Today is set aside as an arrival day in the wondrous land of Abyssinia. After arrival at Bole International Airport and taking care of passport control and luggage formalities, you will be met by our representative outside the departures hall and driven to your hotel nearby. Here you will be met by your tour leader, and tonight we will have the opportunity to discuss our exciting adventure together in more detail.
If time allows, we will embark on an Addis city tour this morning. Places that we will visit include the Natural History Museum, which houses a replica of Lucy (in Ethiopia, known by her Amharic name of “Dinknesh” – you are wonderful). We will also visit Merkato, the largest open-air market in Africa.
At a time to be advised we will head back to Bole International Airport to check-in for our flight to Jimma. Jimma, the largest city in southwestern Ethiopia, is our destination for the evening. It used to be the capital of the former Kaffa Province, and it is this region that is recognized as the home of the plant Coffea arabica, or coffee.
This morning is an exciting travel day as we head deep into the little-visited portion of southwestern Ethiopia. En route, we pass through the Bebeka coffee plantation (located about 30km outside Mizan), which is the largest and oldest coffee plantation in Ethiopia. After passing through the town of Tulgit, will finally arrive in Kibish, where we will be camping for the next three nights. Much of our focus today will be photographing the fabulous Suri people, who due to their remoteness are one of the least visited of the Omo Valley’s tribes.
Athens’ Elefthérios Venizélos International Airport located near the Athens suburb of Spáta is the country’s largest, busiest airport and main hub, handling over 15 million passengers annually as of 2006. Other major international airports in terms of passenger traffic are, in order of passengers served per year, Heraklion (Nikos Kazantzákis Int’l), Thessaloniki (Makedonia Int’l), Rhodes (Diagóras), and Corfu (Ioánnis Kapodístrias).
The Suri are pastoralists, placing much value on their cattle, which they protect vigorously against theft from neighboring tribes. The Surma however also steal livestock from their enemies, and in recent times there has been more pressure on their grazing lands due to input of people from adjacent Sudan who have been displaced by civil war, resulting in not-infrequent fighting in the area.
The Suri people do not make woodcarvings, statues, etc., and instead are renowned for their incredibly ornate decoration of themselves, which they achieve through painting, scarification, and adornment with flowers and other natural objects. The paintings are dynamic artworks, which vary greatly in design and are truly fascinating to photograph!
Virtually no area of the body is left out, and nakedness is a standard and acceptable part of daily life for the Surma, who regard Westerners’ concept of clothing with fascination!
Possibly more famously, Suri women, like Mursi women, wear lip plates. In her early twenties, an unmarried woman’s lower lip will be pierced and then progressively stretched over a period of a year. A clay disc, which has its edge indented like a pulley wheel, is squeezed into the hole in the lip. As the lip stretches, a succession of ever-larger discs is forced in until the lip, now a loop is so long it can sometimes be pulled right over the owner’s head! The size of the lip plate determines the bride price with a large one bringing in fifty head of cattle. Suri women make the lip plates from clay, coloring them with ochre and charcoal and baking them in a fire.
We have two full days to explore and photograph the fascinating Suri, making the most of our time in this remote region of Ethiopia.
Another famous component of Suri life is stick fighting, known as Donga. We will be exceptionally fortunate to witness such a contest, but our local guide will keep an ear to the ground and with luck, we may be able to attend such an event. At a fight, each male contestant is armed with a hardwood pole about six feet long and with a weight of just less than two pounds.
The men paint their bodies with a mixture of chalk and water before the fight. In the attacking position, this pole is gripped at its base with both hands, the left above the right in order to give maximum swing and leverage. Each player beats his opponent with his stick as many times as possible with the intention of knocking him down and eliminating him from the game. Players are usually unmarried men.
The winner is carried away on a platform of poles to a group of girls waiting at the side of the arena who decide among themselves which of them will ask for his hand in marriage. Taking part in a stick fight is considered to be more important than winning it.
After a scrumptious breakfast prepared by our camp crew, we depart for a full-day drive back to Jimma where we will overnight.
Today is another full-day drive from Jimma to Arba Minch, the gateway to the eastern Omo Valley. We will take regular stops en route to stretch our legs and will take advantage of any possible photo opportunities that we come across.
This morning we have an early start as we depart Arba Minch shortly after breakfast for the town of Turmi. The Hamar is one of the most well-known tribes in Southern Ethiopia. They inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages in both Turmi and Dimeka.
They are especially well known for their unique rituals, including a cattle-leaping ceremony that young men have to undergo in order to reach adulthood and marry. They are a highly superstitious people, and to this day they consider twins to be babies born outside of wedlock, while children whose upper milk teeth develop before their lower teeth are deemed to be ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’.
For this reason, such children are discarded in the bush and simply left to die, as they would rather lose a single child than inflict any disaster upon their community. The Hamar people are also known for one of the most bizarre rituals on Earth. This is when the women allow themselves to be whipped by the male members of their family as a symbol of their love! The scars of such encounters are conspicuously evident in the bodies of all Hamar women.
These women take great pride in their appearance and wear traditional dresses consisting of a brown goatskin skirt adorned with dense vertical rows of red and yellow beads.
Their hair is characteristically fixed in dense ringlets with butterfat mixed with red ochre. They also wear many bracelets and necklaces fashioned of beads or metal, depending on their age, wealth, and marital status. The men wear woven cloth wrapped around the waist and many elders wear delicately colored clay head caps that are fashioned into their hair and adorned with an ostrich feather.
As mentioned, the young Hamar men are famous for their “Evangadi dance” and “bull jumping” ceremony (it is as part of this ceremony that the afore-mentioned whipping occurs). This ritual entails young men who wish to marry jumping over a line of bulls, thereby proving their worth to their intended bride’s family. It also signifies their advent into adulthood. This is a rarely seen event, however, with luck, we may hear of and even be invited to attend this landmark event.
The Lower Omo Valley is situated within Africa’s famous and, geologically speaking, rapidly expanding Great Rift Valley (which will eventually split the continent into two landmasses). Here, in southwest Ethiopia’s awkwardly named “Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region”, bordering Kenya and Sudan, the great Omo River dominates this dry savanna valley, resulting in some of Africa’s most well developed and best-preserved arid-zone riverine forests.
The Omo River rises from the Shewan highlands to the north (much of Ethiopia consists of high-lying mountains and fertile plateaus, despite the impression created by some international media bodies that Ethiopia is predominately desert!). It flows 470 miles (750km), mostly southwards, before entering Lake Turkana (previously Lake Rudolf) near the Kenyan border. Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake and also the planet’s largest alkaline lake, has no water outflow, so in effect, it’s a dead-end for the Omo River. The importance of the Lower Omo Valley has been recognized by UNESCO, which has declared it a cultural World Heritage site. It also contains two massive national parks and several important bird areas.
Our tribe of interest today is the Karo, another tribe known for its elaborate body and facial paintings. These people live along the east bank of the Omo River and practice flood retreat cultivation, their main crops being maize, sorghum, and beans. Unlike the other tribes, they keep only a small number of cattle due to the prevalence of tsetse flies. Like many of the tribes in the Omo, they paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for any ceremonies. The chalk is mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore, and charcoal to make its requisite color. Facemasks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns adorned with feathers.
Scarification is also an important part of the Karo people’s lives. This includes the complete scarification of a man’s chest which is to indicate that he has killed an enemy or dangerous animal (Amongst the Karo, killing one’s enemies isn’t viewed as an act of murder, but as an act of honor!).
This scarification process involves lightly slicing the skin with knives or razor blades and then rubbing ash into the open wounds to produce a permanently raised effect. The Karo women have decoratively scarred abdomens, which are considered sensual and very desirable.
In the afternoon we will head back to the nearby Hamar Village to continue photographing this fascinating tribe in all her glory!
Further time will be spent visiting the Hamar today, where we will get more opportunities to capture these interesting people, before later continuing onward to Jinka, where we will be staying for the night.
We have an early morning start as we enter Mago National Park at 06:00 in order to reach the Mursi Tribe while the light is still soft. Most famous for the clay lip plates that the women insert in their lower lips, the Mursi are probably one of the last tribes in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear this large pottery or wooden discs or plates.
The lip plate (dhebi a tugoin) has become the chief visible distinguishing characteristic of the fascinating Mursi people. A girl’s lower lip is cut, typically by her mother or another woman of her settlement, when she reaches the age of 15 or 16. The cut is then held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. It appears to be up to the individual girl to decide how far to stretch the lip, which she does by inserting progressively larger plugs over several months. Some girls even persevere until their lips can take plates of 5 inches (12 cm) or more in diameter!
The Mursi and their neighbors became part of the Ethiopian State in the final years of the 19th century when Emperor Menelik II established control over the southwestern lowlands bordering Kenya and Sudan.
This was an area inhabited by several small tribes with fluid identities, highly adaptable to environmental conditions, and capable of easily absorbing outsiders into their communities. The Mursi as we know them today is the product of a large-scale migratory movement of cattle herding peoples in the general direction of the Ethiopian highlands. Three separate movements may be distinguished in the recent history of the Mursi, each the result of growing environmental pressure associated with the drying out of the Omo basin over the last 150 – 200 years.
The Mursi attribute overwhelming cultural importance to cattle. Almost every significant social relationship – particularly marriage – is marked and authenticated by exchanging cattle. The “Bridewealth” (ideally consisting of 38 heads of cattle) is handed over by the groom’s family to the bride’s father, who must meet the demands of a wide range of relatives from different clans. This ensures that cattle are continually redistributed around the community, thereby helping to provide for the long-term economic security of individuals as well as their families.
After a morning’s photographic session for the Mursi, our incredible time in the Lower Omo Valley comes to an end and we drive northeast back to Arba Minch. En route, we may stop at Konso, a small town famed for its amazing terraces and agriculture, and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (declared in 2011).
The Konso tribe migrated into this area thousands of years ago, and from these stone-age beginnings, their remarkable culture developed in virtual isolation. They have led a largely independent existence, rarely involving themselves in trade with other communities, and have defended their lands fiercely. Their fortifications will be evident when we visit one of their walled villages. Here a community guide who will explain and demonstrate the fascinating lifestyle, beliefs, and traditions of these industrious people, will guide us through this experience. We return to Arba Minch and to our now familiar accommodations.
At a time to be advised we will depart Arba Minch to connect with our scheduled morning flight back to Addis Ababa.
End of Day 13 – Omo Valley Photography Tour through Jimma.
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