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2022 Omo Valley Photography Tour

Key Information

Date: Saturday, February 15, 2020
Duration: 14
Cost: Provisional £5610, $7490, €6250, AUD10330. Addis Ababa/Addis Ababa. Single Supplement: 2022: £230, $310, €250, AUD420.
Places: 5

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Portrait of Lolimo, a young Nyangatom girl, sitting in an Ekore (food storage hut) in her village near the border of Ethiopia and South Sudan.

THE EXTRAORDINARY TRIBAL PEOPLE OF SOUTHERN ETHIOPIA

HIGHLIGHTS

OMO VALLEY PHOTOGRAPHY TOURS WITH WILD IMAGES

The extraordinarily diverse country of Ethiopia is home to some of the last true tribal people in all of Africa and has become famous for its extraordinary tribal photography potential. In the south west of Ethiopia lies the Omo Valley, a living anthropological treasure of spectacular people including the Hamer, Suri, Dassanech, Karo, Nyangatom and Mursi tribes. In the face of their ever changing world, each of these tribes is struggling to maintain their traditions of dress, dance, decoration and way of life. A visit to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is to visit a world that is fast disappearing. A world of beauty, diversity and strength that has vanished from great tracts of Africa.

Collectively the Omo Valley people draw inspiration from the wilderness that surrounds them and this is reflected in their varying styles of traditional dress.

 

Why travel to the Omo Valley with Wild Images?

Currently there are quite a number of photographers and photography tour companies offering trips to the Omo Valley.  We have decided to offer a unique alternative to the more standard itineraries offered by so many.  By joining a Wild Images tour we work with an unrivalled level of ground expertise and local trackers who are well connected to the various tribal people in the Omo and Central Rift Valleys.  Our leader has almost thirty years of travel experience in Africa and knows Ethiopia extremely well.  We travel to remote villages and we arrive when the light is most beautiful for photography. We also believe that the best images come from photography of people in a two way situation.  We encourage our guests to chat to local people through our interpreters, laugh with them, engage with them and simply enjoy the experience of being immersed in their world.  As the body of work from our tour shows, we don’t just simply pass through villages spending less than an hour to get photos. We stroll around enjoying places, we sit in the shade with local people, drink coffee with them or enjoy banter with them at lively and colourful local markets.  Join us on a journey where friends are made alongside beautiful images in one of the most spectacular tribal regions of the African continent.

 

Peoples of the Omo we will visit

Arbore

The Arbore, also known as the Ulde, are an ethnic group living in southern Ethiopia, near Lake Chew Bahir. With a total population of around 7000, the Arbore population is divided into just four villages named Gandareb, Kulaama, Murale and Eegude. They live in hot and flat areas and are mainly cattlemen. Like for the majority of other tribes of the Omo Valley, cows, goats and sheep are the main source of existence and value for the Arbore people. Their name literally means: Land of the Bulls (Ar means bull and bore means land). The main feature differentiating the Arbore tribe from other tribes of the Omo Valley is their high spiritual status. 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.

The Arbore live in large huts, often nestled against piles of tall Papyrus reeds that have been collected from the lakeshore to feed their livestock. Immaculately clean and beautiful in architecture, we will enjoy spending time with a group of Arbore at both sunset and sunrise as Arbore herders deliver their livestock to the fields and then home to rest. We will also experience the stunningly intricate jewellery and black cloth attire of Arbore women who, along with the Hamer women, are considered some of the most beautiful women of the region.

Ari

The Ari people of southern Ethiopia have all but lost their traditional dress in the name of modernisation, yet paradoxically they continue with many traditions of land use, the harvest of medicinal plants, making food on an open fire and fashioning tools by traditional blacksmiths. We will spend an afternoon walking with the Ari and learning about their world, how they maintain their agro-pastoralist lifestyle in the face of great change, trying some of their local food, learning about the harvest of fruits and grains and also discovering the various medicinal plants the Ari have used to cure ailments such as extreme anxiety and also diabetes.

Dassanech

A highlight among the tribes we will visit are the Dassanech people, who originate from the spectacular region of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.  They were traditionally known for wearing elaborate headdresses and jewellery fashioned from traded goods and bottle tops. However, in early 2018, they collectively took a stand against this practice as it was being done strictly for photographers and tourists and wasn’t representative of their true culture. Worried that the build up of tourism was altering their culture in a negative way, the Dassanech returned to their traditional dress of a red coloured ‘Bure’ or strings of necklaces, and now they live as they always have, in beautiful huts made from sticks and skins with the recent addition of corrugated iron. We will visit a remote village of Dassanech people that lies around 25 kilometres from the border or Kenya and Ethiopia.  Our donation to the village elders will help Dassanech children attend school and will support the village through purchase of food.

Hamer

The women of the friendly Hamer tribe are often considered to be some of the most beautiful in the entire Omo Valley region. They use a beautiful combination of ochre and animal fat to cover their skin, while dressing in a goat skin decorated with thousands of beads. First wives of Hamer men wear a ‘Binyari’ or heavy metal necklace fixed by a ‘lock’ of metal that indicates their status. On Monday every week the Hamer people walk from the surrounding villages to trade their wares at a bustling local market. This market, and indeed the entire village with its colourful, ramshackle buildings, allow for beautiful street photography so we will make two excursions here.

If we are lucky during our stay we may encounter a traditional Hamer Bull Jumping Ceremony. The Hamer, including their anthropologically similar tribes of the Banna and Tsemay, are known for their unique custom of “bull jumping,” which initiates a boy into manhood. In the week leading up to the ceremony, the initiate is surrounded by a group of male friends who feed him, prepare him and help him to practice for the big event. The ceremony itself usually takes place on a Monday when the market has finished. First, female relatives dance and invite whipping from men who have recently been initiated; this shows their support of the initiated, and their scars give them a right to demand his help in time of need. The men who supported the chosen boy then paint their faces so they can be recognised by the boy during the ceremony. Eventually the bulls are brought in to the assembled Hamer people where they are blessed on a walking circuit before they are taken to be lined up in the arena. Guests are greeted with either drinks of coffee or local araki (or beer) and they wait for the jumping ceremony in the shade. Eventually the bulls are brought to the arena and held together by the boy’s assistants. The initiate boy must then run back and forth twice across the backs of a row of bulls or castrated steers, and he is ridiculed if he fails. Although these events have drawn many tourists in recent years, it is still a fascinating afternoon and ceremony to witness so we will join the throngs if we discover that one is taking place during our tour.

Karo

To the east of the Rift Valley are the lands of the elaborately painted and scarred Karo People. The Karo excel in face and body painting practiced daily in preparation of their dances and ceremonies. They pulverize locally found white chalk, yellow mineral rock, red iron ore, and black charcoal to decorate their bodies, often mimicking the spotted plumage of a guinea fowl. The men create highly decorated clay hair buns, which can take up to three days to complete. Their ornate body scarring, where a cut is made with a knife and ash is rubbed into the wound to produce a raised welt, is also a known characteristic of the Karo.

We will visit a beautiful Karo village that is perched high on an embankment overlooking the spectacular Omo River.  Naturally we will visit to photograph people but we will also explore the village, enjoying the intricate and well constructed Karo huts.  Many of these, including their livestock enclosures and also a spectacular public building called a Marmar (effectively the ‘parliament house’ of the Karo) have been fashioned from local hardwoods harvested from the nearby riverine forests.  The Karo live gently in this region, sharing their world with some beautiful wildlife including Black and white Colobus Monkeys, Olive Baboons and birdlife including Gonoleks, African Fish Eagles and Hadeda Ibis.

Mursi

The second group of people who adorn themselves with elaborate ‘lip disks’ the Mursi are a Nilotic, pastoralist tribe of people who undergo various rites of passage, educational or disciplinary processes. Lip plates are a well known aspect of the Mursi and Surma, who are probably the last groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery, wooden discs, or ‘plates,’ in their lower lips. Girls’ lips are pierced at the age of 15 or 16. Occasionally lip plates are worn to a dance by unmarried women.

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 status as their husbands.

While visiting the Mursi and their close relatives, the Suri, we will try to search for a cattle camp for our group to visit.  Both the Suri and the Mursi rely heavily upon their herds of cattle for meat, milk and blood.  The latter is bled from cows to drink at breakfast, in a similar way to the cattle bloodletting of the Masaai people of Kenya.  We cannot guarantee that we will visit a cattle camp as the shepherds working with the cattle are nomadic and they move around often to graze their cattle and shelter them from being rustled by neighbouring tribes.  If found, however, visiting a cattle camp is one of the highlights of travel in the Omo Valley, providing a very unique insight into the nomadic way of life of the Suri and Mursi people.

After a spectacular drive out of the Omo Valley and through the beautiful terraced fields of the Konso people, we will enjoy a final night at the beautiful Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch where we will recap on our encounters with these magnificent people. On our final morning we will take a quiet, gentle boat trip out on Lake Chamo where fishermen from the Gamo tribe ply the waters searching for Nile Perch and Tilapia on the same papyrus reed boats they have used for centuries to fish.

Nyangatom and Toposa

The Nyangatom and Toposa inhabit a starkly beautiful region of the Rift Valley which is both remote and incredibly photogenic. This hot, dry, arid region of southern Ethiopia features dusty plains and waxy-leaved Calotropis bushes. Exploring this part of remote Ethiopia we may encounter a myriad of different ethnic people emanating from South Sudan, the highlight of whom are both the elaborately decorated Nyangatom people and the spectacularly scarred Toposa people. Nyangatom women are known for wearing copious amounts of brightly coloured necklaces and their more subtle scars are sometimes glimpsed between layers of coloured fabric. The Nyangatom engage in inter-tribal conflict with virtually every one of their neighbouring tribes, with the exception of the Toposa, who may live with and inter-marry with Nyangatom people.

We will seek out the Toposa living amongst the Nyangatom so we can photograph their beautiful scarification. Toposa women often carry a series of horizontal scars across their bellies. The men adorn their shoulder blades with concentric arched lines of dotted scars.

Suri

The Suri are the largest ethnic group of three similar tribes who are collectively called the Surma. This group is effectively divided by altitude, modernisation, and dialect. While the two lesser sized groups in the Surma, the Deze and Mele people of the uplands, have modernised to cease wearing traditional clothes, the more numerous Suri, or people of the lowlands, have retained much of their historical appearance and lifestyle.

Over the years the advent of increased tourism and photographers has created an industry that supports the people of the Omo Valley, or the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), in their ever diminishing ways to earn money. It has also manifested into some rather beautiful, yet unusual practices.

The spectacular Suri tribe, for example, has two very distinct personalities. The first is a newer tradition of body painting and decoration with wild flowers, skins, metal and ceramic pots. While this traditionally formed a very small part of Suri culture (they have always decorated themselves extensively for special events like weddings and initiations), they now regularly dress up like this for photographers, even though this act has very little anthropological merit. On our tour we will definitely spend a small amount of time around decorated Suri people as photographically it is a very beautiful experience. The strength of the Suri, and the focus of our photography with them, however, lies in their ability to retain traditional body adornment in the form of scarring, piercing and shaving. Piercing lips and lobes and inserting lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. At puberty most young women have their lower teeth removed in order to get their lower lip pierced. Once the lip is pierced, it is then stretched and lip plates of increasing size are then placed in the hole of the piercing. Having a lip plate is a sign of female beauty and appropriateness; a common thought is that the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is ‘worth’ for her bride price, though this is questioned by anthropologists.

The Suri pride themselves on their scars and how many they carry. Women perform decorative scarification by slicing their skin with a razor blade after lifting it with a thorn. After the skin is sliced the piece of skin left over is left to eventually scar. On the other hand, the men traditionally scarred their bodies after they killed someone from an enemy group.

A sport and ritual the Suri take very seriously is stick fighting, or Donga. In most cases, this stick fighting is done so young men can find wives. It is a way for young men to prove themselves to the young women. To the Suri, the ideal time to stick fight is just after it rains but if we are lucky we may chance upon a fight on our tour. The fights are held between Suri clans, and they begin with 20 to 30 people on each side. Of these 20 to 30 people, all get a chance to fight one on one against someone from the other side. During these fights there are referees present to make sure the rules are being followed. Many stick fights end within the first couple of decisive hits.

We will spend time with the Suri in order to enjoy both their touristic and traditional sides, while hoping to see a much-anticipated donga during our trip.

The Tribal Markets of the Omo Valley

During our time in this region we will visit two significant markets that are excellent for street and portrait photography.  One is the central market of Key Afara and the local market of the Hamer people in Turmi. If you hope to purchase some beautiful African art or jewellery during our trip, these markets offer some wonderful pieces handcrafted by tribal artisans.

Accommodation & Road Transport

In Addis Ababa and for five nights in the Omo we will stay in comfortable lodges where all rooms have private bathrooms. For seven nights we will be staying in outfitted camps erected by our camp crew, who also cook wonderful food. The tents are two-man sized tents, but each person gets their own tent. (Couples can opt to sleep in one and put their luggage in the other should they so wish.)  Tents have a camp bed with mattress, linen and pillow with pillow case. Breakfasts at camp consist of omelettes with fresh bread or pancakes and hot coffee/tea. For lunch, salads and bread with fruit, while there is a three course dinner starting with soup, a selection of main course dishes and fresh fruit for dessert. Each camp has a shower tent and also male and female toilet tents. Road transport is by 4×4 vehicles as roads in southern Ethiopia can sometimes be quite rough.

Walking

The walking effort is easy throughout.

Climate

Generally warm or hot, dry and sunny.

Photographic Equipment

For most photography of the people of the Omo Valley, a travel lens of around 24-105mm on a full frame DSLR or mirrorless body will be essential. Sometimes a 70-200mm (on a full frame) will be useful for such things as a stick fight or bull jumping ceremony, shjhould we witness one.  A wide angle lens of around 16mm or  smaller will be perfect for working with the people inside small huts.

If you prefer to photograph people from a distance, then please consider bringing a larger zoom or telephoto lens. It is our experience that sometimes people can feel a bit intimidated by large cameras and lenses so you may wish to bring a smaller sized zoom lens like a 100-400mm which doesn’t appear as intimidating as a large fixed focal length telephoto lens. Such a lens can also be useful for any wildlife we encounter.

If you bring a good quality bridge camera instead of a DSLR or mirrorless it will be best if it has an optical zoom of 18-20x or more, combined with a reasonable wide-angle at the other end of the zoom range.

If you have a phone or tablet that can be used for photography, you may find these quite useful around people.

Similarly if you have a Polaroid camera like the Leica Sofort or an Instax Mini, these are wonderful to have on hand when you spend time with tribal people. If you decide to bring one of these, please bring lots of film with you as the photographs you produce will be quite popular!

Be sure to bring plenty of spare battery power. On a number of nights there will be no access to power.

If you would like to talk over suitable equipment, please contact our office. We will be happy to advise.

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