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Omo Valley Journeys – Karo

Portrait of a beautiful Karo girl with her baby in Dus, on the banks of the Omo River

We arrived into the territory of the Karo people after an extended journey through a part of Ethiopia that was so remote, we never saw another tourist or photographer for eight days!


The Karo are perhaps one of the most well visited and well documented tribes in the entire Omo Valley region. 

Karo children paint their faces with paints made from pigments, chalks, ochres and water

The Karo, or Kara, are a Nilotic ethnic group in Ethiopia famous for their body painting.  They are also one of the smallest tribes in the Omo with an estimated population of between 1000 and 3000 spread across four different communities. 

An elderly Karo lady cures a goat skin in Dus

They are closely related to the Kwegu tribe.  They live along the east banks of the Omo River in southern Ethiopia and practice flood retreat cultivation.  The crops that are grown by them are sorghum, maize and beans.  Only small cattle are kept because of the tsetse flies.  These flies are large and consume the blood of vertebrate animals.

The Karo have engaged in armed conflict with neighbouring tribes. Hence there is a ready supply of guns in their villages

Concentrated around the edges of the river, we stayed in the pretty village of Dus, home to around 700 or so Karo people. When we arrived we were instantly awed by the structure of a Marmar, a building that acts as a council house for the Karo, which is fashioned from harvested timbers from the nearby riverine woodland where we set up camp.

Karo elders sit in the shade of the Marmar in Dus

The Karo people differentiate themselves from many of the neighbouring tribes by excelling specifically in body and face painting.  They paint themselves daily with coloured ochre, white chalk, yellow mineral rock, charcoal and pulverised iron ore, all natural resources local to the area.  The specific designs drawn on their bodies can change daily and vary in content, ranging from simple stars or lines to animal motifs, such as guinea fowl plumage, or to the most popular – a myriad of handprints covering the torso and legs.  Both the Karo and the Hamar men use clay to construct elaborate hairstyles and headdresses for themselves, signifying status, beauty and bravery.

A beautiful Karo girl with her clay hair and painted face

The Karo male hairstyle is very elaborate.  A part is made from one ear to the other.  The front portion is made into braids, which frame the forehead.  The rest of the hair is drawn back into a thick chignon and held firmly by a colourful cap of glazed earth.  Sometimes pieces of bark are glued on to the cap an dholes are made in the bark to attach ostrich feathers.  Or, it is painted in red, white and black – three colours of mystical and legendary significance.  A man wearing a grey and red ochre clay bun with an Ostrich feather indicates that he has bravely killed an enemy from another tribe or a dangerous animal, such as a lion or a leopard.  This clay hair bun often takes up to three days to construct.  It is usually remade every three to six months, and can be worn for a period of up to one year after the kill.

A beautiful Karo girl

Specific rituals occur regularly within the tribal communities, and sometimes neighbouring villagers will travel all night to witness these rites of passages and participate in the celebrations.  Body scarification conveys either significant symbolism or aesthetic beauty, depending  upon the sex of the individual.  The scarification of the man’s chest indicates that he has killed enemies from other tribes, and he is highly respected within his community.  Each line on his chest represents one killing, and complete chest scarification is not rare.  The Karo women are considered particularly sensual and attractive if cuts are made deep into their chests and torsos and ash is rubbed in, creating a raised effect over time and thereby enhancing sexual beauty.

Swirls of dust one late afternoon in Dus

The Karo, like the Hamar, perform the Bula or Pilla initiation rite, which signifies the coming of age for young men.  The initiate must demonstrate that he is ready to “become a man” by leaping over rows of cattle six times consecutively without falling.  If successful, the boy will become eligible for marriage (as long as his older brothers are already married) and he will be allowed to appear publicly with the elders in sacred areas.

A Karo woman in front of her hut

Karo women usually wear only a skin loincloth, decorated with beads and cowries.  Their hair is greased with red clay and cut into a short skullcap.  The Karo’s artistic practices in their daily lives are for self-pleasure and pride, respect and symbolic recognition within their society, and as a means of attracting the opposite sex during rituals.  Courtship dances are frequently held and oftentimes the outcome of these frenzied, impassioned dances result in future marriages. 

A young Karo boy in front of a livestock enclosure. The Karo live near an extensive stretch of riverine woodland. Timbers from this woodland are used to construct enclosures and huts

In recent times however the modern world has begun to creep into their existence.  Plastic water containers, old t-shirt and the automatic weapons.  The end of the Mengistu reign in the 1990s and ongoing conflict in Sudan and Somalia have ensured a flood of AK-47s, Kalashnikovs and G-3 rifles into the region.  Guns are used to protect cattle, to hunt and to settle disputes.


Mingi, in the religion of the Hamar and related tribes, is the state of being impure or “ritually polluted”. A person, often a child, who was considered mingi is killed by forced permanent separation from the tribe by being left alone in the jungle or by drowning in the river.

Karo motherhood

Mingi is the traditional belief among the Omotic-speaking Karo and Hamar tribes in southern Ethiopia that adults and children with physical abnormalities are ritually impure. They are believed to exert an evil influence upon others, so disabled infants have traditionally been disposed of without a proper burial. The Karo officially banned the practice in July 2012, while around 50,000 individuals secretly continue to practice it in other Omotic communities.

A pair of very serious looking, painted Karo children

Among the Karo and Hamar, physically deformed or mingi individuals have traditionally been considered to exert an evil influence upon others, so disabled infants have traditionally been disposed of without a proper burial.  Such a child was historically killed by forced permanent separation from the tribe by being left alone in the jungle or by drowning in the river.

Reasons for being declared impure include birth out of wedlock, the birth of twins, the eruption of teeth in the upper jaw before the lower jaw, and chipping a tooth in childhood. Some who were separated have been reported to shadow the tribe at a distance until eventually succumbing to hunger or predators.

Portrait of an elderly Karo woman who kindly invited us in to her hut for tea

A feature story in 2011 points out that there has been a dearth of academic scholarship on the subject, but “some observers have speculated that it might have started many generations ago as a way to purge people who are more likely to become a burden or who cannot contribute to the propagation of their people.”

A Karo boy runs after a plastic bottle in a dust storm. Catching it, he removes it and stops it from being blown around the village

The Karo officially banned the practice in July 2012, while around 50,000 individuals secretly continue to practice it in other Omotic communities.

In 2008, Karo tribesman Lale Lubuko began rescuing children deemed “mingi.” The 2011 award-winning documentary film Drawn From Water chronicles Mr. Labuko’s early mingi rescue activities. Together with California filmmaker and photographer John Rowe, Mr. Lubuko founded Labuko’s Omo Child Organization. To date, 37 children ages 1–11 have been rescued. The children live in a home built with the help of John Rowe.

Noko, one of the Karo elders in Dus. He is standing in front of the Marmar, a council headquarters of the Karo people, which is made from hardwoods harvested from the nearby riverine woodland

An additional film about Mingi practices called Omo Child: The River and the Bush was released in 2015.

An elderly Karo man holds a tiny puppy in a hand carved wood canoe

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