Visiting the Tribes of Southern Ethiopia

August 30, 2013 by

Middle East & Africa, Places to Go, Things to Do

In Ethiopia’s isolated southern jungle, buried within wild tropical forest, between murky gushing rivers and vast earth-sodden lakes, live some of Africa’s oldest tribes.

Mentioned 47 times in the Bible and the only country to have never been colonized by Europeans, it is the crucible of earliest Christianity. Laying claim to the elusive Ark of the Covenant has propelled it as a mecca for Orthodox Christians. Strewn by nine UNESCO-heritage sites, the most famous being Lalibela’s rock-hewn Churches, a wealth of ancient art, literature and architecture hails from the land that has stood the test of time. I’ve already spent a fortnight discovering these, but that wasn’t enough.

I’m now fascinated by southern Ethiopia, the birthplace of civilization, where the headline-hitting skeleton of early mankind, ‘Lucy’ from three million years ago, was discovered. The south is also home to the most incredulous tribes on the planet.

I cancel my flight home to embark on a solo voyage south with a driver-guide. The warnings from local friends in my transit city, capital Addis Ababa, flood in. Fears of being hurt or even killed. Tribes in the south are as remote and ad hoc as can be, concealed from the outside world for centuries by their inaccessible location. Tracks are unpaved, clans are disinterested in foreigners, or ‘Farangi’ as I’m often called, and little education seeps through. There, they live off the land, fight with Machetes, protect with Kalashnikovs and are fiercely tight-knit, believing in ancient spirits, timeless superstitions and curious traditions. Off I set.

Tribal and tropical

The landscape is tropical in parts of Southern Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Alastair Rae via Flickr.

The landscape is tropical in parts of Southern Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Alastair Rae via Flickr.

Just hours outside the city, the landscape drastically changes. Gone are the dry sky-high mountain peaks and dusty arid valleys. We travel through monsoon climate, driving through intermittent sharp thunderous bursts of rain, turning paths into mud baths. Minutes later, the blazing African Sun denies any trace of rainfall. All the while I’m surrounded by close dense forest on both sides. Flashes of exotic birds flit past, Paradise Flycatcher and Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, starkly contrasting with the thick red earth and intense green jungle canopy.

Often, rural village children jump out from within the forest, startling me in the midst of a seemingly endless long single road. Dressed in tribal outfits, they dance roadside, displaying traditional moves and gaping hearty smiles, in the hope of a cash return. No such luck, however, as that easy money, explains my guide, discourages them from attending school.

The first few days of my route south involve nine-hour bumpy drives, stopping at unusual spots that grab my attention. We pass Awash Valley in which the earliest human skeleton was discovered, giving Ethiopia the title ‘Cradle of civilization.’

Khat market in Southern Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of A.Davey via Flickr.

Khat market in Southern Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of A.Davey via Flickr.

I spot a rural roadside market. We cautiously browse the only item on sale – ‘Khat’, a stimulant drug from a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa. Villagers load massive bundles of the green shoots and leaves onto car roofs. Men, children and women with babies on their backs, wrapped in stained cloth-ties, are chewing it incessantly whilst bartering in the melodic Amharic language. Khat-chewing is a common sight in the South. But, the language changes throughout. Deeper south, as I enter the far-flung Omo Valley, my city driver can barely understand and certainly can’t speak any of the handfuls of tribal languages.

The tribes of Omo Valley

Omo River. Photo courtesy of Marc Veraart via Flickr.

Omo River. Photo courtesy of Marc Veraart via Flickr.

A thousand kilometers from the capital, we have arrived at our true start point. Entering Omo National Park, an armed ranger takes up residence in the backseat of our Jeep. The Kalashnikov in his hand is nearly as tall as I am. There’s no turning back now.  There’s no infrastructure for tourism here so this experience remains reserved for hardened travellers. Slightly unsettled, I try to divert my mind from the resounding echoes of friend’s warnings. I realize how far away I am from any familiarity in any sense, as we off-road through winding unfurling jungle tracks. At that moment, through a small opening, I spot an unexpected commotion. It’s market morning amongst the first people I’m anxious to meet, the thriving ‘Hamer’ tribe.

Around 200 Hamer are concentrated into this tiny vibrant jungle market in intense heat. Everywhere I turn, rich coffee-colored buttery skin is on show as women’s breasts and backs are exposed. They’re draped only in mass multicoloured beaded necklaces and fur-lined hide skirts, some short and some knee-length. The sea of heads is an outlandish explosion of flame-red braids; thickly coated in a paste of red soil and butter. Seeping onto their foreheads and necks, the ochre melts into the starkly contrasting deep dark skin. I notice wide scars on women’s backs. They’re the proud legacies of slashings that girls accept as a precursor to marriage. The more slashings they can endure, the longer their marriage is believed to last. All married women wear a thick dual silver metal necklace. Some have an additional band with protruding metal stump. These women are the second wives; a factor, which I’m told, is pleasing to them as their duties diminish.

Hamer men don whimsical hairstyles. A teenager has a shaved head with one thin central strip of hair from ear to ear. Another man, who’s pointed out as the alpha male, wears a headband complete with black oval centerpiece of hair, the size of an Ostrich egg, atop his forehead. Men with braids embellish them with little girls’ colorful hair clips. Necklaces also adorn their chests, but not what I had envisaged as authentically tribal. A mish-mash of buttons, watchstraps and other odds and ends punctuate rainbow beads. Moving against the suggested distant observation, I beeline into the pulsating crowds, passing a group of animated women who regularly erupt into hearty cackles as they chat over their vegetable baskets. People eye me, surprised, as I navigate the goods, meandering through the bodies, fascinated.

A Mursi hut. Photo courtesy of Marc Veraart via Flickr.

A Mursi tribe hut. Photo courtesy of Marc Veraart via Flickr.

From here, we venture deeper into the 4000 square km Omo Valley to trace the famed ‘Mursi’ tribe. Miles from the nearest road and almost islanded in an ocean of mud, I wade through. My guard remains close. Mursi are heavy drinkers, home-brewing Arake liquor, which makes them rowdy. Their reaction to a traveller may not be a jovial one. This settlement along the 500-mile Omo River, near the Kenyan border, is a cluster of circular ‘Tukul’ straw-capped huts with goat and chicken pens lining the periphery.  Then she appears.

Her bottom lip was ceremoniously split at her coming of age. Now, she gracefully inserts a 5” decorative clay plate into her hanging bottom lip; elegantly displaying her time-old traditions and mystical beauty. Her eyes are piercing; whites brilliantly blinding. I’m amazed as I watch, half squirming, half admiring.

Mursi women sometimes wear decorative plates from their lips. Photo courtesy of Bryan_T via Flickr.

Mursi women sometimes wear decorative plates from their lips. Photo courtesy of Bryan_T via Flickr.

A young girl follows her. Her lip remains intact but her earlobes boast antique golden plates the diameter of tennis balls. Her body is covered in tattoo style markings, indicating her tribe.

With a baby clutched to her breast, swarms of flies at her nipples and face streaked in ghostly white tribal paint, another graceful Mursi emerges. She’s robed in multicoloured cloth and her shaved head is festooned in a string of poisonous Solanum fruit. Guarding this particular clan, four muscly tribesmen are sat low to the ground, Kalashnikovs proudly in hand pointing upwards. They’re decorated in scars dug under the flesh of their chests and shoulders, indicating they’ve killed an enemy… or two. They’re wrapped in loincloths in furs of a recently slain animal. As I move in extremely close to photograph portraits, I sense everyone become tense around me, concerned about how the Hamer will react. I look down to see the dark barrel of the gun pointing up my nostril. I snap and move swiftly on.

My armed guard’s presence clearly orchestrates order. Through my moments with various tribes over coming days, money is demanded from me for the photographs, and there are numerous times when I’m literally surrounded by tribes-people touching my camera, touching me and touching my small purse clutched tightly under my arm. My guide confirms that a solo female travelling through southern Ethiopia is unheard of, so locals are curious. By this stage, I understand and feel confident and comfortable.

These tribes are dwindling and those remaining are facing increasing pressure from the government to modernize. To meet them now truly is to see the final bastions of ancient Ethiopian heritage and customs.

-Anisha Shah

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One Response to “Visiting the Tribes of Southern Ethiopia”

  1. Ashlyn Says:

    What a unique experience. Brilliant insight too. Wish I would get chance to take this trip or visit Ethiopia someday

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