Regular Wild Frontiers traveller Andrew Simmonds recently returned from his third visit to Ethiopia in the last 18 months, this time to the culturally-rich Omo Valley region. Here he reports on some of the problems tourism poses this area, in what, for Wild Frontiers, is an issue we are continually struggling with – how to send travellers to this fascinating area responsibly.
The Omo Valley trip is my third visit to Ethiopia in 18 months, having fallen in love with the country and its people and enjoying the tour leadership of the award winning Dario Ghirlanda. This tour does question whether tourism in rural communities is good for those communities of which more later.
The trip starts with a reminder of the Northern circuit with a visit to a stelae field and a rock hewn church. However the following day the tribal aspect of the trip starts in earnest with a visit to the Dorze tribe. The Dorze tribe live high in the mountains surrounded by clouds enjoying a very temperate climate and fertile soil. They live with their cattle in unique bee hive like structures which are incredibly spacious inside. Tourism is embraced positively, including a genuine overnight stay experience while maintaining their existing lifestyles. A thoroughly enjoyable positive visit followed in the afternoon by a boat trip to view crocodiles, hippos and birdlife.
Market stops next day includes a cattle market where we begin to wonder if Dario is trying to lead us into dangerous situations on purpose. A bull runs loose in the market while we are there.
A visit to the Mursi tribe famous for their lip plates brings home the issue of tourism to these tribes. Paying people to have their photo taken is not an issue for me. Rather than snapping away it gives you so much opportunity to stand and absorb the scene. The payment is small at 5 Birr (15p) and if they can invest it in their future then all is good. However, the issue is the aggressive nature of the Mursi demanding to have their picture taken and holding their hand out for money. You can find yourself quickly surrounded. The prettiest people earn the highest fees and you do feel sorry for the less beautiful people who earn much less.
Dario finds us a Bull Jumping Ceremony of the Hamer tribe to attend, prior to which we have spent time in the market. The Bull Jumping Ceremony is probably the highlight of the trip. The afternoon consists of dancing, drinking and whipping of the female relatives and is then followed by the bull jumping which if successful enables the male jumper to come of age and to marry.
Other tribal visits include the Kara tribe with the classic views of painted men and the Omo River. Here with the aid of a local guide the visit is less frantic than the Mursi. A walk in the late afternoon to the river leads to the sighting of crocodiles in the river and on the opposite bank. On the bank where we are standing are signs of recent visits by crocodiles leading to the definite conclusion that Dario either lives dangerously or is just trying to get rid of his group.
St Michaels Day involves a visit to the church of the same name in Turmi. The priest is halfway through a sermon. This is then followed by auctioning of pictures of St Michael. The first sells for 2000 Birr. Three are auctioned before it is the turn of Holy Honey to be auctioned.
Our last tribal visit is to the Konso tribe, who live very differently to the others. Terraced farming and a settlement that is reminiscent of a medieval castle with incredible stone defences and passageways.
At the moment tourism is limited in the Omo Valley by the infrastructure. The danger becomes as tourism increases that the village tribal visits become a visit to a tourist village rather than a traditional working village. The issue of money earned could be problematic. If it is used to develop the prosperity and education of the village than that is good. However there is the danger the additional income could be spent on alcohol etc. Other tourist groups visiting the villages were performing quick stops, paying for a few photos and leaving, which means it is like a circus. Luckily for us with Dario we spent longer in the villages trying to view and understand their lifestyles , wandering slowly around the villages.
The final days are spent at the Rift Valley lakes, home to an incredible amount of birdlife. Lake Langano is particularly beautiful and restful. A chance to relax and enjoy the birdlife and scenery before heading back to the capital.