The Nyangatom: in Guns we Trust!

Just getting back home from another unique journey, a trip to the largest gathering of human beings in the world (30 million people in a given day).  If you think you have seen crowded, just wait!!!  I look 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 thought their name sounded scary enough, but their story is also.

Whereas the Karas 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.  In the early 80s, they could do so 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 can access 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 were growing on them.   (It is Africa; I had to put wildlife in here somewhere!) You walk about two miles from shore to the village, and carrying all the camera gear made it feel like twice that distance. On the way, we saw several young men escorting their cattle to graze and women carrying yellow jerry cans on their heads to bring water from the river back to the village.  We finally arrived at the village where the Nyangatom’s famous animosity was not on display.  In fact, in the midday sun, the village was quiet, with women dealing with their innumerable daily chores, many children playing with goats, and the elders trying to stay away from the sun.

Once again, I was amazed at how women dress every day.  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 conveys beauty and signals the woman’s social status.  For instance, married women and 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 like 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). Still, they will wear even more necklaces than their younger single counterparts.  A married woman’s “apron” is shaped like an elongated triangle and is likely to be embellished with metal all around.  In some cases, if the woman is of higher status, the skirt will be decorated with ostrich eggshells.

Although the men were traditionally naked, most of them have now adopted a large piece of cloth that they usually wear tied across their shoulders or wrapped around their hips.  Interestingly, some wear a local version of a “gaiter” on their lower legs.  I was trying to find out why and was told 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 feed 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 several 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 had a strong sense that a little more food would have been welcome for these children.

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 witnessing the Surma shooting their weapons amid 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 decorated their legs in white but with different patterns.  At some point, the (mostly) unmarried women show up.  They 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.





8 Responses

  1. Beautifully written post!!!! I will check out photos on my computer when we get home. Glad to hear you are home safe and sound. We had heard that several people were crushed in a stampede. Lets talk soon. B

    Sent from my iPhone Barbara Sheridan

  2. France. Another amazing glimpse into another vorld. I love your posts. Your words are also amazing. Thank you for taking me to these places through your eyes. Much love.

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Linda,

      I would take you along to these places. May be one day 😉 In the meantime, thanks for your kind words.

      On Sun, Mar 3, 2013 at 3:59 PM, franceleclerc

  3. Hi France!
    Wonderful photos, and interesting to read about your experiences. Read a couple other blogs also of you. Very interesting.
    In march I visited the Nyangatom in South Sudan close to the Ethiopian border. A small place called Lotimor. I am told that a majority of the Nyangatom tribe lives in South Sudan. We had a wonderful time and in september I´ll be back for some weeks.

    Best regards,


    1. Hello Daniel, Thank you for your kind words. Wow, South Sudan, yes the Nyagatom tribes are there as well as the Dinka, the Nuer and many others. This is an area that I would love to visit but it does not seem like an ideal time right now. I would love to hear about your experience. France

Would love to hear from you!

Recent Posts

Subscribe to Stories via Email

Enter your email address to get notifications of new stories via emails. No worries, I don’t write very often.