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Omo Valley Journeys – Banna and Tsemay People

Portrait of Koro, a beautiful Tsemay girl in the market of Key Afer in southern Ethiopia. She has just started her subtle face tattooing (note the single vertical tattoo on her forehead). As she grows older, she will end up with a series of lines on her face.

One of the largest ethnic groups in the Omo Valley is the cluster of tribal people belonging to the Hamer, Banna and Tsemay. 

We wandered down the streets of Turmi on a market day and it was a magical experience.  Hoping to do some street photos in low light was impossible.  After all, the market there really gets going  after around 1130am, which allows people from villages around the  region to walk to Turmi to trade their wares.

Portrait of Hula, a smiling Banna boy in the markets at Turmi

In the bustling throngs of locals, tourists and photographers, it is easy to write all of the people off there as Hamer, after all, Turmi is the central trading town for the Hamer people of the Omo Valley. 

Looking at their appearances more closely, it is possible to notice Banna amongst them too.

Bodo Shauki with his fantastic hair decorations and Banna necklaces in the markets at Key Afer

The Banna people, or Benna, are a Nilotic ethnic group in Ethiopia who are known for keeping bees.  They live in an area around Chari Mountain, near Kako Town and a savannah area near Dimeka.  They speak Hamer-Banna, which they share substantially with the Hamer.  The Banna, approximately 45,000 in number, are a mainly agricultural people who inhabit the highlands east of the Omo River.  They also practice pastoralism, hunting and gathering.  Cattle and goats provide milk and meat, as well as hides for clothing, shelter and sleeping mats. 

Bowjoyme – a traditional Banna man in the market at Key Afer

They are neighbours with the Hamer trip and it is believed that the Banna actually originated from them centuries ago. Just like most of the indigenous tribes in the lower Omo Valley, the Banna practice ritual dancing and singing.  Their look is very similar to the Hamer and they are often called Hamer-Banna.  Common rituals and traditions of other tribes are shared by the Banna.  Women of the tribe wear beads in their hair that is held together with butter.  The boys in the tribe participate in bull jumping.

A selection of traditionally decorated gourds sold by Tsemay and Banna people at the weekly markets in Key Afer

The Banna live in camps that consist of several related families.  The families live in tents arranged in a circle and the cattle are brought into the centre of the camp at night.  When the campsite is being set up, beds for the women and young children are built first; then the tent frame is built around it.  The tents are constructed with flexible poles set in the ground in a circular pattern.  The poles are bent upward, joining at the top, then tied.  The structures are covered with thatch during the dry season and canvas mats during the rainy season.  Men and older boys usually sleep on cots in the centre of the camp, near the cattle.

Although it is possible to find Banna people in Turmi, one of the funnier encounters you might have with them is on the road to Jinka where a group of young boys walk around the main road on long wooden stilts. There is a story abounding with these stilt walkers. They say that walking on stilts used to protect Banna men from wild animals while they hunted. There is no anthropological evidence to support this story but it’s quite a fun stop on a long drive to meet and photograph these young men!

A group of stilt-walking Banna boys on the main road to Jinka

Tsemay people, also known as Tsamai are principally cattle herders but they also engage in the agricultural practices of growing rice, millet, sorghum and other crops.  Traditionally Tsemay men wear bracelets and collars made out of beads and unmarried women wear a collar with long tails at the front and is  longer at the back. These beautiful collars are often made from animal skin and they are adorned with beads and cowrie shells.

Detail of the beautiful beadwork on the skirt of a Tsemay girl in the market at Key Afer

Similar to the Banna and Hamer people, Tsemay men engage in the bull jumping ceremony as they pass from boys into adulthood. 

Tsemay women, unlike Hamer and Banna women, engage in facial tattooing.  I am yet to discover what these tattoos actually mean.  I will update this post when I have more information. 

Aika – a Tsemay girl in Key Afer. She is slightly more heavily tattooed than Koro (pictured above)

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Banna, Hamer and Tsemay represent such a large group is that they are free to intermarry and have very few conflicts between each other.

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