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The Unconventional Beauty of Ethiopia's Omo River Valley

Omo River Valley Tribe, Ethiopia

“Up at first baboon,” the safari guide said brightly at dinner, though it’s not clear why he felt the need. When it comes to waking the dead, baboons are more reliable than cell phones, quartz clocks, or a New York City garbage truck grinding its gears.

Wide awake the next morning, well before the guide stopped by my fly tent to rouse me, I strapped on a headlamp, wrapped a towel around my waist, and scuffed through the dark to a wash tent for a cold shower. After dressing in the dark, I hurried to the boat landing to join our small assembly, at this hour a cluster of vague and indefinite shapes, for a voyage downriver. Daybreak creased the black horizon as the boatman cast off; in the growing light individual identities began to emerge. We were, it occurred to me, by any standards a motley assembly. There were the two safari outfitters, one a rough-hewn Kenyan, the other a well-upholstered South African with a plummy public-school accent.

There was the Felliniesque Swiss-Italian daughter of an internationally celebrated pop diva. There was a handsome young hacker who’d recently cashed in on a spyware system for $70 million, and also his father, a Dallas developer mellow enough to cast into doubt every stereotype one ever held about Texans.

There was an empty-nest matron from northern California in the process of reinventing herself as a documentary photographer. Her subject specialty, she said when first introduced, was butchery.

Before we convened in a hotel restaurant in Addis Ababa, I’d never laid eyes on most of these people; a week later they remained to me a cluster of implacable mysteries. Why was the Italian glamour-puss, whose natural habitat is the front row of Milan fashion shows, covered with tribal tattoos? What karmic debt schedule inspired the California housewife, liberated from mommying, to spend her days hauling around a pack mule’s burden of tripods, lenses, and camera bags? How had that woman’s brother, our South African guide, transformed himself from a high-end caterer into a latter-day Denys Finch Hatton? Why, above all, had we found ourselves joined in adventure through one of the remotest regions of Africa, a place that until recently was reachable only by a weeks-long river journey or along bone-jarring washboard tracks optimistically referred to in Africa as roads?

I assured myself that, like all travelers, we were seekers—of precisely what was not yet clear. And on that one point our South African guide was insistent: we were travelers and not mere tourists. It was a distinction that came to mean less the longer we were together, beyond the obvious truth that either group is equally adept at demonstrating limitless possibilities for cultural misunderstanding.

It was just past dawn when the boatman steered toward a mudbank, disturbing a stately goliath heron. With a succession of creaky wingbeats, the great bird pressed off into the air, like a codger rousing himself from an easy chair. Beyond the bank a dense grove of scrub trees stood, with a path cut through it leading to a Kara village. There we had a date for an orwak ceremony, a rare invitation from a village headman to watch soothsayers foretell the future by reading the entrails of a goat.

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“Life, life takes you,” a cabbie had murmured to me some days earlier in Addis Ababa, as he banged around the corrugated roads of the capital in a rusted Soviet Lada, a vehicular relic of another era, the grim days of military occupation known as the Derg. His youthful ambition to pursue medicine, the driver explained, had come to nothing, subsumed by the exigencies of remaining alive. Having survived the Derg, here he was now piloting an old jalopy in endless loops around a city best described as African Transitional: half glass-towered metropolis, half shantytown. At least, the driver said, he’d escaped being killed.

Nothing about the current political situation in Ethiopia approaches the unfathomable darkness of that chapter, a time of socialist military rule and state-sanctioned torture. Yet plenty remains to trouble traveler or tourist, not least the multifarious forces threatening the survival of the very tribes we’d come to observe.

Over the past 20 years oil discoveries, government leasing of vast tracts of parkland to foreign agribusiness investors, and a hydroelectric dam under construction upriver from the last remaining tribal peoples of Omo have all conspired to uproot these farmers from their lands and imperil their centuries-old cultures and very existence.

Life takes you, I thought, as we left the tea-colored river led by a gaggle of laughing village children. It struck me that life had led me on many a strange adventure, not least this one, to a region I’d subconsciously vowed to visit as a child. It was back then, poring over the pages of Réalités—an arty French magazine to which my parents unaccountably had a subscription—that I first encountered photographs of people who marked their bodies with ornamental patterns of scars, who cut and stretched their lips to accommodate clay plates that, while disfiguring to a Western eye, were emblems to the Suri and Mursi of elegance and wealth.

We were here in southwestern Ethiopia to see those tribes and also the agriculturalist honey-gatherers known as the Kara; the statuesque pastoralists called the Nyangatom; and the Hamar, whose women daub themselves for hygiene with ocher and butterfat. We were here to seek out the Dassanech and the Kwegu, the latter a benighted group kept by stronger tribes in a state of semi-slavery. We had hopes, too, of encountering the reclusive Suri, some of whom inhabit mountainous redoubts so remote that fewer outsiders have seen them, our Kenyan guide claimed, than have set foot on the moon.

In a short while we found ourselves in the Kara village of Dus, a dusty apron of land cleared from the bush along the Omo River. Huts rimmed the village perimeter; a parliament house of peeled logs stood at one end. Near the center hulked a cinder-block school building whose walls were ornamented with naïve paintings depicting local wildlife: The Elefant and The Girafe. Abruptly, out of nowhere, a conga line of women appeared, stomping in the dust and chanting and piercing their ululations with ear-shattering blasts on tin whistles. Painted for the occasion with the daubed clay patterns that make these particular tribal people popular as postcard subjects, the village men also had whistles. They blew them fiercely and alternately shot off blanks from the rifles many shouldered. At each fresh report our group scattered, less from any sense of peril than from shock. It was barely six in the morning, a little early for fireworks.

Ethiopia Children

A sacrificial ram was to be slaughtered for the oracles and of its ordeal the less said the better. Receiving the carcass, the soothsayers spread its cleaned entrails across an upturned calabash. A great deal of muttered deliberation followed. Eventually the elders appeared to predict a good spate for the Omo River and another year of bountiful crops. What surprised me was not this news flash but the alacrity with which the villagers melted back into their daily lives once word was delivered. Maybe they were blasé. More likely they understood traditional ceremonies like this were soon enough to be supplanted by other and more pernicious forms of magic. Already Ethiopian telecommunications companies are erecting cell-phone towers in the Omo River Valley for Turkish and Korean agribusiness. Likewise, British oil exploration has led to the construction of more new roads built with foreign financing.

Motoring back to camp on the river we spotted a Pel’s fishing owl hunched on a branch of a skeletal thorn tree. “That’s a major tick” for African bird-watchers, said our Kenyan guide. This “tick” would have to serve as the Animal Planet highlight of our journey, since we would see little of the game for which sub-Saharan Africa is renowned. Well in advance of arrival we’d learned that once-abundant populations of large mammals in southern Ethiopia had been gunned out of existence—slaughtered as bush meat in the years since weapons began filtering across the border from Sudan.

Though a decades-long civil war in that divided country visited untold atrocities on human populations, this was not the sole destructive legacy of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Janjaweed. The elefants had been substantially wiped out; so, too, the girafes. Hippo populations that once crowded the waterways were decimated, leaving behind in the rivers those prehistoric horrors: crocodiles.

Birds remain plentiful, as do certain simian subspecies. Yet none of us had traveled thousands of miles to look at monkeys. We were here with the shared and uneasy common goal of visiting a human zoo. We were part of that growing wave of travelers riding a current of nostalgia for fast-vanishing traditional cultures, the same atavistic search for fragments of a preindustrial planet that gives rise to neo-tribal gatherings like Burning Man.

That we were willing to travel so far—by jet and bush plane and jeep and boat—to see certifiable “others” suggested, at the least, a growing cultural malady. As technology has pressed in on humanity in the West, the Irish novelist Robert McLiam Wilson wrote in an essay about wild-man cults of modern Europe, a longing has developed for contact with those who elude its clutches. “In order for there to be an ‘us,’ ” of the developed world, Wilson wrote, “we need a not us.”

It was that “not us” photographers like Jimmy Nelson set out to record, compiling in his acclaimed 2013 book Before They Pass Away a lavish document of remote tribal groups around the planet. Among the places Nelson traveled first for a project that would eventually take him to the ends of the earth was the Omo River Valley. He was far from the only one inspired to make this particular journey. The National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry had already been here. Sebastião Salgado had, too, and Hans Silvester. That each came away with images less striking, to this observer’s eye, for singular vision than for a romanticized sameness is perhaps understandable. What’s more, the people of the Omo River Valley tend to the photogenic, and even when not possessed of beauty are so graceful of carriage you can hardly resist framing them as icons.

There is something else: whether world-renowned photographer or rank tourist grabbing iPhone snaps, every visitor to the Omo Valley pays to take pictures. Even before lifting a camera one is obliged by custom to negotiate a transaction fee with potential subjects. It’s a ritual exchange since the going rate is known to all involved, a price of five Ethiopian birr, or about an American quarter.

“You must never, ever,” said our Kenyan guide, “break the rule of five.”

Ethiopia Group

Luckily for me the need to barter was moot, because from the outset I’d been clear I would not be taking pictures. Partly I wanted to sidestep the image clichés. I also wanted a break from the tyranny of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, the existential drain of tracking online “followers,” and “friends” with their winks and likes.

In Africa, I figured, I’d try reviving the simple acts of direct observation, of looking and remembering. And it seems to have worked, since it is an easy pleasure now to summon up an interior camera roll: watchful adolescent Nyangatom goatherds perched on logs outside their village, hide skirts embroidered with beads made from melted shell casings, blankets wrapped snugly against a morning chill; tribal elders clustered on stools in the dust and slapping stone counters into gnarled hollows of an ancient board game called mbao; the fast-flowing Omo surging mud-red through striated cliffs; gargantuan, yellow-eyed crocodiles sunning on its banks.

I can conjure in my mind’s eye the coquetry of Barigi American, a 13-year-old Kara girl still free of the ornamental scars her older sister, Nani, displayed so proudly, flashing an insolent smile not a whit less beautiful for lacking the incisors that had been pulled as is the custom of her tribe.

What the others thought of our shared encounters I never did learn. Whether out of fear or alienation or exhaustion, with each passing day we Westerners retreated further from one another. Coming together at meals, and on boat and road trips, we remained, despite our many points of common reference, a random assembly of isolates. And while we were not moving about at the level of decadent luxury to which certain of the South African outfitter’s billionaire clients are accustomed—“There are the Haves,” he quipped over drinks one evening, “and there are the Have-Jets”—we were as cosseted as babies, served eggs cooked fresh by a Kenyan chef at breakfast, sweet corn soup for lunch, piquant meat curries, and aged Italian cheeses brought overland on a weeklong haul by refrigerated truck. We were herded with great subtlety by the one person serving as a true and uncredited cicerone of our odd expedition, a quiet Kara tribesman educated by Swedish missionaries and fluent in a variety of tribal languages, including ours.

Perhaps, too, my comrades shared a growing impatience with the trip organizers’ attitudinizing, the way one derided humankind as a cancer destined to destroy the planet while another simultaneously boasted of trips laid on for a fashion designer whose visit to Omo required five leased B3 Eurocopters and baby vegetables imported from France.

“If you really want a toy box, we can give you a toy box,” the South African guide said one evening at drinks, referring to ultra-high-end safaris, as I pushed away from the table and walked to my tent.

There I sat in a folding chair on a rectangle of canvas, shaded by a fig whose fingering branches raveled the river. I fumed as I watched the sunset reflect off the water and play chromatic tricks. Leaves that at noon appeared black and dense were now lit from beneath a bright metallic green. A troop of baboons swinging heavily through the canopy across the river suddenly lost all dimension, flattening into a cluster of inky cartoon silhouettes.

Ethiopia Tribe

Pulling from my pocket a photocopied sheet provided upon arrival, I read again this simple primer on local protocol: “It is essential politeness to greet people profusely: start learning!” The phrases consisted of basic greetings in Hamar and Nyangatom, Kara, and Mursi, words which, having been dutifully practiced, we were encouraged to use at each new tribal village. What I found, though, after greetings had been exchanged in each new place, was that an inevitable glum silence settled and a chasm opened up between speakers, as on a blind date.

It happened that in many villages we were greeted in the lingua franca of tour groups increasingly finding their way to this remote region. Landing after long passages in our open boat we often found ourselves greeted by village children waving their arms and excitedly calling out “Ciao!” While this detracted somewhat from the precontact fantasy we were all to a shameful degree indulging, the globally familiar Italian greeting was both a welcome and a corrective. There are limits to the power that scraps of language have to shim up a social structure so deeply uneven; being spoken to in a tongue I knew seemed to level the engagement.

Thinking back on the Kara oracle, it suddenly occurred to me that the soothsayers understood all this and that each of our encounters—grisly goat sacrifice included—had been a bit of theater. Those village men saw exactly what was coming. The chants and whistles and hocus-pocus were a way of signaling that they’d seen the dismal future and it was us.

Next morning we left camp and drove to an immaculately mowed landing strip belonging to the British oil exploration unit. Boarding a 10-seater plane, we lifted off for the mountains beyond the Mui River and the Suri tribe. From the air, the stark alterations to the landscape were clearly visible. The mystifying dark circles scattered at regular intervals below were giant ash heaps, our pilot explained, left behind by industrial crews razing the bush. As the plane’s toy shadow glided toward the angled crustal plates of the Great Rift Valley, we passed a place where an oxbow of the Omo River carved a giant question mark into the earth. Entering airspace above the vast Omo National Park, we were told that topi, gazelle, giraffe, and herds of elephant still survived there, though who knew for how long? “The government never gazetted the national parkland,” our Kenyan guide said. Human development was already overtaking raw wilderness.

Bumping through turbulent air, the pilot took aim at a landing strip that looked like a cricket pitch cut between giant anthills. As we approached, a lone figure casually sauntered across the runway, causing the pilot to jerk abruptly upward, bank hard to port and circle for another go.

Gliding down at last, we bumped to a halt. The pilot put the wheels in chocks as we deplaned and then issued strict instructions. Be back in two hours, said the only man in the region capable of acing that particular landing. Raising an arm, he pointed toward the armada of thunderheads moving in from the west.

A local guide appeared then and we clambered behind him up a slick mud trail. More lush here than the thorn scrub in the river valley, the highland vegetation was also less dense and menacing, a far fresher green. Our destination was a small village cut into a ridge, an insignificant collection of domed huts walled with vegetation and fenced to keep in the chickens and goats.

When at last we reached the village, I realized suddenly that this was what I’d been waiting for all along. Regionally, the Suri are renowned for their beauty, hauteur, and fierceness in battle; for reverencing in song and story the cattle that are their wealth; for growing cabbages, tobacco, and yams; for trading in honey, leopard skins, gold, and giraffe tails; for being a matriarchal culture whose males are confined to strict age-set groupings and who sometimes wait decades to become initiated as warriors. To the wider world, to me, the Suri are known for one thing. They are the lip-plate people, the ones I encountered so long ago in my parents’ living room. They were early proof of a world beyond my front door that was wondrous strange. To ready her for eventual marriage, a young Suri girl’s bottom teeth are removed, her lower lip pierced and stretched to allow for the insertion of clay lip plates. Over years the plates get larger and there are tales, perhaps apocryphal, of some having attained 16 inches in diameter.

Extreme body modification lost much of its power to shock at about the time American teens started getting their nipples pierced at the mall. Where I live, in New York City, people routinely go about with earlobes that have been stretched to the size of portholes. And yet Nagunya Ologole—her lower lip distended to accommodate a plate so large she had to support it with her upturned hand, a gesture of unanticipated elegance—was not just an odd sight. She was all the strangeness of the world a traveler sets out in search of, the personification of the exotic “other” who in the end, in almost every case, is pretty much the same as you and me.

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

T+L Guide to Ethiopia


Tour operator

The Cape Town–based company Passage to Africa arranged the author’s 10-day itinerary, led by CEO Michael Lorentz. passagetoafrica.com.


Appeared as "A World Apart" in T+L Magazine

Related Links:
Best Adventure Travel Destinations 2014
Ultimate Adventure Travel Bucket List
T+L's Bucket List

Photos by David Chancellor

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