Konso and the Omo Valley Ethiopia

To the Omo Valley: Konso

As a solo traveller, it’s very easy to come to a dead end.  I felt a little despondent hanging around Arber Minch.  The roads onwards have few regular buses, and those that ply the route are heading into Kenya.  The few travellers in this area were staying I one particular hotel with comfortable beds and good food.  It is places like this that one hopes to meet other to share the cost of a 4WD.  The couple I met seemed unlikely candidates; an Israeli couple on honeymoon.  Nevertheless, we struck a deal, splitting the cost of a jeep three ways, and the following morning we set of for the fabled Omo Valley.

The first stop was in Konso, as small town surrounded by fascinating walled villages sitting on top of the hills.  Within the walls, each family lives in a small cluster of round, stick and stone thatched huts.  These in turn cluster together around a larger communal house or Mora. Unlike the groups occupying the less hilly areas, these people grow crops, mainly of Sorghum.  While the trappings of a traditional culture are clear to be seen in buildings, a day wandering villages, reveal little of the traditions of an area, long cut off from main Ethiopian development

The Omo Valley: The Hamar (Hamer)

The culture of the Hamar tribe, seem more explicit and visible.  Travelling with an armed guard appears a requirement of any visit.  It was put to us that there are tensions in the area, largely as a result of cattle rustling and the availability of arms which flood in from the conflict in south Sudan.
A visit with a guide to a small family cluster of huts felt slightly uncomfortable.  This was not the result of so many guns amongst the male population of all ages, but more to do with expectations of us.  It was clear that we had come to observe, the people would pose, we would photograph, and money would be expected.  It created an atmosphere of some sort of human zoo.

We moved on; this time to the market.  Here the atmosphere was completely different.  As is usually the case, when people are engaged going about their business, tourism becomes less contrived.  It’s possible to strike up a conversation, albeit stultified by the language barrier, joke about the quality of produce, and join in liquid refreshment at the local bar.

The same more relaxed atmosphere applied to the marriage celebration witnessed on the same day.  People were much more occupied with the marriage that the gawping foreigners.

The scarring of the women and girls appeared quite shocking, particularly so when I became aware that the cause was there right in front of me.  During the course of the gathering, the girls would provoke the boys. This took the form of blowing a bugle in the boy’s face or tipping over his coffee he was drinking from a gourd.  This very much tallies with UK teenage courtship behaviour; drawing the attention of the fancied boy.  But that’s where the similarity ends.  After some provocation the boy would jump up and chase the girl.  When he had caught her he would severely beat her with the stick.  Her ability to withstand this unflinchingly would give her a high status.  It appears that the government attempted to outlaw the practice.  The attempt failed after protest from the women.

The marriage ceremony involves ‘bull jumping’.  Cattle are herded together in a row and the bride is required to run up to and jump over the row.  How well he achieves this is a reflection on his masculine prowess.

The courtship process seems somewhat easier on men than women. As you may have noticed from the photos, there seems to be very little mixing of men and women.

The Mursi are another of the many groups who live in the Omo Valley.  Famed for their bizarre lip plates, this group knows how to deal with tourists, demanding money at the drop of a hat.  And, who is to argue with them?  Most of the males, young and old are armed with a rifle.  This is cattle country and rustling is rife. The arms are spin-off from the nearby conflict in South Sudan.  Our armed escort who we had picked up on the way assured us that their Kalachnikoffs were no match for his Thompson sub machine gun.  This did not reassure m, quite the opposite.  What did reassure me was there really was no reason for anyone to wish to harm us!

The variety of groups in the Omo Valley is astounding. The Tsemai people are mixed subsistence farmers growing sorghum and maize, rearing cattle and keeping bees.  Others, crop farmers have specialised in  producing metal goods sold in the market of Jinka

Just a few days in the Omo Valley was enough to get a feel of the great variety of tribal groups.  So many aspects of their varied cultures are dictated to by their environment. For many it’s a fragile existence.  The Gilgel Gibe III Dam, designed to increase Ethiopia’s electricity supply is reducing the flow in the Omo River.  The full effects of this on the traditional ways of life have yet to be seen.  I was later to see the impact of this scheme on shrinking Lake Turkana in Kenya.

At the moment, and I speak here of 2013, tourism is in its infancy.  As in many ‘off the beaten track’ places it is restricted to two extremes, backpackers prepared to put up with very rough accommodation, and tours for the very affluent who stay in exclusive hotels some way away from the traditional villages. Whether tourism can develop to sustain the area is questionable.  Unlike areas with recognisable artefacts, such as the rock hewn churches of Lalibela, the attraction of Omo is a glimpse into what seems to represent the past of Africa.  With cash income comes concrete and corrugated iron buildings, T shirts and mobile phones.  Will this development kill the golden egg?
But for today Omo remains a fascinating place to visit.