The People of the Lower Omo Valley

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Africa » Ethiopia » Southern Nations Region » Turmi
June 19th 2010
Published: June 29th 2010
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What an exciting week! The Lower Omo Valley, famous for its exotic tribes and outstanding scenery is a very difficult area to travel in without your own transport unless you are happy to just see the tribes on the main bus route or pay extortionate prices for a seat in an ISUZU truck. It is 4WD drive territory and these can be hired for US$150 per day. Being cheapskates we tried to find some other people to hire the car with but at this time there was just no-one around. The most annoying aspect in trying to arrange transport is the presumption about how much money we have, what we should be prepared to pay and what is a fair price.

We eventually found a minibus to Konso, the gateway to the Omo Valley. Catching public transport is always entertaining and this was no exception. This time someone's home brew exploded over the women in the back. The minibus screeched to a halt while the fermenting process spewed over the top of the bottle. The man then spent the rest of the time holding the bottle outside the window. Terrible music blared to levels so loud we felt like our eardrums had been perforated. Matt made ear plugs from the roll of toilet paper but this did not really make any difference. We stopped at every small village along the way for people to buy bananas and mangoes. Every time we stopped the minibus was surrounded by children they even reached through the window to touch us and then they would howl with laughter, you could see them asking what we felt like! As we went along the road the children showed us their “butt shaker” dance, where you seem to balance on one leg and shake your bum as much as possible.

We visited the Konso village of Gamole which is 7km outside of Konso. We were followed most of the way by a group of children and of course we were asked for money and water bottles along the way. It was a long hot walk to Gamole but the countryside was beautiful, fields of maize, sorghum and sunflowers. The area around Konso is very mountainous and the people are famous for their terracing which prevents erosion. Konso women in particular are known for their hard-work and strength. In fact apparently if you marry a Konso woman, so the saying goes, you are also buying a truck.

Gamole was one of the more traditional Konso villages. There are nine clans within the Konso tribe and they live peacefully side by side. The village is made up of a series of compounds which is owned by a different family. There are communal sleeping areas in each of the main compounds where the young unmarried boys sleep at night to protect the village.

We then walked down to a really interesting museum which exhibits waka that had been found in the region being sold on the black market. Waka are carvings used like a tombstone, a symbol for the dead warrior or hero, complete with swords, shields and carved animals if they had killed a wild animal. Unfortunately not many waka remain because they are stolen and sold to tourists and private collectors. We were lucky to see one actually in one of the family compounds.

On walking back down the hill we stopped for more honey wine in a bar where they were all chewing on raw meat and bones. Outside we saw a goat being slaughtered, well Matt did, I turned away.

For the big game, NZ v Italy, we found a hotel with a television (but no generator unfortunately which meant we saw the first 15 and the last 15 minutes of the game). While we were there we bumped into two Australians who we met in Cairo, we even managed to convert them into NZ supporters for the evening!

While we were there, we were then joined by Anthony from the US and Yui from Japan. They were also looking to share a 4WD but they were not interested in spending US$30 to share. We managed to negotiate a car for US$100 and we decided that we would do it but it would be good if the others would join us, even if they only pay a smaller proportion, for us it was better than nothing. This meant that we could see all the main markets, including a visit to Turmi (a real highlight) and visit the Mursi.

It all seemed too good to be true, we negotiated hard, the driver would only get paid on a day by day basis when we arrived at the destination, it was to include all fuel, taxes and the driver's allowance. After agreeing everything we then find out that it is not a 4WD but a minibus. We were really concerned because we knew the roads were really bad and if there is any rain the roads can be rendered impassable for days.

On the first day, despite agreeing to leave at 6am, we were still in Konso at 7.30am. The petrol station was not open, and the owner did not feel like getting out of bed for his customers. In the end we had to buy it from a child on the black market.

We picked up a local Turmi man called Franco and gave him a free ride on the basis that he could translate for us and show us around the market. Franco works as a guide and assists foreign anthropologists, journalists, photographers and museum curators for this region.

Just after Weyto we came to a checkpoint, 50 birr for the vehicle. It was just a tax for foreigners, Franco argued with them, this was entirely new and a fake checkpoint but the apparent policeman (he only had a police hat on so question whether he was or not) was not having a bar of it, he accused Franco of being drunk.

For the first time in a while we saw plenty of other tourists in Turmi, (one from NZ - finally!) our first stop for the fascinating Monday market. Nothing can really describe it. The people were really colourful. The Hamer women wear iron coils around their arms and ankles, beaded necklaces and earrings and their skin was decorated with cowrie shells. The women were either topless or the front of their body was covered with an animal hide, revealing whipping scars possibly from the bull jumping ceremony (young naked men leap down the line of bulls jumping from back to back. The young female relatives of the men plead to be whipped, the deeper the scars the more love they have for the boy. Unfortunately there was no ceremony when we were there).

Their hair was amazing. It is a reddish brown colour which comes from the mix of water, ochre and a binding resin which is then twisted into strands almost like thin looking dreadlocks. The men were also very colourful and some had ostrich feathers in their hair. Some carried guns, this is tribal territory and while the tribes are peaceful at the moment, this is a relatively new phenomenon. The gun is also used to protect their cattle from raids from other tribes.

It was a strange cultural experience and obscene in so many ways with neither side quite understanding each other. The children were intense, they followed us around, grabbed our hands, potential pickpockets felt around to see if they could grab anything, they all asked for money and photos. Of course we wanted to take photos because it was interesting but they charge foreigners for the pleasure (between 1 and 3 birr per photo). Most of the people just left us alone but others followed us around requesting two birr for a photo. It meant that we acted like the paparazzi and tried to take undercover shots to avoid paying so much money.

One of the most interesting people we have met was Luke, an anthropologist from Harvard. He was in the area for research for his PhD. He lives in the heart of the valley with a very remote tribe. He drinks the water, eats what they eat (which is sorghum three times a day), sleeps on a cow hide, only wears one set of clothes (because clothes are seen as a sign of wealth and they will take them off you) and does not shower because there is very little water. He has given up all creature comforts for months on end and has some fascinating stories about the tribes in the area. He still goes to villages where the women and children run and scream because they have never seen a white person before and they think he is the devil.

Our next stop was the market at Dimeka. As we were leaving Turmi a policeman decided that he wanted a ride. We decided that we had better keep the police on side and gave him a ride and he was actually very helpful. This is when we discovered that our minibus was illegal - they are not allowed to carry tourists in this area. All 4WD have to be registered, I assume the government gets a cut from this. Anyway the policeman said that Matt should drive in and out of Dimeka and if anyone asks to say that we work in a hospital in Ethiopia.

Once again the market was absolutely fascinating, still mainly Hamer people but they were selling more fruit and vegetables, cheese, and tobacco. This was much more relaxed, no-one really approached us and no-one asked for money for photos.

The road from Dimeka to Jinka was really bad and had it been raining there is no way that we would have made it. Once again we had issues with the police when we arrived in Jinka and there is no way that the minibus could go into the Mago National Park to visit the Mursi. We ended up having an argument with the fixer in Konso about the minibus. To cut a long story short, they left us there and headed back to Arba Minch.

The truck we all hired to visit the Mago National Park was a piece of rubbish and on top of the exorbitant price of the truck we also had to hire a guide and an armed scout. We got a flat tyre on our way into the park and once they turned the truck off to change the tyre it would not start and had to be push started, even the man from the Mursi helped!

We eventually arrived at the Mursi village after a couple of hours and it was a unique experience to say the least. Most of them were very friendly but they do have a reputation for being very aggressive in order to extract as much cash as possible and we were not let down. Unfortunately they were not interested in introducing or explaining anything about their culture, they just wanted you to take their picture and pay the money - anywhere from 1-5 birr (plus 100 birr per person to enter the village when you arrived).

The cultural exchange was awkward, we were pinched, Matt was slapped in the back of the head, they would just put their arms around your shoulders and ask for a photo and then we, as tourists, would stick our camera lens in their face. A women stabbed a little boy in the ear with a spear, causing him to scream and cry - she wanted one birr for a photo of the blood to which everyone refused. It is a shame for both sides. Having said that it was still fascinating because it was like nothing we have ever seen or experienced. Initially we had decided to skip the Omo Valley altogether, we had heard terrible reports of the interaction between the tourists and the tribes as being like a zoo and very disturbing. Other tourists convinced us to come and we are glad we did. It was a bizarre interaction between the different cultures but there is nothing quite like it, the people are exotic and colourful, it was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Ethiopia.

The people themselves were nothing short of fascinating, the huge lip plates on the women, the long ear lopes, the scarification on their chests and children walked around with guns. The village itself was small and very simple, just a handful of small round huts made from hay.

We decided to catch a ride in a 4WD back to Konso rather than taking the bus which meant we could stop at the last of the tribal markets at Key Afar which were also extremely colourful.

When we came to leave the market, it was claimed that we had to pay 100 birr. This caused an argument because to our understanding all markets were free. In the end we paid the fee because the driver refused to leave if we didn't. If these things were official then no-one would mind paying. Instead some guy in jeans and t-shirt comes up and demands money, no identity card or receipt and you know that it is going straight into his pocket.

Once back in Konso we were then able to grab a ride to Yabelo on a goat truck. Contrary to what it says in Lonely Planet, there are no daily buses or minivans between Konso and Yabelo, only on market days (Mondays and Thursdays). Luckily we were allowed to sit in the cab, otherwise we may have been stuck in Konso until Monday. From Yabelo we managed to catch an early bus to Moyale, the border town for Kenya.

Ethiopia is a challenging place to travel, the people can be very difficult, the children in particular drive you mad, the public transport is rough and the roads worse (do not underestimate the size of this country, it is huge) and the accommodation is often suboptimal. However, we have had a fabulous time here. It is an incredible country: it is absolutely beautiful, the sites are amazing and the people exotic. The coffee is great, the mango juice exceptional and people that visit Ethiopia are some of the most interesting people we have ever met.

Next stop Kenya and hopefully our chance to finally see lions, cheetahs and leopards.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


1st July 2010

You have made a wonderful blog regarding the Omo Valley tribal peoples.
9th July 2010

Lip plates
Hey Matt and Birgit, amazing adventure you are having, and a great blog to follow. Quick Q, why do they have the lip plates? Decorative? functional? how long does it take them to grow their lips like that. Really keen to know a little more. Scott and Steph
24th July 2010

Hey guys, hope you are well. We don't know much about the lip plates except that the slice the lower lip and slowly increase the size of the plate to stretch the lips. They are mainly used for special occassions. Unfortunately the Mursi were not that interested in explaining much!! Looking forward to catching up with you guys hopefully later in the year xx Love Birgs and Matt
21st December 2010
A Hamer woman in Turmi

interesting culture
29th November 2011

Omo Valley Travel
It appears that you had great travels through the Omo Valley. The people there in my opinion are some of the most unique in the world. I fear though that the construction of the Gibe III Hydroelectric dam will destroy their lifestyle and the valley as a whole.

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