The Omo Valley, Ethiopia

The tribes of the Lower Omo Valley, adorned with a fascinating array of lip plates, body paint and intricate beaded jewellery, are just one piece in Ethiopia’s complex and richly varied cultural jigsaw which spans 70 languages, ancient Orthodox Christianity and a uniquely Ethiopian calendar of time and date. And yet, out of this gamut of cultural opulence, it is the Omo villagers that have become the poster-people for Ethiopian tourism. A poignant choice, as these communities have the most complicated and most divisive relationship with this rapidly growing industry.
Ethiopia holidays which include tours to the Omo Valley have to tread lightly and carefully; at their best they offer you a glimpse into traditional ways of life that can trace their roots deep in the cradle of humankind. At their worst, holidays in the Omo Valley have been described as a ‘human zoo’, with little respect for the people simply trying to live their lives and retain their culture in this remote region.

Who are the Omo Valley tribes?

Inhabited for over two million years, and home to some of the earliest humans on the planet, the 2,400km2 Lower Omo Valley is believed to have been an ancient crossroads for people migrating across the African continent. Today, over 130,000 people call the Lower Omo Valley home, divided into a network of around 12 pastoralist tribes including the Hamer, Bashada, Benna, Karo, Kwegu, Nyangatom, Dassanach, Mursi, Suri, and Bodi. With inter-tribal marriage not usually permitted, each tribe in the Lower Omo Valley has maintained its own, very distinctive traditions.

The visual differences between the tribes are striking – the heavy lip plates of the Mursi women, young Karo boys painted and patterned in thick white ash, the ochre-plastered hair of the Hamer, the blood-drinking Bodi men who compete to have the fattest stomach – but the diversity here runs deeper than body adornment. This small area is thought to be one of the most genetically and linguistically diverse in the world, and offers a significant insight into the history of human evolution.

But all of this is threatened. By an expanding, and some would say exploitative, tourism industry; and more recently by the Gibe III dam on the Omo River, which has stopped the biannual floods the tribes rely on to bring fertile silt to their lands, worsening the effects of drought in the valley.

What does a visit to the Omo Valley entail?

The Lower Omo Valley lies some 800km from Ethiopia’s modern capital Addis Ababa. Tours to this region will usually see you taking an hour’s flight to the nearby towns of Arbaminch or Jinka, from where the tribal villages are a few hours’ drive. Alternatively, you can reach the valley overland from Addis via the beautiful Bale Mountains.
It will take a couple of hours to drive between each of the Omo Valley villages, so you can expect to spend around four hours a day being bumped along in a 4x4. Ideally, you’ll want to spend at least a week in the Lower Omo Valley to make the most of your visit, and to ensure that economically your stay is as beneficial as possible to the host communities. Usually you’ll spend a day or two in each place, or at least half a day if you are tight on time.
In that time, you’ll visit a variety of communities; you could be exploring the Monday market in Turmi, marvelling at the legendary fine pottery and the Hamer tribe’s intricate, butter-and-ochre-coated hairstyles, for example. Or perhaps visit Dimeka’s colourful Saturday market, which attracts elegant, bead-wearing Benna women selling handicrafts and jewellery. You will travel overland to traditional Mursi villages, famous for the fierce stick-fighting between tribesmen, or – if you’re lucky – be invited to a Hamer wedding celebration complete with bull-jumping and ladies in exquisitely-adorned leather skirts.

Where will I stay?

Accommodation is usually in several of the lodges which dot the valley; they employ local staff and source provisions from the local area. In the Omo villages the lodges are basic but clean and comfortable, although as is to be expected in a remote, rural Ethiopian valley, they can’t always guarantee Wi-Fi, reliable hot water or electricity supplies. Camping in the Lower Omo Valley is also a possibility.

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Should we visit the Omo Valley?

Tribal tourism is not unique to the Lower Omo Valley. However, where Maasai communities in Kenya, for example, have moved on from point-and-shoot tours and have developed ownership and control over their tourism industry, the Omo tribes still have very little influence in how tourism is developed, and what it entails. Therein lies the rub; many of the Omo people have become reliant on the income tourism provides and yet, excepting charging per photo taken, have no say in how they participate.

As a result, for some visitors, tours here have become an uncomfortable ‘human safari’, while others find it hard to marry the expectation of traditional lifestyles with the reality of underlying commercialism and demands for money. Photos are met with expectations of payment, festivals are becoming staged affairs rather than sporadic coming-of-age celebrations, and instead of following tradition, Omo tribespeople are manipulating jewellery and adornments solely to be more eye-catching (and as a result more lucrative) for photographs.
And yet it is through tourism that the unique cultures of the Omo Valley have endured – that parents recognise the value in their traditions and are passing down ancient rituals and customs to their children, who wear body paint rather than jeans. If the preservation of cultural identity is paramount, and with agricultural livelihoods threatened by the Gibe III Dam, ultimately does it matter whether the impetus behind this is tradition or capitalism?
Things are starting to change in the region, with the local tourism bureau recently introducing a fee payable to each village at the start of a tour, allowing visitors to take photos freely rather than paying individuals – although this doesn’t mean that you can snap away without asking permission, of course. Checking if it’s ok to take someone’s photo is a basic sign of respect. And by purchasing local handicrafts at markets, rather than supporting staged tourist acts, you can make sure your money is directed towards genuine cultural preservation.

What our Ethiopian specialists say

Eskinder Hailu from our local Ethiopian specialists, Highway Tours, runs some of our most popular holidays in the Omo Valley region. He shares his thoughts: “Tourism is a good source of income for the tribes that are on the line of the tourist trails. They earn different forms of payments such as the entrance fee, fees payable for the elders, hired scouts, guides, and a fee paid for taking pictures.”

“The Omo villagers cannot be judged for problems that visitors cause, particularly the ‘photographers’. They should not also be punished by discouraging tourism from the area. All we should do is educate travellers to travel responsibly. Respect the local culture and genuinely engage with them.”

Other tour operators that Responsible Travel works with have chosen withdraw tours to the Lower Omo Valley, concerned that a newly constructed road will make access into the region, and irresponsible tourism, easier.

A spokesperson for our leading small group holiday specialist, Exodus, said:
“Many more people have started visiting and tourism to the region is becoming negative; rather than going for a special experience, the Omo Valley has become a place for tourists to simply gawk at the tribes who live there, without respecting their lifestyle and traditions.”

Travelling with respect in the Omo Valley

If you do choose to visit, then Eskinder Hailu, from our local specialist Highway Tours shares his advice for genuine and respectful cultural engagement in the Omo Valley: “Treat them like any one of us, not just as someone exotic because they dress, act and behave the way you don’t. Just be you, and be honest. Take fewer pictures, and enjoy more engagement – smiles, handshakes, talks etc.”
He also advises buying local handicrafts, so people can be paid for their skills and not just their appearance:
“Do not encourage the communities to abuse their authenticity by paying attention to some staged acts. Instead, visit their markets and check for souvenirs or something you can keep. If you buy these crafts, they will be encouraged to produce more of them. It supports their income as well.”
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alfred Weidinger] [Top box: Richard Mortel] [Omo Valley landscape: Richard Mortel] [Should we visit: Richard Mortel] [Travelling with respect: Richard Mortel]
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