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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.

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