Tribe spotting: Ethnic Minorities in the Lower Omo Valley

Turmi bull jumping ceremony, Omo Valley

Meeting Ethiopian tribes people in the Omo Valley can feel like quite inappropriate and like a zoo experience. But at other times, it seems that perhaps both sides can profit.

The young man is nervously eyeing the the small band of bulls. He is completely naked and shaved, except for an odd fizzy hair style. Once the other young men from the tribe have pulled and shoved the bulls in a straight line, he will have to run across the bulls’ backs.

body painting for a bull jumping ceremony in Turmi

It is one of the initiation rites in the run-up to his wedding. The selection of a suitable bride will depend to some extent on his performance in this bull-jumping ceremony of the Omo Valley Hamer tribe.

“There are always white people in the background!”

We hear a French tourist complain to her guide about Italian tourists, while her companions aggressively defend their prime  position in the first row. “Can’t you do something against it?”.

Altogether there must be nearly a hundred white tourists. They have all come to watch the bull-jumping ceremony and the festival put on by a village of about 80 Hamer tribes-people.

The Ethiopian guides and drivers, in jeans and baseball caps, also stick out from the Hamer people, who wear nothing but traditional decorated goat leather loin-clothes and lots of glass beads. Nevertheless, the Hamer are apparently thoroughly enjoying themselves dancing and singing. Probably not least because the tourists contribute nicely to the wedding expenses.

And of course, in spite of our reservations, we were also glad that we had the opportunity to experience the Hamer wedding. As with all local festivals and events, be it a Krampus Rallye in Tyrol or a recreation of the Sigi Festival in Dogon Country in Mali, you can glimpse a bit of local life and excitement.

tourists visiting a Hamer celebration in the Omo valley

Omo valley teenagers are – mostly teenagers

landscape in the Omo Valley, near Turmi

The next day, we sit in a round Hamer hut, made of wood and mud, in a village a few kilometres off the main gravel road. The only stone building is the primary school, not widely attended as there appears to be no teacher. The daughter-in-law of an elderly chieftain serves us an awful brown liquid in huge dusty calabashes. ”Coffee!” It is the pride of a woman to own many calabashes so that she can serve coffee to many guests, the Hamer say.

The teenage children watch us curiously as we try the gritty, unsalted sorghum bread. We probably look as alien to them as they do to us, and yet they scrimmage and joke with each other (and sometimes with us) and occasionally even defy their elders, just as European youngsters would do.

Hamer people on the market in Turmi

Besides the Hamer there are numerous other tribes living in the south of Ethiopia. They have become famous for being relatively untouched by civilisation. “Go and see them now, because in 20 years their culture will have disappeared”, the guidebook advises. So we go along for more tribes-people watching.

The Mursi of the Lower Omo Valley

tourists visiting a Mursi village in the Omo valley

At around 10 am, a cavalcade of about 50 four-wheel-drives is streaming down the bumpy dirt road from Jinka into the Mago National Park. Like us, each day hundreds of tourists follow the advice and come to see the exotic Mursi tribe.

Mursi women with lip-plates and weird headgear

Traditionally, marriageable women used to insert large wooden disks into a slit in their lower lip, which they continued to wear for festive occasions.

We stop at the third village along the road.

A dozen skinny old women are waiting by the road-side in front of some diminutive empty straw huts. Their stretched lower lips are dangling, revealing a large gap in their lower front teeth. Some have smeared their faces with white paint, and they wear all manner of things on their heads: goats’ horns, pottery, scrap metal and plastic beads.

Most are naked apart from a loincloth and a lot of plastic jewellery, but their dangling leathery breasts evoke no sense of nakedness. Some hold babies, so they cannot be so old after all.

Small boys are naked and painted with white lines, imitating the traditional body-painting reserved for hunters and warriors.

As the tourists get out of their cars, the women and children recite their prices for pictures without moving so much as to wave the flies out of their eyes. Two birr! Two birr!

What we think of tribe-watching

Mursi boys with white body paint

Evidently, the culture we have come to see has already (at least partially) ceased to exist. The attire, the headgear, the war-painting – all this is competitive exoticism geared towards tourists who will select (and pay!) the most spectacular Mursi people for their photos.

Whether any of it is indeed traditional is not clear, and after some probing our guide admits that most of it is just dressing up for the tourists. After 20 minutes we get back into the car and leave.

The whole visit leaves us with the sad feeling of visiting a freak show. We have seen enough tribal culture and cancel the planned afternoon trip to an Ari village. Later that day we meet the Mursi men (who had supposedly been tending to the cattle) spending the day’s cash income on getting drunk in town.

NB: Our travels to the Ethiopian Omo Valley were not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves. We did not use a tour operator for the trip, either.

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