1-2 February 2018
Playing Ethiopian dodgeball with the goats, ruts, rocks, swales and riverbeds of the road, for two hours we bounce our way to the village of Gorcho. This is a new landscape of flat land, huge dry washes, red soil and towering red ‘chimneys’ of termite mounds. I definitely would not want to be in this area when the rains fall. There is much evidence of massive flooding and fast, dangerous rivers of water. Today it is hot and bone dry.
As Bette Davis warned in All About Eve –
Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
North of Dip’ A Hayk’ Lake and high above the brown and sluggish Omo River is the Omotic tribe of the Karo. The village is located at the Omo Bend, a natural curve in the Omo River. Natural flooding creates a rich, green forest within the bend. Huge acacia trees, the “umbrellas” of Africa, dot the river banks. Atop the escarpment overlooking this tranquil scene, the Karo is just one of several minority tribes living along and subsisting because the Omo.
It is hot and Karo nakedness makes a lot of sense.
The Karo are herders and farmers of sorghum and maze. Being one of the friendliest of the Omotic tribes, they settled here quite some time ago and are now considered permanent. They tend to get along with everyone (except the Mursi who tend to not get along with anyone).
I am at the southern tip of Mago National Park and not far from the eastern border with South Sudan, the world’s newest country. North is the endless horizons of Mago and Omo National Parks, which also includes the Tama Wildlife Reserve. The Omo National Park covers an area of 1570 sq. miles, making it the largest park in Ethiopia. It abounds with both bird and wild life including buffalo, elephant, giraffe, lion, leopards, hartebeest, and more, I am told. We won’t be seeing any of them here as “roads” are not maintained and it is nearly impossible to reach the park. Mago NP shares its boundary with Omo NP but is a “tiny” 857 sq. miles. From the north, River Omo cuts right through the parks like a drunken sailor on a zig zag route to ultimately flow into Lake Turkana hundreds of miles later in Kenya.
This is home to the Karo, a tribe known for their “human art.” This tribe is principally of the Nile-Sahara area of southeastern South Sudan but a small number of the group moved across the border into southwestern Ethiopia.
The Karo decorate their faces and bodies with red ochre and white chalk to create intricate designs. All is done by hand using fingers or wooden sticks. Their designs are done to celebrate special moments, like a wedding, harvesting time, or death. Actually, because painting is thought of as a sign of beauty and creativity, just about anything is a good excuse. Painting bodies and faces are ways to be more visually appealing. It can also serve the purpose of appearing intimidating to rival tribes. The body and face painting is quite attractive and unique. Often a pattern of dots, called Guinea Fowl based on that bird’s coloring, is created.
These days, possibly, they paint themselves more often as they know visitors like myself are arriving and like seeing this tradition and photographing them. I notice, as I oblige their poses, that the Karo are not as aggressive as the Mursi. Birr are still demanded, however. The boys will strut their stuff and the women, most bare-breasted, will pose even though I see a lot of serious faces. Their clothing is both cotton and cow hide and is typically of bright patterns and colorful.
The boys are pretty much typical boys and indistinguishable from most other boys of these tribes. However, the men are more decorated and willing to pose just like the women. And the men especially love to show off their guns, a possession of pride. A gun is more valuable than a cow.
Girls are different. The Karo always wear short hair. Women twist their hair into tight little knots, apply butter for shine and hold, then sprinkle red soil throughout for that glossy bright henna look. The Karo also pierce their lower lip, insert a stick or nail, and decorate with feathers or beads. The married women wear a hide shirt decorated with beads and sea shells from Kenya. The married women also wear many lovely beaded necklaces. If unmarried, the girl edges her skirt with nails. The use of cotton skirts is a recent occurrence.
The Karo’s thatched huts were slightly different in style from the Mursi, but were built with the same materials of grass. Cutting the grass during the wet season, Karo add sticks, any wood planks available and mud plaster to create a quite comfortable and sturdy home. This village is of good size with an unknown tally of people and many huts and storage huts.
The Karo community has a central courtyard that serves as their meeting hall and courthouse combined. I read that when a tribe member needs to be disciplined for some wrongdoing, they get penalized by sacrificing any living possession they may have, like goats or a cow. Like with the Mursi, the Karo use their livestock as currency, so this is how they pay their debts, fines, and barter for other things they need.
Gibe hydroelectric dam, opened in 2015, is the second biggest in Ethiopia. Threatening their centuries-old way of life. it’s just 40 miles west on the Omo. The promise is it will have a good effect. That remains to be seen. While there are great benefits to be gained from its generation of electricity, it is feared the 2,000 ft. dam will have an environmental impact upon the tribes of the region, altering the entire flood patterns upon which thousands of people in the lower basin, like the Karo, depend for their livelihoods.
Also, big sugar plantation schemes are in the planning, except some say there is not enough water in the Omo to irrigate them all. (The wide road being constructed through this area is by and for the plantations.) Many of these schemes are on land either taken from the Omo National Park or that once was occupied by the Mursi and Karo tribes. The tribes gain flood protection and possible lessened effects from droughts. The construction contract was not transparent (awarded to China) and most all the sugar plantations will be foreign-owned. So others double their irrigated lands but at what price for ancient cultures like the Karo?
In the hot, hot afternoon we visit the Hamer tribe, another Omotic peoples of the Omo Basin. Unlike the Karo and Mursi, the Hamer are more accessible, and our village visit is no more than a five-minute drive. The Hamer are known for their artistic body painting. The women wet their ocher colored hair with butter, which is dyed with natural earth materials mixed with oxide of iron giving their hair a distinctive orange to red color. I’m told the clay soil gives their hair a soft texture. This hair treatment is done on a weekly basis. The Hamer wear their hair longer than the Karo. Beads and shells decorate the womens’ leather skirts, made from both cattle and goat skins. This clothing is often traded for livestock with Kenyan tribes.
Hamer men were camera shy and few were seen. The men wear a clay “cap” that is painted and decorated with feathers and other ornaments. The men are polygamist and marry as many wives, up to 10, as they have the dowry of livestock and guns. The first wife always wears a unique collar as a “wedding ring.” However, the men are pressured into choosing wives only within their own tribe. A “bride price” of cattle and other goods, particularly guns, is provided by the prospective husband and his closest relatives to the family.
The hoards of children seem to number more than the women could bare. Most seem to range from infancy to six years old. All older children are probably tending to their job, either watching the livestock or working the fields. I may have a hard time distinguishing the older women from men, but the children are easy. Naked for boys, a little skirt indicates a girl.
The Hamer practice a custom of “bull jumping,” as a traditional way of initiating boys into manhood. This occurs during market day and is taken very seriously. The ceremony begins with female relatives, some coming great distances, dancing and inviting whipping from men who have recently been initiated; this shows their support and their scars give them a right to demand his help in time of need. The girls come from the young man’s mother’s side of the family and though their breasts may be covered, their backs are bare to show off their scars with pride. The whipping is supposed to take the bad luck onto the girl. The father prays. The boy must run back and forth twice across the backs of a row of bulls or castrated steers, at least eight, and is ridiculed if he fails. Once successful, he can marry. I am told because the boy has tended this herd for years and knows the cattle, the jumping is not as dangerous as it sounds.
Many elements of their religion are still practiced today. For instance, they believe that natural objects such as rocks and trees have spirits. One belief of the Hamer, Mingi, is the state of being impure or “ritually polluted.” A person, often a child, who was considered mingi is killed by forced permanent separation from the tribe by being left alone in the jungle or by drowning in the river
Hamer are largely pastoralists, and their culture places a high value on cattle, which are used in trade. The tribe lives in a village that consists of several related families. The families live in huts arranged in a circle, and the livestock are brought into the camp’s center at night. The food is stored inside the home. Their huts are covered with thatch during the dry season and canvas mats during the rainy season. Herds belonging to the Hamer consist mainly of cattle, although there are some sheep and goats. Most Hamer farmers plant fields of sorghum at the beginning of the rainy season but crops are usually left unattended and the yields may be low.
Though this is the lowest elevation we have traveled, at 3,000 ft., the savannah is dry and dependent on the rains and the Omo River. The Gibe dam could have a huge impact upon the livelihood of the Hamer.
We made a brief stop to visit a third Omotic tribe, the Banna. Banna farm their own land rather than live grouped together in a village. The Banna are primarily farmers, growing maze, sorghum, corn and peanuts. We visited a family farm of a husband and wives and children. Banna are friendly with all their neighboring tribes and welcomed us to see their hut and storage sheds. They had a unique and creative way of storing their corn outside.
However, outside the farmer’s fence, some passing Hamer women, accompanied by husbands with guns, were not as friendly. Until the men saw there were some Birr involved, they did not want pictures. As the Birr came out, all was well. When a young guy with an AK-47 asks for money, you pay. More men are killed these days because of the availability of guns than most other ways.
The family’s hut, where they sleep, eat and store grain, is dark and bare. The wives were plain with little adornment. They do intermarry with other tribes and this family had converted to Protestantism. The husband was very willing for pictures. His head decoration of skull cap and Pom Pom was interesting.
Tomorrow we leave this land to return north toward Addis, civilization to some, chaos to others. I know what to expect. We return to Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch, overlooking Lake Abaya. Perhaps the baboons will not be so shy this time.