Another early morning start brought us across some lovely landscapes to the bend of the Omo River where the Karo tribe lives. When I think of the Omo Valley, this landscape is what I think of, probably thanks to Jimmy Nelson’s epic photography book Before They Pass Away (there has been some controversy with his depiction of the tribes, just a fair warning, but as an artistic exercise, this book is absolutely beautiful).
We arrived first at a small café with lots of men who had already started drinking, with some of whom who looked in rough shape, as in beat up. We walked past them and into the small café to have our usual breakfast of tibbs. There, I met Ester. She lives here on this tiny compound with her mother and father. Her father used to own a hunting camp very close to here and now he owns this small café/rest stop where tourists and locals alike gather. It seemed that the men were actually all Karo guides. Now, in case I didn’t explain this before, every village has a local guide association and you must pay and hire a guide before going to visit. This makes sense because it provides extra cash and employment for the community. However, it seems that the Karo guides are rather inclined to drinking and when tourists give them money, they come down to this small bar to indulge in drinking alcohol with their friends. Many of them looked beat-up because there had been a fight the day before. We learned from our guide that alcoholism was a problem in many of the communities and that in some tribal villages, the government had actually gone ahead and banned beer and spirits (local traditional brew was still allowed).
Ester was shy but with a little bit of chatting in Amharic and a big smile, I took some photos of her while she made us coffee. For anyone reading this, Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world. There can be no argument. Even in the smallest towns, you can find someone who is having a coffee ceremony and a small bunna (coffee in amharic). First, Ester roasted the beans, then pounded them, then made us coffee in a traditional pot called a jebena. The coffee in Ethiopia is dark and thick. It’s not really like espresso at all although many people compare it. It’s just delicious. I don’t drink coffee anywhere else except in Ethiopia.
After our meaty breakfast and delicious coffee and a grand old chat with Ester’s parents, we picked up our guide (who wasn’t quite drunk yet) and went off to the Karo village.
The Karo are a much smaller tribe compared to the Hamer. There are only about 4,000 of them left living in Ethiopia. Karo means ‘fish people’ which makes sense considering they live right next to the Omo River at the ‘bend in the river’. However, the sad part of this is that a large part of their territory has been taken over by a Turkish firm that razed the vegetation and is now growing cotton. In the photo below, you can can see what I mean. On the left side is the traditional Karo village on the hill. You can just make out the river. To the right of the river is all cotton plantation! You can even see the dust rising as tractors drive across the landscape. Due the on-going issues in Ethiopia however, I will not comment further on this issue. You can make up your own mind on it.
The Karo people were a lot gentler compared to the other tribes. They weren’t as pushy with wanting their photos taken. There were also quite a few men around which was very different from the other tribes. It made for a more balanced atmosphere I think. The Karo compounds are larger than that of the other tribes. There are two structures in them- one is the main house where everyone sleeps. The second structure is used for daytime usage and for cooking. This second structure is much more open and allows the smoke to go out, unlike the Karo and the Dessanech homes.
The Karo also paint themselves using clay from the surrounding environment. Every morning the Karo men will paint their bodies whereas the women will paint only their faces. I would have liked to have spent more time with the Karo- maybe even gone fishing with them!
After our visit to the Karo, we went to visit a local market in Dooma which is on the way to key Afar. All markets in Ethiopia have the normal goods market and the livestock market. This one was no different. Some of the merchants had come to buy cows from the local tribes here- mainly the Bena tribe (they don’t look very different from the Hamer) and would be walking them almost 75 km away to Key Afar!
Everywhere you could see people stopping to sit around and drink tella (local alcohol).There was a honey market, a spice market and…
Well, everything was going great! I was bargaining with the woman in the photo above for some salt when suddenly things absolutely not ok. People started running in all directions and the market emptied out quickly. Our market guide told us to start running towards the car. I have to admit, my first instinct was to stay put, hide under one of the stalls and see what was about to happen. But, things aren’t super stable in Ethiopia right now so I thought better of it. Also my guide at this point took my hand and we ducked and started running towards the car. On our way, we saw some federal police with their guns out which is what scared me most. We ran to our vehicle, our driver waving us in and we drove off in a hurry!
We later learned that the issue was some local squirmish between a member of a person who had gotten arrested last week and the police. Anyways, we probably didn’t want to stick around to find out. We spend the rest of the day at our lovely campsite in Turmi next to the dry Kaske River bed reading and resting. The campsite like I mentioned was very lovely, with huge mango trees under which we lay for a few hours. We also met a few people who were motorbiking into Kenya around Lake Victoria and back! I love meeting travelers and hearing what they’ll be doing. Gives me even more wanderlust! At night, we had a bonfire that the gorgeous Hamer lady in charge of the campsite made for us. We watched the moon rising over the horizon and talked of what we had seen and what we hoped to see. The type of discussion you have over a campfire where somehow anything is possible.
Next, Read Part 6: The Mursi Tribe