Cultural

Ancient African Tribes in Southern Ethiopia

Hamer Tribe | Karo Tribe | Konso Tribe | Kwegu or Kwego Tribe | Mursi Tribe | Suri Tribe | Tsemay or Tsemey Tribe

Hamer Tribe

Also well known as the hamer or hammer, they are one of the most known tribes in Southern Ethiopia. They inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages in Turmi and Dimeka. Tourists visit the hamer hoping to see a traditional leaping ceremony (the jumping of bulls).They are cattle herders and practice agriculture. Very colorful bracelets and beads are worn in their hair and around their waists and arms. The practice of body modification is used by cutting themselves and packing the wound with ash and charcoal. Some of the women wear circular wedge necklaces indicating that they are married. Men paint themselves with white chalk to prepare for a ceremony. Hair ornaments worn by the men indicate a previous kill of an enemy or animal.
The traditional bull jumping is a rite of passage for men coming of age. The event last three days and involves only castrated cattle. The man must jump over a line of 10 to 30 bulls four times completely nude without falling. If this task is complete, the man joins the ranks of the Maza. Maza are other men that have successfully completed the bull jumping event. During this ceremony, the women of the tribe provoke the maza to whip them on their bare backs. This is extremely painful and causes severe scaring on the women. The scars are a symbol of devotion to the men and are encouraged by the tribe. Night dancing called evangadi is also a hamer tradition. The Hammers have unique huts that are made up of mud, wood and straw.

Karo Tribe

The Karo or Kara is a small tribe with an estimated population between 1,000 and 3,000. They are closely related to the Kwegu tribe. They live along the east banks of the Omo River in southern Ethiopia and practice flood retreat cultivation. The crops that are grown by them are sorghum, maize and beans. Only small cattle are kept because of the tsetse flies. These flies are large and consume the blood of vertebrate animals.
Like many of the tribes in the Omo, they paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for a ceremony. The chalk is mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore and charoal to make its color. Face masks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns with feathers in them. Red clay mixed with butter is put into their hair and clothing is made from animal skin. The women scar their chest believing it makes them beautiful.
The men’s scars represent an enemy or dangerous animal killed. They also wear clay hair buns which symbol a kill. A man in the tribe can have as many wives as he wants, but must be able to afford them. Most men will only marry two or three.

Konso Tribe

The Konso live in an isolated region of the basalt hills. The area is made up of hard rocky slopes. A Konso village maybe fortified by a stone wall used as a defensive measure. Their village is located on hilltops and is split up into communities, with each community having a main hut. In order to enter a Konso village, you must pass through a gate and a series of alleys. These paths are part of its security system, keeping the village difficult to access.
They are mixed agriculturists using their dry and infertile lands to grow crops. Animal dung is used to fertilize the grounds and their most important crop is the sorghum. Sorghum is used as flour and to make local beer. Grains, beans, cotton, corn and coffee are also grown by the Konso people. The erection of stones and poles is part of the Konso tradition. A generation pole is raised every 18 years, marking the start of a new generation. The age of a village can be determined by how many poles are standing. Carved wooden statues are also used to mark the grave of a famous Konso tribal member. The marker, called a Waga is placed above the grave and smaller statues are then placed around the larger one representing his wives and conquered enemies.
Although the Konso people have many customs dating back hundreds of years, it is not uncommon for them to be seen wearing western clothing. As newer generations grow, their traditional attire has gradually changed to modern societies. The Konso is a very interesting tribe to visit on your trip to the lower Omo Valley.

Kwegu or Kwego Tribe

The Kwegu or Muguji are one of the smallest tribes in Omo Valley, living in small villages along the Mago River. It is believed that the divesting affects from the Gibe III dam being built on the Omo River will cause the tribe to go extinct.
Unlike the other tribes, the Kwegu do not have cattle. They are hunters and live off the land. Small game is trapped by the tribe for food, but they also eat fruits and honey if available. They are largely dependant on the Omo River for fish to eat. Close relatives to the Kwegu are the Karo people. It is often that you can find Kwegu and Karo people living together or even marrying each other.

Mursi Tribe

The Mursi or Mursu people are the most popular in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. They are well known for their unique lip plates. They are settled around the Omo River and in the Mago National Park. Due to the climate, they move twice a year between the winter and summer months. They herd cattle and grow crops along the banks of the Omo River. The Mursi women paint their bodies and face in white. They also are the ones which lips o wear the lip plates. Women of the Mursi tribe may have their lips cut at the age of 15 or 16. A small clay plate is then inserted into the lip. Through the years, larger plates are inserted into the lip causing it to stretch. The larger the clay plate, the more the woman is worth before she gets married. It is said that the clay plates were originally used to prevent capture by slave traders. Although very unique and part of their tradition, the Mursi women only wear the plates for a short time because they are so heavy and uncomfortable. Men of the Mursi also use white paint for their bodies and faces. Just like any other ethnic tribe in the lower valley, the men must pass a test before they can get married. A Mursi man is given a stick called a Donga and must face one opponent. The men then battle it out, beating each other with the sticks.
The first fighter to submit loses and the winner is taken by a group of women to determine who he will marry. Men of the tribe also practice scarification. Like other tribes, this is the marking of an enemy killed by him.
Although they are known to be aggressive and combative, the Mursi are more than happy to allow you to take pictures of them. However, they keep count of every picture taken and will charge you for each one.

Suri Tribe

Suri, also known as the Surma people live in the southwestern plains of Ethiopia. They raise cattle and farm when the land is fertile. Cattle are important to the Suri, giving them status. The more cattle a tribesman has, the wealthier they are. In order for a man to marry a woman in the Suri tribe, he must own at least 60 cattle. Cattle are given to the family of the woman in exchange for marriage. Like the other tribes, the Suri will use the milk and blood from the cow. During the dry season, the people will drink blood instead of milk. Blood can be drained from a cow once a month. This is done by making a small incision in its neck.
The Suri are very much like the Muris tribe and practice the same traditions. The women wear lip plates that are made out of clay. The men in the tribe fight with sticks called Dongas. Both the men and women scar their bodies. If you see a Suri man with a scar, it usually means that he has killed a member of a rival tribe.

Tsemay or Tsemey Tribe

Also spelled Tsamai, they are found living in the semi-arid region of the Omo Valley. These people are agro-pastoralist and use both livestock herding and agriculture to survive. Common crops grown by the tribe are sorghum, millet and sometimes cotton. Like the Hamer tribe, the Tsemay boys have to successfully complete a bull jumping event. This is a ceremony where the boy runs across multiple bulls. If the boy can make it across four times without falling, he becomes a man. To prove a boy has accomplished a bull jumping, he is outfitted with a band that has feathers on it. It is worn on his head and it shows that he is now looking for a wife. Unlike any other tribe in Ethiopia, the Tsemay have arranged weddings. The parents of the woman pick who she will marry with or without her consent. Even if the marriage is arranged, the man must still be able to afford to pay for his future wife. Payment of cattle, honey, grain and coffee beans are accepted. Women of the tribe, who are not married, wear a short leather skirt with a v-shaped apron attached. Married women wear long leather dresses with an apron that have an apron covering their front and back side. The men in the tribe are found carrying small wooden seats to sit with.