Spanning the border of Ethiopia and Kenya, in a remote enclave of the Great Rift Valley, lies the Omo Delta, a forgotten corner of Africa. Here travellers can glimpse the continent as the early explorers found it:: an Africa peopled by exotic tribes proud of their traditional lifestyles and ancient customs. Central to these pastoralist cultures are their herds of cattle and goats: people dress in clothes made from animal skins; blood mixed with milk is a staple drink; and a man’s wealth is judged by the size of his herds. Body scarification, female circumcision, infanticide and tribal conflicts are just some of the savage realities of life.
On a safari in the spirit of Livingstone, Burton and Speke, we travelled through the Omo Valley, down to Lake Turkana (Kenya’s exquisite Jade Sea) to the arid wastes of the Chalbi Desert – some of the most inaccessible parts of Africa.
We roared out of Addis Ababa and flew south over a neat patchwork of fields pockmarked with thatched rondavels. Further south still, this rich agricultural landscape gave way to commanding mountains and steep valleys, swathed in lush forests. After a couple of hours we landed on a dirt strip at Jinka, the capital of the southern region. Our guide, powerfully built Dutchman Halewijn Scheurman, was waiting for us. He first visited the Omo in 1993 and, since then, has led expeditions into the region, establishing an invaluable network of contacts within the local tribes.
We loaded our gear into two Landcruisers and set off. Dropping down from the highlands into the Omo Valley, we left the lush banana plantations and maize fields behind and entered wild bush. In place of the Western dress of the highlanders, we began to see Banna and Hamer women wearing leather skirts with fringes of metal rings, their braided hair plastered in animal fat and ochre. After three bumpy hours we stopped in the village of Dimeka. It was market day and the small square was packed with Hamer. Men strolled around in short loincloths, many sporting elaborate clay hairdos decorated with beads… and AK47s slung over their shoulders.
They had put down skins and laid out their wares: sorghum flour, maize, chewing tobacco, coffee husks and bundles of firewood. They wore capes, beautifully decorated with panels of coloured beads and edged with cowrie shells, and around their ankles and wrists were stacked heavy, metal bangles. Two thick bands of iron around the neck identify married women – if a woman is a first wife, she wears a third necklace with a weighty metal phallic symbol protruding from the front as a symbol of fertility.
Having been warned that the people of the Omo can be hostile to outsiders, there was a momentary qualm when we first shook hands with a semi-naked warrior toting an assault rifle, but the sea of smiling faces and friendly greetings quickly allayed any fears. Although visitors come to Dimeka relatively frequently, we were objects of intense curiosity. People touched our hair and skin, inspected our watches and looked through our cameras.
We bade our goodbyes and continued along the dirt tracks axle-deep in glutinous mud, causing us to arrive at camp long after dark. In the morning light we saw that our tents lay along a raised bank overlooking the chocolate brown waters of the Omo River. A narrow belt of riverine forest provided shade, while black and white colobus monkeys groomed themselves on the opposite bank.
At a respectful distance, a group of around 30 Karo sat waiting under a giant fig tree. One of the smallest tribes in the Omo, the Karo are renowned for their ornate body painting. They use a combination of white chalk, pulverised rock, charcoal and ochre to create colourful face masks and intricate patterns on their legs and torsos in preparation for ceremonies and dances.
That evening we went to a dance in Dus, their village, where around 300 men and women clapped, sang, gyrated, flirted and drummed their bare feet in unison until the ground shook and the air was thick with dust – this was a celebration of culture; their body paint was streaked with rivulets of sweat and their faces shone with enjoyment.
The next day, Halewijn’s contacts reported that a Hamer bull-jumping ceremony was due to take place. In one of the seminal moments of a Hamer man’s life, he runs naked over the backs of tethered bulls four times to mark his transition to manhood. We watched the elaborate preparations: women danced and blew tin horns; old men feasted on sorghum beer; the young warriors painted themselves for the ceremony; and the female relatives of the initiate subjected themselves to being whipped by the warriors, as a sign of their love for the bull-jumper. The initiate was stripped naked and led through a complex sequence of rituals before blessing each animal in turn and then, as the sun went down, he ran over the bulls. I have never witnessed a ceremony of such powerful symbolism and poignancy.
From our base at Dus, we headed upstream in the boats, passing through Kwegu territory to reach the Mursi. Reputedly the fiercest of the Omo tribes, the Mursi are best known for the clay lip-plates worn by the women, who pierce their lower lip and insert larger and larger plugs until their mouths can stretch around discs that are up to 15cm in diameter. The young men have an equally brutal test to face: at the coming of age, their peers take part in a knockout competition, fighting each other with two-metre-long poles. The winner gets the right to marry the most beautiful girl, but many men suffer serious head injuries.
Leaving Dus, we motored downstream, following the convoluted course of the Omo, through the territory of the Nyangatom, on our way to the delta. The broad river crept between low banks along which curtains of creepers hung festooned from acacia trees. As the river fanned out into numerous smaller channels, we came to the large villages of the Dhasanech, who graze their zebu cattle on the flat flood plains. Strongest of the Omo’s tribes, numbering around 50,000, the Dhasanech build substantial settlements with up to 100 huts and distinctive raised platforms. These are used both for storing circular bales of cattle fodder and sleeping up in the breeze above the mosquitoes.
By-passing the stick like figures of the Chasanech working their sorghum plots. Venturing out onto Lake Tutkana, we battled our way through metre-high waves as we headed for Koobi For a in Sibiloi National Park. This small archaeological research station is perched on the eastern shore, amid a desolate but starkly beautiful landscape, while herds of zebra and topi graze the stiff dry grass nearby. The heat is crushing, the country as unforgiving and inhospitable, yet among the barren plains and exposed lava flows, palaeontologists have discovered some of the earliest traces of mankind, including the two-and-a-half-million-year-old fossilised skull of Homo habilis.
Around the burnt shores of Lake Turkana, Rendille, Turkana and El-Molo tribes eke out a meagre existence as fishermen and pastoralists. We drove away from the lake, through endless volcanic boulder fields, past the imposing massif of Mount Kulal and out into the arid wastes of the Chalbi Desert. Occasionally we would glimpse nomadic Gabbra tribesmen, with their long camel caravans strung out across the horizon.
To a Western mind, the life of the people of the Omo Valley and Kenya’s northern frontier district appears unimaginably primitive. It is certainly hard, and at times harsh, but we witnessed fabulously rich and diverse cultures, content in their existence, clear about their values and in tune with the environment. Turning south on the final leg of our journey, taking us back to ‘civilisation’, I wondered what the tribesmen would make of Western life, with its capitalism, consumerism, relentless destruction of the environment and the horrific realities of modern warfare.
Origins Safaris specialises in cultural expeditions, wildlife safaris and self-discovery projects beyond the beaten track in eastern and central Africa.
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