)March 11, 2014
The Omo River Valley in Ethiopia (declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1980) was known to Europeans since the 17th century, but only in the last decade have foreigners begun travelling in this region. Bordering with Kenya and Sudan, far from any city, it is a lost world, a region traversed only by a few bad quality roads, passable only in the dry season. Here live some 15 semi-nomadic tribes, the largest comprising of approximately 70,000 people and the smallest no more than 1,000, a total of about 200,000. To this day, the Omo Valley is rich in traditional culture and human history. Remains of early humans dating back nearly four million years have been found here, evidencing an almost continuous human presence. The most astonishing thing about these people is their beauty. Both boys and girls have magnificent physiques — slender and unusually supple. Lack of material culture is compensated by the exceptional ornamental and symbolic wealth of their decorated bodies. They adorn themselves to manifest their status and tribal identity, not only as an expression of beauty, but also as a demonstration of messages and signals. They do this through scarification, paintings, ornamentation and hair styles. Omo tribesmen have adopted the practice of demanding money for “each” picture taken, another way for the community to share resources. The only piece of modern technology widespread among the tribes is the automatic weapon. The ongoing conflicts in Sudan and Somalia, have created trade in Russian Kalashnikovs and European G-3 rifles. The tribes are fighting over the diminishing resources they need to run their herds: water, and land.
Visiting this remote area and experiencing their culture was a trip-of-a-lifetime. Staying at two different camps over two weeks, I was able to meet the Surma (also called Suri) tribe, the Kara (Karo), the Nyangatom (Bume) and the Hamer (Hamar).
The Surma (about 4,000) are pastoralists and have elevated the custom of body painting to an amazing art form. The additional application of local plants, fruits and feathers enhances the effect. The women adorn their bodies by inserting a clay plate into their lower lips, and body scarification created with acacia thorns and (now) razor blades. Nudity is commonplace. The men are expert in a form of stick-fighting called Donga and pride themselves on the battle scars they carry. The lives of the Surma tribesmen revolve around cattle. Cows (and goats) are some of the most prized possessions, and men spent a lot of time with them. They very rarely ea