Omo Valley


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Africa » Ethiopia » Southern Nations Region » Jinka
January 26th 2014
Published: February 1st 2014
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Ethiopia is going to be difficult to write about. We spent the best part of a month there and I was lucky enough to see a lot of the major sites. I should've written this sooner!

October 23

After a couple stops en route to the tribes, we arrived at a lovely campsite alongside a dry riverbed. We set up tents under the shade of the trees and then it was back onto the truck for the drive to the village in the late afternoon. Three young boys stood staring at us as we pulled up and our fixer greeted Suse and took the group into the village. Everyone from the village as well as nearby villages were gathered together in a shaded area and a lot of them gave us nothing more than a glance. Obviously - and quite rightly - local gossip was much more important.

We sat nearby and watched, taking in our surrounds before being led to a more open area where the men had gathered to dance. There were other tour groups which I for one hadn't expected for some reason and our fixer was moving amongst everyone, leaving it up to us
Hamer villageHamer villageHamer village

There's the rain in the background
to figure out what was going on. A small group of men would step into the arc and holding arms, jumped up and down. High. The rest of the men sang and clapped and it continued as the men took turns in the middle. Some had painted legs beneath their traditional wrapped skirts and elaborate hair styles adorned their heads. It was fascinating and surreal. The women lingered near us, less certain and more wary of the foreigners. We had been advised before arriving that photos cost 1 birr per person if we wanted specific shots (the exchange rate was $USD1 = 7 birr approximately) but they were hard bargainers. I took a few photos and ended up letting two young friends play with my camera. As always, they knew exactly what to do within seconds of me showing them, happily taking photos of each other and then giggling when they saw the result.

By now some women had joined in the dancing and would go, two by two, and gently kick a man's ankle before darting off. They would then 'dance' together where the man would jump and the woman would attempt to trip him. Thankfully around this time we were told that these were celebrations for a boy who had 'jumped the bulls' and was now a man. He was not present as once he has jumped, he is taken away by men who have already jumped and spends time with them outside of the village. As for everyone else, it is a time for drinking and eating and flirting as brides are chosen for men by their parents. Men usually don't marry until they're in their 30s, though women are much younger (late teens it would seem). At this time it was all a bit confusing so we just watched it for what it was. I noticed one young women would enter the dance often and always chose the same man. Like almost anywhere in the world, she smiled shyly, played with her hair (covered in an ochre and clay paste and twisted into small strands) and went back to her friends to giggle behind her hand. He stood tall, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye, looking aloof for the most part. But as they broke apart he would smile at her and go back to the men where he watched her
Also sharing my photosAlso sharing my photosAlso sharing my photos

Thanks to Kevin O'Kines for the photo
across the divide. Having looked back at photos, I now wonder if they were able to marry?

It was three days later that we were lucky enough to visit another Hamer village and witness the actual jumping of the bulls ceremony. Just getting there was an adventure in itself. There was absolutely no way for the truck to get even close to the village so we hired motorbikes and two tuk tuks to get us most of the way before walking the last leg. I do love the idea of motorbikes but the memory of having burnt my leg (though entirely my own stupidity for climbing on the 'wrong' side of the bike) was still crystal clear and made me nervous. The lack of helmets? Not so much. Go figure. Especially as most of the journey was off road and with three to a bike, the steep climb over and around rocks and tree roots was too much for some and I ended up jumping off and walking while the bike spluttered its way to the top. Much safer that way!

This had a completely different feel to the previous village. Much smaller and more compact, we were made to feel instantly welcome. The bonus: we were the only tourists there and they seemed genuinely pleased that we'd come to see them. The boy who would be jumping came to greet us and offer us the sorghum beer they drink out of hollowed gourds. His uncle was hosting the ceremony as his father had died and he shook hands with each of us, smiling and bouncing. It was obviously cause for great celebration and we were lucky enough to be there!

We sat under a shaded area while the men wandered around or engaged with us as best they could. One wrote our names in Amharic in the dirt (the Hamer have their own spoken language but I don't think it is a written language) and a few of us wanted to explore. The women were all grouped together under palm trees, coating each others' hair and preparing food. Again, they were more stand-offish than the men but it was understandable really. It was then that some of us noticed that the thick band of shells they wore was worn in two ways: either around the neck like a necklace or diagonally across their bodies from shoulder to hip. It turns out that they are unable to serve anything to the men unless it is diagonally across them. You would see the women adjust the adornment, depending on their role.

It was also around this time that the bride to be was pointed out to me. She looked rather pregnant which didn't seem possible, given their traditions. But she was, and not only that, she was from another Hamer village (they only marry their own kind) and her parents had refused to allow their daughter to marry this boy so the boy's family 'kidnapped' her while she was at the market! They had been dating secretly for some time and now that she was pregnant, the time had come for the boy to jump the bulls which would allow them to get married. It was all terribly exciting and it was nice to know that the couple actually wanted to marry each other and that his uncle had respected his wishes. The girl's family were not in attendance as far as I'm aware which is probably why it was a 'small' gathering.

There was much to do before the actual jumping so a couple of us wandered amongst the huts and I found an older woman husking corn. I intimated my wish to help her and she showed me how she twisted the cob in her hand and the kernels fell away into the bowl. Easy. Or it was for her hardened palms. My 'delicate' hands had never known anything like this and even though they were probably a tiny bit rougher than before the trip, I ended up with blisters and cuts within minutes. It was hard! The woman shook her head and laughed at me, even calling over other women to see my efforts! I eventually got the knack of it and sat down to finish off the dozen or so cobs as she wandered off. Once finished, the kernels were places on the upper shelf of a straw-built 'pantry' out of reach of the chickens. I was somewhat proud of my efforts and pointed to the now empty cobs at which the woman took my arm and walked me around the back of a hut to where a mound of cobs - taller than me and a good deal wider! - was waiting. This was cause for much, much more laughter. Thankfully, I was off the hook as everyone moved off to join the celebrations.

One integral part of the day that we wouldn't be witnessing was the whipping of the female family members of the boy. This is done by men who have already jumped the bulls and the girls tease and beg them, hoping to be whipped as a sign of devotion and loyalty to their brother/cousin etc. The Ethiopian government however has now banned the practice as some girls have died after their wounds got infected and there was talk that there might be a spy in their midst who would inform on them if the whipping went ahead. Instead, women danced and sang, blowing horns and whistles with their guns slung across their backs and bells at their ankles ringing as they moved. The man of the moment moved amongst them, offering them the sorghum beer. And men stood around, greeting fellow tribesmen as they arrived.

Not long before dusk it was finally time to move into the large field. We walked past a young cow who was presented to the boy from his family as a gift. He will care for it until it dies of natural causes. In the field, men were wrestling with cows, holding them by the horns and tail and lining them up. It is hard to describe the scene and the noise levels and so I'll try and put a video up with this entry, though I apologise for the poor quality!

Once the boy had run across the cows four times (falling once because a cow moved), he was now a man and free to marry. He would leave the group and join the other men who had already jumped while everyone else went to feast and drink. It was time for us to leave and go eat our own meal.

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24 October

Suse had been assured that we were in Southern Ethiopia after the wet season had ended and we would have no trouble. Confirming this was the almost dry riverbed we were camping next to. Well, so far they were wrong on the end of the wet season and marginally wrong about no trouble. Last night's dinner was an entire group effort as we were caught in the most torrential downpour since the night after crossing into Cameroon. We had set up
Scars from the whipping ceremonyScars from the whipping ceremonyScars from the whipping ceremony

Thanks to Kevin O'Kines for the photo
the canvas cover to cook under which took such a beating and was no help at all. Likewise, the fire kept being washed away. Some continued to huddle there, others sat on the truck reading or playing games while others stood under the campsite's solidly built shelter and waited. When the rain had abated, we carried everything under the shelter, grabbed a knife or gas bottle or jerry can of water and pitched in.

Once dinner was under way and the extra bodies were cleared out of the small space, I took the opportunity to give my hair a much needed wash. The water pump was on the river bed which was now equally fascinating and frightening. You could literally hear the water coming, as if from a height and it had gathered and picked up speed. It filled the previously carved out space in no time but with only moonlight to see by, it wasn't until this morning we could see just how much water there was. I borrowed a bucket and took it out to the pump, somewhat freaked out by the noise and lack of night vision. Upon returning in one piece, I sliced a water
The photographer being photographedThe photographer being photographedThe photographer being photographed

The young girl's friend is taking the photo of us
bottle in half to use as a jug and proceeded to add more water to the already ankle deep water.

So back to today. After meeting the Hamer tribe, we were all keen to visit a different tribe and headed out to meet the Dasanech, the most southern of the tribes in the Omo Valley. We had to drive to the nearest town to their village and parked at the council buildings. It was then a bit of a walk into town where we hid from the oppressive heat in the shade of a bar and drank cold soft drinks.

From there to the steep muddy banks of the river where dugout canoes waited to take us across the river. It was a bit of an ordeal to get some of the group down the slope but the locals were helpful and with three to a canoe, we set off for the short journey across the river. It was a vastly different environment to that of the Hamer. This land was dry, parched and colourless and it was much hotter. En route to the cluster of huts, I was befriended by a young Dasanech man who spoken very good English. He told us there hadn't been much rain and that all the men were out with the cattle so only women and children were in the village (I assume I asked him why he wasn't out there but if I did, unfortunately I don't remember the response). Their village was fenced with wooden logs and their circular huts were covered in hides with a single entrance.

But from the moment we entered, it wasn't the most positive of experiences. Most of us were hassled to take photos (for the money) which we wanted to but it was so staged. No one was doing anything except if we were walking by. One had a handful of maize on a stone tablet and when we walked past, hastened to ground it, asking us for 'photo, photo'. Others posed outside their houses or with their babies or young animals. All the while my new friend was by my side and although I already knew I would give him a small payment as thanks for all the information, he also tried his best to keep others from hassling me. Whether this was so I would give him more money rather than them, I don't know. But when I did want to talk to someone, he stepped back and let me or translated my questions.

I was invited into a hut which I was keen to see but almost instantly regretted. It was stifling hot with no circulating air and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I counted four children and their mother as well as two young kids. Before I had even sat down, the bargaining began. It had been made clear to us how much photos cost and it was meant to be understood between the locals and the tourists. Although the price she was naming was still very little in terms of dollars, it was much higher than what they could expect. At first I said I didn't want a photo and put my camera away but that upset her and she agreed to the normal price. But because it was so dark, the first photo didn't turn out so I deleted that and took a second. Trying to explain that wasn't worth it (I was starting to feel faint) so I paid for two, thanked them and backed out into the only slighter cooler air.

Everyone was glum. It was a vastly different experience to yesterday's and I gave up trying to walk about and joined most of the group who had done the same. After such a short visit, we were ready to go. We didn't want a performance and I could understand if they couldn't fathom why we'd want to watch them go about their every day lives (I can't imagine someone coming to watch me wash dishes or iron) but also the constant sleeve tugging and calls of 'photo, photo' were overwhelming. As Suse told our fixer, we were happy to pay to visit them and it would've been better to charge an overall fee, share it out amongst everyone and let us go about our photo taking unhindered. Otherwise it was just too competitive.

We made our way back to the canoes and journeyed back across the river and took a lunch break. A few of us made for a largish circular shed with benches around the edge and tables and chairs in the middle. Now, I've just checked the date out of curiosity because I know that this day is a Wednesday as that and Fridays are fasting days. So it must not have been the 24th. Hopefully you'll allow me this error as all it means the camera date was set wrong! So because it was fasting day, obviously there was no meat and that only left the one vegetarian dish on the non-existent menu. We ordered soft drinks and discussed the morning while nearby men stared openly.

The food arrived quicker than we were used to and we stared at it, not quite sure what to make of it. The woman had already disappeared so greetings and introductions were made with the men who then told us what each food item was and how to eat it. Served on injera, a spongy, sour flatbread which serves as both a type of bread and an eating utensil, was potato, a local version of spinach, beans, rice and a sauce. It was seriously one of the best local dishes of the entire trip. And although I ate it again elsewhere, it was never as good as this was. The men nodded their approval as we almost finished the entire plate. We bought them a cold drink, thanked them and left with full bellies for the walk out of town and back to the truck.

This evening we had more torrential rain to the point where Suse had to stop driving, unable to see even with the wipers at full speed. She kindly stopped outside a bar and some made the dash straight away, happy with a local beer. Eventually the truck became stuffy enough that we all followed suit and took our card game with us. It was amusing to watch the locals try to decipher our game - which some of us STILL had trouble figuring out! - but we tired of playing and retreated to books or writing or staring moodily out at the weather.

The afternoon's rain, coupled with last night's, had cut us off from our campsite. We were now unable to get the truck across the swollen river and would need to either find somewhere secure to park the truck or move to a different location. It was decided that we'd move camp and Nico, Jareb and I volunteered to go back with a 4x4 to pack up everyone's belongings and bring them across the river. Oh yes. We'd also purchased a goat at this stage. A lovely white goat who was waiting for us when we arrived. We'd agreed to all chip in for a goat that would be cooked for us over a campfire and if we wanted to watch how it was prepared, we were able to. He was tied and made comfortable on the roof on top of sleeping bags and the like so at least he had a comfortable journey across...

With everything packed up, we hitched a ride on the second crossing. The car was packed to overflowing and Nico volunteered to ride on the roof. I nervously sat in the back seat, half hanging out the window to watch that he didn't fall off, intermittently telling the driver to slow down as the road wasn't smooth and Nico was bouncing all over the place. After several comments from me, the driver lost his cool and pulled over, refusing to drive unless I was quiet. There was a lot of mutual distrust in that car! But with mediation, I was quiet, he drove slower and we all made it in one piece.

The goat was already cooking by the time we arrived so the decision to watch or not was taken from me. And then later on when it arrived on a platter to the table, I took one bite and almost gagged. There's a reason meat is left to hang before being cooked. It sounds ridiculous but it tasted like a goat. Not like meat. I think the smell of goat that lingered had a lot to do with it. And with that being the main source of dinner, I went to bed somewhat peckish...

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25 October (or thereabouts!)

Leaving early, we drove to a market town where all the tribes come to buy, sell and exchange news with each other. We started passing people miles before the town appeared, some obviously having set out before dawn to get there. Everyone was in good spirits, smiling and waving at us. Driving to a marketplace was something we took for granted but here were all these people for whom today was the biggest event of the month.

The campsite was on the opposite side of town to the market so we walked, trying to memorize the shortcuts through the side streets, and found ourselves in an open grassed area. Some people were already setting up stalls selling clothing, tools and food but many were still arriving so we split up and did what we do best. We went exploring.

We found a blacksmith, hammering out tools that would then be sold at the market. We found the cattle market, a fenced off area full of cows and men and a group of boys who soon adopted us. They took some crooked photos with my camera and decided they liked us enough to shadow us all over town. We found one local bar, also full of men (but not cows) who were already on the local honey wine and it definitely wasn't even midday. The owner generously allowed us to sample it and laughed when I made a face (I hadn't been in the country much more than a week and I was getting laughed at a lot). This was potent stuff. We found women selling large bundles of firewood which were ridiculously heavy and yet women much older than me lifted them onto their backs and trundled off. We also found a butcher who still had meat for sale and we decided to chip in and buy some for a dinner. But even after agreeing on a cut of meat and price, he gave us grief and wanted us to pay more after the piece was cut. Suse tried to reason to no avail and then called his bluff by walking out. We got the meat for the original price.

I wandered the market place alone before heading back to the campsite. It was hot under the midday sun and most of us retired to the shade before going back for Round Two. We would be staying two nights in the town, using it as our base to visit the Hamer tribe ceremony (the jumping of the bulls, mentioned above) but changed campsites for the second night.

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(The dates are confusing me. I give up. It's late October!)

We're leaving the Omo Valley after a truly wonderful start to Ethiopia. We were asked at the border what we knew about the country and embarrassingly (and sadly) enough, all I could say was the famine. But having talked to people and even the smallest amount of reading has given me such an interest into the only country not to be colonized (note: this is debatable as Liberia claims to have been occupied, not
Hamer tribeHamer tribeHamer tribe

The boy who will jump the bulls is standing, second from the left. His uncle is the one in front of him. Fred is showing them a video which they loved.
colonized. Ethiopia was occupied for only five years by the Italians. I don't have an opinion, it's just what I've been told). And we have lots to look forward to!


Additional photos below
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Wannabe photographerWannabe photographer
Wannabe photographer

Not sure whose camera he had borrowed but he took some great photos.
Heading further into the countryHeading further into the country
Heading further into the country

Having left the Omo Valley, a lot of fields had platforms with someone sitting on them. Not sure whether they're protecting them from people or animals?


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