Why Ethiopia? After 14 months of continuous, slow travel, spent mostly exploring cities, we were ready for a change of pace and a more raw or “authentic” experience, for lack of a better phrase. We had planned to visit Ethiopia originally just to see the hand-hewn rock churches of Lalibela. But, with a tough spousal negotiation, we reached détente: three months in the land of her people, Italy, and for me, 12 days bouncing on backroads and possibly camping a night or two in a tribal village, and a cross country adventure through the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region which includes the Omo Valley. An exciting itinerary with Ephrem Girmachew of Southern Ethiopia Tours fit the bill and our budget. I’m not sure who got the better deal, but somewhere along our journey we coined the phrase “shaken tourist syndrome” to reflect the road conditions we encountered for hours each day. The area in the northern part of the Greater Rift Valley, known today as the Omo Valley region of Ethiopia, has been at the crossroads of humankind for many millennia. In 1967 Dr. Leaky discovered fossil bone evidence, recently re-dated by scientists to be 195,000 years old, of early Homo sapiens near Kibish, Ethiopia, several miles west of the Omo River near where the borders of Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia meet. The first migrations of early man out of Africa occurred 60,000 years ago as they followed the Omo River north through the Great Rift Valley to the Red Sea. At its narrowest point, where it meets the Gulf of Aden, they crossed to continue their migration through Arabia and eventually into Europe and Asia. The region was once rich with African wildlife, and Arab towns along the northern East African coast of Somalia and Kenyan were sending hunting parties into the interior for elephant ivory, rhino horn and unfortunately slaves since around AD 1000.
It is thought that the Mursi and Suri tribes developed lip plates and scarification as a way to discourage Arab slavers from taking their women. The first European contact with the region is credited to Antonio Fernandes, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, who was sent by Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos in 1613 to find an inland route, that avoided all Islamic territories, to Malindi, a Portuguese port at the time, on the Indian Ocean. The next reported western explorers to the region were Antonio Cecchi in the 1870’s and Vittorio Bottego in 1897. Bottego was the first European to follow the Omo River all the way to Lake Turkana, at a time when Italy was trying to become a colonial power and expand its Italian Eritrea territory into Ethiopia. By the early 1900’s teams of cultural anthropologists from various Europeans countries were viewing the area as the “last frontier” and beginning to study the “cultural crossroads” aspect of the tribes of the Omo Valley.
A harsh, vast territory, the semi-arid Omo Valley is home to 13 indigenous groups that are seminomadic pastoralist. These tribes also practice flood retreat cultivation along the banks of the Omo River, to produce crops mostly for subsistence or occasional trading in the local markets. Very remote and undeveloped, the area resisted Ethiopian Orthodox influence from the north of the country for centuries. It wasn’t until the 1990’s, when a fledgling tourist industry began to emerge, and violent cross-border conflicts with various nomadic tribes looking for better grazing or to rustle cattle, that the government began to exert influence over the area. Some nomadic tribes along the border were encouraged to settle down and farm and fish along the Omo River for their livelihood. Government interest in the area was intensified again when the decision to build two dams on the Gibe River, a tributary of the Omo River, were built to supply hydroelectric power to Ethiopia. Later, the massisve Gibe lll dam, completed in 2016, was built to supply irrigation water to foreign owned sugar cane and cotton plantations on lands that were seized by the Ethiopian government from the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. Consequently, as the natural cycle of the river flooding was stopped, the centuries old practice of flood retreat farming is failing as there is not enough rainfall in the area to support crops. This has increased tensions amongst tribes already competing for limited grazing and fertile farming lands due to climate change. Things change, but the proud peoples that live in the Omo Valley are trying to retain their way of life amidst external influences they can’t control, as tourists and construction crews course across their territory. Tempers flare when trucks and buses carrying supplies and workers to the agricultural plantations strike and kill cattle. Drivers are required to stop and immediately pay the herder for his loss, but many never do. Consequently, the local tribe will block the road and demand payment until the issue is resolved.
It was immediately apparent as we were landing that Ethiopia was different. Addis Ababa is a thriving city of almost 5 million people, with gleaming skyscrapers, a new sprawling economic development zone, and high-speed rail line connecting the city to Djibouti. With no suburban transitional zone, the city was an island surrounded by an ocean of farmland. A good night’s sleep at the Jupiter International Hotel Bole (they have the best front desk staff we’ve encountered) made an early start bearable. Meeting us punctually, an amiable Ephrem introduced us to Gee and his trusty Toyota Landcruiser. We could tell from the beginning that they were friends and had worked together for years. Even before leaving the city limits, we met our first of the ubiquitous cattle herds, donkey carts and tuk-tuks slowing our passage.
Our first day would be the longest with over eight hours of driving to Arba Minch, that included a stop at the archaeological site of Tiya Stelae. Here a large field of stelae were adorned with carvings of spears; the number of spear heads on a stone is thought to represent the number of enemy killed. Other stones that dotted the landscape contained symbols that were more difficult to interpret. Nothing is really known about the people that created these monuments and there are no other sites in the area to help archeologists explain their mystery.
Further along, we stopped at an explosion of color and activity that represents an Ethiopian local market, our first of many. Coming from our last stop in parched Zimbabwe, this landscape was unexpectantly and refreshingly green. We passed farmers plowing theirs fields with oxen, the way it has been done for centuries. The 2019 rainy season was good; unfortunately, this is often not the case. There was no water infrastructure in most of the small towns and villages we passed through, forcing folks to gather water from local streams and rivers. It was a constant sight: women carrying yellow water jugs along the side of the road back to their homes, or if they could afford it, having it delivered by donkey cart. The terrain varied tremendously, with full rivers on one side of a mountain range and dry on the other side. These conditions forced people to dig into the riverbed in search of water.
Closer to Arba Minch workers piled just-cut bananas onto trucks, from plantations that lined the road.Since Ethiopia is close to the equator, the daylight hours do not vary seasonally. The sun rises quickly in the morning and seems to drop from the sky at the end of the day. By the time we reached the Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch darkness was falling. It was a long walk to our room, and signs along the path warned of baboons and warthogs. A mosquito netted bed welcomed us under a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. A dramatic dawn the next morning through clearing storm clouds revealed the hotel’s placement on a cliff edge above a lush, dense forest that was part of Národní Park Nechisar that surrounds the perpetually brown Abaya Lake and Chamo Lake off in the distance below. At breakfast we watched thick-billed ravens in aerial combat as they rode the thermals just off the restaurant’s terrace. Nearby a staff member stood ready to chase away baboons if they got too close to the customers’ tables.
After breakfast we headed into the highlands northwest of Arba Minch to visit the Gamo tribe in the Dorze village. The Dorze, Doko and Ochello are the three clans that comprise the Gamo people. Rising slowly to an elevation of 8200ft, we traveled through heavily forested slopes that opened to patches of verdant farmland, and occasionally passed small groups of children dancing to earn spending money from passing tourists. As we entered the village, compounds ringed with woven rattan walls held back tall Enset plants, better known as false banana, also called the “tree against hunger.” This plant is an important staple that is drought resistant and can be harvested year-round. Starch from the plant is scraped from its fibers and fermented in the ground for three months or longer and used to make kocho, a type of flat bread. Fibers from the plant are used to make rope or coffee bean bags, and the leaves are fed to farm animals. We arrived on market day, and an entire hillside about the size of three football fields was covered with activity. From a distance it looked like an animated impressionistic painting, with undulating dots of color dancing under a blue sky. Sellers of charcoal, sugarcane, vegetables, and a multitude of other goods all had their wares spread out on cloths covering the ground. Men played foosball or ping-pong under the few shade trees that ringed the field.
The Dorze are known for the family structures they build, called elephant huts, and the fine weavings that they create from the cotton they grow. Constructed of hardwood poles, bamboo, thatch and enset, the huts get their name from the symmetrical vents at the top create a silhouette that resembles an elephant’s head. These towering huts can last eighty years, and when the bottom of the main poles become termite-infested they are cut off and the hut is then lifted up and moved to a different spot in the family compound.Men of the Dorze tribe traditionally do the weaving, while the women are responsible for spinning the cotton that the family grows and uses. The colorful textiles they create are highly prized all over the country.Back in Arba Minch we stopped at the Lemlem restaurant for a lunch of local lake fish before checking out the crocodiles on Chamo Lake. The lightly fried fish were served whole, while the sides were scored into squares which we picked off with our fingers. It was delicious. Another side of the restaurant served freshly butchered, grilled meat.
The road south of Arba Minch cut through farmland. Stately fish eagles and traditional Ethiopian honeybee hives dotted some of the trees along the road. The elongated beehives are made from hollowed out logs and wrapped with woven bamboo strips, and then suspended in the trees.
It’s a dangerous livelihood, fishing the muddy waters of Chamo Lake, as attested to by the size of the Nile crocodile that swam alongside our tour boat. He was frightfully as large as our 18ft vessel. Crocodile hunting hasn’t been allowed in the lake since 1973, so there are many big old crocs in its waters. Every year fishermen are killed while standing in the lake casting their nets. Those who can afford to, buy boats to fish. Full immersion baptisms are performed by some churches in Chamo and Abaya Lakes, and tragically, in 2018 a Protestant pastor was snatched by a crocodile and killed in front of his congregation during a baptismal celebration.
“Tomorrow we drive to Kenya,” Ephrem offered. Really? That wasn’t expected! “We will stop before we actually get to the border to see a Singing Well of the Borena tribe, and then head to Chew Bet, an extinct volcanic crater lake where the tribe takes black salt from its water.”“Sorry for the late pick-up, but the road was full of tuk-tuks carrying families to the university stadium up the street for a graduation ceremony,” Ephrem offered as he bundled us into the Land Cruiser and handed us large bottles of water. “It’s hot where we are going today.”
Crossing a small mountain range as we headed south from Arba Minch, we left the green landscape behind us and descended into a semi-arid savanna of acacia trees and thorn scrub that held ostrich and huge termite mounds. Soon we encountered our first herd of camels being prodded along by young herders. In Yebelo we stopped to pick-up a local Borena guide who accompanied us for the rest of the day. Now speeding toward the border, we passed isolated huts and folks seemingly in the middle of nowhere walking to unseen destinations. We abruptly u-turned when our guide spotted the dirt track we needed to follow to the tula, a centuries-old deep well that continues to be dug deeper into the ground as the water table drops.We trailed a young Borena girl herding a small group of cattle down a slowly inclined, dusty trench deeper into the earth. It was impossible to avoid cow patties as we steered clear of an exiting herd. Thirty feet below the surface, the trench ended in a bowl shape with a water trough where cattle were drinking. Rhythmic voices emerged from a shallow cave behind the trough. Climbing worn stone steps, we came to a narrow landing above the trough, where below us men sang to set a pace to their work. (Click the preceding link to see the video.) They lifted heavy buckets of water over their heads to others above them who then dumped the water into the trough for the cattle to drink. The acoustics of the cave increased the sound of their songs.
This was the wide, higher part of the well. At the back of the cave there was a hole, only as wide as a man with a bucket, that descended straight down another sixty feet into the earth where more tribesmen worked in unison to lift water up from the bottom of the shaft. Every day for centuries, teams of men have worked in thirteen tulas spread across the Borena territory to keep the tribe’s cattle alive in a harsh land where there is very little surface water.Imagine one of the most inhospitable places on earth and you might envision the village of Soda, located on the rim of the mile wide El Sod crater. Aside from raising cattle, goats and camels, some Borena tribesmen have given up their pastoral life to dive into the depths of the El Sod Crater Lake to collect salt, which is then dried and traded or sold across southern Ethiopia from Somalia to Sudan and down into Kenya. It takes the salt divers an hour to descend the narrow track to the lake surface, 1100 ft below the crater’s rim. After scraping 50lbs of wet salt from the lake bottom, they bag it and load it on donkeys for the 1.5 hour walk out of the crater, only to turn around and do it again as many times a day as they can. Black and white salt along with crystals are gathered in the lake. Crystal salt is the most valuable, and black salt, used for animals, is the least.
Each diver works for himself and it is a tragically difficult livelihood. Many of the divers suffering from loss of hearing and sense of smell, tooth decay, eczema and blindness from spending years in the highly concentrated, corrosive salt water. No eye protection is worn and nose and ear plugs are rudimentarily, made from plastic bags stuffed with dirt. At the crater rim the salt is sold to middlemen who dry it in slatted wooden shacks before reselling it. Trucks have now replaced legendary camel caravans which once crisscrossed the savanna to remote villages.
After lunch and our first Ethiopian coffee ceremony, we headed to the Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary, a 1600 square mile grassland preserve that is mostly home to Grevy’s and Burchell’s zebra. Walking with our local scout, we were able to slowly approach a small herd of zebra. Some of the females were heavy with calves soon to be born.A short drive away, our last stop of the day was a well-kept Borena village surrounded by an ochre landscape under a perfect blue sky. Women do the heavy lifting in the villages, building the huts, tending children and crops, and spending a substantial amount of time foraging for firewood and gathering water from far off sources. While the men spend their days moving their cattle across different grazing lands.Women rule their homes and determine who can enter, even prohibiting spouses. “If her husband comes back and finds another man’s spear stuck into the ground outside her house, he cannot go in,” our guide conveyed.
Away from the village as we headed back to Arba Minch we spotted both Grant’s and giraffe-necked Gerenuk gazelles. The latter rises on its hind legs to feed on higher vegetation.
Old ways are changing as the Ethiopian government shows more interest in the south, and while Animism is still practiced, Christianity and Islam are making inroads into the region.
Till next time,
Craig & Donna