Just getting back home from another unique journey, a trip to the largest gathering of human beings in the world (30 million of people in a given day). If you think you have seen crowded, just wait!!! I am looking forward to sharing this experience in a future post, but all in due time. For now, I would like to get back to the Omo tribes of Ethiopia. As you may remember (or not) from previous posts, we first visited with the Surma and the Kara. The third tribe we met was described to us as the most bellicose of all, the Nyangatom. I certainly thought their name sounded scary enough, but their story is as well.
Whereas the Kara are agriculturalists, the Nyangatom are pastoralists, cattle people. Tribal wars between the Nyangatom and the surrounding tribes have been a way of life for ages as they have been fighting over the limited (and diminishing) resources they need for their precious cattle: water and land. The Nyangatom are believed to be the first tribe to acquire automatic weapons. They could do so, in the early 80s, because of their proximity to Southern Sudan, with which they share a border. As they were the only tribe with guns for over a decade, the Nyangatom could successfully (and bloodily) grow their territory at the expense of all neighboring tribes. Now that all tribes have access to guns, the tribal feuds can get rather merciless. The Nyangatom are viewed as fierce warriors and until recently were proud of showing the number of scars on their bodies as an indication of their prowess since every time they kill, they scar their bodies to release the bad blood. Currently there is a “peace agreement” among tribes, but one (too) close look at another tribe’s cattle and raids and counter-raids will start again.
The Nyangatom live on the west side of the Omo River. To get to Lokulan, the closest Nyangatom village to us, we cruised on the Omo River among numerous ferocious-looking crocodiles and magnificently elegant goliath herons. From time to time, we also saw Colobus monkeys looking at us from their perches on fig trees, which make them look like they are actually growing on them. (It is Africa; I had to put wildlife in here somewhere!) From shore, you walk about two miles to the village and carrying all the camera gear made it feel like twice that distance. On the way, we saw a number of young men escorting their cattle to graze as well as women carrying yellow jerry cans on their head to bring water from the river back to the village. We finally arrived at the village where, thankfully, the Nyangatom famous animosity was not on display. In fact, in the midday sun, the village was rather quiet with woman dealing with their innumerable daily chores, lots of children playing with goats, and the elders trying to stay away from the sun.
Once again, I was amazed at how the women dress everyday. To adorn their long and lean bodies, they wear numerous necklaces and long skirts from goatskins that are richly decorated. As usual in the tribal world, the style adopted does not only convey beauty but signals the woman’s social status as well. For instance, the married women and the young unmarried ones dress quite differently. A single woman will wear colorful beads on her necklaces as well as on her “apron”, the front part of the skirt, which for them is shaped as a rectangle. Married women will limit themselves to more neutral colors, like beige and taupe (a color palette that I can relate to very well, as anyone who knows me can attest) but they will wear even more necklaces than their younger single counterparts. A married woman’s “apron” is shaped as an elongated triangle and is likely to be embellished with metal all around. In some cases, presumably if the woman is of higher status, the skirt will be decorated with ostrich egg shells.
Although the men were traditionally naked, most of them have now adopted a large piece of cloth that they usually wear tied across their shoulder or wrapped around their hips. Interestingly, some of them like to wear a local version of a “gaiter” on their lower legs. Trying to find out why, I was told that it was making them feel like warriors. I guess the uniform makes the man. A number of the Nyangatom men we saw were also wearing T-shirts and some very strange (and all identical) plastic shoes probably also coming from their contacts with the Sudanese.
As we visit the village, some women are feeding their children. I spent time with a mother while she was feeding her two sons. To do so, she uses a spoon to put a honey-based liquid in their hands that they then lick. I also hung out with a number of kids eating from a bowl of sorghum. When they finished, every little drop had been consumed. I was left amazed that there was still a bowl; so much effort had been spent scraping it. Sadly, we really had a strong sense that for these children, a little more food would have been very welcome.
And finally at night, we were invited to a courtship dance. Here again, men show up first and start dancing. But first they all drop their riffles in a pile, which is probably the only time I saw them putting their guns down (and I have to admit that this was quite comforting to me after having witnessed the Surma shooting their weapons in the midst of their dance). For the Nyangatom, jumping seems to be the skill to impress the ladies. As a warm up, men will go one after the other jumping as high as they can. For the occasion, numerous men have also decorated their legs all in white but with different patterns. At some point, the (mostly) unmarried women show up. They really look spectacular as a group. The women seem to appreciate the jumping skills displayed by the men, and partake in the festivities. At least for now, the warriors can rest.