Southern Ethiopia

Mursi with lip plate Mursi with no lip plate
Mursi tribal woman, with and then without the wooden lip plate that make them infamous.  When the girl turns 15, she gets slit below the lower lip and progressive distending of the lip by inserting increasingly wider lip plates continues until final size is attained.  Ethnologists disagree on why the Mursi do this.  Beauty is one of the theories but I find it difficult to subscribe to that one!

Southwestern Ethiopia is home to the tribes of the Lower Omo Valley, a once isolated and uncivilized region that was barely even aware of the existence of the rest of Ethiopia until the 1970s. Freaky outfits and customs and traditions of the Omo peoples suddenly propelled them from the stone age into becoming a modern day human zoo for tourists.  Tourists are still relatively rare due to the difficulty in getting there, but the region as a whole is so cripplingly poor (even within Africa) that the faintest scent of tourist money has already transformed the most accessible villages into spoiled money gouging operations.  Mursi ask 2 birr (about US$0.20) for every photo you take of them, and it seems that much of the money is then used for the lead man to buy alcohol and sometimes medicine (malaria is a terrible scourge in the marshy tsetse fly and mosquito infested regions where their villages are located). 

Just to give you an idea of how remote and difficult it is to get to the Omo valley overland, here's a Landcruiser fording a stream going the "easy" route during the dry season.  There are now commercial flights to the Omo capital of Jinka, but before then the whole province was completely cut off from the rest of the world during the twice a year rainy seasons.

Konso kids
These are the playful children of the unspoiled village of Dara, within walking distance of Karat-Konso town. Konso villagers may not look as wild as Mursi or Hamer tribesmen so they get less attention from tourists, and the villages remain more authentic and friendly.  Visitors pay the local tourist authority in Karat-Konso a flat fee for a permit to visit the villages and this money gets disbursed directly to the village elders, so as to discourage begging from villagers.

Dara Konso
Grinding millet in Dara village

Kako market
Tribals hiking from their villages to the Monday market at Kako.

Key Afer market
Key afer market
Hamer tribals at the Thursday market of Key Afer, very much spoiled by tourism to the point where I believe some of the more outlandishly painted young ones are only doing so for picture money.

Jinka menu
This was our rude introduction to dual pricing in Jinka, Ethiopia.  The same menu in Amharic (left) and in English (right) is differentially priced by up to two fold!   We had great difficulty finding merchants who would sell us food at habisha (Ethiopian) prices.  Most would rather make no money at all than to accept local prices from foreigners, and this institutionalized racism had very profound roots as I got to learn over the course of a month in the country.  Ethiopia is truly a unique culture, mixed from African and Arab elements, with semitic origins and a unique religion (Ethiopian orthodox church) and culture, a historical sense of destiny (spared from the arab armies by the Prophet Muhammed's own decree, and successfully resisted the feeble Italian colonial armies), geographic isolation in the mountains, and finally nurtured by the isolationist nationalistic marxist rule of the Derg in the 1970s and 80s.  What has resulted is a transformation from healthy pride to a noxious form of cultural arrogance and racial supremacy that can be hard to take for many visitors (and even minority locals).  Yes, many Orthodox Ethiopians really do believe it when their priests tell them that the habisha are the chosen race, created using God's finest materials while other races had to be cobbled together with the leftovers.   Anyway it is a part of the Ethiopian experience and part of what makes this such an interesting and worthwhile country to visit.  Ethiopia should definitely not be lumped into broad African cultural categories such as Bantu, Arab, and Sahel .