I feel like I’ve been seeing photographs of the tribal people who live in Ethiopia since I was little. As a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I had no idea where these people lived, but I was fascinated nonetheless by the women with the lip plates, all the colorful beads they wore, their seemingly easy way of life. When I decided to go back to Ethiopia earlier this year, I knew I had to visit the Omo Valley and photograph these interesting people for myself. I wanted to truly live out a “National Geographic moment.”
What did I find when I got there? I discovered a dry and unforgiving land; a people who seem content despite living in conditions that are extremely difficult; tribal people who have become so accustomed to seeing tourists like me that they have no qualms about only posing for photos in exchange for money; larger towns that were fairly Westernized; and - like most developing countries - a good amount of poverty.
For me personally, the Omo Valley was quite a contradiction: enlightening, challenging, interesting and humbling all at the same time. In fact, all of Ethiopia felt that way. So much in our western world we take for granted, while so many people there struggle to survive every day. No clean water. No shoes. Little education. They grind their food and coffee by hand daily. It's tough to see -- but also inspiring. They are incredibly strong and proud. Despite the tough conditions, they persevere.
These are some of the hardest working people you will ever see. The women are largely responsible for building the homes (huts), cooking the meals, and generally taking care of things in the village. Most children do not formally attend school, because they are needed for everyday chores like fetching water and gathering firewood. When I visited with the various tribes, typically the only people around were elders, women with their babies, and small children because the men were off tending to the cattle and crops, or catching fish.
The children laugh and play like any other kids, unaware of all the things that they don’t have. In some of the more remote villages, the children would run away when they saw me, not used to seeing a tall, blond (fully clothed!) woman. In the more frequently visited villages, the children would grab me by the hand and lead me around without any regard for the fact that I was a complete stranger. They made my heart melt.
The south Omo Valley is home to eight different tribes who have lived here for centuries. In large part the various tribes dressed similarly, although there were some differences. In many of the “larger” towns, about half of the population dressed in western clothes and half in traditional tribal attire. During my time there, I visited with the Karo, Hamer, Dasenech and Mursi tribes, and also spent some time at a local tribal market where goods and livestock are traded, and people come together to drink beer and socialize.
In the small villages I visited, most people dressed traditionally, naked from the waist up. The women wear colorful beads around their necks, while others wear animal skins or brightly colored cotton skirts around their waist. In some tribes the women have braided hair and wear beaded chest garments as a sign that they are married. Several tribes have the women shave their hair on the side and twist the remainder into tiny little dreadlocks, again to signify that they are married. Many women mix local clay with water and butter and put it in their hair to create an orange color. In many cases the women wear leather or metal rings around their necks which signifies which number wife they are to their husband.
The men carry small stools everywhere they go, so they can easily sit to have a chat with their friends & enjoy some local "beer" (it's actually some milky looking drink made from the crops they grow). Many men have a piece of their ear taken off when they get married, and most wear body paint for decoration. The Mursi men are known for their scarification and for being fierce warriors.
The Mursi Tribe is one of the most fascinating - and most photographed - of all the Omo Valley tribes. I remember seeing photos of these people many years ago, and never dreamed I'd actually get to meet them in person! The women are best known for the big clay plates worn in their lower lips. The women first started using lip plates during the days of the slave trade in order to make themselves unattractive (and therefore undesirable as slaves). Over the years the woman continued the lip plate tradition, except now it is seen as a sign of beauty and is used to attract a husband. In addition to the lip plates, the Mursi are also known for their face paint, ceremonial head wear, large ear plugs, fancy jewelry, and body markings.
It was obvious that some of the villages see a fair amount of tourists, because as soon as they found out a farengi (white person) had arrived, they all ran to their huts to pull out their fanciest ceremonial headwear (the body paint, clothes and jewelry are everyday wear). They were quick to ask for a photo and to strike a pose.
In the Omo Valley there is an expectation of a tip in exchange for a photo. Don’t get me wrong: I am more than happy to contribute, but having to pick certain people for photos and not others is awkward to say the least (I couldn’t possibly photograph everyone in the village). My guide was good at keeping the people in order, but there was a certain amount of chaos created when I was there that left me a bit uncomfortable, both with the scene in general, and also with the "naturalness" of my images.
If you are not comfortable seeing a fair amount of poverty or if you have fairly high standards when it comes to your travel surroundings, then visiting the Omo Valley is likely not for you. If, however, you are interested in learning about a very unique culture, and don’t mind long car rides on dusty roads or average accommodations, then I would recommend visiting. Ethiopia, like most developing countries, will challenge you to go beyond your comfort zone. Go with an open mind and a sense of humor and adventure, and you will love this interesting part of the country! See details of my trip below.
I traveled solo around the Omo Valley, with just a local English speaking guide and driver. I truly believe this was the best way to travel, as I had some lovely unexpected moments that I do not think would have happened if I had been with a group. I would not have felt comfortable driving myself or traveling without a local guide.
I designed my personalized itinerary with Witness Ethiopia Tours, a local Ethiopian tour operator. The owner Ermias was very responsive to all my emails and requests. They are professionally run and alway eager to assist me. I would recommend using them to anyone wanting to visit the Omo Valley.
Witness Ethiopia Tours provided transportation (4x4 and driver), and an English speaking guide. My guide was Sileshi, who was born and raised in the Omo Valley. He was very knowledgeable about the various tribes, and was extremely courteous when we visited the villages. He was personable with the locals, which in turn made me (and them) feel very comfortable. Yes, I was stared at by most of the people I met, but I always felt safe and welcomed! Sileshi was great to travel with.
I had the option of driving from Addis Ababa to the south, however I decided to fly from Addis Ababa to Arbaminch in order to save time. I would recommend flying versus driving that distance.
I only had 7 days, so I wanted a bespoke experience where I was able to choose the locations I wanted to visit, including the lodges at which I wanted to stay. I have learned (the hard way) that lodging standards vary widely from country to country, so when I am visiting a developing country I always do online research for accommodations and ask for specific places to stay. Below are the places at which I stayed, and based on my research are the best in each area. Remember: everything is relative!