I visited Ethiopia’s Omo Valley five years ago to photograph the native tribes. I was so amazed by the experience that I wanted to share the images I had taken, which gave me the motivation to start this blog (Omo Tribes). I wrote four posts, one for each of the tribes I visited: the Suri, the Kara, the Nyangatom, and the Hamar. I ended the last post of this series (Hamar Tribe) with these words: Is it possible that there are still people living this way in our modern world, still untouched by most of our modern trappings (except soccer, perhaps)? Should they be left alone or be urged to join the modern world? These are, of course, hard questions, ones I still ponder. New cell towers are getting closer and closer to these tribal areas, which means they will not be as isolated for long. More of a concern, the largest dam in the world (the Gilgel Gibe III) is being built a few hundred miles upriver from where the tribes currently live. By diverting the water of the Omo River, the dam will generate much-needed electricity for the country, but the water the tribes rely on for cattle and farming may go dry. What will happen to the tribes? Will they still be there in 10 years; will they have disappeared, been destroyed, or integrated into the modern world? Are they the vanishing tribes?
This year I decided to go back to see whether things had changed. The dam is only now reaching its completion, so I would not be able to see its impact on this visit though the effect of recent severe droughts would probably hint at what is to come. I did know the tribes had not vanished because I continued seeing many beautiful images of them taken by many other photographers who have also made the journey, some of them more than once. But as we all know, images do not always tell the full story, and I was curious to see whether tribal life was the same and, if it were, whether it was still possible to photograph it.
As I ended my series of posts with the Hamar tribe last time, I will start with them in this series since they were one of the tribes I was able to revisit on this trip. On my last visit, I spent very little time in their village. Most of the time I had with them was at the Turmi market, where the Hamars come to sell or trade their produce, and at one of their world-famous bull-jumping ceremonies.
As we were approaching Turmi, where we were to stay for a few days, I eagerly awaited when we would visit a Hamar village the next day. But I did not have to wait for the next day. On the road, we passed three people from the Hamar tribe, one woman and two men walking back to their village. We quickly stopped and asked whether we could photograph them, which they kindly agreed to do. At least based on appearances, not much had changed. The women had the same distinctive hairstyle highlighted with red ochre and wore the same beautiful goatskin skirts. The men still carried rifles and ammunition and their ever-handy small stool allowing them to sit anywhere, anytime. And they all wore the same shoes made of rubber from old tires.
I noticed that the young woman was wearing a “burkule”, the necklace that indicates that she is a first wife. Her t-shirt surprised me a little as the Hamar women usually wear an apron or frock also made of goatskin. I had seen women wearing t-shirts during my last visit, but only at the bull-jumping event (a coming-of-age ceremony where women related to the bull-jumper get whipped as a sign of commitment to him) where the t-shirts provide a bit of protection during the inevitable (and cringe-worthy) whipping. As we were chatting with our new friends, some children came running– the bigger ones carrying little ones and all carrying baby goats.
The next day was market day, which is always an exciting experience for me. As expected, many women were hanging out with their children, and I briefly got to see a flour mill where the Hamar women grind flour from their dried crops. Again, I noticed that the women were wearing t-shirts, and a number of them had a cellphone carefully hidden in their frocks.
And there was another bull-jumping ceremony to be witnessed. As I described this ritual in a previous post (Hamar Tribe), I will only put a few images of it. The bull-jumper looked as scared as the one I had seen the previous time, and sadly, the women remained as willing to be whipped as they were five years ago, all done in front of the elders sitting in the shade.
Perhaps the highlight (certainly the best light) was the time we spent in a small Hamar village. There we found primarily women sitting in front of their huts (most of the men did not return until dusk) and many children sitting with their mothers or running around and having too much fun to pay any attention to us. As soon as we walked through a small opening in a wooden fence, no signs of the modern world were present, except that some of the kids wearing t-shirts (albeit without pants) and a few plastic bottles of unknown origin were in view. When the time in the village had to end with the failing light, the kids were happy to cooperate with a sunset image.
Have the Hamar changed? It is hard to tell. Yes, they have changed a bit, certainly not as much as I had expected, and probably not more than I have. From what I could see (which is not a lot in such a short trip), they don’t seem to have been hurt greatly by the recent climate challenges, but they don’t seem to have profited markedly either from Ethiopia’s much-noted economic growth. Next, a look at what the last five years have done to a few other tribes and a glimpse at a few new ones.
Fantastic photos, France–as usual. I loved Ethiopia. I loved the Omo River tribes. You have managed to capture them perfectly. Building the damn will change the course of human history in this region and I think it is a monumental human disaster. There will be no benefits for the indigenous people. There never is. Their resources are stolen and their societies are left to wither and die.
The Chinese “own” Ethiopia. And Africa for that matter. Addis Abba’s African Union tower was built by them, graft is the rule, money flows and as usual, the rich get richer and the poor are left to suffer.
Thanks Elise. I agree with you on the dam. I thought I would see its impact already but it is not obvious yet. It will be soon I am sure. The Chinese own the world.
As time goes by, your work ages like wine. Getting better all the time. Great report, beautiful images.
Thank you Ruti. Always happy to be compared to wine 😉
Thank you so much, France for your beautiful photos and insightful words about the Hamar tribe. I was blessed to have visited the Omo Valley in Dec. 2013 as part of Omo Child, as you might know. Your amazing photos brought back such a flood of memories & it was fascinating to hear your updated perspective on how life is there now for the Hamar.
Dear Janet, thanks for visiting the blog and for your kind words. I am sure it was quite an experience to be there with Omo Child in 2013. Things have changed somewhat but not as fast as I had anticipated. Not sure whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. Best of luck with your travel blog. France
Viewing your extraordinary images always gives me the thrill of having experienced an adventure. I’m reminded of this apt declaration:
The only true voyage of discovery…
[would be] to possess other eyes,
to behold the universe
through the eyes of another.
Thanks for yet another remarkable voyage, France!
Dear Sheryl, Thank you for your kind words and for this very inspiring quote. You are on a true voyage yourself, living in a new country and building something that is so needed. I am awe of anyone who travels these waters. Warmly, France
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The above pic at the starting is quite different to the rest photographs.The tribes in the first pics have a straight nose which are not a native to Ethiopia race of Negros as they got a nose depression.It’s seems that these tribes might have migrated from Europe to Africa continent.And its a rare and endangered sub race among European races worldwide.
Dear Abhinav, thank you for reading. You have a keen eye. It is true that the Hamar women seem to have much finer features than other tribes. Unfortunately, I do not know their origin but I suspect that there are anthropological studies out there that could shed some light on the issue. I will look into it. Let me know if you learn anything more. All the best, France