Tribes of Ethiopia's Omo Valley: "The Unique Wilderness"
The banks of the Lower Omo River in South-Western Ethiopia are home to over 200,000 tribal people. These creative individuals cultivate the land and tend to herds of cattle to ensure they always have a plentiful supply of food. They dedicate a great deal of their time to body art, painting each other in various hues of yellows, reds, whites and grey, and adorning themselves with flora, fauna and animal remains.
The Body is a Blank Canvas for the Indigenous Tribes
Running through the Great Rift Valley, the River Omo comes to an abrupt stop at Lake Turkana. The climate is usually hot and dry, with times of intense rain once or twice a year. Diverse groups of tribal people have lived along the sandy river banks for centuries, moving into the dense grasslands when it floods. These yearly monsoons provide much-needed relief from the intense heat, and dredge up fertile silt from the bottom of the river. This ensures the cultivation of a plentiful food supply, including crops such as beans, grains, fruit, coffee and sorghum.
Some of the different tribes located in the area include Arbore, Surma, Ari, Kara, Hamar, Konso, Bena, Turkana, Bodi, Mursi, Daasanech, Bumi, Tsemay, Dorze and Kwegu. The thing that unites these tribes more than anything is their use of traditional body art. Using mineral powders, pulverised from local materials, they decorate their bodies in abstract designs and colours. These vivid adornments have many uses; signifying rank within the group; attracting a partner or impressing their peers; preventing illness; and sometimes for part of a ritual. The designs vary from tribe to tribe; many women like to paint their faces completely white, while more interesting designs include dots, swirls, hand prints, stars, stripes, and lines.
There are many ritualistic traditions throughout the tribes. The eye- catching Mursi lip plates are one of the most well-known. Mursi women cut their lip at the age of 15 and then insert larger plates throughout the years to stretch the hole. Traditionally, this ancient technique protected them from being captured as slaves.
Many tribes make the men pass a challenge before allowing them to marry. In the Mursi tribe, they must fight an opponent with a stick known as a Donga, whereas Suri men must own at least 60 cattle before they can marry. Some tribes practise Bulljumping, a sport where the naked admirer must jump over 10-30 bulls without falling. Then he is considered a man, and he may pick a bride.
Arranged marriage is uncommon, except in the Tsemay tribe. The potential bride’s parents pick a suitor, choosing a man from the tribe who has completed the bulljumping ritual and wears a celebratory feathered hat to prove his success.
An Undisturbed Area of Special Scientific Interest
Living alongside the indigenous people is a wide diversity of animal life. It is not uncommon to find venomous snakes, crocodiles and hippopotamus’ in this area, mostly contained within the borders of Omo and Mago National Parks, on the west and east sides of the river respectively. As well as cattle, the self-sufficient tribes keep bees, goats, sheep and other livestock as a source of food, with boys as young as eight years old helping to tend to their animals.
Despite the Western interest in the fossils thrown up by the flooded river, the tribes still enjoy unrestricted access to Konso and Fejej, the areas of UNESCO scientific interest. The discovery of the oldest dated fossils of early man was made here, as well as hominid fossils dating back to the Pleistocene and Pliocene eras.
A world away from Western civilisation, the indigenous inhabitants of the Lower Omo River are self-sufficient, traditional and artistic. Their loyalty to their tribe is entrenched into their souls, and rituals are undertaken without question.
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