A Bridge over the Omo River

Five years ago, I went to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley to visit and photograph the native tribes (OmoValleyTribes). This year, I went back partly to see whether things had changed. In my previous post (HamarAgain), I described my recent experience with the Hamar tribe. Other than the Hamar, there were two other tribes I had visited last time that I was able to see again on this trip, the Kara and the Nyagatom. (I could not visit the Suri this year as I had on my previous trip, as this tribe is located in an area that it is now unsafe to travel).

The Kara tribe, the smallest ethnic group of the Omo Valley, lives on the Eastern side of the Omo River while the Nyagatom tribe live on the West side. Last visit, to get to a Nyagatom village from a Kara village, we had to cruise the Omo River for quite a while and walk inland about two miles. Now I was told that there was a bridge, still under construction but functional. I couldn’t help wondering whether having an easier way for the tribes on each side to connect would help or hurt their relationships.

On my last visit, I was able to spend quite a bit of time with the Kara (KaraTribe) and the Nyagatom (NyagatomTribe), but this year my visit was a lot shorter. As we made our way to Dus, one of the Kara villages I had visited last time, I noticed that there was a highly noticeable change. Much of the tribal land had been transformed into cotton plantations. Yes, cotton! The government is apparently partnering with multinational companies in the cotton industry and there were now cotton fields as far as my eyes could see. Again I wondered what kind of impact this would have on the life of the local tribes. As we arrived to Dus, the village looked the same except for two things. It was basically deserted and a huge temporary food dispensary was on the premise. For the past two years, Ethiopia has been experiencing a severe drought and food is quite scarce. (I am sure the fact that their land has been transformed into a cotton plantation doesn’t help.) Thankfully, various NGOs are trying to provide some relief. In addition to the food dispensary, a water pump and a simple irrigation system had been installed closer to the river so that food (mostly sorghum and maize) could be grown. When we arrived everyone was already working which is why the village was empty. So off we went to visit the “Farm”.

Being aware of the food shortage, we had brought 3 bags of grain for the Kara as a gift (well it ended up being more like 2 ½ bags as one of the bags got pierced en route and we left a trail of grain behind our vehicle. Unlike Hansel and Gretel though we had not planned to leave a trail to find our way back, but in retrospect we clearly should have, as we got lost). When we arrived to the “Farm”, as they had done for us on my previous visit, the Kara performed a dance as a sign of appreciation for our gifts. The Kara women were dressed in beautiful skirts made of goatskin that are slightly longer in the back, with their hair short and typically shaped into what look like beads. Men were also dressed traditionally, and carried their borkoto, the small stool they have with them at all times in case they have a desire to sit– even while dancing! The dance was a treat to watch, even though it was extremely dusty.

To see the Nyagatom, we crossed the new bridge and drove to a nearby village, a different one than the one I had visited five years ago. To adorn their long and lean bodies, most Nyagatom women still wear numerous necklaces and long skirts, some made of goatskins. But unlike in my previous visit, this time though, a number of women were sporting skirts made of fabric. The children were very friendly, but some of the grown-ups a little more tentative. Here too, the women were cooking with very little in the way of ingredients; the food situation looked alarming to me.

So here again as for the Hamar, I did not think the tribes had changed drastically though one could clearly see the influence of the modern world. (I am fully aware that this conclusion could be far off from reality as it is based on a very short visit –so small sample, for those so inclined–, though my thinking was that if there were dramatic changes, I would probably see them). The most noticeable change though was probably the food scarcity, which is becoming a very serious problem. As for the relationship between the tribes, sadly two weeks after being back, we learned that some people from the Nyagatom tribe had sneaked in to Dus, the Kara village we had visited and attempted to steal food. Gunshots were exchanged and one of the Kara tribe members that had been such a gracious host (and a stylish dancer in some of these images) was shot in the chest. Thankfully he was able to get medical help and is now back in his village hoping that one day we come back and visit again.

France

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10 Comments

  1. Herb May 7, 2017 at 17:05 #

    Wonderful images and blog and you definitely described the experience as it was with much humor and sense of joy. You captured it so well! I think we scraped up most of the grain that spilled out of the bag. They thanked us for the food and asked us to send them some rain. Glad to hear that it has been raining daily in the Omo the last two weeks.

    • franceleclerc May 8, 2017 at 10:26 #

      Thank you Herb. I am so glad to hear that we may have been rain maker for somebody 🙂 Always nice to travel with you as your kindness to the locals warms my heart. Best, France

  2. Julie Manley May 7, 2017 at 18:51 #

    Beautiful images. So interesting about the cotton, I hope it helps them in the long run. It’s a difficult question re development, there are good things and bad things about it. It’s good if they get education and better medical treatment out of it.

    • franceleclerc May 8, 2017 at 10:34 #

      Dear Julie, I so agree with you that the question of development is a difficult question. One certainly wishes that it would improve the lives of the locals somehow. As of now though, the tribes do not seem to be benefited from this at all. None of them have been hired to work there and they just found themselves with less land. One can hope that this will change over time. The challenge is that nobody is really fighting for the rights of the tribes, maybe this will change to. Let’s hope so. XX France

  3. harrie May 8, 2017 at 03:53 #

    Wonderful series, again 🙂 Thanks foe sharing!

    • franceleclerc May 8, 2017 at 10:35 #

      Dear Harrie, Thank you for taking the time. Always nice hearing from you. France

  4. Louise Porter May 8, 2017 at 09:50 #

    Was so intrigued with the bridge I wanted to investigate further. Your article was eye opening on the changes of which I knew little. Was there in 2013 and 2014 at a very good feeling time. You have marvelous photos and thanks for sharing all!
    Louise

    • franceleclerc May 8, 2017 at 10:44 #

      Louise, Thank you for your kind words. We don’t often have the chance (or the time) to go back to places we visited (though you seem to have gone to the Omo twice already). When I was there 5 years ago, everybody was saying that the tribes were disappearing and that in a few years they would be fully integrated. Well, this clearly did not happen but a severe drought two years in a row has had a big impact on their well-being. Thankfully it is raining now. France

  5. Sally Bucko May 8, 2017 at 23:20 #

    Dennis and I both enjoyed your blog, your perspective and your photos, France, especially considering we shared the experience with you! Thank you. I’m not optimistic about the future for these tribes and feel more connected with, and concerned about, the Kara Tribe than the others. It’s complicated…do we want their lives to change, especially the situation for women? More education? Yes, definitely! But (underpaid) cotton pickers relocated due to the dam? What happens to their centuries old traditions and their self respect?

    • franceleclerc May 9, 2017 at 13:05 #

      Thank you Sally. I completely agree with your assessment. I do not feel too optimistic about the future of the tribes either. It is hard to think of a path where they can continue their traditional lifestyle, as so-called modernization is closing down on them. Though I have to say that I was expecting to see more changes than I did so maybe they have more time than we think. And it is certainly hard for us to say what is best for them. We tried it with the Native Americans and failed miserably.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] « A Bridge over the Omo River […]

  2. By Extra Treats in Ethiopia on July 3, 2017 at 14:52

    […] visiting isolated tribal villages in Ethiopia is a unique experience (Hamar, Kara and others), I also enjoyed hanging out in areas that are a little more developed.   Barber shops […]

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