In the Omo Valley

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July 13th 2008
Published: July 21st 2008
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Bana tribe
I have always been a little ambivalent about tourism that involves going to see local people in traditional dress, but the trip to the Omo Valley in the south of Ethiopia was amazing. The expectation, on both sides, that tourists pay for photos made the whole experience seem less voyeuristic and less stressful too. The downside was that it was difficult to take un-posed photos and sometimes individuals were almost aggressive in insisting that you take their photo; I found the Mursi tribe especially aggressive. The fact that we saw many people wearing traditional dress as they walked along roads or worked, meant that it did not feel as though people were dressing up for the tourists, but that it was part of normal practices.

Our venture into the Omo Valley started with a day of travel from Addis Ababa to Sodo Walaita, half way on the road to Arba Minch. The group was made up of five VSO volunteers (me, Clare, Mary, Rebecca and Jenny) and Tamiru, our driver.

On day 2, we stopped off at Dorze, where the housing is in the shape of elephants, for what was a very slick tourist experience - seeing inside a house, watching inset (false banana) being prepared, a walk around the village, followed by a coffee ceremony and an opportunity to purchase locally woven scarves and hats. After a brief stop for lunch in Arba Minch and a badly signed detour taking us out of our way, we arrived in the small town of Konso where we stayed the night. The following day we stopped off at the market in Key Afer, our first experience of paying for photos. I was slightly reluctant at first, and a little shy about asking, but the way was eased and the proverbial ice broken when a woman selling vegetables told me to take her photograph. We were told that most of the people were from the Bana tribe. After lunch - the first of many tagabinos (a thick bean paste with injera, and one of my favourite local dishes) on the trip, and a particularly gritty version - we continued on to Jinka.

Jinka is unusual in having an airstrip in the middle of the town. Presumably, when a plane is about to land, the many grazing sheep are moved. We walked up to the Cultural Centre and Museum, which was one
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Bana Tribe
of the best organised displays I have seen in Ethiopia. The hoards of children who followed us were allowed into the museum for free and encouraged to handle display objects by the curator. When they became noisy and were sent off, he told them they should come back the following day. The museum was very informative about different tribes and local practices and gave an opportunity to try a head rest (wooden pillow) that we saw many men carrying and using to rest on, and which we later bought.

In Jinka, we bought food for camping that night in Mago National Park, where we also visited a Mursi village. The original itinerary for the trip included a visit to the Mursi then returning to Jinka for the night, but we decided (much to Tamiru’s dismay) to camp in the park. We were warned of lions … and heard noises in the night! They could easily have been lions, although Abar, our compulsory armed guard, said that he didn’t hear anything. But we knew! We also went on a walk and saw, in the distance, clouds of dust that he said were created by elephants.

The Mursi women use
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Mago National Park
lip plates, stretching the bottom lip (which may also be cut) to insert a large disc of decorated clay. It seemed a strange thing to do, but maybe is not that different from how women in the west conform to fashion practices? I was so pleased that we had decided to camp as otherwise we would have driven into the park, taken a batch of photos in what amounted to a car park (and we had to pay parking!) with aggressive women demanding their photo be taken (and charging 2 birr a time, plus an additional 2 birr if they were holding a child) and then driven out again. This was my least favourite experience of the trip, but better than it would have been.

The next two nights were spent in Turmi, which meant that we had some non-travelling time. We decided to stay in a hotel rather than camping, as none of us had slept brilliantly the previous night (lions and hard ground to contend with). En route to Turmi we stopped off at Dimeka market where there were both Bana and Hamer tribes. I was persuaded (by coveting an earlier purchase by Jenny) to buy a gourd, used locally to carry goods in and also bought a head rest.

Day 6 was a day excursion to Omorate, a dug out canoe across the Omo River and a visit to a Dassanech village. Then, back to Turmi and a walk to a local Hamer village to watch some night dancing. This was the most ‘touristy’ thing of the whole trip and we almost didn’t go, mainly due to a very aggressive, pushy, sales technique by the local guide. It was worth seeing though - and even if it was set up, the young people of the village could have just got together to dance. Rhythmic clapping and singing accompanied the dance - which mainly seemed to consist of the men jumping and the women selecting one of them to flirt with.

Back in Konso, we visited two heaving markets and a village, with narrow lanes wide enough for single file. The young men of the village sleep in communal dormitories so that they are on hand in case of attack or fire.

We had an unexpected stop at an Arbore village on the return to Arba Minch. I wasn’t mentally prepared for the photo paying game and found this one experience too many. Back in Arba Minch, we had an option of sleeping on the floor of a VSO house with no water, or staying at Paradise Lodge - a new luxurious hotel, where a shared tukul (with extra bed) worked out at £5 each! Difficult choice!

Additional photos below
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Dimeka marketDimeka market
Dimeka market

Hamer tribe
Dimeka marketDimeka market
Dimeka market

Hamer tribe

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