Ancient tribes & bewildering warmth: Portraits of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley
It took ZOZI writer Elaina three days to get to the Omo Valley from the capital of Ethiopia, where she spent a week visiting locals from some of Africa's remote tribal groups. Embark on her visual journey through one of the most unique places on Earth.
Your dreams of Africa start and end here: A sense of disbelief that consumes you the moment your 4x4 rockets over the narrow, dusty roads that descend into tribal lands. Unfazed by the bustling capital, it's the communities of Ethiopia's Omo Valley that ultimately surpass your wildest imagination. Even the most savvy, seasoned travelers will find themselves taken aback by the ceremonies, markets, animals, coffee, ancient languages, and fire-side rituals, reeled in by the contagious nature found in this corner of East Africa, and infected with the desire to have every ounce of its wonders seep into their pores.
Ethiopia has been named one of the fastest growing economies in Africa; a country to be marveled at not only for its new generation of economic prowess, but for the rich cultural heritage stemming from its proud status as the only country on the continent never to be fully colonized. Ethiopians speak Amharic, drink coffee like Italians, practice a unique form of Orthodox Christianity, and even have their own calendar (it's the year 2008 right now).
A three-day journey from the capital, Addis Ababa, will land you in the lower Omo Valley, where some of the most ancient tribal communities on the continent still exist. There are said to be 86 tribes in Ethiopia—16 in the Omo Valley alone. Here, small farmers and cattle herders live seamlessly across Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, just as they did hundreds of years before borders were marked.
Last year, I spent four months working in Ethiopia and a week visiting a Hamer tribe in the lower Omo. My interpreter and I came with gifts of rice and candies from the capital and slept on bare mattresses next to the home of the chief.
There were household coffee ceremonies at sunrise in the local village, bustling market days where trade secrets were shared between tribes, and sunsets passed playing in the fields with children and animals. Nights were spent sleeping under the stars with families crowded around me, lulled into my dreams by the sounds of fire crackling, animals snorting, children singing, men snoring—and later a stillness so pure I thought I swore I could hear the heartbeat of our galaxy blazing overhead.
The first words I learned in the local Hamer language were "hello, come here, friend, moon, home, and rain"—the basics of a place where tradition, family, animals, and nature reign supreme.
Once I left the bewildering warmth of my brief stay with the Omo Valley tribes behind, the utter remoteness of where I've been and what I experienced left me feeling like none of it ever existed at all. Yet I left knowing I saw the cultural heritage of our planet in full bloom.