ETHIOPIA’S SOUTH OMO VALLEY – THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE VERY UGLY
I am sitting in a tour operator’s office in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, awaiting my turn.
Three faded photographs grab my attention:
In the first, a half naked woman hugs a baby to her breast. A CD-sized circular clay plate, is jammed behind her stretched to-the-max bottom lip.
Next, a young girl grins from under a “ladder” of colourful plastic hair slides running from the crown of her head to the bridge of her nose.
The third shows a cheeky faced child balancing a hollowed-out calabash cap on her ochre-coloured locks.
Must be museum pieces. Surely people don’t go around like that today?
I am jogged back into reality. It’s my turn. Margaret asks what I would like to experience, I point to the pictures on the wall and blurt out: “These people. I want to see these people – Do they still exist or are they running around in jeans and T-Shirts now?”
“Oh so you want to go to The South Omo Valley,” she replies, barely missing a beat. “I can arrange a car and driver. You’ll need a guide and 9 days to do the job properly. I will work out an itinerary. Come back in an hour.”
The 2 dozen tribes of The South Omo Valley have been described variously as: “Bordering on outrageous,” “Africa as it once was,” “Defiantly traditional,” even “Horrific” by people coming from a modern world.
I hand over a huge wad of Birr, the local currency, obtained from a bank at the smart Sheraton hotel. (US dollars are OK but Visa has yet to cut it in this emerging country). My heart is pounding with anticipation. I am about to launch into a serious adventure – To hell with the cost!
24 hours later, I am in the front seat of a Toyota Landcruiser. Tesfaye, my guide, is sitting behind explaining the significance of cows. “Cows buy wives, food, coffee beans and most of all they buy status,” he announces. “Without cows a man is nothing,” and, as if to prove his point, the road ahead is jammed with them heading for distant pastures.
Herders range in age from 10 year old boys, hardly able to see over the backs of their charges, to men carrying smart phones and wind-up radios. Pass one lot and face the next and the next ...........!
Heading South, we pass golden wheat fields and saline Rift Valley lakes. Men load bananas onto smoke belching trucks. Beehives, shaped like oversized beer-barrels, hang from perfectly proportioned branches of Acacia trees. “Honey is an aphrodisiac,” assures Tesfaye with a grin. “We don’t need Viagra here!”
We stop for lunch. The boys attack “injera,” pizza-sized fermented pancakes with a consistency of foam rubber – The staple diet of Ethiopians. Liberal amounts of chili-based “wat” sauce kill the vinegar aftertaste - and the roof of a ferengi’s (foreigner’s) mouth!
The Chinese have been busy black-topping Ethiopia’s roads, but it still takes a day to reach Jinka, the administrative capital of South Omo. Dust from ongoing highway construction covers everything around. The dodgy town generator is having a meltdown which means no showers, no light, no internet and NO cold beer until it gets fixed!
After a good night’s sleep and a hot (yeah) shower I am really pumped. Today is Thursday – Market day in Key-Afer, a few kilometers down the road.
We park the car. Tesfaye hands me 3 brick-sized wads of 1 Birr bills worth a total of $15. “You will need money to pay for photographs,” he explains. “I will help you negotiate.”
We walk down a dirt pathway between buildings. The pictures have come to life! Hamer women are decked out in goat skin bikinis, cowrie shell belts, and copper bracelets. Those who are married wear a thick copper necklace – two if they are a second wife. Tsemay people favour “dollar store” hair slide ladders on their faces.
“Hair dressers” apply a mix of ochre, clay and butter to the braided locks of their female customers. Market day is a time to look your best and why not? Some villagers have driven their heavily laden donkeys for 2 days just to get here.
I hover with my camera, watching men fingering tobacco from a line of open sacks. If the production of making coffee in Ethiopia is time consuming, choosing the right beans for the job is worse. It involves nurturing and rubbing a handful from every gunny sack around until just the right texture has been identified.
I stand well back and maximise my telephoto lens on a beautiful girl. Suddenly, a hundred pairs of eyes are upon me. Her face turns from radiance to rage. Tesfaye is immediately at my side negotiating. “You must give her 5 birr,” (around 28 cents), he says after a spirited effort at reducing the rate.
This is the downside of visiting and photographing the primitive tribes in the South Omo Valley. I rationalise that tourists, like me, love to photograph these colourful people who are stuck in a time-warp. Sure, we might buy a bauble or two in the markets, but paying for every shot does create something of a barrier. Perhaps its just an exchange of goods? Are we as much of a commodity to them as they are to us?
After lunch we head through Mago National Park, picking up a gun wielding scout along the way. I now have 3 men and a large SUV on the payroll!
For a while the road follows along the flat Rift Valley bottom before turning up into the mountains. Mursi people, with lip plates, ear plugs and painted faces appear at the roadside hoping for photo bucks! When we reach their village, I am a target.
“Take my picture – 5 birr,” says the old lady. “Mine too” says the woman with a massive clay lip plate, two sheep horns hanging from her head and a baby suckling on her breast.
Other tourists arrive and share the heat – Phew!
The lower lip of a young girl is cut and a small plate is inserted. Over the years the size of the plate is increased. The bigger the plate, the more she will fetch as a wife. A woman with a real whopper can bring 50 head of cattle to her family. Unfortunately big plates are uncomfortable and often removed by the wearer who goes around with a sad, droopy, lower lip.
Men have their own problems. None can marry until they have won a donga (stick) fight which used to continue until one contestant dies – A severe wounding is now considered enough. On the way home we drop into a Hamer village. I get to play with the kids and look inside a few simple huts. I notice that many of the women have thick welts on their bodies made by cutting themselves and treating the wounds with ash and charcoal.
One girl is particularly unfriendly. She turns her back and I see that she has scars that have become septic. I ask Tesfaye what happened.
“Her lashes from a Bull Jumping Ceremony never healed,” he replies simply. “She can’t sleep.”
When a Hamer boy reaches marriageable age a 3 day initiation takes place. The third day begins with the women getting drunk in preparation for being beaten with sticks out of respect for the boy.
I offer to buy medication and we head to the medical centre. Still she is not happy.
Tesfaye explains “She will be lashed again tomorrow at her brother’s ceremony. She has no option.”
The next afternoon we follow the crowd to a hollow beside the road. A group of men are decorating the face of a boy who looks tense. Other young men chat quietly in a corner. Each holds a freshly cut sapling.
The thunderous ringing of bells gets closer. Chanting women dance down the road wearing bells strapped to their legs. Finally, the young men head into the group and the whipping begins. Any man who refuses is taunted by the women with comments like: “What sort of a man are you? – Whip me.”
I find my girl and turn her around. Her eyes are glazed. Her back is running with blood. I am told she took all the medication in preparation for today’s event.
The crowd moves into a clearing where 7 bulls, chosen by elders, have been lined up side to side. The young man, with a freshly painted face, appears. Now stark naked, he races towards the bulls and leaps up onto the back of the first one then runs across the backs of the other six. To qualify, he must do this 3 times without falling otherwise the women have the right to beat him.
To visit the South Omo Valley is amazing, sometimes horrific, but without doubt fascinating and unique. Men here are proudly marked as heroes for killing another for his cattle. Women are sold as wives. Photos cost. Sometimes each click of the camera is counted. Whether you agree with the customs or not, the people and their traditions are real.
IF YOU GO:
OUTFITTER: I used and heartily recommend old established Galaxy Express Travel. A thoroughly professional outfit with good vehicles, drivers and extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides. My guide Tesfaye Mideksa never failed to look after my best interests. Also it’s important to find an honest company – You pay upfront! www.galaxyexpress-ethiopia.com/
COSTS: I paid $3300 which covered absolutely everything for 9 days except alcohol. It’s much cheaper to join a group.
SAFETY: Arriving in Addis Ababa is a shock. The country is poor and it shows in the capital. The reality is less daunting. Watch out for pickpockets. I felt completely safe in The South Omo Valley.
ACCOMMODATION: The company provides the best accommodation available. Hotels are clean and some are excellent.
ETHIOPIA: Is an extraordinary country full of wonderful people and fabulous countryside. The churches in the North – particularly in Lalibela are deservedly UNESCO sites. Also The Simien Mountains are worth a visit.
WRITER'S NOTE: Until the road was recently blacktopped, The South Omo Valley was quite remote. Over 80% of Ethiopians are practising Christians.
Copyright © 2013 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.