In contrast to the Christian and Islamic cultures of the highlands, South Omo – a vast semi-arid region flanking the lower Omo River before it flows across the border into Kenya’s Lake Turkana – is home to some of the continent’s most staunchly traditional animist ethnic groups. In many respects, this remote region comes across as a kind of living museum, supporting around two dozen different tribes, some numbering tens of thousands, others a few hundred. Several of the tribes place great cultural emphasis on body ornamentation – ranging from the large clay lip plates worn by the Mursi women, to the more widespread customs of ritual scarification, body painting and henna-dyed hair.
The region is scattered with small villages and isolated family homesteads, but the focal point of community life is those larger villages that host weekly markets. Market days are when the villages are at their busiest and when locals tend to be least self-conscious in their dealings with outsiders, so try to tailor your itinerary around them. Probably the two most popular goals in the region are the substantial Hamer villages of Turmi and Dimeka, which host large markets on Monday and Saturday respectively. On the main road between Jinka and Turmi, the Ari-dominated settlements of Key Afer and Koko host their weekly markets on Monday and Thursday respectively, while smaller Arbore (home to the Arbore people) and the Tsemai village of Weita both have markets on Saturday.
South Omo is a fascinating area, best visited in a small group with a reputable operator. The region is poorly suited to independent travel, and be aware that unregulated cultural tourism has led to a camera- and cash-based form of interaction that many visitors find to be uncomfortably crass and voyeuristic.