The Omo Valley is a remote south-western enclave of Ethiopia, home to some of Africa’s oldest and most fascinating tribes. The Omo River is the life-line of the region, meandering from north to south where it empties into Lake Turkana on the Kenyan border. The region is home to at least sixteen distinct ethnic groups all of which have retained traditional lifestyles due to the remoteness of the Omo Valley.
The environment of the Omo is harsh yet beautiful and the diversity of the people and their traditions is unsurpassed anywhere else in Africa. Fiercely proud of their tribal identity, the people of the Omo express their cultural individuality through vibrant jewellery, make up, body painting, body scarification and elaborate lip and ear plates. In addition each tribe conducts distinct and fascinating ceremonies, ranging from stick-fighting to bull jumping and elaborate dance ceremonies that can last for months.
River Omo – Gibe Dam Project
The Ethiopian government has big plans for this region, harnessing the awesome power of the Omo river to provide irrigation for massive commercial farms (under the auspices of Turkey and China) and to generate hydro-electric power on an unprecedented level. The last dam to be built, Gibe III generates more kilo-watts of electricity than Kenya currently uses and there are two more dams still to be implemented. Ethiopia is positioning itself as the key provider of power to the countries of north and east Africa but at what cost to the lifestyles of the people of the Omo?
The annual flooding of the Omo River allows many of the ethnic groups in the valley to adopt a practise called ‘flood-retreat cultivation’. When the river floods and the water subsequently recedes, silt-rich soil is left behind which is particularly fertile ground for growing staple crops like sorghum, maize and millet. Since the dams have been implemented, the river no longer floods and so the people are already migrating away from the river to find soils that offer more sustenance.
When to visit the Omo Valley
Thanks to the damming and the threat of large-scale commercial agriculture, the valley is changing. It is questionable as to how long the various ethnic groups will be able to sustain their current way of life. At the time of writing (May, 2018) two more dams are planned for the Omo River and large swathes of land are being set aside for commercial cotton and sugar farming. We suggest you go as soon as you can in order to see the Omo in an untamed and wild state, and to witness a way of life that is sadly under threat.
Mid-March to April and October to November are hot and wet in the Omo Valley so best avoided. The months to aim for are September to early October, December to January, and May to June as these months are also a good time to travel in the north of Ethiopia so perfect for combining the Omo with Lalibela, Axum, Gondar and Tigray.
Photography in the Omo Valley
In some areas, tourism in the Omo has developed a reputation for being exploitative and voyeuristic. There are shameful reports of van loads of camera wielding tourists screeching to a halt outside tribal villages and firing off rounds of memory cards before moving onto the next tribe.
Steppes has stopped short of banning cameras from the trips we run in the Omo, however our guides on the ground are at pains to limit their use and ensure that any photographs acquired are done so consensually. On arrival into local villages or tribal encampments we ask that cameras remain concealed until you have spent time getting to know your hosts. There will be occasions when taking photographs is simply not permitted and so we ask that you comply with the advice given by our guides.