Ethiopia – Omo Valley

In the deep south of Ethiopia lies the Omo valley, the last frontier of thriving African tribal culture. Life in the valley is sustained by the Omo river, but it could be choked by a dam (Gibe III) when it is completed around 2017. I brought my whole family to visit Omo valley, to see the tribes and their way of life, before they vanish amidst encroaching development. For a week, we traversed the valley’s dusty dirt tracks on a 4WD driven by our super guide Mr Mathewos, at times with a ranger carrying AK-47. We visited the Arbore, Hamer, Dassanech, Banna, Ari, Konso and the ultimate Mursi tribes, the latter with their unique lip-plate culture.

We were lucky to witness a Hamer bull jumping ritual where a boy was initiated into adulthood by jumping over the bulls while his female sibblings and cousins got whipped by the boy’s best men to create scars on the girls’ bodies, the more the merrier they were.

In the harsh desert-like valley, we learnt how the tribes survived with their cattle and crops by digging water from underground. We also learnt their attitudes towards life and their perspectives of tourist, and some bizzare practices like mingi killings (killing of illegitimate newborns), female circumcision and scarring body art, some things we never imagined still exist in our modern world.

It’s not a vacation many families would do. The road journeys were harsh, electricity and water at lodges were limited to certain hours, and the kids certainly missed wifi and Singapore food. At each village, we were mobbed by the villagers to take their photos for a fee, to give them our shirts, bags, pens and even shavers, soaps and safety pins. Some of the tribes, especially the Mursi lip-plate tribes even touched and poked us as they followed us around (my daughter was indeed brave!). I certainly felt like we walked straight into a Hollywood Indiana Jones movie whenever we entered a village, with all the villagers peeping out of their huts, staring and then surrounding us.

Just when we thought the tough roads were over and all ready to enjoy ultra modern Dubai, we realised we were bumped off an overbooked plane and had a “great” experience jostling at the procedure-less Ethiopian capital airport! Nevetherless, this would be one unique once-in-a-lifetime vacation I hope my kids will remember in time to come when they pursue their own adventures.

For now, I wish the valley remains peaceful, development and tourism are managed sustainably and the tribes continue to be happy carrying on their traditions. Perhaps my grandchildren may still see their culture one day, live.