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Omo Valley Journeys – the Arbore People of Lake Chew Bahir

We started while it was still dark in Turmi, southern Ethiopia.  After loading our vehicles up with camera gear and food for the day, we drove a winding, rugged 4WD route through the beautiful Buska mountains.  The dark night really concealed a beautiful region but the beauty of leaving at this hour meant we could spot an occasional pair of glowing eyes from tiny Galagos in the trees as we drove.

As the sun rose, the mountains flattened and we were stunned by the incredibly vast expanse of Lake Chew Bahir, one of the fabled Rift Valley lakes of Africa.  It is sometimes called Lake Stephanie after the first European to visit the lake in 1888.  Count Samuel Teleki of Hungary named it after the then Princess Stephanie of Belgium.  Its original name of Chew Bahir is an Amharic term that means “salty lake” .

We stopped for breakfast under a nearby acacia tree, listening the morning chorus of African birds that had become synonymous with our early starts on the trip. 

While we were preparing breakfast from our car, we saw an Arbore shepherd herding a small group of goats along the road.  As he passed we said hello and offered him some food.  I was instantly struck by his beauty and the necklace he wore called a Kala.  This thick necklace, fixed to his neck with a strap of leather, is actually fashioned from the hair of a giraffe tail!  

An Arbore shepherd wearing a Kala necklace made from the hair of a giraffe’s tail.

Leaving our breakfast site we drove further around the northern edge of the lake to the only Arbore village that allows tourist visits.  Dust swirled in to the air as we arrived and the heat of the day was intensifying.  We noticed two beautiful young Arbore girls taking their goats and sheep out to graze for the day so we stopped to say hello to them.  It was our first introduction to the incredible beauty of Arbore women, who are known for their dark shawls and spectacular jewellery.

The first Arbore girl we met at Lake Chew Bahir. We were instantly struck by her wonderful jewellery and her simple beauty.
Arbore women fashion rings out of long coils of wire

The Arbore, or Uhlde as they are sometimes known, are perhaps best known for their high spiritual status in the Omo Valley.  Local legend says that once the devil attacked the Arbore, but the tribe managed to win and survive.  Since then it is believed that Arbore priests are endowed with a special strength and power and if the priests of another tribe can’t solve their problems, a delegation of elders with gifts is sent to Arbore to ask for help.  Thanks to this the Arbore lead a very quiet existence and no other Omo Valley tribe is brave enough to attack them or their cattle.

Portrait of Wata, a tribal elder of the Arbore people, standing in front of bound piles of papyrus. The Arbore people harvest papyrus from the lake and they dry it for use as animal fodder.

Arbore girls and married women adorn themselves with rich ornaments of beads and metal.  They also wear beaded leather skirts.  Unique beads are one of the main distinguishing features of the Arbore and it is easy to distinguish them from other tribes.  In addition, unmarried girls completely shave their skulls and cover their heads with a piece of black cloth to protect it from the sun. Married Arbore women braid their hair in short, tight braids and the men of the tribe wrap their heads with a piece of white cloth. 

Bariti. She is probably one of the most beautiful women I’ve photographed in Africa!

Rituals associated with marriage are extremely important for the Arbore people.

The beautiful smile of a young Arbore girl

Usually as soon as the boy reaches the age of marriage his father chooses a bride for him and four village elders are sent to the parents of the chosen one, bringing fat of a specially slaughtered sheep.  If the gift is accepted, the bride’s parents smear the fat on their shoulder and the family sets the date for the wedding. 

Before Arbore girls marry, they keep their head shaved as this young girl has

On the wedding day both families prepare four sheep for a festive meal, and after that the next morning the bride is circumcised and brought to her husband’s house.  There, a special dish is prepared for the bride and the groom – a lamb’s tail which they eat together.  Then their wrists are bound together with a piece of skin as a sign of a strong union.

Even as they age Arbore women retain their significant dignity and beauty

Unlike the Karo or Dassanech tribes that can bury their dead right next to their house, the Arbore set up graves further away from the villages.  When a man dies, his ornaments are buried with him and butter and milk are put in his mouth.  The body is wrapped in a new piece of fabric and sheep’s skin.  The dead man is asked to bless the cattle of the tribe and after a few days the loved ones of the deceased slaughter a goat; one of the goat’s legs and its fat is placed on the grave.  After that, the deceased’s cows are split between his sons.

Portrait of an Arbore elder. His eyes are likely to be affected by cataracts due to his age and many years of life in extremely harsh conditions.

Arbore tribal people have virtually no conflicts with neighbours, largely due to the high spiritual status of the tribe, as well as sharing of natural resources, inter-tribal marriages and mastery of multiple languages.

View of a typical Arbore village with the spectacular Buska Mountains in the background

Their villages consist of high, dome-shaped huts abutted by piles of papyrus that are tied together, dried and stored as fodder for their animals.  The combination of the two lends almost a whimsical atmosphere when you visit them which, in my opinion anyway, made them the prettiest in the whole region. 

Arbore girls share a joke with each other next to one of their village huts. Along with beautiful jewellery, traditional Arbore women also wear two layered leather skirts that are fringed with metal studs

I also found the Arbore not just striking in their appearance but also incredibly friendly!  While we were there taking photos, I noticed a girl with pale brown eyes who had joined the throng of Arbore who seemed fascinated by what we were doing.  I was so struck by this girl, Adi, that I asked if I could photograph her in better light.  To find the right place meant walking through her village.  She saw me chasing the kids around on the way and asked (through sign language and translators) how many kids I have.  I told her 5 and asked her how many she had.  She also said 5!  I said “Get outta town!  You’re not old enough to have 5!!!!  She laughed and called me “mama” so I called her “mama” back.  It became our joke!

Adi. Her eyes say so much

While I was photographing some of her village friends in a nearby hut, I was joined by Arbore elders and many other girls.  I am not sure what overwhelmed me in the end – the rapid increase in temperature or simply being surrounded by so much beauty.  I never really wanted to leave but as we did, we were sent on our way by the entire village.  I called out “Adi!” and she ran over.   I hugged her and said “thank you for hosting us in your village”.  She smiled a shy smile and with that, I decided to return.

Two Arbore girls take shelter from the intensifying heat of the day

2 thoughts on “Omo Valley Journeys – the Arbore People of Lake Chew Bahir

  1. Noreen lucey says:

    Amazing pictures and stories. Hope you are doing a trip in 2021 as i would be extremely interested.

    • inger says:

      Hi Noreen! Thank you! I do try to research and make sure my information is correct as it can be. There are many stories surrounding these people. It would be wonderful to travel with you in 2021. We have a trip running in February that year. I am not in the office this weekend but if you would like some more information, please email photographers@wildimages-phototours.com and the team at Wild Images will be happy to send you some more information. Have a wonderful Easter!

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