After a miserable flight from DC in a middle seat with no vegetarian food and a chaotic immigration process, I was in more-than-a-cranky-mood upon my early morning arrival into Addis. I met Brahan, Dinknesh’s airport guide, who greeted me with the loveliest smile and a heartfelt welcome. By the time we met the charming Abi, one of their driver/guides, I was finally excited to be in Ethiopia again and begin my journey exploring the tribes of the Omo Valley.
The Omo Valley Tribes:
Dorze: This tribe is known for their weaving, tall huts, and use of False Banana plants. Our Dorze guide was a hoot and we were invited to drink their local liquor and eat their local bread, freshly cooked for us in False Banana leaves.
Konso: Known for their terraced hills, wooden waka / waga sculptures, colorful cotton dresses and men’s shorts. Interestingly, the women’s skirt shapes mimic the roofs on their huts. Generational poles are erected every 18 years so the age of the village is always apparent. There are community huts where teenage boys live until marriage. Also men whose wives have recently given birth stay in the community hut which is jokingly called “Konso birth control”. Agriculture is very important especially sorghum and cotton. We had the pleasure of spending time with the Konso King, Gezahegn, who spoke excellent English and was well educated. It was fascinating to listen to him speak about his responsibilities mediating disputes and other ruling duties. He rules over approximately 250,000 people and talked about the challenges of modern technology and how it’s impacting their culture. His major challenge: pornography among the youth. Interestingly, although all the tribes practice polygamy, he is only allowed one wife which preserves a clean succession line. He currently has 7 children and while he was talking to us he was incredibly sweet and tender with his cranky young daughter. Instead of calling for child care he soothed her until she crawled into his lap.
Mursi: Best known for the disk plates worn in their lips. The Mursi peoples are simply fascinating to look at with the big lip plates. It’s considered a form of beauty and the larger the disk, the more beautiful. It’s quite startling to see, and equally so to see the women’s lips without the plates. The bottom front 2 teeth have to be removed to accommodate the disks which must be worn when the husband is present as a sign of respect. Of course the disk comes out for eating or when the women are working. Mursi men participate in stick fighting, Donga, to prove their manhood for marriage.
Hamar / Hamer / Hammer: Best known for women’s necklaces, and styling their hair with butter and red ochre. Women wear a heavy necklace once engaged and first wives wear another necklace made of leather and metal with a “horn” on top of the “engagement” necklace. I checked the back of one woman’s necklace and it looks like it was soldered together but was instead hammered until it was not removable. I didn’t understand exactly how it was permanently fastened without causing much pain? They wear beads in their hair, around their waists and arms, scarring is also prominent. Also known for the (naked) bull jumping ceremony marking a young man’s readiness for marriage. Cattle herding and agriculture are important. Men often wear skirts, beaded head bands and necklaces…with machine guns!
Karo / Kara: Closely related to the Hamar tribe but called Kara, fish eaters, once they relocated closer to the Omo River. They paint their faces and bodies, practice scarring and often women put flowers in their hair. Their painted faces mimic the beauty of guinea fowls!
Dassanech / Galeb / Geleb: Live close to the Omo River and Kenya border with similar colors and beads to the Maasai tribes. Mostly cattle herders but they also fish and grow crops. Instead of living under the shade trees on the river banks, they build their villages in the open, sun-baked plains for security reasons. When I asked our local guide why they didn’t build under the shade by the river, he laughed and said every American asked that question! Men also wear skirts with bracelets up and down their arms, necklaces, earrings, and beaded head bands, feathers and funky hair parted and designed with clay. After checking in with immigration, you will make a quick trip in a mokoro like canoe across the Omo River to visit this village.
Arebore / Erbore / Irbore: We did not get to visit this tribe as they were “feuding” with a Hamar tribe over cattle. The dispute had not been settled after 3 simmering days and since we drove Land Cruisers like the SNNPR* police, it was recommended we not enter their territory. This is where you need a diligent guide who keeps up to date on local events! (*Southern Nations & Nationalities Peoples Region)
Common tribal practices:
Physical adornment with bracelets, beads, anklets, feathers, headbands, is common with both men and women. Scarring is also widely practiced. Many women are bare breasted and wear skirts. Each tribe seems to have a slightly different shaped skirt. Men can wear as much jewelry as women and either wear shorts or fabric wrapped as skirts – stripes and plaids are a common fashion statement!
All tribes practice polygamy, with the deciding factor being a man’s wealth as the man and his family pay the woman’s family a dowry for marriage. Premarital sex is not frowned upon although pregnancy outside marriage is. Once a woman is engaged she must be faithful but a man, even with four wives, doesn’t have to be. Geez, who made those rules?
Every tribe and village seemed to have a bar or two! Most often, there was a “honey wine” bar and a separate beer bar. It was not uncommon for the bars to be filled with people at all times of the day. Quite a few men in most of the tribes walk around with Uzi machine guns, even in the bars. The NRA would love it here!
People can choose to live in traditional ways in the villages or modernize and go live in neighboring towns. The village huts are primitive with no running water or toilet facilities, electricity, etc. People might have to walk many miles for water and live a very physical life much as their ancestors did years ago. If you live in the village, you are governed by the chief, or king in case of the Konso peoples. If you live in town, you live under government rules. Ultimately the government would rule but sounded like they initially defer to tribal decisions. Towns have rustic houses, stores, etc., and people dress in mostly western clothes.
Tribal religion is mostly Animist although missionaries have been, and are working to convert people. In the cities you will find Christians and Muslims living peacefully together and in the towns, you might see both a mosque and church in the same town.
In addition to your Dinknesh guide, you will also have a local guide from that tribe who speaks good English, typically is a high school student, who might have been converted with a Christian name.
Probably the thing you hear the most is that the Omo Valley is too touristy, it’s like a human zoo, and you are overwhelmed. I take issue with that somewhat. Have you ever taken a photo of a Himba woman in Namibia or a Maasai warrior in Kenya or Tanzania? Same “thing” in Ethiopia but en masse. Your guide should manage any crowding or persistent people who really want you to take their photos. Your guide will be, or should be, firm about not overpaying for photos, getting permission to take kids’ photos but NOT paying kids, not giving them candy or other items, and not giving money to people to be nice or because you “feel sorry for them”. We were only at one village with other tourists, so it didn’t seem overly run with tourists in my experience. Again that is a function of your guide managing village visits.
Yes, you pay to take peoples’ photos – about $.23 per person (not photo) but your guide will negotiate before taking photos. In Addis you should get a nice supply of $5 Birr bills as that is the typical photo cost per person. I recommend you check the bills you get from the bank as they will give you such tattered bills that remote villagers won’t even take them. Seriously.
Each village visit is prearranged, a local guide procured, and paid for by your guide. Receipts are written at the end of each visit, the government matches receipts with monies spent on village improvements for wells, schools, etc. There appears to be a system to ensure that each village benefits from tourism which makes me feel good about being a tourist. People keep the small bills you pay for individual photos.
We look at people in movies, ads, celebrity magazines, super models, we people watch, we critique fashion at awards shows – it’s practically sport! We’ve had a voyeuristic society for hundreds of years so paying to take photos of fascinating and different people didn’t bother me. Well, one thing did – I felt badly about not taking everyone’s photo. I found this to be a fascinating experience, one unmatched any place I’ve been.
Wildlife: Driving from Jinka through the Mago National Park to the Mursi village, we saw WILD DOGS. Yes, wild dogs – what a thrilling surprise! My other exciting spot was the Abyssinian Ground Horn Bill which I’d never seen before and we saw many dik diks.
Cultural and tribal trips can be combined with Bale Mountains to see the endangered Ethiopian wolf and Simien Mountains for the gelada monkeys, both of which I saw last year. Once Ethiopia develops their national parks, game drives and lodging, it should be an exciting wildlife destination. Bale Mountain Lodge is delightful (stayed there last year) and there is a new lodge in Simien Mountains that I would try over the Simien Mountain Lodge, which I hated last year.
Lodging: Continues to be basic and functional although new lodging is being built throughout the country. It’s imperative you manage client expectations! All the lodges had comfortable beds and pillows, clean linens, mosquito netting, en suite bathrooms, and (mostly) hot water although not an abundance of charm.
Addis: I stayed at the Jupiter Hotel last year and really liked it, had breakfast and a day room there this trip – still think both of the hotels are lovely!
Awassa: Haile Resort is owned by the famous Ethiopian runner, Haile Gebrselassie, who traveled the world and understands first class hotels! The furniture is modern and nice, friendly staff who will immediately correct any issues, hair dryers, robes, good wifi in the lobby, decent food. If you drive from Addis to start your Omo Valley trip, you’ll overnight in Awassa and I recommend you stay here. You will have an early morning visit to the local fish market, then start your journey to Arba Minch.
Arba Minch: Paradise Lodge has stunning lake views! That’s the nicest part of this hotel. I stayed in 2 different rooms – I didn’t like 1 room that had no hot water, the other was better. Good wifi at the restaurant/bar, not in the lobby. You will take a boat ride on Lake Chamo to see huge crocodiles, hippos and birds which is a nice change of pace from driving.
Jinka: Eco Omo is a tented camp owned by an Italian so we were expecting fabulous pasta….not. We asked for olive oil and lemon to make our pasta dishes more interesting. I will say the olive oil was very good quality and the staff was nice! The tents need some attention to detail to repair bathroom issues.
Turmi: Buska Lodge has roomy, en suite rondovals with consistent hot water, comfortable beds with good mosquito netting. Considered the best option in Turmi, also needs closer attention to detail. Staff is nice, helpful and accommodating.
Dinknesh Ethiopia Tour (DET) is a highly respected DMC with a staff of 45 dedicated, educated professionals who are proud and enthusiastic to share Ethiopia with you! Upon arrival in Addis, I went to the DET offices to meet with the entire team who take such good care with planning itineraries and logistics. We then drove to the Addis outskirts to another company facility that houses the garage where full-time employed mechanics were working on vehicles and all the camping gear plus other equipment are stored. An impressive operation!
Vehicles: Fleet of 9 Toyota Land Cruisers, 4 coaster buses, 4 mini buses and sedans. Our 2, 4X4 Land Cruisers on this trip were in spotless condition and well maintained.
Drivers + Guides: Having experienced 3 different drivers, Abi, Robe, Yoni, on my travels with Dinknesh, I can vouch for their professionalism, expertise, knowledge, friendliness and pride in their country and culture. Our guide, Eyob, was amazing! A former history teacher, he seemed to know everything about Ethiopia, its history and interesting tidbits of information that make travel so fun and interesting. All spoke English very well, were friendly, comfortable making jokes and impressed me by how closely they paid attention to the little details and things that you said. An hour later or a day later, “that overheard comment” was acted on and the thing you wanted appeared. Daily we would get a briefing and the option to change our itinerary based on local happenings.
The Little Things: Some of the drives are long so there are frequent stops to stretch your legs, find the cleanest toilets or advise when bush breaks were the better option, the best juice and coffee stops. If drive times are too long in between towns, vehicles travel with table and chairs for coffee / tea breaks on the road. Each vehicle has umbrellas. Cold towels mysteriously appear after dusty visits to villages and are much appreciated, large water bottles are provided which cut down on garbage. Eyob bought us kolo (roasted barley), roasted peanuts, fresh fruit along the way.
Driving to Arba Minch, we stopped to visit the Halaba peoples who are known for their painted houses and tall hats which was a nice break from driving and a precursor to the Omo Valley tribes.
The drive through the Rift Valley area was beautiful and looking at the fertile land and lush green fields, it was difficult to associate Ethiopia and famine, which unfortunately is what many people think when they hear Ethiopia. My driver said that was a common comment as guests drove through the bountiful countryside. We drove through many different terrains which was interesting, we stopped at beautiful scenic overlooks and looked at different flora and fauna. Of course the wild dog sighting was the best!
The Most Important Thing: Safety! Although we were disappointed not to be able to visit the Arebore tribe, I was impressed with how in touch Eyob was with the tribal disputes and local authorities. A fascinating experience with the Konso King was quickly substituted for the tribal visit. Eyob managed the village visits expertly so that we didn’t feel hassled like many tourists complaints. He also managed the visits so that we were first to a village or went to villages where no other visits were scheduled. Dinknesh is very well connected and the team works to maximize the best experiences possible! There are other more remote tribes to the west if your clients want to camp for 2 days as there are no hotels. Of course you have the Bale and Simien Mountains, Lalibela, Gondor, Lake Tana, the Danakil Depression, Axum and so many other amazing experiences in Ethiopia!
Please note, names of towns, cities, and tribe are spelled multiple ways in-country, on itineraries, in guide books….!
An aisle seat and vegetarian meals on the way back made for a more pleasant flight home. Can’t wait for my next trip back to Ethiopia…so much to explore!
(kiki paris / july, 2016)