The Omo Valley, Ethiopia


Theirs is a traditional world. The men count their wealth in cattle, their wives in goats, and their status by the number of enemies they have murdered. They paint their bodies for war and celebration and drink cow’s blood to revive their spirits. The women, among the most beautiful in Africa, scar their torsos in elaborate patterns for erotic effect, and in preparation for marriage, insert plates the size of frisbees into their lower lips.


“This is what one dreamt about as a child”, a seasoned African traveler told me once. “An Africa untouched by our own culture.”

Ethiopia is a museum of peoples, a rich and varied mix of ethnicities with 83 different languages and over 200 dialects. But even in this crowded cultural mosaic, the tribal diversity of the Omo River Basin is unparalleled: the Hamar, the Konso, the Borana, the Bumi, the Surma, the Anuak, the Nuer and the Bodi all belong to the world of ‘primitive’ Africa. Some like the Morsi – the subject of recent documentaries – have grown rapacious after contact with outsiders. Others like the Karo, who number only about 1,000 souls, may be heading for extinction. A few have never seen a white face. Most are cattle people or pastoralists who maintain huge herds of pale, long-horned cows, too precious to be butchered for food. They lack almost any form of material culture beyond personal adornment, yet they inhabit a richly symbolic universe.