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.
The Ari The most populous ethnic group in South Omo, the Ari also have the largest territory, centred on the main road to Jinka. They tend to be more westernized than most of their neighbours, though in rural areas Ari women still wear traditional dress made from banana leaves and hang beads and bracelets from their arms.
The Hamer The Hamer are traditional pastoralists who speak one of the Omotic languages unique to South Omo. The women have a striking appearance, wearing plaited ochred hair and leather skirts embroidered with cowries, and both sexes indulge in intensive body scarification. The most important event in the Hamer calendar is the bull-jumping ceremony, usually held over three days between February and April, during which young men jump between the backs of several bulls lined up in a row.
The Mursi South Omo’s most famous ethnic group is the Mursi, whose territory is centred on the Omo and Mago rivers. Mursi women are renowned for the saucer-sized clay lip-plates they insert into a distended slit between their mouth and lower lip. The size of the plate worn by a woman will determine how many cattle her husband must pay her family when they marry.
The Tsemai and Arbore These two affiliated groups both live in the eastern part of South Omo, having migrated there from Konso two centuries ago, and freely intermarry with their western neighbours, the Hamer. The Arbore in particular play an important role in facilitating local trade. The Tsemai are subsistence farmers who practise flood cultivation and keep cattle.
The Karo Linguistically affiliated to the Hamer, the small Karo group is renowned for its elaborate body painting, which involves spotting the body with white chalk paint and applying a rainbow of traditionally made pastes to the face. They live on the east bank of the Omo River.