The Omo Tribes: Ethiopia’s Natural Beauties.

Last fall I had the chance to fulfill my one of my long-held dreams to visit the Omo valley and spend time with its remaining tribes.  The Omo valley is in the Southern part of Ethiopia and the lack of roads and infrastructure in the area makes it very difficult to reach and to explore.  Staying at two different camps over two weeks, seven of us were able to meet with four of the sixteen or so different tribal groups found in the region.  We spent time with members of the Surma (also called Suri) tribe, the Kara (Karo) tribe, and their archenemies the Nyagatom and finally we had a brief but colorful encounter with the Hamar, one of the largest tribal groups in the area.  Two weeks was obviously not enough time to understand the richness of these vanishing cultures, but I got a few insights and a few photos that I thought were worth sharing.

Having been isolated from the outside world, the Omo tribes have adopted a number of unique rituals and practices.  But before I get to that, one of the most jarring things I faced when I arrived is the fact that, as some of you may know, Omo tribesmen have adopted the practice of demanding money for “each” picture taken (which can obviously be tricky with a digital camera).  This is obviously not a practice appreciated by travel photographers and not one that I had participated in before, at least not explicitly.

When I heard about this initially I envisioned a situation similar to what I have seen in many other less developed countries namely, a few “model-wannabes” asking for money who can easily (well sometimes not so easily) be avoided and then access to the real locals who would not mind me taking pictures of their daily activities.  In fact, this is the way it was in other areas of Ethiopia that I visited.  But for some reasons that are still unclear to me, the Omo people take this money/photo exchange very seriously (even the remote tribes do, including some of the ones we met who see very few travelers.)  There is a set price: 5 birr –about 30 cents- for an adult, 2 birr for a child.   Thank goodness babies are free otherwise I would be broke. There is also an elaborate exchange procedure, including the fact that everyone wants to be paid in birr notes even if birr coins are now available.  So for two weeks, we were walking around feeling rich with large wads of birr.

Everyone is in on the deal and if you take a photo of someone’s back without them noticing you can be sure that he or she will be told that you did so and that payment will be claimed.  And since most tribesmen walk around with an AK-47 on their shoulders, I decided it would be unwise to object to this policy.

As expected, children were showing their interest in having us taking their pictures, but surprisingly adults were not.  If we wanted to take a picture of someone we had to “ask permission” and then pay.  When we were invited to events such as dances, our guide would pay to compensate for each of us being there. So for the sake of full disclosure, I guess it is fair to say that most of these tribe people were “paid” for allowing me to photograph them.

Has this practice impacted my photography?  I am sure it has.  But I realized that what was the most problematic was not the money per se, as it was very little money for us, and I was more than happy to make some small contribution to their economic welfare.  And strangely, it sometimes felt that the money transaction was just a way for them to get an acknowledgment that we value their pictures.  The worry, of course, is that this commercial exchange might change the behavior of the locals; that they would end up posing or acting as they thought I wanted them to act instead of just being themselves. Upon reflection and looking at my photos, I felt that this may have been the case with body painting where some youngsters were clearly trying to outdo one another.  But overall, I had the impression that for the most part, the Omo tribe people just did not know how to be anything else other than themselves.  Of course, I cannot know for sure, I wish I had been there longer to be able to confirm that impression. And I am not saying that this is a practice that I favor, far from that. But I felt that after I had overcome my discomfort with the process, I was able to capture some real moments.  Well, I hope I did.

Some of the rituals and practices adopted by the various tribes are quite intriguing to the modern world like the cattle-jumping initiation rite in which young men run along the backs of cattle to prove they are ready to marry.  Others are shocking to us such as women asking to be whipped until they bleed as a sign of commitment to a relative.  And there are some practices that challenge all we believe in.  For example, the Kara and Hamar tribes have a tradition of practicing what they called “mingi”.  This requires the tribe members to kill a child who is born out of wedlock or with a birth defect as a way to control bad luck (mingi) associated with such a birth.   Luckily, mingi and other “harmful traditional practices” are now banned by the Ethiopian government, though as is often the case, such bans are not easy to implement.  Luckily also, a wonderful organization, The Omo Child (www.omochild.org), is trying to rescue and take care of these children before the worst happens.

I thought the best way to illustrate the similarities and differences between the four tribes we visited was to present them one at a time.  I will discuss each one of them in the order in which I visited them.  In this post, I’ll talk about my experience with the Surma while subsequent posts will cover the remaining tribes (so stay tuned if you are interested).  I hope these comments provide some useful background to help you understand what you are seeing in the images that follow.

If you meet the Surma, few things will stay with you (well they sure stayed with me).  Married Surma women wear lip-plates, at least they are expected to wear them when strangers are around.   These plates are thought of being a symbol of beauty, and according to some, the size of the lip plate may also be a function of the price (in cattle) the husband paid for his bride. The lip plate is considered another of the “harmful ritual practices” the government has banned.  Surma women also stretch their ears using clay plates similar to those used to stretch the lip.  They also often use what looks like giant wood plugs that they paint or decorate (and sometimes anything else that is available such as small plastic cups.)

As we know from the beautiful work of Hans Silvester among others, the Surma enjoy decorating themselves. They use colors from nature (chalk, charcoal, ochre, and red clay) and paint their face or body in quite intricate ways.  They also started using flowers, fruits, leaves, and whatever else they think will improve their appearance or catch attention.  Surma people also beautify themselves, in their eyes, by practicing scarification.  To do so, they use a razor blade to cut the skin and an acacia thorn to create bumpy scars to form simple or elaborate designs.

The lives of the Surma tribesmen revolve around cattle.  Cows (and goats) are some of the most prized possessions, and men spent a lot of time with them.  Most young boys will spend extended time away from the village caring for the cattle so that they develop the necessary skills and knowledge to tend them.  The cows are very rarely killed but young cattlemen drink cow’s blood to get stronger. As a couple of the photos show, an arrow is used to pierce a vein, and the blood is drunk quickly before it coagulates, either directly from the cow or from a calabash.

Finally, the Surma have their own dance rituals. The one we witnessed involved a large group of people dancing in a large circle.  From time to time, two men or a man and a woman would venture to dance in the middle of the circle. Surprisingly, guns were shot repeatedly during this dance, perhaps because the dance was in honor of someone who had recently died.

Meet the Surma.

France

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156 Responses

  1. OMG. France. This is all completely amazing. Your words and your photography. I really don’t have words that can express the humanity that you have captured. WOW.

    I can’t wait to learn about the Kara tribe next.

    Thinking about you and sending my love, Linda

    Linda Ginzel Clinical Professor of Managerial Psychology The University of Chicago Booth School of Business 5807 South Woodlawn Avenue Chicago, Illinois 60637

    P: 773 702 7889 F: 773 702 0458 ____________________________________ Please visit http://KidsInDanger.org

    From: franceleclerc <[email protected]> Reply-To: franceleclerc <comment [email protected]> Date: Sunday, January 13, 2013 2:47 AM To: “Ginzel, Linda” <[email protected]> Subject: [New post] The Omo Tribes: Ethiopia’s natural beauties.

    franceleclerc posted: “Last fall I had the chance to fulfill my one of my long-held dreams to visit the Omo valley and spend time with its remaining tribes. The Omo valley is in the Southern part of Ethiopia and the lack of roads and infrastructure in the area makes it very d”

      1. Happiness and darkness indeed! And unfortunately it is getting darker by the day in the Omo valley. Thanks for visiting. France

  2. Captivating photos and an even more captivating place…I’ve called South Omo (among the Daasanech people) “home” for the last four years. It’s a fading place and you’ve done well to capture it before it fully disappears.

  3. Wow, fantastic photos and really interesting information here. Some of the photos were viscerally difficult to look at, but thus the power and importance of understanding different cultures.

    Cheers!

  4. Stunning photos. I don’t know if you visited the Mursi but I watched a fabulous documentary about them, filmed by one of them, so very interesting to hear their perspective on tourism. Well worth watching if you haven’t seen it already. ‘SHOOTING WITH THE MURSI’
    Directed by Olisarali Olibui and Ben Young

    1. Thanks for suggesting the documentary. I just watched the trailer. It looks fascinating. I will try to see it as soon as I can track a copy. I love the idea that it was done by a local.
      Thanks again.

  5. Wow…I don’t know what else to say. It’s been a while that I saw such photos. How you capture these people is stunning. I am glad I found your blog. You should exhibit these photos here in Addis. I would love to see them printed.

    1. I bet it will be awesome to have them printed and be kept for future because the world is changing and in future Africa will not be like that again. proud of Africa mother land.

  6. Thanks France,
    this is what happen sure in other countries. When I come to USA in 2007, people used to ask me if we walk naked back in Africa and I was like NO. this is because in my country we don’t walk naked and now I see this I think of people who live in the northern part of Ethiopia and some sub-sahara desert parts of Africa. thanks for just submitting this in your own words and picture. hope to see more from you and your blog.
    thanks

    1. I am so glad you like the photos and yes, Africa is changing. Good things are happening but it is still sad to think that some customs and traditions will disappear.

  7. i lived and worked in ethiopia between 1973-75, in the town of kombolcha, south of dessie in wollo province. it was a pleasure to read your account and to peruse your photographs.

  8. I’m completely entranced. This is as powerful as anything I’ve seen in National Geographic (I’m a huge NG junkie). Both text and photos–fantastic. What glorious-looking people. It saddens me that cultures like this are disappearing so rapidly.

  9. great pictures!
    I was supposed to go to Ethiopia two weeks ago but opted out, for a number of reasons. Had I gone, I would have still been there now.
    But it’s my understanding that it’s not that hard to reach them – there are numerous companies in Addis offering tours to these regions.

    Seeing the cow punctured and the blood drunk has been a bit, I admit as a vegan, sickening. And you also went to say that they drink it before the blood coagulates. What does it do to their insides! ugh not going to think about, not going to think about it, not going to….
    (: thanks for an interesting report

    1. Well, there are some tribes easier to reach than others. One can fly or drive to Jinka and visit the neighboring tribes. These tribes get many visitors. Some of the ones we visited see at most 20 travelers a year. It is more difficult to get to them. And yes, there are things difficult to watch but I am sure you would enjoy the journey.

  10. Thanks for sharing your journey through these beautiful paradise . These are by far the most amazing , awesome photographs I have seen in a long time . These people are absolutely beautiful. Their raw beauty is unique and priceless

  11. Amazing photographs. Whether or not you got a little extra “posing” from your subjects, the relevant matter is that you captured their essence as they would want it to be seen by others, which says a great deal from an ethnographic perspective. Your work is an homage to these people. Respectful and captivating. Well done.

  12. As an Ethiopian, I just want to say thank you for showing the beauty of my country to the world through your amazing talent love it. Thank You Franc you are awesome

  13. I hope when they were shooting their weapons into the air, they shot at an angle out into an empty space. What goes up, must come down and people have been wounded or killed from this sort of practice. However, that danger hasn’t stopped anyone from shooting rounds into the sky.

    1. Well all I can say is when I realized they were shooting for real, I tried to get out of the way. Apparently there are lots of “accidents”. Every man carries a weapon but they don’t all know how to use them skillfully.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing this amazing work. I have read of the Omo tribe and have enjoyed such an intimate look into their daily lives. Also, I was wondering exactly they bled their cattle, and now I know.

  15. Having grown up eagerly awaiting every new National Geographic I thought I’d grown accustomed to being left in awe and without words. The textures, colors and unconscious-every-day sensuality captured here blow my mind. Having lived in remote cultures, I sense that these people have not experienced the questioning and doubt that comes with lengthy exposure to a dominant outside culture. They know who they are at their core. Thank you for capturing that.
    – Renee

  16. Absolutely incredible photos. As a student of anthropology, history and political science, the ways in which encounter and interact with different groups/cultures/persons is of extreme interest to me. I’m completely flawed by your photos.

  17. So unbelievably beautiful … mainly this seems not a culture that is fighting ” the battle of the bulge” … though I’m sure they have their own battles … thank you for sharing this and the magnificent pics … this made my day … Love, cat.

  18. Such an interesting blog post, Ethiopia is a country that I’m keen to learn much more about but your photos are better than any resource that I’ve found so far. Amazing insight!

  19. What an honor to have gained a window into these people’s incredible world. Bravo on taking such extraordinary pictures. I especially love the breastfeeding moms and vegetable wearing shots. Bless!

  20. Great blog. Interested in your comments about payment to the people involved. Researchers I know are now far more conscious of the ethics of essentially ‘capturing knowledge’ which an image offers. Most cultures have very established and elaborate processes for sharing knowledge both within and outside their immediate circles (ask any corporation about their intellectual property or a pop star about rights to their wedding photos etc). As there is often considerable ceremony or consultation required to share knowledge in most cultures – payment can be an agreed method to short-cut this. Is this how you see the process or would you say there was another motivation?

    1. This is an interesting perspective on the issue of payments. Not one that I had thought of but certainly possible. My own impression was that it is almost giving the tribes people some sense of power over us travelers which I guess they rarely have. They have something that we want and we should give up something to get it. What was very interesting to me was they they would not go down on price and were ready to walk away if we were not ready to give them the 5 birr. I once was about to run out of money while on a shoot so I was trying to convince them to let me take their pictures for less. Nobody was willing to do it. I offered pens and chapsticks which I had in my bag, they were happy to take them as gifts but still wanted the 5 birr for the picture. I will try to track down when it all started, may be this will inform us on the underlying motivation.
      Best,

      France

      1. Thanks France – It’s interesting to know about this type of collective policy and to hear that it is very firmly applied here. Very likely the decision was taken at a senior level in the community.

  21. Wow–these photos truly describe the indescribable. The passion is amazing–the people appear so proud and haughty. What incredible work. Very interesting from an anthropological sense as well; the demand for payment coupled with what could easily be described as a thoroughly unmodern culture shouldering quite modern weapons. The juxtaposition of globalization blows me away.

  22. Fascinating. It’s funny that some of the things that the Omo tribe do in their grooming, many have adopted in developed countries. In modern culture it’s done probably because they think it’s rad or trendy – I know, I am not hip at all so excuse my dated words. But anyway, the objects in the ear that stretches the ear out, decorative markings and putting paint on the body all remind me in one way or another of the tattooing or body piercing culture. Funny how we are different but similar. Great job.

  23. Reblogged this on ~~Good~talk~with~Yen-Yen~~ and commented:
    I can’t believed this, I mean, really this still exist at this kind of age? I don’t know! But I know from my heart there are stuffs like this in this part of our existence that this still exist, and the community of that particular Tribes are supporting this kind of Traditions.
    I’m not saying that this is a wrong doing because a Tradition is a Tradition for them to follow, and must to execute. But I can’t force myself to follow or to till them to continue nor to stop it! Not because that I’m not on favor of it, but because I believed that it is not safe for their health. Am I hypocrites for this? I don’t know! I think I’m on the stumbling stage right now. It shocked me that “Wow this really exist?”

    Yeah one thing comes-up to my mind is that “I feel my heart for the Kids” now does the parent’s feel their Kids too? off course YES as what I believed.:)
    But for me I can’t imagine to hurt myself nor my children by marking those painful marks to our body. But if that’s the Tradition for them then I don’t know what to say then! I just feel the pain for them which for me is not RIGHT.
    I don’t know what else to say… Maybe you have words to say? One thing for sure for me that I much more realized how lucky I am. Are they not Lucky because of their Traditions? Who knows we dont know and I don’t know aswell. Maybe they think the same way I think, that maybe their Lucky than me nor you! Who knows!

    Have a peaceful weekend everyone,
    Yen-Yen

    Are this kind of Tribe’s needs more special education to help them develop and teach them the way we believed who are now in the Stage of Modern Society?
    Or we are the one to be on their part? as our Modern Society right now is screwed up to?

    1. This is the best and honest idea I ever read. Thank you Yen-Yen. Did the photographer do a great job? YES. Are these photographs interesting? YES.
      Did the Tribesmen do these things for purposes of beauty? NO. Why do they do these things? FOR SYMBOLIC PURPOSES. Should we find nude uncircumcised boys drinking raw animal blood exciting? NO. Why are these people the way they are? BECAUSE THEY HAVE BEEN DENIED THE BENEFITS OF CIVILIZATION. Is their Tradition bad? NO, BUT THEY NEED TO WORK ON IT. Culture is dynamic, culture must evolve towards realistic self and communal advancement. Ironically, most people become happy when they see another of their kind on a ”lower ladder”.

    2. Yen-Yen,

      You are raising such an important issue and one that is so difficult to address. What should be our role when as foreigners we are witnessing customs and practices that are ethically unacceptable such as mingi? As I said in the post, things are slowly slowly changing. Of course, the fact that the government banned such practices may help but I am not sure that this is what will be the most effective. Some of the children now get educated outside the tribes and if they return (not all do) they typically try to convince the elders that such practices should be stopped. I think when there is enough educated and respected tribe members who advocate such a ban, then may be there is hope.
      The other thing that is happening is that these tribes and their cultures are now threatened by globalization. Cellular towers are being built and in a few years all of these people will probably use a cellphone. Then I guess they will lose their culture and abandon some of their rituals, the good ones and the not-so-good ones.

  24. Absolutely fantastic photos, your money was well spent, and you captured each moment to it’s fullest. The colors were amazing. Thank you, I enjoyed reading your post very much.

  25. Such a wonderful post and amazing photography. There is not much left that amazes us in this digital world but I am happy to be introduced to something new. Fascinating and beautiful. Thanks for this very lovely post. Nice work.

  26. Thank you for sharing your journey and amazing photographs – I was truely stopped in silence, amongst all the noise around me. Your pictures go beyond the usual tourist shot.
    I look froward to reading and seeing more!

  27. I have no way of being leaving a creative comment. It seems that everything I wanted to say on this series of pics has been taken. LOL. I am glad that you were able to spend time with them realizing a dream of yours and that you were able to capture such stunning photos not just for your collection but to share with the world! I truly enjoyed these pictures. :::applause:::

  28. That is some absolutely, ridiculously stunning photography. I am so impressed with your photos and also by the amazing people who had as subjects. Thank you for showing us this part of the world!

  29. Beautiful photos – it is so sad, what is happening to these people – and not much is being said about it. Soon these tribes will no longer exist and no nation is worrying about it. The first report I found is dated 15 days after the massacre. Has anyone else read about it? I just happened to learn about it today, through FB – nothing on Italian news was said.

    http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-907872

    1. Daniela,

      Yes I saw the same report about one month ago. I have been trying to find out more about it since and contacted a few people with local connections. Nobody has been able to confirm the accuracy of the report (but it has not been denied either). I am still trying to learn more but I would not be surprised if it is at least partly true. The Omo tribes live on land that is becoming of interest to foreign investors and they will not give up their land easily. Such a tragedy!

  30. Amazing photos! One of the few places in the world that are not touched by civilisation and the people there still live like they did several hundred years ago. They own nothing but they have everything, we own everything but have nothing.

  31. Stunning captures! Africa is a fachinating destination and ideal for taking exceptional pictures. I’ve seen many works related to tribes but your work is truly impressive; unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Congratulations! France please check my blog. There, you’ll find the link of my fb page where I post about photography, among other topics. I’d really love to share your work too; for free. If you’re interested, send me a message on my fb page. Best regards!

  32. Fabulous! I shared this and a link on my blog this morning: This morning’s great discovery: a blog of monumentally beautiful photography of the people of various tribes of Ethiopia. The pictures bring to life an Africa that is in post-National Geography mists in my mind. When friends and clients talk to me of life “in the village”, I now have a tiny glimpse of what life might really be like there. This may be part of what they miss about home; the beauty, mystery, dance and sunlight. I see! The text is rich as well; in insight and observations. Thank you, France Leclerc, for your sharing your lens on Africa.

    I am a French interpreter and 99.8% of my clients come from somewhere in Sub-Saharann Africa.

  33. […] 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 […]

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