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Ancient African Tribes in the Omo Valley of Southern Ethiopia

A large number of ancient African tribes still live in the Omo Valley region of Southern Ethiopia. Visiting them is one of the best adventures in Africa.

Men of the Mursi tribe
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Because of the remoteness of the region, most of the tribes in the Omo valley haven't had much contact with the outside world. As a consequence, life here is like it was hundreds of years ago

The different tribes, like the Mursi and Suri (both lip-plate tribes), Bana, Hamer and others all have their own territory. And each tribe has their own habits, appearance and festivities.

Meeting these tribes is an experience you will never forget. But make sure to choose a good travel organisation, so you won't disturb their lives. Find out about these organisations on the Adventure travel Ethiopia page. And read about our experiences below.

City people in Jinka

Jinka is the main town of the Omo valley, and its market is used by most tribes to trade their goods.

When we visit the market, however, we mainly see “normal” city people. The goods are spread out on the ground, but because of the rain it is more like a mud pool.

So instead of roaming the market we choose to visit a local pub. Here we play with some children and a group of singing Aari women passes. One of them is getting married and is dressed nicely. We witness a bachelor party African style.

Visiting the Aari tribe

An Aari woman and her son
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The next day is reserved for a visit to the remote area of the Mursi tribe. Because of bad road conditions, however, the trip is cancelled. Instead, we are brought to a village of the Aari tribe.

The Aari is a relatively modern tribe. They do not wear traditional clothing or have other tribe-specific looks. But they live in small huts where we can take a look around.

They also sing and dance for us, but it’s not a spectacular dance. Some drunken man humm and play on a flute while they step around.

We decide to walk the 8 miles back to Jinka. After a while we hear singing from a small church. As we look at the entrance we are invited inside, to participate in the Sunday church service.

There is room for us on the front row, where we sit down while everybody continues singing. The enthusiasm with which everybody sings is in contrast with the church services at home.

The priest however, is as long-winded as the priests in Holland, maybe because we don’t understand what he is saying. So after a while we say goodbye to continue our walk home.

A visit from the Mursi tribe

Mursi Woman with Lip-Plate, Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Mursi Woman with Lip-Plate, Omo Valley, Ethiopia Photographic Print
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When we cannot go to the Mursi, the Mursi will have to come to us. There appears to be a few people of the Mursi tribe doing some shopping in Jinka. They are asked to pay us a visit, and at 5 pm they arrive at the gate of our hotel/campsite.

We arrange some benches to sit on and a jerry can with locally brewed beer. We start looking at each other and we are allowed to make pictures. As the jerry can empties, the Mursi become active.

One by one they stand up and perform some kind of dance. It is unclear whether this is a traditional dance or they made it up on the spot. In any case, they seem to enjoy it, until one of them starts acting a bit annoying to the others. It almost ends in a street fight, but when the initiator is removed it returns to normal.

Unfortunately, only two women are present, who do not wear a traditional lip plate. We can see, however, how the lower lip is stretched to fit such a plate.

And they brought two babies, painted as they are, who drink from the breast. All in all, we are satisfied with their visit, which is a good alternative for our cancelled visit to their village.

But when the jerry can gets empty, it’s better that they leave since they become a little aggressive. From the looks of it, the Mursi is still a primitive tribe.

Baby of the Mursi tribe
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Market in a Bana village

Our last day in Jinka we decide to visit the local market in a Bana village, 15 miles out of town. As we arrive, however, it rains and the marketplace is empty.

We wait in our truck and as the rain stops, more and more Bana people show up. The women have their hair in breads, hold together by butter. On their heads most of them carry the calabash they also use to drink from. A lot of ornaments and an animal skin complete their looks.

Market in a Bana village
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We walk around as the market fills up. We take pictures, for a fee or shifty, and play with the children. As we play soccer we are surrounded by an audience of 50-some people. We laugh as they hide for approaching balls, we do not succeed in teaching them a good header.

Our driver Gerard also attracts an audience as he sits in the middle of the square to buy eggs. Everybody sells just 2 or 3 and Gerard needs a lot for our breakfast the coming days. And so we take part in the local economy.

Only our guide Abebe is complaining. Our presence has raised the going rate of some goods so he cannot afford to buy anything.

Back in Jinka

Back in Jinka we pay a visit to a family who’s son is sponsored by a former travel of our tour company. We are welcomed by a nice young woman with four other young children (the sponsored boy is at school in Addis Abeba).

We join in a coffee ceremony and are offered baked potatoes and fruit as we communicate via our guide Abebe. At night, they visit our camp where we give them their family portrait, shot with our camera and printed on the trucks laptop. They are very impressed and happy with it.

The next day we leave Jinka. But we are not leaving the Omo Valley just yet, not before an encounter with the Bana and Hamer tribes...

Follow our World Journey Next Stop: African Christmas with the Bana tribe

Do you want to visit the ancient African tribes in the Omo Valley as well? Check out the tours that go there on the Adventure travel Ethiopia page.

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