This southwestern corner of Ethiopia is home to seven primary tribes who coexist with varying degrees of peace. The land is largely dry savanna, with the Omo River cutting a nearly 475-mile-long swath down to Lake Turkana on the Kenya border. The discovery of human remains dating back nearly 2.5 million years prompted Unesco to dub the Lower Valley a World Heritage site in 1980.
But today the Omo is a region on the precipice. The Ethiopian government has recently completed the third of five proposed dams upriver. The dams threaten to alter the lives of the communities that have inhabited this valley for millennium and depend on the river’s moods for survival.
The area has also fallen victim to hit-and-run tourism — people driving down from Addis Ababa, storming into villages, cameras blazing, then leaving in a cloud of dust. I encountered one such scrum at a local festival. Witnessing the feverish pursuit for documentation of “otherness” reflected back at me my own motives for being there. It is an issue every traveler to remote or indigenous regions needs to reconcile.
So laid-back, almost soporific, is the village, and so strikingly is everyone turned-out in their white body paint, leopard-spotted face markings, beads and bracelets, that it takes a while to notice nearly all the men are carrying AK-47s. Each one, naked but for a cloth around his waist and a single upright ostrich feather in his hair, sits on a carved wooden stool, which doubles as a pillow. Bodies are streaked in chalk-white stripes and swirls, like Day of the Dead skeletons. Some wear copper arm bracelets and others have belts recycled from the best source of metal available — spent bullet cartridges.
It has been several years since AKs replaced spears in this south-western corner of Ethiopia, says one of few Kara tribesmen able to converse in English. More status symbol than weapon, they are now practically obligatory for any young man hoping to marry. Occasionally they are deployed in skirmishes between the different tribes of the Omo Valley, or used to kill the huge crocodiles that thrash in the river's chocolatey brown waters.
The “Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region” is a vast marginalised area of over 21000 km² with a population of around 600000. It includes the World Heritage Site inscribed as the Lower Valley of the Omo.
The Omo valley has been described as a living museum with around 18 ethnic groups representing four of Africa’s major linguistic groups. The so called Omotic-speakers are endemic to the south Omo and include the Ari, Maale, Daasanach, the Hamar-Banna. An incredible reminder of an Africa that hasn’t yet seen modernisation. With dozens of tribes here representing four of Africa’s major linguistic groups, the cultural diversity shows what life was for nomadic groups ranging the plains. Some of these are as endemic to this valley as the Walia Ibex is to the Simien Mountains.
THE HAMER are one of the most typical people of the valley, and they decorate their bodies with many of the practices that are associated with this area, except the clay plates in their lips. Women wear the most adornments, with thick plaits of hair that is coloured ochre, copper bracelets fixed tightly to their arms, beads hanging from their waists and thick copper necklaces with circular wedges projecting up to 10 cm out the front if they are married. They also scar their bodies heavily using ash and charcoal placed into cuts. The men also scar their bodies, but are less adorned unless they paint themselves with white chalk for tribal ceremonies. If they have killed a person or a dangerous animal, they wear a clay bun on their heads for a year. These people are cattle herders, and are closely linked with Ancient Egypt and the country’s highlands. For boys to become men the Bull Jumping Ceremony is held, in which they must jump between the backs of bulls, then beat the woman to pass through childhood.
THE MURSI are pastoralists who are famous for their lip-plates, which is a way of measuring a woman’s worth; the larger the diameter of the plate fitted in between the lip and the mouth, the more valuable the woman. These are typically about 15 cm in diameter, and she should be able to pull her lip over her head when the plate is not in place. For men to marry they must win a fight in which two contestants beat each other with 2 m long sticks.
THE KARO, or Kara, are a Nilotic ethnic group in Ethiopia famous for their body painting. They are also one of the smallest tribes in the region, is a small tribe with an estimated population between 1.000 and 3.000. They are closely related to the Kwegu tribe. They live along the east banks of the Omo River in southern Ethiopia and practice flood retreat cultivation.
THE DAASANACH ethinc group, spelled also as Dasenach and Dassanech, have proved themselves to be a thrifty group with many tribesmen and women wearing their unique jewellery made out of everything from old digital watches to bottle caps. The African tribe have created iconic headdresses from bottle caps, earrings from sim cards and necklaces from syringe caps. While the tribe are keen to sell their wares, they have become so fond of their iconic bottle cap hats that they keep them for themselves.
The Chin are of Sino-Tibetan origin and inhabit a mountain chain which roughly covers western Burma through to Mizoram in north-east India (where they are related to the Mizos, Kuki and others) and small parts of Bangladesh.
During monsoon season in northeast India, rainwater gushes through the emerald valleys and deep gorges of Meghalaya, the "abode of the clouds"
The mountainous plateau between Assam and Bangladesh is one of the wettest places on Earth, and the Khasi tribes who inhabit these hills have developed an intimate relationship with the forest.
The "Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region" is a vast marginalised area of over 21000 km² with a population of around 600000.
It includes the World Heritage Site inscribed as the Lower Valley of the Omo.