Southern Omo valley cultural route - a living cultural museum

It may seem superficial to label southern lower Omo valley as a living cultural museum, yet in many senses that is exactly what it is! Four of African major linguistic groups are represented in the region, including the Omotic-speakers, a language group as endemic to south Omo as the Ethiopian wolf is to the Abyssinian highlands, the lower Omo River valley in southwest Ethiopia is one of the last unspoiled wilderness regions in Africa, beside that lower Omo is home to an astonishing mix of small, contrasting ethnic groups uniquely known for their natural artistic impulses. Meet and greet some of the very colorful local tribes who live in this area Isolated by the 4500m-high Ethiopian mountain range to the north, the impenetrable swamplands of the Nile to the west and the desert of northern Kenya to the south, the valley is mainly fed by the Omo River which bisects Ethiopia’s largest and most inaccessible parks: the Omo National Park which lies on its west bank and Mago National Park on its east Bank.

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The lower valley of the Omo unlike any other place on Earth has the largest diversity of ethnically different groups in the whole of Ethiopia and possibly in Africa. A voyage to the Omo Valley is a true expedition to encounter some of the most remarkable tribal peoples on Earth! To this day, the Omo Valley remains rich in traditional culture and human history. It’s been said: “If Africa was the mother of all humanity then the Omo River acted as a main artery!” The valley is also rich in paleo-anthropological fossils; the latest hominid remains to be discovered date back over four million years in the Omo Valley evidence of an almost continuous “human” presence. More than ten different languages are spoken (excluding dialects) .Experts believe that for thousands of years it was a crossroads of a wide variety of cultures where early humans of many different ethnicities passed as they migrated from and to lands in every direction. To this day, the cultures and people of the Lower Valley of the Omo are focus of study for their incredible diversity.

The entire Omo region is inhabited by ethno-cultural groups pertaining to two important linguistic lines: Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic. The Nilo-Saharan linguistic line includes Bume, Mursi, and Surma while The Afro-Asiatic in particular line is comprised of Karo, Banna, Bashada, Hamar, and Dizi who are Omotic and Dassanech, Erbore, Tsamako who are Eastern Cushitic.

In general, Omo valley people are structured by the Age-system. This is a system exclusively associated with men, who must pass through several ritual stages from birth to adulthood. The rites and ceremonies determine the progress each male makes with in his group. Child, Youth and Adult are the three main stages of life. Each of these stages brings with it a series of social obligations towards the family and the group, as well as certain advantages or rights.

A wide and varied aesthetic culture is reflected on their bodies as an expression of beauty and as a manifestation of messages and signals expressed through scarification, paintings, ornamentation, and hairstyles. Livestock not only has economic value, but also social value. It is strongly connected to a network of social relationships that comprises their culture. It is the source of food, clothing, an expression of wealth and Prestige, and also plays great roles in an individual’s stages of life like initiation, weddings, etc….

The main ethnic groups in the Lower Omo Region and its surroundings includes ,Dorze ,Konso , Tsemai, Arbore, Hamer, Benna , Geleb(Dasenche),Karo, Bume, Mursi, Ari, and Surma.

The Surma and the Karo, for example are experts at body painting-using clays and locally available vegetable pigments to trace fantastic patterns on one another's faces, chests, arms, and legs. These designs do not appear to have any special significance but are created purely for fun and aesthetic effect.

Scarifications, on the other hand-also popular among most peoples of the lower Omo does contain a number of specific symbolic messages.

Mursi warriors carve deep crescent incisions on their arms to represent each enemy they have killed in battle, elaborate hairstyles are another form of personal adornment

Hamer women wear their hair in dense ringlets smeared with mud and clarified butter and topped off with a head- dress featuring oblongs of gleaming aluminum.

Geleb (Dasenche) and Karo men sculpt and shave their hair into extravagant shapes, with special ochre caps' of hair usually containing several ostrich feathers.

The insertion of wooden and terra-cotta disks in to the ear lobes is a widespread custom among Mursi and Surma women also progressively split and stretch their lower lips to make room for similar disks there, too. This is a signal of beauty among these tribes and women are encouraged to take off their lip plates either during meal times or at night for sleep

Marriage ceremony also has different ways of expression and practice among these tribes.

The Hamer man should pass the tradition of bull-jumping to be fit and promoted to adulthood for marriage

The Mursi and Surma men should take part in the seasonally arranged stick fighting called Donga to be able choose their future life mates.