The Lower/Southern Omo Valley, is an area in the Southwest of Ethiopia. It is an area that is famous for it’s being home to over 50 different tribes, some of which with very interesting customs and cultures and beautiful landscapes.
It is a large dry savanna that goes down to the border with Kenya and has been affected by the Ethiopian governments completion of dams upriver threatening the survival of the communities that have inhabited this area and depend on the Omo River for their survival. The territory is very arid and not suitable for agriculture, and many of the tribes survive from cattle farming and increasingly from tourists paying to visit their villages and for their pictures.
I started my tour from Arba Minch a city that in itself is also worth a visit as it sits between two lakes and has a national park right outside of it. From Arba Minch I spent 4 days and 3 nights exploring the several towns, villages and ethnic groups. Among the groups we saw were the Hamar, Mursi, Banna, and Karo.
In Konso, a gateway to this region and the tribes, we first visited Gamole, a village that is more than 400 years old. Every 18 years a wooden pole is erected to keep track of time.
The village has terraces on different levels and is shaped in concentric circles from the main ‘circle’ and walls constructed of piles of stones.We also saw a huge stone which young men have to lift over their heads as a sign of being ready for marriage.
From the town of Jinka, we visited the Mursi people, who are most famous for women of the tribe traditionally using a lip plate, or a disc made of wood or clay that is inserted in a piercing in the the lip and stretched out to hold the lip plate. It is said that they are a sign of social or economical importance in some tribes. It is also supposed to be a sign of strength and self-esteem. It is also often done 6-12 months before marriage.
Nowadays, girls of age 13 to 18 appear to decide whether or not to wear a lip plate. This adornment has attracted tourists to view the Mursi and Surma women, with mixed consequences for these tribes (discussed below at end of post).
From the village of Turmi, we visited the Hamar and visited the Keyafer Market, that is famous and once a week the local tribes come for their commerce and social needs. We also visited the Karo people, who are famous for their paint like decoration on their faces and bodies.
And last, we saw a famous Jumping of the Bulls ceremony of the Banna people, that mark the coming of age for young men.The ceremony involves the whole village drinking local alcohol, and the boy or boys who are celebrating coming into manhood and a spiritual realm have to jump on the backs of bulls. The ceremony also includes young female family members of the boy jumping bulls being asked to be whipped to be able to show their love for the boy doing his bull jumping ceremony.
How to get there
When I went from the capital (Addis Ababa) there were not any direct buses, but I took a bus to Hawassa/Awasa (around 5 hours, 170 Birr), and from there you can get a local bus to Sodo (2-3 hours, 100 Birr) and from there another bus (2-3 hours, 60 Birr) to Arba Minch.
Where to stay
In Arba Minch I stayed at the Forty Springs Hotel.
In Jinka, at the Eyob Pension…nice gardens and even a trampoline!
In Turmi at the Kizo Lodge, which is new and a nice place to stay.
In Konso at the Kanta Lodge for a very nice place and the only one with WIFI when I was in Konso. If you want a budget option there is the Konso Edget Hotel.
I did 3 night/4 day tour with Ethiopia Travel and Tours that do tours all over Ethiopia and I had a very good experience visiting these tribes. The cost will depend on the amount of people who you do the tour with.
If you want to do it on your own you can also do it on local buses that run, between the area of these villages, but will need a lot more time to play with. And you can also rent a vehicle as some people I met did and the costs will depend on the amount of people, and prices will be better for you if you can split costs with a few people as most of the villages/tribes charge 200-300 Birr per vehicle to enter the villages.
If you are short on time and prefer comfort, then definitely do one of the organized tours. Especially because it takes many hours to travel between the villages even by private vehicle, much more in local buses. Also I strongly recommend you look for tour companies those that offer genuine interactions with the tribes/villages. Sadly a lot of the interaction with these tribes has become something that could be called a human safari. Make sure your interaction with the tribes isn’t just taking a picture of them! I made sure to introduce myself, play with the kids, etc before going to just take pictures of them as some people do.
My tour of the Omo Valley and my accommodation during the tour was sponsored, but of course all views are my own.
Sources and Additional Information
YouTube video set in Gamole, some footage and information
New York Times article of this region