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South Omo - A view from our expert author
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.
It seems facile to label South Omo as a living museum. Yet in many senses, that is exactly what it is. Four of Africa’s major linguistic groups are represented in the region, including the so-called Omotic-speakers, a language group as endemic to South Omo as the Ethiopian wolf is to the Abyssinian Highlands. All in all, depending on where one draws the lines, as many as two-dozen different tribes occupy South Omo, some numbering tens of thousands, others no more than 500, each one of them culturally unique. The most renowned of the Omotic-speakers are the Mursi, known for their practice of inserting large clay plates behind the lower lips of their women. Other important groups of South Omo include the Hamer-Bena, the Karo and the Ari.
South Omo is often portrayed as some sort of cultural Garden of Eden. This notion is unduly romantic. The Mursi disfigure their women monstrously. Ritualised wife beating is an integral part of Hamer society. Every year without fail, outbreaks of inter-tribal fighting – usually provoked by cattle disputes – result in numerous fatalities. In South Omo, such killers are not normally apprehended; on the contrary, they wear whatever mark of Cain is customary within their specific tribe with a warrior’s pride. But, while one cannot gloss over the harsh realities of life in South Omo, there is much that is genuinely uplifting about the sheer tenacity of this incredibly rich cultural mosaic, comprising some 30 distinct ethno-linguistic groupings, several of which number fewer than 1,000 people. Romanticise or condemn it, South Omo is there, it is fascinating, and it is utterly unique.
Tourism to South Omo, while hardly large scale, is catching on in a substantial way, and it does seem to have stimulated a vociferous and often grasping spirit of commercialism that can seriously detract from what would otherwise be a fascinating experience – indeed, as one traveller pointed out, South Omo may be an interesting place to visit, but it is not much fun to travel there. In the fourth edition a visit to South Omo was described as ‘a once-in-a-lifetime experience’. At the time this was meant to convey the uniqueness of the experience, but upon returning in 2008 and 2011 for the fifth and sixth editions, both updaters felt it took on a different meaning – if you have seen this place once, the hassles may not be worth a return!
A related, and more serious, concern is the extent to which tourism could undermine the area’s traditional cultures. There are a variety of factors – the increasing influence of central government, the infiltration of exotic religions, the steady population growth – that will conspire to make it difficult for South Omo to remain as it is today indefinitely. Tourism, doubtless, is also one such factor, though possibly as reinforcing of traditional culture as it is destructive.
Of greater concern to the people of the Omo Valley is the threat posed by the construction of a €1.55 billion dam on the Omo River 300km southwest of Addis Ababa. As local tour guide Dehina Hunu points out: ‘Ironically tourism is protecting the tribes. All tribes from the Omo Valley will disappear soon, because of the construction of the electricity dam on the northern part of the Omo River. So they will have to leave the area because the river will just bring little water. Most of the tribes don’t even know it.’ Still under construction in 2014, the new Gibe III hydro-electric dam, the government claims, will not only eliminate annual flooding, but will also give pastoralists a ‘sustainable income and modern life’. However, many like Dehina Hunu fear that the dam will have a devastating impact on more than half a million people, in both Ethiopia and Kenya, who depend on the Omo flood for their livelihoods. For more information about the impact of the dam on the region’s people visit www.mursi.org.