Brief Encounters with Three Tribes: the Arbore, Dassanech, and Mursi

Though revisiting the Hamar (Hamar), Kara, and Nyagatom (Kara) after 5 years was the main goal of my trip to the Omo Valley, I also ended up spending a little time with tribes that I had not met before. Here is a glimpse of what I saw.

One of these groups was the Arbore, a small tribe living in the Omo Valley’s Southwest region.  Though men were out with the cattle, we visited with the women and children of a small Arbore village, including a baby just a few weeks old.  As with other tribal groups, the women and girls have found unique ways to adorn themselves, wearing beads in a distinctive pattern. In addition, young unmarried girls completely shave their skulls and cover their heads with a piece of black cloth to protect themselves from the relentless sun. Married Arbore women let their hair grow and braid them tightly.

We also stopped briefly at a Dassanech (Dassanach) village. I had previously met with people from the Dassanech ethnic group at the Turkana festival (Turkana) but had never visited a village. As we arrived, all were sitting in front of their huts, welcoming. For me, this is both good and bad. Of course, I am always grateful to be happily greeted, but it also means that it will be difficult to see people in their daily activities as we become their focus instead of them being ours. Yet we saw many women of all ages carrying pots on their heads with a balance and an elegance that I can only dream of.

The third tribe we saw was the Mursi. It was my first time seeing them though I had previously spent time with the Suri (OmoValleyTribes), a sister tribe. Like the Suri, the Mursi women wear lip plates. The plates, mostly made of clay, mark a rite of passage and are only worn in front of strangers. Mursi tribe members are also famous for their headdresses.   As they get many visitors, the Mursi have the reputation of being somewhat more aggressive than other tribes in their dealings with photographers. I was prepared for aggressiveness but what I experienced felt more like desperation. Most of the men were absent from the village, and the women and children present were determined to ornate themselves in whichever way they could to be photographed, hoping to earn a little money. Though most of the tribes one visits are happy with a donation to the group, the Mursi insist on being paid individually (I should enroll my favorite economist to opine on who is doing it optimally). Flies were swarming the village, and the women would relentlessly adorn themselves with dried fruits, horns, beads, and anything they could get their hands on to attract attention, even using their children as props. I quickly moved aside, trying to photograph the few people who had decided not to be part of this exchange. Once again, I was struck by the feeling that life is harder than ever for the beautiful tribes of the Omo Valley.

If you want to know more or help the Omo Valley tribes, please visit “Survival International” (Survival), an organization concerned with the survival of tribal people.




15 Responses

    1. Thank you Michele. I know you love the Omo. Your beautiful images convey your love for the region.

  1. Hello France, These are beautiful photographs and I love the black and white. The portraits are particularly engaging and my favourite is of the woman 11th photo from the start! Are you planning to publish a book of your photographs of all these wonderful people you meet? Jane

    1. So nice hearing from you Jane. And glad to hear you still visit the blog. I am also happy that you like my black and white images as I know black and white is what you do. Thank you. I have given some thoughts to doing a book but it seems like it would be a lot of work and there are so many beautiful books out there, I am not sure I have much to add. I may feel differently one day, who knows. Warm regards, France

  2. your photographs are stunning. I hadn’t thought about the economics in this way, and it is thought-provoking. Thank you, France.

    1. Thank you Karen. I don’t think I could get my favorite economist to make the trip though ;-)

    1. Thank you Osman. I am glad you like the narrative and the images. Thanks for putting the trip together.

    1. Thanks Karl. I like that one too. A strong beautiful woman. I’ve been enjoying reading about your adventures in Ladakh. Warm regards, France

  3. Very moving photos . They make me quite sad..what a struggle . How much longer can they live this tribal life as we march into the 21st Century. Elon Musk dreams of life on another planet , this may as well be another planet . Such proud, resilient people living in the harshest conditions one can imagine. I found it fascinating that the only person to really smile was the senior woman . Beautiful young girl with eyes wide sitting in her low hut stunning as any model anywhere . I’d have liked to have seen the condition of the cattle ….drought is severe. Good you put a link to Survival International..I have not heard of that organisation. Interesting that one group preferred individual payment you think that indicates a fracturing of community under severe stress ?

    1. Dear Emilie, Always happy to read your caring and thoughtful comments. Yes life is a struggle for most of the tribes in the Omo Valley. It may have felt even more so because of the drought, but even though it is now raining some, I can’t imagine that they have a bright future ahead. Between the harsh conditions, the dam project and the cotton industry, there is very little resources left for them. If you have a chance, watch the documentary: Omo Child, The River and the Bush. It will give you a sense of the living conditions (not to mention the unfathomable practice of mingi). As to why this particular tribe and village insisted on individual payments, I am not sure but it was intriguing to me. Maybe they did not trust the village elders to share with the rest of the village, or maybe it is the tribal structure that is different. I don’t really know. Hope you are well. France

      1. Thank you , yes all good here , hope you too are well. Thanks for the suggested ..Omo child ,the river and the bush .I watched the trailer looks very interesting .Will need to watch whole story !

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