Omo Valley Explorer Part 3: Crossing the Omo River

Read Part 1: here

Read Part 2: here

We left Turmi bright and early this morning across a landscape that slowly turned into what can best be described as ‘scrubland’. The early light was delicious and made for a dreamy drive down one of the best tarmac roads in the country. It was recently built in an effort to increase movement of goods between Ethiopia and Kenya. All over the landscape, giant termite mounds stuck up like huge fingers crying out, “I’m here! I’m here!” among all of the acacia trees and bushes. Slowly, even the bushes made way to a landscape devoid of much vegetation at all and to my surprise, huge swaths of land that were planted with cotton and huge irrigation canals broke the landscape.

We arrived in Omorate, the border town between Ethiopia and Kenya and registered at the customs office before heading out to a local restaurant for a breakfast of tibbs, stewed meat, often the only available item on menus in small towns in my experience. It was a long wait! So long that the light shifted and by the time we were finished, the early morning glow we had been hoping for to photograph was gone. Still, we made our way to the boat crossing, met our guide and took our seat on the first s-shaped canoe I have ever been on! It had been dugout from a local tree and the boatman punted us across with not too much effort.

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The Dessanech are a pastoralist tribe that live on the other side of the Omo River in what people have described as a “post-apocalyptic” landscape. I won’t lie, it was dusty and hot under the sun but it seemed that they had been able to plant some bushes and were giving agriculture a try. Certainly the banks of the Omo had some trees for shade and the river itself was maybe 500m from the village so fresh water was a possibility. Without minimizing the challenges that the Dessanech must face (including the diversion of the Omo River into a huge dam and for cotton and sugarcane plantations, fewer and fewer fish in the river, etc.) I also want to caution tourists against making sweeping assumptions of post apocalyptic landscapes that further dehumanize people who live in these places through sheer willpower and grit.

As with the Hamer village, there were no men to be seen as they had already left bright and early to graze the cattle. The Dessanech women were therefore very ready to form circles around us and ask us to take their photo. Our guide tried hard to help us visit the village and reduce the pressure but it was difficult!

The houses of the Dessanech were quite different from those of other tribes. In dome shapes, traditionally, they were built using branches and leaves. Inside the houses, there is a small cooking area. The women sleep on one side, the men on the other and the children at the rear of the house.

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It seems that with the advent of corrugated metal, this has become the preferred house design. Large sheets of metal bought from the market and tied together on the dome shaped branches that form the house. The inside obviously protected by the elements a lot more but also allowed a lot less air to get through. Since cooking is still done inside, I can imagine the rates of respiratory disease among the Dessanech must be some of the highest among the tribes given how small their homes are. This is especially true as they become more and more sedentary due to increasing government regulations. I wonder how long before these dome homes are replaced by sheet metal houses you see in other parts of Africa.

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I felt pretty overwhelmed photographing the Dessanech. It was hot but more than that, there were just so many people. They all wanted to be photographed and paid the 5 bir. Three or four people would form groups and pose and shout, “5 for 20 birr” or “2 for 10 birr” as if they were selling themselves, which I guess in a way they were! In the Omo, it is 5 birr per click of the shutter. With the intense sun coming down, just one click per person meant that controlling my exposure was quite challenging. I could of course have negotiated for more time with people but that brings its own set of complications. Under the circumstances, I did the best I could. In general, the Dessanech were good humoured and as some of them spoke a little Amharic, I was able to get away with taking more than one shot and making faces at them to make them laugh. However, it was difficult having so many little children make sad faces at you because you didn’t choose them to be photographed.

pc1_7552upc1_7553upc1_7555upc1_7558upc1_7571upc1_7575upc1_7573uAbove is probably one of my favourite shots from the Dessanech and possibly from the trip. This young mother didn’t ask me for a photograph, she was just playing along with her child at the entrance of the village as we were leaving. I was able to take a discrete photo without her altering her behavior too much. I did pay her though because I had paid everyone else and it seemed unfair otherwise. She seemed surprise but happy that I had taken her photo. Unlike the others, she also asked to see the photograph.

As we walked back to the river for our canoe back, I realized that the light coming through the forest made for lovely light that wasn’t available at the village itself.

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The young lady above is wearing a black-and-white colobus monkey skin which is a species at risk due to deforestation and hunting. I didn’t see anyone else in the Dessanech wearing one of these, most wore goat skins like the Hamer. I think this indicates some form or rank or status for her family.

Finally, we put our cameras away, bid goodbye to our new friends and made our way back across the Omo River and back to Turmi.

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12 thoughts on “Omo Valley Explorer Part 3: Crossing the Omo River

  1. You write beautifully and thoughtfully, and your photos, regardless of light, are superb. What a privilege to travel like this. Westernisation is clear in the bottle top headwear, but so creatively made. I wanted a closer look at the s-shaped canoe.

    1. Thanks so much. I was definitely always impressed at their resourcefulness and recycling for adornments. Unfortunately I don’t have a great photo of the canoe. Once I got in, I was terrified of tipping over ha ha!

  2. Encore une fois, des photos fascinantes – et des observations très intéressantes. Je me demande s’il y a des visiteurs qui arrivent sans caméra et qu’il n’ont pas le projet de partir avec des photos – seulement de rencontrer les habitants de ces villages… comment réagiraient les gens?

    1. Je crois que oui il y a surement des touriste qui viennent sans caméra. Les fois ou nous sommes allés dans les villages sans caméras au début, les gens n’étaient pas intéressés à échanger et simplement nous laissaient tranquils… pour aller attendre d’autres touristes! Notre guide nous disait que durant la haute saison, il y a parfois 60-80 groupes de touristes qui vont au village! C’est énorme comme nombre et je me demande encore qu’est ce qui ce passe réellement avec tout l’argent qui rentre dans le village.

      1. Oui… mais on peut aussi se demander (et tu le fais déjà) comment et combien ces interventions des touristes dans la vie de ces peuples modifient en fait leur culture et leur façons de vivre.

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