departed in the hope that the villagers would be calmer with fewer foreigners to target. Thankfully, this prediction proved correct, and I was subjected to comparatively less hassle once they returned to their usual daily activities.

Communicating with the tribe was protracted as conversations needed to be translated from Mursi to Amharic and from Amharic into English; so these stilted colloquies involved not only the Mursi and me, but two interpreters as well. Automatic weapons were ubiquitous, and this was the only tribe where women also carried weapons, a practice considered abhorrent by other tribes. The reason for this convention was difficult to determine, it was either deemed necessary for protection against predators, but more likely it was for protection against other Mursi.

The body decoration on the Mursi was superb, and the scarification used by both men and women tended towards the elaborate. However, the iconic image of the Omo Valley is that of the lip plate worn only by the women, and they vary in size from moderately small to more than 20 centimetres wide. This adornment is not universally utilised, but the women who chose to do so consider it an object of beauty. The plate, which has a groove around the edge where the extended lip is placed, is not worn continuously as the wearer will remove it when eating or sleeping. The plates are also left home when visiting the Jinka markets as the Mursi believe that these plates appear odd to outsiders, which is true enough. Despite this, plate wearing is preferable to seeing a stretched lip loosely hanging beneath the chin due to it not being wrapped around its plate.

We departed 90 minutes later, but I was disappointed by my poor reaction to the Mursi’s aggressiveness that allowed me to be overwhelmed for a second time on this journey, and the poor creativity of my photographs reflected this. I indicated my wish to alter the itinerary and return the following morning, and the only other foreigner in the vehicle (an exceptional photographer named Musa) and I engaged in various discussions; I was initially most enthused about returning, but Musa and Tsegaye less so. However, when I faltered in advocating for another attempt, it was Musa who provided the impetus. So with a greater mental preparedness, we returned to visit two different Mursi villages, both were smaller, the frenzy less, and the more relaxed mood allowed me to capture better photographs whilst sharing a laugh with the locals. It was a pleasant
Instense gaze of Karo woman - Kolcho, Omo Valley, EthiopiaInstense gaze of Karo woman - Kolcho, Omo Valley, EthiopiaInstense gaze of Karo woman - Kolcho, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

She the only tribal person in the Omo Valley I met who spoke with such clearly enunciated English.
way to conclude my tribal visits.

We departed for the three day journey to Addis Ababa and it allowed me to reflect on the oft described vanishing tribes of the Omo Valley. These tribes as so distinct that one could determine tribal origins by merely looking at clothing and body adornments, but how do these tribes retain this distinctness? Tourism’s negative impact is the obvious demand for photographic payments and I had become part of the problem by ceding to such. Visiting tribes where people would stand in line hoping to be a photographic subject was most uncomfortable for all concerned.

However, tourism which can often destroy can also preserve. The Omo Valley seems to retain its culture better than many places; it compares favourably to my experiences at the remote Siwa Oasis in Egypt where I heard the music of Bob Marley emanating from an “authentic” restaurant, and in Jaisalmer, India where I witnessed musicians dressed in traditional Rajasthani clothes playing Frère Jacques. Both of these were clear attempts to pander to foreigners with music of no relevance to the local culture. At least the Omo Valley tribes realise that their traditional lifestyle and culture provides an income, and it is this income that encourages them to maintain their identity, even if it is at the cost of avarice.

The Omo Valley is a most incredible destination, and Ethiopia, much like the rest of Africa, is a place where the people, their culture, and landscape all seep into your soul. Our final Omo Valley stop was at Key Afar where a young man approached me selling jewellery. I purchased a simple brass ring, and as a symbolic gesture I placed it on my ring finger as a sign of betrothal to this continent; for wherever in the world I may be, a part of me will always remain in Africa.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25

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Proud shopkeeper - Jinka, Omo Valley, EthiopiaProud shopkeeper - Jinka, Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Proud shopkeeper - Jinka, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

This young man dragged me to his shop so he could pose for a photo (for no charge).
Mursi woman with streched lip - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, EthiopiaMursi woman with streched lip - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Mursi woman with streched lip - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

This is what their lips look like without the lip plate.
Mursi men playing game - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, EthiopiaMursi men playing game - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Mursi men playing game - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Once they other foreigners had left, life settled back to normal.
Mursi woman with gun - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, EthiopiaMursi woman with gun - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Mursi woman with gun - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

This was the only tribe I visited where the women also carried weapons.
Leaving Mago National Park - Omo Valley, EthiopiaLeaving Mago National Park - Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Leaving Mago National Park - Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Three days of travel lay ahead in order to return to Addis Ababa.
My superb driver, Tsegaye in Addis Ababa - EthiopiaMy superb driver, Tsegaye in Addis Ababa - Ethiopia
My superb driver, Tsegaye in Addis Ababa - Ethiopia

I would entrust him to drive me anywhere in the world.

Comments only available on published blogs

31st December 2010

More amazing photos and stories - well done Shane! That first photo in particularly says plenty about both contrasts and similarities. And good to know that the Omo Valley is retaining its character, always a shame when tourism turns out to be too much of a good thing. One of the best entries I've seen all year - congratulations!
31st December 2010

Well done!
Wow...these are quite fascinating tribes! Thanks for this great entry, really enjoy the way you describe your two visits & the relation tribes/ tourism. Quality entry !
1st January 2011

I have read and read this blog looked at photos many times and know i cannot change the world, these people are a unique race so long may they thrive, thanks Shane.
1st January 2011

Pic Sharing
Thank you for sharing your experience and pictures. It is simply amazing!
1st January 2011
My only Omo Valley photo - Kolcho, Ethiopia

Great picture Shane!
9th January 2011
Dusk at Kolcho - Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Dusk at Kolcho-omo walley,Etiopia
11th January 2011
Mursi woman with large lip plate - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Wife not impressed
Shane, Amazing photos and experience for you. Man you get around!!! My wife Joan couldn't handle this shot!! Gary
18th January 2011

Travel Ethiopia
Hi. Really enjoyed reading your blog. I will be visiting Ethiopia and would like to know if you just turned up and went to the tourism office mentioned in your previous blog or if you had the tour pre-organised? Do you have the contact details of your driver, or a way in which I could book the same guy? does he just go to the Omo Valley (which I intend on visiting) or is it possible to get him to visit other places such as the Danakil Depression (if it is possible!). I don't know anyone who has been out there, but intent to spend at least a month out there, so any help, guidance and advice, much appreciated. Thanks :-)
20th January 2011

Tour Company
The company I went through is Abeba Tours - their link is on my blog "Where's My Wallet?!". They do go to the Danakil Depression, but according to Tsegaye (who has been there before) it is an even harder place to travel then the Omo Valley. My suggestion would be to book in advance.
3rd March 2011

Hi Shane, I often enjoy your descriptions even more than your revealing photographs. I read your words, then go back through and connect them to the pictures. I even learned a new word here - "avarice". Or at least, if I had known it once I had forgotten. It is a pleasure to read a personal account whereas photographs of such tribes as these, I have seen before. Of course though, your pictures are for more special as a compliment to your personal travelling adventures. An eye-opening enjoyable read, as always, with regards, Alicia.
10th April 2011
Karo boy relaxes in Kolcho - Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Amazing pictures--but I can't copy to memory--it is too small size:(
25th June 2011
Karo lady - Kolcho, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Karo lady - Kolcho
Beautiful,exotic & proud...great shot Shane
25th June 2011
Mursi woman with large lip plate - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

"with large lip plate"
Sensational shot...mesmerizing...the Mersi know how to look at you...don't they?
19th August 2011

I don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, I find it fascinating, and I'm keen to visit those tribes, but then? Stand in line with the other whiteys to take pictures like in a zoo, and pay up for it? It's a shame how much of a freak show the Mursi have become over the decades. Of course, they are making money that way, but at what cost? They've lost most of their identity, and they just keep up the charade for the rich Westerners anyway. Funny how the same people who invaded the lands of indigenous peoples around the world and forced most of them to renounce their heathen body modification practices and adopt Christianity return these days to gawk at them and take pictures to show off to friends and family back home and get responses like "Eeeew, that's disgusting, how can they even eat with that thing in their mouth?" and other diatribes that are meant to prove how superior and more civilized we Westerners are, with our Christian values and our Enlightenment. The open hostility of the Mursi certainly doesn't come as a surprise to me; I find it more surprising that the weapons that they carry haven't been used against a group of unsuspecting tourists yet. Could we really blame them?
8th October 2011

Agree with your sentiments. I found the "line-up" of villagers to be uncomfortable, as it was degrading behaviour to both villagers and visitors. I did prefer places where it was possible to walk around a village and just to observe and talk to people (such as Kolcho with the Karo people). I too have heard the "how disgusting" comment many times, but defend the Mursi since it is their culture, and we should not be so quick to judge. People may not agree, but at least we can be respectful. However, I do not believe (from what I saw) that all the tribes retain their traditional practices just to earn money from camera-wielding visitors. We drove along some very isolated roads and one would still see villagers in traditional attire going about their daily business and not asking for us to stop and take photos. The tribes are very proud of their heritage and such practices as colouring hair, scarification and lip plates helps to identify them from other tribes rather than for the benefits of foreigners. If you wish to visit these tribes, go solo with a private driver and/or guide which will ensure you avoid any possible condescending comments or behaviour from other travellers. I was with one other foreigner who was also extremely respectful of other cultures and thus, our talk about the tribal people was filled with understanding more about these tribes rather than taking a superior stance about their practices and lifestyle.
28th November 2011
Karo lady - Kolcho, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Splendid. Love every pixel.
19th March 2012
Mursi village - Mago National Park, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

the fact that women and men carry guns,is shocking why is police letting them before it will be another somalia
1st May 2012
My only Omo Valley photo - Kolcho, Ethiopia

Fantastic pictures.
12th November 2012

Your travelblog
Your travelblog is excellent, thank you! I shall be going to Ethiopia and into the Omo Valley in a few days. Keep your writing-pen going, it's all so lively and authentic, and your photos make the rest of it: A well-done Blog about an amazing journey into the very deepths of Africa.
17th May 2013

THE experience
I am thinking more and more about Africa and the Omo Valley. It´s amazing, different, and I suppose there is no adjective to describe such a place. But, as usual, the most important aspect for me is THE PEOPLE. Excellent pictures.

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