omo-river

Omo River

By Neil SheaPhotograph by Randy Olson

Dunga Nakuwa cups his face in his hands and remembers his mother’s voice. She has been dead nearly two years, but for Dunga’s tribe the dead are never very far away. In the villages they are buried just below the huts of the living, separated from hearths and sleeping skins by only a few feet of dry, depleted soil. They remain near in the mind too. This is why Dunga still hears his mother: When will you take revenge on your brother’s killer?


When she was alive, she had occasionally asked this, each time giving the vendetta new life just as Dunga was trying to escape it. He had become the eldest son after his brother, Kornan, was killed by a member of an enemy tribe. It had been an ambush, a choreographed execution. The nature of it, so premeditated, only deepened the insult.

Dunga’s father had also been killed by a warrior from the same tribe, and the duty of vengeance had fallen first on his older brother. But after Kornan was killed, the double weight fell to Dunga along paths of tradition worn as hard as the trails leading down to the river. Men from his tribe, the Kara, are renowned marksmen. They had resisted the invasions of the far larger and better armed tribe, the Nyangatom. In both tribes a man who kills an enemy is decorated with special scars dug into the flesh of his shoulder or abdomen. Faced with the murder of his kin, a man would demand vengeance.

And so, in his mother’s question, Dunga hears another: When will you finally become a man?

Dunga is small, slender, not yet 30. His hands are soft from years spent reading books, not living in the bush. He wears a silver crucifix, a symbol of newly acquired beliefs. We sit in a small restaurant in a town several days’ walk from his homeland, his face knotted against the memories. Knowing that I also have brothers, he asks, “What would you have done?” In the West revenge is left to courts. But in this corner of Ethiopia, there is little history of such institutions. There are only the demands of the dead.

DUNGA WAS BORN at Dus, a village of stick-and-grass huts set on a bluff high above the Omo River. From the central highlands the river flows wide and deep and fast toward the country’s southwestern border, where it pours into Kenya’s Lake Turkana. In its 500-mile course the river curls through gorges of volcanic rock and channels of ancient mud.

Near the Kenyan border the Omo carves serpentine oxbows as the countryside flattens, and ribbons of forest appear along its banks. Riverine creatures, including crocodiles and hippos, become more abundant. The landscape grows thick with tribes, including the Kara, Mursi, Hamar, Suri, Nyangatom, Kwegu, and Dassanech, a population of roughly 200,000. Herdsmen drive animals through the bush, and farmers pole upstream and downstream in lumpy canoes. Depending on the season, the riverbanks are golden with the stubble of past harvests or sheathed in the moist green of new crops.

Dus lies three hours by truck from the nearest road, and in the wet season it is islanded in a sea of mud. Like many settlements along the Omo, the village is a cluster of huts with goat pens and grain cribs set at the periphery, everything sun bleached, everything washed in dust. Some days dust devils gather outside the village, pacing in the bush like malevolent spirits, spitting soil into the air.

Cattle and goats are a family’s most meaningful possessions here, but it is the crops, nourished by the Omo River, that sustain the people of Dus and other villages. After the Omo’s seasonal floods soak and replenish the riverbanks, Kara farmers pierce the dark mud with sticks and drop in seeds of sorghum or corn. It is simple, ancient, little different from what the Egyptians did along the Nile. If the floods are meager, the harvest is poor, but the system has kept the Kara here for a long time. The river’s predictability allows the 2,000 or so Kara a life without the restless movement of some of their neighbors, who must constantly drive their animals to new pasture. The name of the village—Dus—means, roughly, “I have seen other places, but it is good here. I’ll stay.”

For generations the tribes of the Omo were shielded from the outside world by mountains, savanna, and by Ethiopia’s unique status as the only African nation never to have been colonized by Europeans. In the late 1960s and ’70s, anthropologists began recognizing what that meant—people living near the river had largely escaped the colonial blundering and conflict that shredded other societies. The tribes remained intact, migrating, warring, and making peace in ways that had vanished almost everywhere else. Hints of this Africa still appear in the ornamental clay lip plates worn as symbols of beauty by Mursi women or in the seasonal dueling contests of the Suri, who tie on armor made of goat hide and fight each other with long poles. There is still the Hamar ritual in which women demand to be whipped until they bleed, and there’s the cattle-jumping initiation rite, in which boys run along the backs of cattle to prove they are ready for manhood.

Today the Omo Valley is a destination for wealthy tourists who cross vast, uncomfortable distances to witness those same rituals—vanloads of white faces, most from Europe, hoping for something of the Africa that exists in the Western imagination, all wild animals and face paint and dancing. Tourists say they have come to see the Omo before it becomes like everywhere else, as though a McDonald’s might suddenly descend from the sky.

Yet it’s true: The Omo region, still one of Africa’s most intact cultural landscapes, is changing. The big game are mostly gone, hunted out with weapons that flow in from wars across the borders in Sudan or Somalia. Aid organizations deliver food, build schools, and plan irrigation projects, all of which make life more stable but inevitably, unstoppably, change the way it has long been lived. The government, which for generations essentially ignored this place, now works to modernize Omo tribes, and some officials speak as if timetables have been drawn up describing exactly when and how the old ways will be replaced. Not long before my visit, government representatives offered new incentives to tame the warring tribes and incorporate them into the nation. Blood feuds, like the one tugging at Dunga Nakuwa, are meant to be a thing of the past.

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