The Omo Valley: A Cultural Melting Pot
Named after its geographical location and the famous Omo River, the Omo Valley of South Omo Zone is a spectacularly beautiful area with diverse attractions, ecosystems, cultures, and languages. The majority of the region is dry and inhospitable: 0.5 % is highland, 5 % is midland, 60 % is lowland and 34 % is desert. Despite these only, 8.5 % of the population are urban dwellers.
The people of this unique region have managed to retain their traditional lifestyle. This is apparently due to the fact that the harsh environment in which most of the tribes live is undesirable to outsiders. The Omo Valley is a cultural melting pot with at least 16 distinct tribes. Two of the four main African linguistic families are represented in the area: Nilo-Saharan; and Afro-Asiatic, with its Omotic (endemic to the South Omo) and Cushitic branches.
Traditional livestock production is based on herd diversification to make use of various plant species, and herd splitting to spread the livestock out in line with the available grazing resources and to prevent the spread of disease. There are periodic inter-tribal conflicts within the region (and across the borders) as people compete for natural resources, most frequently water and pasture. However, conflicts may also originate from deep-rooted cultural practices, such as heroism, asset building, and collective revenge. The introduction of firearms has made interethnic fighting far more dangerous.
The Omo River is one of Ethiopia’s largest rivers. It flows south for over seven hundred kilometers from the Shewan highlands to the northern end of Lake Turkana. Some of the tribes live alongside the Omo River and depend on it for their livelihood. They have developed complex socio-economic and ecological practices intricately adapted to the harsh and often unpredictable conditions of the region’s semi-arid climate.
The annual flooding of the Omo River guarantees food security for some of the tribes along its banks, especially as rainfall is low and erratic. They depend on it to practice ‘flood-retreat cultivation’ using the rich silt left along the river banks by the receding waters. Having reached its maximum level, the river recedes rapidly during September and October, which is when people start preparing the recently flooded area for flood-retreat cultivation. Some also practice rain-fed shifting cultivation, growing sorghum, maize, and tobacco. Some tribes, particularly the Kwegu and Karo, hunt game and fish.
The Omo Valley tribes have managed to retain their traditional lifestyle. This is apparently because the harsh environment in which most tribes live is undesirable to outsiders. These fascinating peoples live isolated, extreme and particularly harsh lives. However, they decorate themselves lavishly, and their colorful dress and beautification customs give them an identity and highlight their uniqueness. Their dress is often scant, commonly utilizing skins and other natural resources. However, for men and women alike, it is usual to be adorned with jewelry, beads, clay face and body painting, feathers, ear and lip plates, bodily scarification and other practices. Little is known about the origins of these customs, but it is sufficient to say that appearance is a distinguishing factor for neighboring tribes of the Omo Valley; it is indeed essential to these exceptional people.
Cattle, goats and sheep are vital to most Omo Valley tribes’ livelihood, producing blood, milk, meat and hides. Cattle are highly valued and used in payment for ‘bride wealth’ (dowry). They are an essential defense against starvation when the rains and crops fail. In certain seasons, families, particularly young adult males, travel to temporary camps to provide new grazing for herds, surviving on milk and blood from their cattle. Donkey and poultry are also livestock for most Omo Valley tribes. Beekeeping is widely practiced, and honey is used as household food and to generate income. Milk is mainly for household consumption. Butter, however, is sold in markets and used as a face, hair and body cream by in various rituals.