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Cultural Heritage Southern Omo Valley Tribal Safaris


The Southern Omo Valley is Africa’s last remaining true wilderness. Forgotten by the rest of the world, this remote land is a haven of the most fascinating and colorful yet fearsome tribes of Ethiopia, who inhabit on the banks of the mighty Omo River and all the hinterlands between Jinka and the border with Kenya and Sudan. The Omo valley is also home to a vast array of wildlife and endemic species. 

The Hamer people have the most fascinating traditional Bull Jumping ceremonies. The ceremony marks the initiation of young men into adulthood. The main players are the initiates, those who should jump onto the backs of a line of fifteen to thirty cattle in order to be judged to have passed from childhood to manhood. Should they fall off, they would be whipped and teased mercilessly by the women. During the ceremony, young women, relatives of the initiates, beg to be whipped by the Maz, the master just to reveal their ability to endure pain on behalf of the boy they love. The more numerous and extensive the scars, the deeper the girls’ devotion to the boy who is about to become a man.

The other magnificent tribes of the Lower Omo Valley such as the Mursi, Suri, Nyangatom and Karo peoples are also physically attractive because of their elaborate body decoration and modification. The Musi and Suri tribes have a shared custom of lip plate insertion. Lips are pierced in puberty and then gradually extended to insert larger clay or wooden plates. It is a sign of propriety and beauty according to their traditional standards. Also ear plates or plugs are inserted among both young males and females.

Nyangatom women are known for their enormous bead necklaces and for their use of red ochre in their hairdo. Both men and women also insert lip plugs of ivory, aluminum or wood in the lower lip. Karo and Nyangatom men use the delicately colored clay head caps decorated with feathers. They use natural clay and pigments found in their area, the Omo River basin. Colors are made from chalk, soft red, bluish, grey and yellow stones, and charcoal powder. Ostrich plumes are inserted in their head clay caps. Suri and Karo males display remarkable body painting. Just like the Suri, the Nyangatom also have scarifications on the upper or lower arms. Some of these marks were made to indicate that the bearer had killed an enemy.

Almost all the tribes of the Lower Omo Valley are physically attractive because of their elaborate body decoration and modification through applying various patterns of body painting, scarification and tattooing.

Before we descend to the Lower Omo Valley, there are the industrious Konso people on beautiful terraced highlands. Just in 2011, the Cultural Landscape of the Konso people has been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.

The Cultural Landscape of Konso

The Konso are ethnically related to their faraway neighbors, the Borana nomads, who straddle the Ethiopia-Kenya border. However, in contrast to their relatives, the Konso are settled farmers.

The ancient people of Konso have a relatively sophisticated culture by the standards of the region, although one could say that they live in the Stone Age: the use of stone in and around Konso villages is just amazing.

Terraces made with huge rocks, built against the steep slopes of the hill, prevent erosion of the fertile soil. Small channels set with smaller stones line the fields to drain superfluous rainwater. Down in the valley this water is collected in larger channels with stones walls as high as eight feet. As another sophistication, farmers have made life easier for themselves by building stone steps alongside their steep fields.

Konso villages are surrounded by high stone walls, built to protect them from invaders. Inside, other stone walls divide the villages into several parts to prevent the possibility of a fire destroying the whole settlement. Surprisingly, the konso houses are not built of stone but from ordinary mud bricks and wood, topped by roofs of thatched grass. Solidly built, these high, conical dwellings seem to come straight out of the Asterix and Obelix storybooks. Led by the chief of the tribe –Kalla, the Konso people are famous for their Calvinistic morals, where working and saving money for buying more land have a higher value than killing enemies, the paramount good of their nomadic neighbors. Another outstanding feature is the Konso people’s collective system of labor, whereby farmers help neighbors to work their land until it is their own turn to be assisted.

In the Konso culture, when any important man, or local hero, dies, small wooden ‘waqa’ statues are carved in his honor and placed around the fields or in the bush. The ‘hero’ is depicted in the middle of his waqa group, flanked by his wives. Besides the women, the deceased’s slain enemies are sometimes depicted, and wild animals such as lions, leopards or crocodiles that were killed lie carved in wood at the hero’s feet.

Konso’s green and densely farmed mountains with their orderly villages and neat, round houses, give way to a land that grows ever more wild and savage as one travels down southwest to the Lower Omo Valley. The land slopes steeply down from 4,200 ft to 1,900 ft above sea level, with a corresponding change in the flora and fauna. The savannah land, interspersed with patches of dense bush, provides a marked contrast to the neat, terraced fields of the Konso.

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