A Journey to the Tribal Omo Region of Ethiopia

By Dima, Nicholas | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

A Journey to the Tribal Omo Region of Ethiopia


Dima, Nicholas, Mankind Quarterly


Ethnologists are rapidly being deprived of the opportunity to study communities untouched by modernity. Although it is presented in the form of a travelogue, the author of this paper, a geographer, has provided us with an up-to-date (2007) intriguing picture of a tribal society in southern Ethiopia. The portrayal realistically catches something of a hitherto largely isolated tribal society's reaction in its early contacts with modernizing cultures. Christoph von Fuehrerheimendorf, the late University of London anthropologist known for his studies of the Nagas as they experienced the same forces in the 1930s, once observed that ethnologists were entering a very difficult period of time, when there would soon be no truly "primitive" societies, untouched by modernity, left to study. This paper may be said to reflect the same sentiments.

Key Words: Ethiopia; Tribal society; Omo region; Mursi; Karo; Hamer.

Ethiopia is one of the largest and most populated countries in Africa. It has a surface area of 1.1 million sq. km. or 435 thousand sq. miles, which makes it more than twice the size of France and almost twice the size of Texas. Ethiopia also has a growing and ethnically diversified population approaching 80 million. From a religious point of view Ethiopia is predominantly Christian and Muslim. In addition, it has a rich history and a complex geopolitical evolution. From a racial and cultural point of view, some Ethiopians (especially in the North) have Semitic Middle Eastern traits, while there are African-Arabic traits in the Northeast, and predominandy subSaharan African in the South. If one wants to learn about Ethiopia and to encounter its nature, its history, and its cultural diversity, one must make at least four separate journeys to visit the disparate parts of the country.

Most of Ethiopia's historical and religious roots are in the Northern mountainous area of the country. A round trip of three thousand kilometers (about two thousand miles) from Addis Ababa to Bahar Dar, Lake Tana, Tiss Isat (the Blue Nile waterfall), historic Gonder, religious Axum, heroic Adwa, political Mekele, architectural Lalibela, as well as Dessi, Debra Brehan and back to Addis, will take the traveler on the legendary trail of the Covenant and through incredible geographic and historical sites. A trip to the East will take the traveler to the Danakil-Afar and Somali regions of the country. In this part of Ethiopia where Lucy was found one can see the beginning of mankind and the unusual cities of Harar, Jijiga and Dire Dawa. Harar, a walled city that was an independent emirate for about one thousand years and is one of the early centers of Islam in Africa. Jijiga is predominandy a Somalian town in the Ogaden desert. And Dire Dawa is the main junction on the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railroad. The city was designed and built by a French company, and its railway station retains to this day the French sign Chemin de Fer. A trip to the southwest of Ethiopia will take the traveler to a less spoiled nature and to the Kava region, the home of coffee, the drink that keeps the world moving and working. And a trip to the South will take the traveler to one of the least changed and least developed tribal areas of the contemporary world.

The Southern Nations

The most amazing trip one can take inside Ethiopia is most likely to the tribal area of the South. A mere thousand kilometers or some 600 miles south of Addis Ababa one can get as close to a pre-agricultural society as is still possible in today's world. This is the trip that, together with Carlos Fernandez (a fellow teacher), I took at the end of our two-year teaching assignment in Ethiopia. As a geographer with a deep interest in culture and geopolitics, I had read considerably about Ethiopia and had also watched a good number of TV documentaries about it. Reaching the tribal area, or "the southern nations" as it is officially called, was one of my persistent goals, but the goal was not easy to pursue. …

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