Omo Valley

Major change from the north. The Omo Valley culturally is much more like what we think of as African. One tribe, the Dasenech, is related to the Masai of Kenya which isn’t too surprising since Kenya is fifty km away. Some of the men are tall and long legged and are unlike the northern Ethiopians who look more Middle Eastern. In the small villages many women go bare breasted and the men wear just short loin clothes. Not a bad choice in this hot semi-desert territory.

There isn’t much agriculture, just cattle and goat pasturing, except near the river. If the village we visited on the Omo River is any indication, the upstream damming of the river has been compensated for. Before the river was dammed the annual floods replenished the soil and moisture. Ethiopia built a series of dams to generate electricity which it desparately needs and the electricity is also sold to neighboring countries. Ethiopia has few natural resources to harness. The fear was that the Omo Valley residents weren’t prepared to lose the annual flood; but at least the Desenech tribe village we visited was given a large pump and the fuel to power it as well as training on how to change their agriculitural practices. They now grow a wider variety of crops. This village just across the river from Omorate, may receive more aide because it is on a main road and is more visible. The village of 500 people that we visited doesn’t look comfortable but no worse than many in Africa. Low huts covered with hides, brush and corrugated iron. Water resistant but hot. But they also have brush and straw roofed huts where is is considerably cooler for hanging out. No trees and they haul drinking water a half a mile from the river. This particular village has additional benefits from tourism. Dozens of people a day visit and pay a generous entry fee. Certainly robs them of some of their culture, but gives them some money. Other more distant villages may be worse off.

We were told by a well educated but locally raised guide that genital mutilation has been stopped tor the Omo tribes in Ethiopia. As part of the village visit we were allowed to wander around and take pictures and an informal demonstration of local dancing was put on.

The previous day we were also “treated” to a less touristy experience. The right of passage to manhood (the ability to get married) requires bull jumping—leaping up to the back of a bull and then running across another six or so bull backs which are standing side by side. But maybe more difficult is procuring the resources to supply the barley beer for the festivities. The other part of the ceremony is very off putting. Hours before the bull jumping women are whipped by eligible batchlors.The women include late teenagers and married younger women. The women feel that it’s a mark of toughness to go through the whipping. The women would goad the men into beating them and eventually elder men held off the women and the “beaters” tried to ignore the women. It appeared that the women spend several hours working themselves into a frenzy by singing and dancing and imbibing locally produced beer. Many women have significant scars on their back from past ceremonies. Several sources suggest that most women would prefer to end the practice but cultural momentum keeps it going. If they can stop genital mutilation, whipping may end in the not too distant future. In the ceremony we saw a couple of dozen women participated and about a dozen men. The men were easy to count because they all are shirtless and wear other ornaments to identify them and at the end they all sat together. But the whippings were a bit chaotic because everyone was spread across hundred meters of desert and one or two women would taunt isolated men into whipping them and many of the men tried to get lost in the crowd. We six and two other tourist witnessed this particular ceremony. Probably few in attendance since it was out in the country and another ceremony happened closer to the village the same day. We didn’t see the actual bull jumping because the bulls couldn’t be rounded up in time. The ceremony is a very local affair and there are many things that need to be organized and apparently organizing the bulls didn’t receive top priority. It was getting too dark and our guide heard that the jumping might be put off until tomorrow. We did pay a guide a fee to attend and much of the money was supposed to go to the family, but it was by no means put on for the tourists.

We also have visited several weekly markets. The one in Turmi was mainly for locals—selling roofing straw ($4 for a two-foot diameter bundle), goats, cattle, corn, lentils, spices, shoes, and clothes among other things. Also some local clothing and head rests/stools more directed at the tourists. The weekly market is also an extended happy hour, a time to visit and catch up with friends and later many retiring to restaurants for injera and beer. Injera is not native to the south so they mostly enjoy it in restaurants.

Leave a Reply