Declared a World Heritage Site in 1980, the Omo Valley is one of the most important sets of paleontological sites in Africa. Known as ‘the cradle of humanity’, it was multiple discoveries made in this area that helped confirm the evolution of primates from swinging through the trees to walking upright.
The Omo Valley also has immense cultural wealth as it has been inhabited by a large number of indigenous tribes fighting for their survival for thousands of years.
Here we look at some of the most original traditions that make these tribes stand out as particularly unique.
Nyangatom Tribes: Storytelling and Singing
The Nyangatom are widely recognized to be the tribe with the best singers and storytellers, and it is common for the younger members to sing songs about cows and bulls during celebrations, traditional ceremonies, and even during fights with neighbouring tribes. The stories and songs of the Nyangatom often become famous throughout the region and are repeated throughout the entire Omo Valley.
Mursi Tribes: Spectacular Body Decoration
The Mursi is one of the most aesthetically captivating Ethiopian tribes. When they turn 20 their wives wear clay or wooden plates embedded in their lips and ears: the bigger the plate, the greater the likelihood that they will marry as these accessories are a form of seduction. Contrary to popular belief, Mursi women do not wear the plates all the time, as they make it uncomfortable for them to eat and talk. However they always wear wooden earrings, many bracelets, stylish haircut, scarification and colourful fabrics that make them look incredibly striking.
Men paint their bodies with natural pigments extracted from rocks, minerals and cow dung, which protects the skin from sun and thorns in addition it serves as both a dramatic way to attract their future wives and to command respect from their opponents in festive battles as a demonstration of their courage and aggressive warrior spirit. Scarification — permanent modifications made by scratching, etching, burning, branding or cutting designs into the skin — across the entire body are also seen as hallmarks of strength.
Hamer Tribes: Cattle Jumping Ceremony
The most important Hamer youth rite is the "Ukuli Bula", which is a necessary ritual to demonstrate that a man has entered adulthood and is capable of owning cattle, raising a family, and becoming a fully-fledged member of the tribe. When his parents decide that the time to perform the ceremony has arrived, the young man invites all the members of his tribe — along with those from nearby villages — to witness the event. The families of the boys bring what is deemed a fair number of cows and the women dance in their best clothes, creating a rhythmic beat with jingle bells tied below their knees. The cows are then lined up in a row, and the applicant takes a run-up and jumps over the cows’ spines until he reaches the other side. They jump back and forth until the "Mazas" (his age mates who had previously jumped) stop him. If he manages to perform these jumps successfully, he is seen to have passed the test and is ready to assume the role of adult with all the tribal responsibilities that entails.
Benna Tribe: Calabash Caps
The Benna woman's cover their braided hair with beautifully decorated calabash caps for multi protection purposes. The Benna men are famous for stylish hair ornamenting, like beaded headbands. These intricate creations are complicated to put on, so the Benna usually take these with them wherever they go, sleeping with their heads on wooden headrests to protect them.
Dassenech Tribe: Ritual Cattle Sacrifice
The “Dimi” is the most important ritual in the life of a Dassenech man and involves the sacrificing of large numbers of cattle such as cows and goats to bless the fertility and future of a young marriage. Members of the tribe dress in their most elaborate finery: ostrich feathers, oxtails, and leopard skins. Songs and dances are an important part of these ceremonies, as are the blessings of the village leaders to the girl to be wed. This rite is usually performed dry season when a lack of pastures means the animals are not as valuable as livestock.
Karo Tribe: Chalk Paint Body Decoration
The Karo decorate their bodies with chalk paint, often imitating animal print or the spotted plumage of some birds, especially on the face and torso. When a tribe member has killed an enemy or dangerous animal, scarifications are also made on their chests to boast of their bravery. Women cover their bodies with cowhides and use metallic accessories. For Karo women, ornamenting the body and face is considered a way to highlight their attractiveness and indicate their social status.
Konso Tribe: Warrior Sculptures
In the towns of the Konso (which are typically more developed than those of their neighboring tribes due to the level of construction), it is common to find sets of wood carvings in the central square. These sculptures, called "Wakas", honor dead warriors in one of the most famous and ancient traditions of the Konso people. The larger central figure is dedicated to the warrior themselves, while smaller ones, located either side, represent their families and enemies.
NOMADIC TRIBE TEAM in collaboration with EMANI CHENEKE / Ethiopia
Plan your trip to visit the peoples of the Omo Valley in our Tribes section.
Cover photo: Karo warrior / Emani Cheneke