Ethiopia Part 8, Tribes of Southeast Ethiopia

Mursi Woman and Children, Ethiopia 2018

In the south-east of Ethiopia, we find an entirely different aspect of the country. We leave behind the  Orthodox Christian Churches and Monasteries of the northern circuit, the hustle and bustle of crowded Addis Ababa and the extreme highs and lows of the Bale Mountains and the Danakil Depression and enter an area where tribes build huts in their unique traditional methods and the people live as they have done for hundreds of years.  

The first village we visit in this area is a Dorze Village in the Guze Mountains high above the Rift Valley city of Arba Minch. The Dorze people live in a cold and damp environment so they need huts which can withstand the weather and they are famous for their towering homes which are essentially massive upturned baskets. Its too high for banana trees to grow but perfect for Bamboo and Enset (false banana) and their homes are woven with bamboo and thatched with the enset leaves. They can be 12 metres high when first built (or woven) then as termites and damp slowly wear away the base is sliced off so over 60 to 80 years the huts become progressively shorter. They don’t use a central pillar for support and the hut can be picked up and moved to a new location when needed.

Inside there are partitioned areas on the sides for livestock and vents are set high in the roof to help clear out some of the smoke from the cooking fires. A small area at the front serves as a reception room and if you imagine this as the trunk and the upper vents as eyes, the homes are said to resemble massive elephant heads (maybe you need a good imagination).

There are numerous Enset plants in the adjoining garden patch and our hostess shows us how she makes and cooks kocho, a fermented, unleavened bread, from the plants. It is eaten with honey and data, a hot chilli sauce. 

We are also treated to glasses of a local hooch made in stills in the village and drunk with a loud ‘Hoy, Hoy, Hoy’ toast as you raise the glasses high then quickly swallow the lot. Pity our visit was in the morning as a few more of those would certainly be warming on a cold afternoon or evening.

We are staying just a short distance from the village in a lodge where each chalet is a modified Dorze hut. Instead of the partitioned area on the side housing livestock, we have an ensuite, and there is a dining area in the middle of the hut, instead of a cooking fire, with magnificent views over the lake below. The views and the peace are so magnificent it is easy to stay an extra night.

Not far south of Arba Minch live the Konso people who have taken an entirely different approach to building their villages. They are not as high in the mountains and the weather is milder but the country around is very hilly and covered in innumerable rocks. Through 400 years of very hard work they have transformed the hills into terraces for their crops and built their villages on the tops of the hills surrounded by walls of rocks for protection.

We visit a village with a guide who explains the customs and significance of what we are seeing. Once inside the outer wall the twisting stone-walled walkways connect family and clan compounds, each with a clutch of thatched-roof homes, communal mora (huts where young men sleep at night to serve as watchmen and community servants for the village) and public squares where generation poles (one pole is raised every 18 years) stand tall.

Children play in the walkways and around the generation pole in the public square.

From Konso we drive west into the Lower Omo Valley. This area is featured in many articles in National Geographic and it is an area we have been looking forward to visiting. There are over 20 different ethnic tribes with distinct differences in dress and culture and they still live largely traditional lives. The country is primarily indigenous bush with very few buildings using modern materials. This part of Ethiopia has been accessible to tourists for a relatively short time and west of the Omo River it is still very remote and requires planning and guides to visit the area.  

Jinka is the largest town in the area and will be our base for visiting the Mursi people. Even our drive to Jinka is fascinating as we pass through wonderful and varied landscapes and through towns like Kako and Key Afar where the local tribes include the Banna people with their distinctive hairstyles and decorations. It is market day in Kako as we pass through the area and for many miles either side of the village we see people driving their animals or carrying their produce for sale in the market.

Once in Jinka we find some accommodation and begin organising our trip through the Mago National Park and across the Mago River. A guide is required for the trip and we also need to collect an armed guard when we enter the national park. Fitting one extra person into our vehicle for a trip of that length is extremely difficult and uncomfortable, two is not even an option so we will have to go in our guide’s vehicle. While we are at our hotel we are greeted by two other travellers we had seen on our trip out from Konso. Igna and Thomas are from Lithuania and have been working in the US for the past few years. They are riding a tandem bicycle for two months in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania … it sure makes our travels seem very easy and comfortable by comparison. They are also planning to visit the Mursi people so we join forces to share the costs of the guide and guard.

We make an early start and the trip out to and through the national park takes us through more great landscapes as we cross a range of hills and the Mago valley. There are apparently quite a few animals in the park but the thick vegetation means spotting any is rare. It would appear the need to carry an armed guard is more to provide employment than any real danger. 

We visit two Mursi villages. The first is a permanent village and the people have some cattle but are also involved in agriculture. In the second village, they primarily raise cattle and move around their lands to provide them with new pastures. As they are nomadic so their huts are less substantial and are easily deconstructed then remade using larger branches they have carried with them plus local grasses and other materials from the new area.

The main source of cash income is from visiting tourists such as ourselves and although the clothing, or lack of it, is genuine, the face and body painting and elaborate headgear would traditionally only have been worn for battle or special occasions. It is now worn often in the hope we will pay for taking their photos and people eagerly line up to be included in the photo shoot.

The enormous lip-plates worn by some of the women can be up to 12 cm in diameter. They are made of clay and are inserted into a slit in their lower lip. Due to the obvious discomfort, women only wear the lip-plates occasionally, leaving their distended lips swaying below their jaw. The hole is cut around age 15 and stretched over many months. Now women can choose to wear plates in their ears instead, not an easy process but certainly easier than wearing the lip-plates. When asked why they did it we were told it was to show respect for their culture. Other people told us that it originally started to stop neighbouring tribes abducting their women.

In the second village the decorations used included cattle horns, gourds and local berries.

Mursi Woman, Ethiopia 2018

From Jinka we travel south to Turmi. One of the main reasons we are here is to witness a Hamer “Bull Jumping” ceremony. While we are waiting for that to happen we travel to the nearby town of Dimeka for their weekly market. It’s a very colourful and lively affair and well worth the visit while we are waiting for the “Bull Jumping” ceremony.

Back in Turmi we conclude arrangements to visit a “Bull Jumping” ceremony which turns out to be something quite special and warrants its own post so keep an eye out that.

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