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Ethiopia’s Omo Valley | Africa’s Last Frontier, National Geographic Magazine

This is a fairly simple and sad story—a snapshot of cultures in southern Ethiopia that will disappear. The north-south axis of the story is the region’s life-sustaining Omo River, which will be choked by a dam. And the east-west axis of the story is the arms trade traveling across this area between Sudan and Somalia.  Sowhen the Gibe III dam goes online this culturally distinct area will be starving and heavily armed.

 The Omo River tribes are only 200,000 people standing in Ethiopia’s way of having steady electric power for 11 million.  Steady electric power equates directly to GDP growth and surprisingly often decreases population.  The dam that will provide electric power for Ethiopia will also choke off the food supply …

Ethiopia’s Omo Valley | Africa’s Last Frontier, National Geographic Magazine

This is a fairly simple and sad story—a snapshot of cultures in southern Ethiopia that will disappear. The north-south axis of the story is the region’s life-sustaining Omo River, which will be choked by a dam. And the east-west axis of the story is the arms trade traveling across this area between Sudan and Somalia.  Sowhen the Gibe III dam goes online this culturally distinct area will be starving and heavily armed.

 The Omo River tribes are only 200,000 people standing in Ethiopia’s way of having steady electric power for 11 million.  Steady electric power equates directly to GDP growth and surprisingly often decreases population.  The dam that will provide electric power for Ethiopia will also choke off the food supply for these tribes that rely on flood recession agriculture. Because the arms trade between Sudan and Somalia goes directly across their territory, every grown man in this area owns an AK-47.  These cultures that include the last of stick fighting, bull jumping and lip plates, have always been ruled by ritual and revenge. These tribes were already killing each other across the river over cropland before their food source was stressed. 

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Kuchuru is a hot, dusty Kuwego town.  There is no road access to the Ethiopian village, and there are no boats except a few hollowed out pirogues.  The entire village comes running to the banks of the Omo River when they hear a NGO’s boat engine.  It will likely be months before they see another powerboat on the Omo River.
An elder of the Kara tribe watches his goats at dusk peering out over the bank of the Omo River. His tribe once controlled land on both sides of the river, but an enemy tribe gradually encroached on their territory. Before the peace agreement, a member of the warring tribe could have killed him if he was exposed in this way.  The Kara survive on growing sorghum on the banks and their animals.
In the background is the river that flows south toward Lake Turkana. The Omo River is 760 kilometers long and starts in the Shewan Highlands and empties into the lake. The coverage area for this story is located in the region between the Gibe III Dam in the north to the first bridge ever built over the Omo, at Omorate, near the Kenyan border.
Boring through a mountain, workers finish a tunnel that will divert the Omo River so a massive hydroelectric dam called Gilgel Gibe III—one of the largest on Earth—can be built. The dam could generate up to 1,870 megawatts of power, which cash-starved Ethiopia plans to sell to its neighbors.
The Gibe III Dam will bring stable electric power to 11 million people in Ethiopia. But the 200,000 tribal people down stream in the Omo Valley who survive by flood recession agriculture will first starve when the water is diverted. Their rich and distinct culture will also disappear. The plan for the dam includes a 10 day release—a fake flood—but the water is released from the middle of the dam and won’t help the agriculture down river.
Jackhammers, drills, heavy machinery. Loud mechanical hunger. High on Ethiopia’s Omo River, in a narrow gorge running through hard, beautiful country, a dam is being built. Tunnels are bored through the mountain. Steel is mated to rock. Men scrape and toil in damp, echoing passages. These are good jobs, difficult to get and far from home. The dam, called Gibe III, will be Africa’s largest, a 243-meter curtain of concrete drawn across the river. It will generate electricity, tame the unruly flow of water. More lightbulbs, fewer floods, that sort of thing. If you live upstream, closer to the capital, the dam is Good News. Power, factories, plantations, progress—a dam offers all this. If you live downstream, however, there is something wrong with this story. Dams change everything below them. You need those floods, after all, to replenish cropland. The jobs and electricity will probably go to foreigners, or at least northerners. And the plantations, laid out for sugar and cotton, things you never needed, will creep along the riverbanks like plaque along an artery
Neal Shea, author of words for NatGeo magazine article. 
A Musi child paints the face of his monkey hoping to earn a few tourists dollars if he is photographed. Influence from outsiders changes the tribal Ethiopian culture from one of pride in customs to one of begging or asking to be paid.
The Suri village of Tulgit is long sheltered from the outside world by the difficult terrain, but this boy will grow up in a nation pushing hard to modernize and integrate its far-flung tribes. “It’s important to stop the nomadic life,” one Suri official says. “Peace and stability are the most important things for us now.”
In the village called Duss, Lale Biwa, an elder of this village says “Duss is dust.”  Children run through clouds of dust playing but without water it is impossible to survive.  Omo River Valley communities depend the river to irrigate their crops of sorghum, beans, peas and maize during seasonal floods.
Many women in the village outside Tulgit in the Omo River Valley have lip plates although the tradition is dying and most often found in remote Ethiopian villages. The origin of the lip plate tradition is debated, but most likely it believed to be worn simply for adornment.  An early National Geographic Magazine article wrote that when explorers first saw tribal traditions, they believed that lip plates were a way for villagers to deform themselves so they wouldn’t get caught up in slaving raids, but that theory has been debunked.
Mazes line up to jump bulls in a manhood coming of age ceremony. A leap into the air and this man successful completes the ancient ritual passed down many generations in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia.  Male friends and relatives hold the animals in place as the jumper runs along their backs. Afterward, the young Hamar man must adhere to a strict diet including blood, milk, and honey until he marries.
Checking the flex of his whips, a young Banna man prepares to deliver blows to a young woman during an initiation ritual, while in the background his counterpart winds up to whip another woman. Among the Ethiopian Banna and Hamar tribes in the Omo River Valley, it is customary for women to be whipped during the ceremony to initiate a boy into manhood. Female relatives of the initiate play a crucial supporting role—singing, dancing, and preparing food. The scars resulting from the whipping are a mark of pride for the women, showing solidarity with the boy who is enduring his own trials to become a man. Women sometimes blow small horns and sing songs, taunting the whippers and urging them to strike harder.  It is a symbol of belonging, and they are supported in the social structure of the Hamar, Karo and Bene tribes.
Women wait for a bull-jumping ceremony to begin in a local bar in Turmi, a Hamar town in the Omo River Valley. The scars on the their backs are from participating in a previous bull jumping ceremony where they are whipped. The marks are a sign that the women are supported by the community in general, but more specifically, from the boys that became men during the bull jumping ceremony. They are drinking beer made from food aid sorghum that was subsequently fermented for alcohol. 
Even without a good road or bridges, intrepid travelers find their way into the Omo River Valley.  Tribal women curiously check out a tourist who traveled to see and photograph bull jumping, a cultural manhood ceremony ritual.
A Mursi woman licks the last drop of beer off of her lip plate in a bar in Kibbish which is the last village at the end of the last road in the upper Omo Valley.  Years of stretching a chin incision that was made during teenage years allows this woman to wear a lip plate.  The origin of this tradition is debated, but current belief is that it is purely for adornment. 
Women do not wear their lip plates while in their home village, so when they are in remote areas of Ethiopia only accessible by boat on the Omo River, they are free to wander their villages feeling safe with their lip plates off. Without an inserted plate, a ring of flesh hangs across their chins. The bar is walled in mud, its floor a cement of spit, sweat, and old bottle caps. Outside the bar, police walk up and down the town’s main dirt road with megaphones telling men to check their AK-47’s at the police station.  The man facing away in the background of this photo ignored their message.
In the Omo Valley, a ritual for a bride involves covering her entire body with butter and ochre clay. The woman will stay in her husband’s family hut for one month before the ceremony and celebration.
Clouds of dust—flooding the lungs, coating the mouth, burning the eyes—don’t stop Kara women from dancing outside an improvised beer hall as their sons prepare for initiation into manhood. Married Kara women share relatively equal status with men but often perform more physical labor. A party celebrates fourteen Bull Jumpers in the Karo tribe that will go through the manhood ceremony that happens only once in a generation. These traditions are symbolic of an intact ritual in the culture, not a performance for tourists in the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia.
Supplies were sent to build a school in Labuk village, and nails were available for the first time in this part of the Omo River Valley.  Since no one attended the school, locals took the nails and pierced their chins as decoration. The hole in their chin is useful to squirt water to wash their hands.
An NGO gave the Hamar village of Logira, a slide, that is heavily used  and a huge attraction to young children living in this harsh landscape. Such organizations have played an increasing role in bringing change and development to the Omo region, building schools, donating water pumps, and even helping broker peace deals between warring tribes.
There are only dirt roads through this region of the Omo River Valley, but a paved highway is being built.  Children with body paint practice walking with hand-made stilts hoping for a few pennies from tourists riding in cars the roads will bring through Ethiopia.
Austrian tourists in matching, fake cheetah-print dresses shoot snapshots for souvenirs of local women with lip plates near the town of Jinka. With its rich culture still intact, the Omo region has seen tourism boom—and tensions between visitors and residents rise.  “They know that tourists want to come see them because they are viewed as savages,” says one anthropologist. “They are angry with this.”
A culturally distinct area, the Omo Valley is the last place in Africa for stick fighting, lip plates, and bull jumping manhood ceremonies. When a young man has a dispute over a woman he challenges his rival to a “Donga” or stick fight. The young man gathers friends from his village, and they start an elaborate and age-old ritual that ends in injury for many and even death for some. They sing as they walk and carry their fighting sticks, carved in the shapes of penises.
One of the concerns when traveling in this area is that locals will start a stick fight for tourist dollars. If you travel here, be aware that your presence could incite fighting that might hurt locals. These photos are authentic-made after spending extensive time getting to know, build trust and understand the tribe.
After the Donga fight, men rest from the brutal combat by leaning on their penis-shaped sticks. Then it becomes a social event in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia.
Men are often injured in this brutal stick fight called the “Donga.” Bleeding from a gash on his head, a Suri boy locks eyes on his opponent during a stick fight near the village of Tulgit. Called sagine, traditional pole battles are often held between the men of rival villages or clans at the end of the harvest season; they can include dozens of combatants and huge crowds of spectators in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia.
When the Donga fighting begins in the Omo Valley, there is ritualized posturing that culminates with two men beating each other by wailing on their opponent with a penis-shaped weapons. It is an ancient tradition among tribes in Ethiopia that can result in serious injuries when settling disputes. 
A dispute arises over a woman and this creates challenges to a rival in a Donga or stick fight in the Omo River Valley. Friends from his village gather and prepare for the age-old ritual that ends in injury for many, and death for some.
Just outside at the village of Tulgit in the Omo Rivery Valley is an area for men to relax under a canopied open structure and play games. Women continue to work. 
The Ethiopian village of Duss is washed in dust as men and women of the Kara tribe gather for an evening dance. In remote villages, hours away from roads and electricity, celebrations like this provide a shared moment for gossip, courtship, and relaxation. Dances in the Omo River Valley are especially common under a full moon, when the day’s heat breaks and light pours onto the savanna.
A child in the Ethiopian Hamar village of Logira gets her hair done before a wedding. A tradition in the Omo River Valley, the Hamar have a distinctive hairstyle that involves curling the hair with a mixture of butter and ochre clay.
A child washes in a small pit of muddy water during a period of drought when the only options for water come from the Omo River. This is a argument against building the dam that will  choke the Omo. There are long periods with no rain all over East Africa when many of the rivers dry up.
There are long periods of drought all over East Africa when many of the rivers dry up. The only option for water becomes the Omo River where tribes fill vessels to carry back to the village. This is a valid argument for not choking the Omo River with construction of Gibe III dam.
Above fields of sorghum, girls chew sweet stalks after laying out seeds to dry. Annual flooding not only helps farmers grow food but also renews grazing lands for herders’ livestock. A ten-day, artificial flood has been proposed to mimic the natural cycle once the dam is completed—a remedy critics say is inadequate.
The thick black earth resulting from deposits of floods can sustain two or three crop rotations until there is another flood. The amount of water contained in the mud cannot be duplicated with irrigation. This family is harvesting sorghum in the Karo village called Labuk.  Karo are sedentary agriculturists who practice flood recession agriculture on the banks of the Omo River in Ethiopia.
In a Karo village called Duss, some say Duss is made of dust. The winds come downriver blowing powdered dust deposited earlier by the Omo as silt. The dust has the consistency of drywall powder.  Smoke seen the background is an uncontrolled burn which is unlike agricultural burns that many cultures practice. The tribes just start a fire and hope it goes the right direction to clear a field, but often it ends up burning down their huts.
What makes life more difficult for all the Omo tribes is that an arms trade crosses Ethiopia’s porous borders between Sudan and Somalia.  Every grown man in these tribes owns an AK-47.  Although there are peace agreements between tribes, most remain well armed and proud of their fierceness. This Nyangatom man with a belt-powered machine gun has scars on his shoulder that offer a warning: He has killed at least two enemies from other tribes.
Tribes count on the Omo River as a water supply for themselves and their animals.  But the mud on the bank is slippery, and periodically an animal can’t get back up the bank, and floats downstream.  These men were bathing when a hysterical woman showed up pleading for them to help her recover her cow. 
The Omo brings life to all tribes people and animals. Cattle and goats have pulverized the drought-prone Omo River Valley region into dust. The animals are prized symbols of wealth; in many tribes men cannot marry without paying large bride-prices of livestock. Tribal members would much rather have cows than paper money.
This is Boli Crossing near Lake Diba where local pastoralists bring their cows and goats to drink. Lake Diba is a boon to the Karo and supplies a lot of their food.  The lake fills up when the Omo floods.  Even though the Gibe III Dam under construction in Ethiopia is supposed to unleash a flood once a year, there is still skepticism. Locals say, “They may as well come here and kill us.”
 
 
Cow blood, milk, and sorghum keep people alive. The Nyangatom or Bume are pastoralists who keep their livestock in boma-like, thorn-fenced corrals.  They shoot their cows with an arrow and collect the blood which they sometimes mix with milk. It is a major source of protein in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia.
The Omo River is full of crocodiles. The Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) is prevalent in the Omo River Valley, can grow to 20 feet long and live up to 80 years. It is a freshwater species. 
We were taking the boat to Labuk village when we saw one crocodile dragging another dead one in the water.  As we approached, it tried to drag it’s prize underwater but failed and left it behind. It may have been shot, but it was hard to tell because the piece where the wound might have been was ripped off by the other croc.  As I was photographing, Shaka fish (Karo name for Catfish) measuring a meter long, started eating the bottom of the dead croc. The movement in the water is from the shaka fish tugging pieces off of it from the bottom.
On the banks of the muddy Omo River, a Mursi child holds a leaf frond which is used as a chair.  This area of Ethiopia is isolated and the boat in the background is the only one on the river during an extensive six-week transect that went from the highlands, the origin of the river, to Kenya where the river flows into Lake Turkana.
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