Lake Tana, in northern Ethiopia, is a large Rift lake (3500 sqkm) dotted with dozens of islands. There are 20 monasteries located on the shores and islands of the lake, most of them dating back to the 14th century. During the period of warfare with the Muslims from the east in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ethiopian empire was under constant pressure and many of the country’s most precious treasures were transported to the remote monasteries of Lake Tana and placed there for safekeeping.
They remain there to this day, treasures which would find pride of place in the world’s great museums, stored in decrepit monasteries with a nonchalance which is at once naive and charming.
Those remote monasteries are seldom visited by outsiders. They sit atop the hills of small islands in the middle of the lake in tranquil pastoral settings. Crumbling stone walls, decrepit watch towers long abandoned, old trees with the memory of long dead abbots and monks in their yellow robes shuffling silently between the grey buildings.
Those forgotten monasteries are one of the last places on Earth where monks still copy and illustrate books by hand. We discover libraries of ancient parchment books, the oldest dating to the 9th century. Jewel-studded crowns of emperors, ancient battle-winning swords and the mummified remains of 14 of Ethiopia’s most revered emperors. All of these priceless treasures are casually displayed in poor quality cabinets in the treasure rooms of the monasteries, exposed to the elements and to theft.
I suppose that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church being such a strong living institution, these treasures are seen as artifacts that legitimize each monastery and give them more prestige and influence – not as witnesses of History to be kept in museums and shared with the many.
The Karo, a sister tribe to the Hamer (and the Banna), hold similar traditions, such as the jumping of the bulls. They have a shared hatred towards the rapacious Dassanech. One characteristic of the Karo is their body painting. The women paint their faces with white dots which represent the patterns on the feathers of guinea fowl. The men paint their bodies with white abstract patterns. They cut a V-shaped bit off their ears to signify that they are married.
The Dassanech are the most primitive tribe we meet. They live in Omorate, near the Kenyan border from where they originally migrated (from the Turkana region) some 300 years ago. Their dwellings are simple huts made of tree branches, leaves and old sacks (reminiscent of the standard red-white-blue sacks that traders carry across from Shenzhen to Hong Kong). They wear animal hides around their loins. The women stick a feather through their lower lips as a sign of beauty while the men are all armed. The Dassanech are an aggressive tribe who go on cattle raids against most of the neighbouring tribes.
The village we visit, across the Omo river from the ramshackle frontier town of Omorate lies in a barren plain beaten by a red dust wind in the sweltering heat. Seldom have we visited such an unwelcoming environment.
We witness the initiation of a young boy, Dina, who at 11 years old is one of the youngest to attempt the jump. Dina manages seven passages across eight bulls, to roaring applause from the crowd. The assembled village is ecstatic. The brutality of the ritual beating of the women contrasts with the beauty and gentleness of the Hamer.
The Hamer are one of South Omo’s most striking tribes. The men are tall and athletic with chiselled faces, adorned with exquisite jewelry (which they make themselves) and an AK 47 slung nonchalantly across their shoulders. Those fearsome he-men never leave home without a dainty looking little stool (which they carry everywhere with them) to sit on should they get tired. The women, with their high cheekbones, red braids and orange skin, dyed in an ochre and butter balm are the prettiest we have seen.
The Hamer initiate their young men into adulthood by having them jump over a line-up of bulls. The more bulls the young man is able to jump over and the more passages he performs over the bulls, the more skill and bravery he demonstrates. Men who do not jump over bulls, or who fail in the attempt are not able to marry and become ostracized.
Before the bull jumping ceremony, the young Hamer women subject themselves to ritual whipping by the young maaz (initiated young warriors, “those who have jumped”). This ferocious beating with thin, sharp birch tree branches leaves their backs bloodied and with deep gashes. The women who do not get whipped hard enough mock the maaz and taunt them to hit them harder. Almost every Hamer woman we see bears horrendous scars on their backs and stomachs from those ritual floggings.
We witness the initiation of a young boy, Dina, who at 11 years old is one of the youngest to attempt the jump. Dina manages seven passages across eight bulls, to roaring applause from the crowd. The brutality of the ritual beating of women contrasts with the beauty and gentleness of the Hamer.
The Mursi are perhaps the archetypical South Omo tribe. A warlike tribe of semi-pastoralists who regularly go on cattle raids against neighbouring tribes, the Mursi are both feared and reviled in the region. Kalashnikov-toting men and women (and sometimes children) swagger around the village with a mixture of arrogance and disdain for the few tourists who make it to their remote strongholds (we take an armed police escort when we visit).
The Mursi women’s distinguising characteristic is the large lip plate which they start wearing from puberty to demonstrate their womanhood. Over a process of one year the young girl, after cutting her lower lip, will insert increasingly large lip plates into the cut (up to 15cm in diameter).
Young Mursi men, before they are allowed to marry need to win a duel carried out with 2m long sticks. The duel occasionally goes to the death, though these days one of the fighters will often concede before that happens.
The Konso are a martial tribe whose people live in hilltop compounds built like small maze-like fortresses. The Konso settlement we visit is host to 600 households and is surrounded by stone walls covered in thorns. Only four narrow gates allow entry into the compound. Inside the “fortress”, dozens of narrow, winding lanes connect the different family compounds, each one of them with only one very narrow entrance meant to stop enemies from carrying out a frontal attack. The narrow lanes form a real maze meant to confuse invaders and prevent them from escaping once they have entered the village. Additional traps laid out along the lanes trip and ensnare invaders.
Every unmarried male of 12 and above spends the night in a “mora”, a communal house from where he is able to quickly spring to action to repel an invasion – or, more likely these days, put out a fire or help a sick person. Young Konso boys get inducted into a “generation set” every 18 years – and a generational pole, a “kata” is errected to commemorate the event in the village. In Mecheke, the village we visit, there are 38, meaning the village is almost 700 years old.
The Konso use specific grave markers to honour their chiefs and heroes. Traditionally the hero will be represented as the central figure on the grave, endowed with an oversize penis. His wives and children will be lined up on either side of his statue and the enemies he has killed will be displayed in front of him as diminutive statues without a penis (as is the case with many South Omo tribes, Dorze warriors cut off the penis of their victims and keep it as a trophy).
The Dorze, a tribe of master-weavers build their houses like giant, inverted baskets made of bamboo bark and banana leaves. The houses are built up to 12m tall and are home to a family and its animals (cows, goats, chicken).
Every year the Dorze house will shrink by about an inch as termites do their work. After about 120 years, the Dorze house has become a common basket – and can almost be used to go to market ! As the houses shrink, the door is regularly adjusted to maintain a constant height. When houses shrink to a height of about 2m, they are abandoned and repurposed into granaries or the like and the household builds a new 12m tall house.
South Omo, in the badlands between Ethiopia and Northern Kenya’s Turkana region is a living gallery of Africa’s most primitive tribes, almost untouched by civilization – except that they have traded their spears for Kalashnikovs. Two dozen tribes live there in a scorched, mountainous landscape, some agriculturalists, others pastoralists. It is a hostile and savage region where it is not unusual to see men herding cattle with an automatic rifle hanging from their shoulder.
Sudden violence triggered by cattle rustling between competing tribes erupts sporadically and inevitably ends in bloodshed…and ongoing blood feuds. Automatic weapons are part of any dowry.
We spend a week deep in South Omo, more remote from civilization than probably anywhere we’ve been in Africa. The colourful, pagan markets do not carry any manufactured product. Apart from guns, we do not see a modern product in the villages we visit. Even mobile phones, ubiquitous in the rest of Africa are conspicuously absent from South Omo.
The Bale mountains in southeastern Ethiopia are a region of afro-montane forests and moorlands, arid and sparsely populated. An Avatar-like environment of gnarly old trees, bamboo forests and giant heather, often lost in a sea of clouds. The Bale mountains support many species of plants and animals endemic to Ethiopia. Most fascinating among them is the Ethiopian wolf, the world’s rarest canid, of which fewer than 500 survive. The Sanetti plateau, at an altitude of 4,000m and with temperatures which drop below 0 is the wolves’ favourite habitat.
Wandering through the ethereal bamboo and pine forests, hiking on the plateau, surrounded everywhere by an alien landscape – we end up getting a feeling of complete otherworldliness.