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Omo Valley Tribes Ethiopia

Crossing remote areas, far away from civilization and from the comfort of the modern dwelling lies one of the most well-kept traditions you might expect to see on the African continent; In Southern Ethiopia in the Omo Valley ,  there is a cultural fest – over 45 languages are spoken, several tribes combine their traditions in an amazing display of color and culture that reminds one of earliest times;  with diverse ecosystems including grasslands, volcanic outcrops, and one of the few remaining ‘pristine’ riverine forests in semi-arid Africa which supports a wide variety of wildlife.

Arbore Tribe

The Arbore tribe is one of the many indigenous tribes’ lives in the southwest of the Omo Valley of Ethiopia near the Omo River. Arbore people are pastoralists (livestock farmers).  They believe that their singing and dancing eliminates negative energy and with the negative energy gone, the tribe will prosper. They are measuring their wealth in terms of the amount of cattle they own.

The women of the Arbore tribe cover their heads with a black cloth and are known to wear very colorful necklaces and earrings. 

  

 Young children will wear a shell type hat that protects their heads from the sun. And body painting is done by the Arbore using natural colors made from solid and stone.

 

 

Ari Tribe

The Ari tribe inhabits the northern border of Mago National Park in southwestern Ethiopia. And have the largest territory of all the tribes in the area. They have fertile lands allowing them to have several types of plantations.  An Ari's crop can consist of grains, coffee, fruits and honey.  It's also common for them to have large herds of livestock.

The Tribe members wear a lot of jeweler and have many piercings in their ears.  They wrap beads and bracelets around their arms and waist for decoration.

The women wear skirts from the banana like tree, called Enset. Ari women are famous for their pottery which they sell to support their families.

The Ari are known to paint and scar their bodies as part of their culture. 

Ari’s Men may marry as many women as they like, but only within their own tribe. A "bride price" of cattle and other goods is provided by the prospective husband and his near relatives. A typical household consists of a woman, her children, and a male protector. A man may be the protector of more than one household, depending on the number of wives he has. Also, men are sometimes assigned the responsibility of protecting a divorced woman, a widow, or the wife of an absent husband (usually his brother). Marriage celebrations include feasting and dancing. Young girls as well as boys are circumcised.

  

Bena or Bana Tribe

Banna, Bana, and Benna are other spellings for the Bena people.  They are neighbors with the Hamer tribe and it is believed that the Bena actually originated from them centuries ago.  The markets in Key Afer and Jinka are often visited by them. Just like most of the indigenous tribes in the lower Omo Valley, the Bena practice ritual dancing and singing.  The Bena look very similar to the Hamer and are often called the Hamer-Bena.  Common rituals and traditions of other tribes are shared by the Bena.  The boys in the tribe participate in bull jumping.  When it is time for the boy to become a man, he must jump over a number of bulls naked without falling.  If he is able to complete this task, he will become a man and be able to marry a woman.

The men often have their hair dressed up with a colorful clay cap that is decorated with feathers.  Both the men and women wear long garments and paint their bodies with white chalk.  Women of the tribe wear beads in their hair that is held together with butter.

Bodi / Me'en Tribe

The Bodi are pastorlists living close to the Omo River in south-western Ethiopia. They live with their cattle herds and livestock plays a large role in the tribe. Although they do cultivate sorghum along the banks of the Omo River, their culture is very much cattle centered. Similar to the Mursi, livestock plays an important role in marriage, divination, and name-giving rituals. The Bodi classification of cattle is complex, with over eighty words to denote different colors and patterns.

Men of the Bodi are typically overweight because they consume large amounts of honey.  The men wear a strip of cotton around their waist or walk around naked.  In June, the Bodi celebrate Ka'el.  This is a tradition that measures the body fat of a contestant.  Each family or clan is allowed to enter an unmarried contestant.  The winner of this contest is awarded great fame by the tribe.  Men also wear a headband with a feather attached to it during rituals.  The women in the tribe wear goatskin skirts and have a plug inserted into their chin.

The Bumi Tribe

Bumi tribe, Omo river,Omerate 2010 Also known as the Nyangatom or the Bume, the Bumi live south of Omo National park and occasionally migrate in to the lower regions of the park when water or grazing is scarce. Numbering around 6,000-7,000 in population, the Bumi are agro pastoralists, relying on cattle herding and floor- retreat agriculture (consisting mainly of sorghum harvesting on the Omo and kibish Rivers). The Bumi tend to indulge in honey and frequently smoke out beehives in the park to get the honey inside the nests. The Bumi are known to be great warriors and quite frequently, active warmongers, they are often at war with the neighboring tribes including the Hamer, the Karo and the Surma. Small group of Bumi living along the Omo are specialized crocodile hunters using harpoons from a dugout canoe. The elders of both sexes wear a lower lip plug, the men’s being made from ivory and women’s made from copper filigree.

Dasanech / Dassanech Tribe

Dasanech  (Galeb or Geleb ) tribe   come from multiple ethnic groups.   There are eight clans that make up the Dasanech tribe, each having its own name. They are the Elele, Inkabelo, Inkoria, Koro, Naritch, Oro, Randal and the Ri'ele.  Each clan is defined by its territory with the Inkabelo being the wealthiest. This tribe lives just north of Kenya's Lake Turkana.  Their neighboring tribe is the Turkana people.  The Dasanech are pastralists (cattle herders), but due to the harsh territory, they have moved south to grow crops and fish.  Cattle are used by the tribesman for meat, milk and clothing. A Daasanech man blesses his daughter's fertility and future marriage by celebrating the Dimi.  During the Dimi 10 to 30 cattle are slaughtered.  Both men and women wear fur capes while they feast and dance.  A Dimi ceremony will most likely take place in the dry season.

Dorze Tribe

Well known cotton weavers, the Dorze tribe were once warriors.  They are famous for their cotton woven cloths and beehive huts.  The Dorze people live in large communities north of Addis Abada.  They cultivate their own food and prevent erosion by terracing along the mountainside.  In their farmlands, the Dorze will grow highland cereals.  They also grow spices, vegetables, fruits and tobacco within their compound.

Women of the Dorze tribe have most of the responsibility in the family.  They must take care of any children and all of the house choirs.  The women are also responsible for cooking, spinning cotton and collecting firewood.  Male tribal members spend most of their time on the farm or building huts.  Sometimes you will find them weaving material to use for different things.  The Dorze people wear colourful toga robes called shammas.  They are very popular throughout Ethiopia.

  

A Dorze hut is made up of hard wood poles, woven bamboo, enset and other natural materials.  It can stand two stories tall and last up to 80 years.  Inside the main hut, you will find a fire place, a seating area and bedrooms.  Smaller huts can include guest houses, a workshop, a kitchen and even cattle shed.  When termites attack the hut, the Dorze can just remove it from its foundation and relocate it.  This allows the home to last much longer, but every move shortens the height of the hut.

Hamer Tribe 
 

The hamar or hammer, they are one of the most known tribes in Soutern Ethiopia.  They inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages in Turmi and Dimeka.   The Hamers   are pastoralists and number about 30,000. They are known for their practice of body adornment and wearing a multitude of colorful beads. Women adorn their necks with heavy polished iron jewelry .The Hamer men have a reputation of being less than adoring husbands. According to JP Dutilleux "the women submit to the ritual floggings proudly and love to show the deep scars that are regarded as a proof of devotion to their husbands.

 

Hamer society consists of a complex system of age groups. To pass from one age group to another involves complicated rituals. The most significant ceremony for young men is the "jumping of the bull" - the final test before passing into adulthood.

The practice of body modification is used by cutting themselves and packing the wound with ash and charcoal.  Some of the women wear circular wedge necklaces indicating that they are married.  Men paint themselves with white chalk to prepare for a ceremony.  Hair ornaments worn by the men indicate a previous kill of an enemy or Animal.

THE Karo Tribe

The Karo or Kara is a small tribe with an estimated population between 1,000 and 3,000.  They are closely related to the Kwegu tribe.  They live along the east banks of the Omo River in southern Ethiopia and practice flood retreat cultivation. The crops that are grown by them are sorghum, maize and beans.  Only small cattle are kept because of the tsetse flies.  These flies are large and consume the blood of vertebrate animals.

Women scarify their chests to beautify themselves   in preparation of their dances and ceremonies Scars are cut with a knife and ash is rubbed in to produce a raised welt.

They pulverize locally found white chalk, yellow mineral rock, red iron ore and black charcoal to decorate their bodies, often imitating the spotted plumage of a guinea fowl. Feather plumes are inserted in their clay hair buns to complete the look. The clay hair bun can take up to three days to construct and is usually re-made every three to six months. Their painted facemasks are spectacular.

Karo Warriors

The men's scars represent an enemy or dangerous animal killed.  They also wear clay hair buns which symbol a kill.  A man in the tribe can have as many wives as he wants, but must be able to afford them.  Most men will only marry two or three.

Konso Tribe

The Konso live in an isolated region of the basalt hills.  The area is made up of hard rocky slopes.  A Konso  village maybe fortified by a stone wall used as a defensive measure.  Their village is located on hilltops and is split up into communities, with each community having a main hut.  In order to enter a Konso village, you must pass through a gate and a series of alleys.  These paths are part of it's security system, keeping the village difficult to access.

They are mixed agriculturists using their dry and infertile lands to grow crops.  Animal dung is used to fertilize the grounds and their most important crop is the sorghum.  Sorghum is used as a flour and to make local beer.  Grains, beans, cotton, corn and coffee are also grown by the Konso people.

The erection of stones and poles is part of the Konso tradition.  A generation pole is raised every 18 years, marking the start of a new generation.  The age of a village can be determined by how many poles are standing.  Carved wooden statues are also used to mark the grave of a famous Konso tribal member.  The marker, called a Waga is placed above the grave and smaller statues are then placed around the larger one representing his wives and conquered enemies.

  

Although the Konso people have many customs dating back hundreds of years, it is not uncommon for them to be seen wearing western clothing.  As newer generations grow, their traditional attire has gradually changed to modern societies.  The Konso is a very interesting tribe to visit on your trip to the lower Omo Valley.

Kwegu or Kwego Tribe

The Kwegu or Muguji are one of the smallest tribes in Omo Valley, living in small villages along the Mago River.  It is believed that the devasting affects from the Gibe III dam being built on the Omo River will cause the tribe to go extinct.

Unlike the other tribes, the Kwegu do not have cattle.  They are hunters and live off the land.  Small game is trapped by the tribe for food, but they also eat fruits and honey if available.  They are largley dependant on the Omo River for fish to eat.  Close relatives to the Kwegu are the Karo people.  It is often that you can find Kwegu and Karo people living together or even marrying each other.   

Mursi Tribe

One of the most unusual tribes of the world, the Mursi or Mursu people are the most popular in Ethiopia's Omo Valley.  They are well known for their unique lip plates.  They are settled around the Omo River and in the Mago National Park.  Due to the climate, they move twice a year between the winter and summer months.  They herd cattle and grow crops along the banks of the Omo River. 

The men practice light scarification on their shoulders after killing an enemy, and shave geometric patterns on their head. During dances and ceremonies they adorn literally every part of their body with white chalk paint. Young unmarried men practice group stick fights. The winner is carried on top of poles to girls waiting beside the arena, who decide among themselves which of them will ask his hand in marriage.

When a young Mursi girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, her lower lip is pierced so she can wear a lip plate. The larger the lip plate she can tolerate, the more cattle her bride price will bring for her father.

Men of the Mursi also use white paint for their bodies and faces.  Just like any other ethnic tribe in the lower valley, the men must pass a test before they can get married.  A Mursi man is given a stick called a Donga and must face one opponent.  The men then battle it out, beating each other with the sticks. 

The first fighter to submit loses and the winner is taken by a group of women to determine who he will marry.  Men of the tribe also practice scarification.  Like other tribes, this is the marking of an enemy killed by him.

The unique “ornament” of the face which they use, is absolutely unusual, even for wild people. The matter is that the lower lip of this tribe’s girls is cut in an early age. They begin to put into the lip the billets of wood, every time with the bigger and bigger diameter.

  

Suri Tribe

Suri, also known as the Surma people live in the southwestern plains of Ethiopia.  They raise cattle and farm when the land is fertile.  Cattle are important to the Suri, giving them status.  The more cattle a tribe’s man has, the wealthier they are. In order for a man to marry women in the Suri tribe, he must own at least 60 cattle.  Cattle are given to the family of the woman in exchange for marriage.  Like the other tribes, the Suri will use the milk and blood from the cow.  During the dry season, the people will drink blood instead of milk.  Blood can be drained from a cow once a month.  This is done by making a small incision in it's neck.

The Suri are very much like the Muris tribe and practice the same traditions.  The women wear lip plates that are made out of clay.  The men in the tribe fight with sticks called Dongas.  Both the men and women scar their bodies.  If you see a Suri man with a scar, it usually means that he has killed a member of a rival tribe.

   

  

Tsemay Tribe

Tsemay tribe   is  living in the semi-arid region of the Omo Valley.  These people are agro-pastoralist and use both livestock herding and agriculture to survive.  Common crops grown by the tribe are sorghum, millet and sometimes cotton.

Like the Hamer tribe, the Tsemay boys have to successfully complete a bull jumping event.  This is a ceremony where the boy runs across multiple bulls.  If the boy can make it across four times without falling, he becomes a man.  To prove a boy has accomplished a bull jumping, he is outfitted with a band that has feathers on it.  It is worn on his head and it shows that he is now looking for a wife.

Unlike any other tribe in Ethiopia, the Tsemay have arranged weddings.  The parents of the woman pick who she will marry with or without her consent.  Even if the marriage is arranged, the man must still be able to afford to pay for his future wife.  Payment of cattle, honey, grain and coffee beans are accepted.  Women of the tribe, who are not married, wear a short leather skirt with a v-shaped apron attached.  Married women wear long leather dresses with an apron that have an apron covering their front and back side. 

  

  

Tribal Markets and Events in Omo Valley Ethiopia

The different tribes and ethnic groups of Ethiopia have a weekly market where they buy and sell their products. Market places are colorful and lively places, attracting people from all around the region.

  • Bati Market: on Monday - Afar people, camel caravans
  • Senbete Market: on Sunday - Amhara, Oromo and Afar people
  • Turmi Market: on Monday and Saturday - Hamer people
  • Demeka Market on Tuesday and Saturday - Hamer people
  • Key Afar Market on Thursday - Benna, Tsemay and Ari people
  • Mursi Hana Market on Saturday - Body people
Bull Jumping

The Hamer, Tsemay, Benna and Besada people share traditions and rituals. One of the most important is the 'Bull jumping'. If a young man wants to marry the girl of his choice he has to jump over about 10 bulls standing side by side, picked by the girl's family. It is more of a walking over the backs of the bulls rather then jumping and the young man has to walk four times, two times in each direction - falling not allowed. Friends (called the 'maz'), who have successfully performed the jumping are allowed to help by keeping the cattle in place. If the jumper fails people will often blame the wind for his failure and they allow the aspiring groom a second chance. If he still fails it is considered a bad sign and he will have another chance a year later.

If the groom-to-be succeeds, he may keep the girl in exchange for cattle he gives to her family. For two months the betrothed couple will share blood and milk. Blood from the cow's neck is mixed with her milk and drunk. A wealthy, strong man may marry up to four women.

DONGA

Donga is a stick fighting event of the Surma people. Players are usually young, unmarried men who paint their naked bodies with a mixture of chalk and water before the fight. Each contestant is armed with a hardwood pole about six feet long. The pole is gripped at its base with both hands, the left above the right in order to give maximum swing. 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. 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 thewill ask for his hand in marriage. Taking part in a stick fight is considered to be more important than winning it.

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