- Hide menu

Blog

Omo Valley Journeys – Abushe

Before I went to the Omo Valley, I’d seen quite a number of images of Abushe circulating on Instagram. After all, it isn’t often you see photos of little blue-eyed children among the many photos you see of people in Africa.

I was intrigued by Abushe as soon as I found out about him. What was he like? Was he easy to find? Would he even mind if I photographed him as well?

When I learned more about him and where he is located, I decided quickly to not divulge anything about him other than a few simple things that I know would be OK to share.

Abushe has a very complex story and there are quite a number of mistruths posted about him on social media by people who perhaps haven’t understood his story. Since I am worried about him being exploited I am not going to divulge exactly what I know about him. Abushe is just a little kid and he deserves the respect of any child that crosses my path.

I can and will tell you about my impressions of meeting him though!

Abushe shares his blue eyes with other members of his family including, I believe, a cousin of his who lives some distance away.

He is a very striking little boy and as soon as I saw him I recognised him. We met him in a cafe where we shared lunch with him while we chatted.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Abushe to be honest. I somehow pictured that he would be a shy little boy, perhaps who has been bullied because of the way he looks?

What I found was the opposite! I met a very sweet young man who is tack sharp, wants to further his education and is always cracking jokes!

He knows photographers well but one of the things that always struck me about photos of him was that we never smiled! I found myself saying aloud “Why does he never smile? He is just a little boy! Doesn’t he ever laugh?”

So I set out to find the zany, funny side of Abushe and photograph him that way.

When we first started taking photos, he pulled all sorts of funny faces at me!

And then I started joking around with him which brought out a fantastic, huge, Abushe smile.

Then he settled down a bit!

I gave him a blue shawl that I had brought with me on the trip. This procured more funny looks!

Soon he got in to the swing of that scarf though and in the end, one of my favourite images of him is with it (below).

Meeting Abushe requires your guide to have good contacts and know the area that he lives in. I’m not the first photographer to meet him obviously but I have one small request for the photographers who may follow in my footsteps.

Please be mindful that this little boy is just that, a little boy. Spend some time with him, enjoy a meal, talk to him. He is not a subject and definitely shouldn’t be objectified for the way he looks. Above all be a good ‘parent’ around him and don’t do anything you wouldn’t do to your own children. He is a lovely little guy with one of the most infectious smiles I’ve seen in Africa. My hope is that he always has a reason to smile. Please go gently with him.

Omo Valley Journeys – Nyangatom & Toposa

To visit the Nyangatom people of the Omo Valley requires a combination of stamina, 4WD vehicles that are well maintained, extremely good guides and the ability to be able to camp independently.  It takes almost a full day to reach these people from the Suri if you are coming from that way.

The drive over is a spectacular traverse through ploughed fields, tall native forests, nail-biting rock tracks on the sides of mountains and finally through a national park that is home to a large herd of buffalo.  Leaving that park, the land becomes flat, dry and almost desert-like.  The red earth of the region is mostly broken up by waxy calitropis bush. 

Then you reach Kangate – a one horse town on the side of the Omo River.  From there, you drive quite some distance and then you are in the heart of the Nyangatom and Toposa people who originally come from South Sudan.

The Nyangatom, also known as the Donyiro, are Nilotic agro-pastoralists inhabiting the border of south western Ethiopia and South Sudan and the Ilemi Triangle with populations in both countries.  They number approximately 30,000 with populations in both South Sudan and Ethiopia.  Many Nyangatom are nomadic, residing in mobile livestock villages that may migrate several times a year.  A substantial number of Nyangatom also reside in semi-permanent villages.  It is common for individuals to move between mobile cattle camps and semi-permanent villages.

The Nyangatom are known to be great warriors and quite frequently active warmongers.  They are often at war with the neighbouring tribes including the Hamer, Turkana, Daasanech and Suri.  The Kenyan government provides some military support to the Turkana in these conflicts. 

Despite the risk of intergroup conflict, many Nyangatom have bond friends with members of other groups and there are trade relationships between the Nyangatom and many of their neighbours. 

Napokot standing outside her hut in the morning

Along with other groups in the Lower Omo Valley, the Nyangatom face challenges to their future subsistence and cultural traditions due to large scale agricultural projects occurring in their territory.

Considered Ethiopians since the conquest of the Lower Omo Valley by Emperor Menelik II, the Nyangatom can be equally qualified as Sudanese because their territory straddles the border.  They inhabit the south-western corner of Ethiopia, the Lower Omo Valley, but use the Ilemi Triangle on the south eastern corner of Eastern Equatoria as a seasonal pastureland. 

Ecologically, the Lower Omo Valley is an extension of Lake Turkana depression and Ilemi Triangle shelters a prehistoric overflow channel o the lake towards the Lotilla River in the Murle country that extends from here to the White Nile Basin.

In the Lower Omo Valley, the Nyangatom have two types of settlements.  Since early times the part of the tribe which, for various reasons, had lost its domestic stock, used to dwell in villalges along the western bank of the Omo River, living on fish and sorghum cultivation. Domestic animals cannot survive along the Omo because of the Tsetse Fly.  Families who manage to rebuild a herd commit it to their relatives’ care on the western part of Nyangatom territory, from the Kibish area on the Sudanese border to the western pasturelands of the Ilemi Triangle and the Toposa rangelands.

They are indeed fierce warriors which is supposedly demonstrated by their custom to scar/mark their chest; one scar for each killed enemy.  Heavy necklaces and long skirts from goat skins, which are richly decorated, are characteristing for the women.  Necklaces were traditionally made from dry seeds, but these days they have been largely replaced with colourful glass beads coming from Kenya.  The women also decorate themselves with ornamental scarification on their faces, chests and bellies.

Traditionally, until recently, the men were completely naked – just as the better known Surma and Mursi.  But lately they adopted a large piece of cloth, which they usually wear tied across a shoulder or wrapped around their hips, or even shorts and shirts.  Also famous are the unique deep wells which the Nyangatom people must dig in dry riverbeds during the dry season in the villages far from the Omo River.  The Nyangatom are famous among the tribes for their storytelling and singing.  The favourite animals of the young men of the tribe are called song cows and song bulls.  In ceremonies and during fights with neighbouring tribes, the tribe sing about them.

Portrait of Lotukoy Nakale with his incredible shoulder scars. His male ancestors would have made one scar for every enemy they killed. These days, scarring is done like this simply because they feel it looks attractive

One of the very few people that actually live harmoniously around the Nyangatom are the Toposa.  Over the border in South Sudan, the Toposa are known for their grand village architecture.  In Ethiopia, however, you need to search out the Toposa living in the Nyangatom.  This takes time, a keen eye and an extremely good guide who can help you tell the subtle differences between the two people.

Beautiful Kolonyo, a Toposa girl with her amazing scar patterns!

I should mention that we only met 3 Toposa people in this region, but they stirred my fascination to do a trip to South Sudan, which I can see happening in my near future.

Omo Valley Journeys – Suri for Tourists

A brightly painted Suri woman with her lip disk and baby

OK. The Omo Valley trip I led this year in February left me to do a lot of thinking. After all, the tribal people living there see more tourists and photographers than any people I’ve ever worked with in Africa.

The fact they see so many is due to their incredible appearance and the diversity of people over a relatively small geographical area.

I’ve tried hard to show what the real people are like on my blog posts so far. Tried hard to propagate accurate information about them and our experiences with these beautiful people.

One of the most curious aspects of their cultures is the way that photographers have altered them, to an extent. For the beautiful Suri people, the sheer number of photographers visiting them for photos has encouraged them to take a very obscure practice that was once reserved for special occasions like weddings, funerals and rites of initiation and then turned it in to an everyday thing.

This is what I call “Suri For Tourists”.

Spending time around painted up Suri people is a lot of fun. I mean it really is. It seems the more time you spend with them doing this, the more wild they get. Drawing much of their inspiration from nature and the things they find around them, we photographed people with fruits, seeds, flowers, gourds, horns, bells, goats and puppies.

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of all of this. On the one hand I rolled my eyes when I saw them doing it, then we had a lot of laughs with the people who had dressed up. Not only do the Suri have a natural affinity with what is around them, they have a tremendous colour sense and they are born posers for these sessions. They truly are a portrait photographers’ paradise!

Sadly this act of extreme decoration has very little anthropological value but we enjoyed seeing it anyway and I will take my guests on my future trips to see this, simply because I like their creativity and sense of whimsy.

After my previous post about the REAL Suri, here is a selection of images of the TOURIST Suris!

Gorgeous Babuku with his painted face. He is surrounded by the traditional copper bracelets of his mum and the women of his Suri clan

Gorgeous, smiling Bagogu with his face decorations. The circles are made with bottle caps!

Omo Valley Journeys – The Real Suri

Nagudo

Suri, or Shuri, is the name of a sedentary agro-pastoralist people and its Nilo-Saharan language. 

They inhabit the Bench Maji Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) in Ethiopia as well as parts of neighbouring South Sudan. 

A young Suri girl decorates her hair with Poinciana blossom in Kibish

There are some 34,000 Suri in the south west of Ethiopia. Suri is their self-name that comprises of two separate groups called Tirmaga and Chai. 

An extremely traditional Suri man. This is how the Suri looked before they do now. It is extremely unusual to find Suri like this in the Omo Valley

A third group, speaking a somewhat different language, are the Baale (or Balesi, or Kachipo), who also live partly in the Republic of South Sudan and move regularly across the border, following interests dictated by trade, intermarriage or the occasional search for better pastures in the dry season.

Portrait of a Suri woman with her baby. She is wearing wooden billets to stretch her ears. I met her at a stick fight and her appearance, especially with the adult Waterbuck horn she was carrying, was so striking!

The Suri area was conquered by imperial Ethiopian troops in 1897.  The region was then formally incorporated into Ethiopia and was the frequent target of cattle raids by highlanders and imperial troops based in the newly established villages. 

Portrait of an elderly Suri woman in remote southern Ethiopia. Her bottom lip hangs down where a disc would normally be inserted.

Their society, while now more integrated into national Ethiopian structures of administration and more under the control of the state, previously had a fairly autonomous political structure, headed by the elders of the reigning age grade as well as a few ritual chiefs or ‘priests’ , called Komoru, as among the Mursi.

Barshamu with his extreme Suri scarring

The Suri have a traditional belief system with a supreme sky deity called Tumu (like the Himba with Mukuru).  The Komoru is the mediator between humans and Tumu, acting as a contact point with the sky god that brings rain and fertility.  But Suri have no public religious services of any kind dedicated to Tumu.  Ancestors of clanlines are also recognized as having powers and as influencing the health and destiny of living people. 

Portrait of an elderly Suri man with the horns of a cow

In the past 15 years, Evangelical Christianity has gained adherents among the Suri (some 200 – 300), notably among those in the town of Kibish and those that left the area to study.

A Suri lady and her baby in Turgit


The Suri have lived in the Ethio-Sudan border area for many generations, successfully surviving through a combination of livestock herding (cattle, goats and sheep), some hunting and gathering, rain-fed cultivation of a variety of field crops like millet, corn and sorghum and the garden cultivation of legumes, spice plants, peas and beans. 

Are you done with taking photos yet?

Migration has been restricted due to armed conflict, state pressure and some very serious droughts which have led to food shortages and even famines in the past few decades. 

A beautiful young Suri girl wearing clay billets in her ears to stretch her lobes

Since the late 1980s the Suri have also gained cash income from the sale of alluvial gold to highland traders in nearby villages.  During the last five to seven years, this trade has suffered from strong competition from highlanders and army related people, who have tended to push the Suri out of business.

Walking down the street of a remote Suri town you can find so much beauty

The post 1991 ethnic federal Ethiopian regime has formally accorded the Suri political autonomy a separate woreda (district) but the leadership of this district is carefully groomed and controlled by the authorities.  The state does not really consult the Suri community leaders on any matter and has appointed its own advisors. 

Nakalamche

Ethiopian government gave a collective name for the Suri, Mursi and Me’en groups that inhabit the south-western part of the country.  This name is Surma.  All three groups speak languages belonging ot the Surmic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family.  Some authors have used the terms “Suri” and “Surma” interchangeably or for contradictory purposes.

As time goes by many Suri are dispensing of some of their ancient traditions. Embarrassed by wearing a lip disc, some Suri women are stitching their bottom lip so they don’t wear it anymore

In a bizarre ritual, female members of the tribe have distinctive clay discs inserted into holes in their bottom lip, which are considered signs of beauty. 

Incredible Naguru with her traditional Suri scarring

To have the discs inserted, their bottom two teeth are removed before the hole is cut.  The larger the plate, the more cows the girl’s father can demand in dowry when his daughter marries.  The average man owns between 309 and 40 cows.  In order to marry, he needs 60 cows to give to his wife’s family.

A Suri girl with her ear discs and scarring
Suri men traditionally shave their foreheads clean
The haunting beauty of Nagudo

Omo Valley Journeys – Mursi

A few hours drive west of the town in Jinka, southern Ethiopia, lies the beautiful national park of Mago.  Although it has some wildlife, perhaps the biggest reason why people visit it are the Mursi.

Originating in South Sudan, the Mursi, or Mursu or Mun as they refer to themselves, are a Nilotic pastoralist ethnic group in Ethiopia.  Their territory of around 2000 square kilometres lies in the South Omo zone of the southern nations, nationalities and peoples’ regional state (SNNPRS), roughly between the Rivers Omo (Warr) and Mago (Mako), close to the border with South Sudan.  According to the 2007 national census, there are around 7500 Mursi, 448 of whom live in urban areas.  Surrounded by mountains between the Omo River and its tributary, the Mago, the home of the Mursi is one of the most isolated regions of the country.  Due to the climate they move twice a year between the winter and summer months.  They herd cattle and grow crops along the banks of the Omo River.

Their neighbours include the Banna, the Bodi, The Karo, the Kwegu, the Nyangatom and the Suri.  They speak the Mursi language as a mother tongue and it is classified as Surmic, which is a branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family.  Ceremonial duelling (thagine), a form of ritualised male violence, is a highly valued and popular activity of Mursi men, especially unmarried men, and a key marker of Mursi identity. Age sets are an important political feature, where men are formed into named “age sets” and pass through a number of “age grades” during the course of their lives.  Married women have the same age grade as their husbands.

The men practice light scarification on their shoulders after killing an enemy, and shave geometric patterns on their head. During dances and ceremonies they adorn literally every part of their body with white chalk paint.  Young unmarried men practice group stick fights, after which the winner is carried on the top of poles to girls waiting beside the arena, who decide among themselves which of them will ask his hand in marriage.

When a young Mursi girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, her lower lip is pierced so she can wear a lip plate. The larger the lip plate she can tolerate, the more cattle her bride price will bring for her father. 

Men of the Mursi also use white paint for their bodies and faces.  Just like any other ethnic tribe of the lower valley, the men must pass a test before they can get married. 

Life for the Mursi is often arduous and sometimes dangerous but they have learnt to live well and there is much time for relaxation, chatting music and gossip.  They have a rich oral tradition through which they preserve and transmit their history, philosophical knowledge and moral stories.

Religion and healing are very much interconnected for the Mursi.  A knowledge of illness and of the divine emerges from people’s experiences of the natural and social world.  Priests provide the context for a healthy community and it is the priests as well as members of other lesser ritual families who are sought out to treat epidemics, drought and crop pests.  The Mursi also have a healing tradition based around the powers of women healers.  The religion of the Mursi people is classified as animism, although there is a Serving In Mission Station in the north-eastern corner of Mursiland, which provides education and basic medical care.

A Mursi Cattle Camp

During our visit with the Mursi we were invited to walk out and see a nearby cattle camp. The Mursi worship their cattle and the general welfare of their animals is of great importance. As we left a community of Mursi, I instantly spotted a young child walking back to the huts with a bowl of fresh milk. Walking behind us was a young man with a mixture of grains and liquid that would serve as medicine for the cattle.

The Mursi will drink both the milk and blood of their cattle. They also eat the meat and the skins are used for huts, to sleep and to sit on.

We watched a cow being blood let by a Mursi man using a bow and arrow. Watching the children drink the blood afterwards was a little confronting and neither of us tried it, but we found it fascinating anyway.

Returning to the camp we stayed for a while to buy jewellery and take photos of the women with their intense decorations before we drove back to Jinka.

Over the past few decades, the Mursi search for a “cool place” has come up against the much more power ‘place making’ activities of the Ethiopian state.  Mursiland was first incorporated into the Ethiopian state at the end of the nineteenth century, when the Abyssinian king Menelik II expanded his kingdom southwards and established Ethiopia’s modern borders with Kenya, Sudan and Somalia.  But it was not until after World War II that the centre began to establish the kind of political control over the periphery that allows us to speak realistically of state incorporation.

Perhaps the most significant early step in this direction came ion the 1960s with the establishment of the Omo National Park.  Improved transportation has also drawn the Mursi further into the market economy, where trade in cattle and increasing numbers of tourists provide money which the Mursi use to buy cloth, medicine, coffee, spices and agricultural tools. 

Today, the process of state building in the lower Omo appears to have reached a new level of intensity, with the construction of a huge hydroelectric damn in its middle basin.  This will eliminate the annual flood upon which the downstream population has always depended for cultivation and pastoralism and make possible large-scale commercial irrigation schemes.  These will require the forced displacement and resettlement of thousands of people and irrevocably transform their environment and way of life.

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!

Arka

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

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

Omo Valley Journeys – Walking with (Suri) Warriors

A Suri warrior is fitted with a protective helmet before a round of fighting

The Suri are a very interesting and tough people, who have had their share of problems with neighbouring peoples, like the Nyangatom, who are closer to the government.  Tensions also exist between the Suri and the Toposa in South Sudan, allies of the Nyangatom, who frequently raid their cattle.  There have also been violent clashes with the Me’en.  Most problems in recent decades, however, have been with the authorities.  The village highlanders, of mixed descent, tend to look down upon the Suri nomads. There is a dramatic history of conflicts and clashes of Suri with highlanders and national government officials who have a deep distrust of the Suri and saw them always as uncivilized lowlanders ‘without religion’.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ways the Suri have to settle disputes is through the act of “Donga” or stick fighting.

We were in Ethiopia at a time when the fights weren’t on. Generally they take place in or at the end of the Ethiopian monsoon. Our visit was in the dry season. We’d heard, however, that two rival clans of Suri were hoping to fight over an intended woman to marry and so, starting a few days before we arrived, the stick fight had been planned to win her heart

Suri men principally take part in stick fighting, a combination of marital art, ritual and sport, to impress women and find a wife.  They fight with little or no clothing, and the violent clashes sometimes result in death.  Battles usually take place between Suri villages, which can consist of between 40 and 2500 people.  As well as providing an opportunity to attract a partner, the fights aim to get young men used to bloodshed – which leaders believe comes in handy if they clash with other tribes.

As it turned out the clan whose village we had camped in were one of the fighting teams. We were invited to go and see it, and being the only two white people in the area, we thought why not?

An arena had been established in a grassy, flat area not far from our clan’s village. We arrived a little early, hoping to get a good vantage point to watch. As we waited, local Suri children played in the grass.

Suri children play with small sticks in the grass while they wait for the Donga to start

Young Suri guys also messed around whipping each other with their clothes in a similar way that my brother used to whip me with tea towels!

Boys! Suri boys whipping each other with their clothes. It reminded me of my brother whipping me with a tea towel when I was younger!

Before we actually saw a donga, I had only a theoretical concept of the art of stick fighting so in essence I had no idea what the afternoon would entail. We went with an open mind.

There were two things that surprised me about the fight. The first was the importance of music. Each clan arriving to fight would sing together as they walked in. It was the men of our clan singing that we actually heard before we even saw them. As they got closer the singing became more pronounced. It is the Suri invitation to battle hymn it seemed.

Here is our clan arriving.

There were two naked men leading them in and psyching the fighters up for the battle as they walked. When they arrived they waited for their opponents in the shade.

A fighting clan arrives at the arena

The second thing that surprised me about Donga was the way in which it is conducted. It is quite similar to a boxing match in that rounds are carefully refereed by a head man and regular breaks are taken between rounds.

Standing. Chatting. Waiting.

Our referee was a stunning guy with a grey, wizened beard.

The referee at our fight

Suri warriors are incredibly strong and very handsome. Obviously having a couple of white girls there to photograph them was a bit of a novelty. As we were standing around waiting for the fight I spotted this lovely young man who had arrived to take part.

One of the handsome Suri warriors attending the stick fight that afternoon

When he saw me with my camera, he ran over and actually ducked his head under my camera strap, put his arm around my waist and indicated that he wanted to take photos! Blushing, and feeling a little shy about his close proximity, I took the strap off both of us and showed him how to take photos with my camera. After all, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given African people my phone, or my camera, to take shots. I’m always curious to see how they see the world through my lens. Is it the same way I do?

He wanted to take a picture! Here is me looking sweaty and bedraggled while an amazing fighter tries to work out the controls of my camera. I’ve never been suddenly approached like this before. It was quite funny in the end, even if his photos didn’t quite work out!

Soon after our clan arrived, the opposing clan did too and the first fight started.

A leader always guides the fighting clan in to a round, and yes, that is a Kalashnikov rifle being held by one warrior. Ethiopia certainly isn’t the place to take a holiday if you are frightened of guns!

This first round took place with very little armour being worn by the fighters. Each round is started off by leaders who then allow the principal fights to battle.

Needless to say the first round didn’t end well and one of the opponents above ended up with some rather serious head injuries. I guess when two very strong guys are smacking each other with hardwood poles that are between two and three metres long, this could be expected.

Head wounds are common in unprotected Suri fighters
Thankfully this man was OK after his head wounds were treated at the scene

The other fighter of this round didn’t fare that well either.

Still standing, an unprotected warrior contemplates his performance after the first round of fighting

It was time for a break. This gave the injured fighters a rest before the next round and it also allowed us to enjoy the socialising that is so common to these events.

A beautiful Suri child in the crowd
One fo the Suri elders in attendance. I like to think the look on his face is one of “Those guys have a lot to learn!”
A group of young Suri men stand around trying to impress the girls who came to watch the fight
Seriously! Was that for real? A Suri guy laughs after the first round of fighting.

The break also allowed for some time to dress wounds and rest.

When you are in the crowd at a Donga you have to be careful. The fights can sometimes get very carried away. There is no ‘ring’ around the arena. If the fighters spill in to the crowd, people scatter everywhere and some onlookers can get injured themselves. At one point I even grabbed Polly to get her out of the way because when you are taking photos you don’t always realise how out of control things are getting! We did notice one Suri strapping up their ankle after a fight and I assume he had twisted it in the melee
The modern day ‘look’ of the Suri hasn’t always been this way. Truly traditional Suri look like this man, with longer hair and less decoration. I will post about him and other traditional Suri people we met separately

A couple of Suri men also did some practice stick fights in the break.

Play fighting
The sticks used to fight are up to three metres long and very heavy!

The crowd began to stir a little and we wondered if the next round of fighting was going to begin. Only this time we saw the fighters actually donning protection.

The armour used in these fights is all hand made. It is fashioned from woven threads, plastic bottles and containers and local grasses. The Suri armour is principally worn on the heads, arms and knees of each warrior.

Then we heard more singing. I asked why they had started to sing and I believe the losing fighters from the first round decide when the break has finished and the new round of fighting will begin.

The fighters assembled and their pre-round posturing of poses, yells and singing began.

Preparing for battle

And then it was on!

And it’s on!

This time there were fewer injuries but a break was also called for just to take a rest. After all, stick fighting is quite a strenuous exercise! The guys we saw were covered in sweat and breathing heavily at the end of each round!

The clan fighters looked on as their warriors regrouped.

One final battle took place and although I wasn’t officially told who won, perhaps it was the best of three?

The final round

A winner had been determined and the groups of fighters began to leave the arena, this time singing a song of victory.

By the time it finished it was nearly dark and we had to return to camp.

In times past, Suri elders would have fired guns in to the air to signify the end of the duel. We’d heard, however, that ammunition was being stored. Since the effective end of conflict in neighbouring South Sudan, black market trade in ammunition had dried up and it was all getting expensive. Better to save those bullets for other, more meaningful, purposes.

I am happy to report that no one died during the stick fight we watched but I am so glad we went along to one. The ritual acts of it were at once fascinating and energising. We decided to extend our stay in Suri territory when we heard about one taking place. It was a good decision.

Omo Valley Journeys – Hamer

Keri, a Hamer girl in Turmi village

The Hamer, along with the tribal people of the Banna and Tsemay, make up one of the largest ethnic groups living in the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia.

A young Hamer child is cradled by the arms of his morther

They are an Omotic community inhabiting a territory east of the Omo River with their main villages in Turmi and Dimeka. 

A statuesque Hamer woman near Turmi in southern Ethiopia

Considered to be some of the most beautiful people in the Omo Valley, the Hamer are known for their practice of body adornment and wearing a multitude of colourful beads. 

Profile of a striking Hamer girl with a zig-zag pattern shaved in her hair

Women adorn their necks with heavy polished iron jewellery.  The most significant of these heavy metal necklaces is a Binyari which is worn by the first wife of a Hamer husband.  It is essentially a large metal band necklace secured by a “lock” shaped ornament.

Kaira

For women who are the first of multiple wives, they will wear a Binyari and a more simple metal necklace beneath it, each for the subsequent wives of their husband.

A Binyari will be worn until the death of her husband.  Only then is she allowed to remove it.

Married Hamer women are also easily recognised by their beautiful hair styles that are created from red ochre and animal fat.  These two substances are mixed, then ‘twirled’ with fingers to create long locks of red hair. 

Hamer women twirl strands of hair with red ochre and animal fat

Hamer men adorn themselves with headbands, bracelets and anklets fashioned from strands of multi-coloured beads.

Portrait of Barke, a Hamer man in Turmi

Often families will pool their livestock and labour to herd their cattle together.  In the dry season, whole families go to live in grazing camps with their herds, where they survive on milk and blood from the cattle. Just as for the other tribes in the valley, cattle and goats are at the heart of Hamar life.  They provide the cornerstone of a household’s livelihood. It’s only with cattle and goats to pay as ‘bride wealth’ that a man can marry.  A lot of Hamer culture has now become well known to the outside world.

Hamer children in a village near Turmi

Honey collection is one of their major activities.  They will stay for a few months whenever there is enough grass for grazing, putting up their round huts.  When the grass is finished, they will move on to new pasture grounds.  This is the way they have been living for generations.  Once they hunted, but the wild pigs and small antelope have almost disappeared from the lands in which they live.

Stunning Hamer girl in black and white

Men and boys usually sleep on cots in the centre of the camp, near their livestock.  Camels are used for riding and as pack animals.  Most Hamer plant fields of sorghum at the beginning of the rainy season before leaving on their annual nomadic journey.  Some households also plant sesame and beans.  Because the crops are usually left unattended, the yields are low.  Few households grow enough grain to last throughout the year.

Portrait of a Hamer man near Turmi

There is a division of labour in terms of sex and age in Hamer people.  The women and girls grow crops (sorghum, maize, beans and pumpkins). They’re also responsible for collecting water, doing the cooking and looking after the children, who start helping the family by herding the goats from around the age of eight.  The young men of the village work the crops, defend the herds or go off raiding for livestock from other tribes, while adult men herd the stock, plough with oxen and raise beehives in acacia trees.

Beautiful Hamer women

Sometimes, for a task like raising a new roof or getting the harvest in, a woman will invite her neighbours to join her in a work party in return for beer or a meal of goat, specially slaughtered to feed them.  Relations with neighbouring tribes vary.  Cattle raids and counter-raids are a constant danger.  The Hamer may intermarry with the Banna or Tsemay people but they have nothing against borrowing – songs, hairstyles, even names – from other tribes in the valley like the Nyangatom and the Dassanech.

A Hamer woman and her baby. She is wearing a Binyari to show her status of first wife. Underneath are two plain metal necklaces, each for the second and third wife of her huband

Hamer parents have a lot of control over their sons, who herd goats for the family.  It’s the parents who give permission for the men to marry, and many don’t get married until their mid-thirties.  Girls, on the other hand, tend to marry at about 17.  Marriage requires ‘bride wealth’, a payment made to the woman’s family and generally made up of goats, cattle and guns.  Although it’s paid over time like instalments of a bank loan, it’s so high (30 goats and 20 head of cattle) that it can’t usually be paid back in a lifetime.

Smiling, giggling Woliso

Because men tend to be older than their wives, they often die first.  Lots of Hamer households are headed by women who have survived their husbands. 

A Hamer boy shows up between the skirts of his mother and female relatives

The Hamer have very unique rituals such as a bull leaping ceremony, that a young man has to succeed in order to get married.  A Hamer man comes of age by leaping over a line of cattle as an initiation rite of passage.  It’s the ceremony which qualifies him to marry, own cattle and have children.  The timing of the ceremony is up to the man’s parents and happens after harvest.  As an invitation, the guests receive a strip of bark with a number of knots – one to cut off for each day that passes in the run up to the ceremony. 

A beautiful Hamer girl arrives at the bull jumping ceremony. She is wearing a simple headband made from vines. These are given to women guests attending the ceremony

On the day of the ceremony, Hamer people will walk for many kilometres to join in the celebration. It commences with the women dancing a “Gola” and blowing horns as a welcome to arriving guests. 

Women dancing a “Gola” at the start of the bull jumping ceremony

The initiate boy will then arrive, surrounded by a group of recently initiated young men called “Maza”.  This group has stayed with him until this important day.  They have fed him and psyched him up for his brave act.  It is the Maza (pictured below) who are welcomed by Hamer women ahead of the arrival of the initiate. 

The Hamer men have a reputation of being less than adoring husbands.  The women submit to the ritual floggings proudly and love to show the deep scars that are regarded as proof of devotion to their husbands.  Shortly after the Maza arrive at the ceremony, women opt to be whipped by them before the rest of the guests arrive. 

A Maza whipping a woman who has chosen to be his subject

In between whipping women, each Maza will have his face painted in the same style so the initiate boy, when he sees them, knows to concentrate on them as he jumps the bulls that the Mazas are holding for him.

Bonko before his initiation jump across the bulls

While this is occurring, women prepare meals of fermented bread, tea and local beer to give to the guests in attendance. 

Geda, one of the Hamer elders attending the bull jumping ceremony

Each guest is asked to walk beneath an archway made of twigs and is given a small sip of alcohol before they are ushered in to the shade to wait for the main event. 

Hamer women burn green wood to make smoke while they make bread. The smoke keeps the bees away from their cooking activities

Finally a group of bulls is brought to the ceremony by the Maza and they are walked to a fire to be blessed before the main event.  They are then lined up and the initiate, naked, has to leap on the back of the first cow, then from one bull to another, until he finally reaches the end of the row.  He must not fall off the row and must repeat the test successfully four times to have the right to become a husband. 

The herd of bulls is taken away to be blessed before the leaping ceremony
Bonko running across the bulls! He made it! (Image by Polly Fenton)
Bonko’s successful run!!! (Image by Polly Fenton)

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.

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.