One of the greatest adventures you can have in Africa is to visit the Ethiopian tribes in the Omo Valley. This is our story.
It was still dark out when the sound of my phone alarm cut through the silence and awoke me to a brisk morning.
We had spent the past 7 days bush camping through Northern Kenya and getting a night’s sleep after a shower was so heavenly I didn’t want to get up.
Somehow I gathered my thoughts, turned off the alarm and made my way from the tent out into the darkness.
It wasn’t until I was halfway to the bathroom that I realized the day would be a grand adventure.
Visiting Ethiopian Tribes in the Omo Valley
We had arrived in the sleepy little town of Jinka, Ethiopia with one thing on our minds, visiting the Ethiopian tribes in the Omo Valley. The kicker, they’re remote and getting to them is not easy.
Walking around like zombies we fixed a quick breakfast of cornflakes and powdered milk before a bombed-out, beat up rover bounced into the camp yard.
This, we assumed, would be our ride for the day and one look quickly gave away the adventure we had in store for us in the Omo Valley.
Leaving Jinka, it wasn’t long before we left the pavement and began our travel on rough dirt roads. We were told that it was approximately 60km till we reached the first tribe but due to road conditions, this would take us a solid 3-4 hours.
Now, we know Ethiopia lacks infrastructure but this was some serious slow going and they weren’t wrong.
Omo Valley Scenic Overlook
We bumped along, dust flying everywhere while we occasionally braced on the roof of the vehicle or grabbed beneath the seat to avoid flying into the lap of our neighbor.
About 2 hours in, our driver pulled over on the side of the road for a bathroom break and told us to go for a walk and take in the view.
There wasn’t much to look at and we all meandered through the landscape looking for appropriate bushes to use.
Heeding the advice, we located a small trail and followed it through the bush and over a rocky area to the other side where the view opened up to a beautiful panoramic of the Omo Valley below.
If we had done nothing else that day, this view would have been enough. The land was vast, lush and moving.
Our guide brought up the tail of our small group and stood beside us, looking at the land like it was his first time seeing it.
He smiled and pointed off into the distance, ‘you see that?’ he said, ‘you’re looking at Sudan.’ Motioning in the opposite direction, he repeated except this time mentioning Kenya.
We were standing at a tri-country meeting, all brought together over the vast landscapes of the Omo Valley and home to some of Africa’s last tribes. We knew at that moment, the day was only going to get better.
The Mursi Tribe
Not well-known by their official Mursi name, this tribe is often referred to as the ‘lip plate tribe’ due to the large, clay lip plates they wear in their faces.
They are exotic and only in recent years have outsiders started to visit them on a more regular basis.
To accomplish such a feat as wearing those large plates, the women of the tribe have their bottom lip sliced at a young age, roughly 15-16, before they are to be married.
Small plates are placed in the opening to begin stretching the lip until they are able to wear larger plates. The largest plate on record has ever worn by a Mursi woman was almost 24 inches in diameter.
For the men, the larger the plate on the woman, the more attractive they seem.
Other mutilation practices of the tribe include using the needles of the Acacia tree to produce scarification on their bodies.
Once they have created the desired pattern, they apply charcoal to the open wounds causing scabs and large amounts of scar tissue to form.
As it heals, the skin raises into distinct patterns and then heals that way leaving a form of art on their bodies. Marriage practices among the tribe include a pretty hefty dowry said to include at least 2 Kalashnikov rifles and 20-40 head of cattle.
If you’re like me, you probably think it’s odd that they would have rifles but with the proximity of the Sudan border, they are able to barter for these rifles and have come accustomed to using them for hunting and tribe protection.
Our experience with the Mursi people was uncomfortable at times but enriching.
Only in recent years have outsiders started to visit them on a more regular basis and they have come to rely on tourism for money, particularly from soliciting that you take their photos.
As a result, we were often asked for ‘5 Birr’ ($0.25) when snapping a photo, which is something we were not expecting. However, stepping outside of our comfort zone to learn more about their way of life was worth the effort.
We did manage to have some authentic experiences with the Mursi people and do not regret that we took the time to visit them, despite the fuzzy line that has been drawn by allowing tourists to visit.
The Mursi people live a menial existence amongst the bush, living in thatched huts and maintaining large herds of cattle. They self sustain and live off the land in an environment that isn’t always giving.
As they become more exposed to modern society and adapt to it along the way, it is our hope that they don’t lose too much of their culture.
We spent the better part of the day with the Mursi people before making the ever long, bumpy, dusty trek back to Jinka for a cold beer, shower and a lot of contemplation before setting off the next day to visit the Hamer people.
The Hamer Tribe
Admittedly, before we arrived in Ethiopia I had never even heard of the Hamer Tribe until we were asked if we’d like to visit them in addition to the Mursi.
The question came with great excitement from our guide as our visit had timed out perfectly with the opportunity to witness a Hamer Bull Jumping Ceremony.
How can you say no to that? Another short night, brisk morning and zombie breakfast later found us back in the rover, back on the bumpy dirt roads and headed back into the Omo Valley; this time in the opposite direction en route to visit the Hamer people.
After the intensity of yesterday, we braced ourselves as we arrived at the village. Exiting the vehicle, we were greeted almost instantly by a group of small children that came running from the nearest hut.
The looks of excitement and bright smiles were a welcoming greeting and we all quickly relaxed.
Our visit to Hamer village was a peaceful experience. We were shown their village that comprised of many wood-built huts and surrounding fences to maintain each family’s animals before being invited by one of the families into their hut.
Removing our shoes, we entered the hut to find a dirt floor covered in animal skins around a burning fire with a grate on top.
The hut was meticulously organized with a variety of handmade things and modern-day things that had been acquired in barter and trade. Not one thing was out of place.
The lady of the house sat near the fire beaming while holding her most recent child in her arms and gesturing to our guide that she wanted to prepare tea for us.
We would end up spending the better part of an hour sitting cross-legged on animal skins, learning about the family and politely sipping tea that tasted like very bitter bark.
The environment was extremely casual as members of the family came and went with curiosity from the hut and we were allowed to take photos in a very natural way.
When leaving the hut, we returned to the light of day to be met by a large line of Hamer people that had gathered near the hut. It was communicated to us that they were there to have their photos taken, should we wish to engage.
This was an odd moment because unlike the Mursi people, this exchange was not aggressive. It was almost as if they were being made to stand there by the chief. Many of them fidgeted and avoided eye contact.
It wasn’t my cup of tea, so I politely declined photos and left to wander more. This is when I found a very interesting can hanging from the surrounding fence.
In bold letters was written USAID. Now I know the United States has provided large amounts of aid to Ethiopia over the past years and this can was likely acquired in a barter situation versus a direct-distribution but seeing that can hanging there shocked me.
Not even the tribes in Africa can escape the clutches of modernity this day in age. This was humbling and admittedly a bit sad to see.
Following the tribe hut visit, we made our way to a communal market area where the Hamer people come to do trade.
There were a couple of small Ethiopian restaurants residing in run-down, unmarked buildings but the main attraction is the lanes of local women that set out huge displays of Hamer made trinkets, jewelry, and hut ware.
The best part, this is not a tourist display. This is where the Hamer women come to sell the things they specialize in making. The most attractive part of the market was easily the beaded jewelry.
All Hamer people wear intricate displays of beaded jewelry and beaded animal hides in everyday life and I particularly loved that they selected patterns and colors based on their personal preferences.
Each one showcasing their personalities on the outside in the way they dressed, much as we do in modern society.
Wandering the market bided the early part of the afternoon away and groups of local children would come and go, taking turns holding our hands and practicing English with us.
I know that seems odd but they were practicing English. We made many new friends that day and is still something I smile about to this day.
Not sure the day could get any better, we jumped back in the vehicle and made our way to the site of the Bull Jumping Ceremony.
Nowhere, in particular, the sites change depending on the family, time of year and weather conditions. This particular ceremony was to be held next to an enormous but completely dry riverbed.
When we arrived, the Hamer women were gathered around playing, chanting and decorating themselves.
There were no men to be seen except for the man of the hour, the guy who would complete the ceremony and make the transition from being a boy to becoming a man.
Intensity hung in the air as they awaited the arrival of the bushmen.
With anticipation hanging in the air, the arrival of the men took a couple of hours. When they emerged from the bush the entire scene erupted into chaotic tribal celebration.
What came next was surprising to us but a reality of the tribe’s lifestyle. The women began taunting the recently returned bushmen, begging them to be whipped. Yes, you read that right, whipped.
The women of the family receive this highly regarded practice for the boy who is undergoing the ceremony.
They wear the scars from the whipping as an honor and pride, knowing that their scarification grants them the right to call on him for support at any time during his life.
It’s a tough thing to watch but they take it with grace and come back for more over the better part of an hour.
In an abrupt fashion, the whipping seems to be over and all of a sudden we find that everyone has started to relocate.
We follow closely behind the bushmen for over a mile before we come to a place where several large bulls have been gathered. It is here the jumping will take place.
Once all of the tribal members had arrived, the men started chasing, wrangling and grabbing the bulls, lining them up by having one man hold the horns and others the tail until they had roughly 10 bulls in a line.
The task for the boy involved jumping onto the back of these bulls and running across them without falling, 4 times in total before he can officially become a man.
Our champion completed the task with grace and ease. I am not sure if it always goes in this fashion but he made it look easy and the entire tribe erupted into immediate celebration when he finished.
It was at this point that our experience would end. The tribe would head back to their village to begin an all-night celebration and we would start our 4-hour journey back to Jinka and the comfort of our tents.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Ethiopian Tribes
Our experience of visiting the Mursi and Hamer Tribes in the Omo Valley was incredibly rewarding, interesting and something we still contemplate to this day.
For the adventurous who are interested in diving into the culture of Ethiopia, this is an experience you absolutely should not miss.
HOW TO VISIT THE ETHIOPIAN TRIBES YOURSELF
While it is possible to have this experience in many different ways, World Expeditions offers some of the options in Ethiopia that will allow you to have a similar experience to ours with a chance to visit several other tribes in the area as well.
The Hidden Tribes of Ethiopia itinerary they offer is brilliant as it starts and ends in Addis Ababa saving you the hassle of booking expensive and often delayed domestic flights in Ethiopia.
Their tour not only includes the experiences we discussed above but also visited the Karo, Konso and Dorze tribes. It is an exceptional itinerary designed to immerse you into right into the life of Africa’s beloved tribes of Ethiopia.
Disclosure: This post is brought to you by World Expeditions #WeVentureOut, one of the world’s leading adventure travel companies operating small group trekking and adventure travel holidays and vacations since 1975. World Expeditions has implemented the WE Animal Protection Code of Conduct meaning that their tours would not include the Hamer Bull Jumping ceremony. All opinions are 100% mine, as always.
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