The Dassanech tribe live around the Omo delta on the northern side of Lake Turkana. They practice flood retreat cultivation, pastoralism and fishing. The Dassanech are the most southerly ethnic group living in Ethiopia’s Omo valley. The lands of the Dassanech are semi-arid and they live where the Omo delta enters Lake Turkana. Their name means People of the Delta. Despite the lake and delta, this is an incredibly dry region; there is nothing but desert to the west and southwest.
Cattle are central to the lives of the Dassanech Tribe, just as they are for the other ethnicities of the Omo valley. As well as meat, milk, leather for clothing, houses and mattresses, they provide status in the community, and the bride-wealth that allows a man to marry.
The Dassanech of Omo Valley Ethiopia community is not strictly defined by ethnicity. Over time the ethnic group has absorbed a wide range of different peoples and it’s now divided in to eight main clans. Each clan has its own identity and customs, its own responsibilities towards the rest of the community, and is linked to a particular territory.
The largest clan is the Galbur, or Water and Crocodile clan. The Dassanech tribe believe its members have the power over both water and crocodiles and are responsible for treating diseases throughout the ethnic group. The Turat clan is responsible for dealing with burns from fire. They have powers to ward off snakes and to cure many diseases, and also have the ability to keep their enemies away from their animals. Another important clan is Turnyerim, which has powers over drought. They pray for rains during dry periods and they can also cure snakebites by spitting on the wound. Other clans claim to have healing powers over eye infections, scorpion bites, muscular problems, and so on. Members of the same clan are forbidden from marrying – or indeed dancing – with each other.
As with most pastoralists in the area, the diet of the Dassanech people usually consists of dry porridge with milk, but they also hunt crocodile and fish the Omo River.
Dassanech tribe women wear clothes made from leather. The men wear sarong-like garments. Both men and women of the ethnic group adorn themselves with beads and bracelets. Men can often be seen carrying a small stool or pillow, which is pretty ubiquitous in this southern region.
The Dassanech have four types of marriage:
- darech – arranged marriage
- garu wegesa – consensual marriage
- seriti – marriage through abduction
- ayodi – marriage by inheritance.
Marriage payments (koyta) can be made both in cash and in kind. The koyta is shared among the relatives of the bride but the largest share will go to her father.
Ceremonial Events of Dassanech Tribe, Omo Valley Ethiopia
This ritual is a tradition associated with the blessing of the first born daughters. Dimmi is performed when the girl reaches the age of 8–10. Each clan has their own special site where they perform the ritual. Girls of the same age and clan are blessed together. Before the ritual begins, temporary huts are built. Goats and cattle will be brought to slaughter at the ceremony. The girls’ fathers are expected to be well decorated. The blessing is made by a group of elders known as buls. The main purpose of the blessing is to ensure the girls fertility in their future life. Following the ceremony the father becomes an elder.
Both men and women are circumcised in Dassanech tribe society, as a pre-requisite for marriage. Male circumcision is known as edimita. Boys of a clan undergo circumcision together. Each clan has a site designed for this purpose. Temporary huts will be built at the site and the boys are transferred to these huts. During this time they are visited by some members of their family to deliver food and other necessities. The circumcision ceremony lasts for three months, during which time the boys dance and feast on milk, roasted crops and meat. On the day of circumcision, the person who is responsible for circumcising the clan boys circumcises each boy one by one. Then the boys return home with their parents.
Dassanech tribe girls are circumcised young, at around 10 or 12 years of age. If they are not circumcised, a girl can’t marry and her father won’t receive her bride-price, so he has a direct interest in her going through the ordeal. Until they are circumcised, girls are called wild animals or men to tease them. Girls may be circumcised in their mother’s house, or in another village, but it’s always amongst other girls their age going through the same ritual. When the ritual has been completed, the girl is given sour milk to drink and a necklace by her mother. From then on, she is allowed to wear a leather skirt to show she is now considered an adult. Marriage often takes place shortly thereafter.
The Dassanech are in conflict with all of their neighbors because of the scarcity of natural resources and ongoing cattle-raiding. The Dassanech fight sporadically with the Hamar, the Nyangatom and the Turkana tribes with whom they share borders.