Dora Bitsi

Dora Bitsi

Oct 27 2014

The people of the Omo Valley in South Ethiopia

The Omo Valley is located in South West Ethiopia and is undoubtedly one of the most unique places on Earth.
The valley surrounding the River Omo is actually home to eight different tribes whose population is about 200,000. The most exciting part is that most of these tribes are still living and dressing in the same way they have done for centuries now. The region’s name is the most fascinating we have ever heard : Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region!
A veery old woman from the Hamer tribe!
The starting point is the city of Jinka where most of the transportation to the tribal villages can be found either by public buses or organised tours.You should be prepared for high prices if you decide to accept one of the numerous guides that are approaching you all the time, since they assume you can spend a lot being a white person.Since we were a lot of backpackers around, we all gathered and decided to take advantage of the fact that we are 13 people, so we arranged for a private minibus in a really good price!

A Hamer boy in Turmi!
Our first stop, was the Village of Turmi. The road is rough but the trip so interesting. Visiting in the month of October, the rains have just stopped but the landscape still a bit green even though temperatures soar within the day.
We passed through semi-arid bushlands, wide dried out rivers and hilly grasslands. Other than moving slowly due to the road conditions we were often stopped by herds of cattle that were closing the road. Already we could see herders with wooden sticks and children from tribes waiving at us happily or angrily (because we were taking pictures!). We glimpsed small children covering only their private areas with animal skins and women with intricate hairstyles … We were already excited!
Turmi is actually a market town located very close to the border with Kenya.Turmi is home to the tribe of Hamer, one of the biggest and most well-known tribes in the Omo Valley. The Hamer are cattle herders and practice agriculture. The land though isn’t owned by individuals; it’s free for cultivation and grazing, just as fruit and berries are free for whoever collects them. The Hamer move on when the land is exhausted or overwhelmed by weeds. Often families will pool their livestock and labor to herd their cattle together. In the dry season, whole families go to live in grazing camps with their herds, where they survive on milk and blood from the cattle. Just as for the other tribes in the valley, cattle and goats are at the heart of Hamer life. They provide the cornerstone of a household’s livelihood; it’s only with cattle and goats to pay as ‘bride wealth’ that a man can marry.
At the first time you come close to them, it is hard not to notice that both men and women give special importance to their personal beauty.
Women are putting ochre powder and butter on their hair and face to create this very unique hairstyle. The circular wedge necklaces that you see them wearing indicate that they are the first wife of their husband.
Men are wearing as well colourful beaded crowns on their heads and bracelets on their arms.
Especially during important ceremonies like the famous Bull Jumping, they are painting their body and hair. The practice of body modification is also used by both women and men by cutting themselves and packing the wound with ash and charcoal.
The Hamer people stand proud and tall when you see them walking and approaching you with timeless wisdom.

The wooden object he is holding serves both as a stool and pillow!
When we arrived in Turmi Market it felt like we were transported through time and space.
It was actually a wide flat area with red soil where the people were mingling with their produce.Onions, tea,flour, incense used for the coffee ceremony ,tobacco powder and clay vessels were on display. However, the most interesting sight was that of the people that were walking around, chatting in the shade of trees and sitting against the walls of their mud houses to escape the heat.

For them,us, the tourists, were the main attraction. Instantly we were surrounded by ecstatic children, women asking for pictures and men selling brass bracelets made out of bullets! It is not difficult to get overwhelmed in such a situation.We succumbed to the people trying to interact with us. It wasn’t until half an hour later that me and Elpis found each other again!

What we were searching for was original cultural exchange. These days this not very easy. Tourism is very profitable and self proclaimed guides will try to make it appear like you have no other option but accept the outrageous prices they set. People are asking for a fee per photo and just entering public markets and visiting traditional small villages even deep in the bush will cost several Birr.
That Monday we were lucky that a Bull Jumping Ceremony was taking place across the river ,which was actually very interesting and unique (even if again we had to pay $20 each to be able to attend !). We will be describing this experience in a separate post.

The typical exterior of a Hamer hut

On our way back, as we were walking, a friend of the minibus driver asked us if we would like to see his village. We were thrilled and we decided to follow him. The “village” as in many African countries, is just houses of the extended family. As we were walking through the dry bush it was so peaceful…Other than the slight wind, nature and man’s creations were in total harmony. When we reached the hut, we were invited inside through a small elevated door. On the outside, the hut’s wall is made out of mud and the conical roof made of grass and sticks which makes the structure impenetrable to rain. Once inside we couldn’t believe how clean and organised it was!

The typical interior of a homestead- Elpis drinking local tea!
The floor was covered with goat skins that also served as mattresses for the night .On the other side, in a hole, was the fireplace. It was unexpectedly warm! Smoke was escaping through openings below the roof. The belongings of the family of 5 staying there, were hung neatly from hooks on the walls and stacked in the secret attic set up above the wooden ceiling! We were amazed at the skill of making this house from materials they could find in the nature!

The sister of Solomon was half naked and welcomed us by putting the traditional skin to cover her chest. She didn’t seem to be ashamed and we assumed that women are used to this attire when there are no guests.

We drunk the tea they offered to us out of vessels from dried out squash and Chavi the Valenciano played for us his flute. Curious but shy children were coming to the door to see the strangers.

When it was time to leave and after we had a photo to remind us of this visit, one of our most special days in Africa ended with a spectacular sunset over the horizon…

This was our personal experience in a Hamer house, which of course started with an invitation, but ended by the elders requiring 5$ from each of us without having told us beforehand. In spite of this, we still classify it among the best experiences in our life!

P.S  The Omo Valley villages have been declared World Heritage sites by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization or (UNESCO). 
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