79. Closing the Tribal Ways of Life

It upsets me that while the media steadily run stories about the vanishing wildlife species, ranging from rhinos to frogs, sparse coverage is given to the rapid demise of primitive tribal groupings. Perhaps it is because these human beings are too close to us and we don’t want to face up to our own precarious future. I think I expected more from the experience of descendants of immigrant Europeans who slaughtered most of the native American Indian tribes in the 19th century and then confined the remainder to vast tracts of infertile land on which their offspring live today as impoverished, second-class and largely denigrated Native Americans. Evidently we are slow to learn.

This blog, however, will not focus on them nor on the plight of similarly threatened tribal people in the upper reaches of the Amazon or the forests of New Guinea. It will focus on the tribes being threatened with extinction in the southernmost corner of Ethiopia in what is one of the last remainders of true wilderness in Africa. At a private meeting in London with a despondent visiting Hamar spokesperson, he said: “My people now live in fear. Our traditional way of life is under threat. The government in Addis thinks of us as savages. We shall soon disappear.”

Indeed, the Hamar, like other tribes living in the lower Omo Valley, are victims of an Ethiopian government development program. This is pushed by the completion of the huge Gibe III hydro-electric dam which started storing water earlier this year. The dam will completely alter the seasonal pattern of the Omo River whose waters have been the life-force of the ten principal tribes living along its banks. To the administrators in Addis Ababa, the pastoral way of life of the Hamar, Geleb, Mursi, Bodi and Kara people — to name a handful — is anathema. They are regarded as uncivilized. The Westernized technocrats in Addis want modernization in the form of electric power, paved roads, vast agricultural tracts and the introduction of small scale industries. Towards this end they are enforcing a policy of “villagization” in which the tribespeople are being evicted from their ancestral lands that have been auctioned off without consultation to make way for commercial plantations.1

Since 2008 an area the size of France has been leased or sold to giant foreign agricultural companies cultivating sugar, cotton, cereals, palm oil and biofuels. All these crops will be exported for foreign markets while some of the local inhabitants are already suffering from starvation as the river levels fall.

The Ethiopian government resettlement program known as, “The Growth and Transformation Plan,” involved “changing the life style of pastoralist communities.” No adequate environmental nor social impact assessments were carried out on the projected plantation and irrigation schemes nor were the inhabitants along the valley properly consulted nor given the opportunity of giving their informed consent. Despite an increasing number of reported human rights abuses, some 929 protesting Mursi households were forcibly resettled into a “model” village close to partially completed plantations and mills. Without their land and their cattle, their pastoral way of life simply has been destroyed.

Historically, the Omo Valley peoples made their decisions only after extensive community meetings by the adults. As few speak Amharic, the national language in Ethiopia, they had little access to information about either the planning nor the construction of the dam which was about to transform their lives. The government had published a decree in February 2009 that any charity or NGO which receives more than 10 percent of its funding from abroad (virtually every charity in the country) could not promote human or democratic rights. The aim of this decree was to limit debate on controversial policies and restrict awareness of human rights among the primitive peoples.

Environmental and human rights groups, as well as UNESCO,2 have questioned Ethiopia’s agenda or the implementation of the Constitutional guarantees of the rights of tribal peoples to “full consultation” and to their “expression of views in the planning and implementation of environmental policies and projects that affect them directly.” However, the now deceased Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, had lashed out at the dam’s opponents asserting that even though the south Omo “is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.”3

Survival International, the global association for the rights of tribal peoples, has received disturbing reports that one of the smallest and most vulnerable tribes of the Omo Valley, the Kwegu, have been on the edge of starvation as a result of the destruction of their forest and its beehives as well as the slow death of the river fish on which they depended. “How will we feed our children when the fish are gone?” asked an elder of one of the 1,000 remaining Kwegu people. Those tribal leaders who have opposed their removal from their homes have been brutally beaten and jailed by the military who patrol the region and guard the construction of roads and pylons for the forthcoming electricity lines from Gibe III.

Tensions between the native people and the military have been rising steadily as the result of evictions and, at the end of May, Hamar pastoralists were repeatedly attacked by soldiers with mortars and semi-automatic weapons. A news black-out by the government made it impossible to know the exact number of casualties. Survival International received reports that a “massacre” had taken place. According to an interview with Pink Bull, a tribal elder: “The soldiers said, ‘We are going to clear the Omo River area. You move out to the grasslands.’ ‘Why?’ we said. ‘This area is our land,’ said the government. ‘You are few. Now leave this land and stay in the grasslands.’”4

Part of the social tensions that have arisen are caused by the younger generation of men who no longer look to their elders for guidance. They view the elders as sell-outs to 21st century “progress” and take to the jungle with G-3 rifles and Russian Kalashnikovs — their only available modern tools. They then show their hostility to the government by acts of violence and when this occurs, the military respond by sending masses of troops to “restore order.” Where previously there had been tribal battles with sticks, killing had been strictly forbidden between tribesmen. This taboo has now been broken by the forced resettlements.

The technocrats in Addis are not so blind to the economic opportunities offered by the foreign journalists, photographers, film makers, anthropologists and rich tourists eager to visit the different existing tribal units. Its usually naked peoples were not accustomed to having themselves covered with body paint and tattoos but the government is now encouraging them to parade for photo-tourists.5 Some of the women display their remarkable lip-plates for higher fees. Little children are bribed into painting their bodies for the cameras. Susan Hack writing about her embarrassment of experiencing this, confessed: “Essentially, I am a voyeur, a gawker, and already my trip’s eleven-thousand dollar price tag and the business of intruding on people who have little control over the forces of tourism have me feeling a bit uneasy. Some of my encounters will prove so troubling that I will, at points, wish I had never come to this place… To attract the lens, the women riff on their culture, for example, by wearing old puberty belts on their heads. The resulting scrum is full of antagonism, as foreigners compete with one another for camera angles and the Mursi vie for attention from these human ATMs.”6

Many of the visitors wonder how the tribal communities would like to deal with such tourism as the elders often are divided on the issue. Some accept it as the only way to earn some money and improve their lives, others see it as an intrusion which is destroying their way of life. Exodus, one of the operating tourist groups, pulled out of Ethiopia two years ago because they no longer could provide “ethical” or “authentic” experiences for their clients. Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsible Travel, respected the decision of Exodus and admitted that the lack of regulation and the growing visitor numbers meant that the situation was becoming increasingly problematic. Pulling out entirely “would help no one,” he said, including the discriminated Omo people.7

The Bodi, Mursi and Suri who are now being pushed into resettlement camps will become dependent on government aid to survive. Services and food aid are often of poor quality and sometimes non-existent. This spells the end of an Eden-like way of life for peoples who have been part of the natural world and wedded to its beauty, its cycles and its bounty. No need for Victorian prudery or American hypocrisy in their lives. Yes, guns have replaced spears in order to prevent neighboring tribes from stealing cattle, but within each community there had been little violence. The numerous rites of passage had been crucial to the individual members of the tribes by giving them a strong sense of identity and belonging. The continued existence of their social culture had been crucial.

The Hamar or Mursi mothers who are forced to send their naked five year olds to one of the newly built school-rooms are horrified to see them return on their first day with dirty tee-shirts and shorts. To a mother it seems as if her son or daughter had taken on the role of an alien. Moreover, she has never washed any “clothes” except for the wrap-arounds which she rubbed in the Omo River. Cleaning a muddy youngster had been easy as well: you sent the little ones to wash in the river. No mother in these camps had ever heard of soap or hot water – never mind a washing machine. “Progress” has becomes an invasive force. Jane Baldwin, who has visited tribeswomen over the past decade writes that “the women were noticeably tired and thinner. The women showed less pride than was so evident in past years.” 8

Anthropologists have found hominid fossils along the Omo’s river banks and the earliest existence of mankind is believed to have started there. DNA analysis suggests that all human beings, Homo sapiens, carry African genes and testify to the origin of humankind in Africa. Based on the discovery of modern human skulls from the lower Omo Valley, dated to 200,000 years ago, suggest the possibility that humanity may have originated in this area. Perhaps these are fragments of the founder populations that gave rise to the diversity of ethnic groups living today in the Omo Valley, making this area humanity’s womb.

Among these tribes today, the Kara represent one of the smallest ethnic groups in all of Africa. For centuries the Kara have kept goats and cattle, planted sorghum and beans, and held on to their traditional rituals. They enjoy turning their entire bodies into works of art with streaks of white, red and yellow finger paint. Polka dot patterns mimic guinea fowl feathers, stripes are inspired by zebra, and larger spots are there to remind them of leopards. Photographers and writers like Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher have been captivated by the extraordinary skill and artistry of the Kara and have remarked on the humor, the pride, the empathy and the hope manifest in their eyes.9

The Kara and their tribal neighbors along the Omo River have never focused on such material aspects of the arts as wooden sculptures, woven fabrics or carved masks. Their overwhelming preoccupation has been with the beauty and appearance of the human body. Artistic scarification of the arms and stomach have added to their attractiveness. The object of this self-decoration has been to celebrate their beauty, health, strength and sex appeal. They add vibrancy and grace to the human form. They exude an aesthetic purity with their designs and colors and there is no hint of the artificial or the vulgar. And it is to be noted that when a man ages and has lost his youthful powers, he will stop decoration altogether.

Much of the artistry of Africa’s tribal peoples people has been photographed and immortalized by the camera work of Eliot Elisofon, Sam Hastings, Leni Riefenstahl, George Rodger and Sebastião Salgado, as well as the primary work on the Omo by Beckwith and Fisher.10 As the writer and photographer Peter Beard has written, “Art is the barometer of civilization.” Alas, as Beard also points out, the arts do not enhance our chances of survival.

You may ask what the globe is losing with the extinction of the tribes of the Omo Valley? I believe it is the vision of another way of life which was natural, beautiful and viable. The loss of authenticity and identity of these tribes people is not replaceable. The material “advances” decreed by insensitive Ethiopian administrators will leave no cultural traces. The invasion of western technology, competitive capitalist economics, and increasingly globalized media and communications are destroying what were remarkably spirited social communities. With our contrived and conventionalized perspectives, our nations do not tolerate differences easily. Conformity and assimilation, disguised by words such as “progress,” and “growth,” demand similarity and uniformity. This presents us with a bleak outlook for all of mankind — a digital future which the generations of the Omo Valley people could never have contemplated.


Kara men body painting by the Omo River © Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher/African Ceremonies.


1Megan Perry, “Ethiopia: Stealing the Omo Valley, destroying its ancient peoples,” The Ecologist, February 16, 2015

2In 1980, UNESCO declared the Lower Omo Valley a World Heritage Site in recognition of its uniqueness.

3Susan Hack, “Twilight of the Tribes: Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley,” Conde-Nast Traveller, January 2012.

4Will Hurd, “Ignoring Abuse in Ethiopia,” Oakland Institute, (July 2013)

5Matilda Temperley, “Nothing to smile about,” The Observer Magazine, May 24, 2015

6Hack, op.cit.

7Oliver Smith, “Exodus abandons Omo Valley tours,” The Telegraph(Travel), February 28, 2013

8Jane Baldwin, “Ethiopia’s changing Omo River Valley – Diary” (2005-2014)

9Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Painted Bodies (2012)

10See Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher’s comprehensive work African Ceremonies ( 1999) which won the United Nations Award for Excellence for “vision and understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the pursuit of world peace.”

2 thoughts on “79. Closing the Tribal Ways of Life

  1. Thank you for posting on such an important topic. No Water No Life is focused on freshwater conservation and the Omo River Basin is one of our case study watersheds. I’d like to share a few blog posts with Omo photos: http://bit.ly/1L5Qfdp http://bit.ly/1J44xZD This is a video by International Rivers featuring many NWNL photos: http://bit.ly/1f7WbUR We have many many more photo galleries and related information on the Omo Valley, tribes and Gibe 3 on our website: http://www.nowater-nolife.org

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