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The Karo people are known for their elaborate body painting © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
This is Africa as it once was, or as some might still imagine it to be, and its mere existence is at once wonderful and scarcely credible.
Nothing in highland Ethiopia prepares one for South Omo. Nor, for that matter, does much else in modern Africa. It’s apocryphal, perhaps, but easy enough to believe when confronted by the region’s extraordinary cultural integrity, that there is more than a smattering of truth in the assertion that as recently as 50 years ago the people of South Omo were scarcely aware that such an entity as Ethiopia existed.
South Omo is literally fantastic. Descending from the green, urbane highlands into the low-lying plains of South Omo feels like a journey not merely through space, but also through time, as one enters the vast and thinly populated badlands that divide the mountainous centre of Ethiopia from its counterpart in Kenya. Like much of neighbouring northern Kenya, South Omo is as close as one can come to an Africa untouched by outside influences. The culturally diverse, immaculately colourful and defiantly traditionalist agro-pastoralists who inhabit the region seem to occupy a physical and psychic landscape little different from that of their nomadic ancestors. This is Africa as it once was, or as some might still imagine it to be, and its mere existence is at once wonderful and scarcely credible. That this surreal oasis of Afro-traditionalism lies within the boundaries of Ethiopia – the least stereotypically African of the continent’s sub-Saharan nations – borders on the outrageous.It seems facile to label South Omo as a living museum. Yet in many senses, that is exactly what it is.