A Bridge over the Omo River

Five years ago, I visited Ethiopia’s Omo Valley and photographed 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 could 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 is now unsafe to travel to).

The Kara tribe, the smallest ethnic group of the Omo Valley, lives on the Eastern side of the Omo River while the Nyagatom tribe lives on the Western side. On the 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 spent 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 was 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 in Dus, the village looked the same except for two things. It was 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 that 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 tribe 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, in retrospect, we clearly should have, as we got lost). When we arrived at 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 were slightly longer in the back, with their hair short and typically shaped into what looked like beads. Men were also dressed traditionally, and carried their borkoto, the small stool they have with them at all times in case they desire to sit– even while dancing! The dance was a treat, even though it was extremely dusty.

To see the Nyagatom, we crossed the new bridge and drove to a nearby village different from 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, several women were sporting skirts made of fabric. The children were very friendly, but some of the grown-ups were 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 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 food scarcity, which is becoming a 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 into 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 got medical help and is now back in his village, hoping that one day we will come back and visit again.


P.S. You can follow me on Instagram at @franceleclerc



12 Responses

  1. 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.

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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

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

  3. 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!

    1. 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

  4. 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?

    1. 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.

  5. […] 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 […]

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.