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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ethiopia's Omo Valley

Chris, our favorite Kenyan expat, gave us a little advice on Ethiopia. He said that if we really wanted to experience Ethiopia we should stick to the dirt roads skirting the perimeter of the country. “It will be like taking a trip back into the stone-age,” he quipped. One of our guiding principles is to discredit the advice given in the guidebooks and seek out the wisdom of the locals. It generally gets you off the beaten track and this time it got us way off. Of course the idea of exploring the road less traveled sounded perfect to us, but we were a bit hesitant to do it on our own. The only map we had was drawn by hand, not to scale and very vague, showing only the primary arteries between towns. Proper roads through much of the region don’t exist. We heard talk of washed out bridges, road blocks requiring some sort of permit or letter of approval (from whom?) before you could pass through and the like. We really weren’t keen on taking the popular tourist routes shown on the map, so it was pretty much a necessity to take along a guide that spoke the languages, understood the customs and could differentiate the Hammer tribes from the Mursi.

Enter Biruk, the salesman/guide that welcomed us into the country on a tip that two whiteys had just crossed the border and you better get down here NOW. He seemed very knowledgeable in the Omo Valley having guided for over 10 years. He invited us to his house for dinner on Christmas day, helped us navigate the ordering process in the street side cafe and taught me the requisite Amharic: how to order vegetarian, greet people and say think you. He couldn’t be all bad despite my immediate aversion to his pedantic personality. I have a very hard time when someone talks nonstop, obligingly asks you the same questions repeatedly because they either cut you off when you try to answer or simply don’t care about anyone but themselves. I knew it would be a rough couple of days with this dude, but I can usually play nice for a week or so without losing it. I figured he would settle down and I could always escape into my book or kitchen for sanity.

The first day we learned all there is to learn about Biruk. GP and I sat back hoping this was just his odd style of introduction. I think he asked me what I did four times before he actually remembered, and even then he seemed to have forgotten a couple days later and had to ask again. And I think that was the only thing he asked me other than to make him coffee (I also pretended to forget his request). We listened, nodding politely through his litany of BS. I had to remind myself that we were paying him to show us the Omo Valley not to be our friend.

Our first day in the Omo Valley we allowed Biruk to do his thing. He lost this privilege after two failed attempts. From day two onward Glenn and I both switched over into guide training mode being very, VERY specific on what is and is not acceptable business practices for demanding Americans like us. Rule #1 came from Glenn: NO white people. Rule #2 came from me: NO lying. Rule #3 also came from Glenn: You’re the guide, I am the customer, remember that. The other rules all were all variations on the first three. Ugh. If he hadn’t told us on numerous occasions that he was a genius and periodically ‘tested’ our knowledge by asking ridiculous questions like who discovered pasteurization for instance, he might have been somewhat tolerable. And who am I to say that he isn’t a genius just because he couldn’t figure out the latch on the cupboard door after being shown three times, I mean it has been rumored that Einstein couldn’t (wouldn’t?) tie his own shoes for years.

Day one was a farce. The first village we visited was a bunch of desperate actors pretending to be villagers for a buck. NOT what we’re into. This was the source of lesson #1.

The second village was the worst thing I’ve ever paid to witness. I remember walking out of a bull fight and spending the majority of the fight outside of the arena, but this was way, way worse. We paid money to watch young girls and women (some pregnant) be whipped. Biruk, our guide, acted surprised to have timed our arrival with such a 'rare' event. He repeatedly told us how lucky we were to roll into this village on the day of a Hammer bull jumping ceremony. “People fly from Europe just to witness this and we just happen to be here for it. You are very, very lucky people.” He told us that this was a cultural ceremony that proves a man is strong enough to take a wife. That today was the first day of a week long tradition where this young man will be subjected to jumping over several bulls, shaving his head and spending a week locked in a dark room.

Not yet knowing the depth of our guide’s dishonesty we thought that we really were lucky until we walked up the hill and saw the ‘viewing platform’. Despite that red flag we were the only tourists there, so it seemed somewhat legit, until the hoards began rolling in. I started asking around and got the truth from an enterprising local kid who makes his way to this village every week for the performance. Another source confirmed that this event happens every Monday like clockwork and that tourists flock in mass to see the spectacle. This is where lesson #2 occurred. At this point what little affection I could conger up for our guide disappeared. If we had known that this was a performance we could have chosen to participate. But being told that it was a cultural event that we could witness, for a fee of course, was an entirely different scenario.  

To Biruk’s credit he asked our forgiveness (although adamantly holding to his story about the rarity of the bull jumping ceremony) saying that day two would be a totally different day, no more white people. He was going to recalculate our agenda and promised that we wouldn’t go to any more tourist villages. And he kept his word. The rest of the trip was an utter delight.

The second day we drove to the small village of Gembella where we met the Hammer people. We negotiated a village fee with the chief and were warmly welcomed into the tribe. We had such a lovely time with these people. They were warm, curious and so welcoming. We sang the alphabet song with the children, I read with a couple of the men who were just learning to read English at a third grade level (this is relative, it would be a first grade level in the US). We read from my kindle and they were more than a little fascinated by it: flipping pages, highlighting text and turning it off and on again to reveal a new picture every time. That evening the chief invited us to his house for coffee; well, it isn’t really coffee, the beans are too expensive for the average villager, so they use the skins from the coffee beans to make a rich tea.

Our visit happened to coincide with a village meeting about the importance of education. The chief and village elders decided that everyone should be educated and taught English; this was a relief to the village teacher, our translator. It is as if we were watching history unfold right before our eyes. By adopting western ways comes the inevitable cultural shift that has historically led to the demise of these indigenous societies. Is it for the good or the detriment of their societies? What makes a functioning society? Are Western ways better than lesser developed societies? Are we a happier society? Is happiness even a legitimate indicator of a society? How do you quantify it? You see where this is going.

As the night sky turned dark we all crowded onto woven mats and goat hides outside the chief’s house to take in a language lesson; this time it was their turn to teach us. Inevitably the conversation turned to why we don’t have children, a feat unfathomable for most rural Africans. Glenn tried explaining that children grow up differently in America and that you can’t just let them run free like you do in Africa, that they need constant supervision, etc. They were so saddened by this that they invited us to move to Ethiopia and be a part of their village so that we could have children. They would even accept our marriage so that Glenn wouldn’t have to stare down 8 bulls naked and jump for his life. Having children is not a choice, even without a language barrier, it is not a concept that is understood.  I can’t say that it is totally understood in America, but it is tolerated, mostly.

The third night we camped at Dukkah’s house in Caro Duc, a small village along the eastern side of the Omo River. We were feeling a little ill (possibly from the coffee husk tea), so we spent the rest of the day lounging. I did manage to pull together the fixings for campfire calzones. The boys gathered enough wood for an Oregon Coast size bonfire that would die into a lovely bed of red hot coals, perfect for a round of calzones. I am pretty sure I even heard the words 'culinary' and 'genius,' but that is bound to cross the minds of anyone eating pizza for the first time. I just happened to be the provider of the world's favorite food. They LOVED it. But then again, if you spent your entire life eating sorghum, starchy corn and goat meat you would love pretty much anything with cheese too. 

The following morning the four of us hoped in a huge dugout canoe and poled across the crock infested Omo River to visit the Kangtom people. There is something truly humbling about gliding through the water and watching giant crocks slither down from the banks and plop in the murky river just feet from you. GP and I made a pact that if the boat tips, we’ll swim to the closest shore (not covered with reptiles) without giving the camera a second thought.

Our final destination was the one of Africa’s most famous tribes, the Mursi. Well, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Despite their popularity (and reputation), they were quite lovely. Of course, their curiosity rivals our own; they are just as interested in us as we are them. In a matter of minutes I was felt up, groped and repeatedly had to fend off the girls who kept trying to peer down my dress. Fortunately, it was just the women who were interested in what I was hiding under my clothes. But after eleven months in Africa I have relinquished my need for personal space (this is required). So when I get home, don’t be afraid to tell me when I am standing a little too close.

My love,

To view our album from day one of the Arbore people and the Hammer bull jumping ceremony click here.
To view our album of the Mursi people and the rest of the Omo Valley click here.


  1. Thanks for the follow! This is AMAZING! I would LOVE to go there!!!!

  2. LOL oops clicked om the wrong blog...but still!! This blog is making me want to travel :)

  3. Looking forward to hearing about Sudan travels and adventures. Wishing you love and laughter each step of your journey. Happy New Year.