by Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Omo valley girlMost of the tourists who come to visit southern Ethiopia,  quickly pass through the Woito dry area and head straight towards the Omo valley.

They search for what is well known as the most spectacular of Ethiopia’s southern region: people who seem to have been the original inspiration for the descriptions in stories written by those who were the first to encounter “savage black” Africa.

The Omo valley is inhabited by a large number of different groups. They belong to Omotic, Nilotic and Cushitic peoples, and as such, they are components of an extremely rare ethnic mixture within a very small territory.

This diversity is emphasized by a number of names used to describe each group. For example, people who call themselves Tsamako are known by their neighbours as Tsamay, Ongota are called by others Birale, or those, better known as Mursi, call themselves Mun.

Tourists visit villages of peoples who differ in appearance from each other, speak different languages and have different cultural heritage, customs and religions within a three- or four-day stay in this area of Ethiopia.

The feature common for most of those who inhabit the Omo valley, and which outsiders find the easiest to notice, is the diverse cultures of adorning their bodies. Almost everybody has something to offer: they are decorated with diverse paintings, scarifications, tattoos, spectacular hair-styles and jewellery.

The life of people from the Omo valley is based on agriculture and husbandry, therefore small fields and big herds of cattle can be observed by travellers, alongside state-run huge fields of cotton or – on different occasions – the wildlife in Ethiopian National Parks.

Migrations, which have been taking place extensively in southern Ethiopia over the centuries, have resulted in many confrontations and influenced the fame of the peoples inhabiting this part of Africa as skilled and proud warriors.

Together with the difficult travelling conditions, this is one of the reasons why the Omo valley is known as being dangerous and inaccessible. The construction of the society based on age groups is common for many ethnic groups in the area.

This means that those who belong to one age group are expected to fulfil certain duties. And thus, there are warrior groups, groups of leaders and decision-makers, as well as people entering into marriage when they belong to a certain group.

The specific duties and events cannot be fulfilled outside this particular group or at a Mursi tribe girldifferent time in their lives. The same system is to be found also outside the Omo valley.

For example,  the traditional social system among the Oromo (the biggest ethnic group in Ethiopia) is also based on age groups and as such is presented as being a democratic system.

The group which is the main highlight for many a tourist visiting the area are the Mursi.

They are well known for at least two reasons: the first of these being their fame as proud warriors and an independent people, the second one being their custom of wearing clay plates (up to 12 or even more centimetres in diameter) by women, inserted in a cut in their lower lips.

The Mursi live in one of southern Ethiopia’s national parks, and it is practically impossible to access their territory by any other way than using a jeep and hiring a guide. This fact has turned the whole ethnic group into a tourist attraction.

The Mursi have decided to reap the benefits of such a situation, and they do their best to fulfil the tourists’ expectations. Adorning their bodies with white clay and wearing different ornaments and jewellery has been a Mursi tradition for a long time, but now they have come up with even more sophisticated and exotic ideas on how to make themselves more attractive to the outsiders.

Clay plates in ladies’ lips and brass jewellery are accompanied by plants and fruits worn on their heads, along with animal sculls and any other products of the modern world which can be used as pieces of jewellery.

The increasingly innovative imagination of the Mursi people has become a product for sale allowing the people to have a steady income– each photograph of a woman costs two birr, while it is three birr for a man, three birr for a woman and a child and one birr for a child.

The more shocking the outfit, the bigger the chance that a person will attract a lot of attention from tourists and  thus  earn more money. The consequences of such an approach have had a strong impact on what the Mursi wear and how they look.

While traveling down the roads, one can observe people wearing traditional clothes, meaning very limited amounts of clothing or even naked bodies, adorned with extensive body paintings and jewellery.

There are children who wait at the sides of the roads to be photographed for a certain amount of money and people who pass by with their herds or travel on foot to distant destinations, thus the images encountered here meet travelers’ expectations – they bring to one’s mind pictures from books.

And this is how tradition is being re-created and re-invented for the purpose of attracting tourists. Apart from the obvious impact of tourism, one may also find a rich cultural diversity in the Omo valley and, for those who visit this area, indisputably there is the impression of having been confronted with a long-established way of life.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska has traveled extensively throughout Ethiopia and is a regular contributor to this blog.

She has specialized in modern history of Ethiopia and currently lectures at Warsaw University, Department of African Languages and Cultures.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska (Ph.D.)

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