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tribes of omo valley

Tribes of Omo Valley

For centuries, the tribes of the Omo Valley have modestly populated the grasslands and volcanic outcrops that are generously fed by the Omo River in southwest Ethiopia. One of the few remaining pristine riverfed forests in semi-arid Africa, the Omo Valley is an incredibly unique area in danger of being plundered in today’s modern world.

The area was declared a UNESCO world heritage site after the discovery of human remains dating 2.5 million years ago. While a varied number of tribes have been living here for centuries, today a population of 200,00 people make up eight tribes scattered along the shores of the 475 mile long Omo Valley River. Each tribe, whether large or small, has its own language and unique customs. Making visiting them an incredibly diverse and intriguing experience, unlike any other in Ethiopia.

What to See

The most commonly visited tribes in the Omo Valley are the Bodi, Daasanach, Karo, Kwegu, Mursi, and Nyangatom. Each boasts unique customs and experiences for any traveller to witness. The ceremony of the whipping of the brides, and bull jumping are two customs unique to the Omo Valley. Bull jumping is a rite of passage for boys before they marry. In the ceremony, the boys must run across the backs of bulls, naked, four times without falling. If they pass this test, they go from being boys to men and are considered ready for marriage. Before a boy can jump, however, the women in his family must gather for a whipping ceremony where other village men take on the role of “whippers”. They use sticks to hit the women and girls, signifying the women’s strength in their commitment to the boy who is jumping. Scars from the wounds are considered beautiful and desirable. The Bodi people raise various livestock including cattle, goats, and sheep. These animals are vital to the people as they produce blood, milk, meat, and hides- all essential assets to life along the river. In dry times, they travel with their cattle for miles in order to find better grazing and even sing poems to their favourite cows. Further inland and away from the river, the Hamar, Chai, Suri, and Turkana tribes can be found painted with white ash. Interalliances with river tribes mean they can access the floodplains, however periodic conflicts in competition for natural resources do cause conflict. In recent years, progressive loss of access to and control over land makes it increasingly difficult for all the tribes in the area.

Other highlights in the area are the chance to wander through markets and livestock herding, as well as visiting hilltop settlements and seeing beautiful terraced fields. Tribes can often engage in singing and dancing with locals decorated in beaded jewelry. Visitors can move along with the jingle of foot rattles and arm bracelets as stringed lyres made from wood or tortoise shells and bamboo flutes create an incredible atmosphere unlike any other. Anthropomorphic grave markers and 5000 year old rock engravings are incredible additional sites to the experience of visiting such diverse tribe in the Omo Valley.

When to Visit

In visiting the Omo Valley Tribes, consider the weather and time of year. June to September or November to March are the best time s as the temperatures are generally more mild. Regardless when you set off into the valley, mosquito repellant is an absolute must.

Getting Around

Travellers can get to the valley by car from Jinka or Arba Minch. Visiting the tribes once in the valley is usually done in a car and visitors can set up camps throughout their visit.