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Omo Valley Journeys – Dassanech People

Portrait of a beautiful Dassanech girl wearing a pretty Muray, or multi-stringed necklace of beads.

We started before dawn from the southern Ethiopian town of Turmi.  It is quite a drive from there to the territory of the Dassanech people near the larger town of Omorate, around 25 kilometres from the border between Ethiopia and Kenya.  Thankfully the road conditions were quite good and although our journey started in the dark we could vaguely make out the almost savannah like sections of this beautiful journey towards Lake Turkana.

A pretty young Dassanech girl who greeted us in her village

As the light slowly appeared we were blessed by a sighting of a wild Caracal crossing the road in front of our car.  Sadly it only lingered for a brief moment.  In heavy tribal areas of Africa, many wild animals flee with fright as soon as they see humans and this Caracal was no different.  Further down the road we chanced upon a small group of Kori bustards who seemed a little less concerned by our presence.

We continued on as we needed to arrive in Omorate while the light was still wonderful.  We picked up our local guide and we headed out to a tiny village of the Dassanech people around three kilometres from the town.

Contemplation at first light in a Dassanech village, close to the border of Ethiopia and Kenya

The Daasanach, also spelled Dassanech or Dasenach, are an ethnic group of Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan.  Their main homeland is the Debub Omo Zone, Ethiopia and around the north end of Lake Turkana. 

A group of Dassanech children playing with a ball they fashioned out of cloth and straw

Primarily agropastoral, the Dassanech people grow sorghum, maize, pumpkins and  beans when the Omo River and its delta floods.  Otherwise the they rely on their goats and cattle which give them milk, and are slaughtered in the dry season for meat and hides.

Dassanech women are responsible for fetching water and crops that are used as animal fodder

The Daasanach live in dome-shaped houses made from a frame of branches, covered with hides, pieces of scrap metal and woven boxes (which are used to carry possessions on donkeys when the Daasanach migrate).  The huts have a hearth, with mats covering the floor used for sleeping. 

A Dassanech mother and her children outside a typical Dassanech hut

Dassanech people are separated in to two groups that are differentiated by status.  There is a lower class of Dassanech called Dies and they are people who have lost their cattle and their way of living.  They live on the shores of Lake Turkana hunting crocodiles and fishing.  Although their status is low because of their lack of cattle, the Dies help the herders with crocodile meat and fish in return for the meat from cattle.

Portrait of a beautiful Dassanech woman in the door of her hut

Until 2018, the Dassanech had become widely known for their unique head dresses that they fashioned from bottle tops but, worried about the way that tourism and photography was changing their traditional culture, they made a collective decision to cease that practice. 

The last of the bottle tops

Dassanech women now dress simply, wearing multi-stranded necklaces of red beads called a Muray.  Dassanech men are usually shirtless and are easily noticeable by their beautifully styled hair.

A traditional Dassanech elder

Politically the Dassanech don’t feel they belong to either Ethiopia or Kenya. They prefer to self-govern by their own customs and interpretation of land borders. 

A group of young Dassanech girls dancing a traditional “Ar”

The Dassanech are known for their fighting prowess and are feared by many neighbouring groups, such as the Gabbra and Turkana.  Raids to obtain more cattle are celebrated and Dassanech warriors are proud of the number of enemies they have killed. 

Their ties to one another have resulted from a common place of residence rather than from heredity.  Exiles from many groups around the area of north Lake Turkana have united in support of one another in this hostile, arid environment.  They have developed a unique tradition and culture and are open to the inclusion of other immigrants who are willing to abide by Dassanech customs and values.

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