A tale of pirates, hippies and one naked woman

I had heard people talk about this cove before. About its glistening, white sand and its warm, turquoise water. A sanctuary for pirates in days of old, and more modern tales of hippies making the cove their own. I had heard the stories of a fresh water spring and an abandoned 18th century fortress overlooking the palm trees. Of the difficulty of getting there due to dangerous footpaths. But none of this could have prepared me for the scene I would walk into. After a long hike in the unforgiving summer heat I made my way past the ancient fortress down a series of dusty steps through a small, wooded path. In a clearing among the trees and bushes I eventually came across the fabled natural spring. A small rivulet of fresh, clear water emanating from the rocks into a small stone pool. The very same water that through the centuries had attracted so many seafarers to find refuge here. A young woman sat by the pool, delicately washing herself with nothing on but a bone dangling from her necklace and a tribal tattoo on her arm. She was pouring water over her tanned body with the use of an old, broken bottle. A timeless scene in a beautiful setting. Her name I did not ask, the name of the cove I will keep to myself.

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Meet the women of the Omo valley

Meet Galtier, a young woman from the Hamer tribe. Galtier is already married at her young age. Her age is unknown to her, as is common with the Ethiopian tribes, however the type of necklace she’s wearing indicates that she is the first wife. Her marriage required ‘bride wealth’, a payment made by her husband’s family to her family made up of goats, cattle and guns. Although it’s paid over time in installments similar to a bank loan, it’s so high (30 goats and 20 head of cattle), that it might not be paid back in a lifetime. Galtier has covered her hair and body with clay, butter and animal fat which is traditional practice among Hamer women.

Meet Biuniat and her baby boy from the Bodi tribe. The Bodi still engages in barter trade system and Biuniat walks for hours to reach the weekly markets where she exchanges goods.

Meet Guri from the Arbore tribe. Guri, like all Arbore women, wears a black veil over her shaved head. The shaving of the head is a sign of virginity, a condition she must maintain until she gets married. As part of the wedding process Guri will have to be circumcised. She will be held down by her mother while her clitoris is cut, and she will then become a real Arbore woman. After this brutal ceremony, she will have to stay indoors for a couple of months. If she does not follow this tradition she will be forever shun by other Arbore who will insult her by saying she is a dirty Hamer woman. But for now Guri is enjoying being a girl. Balancing her studies at the nearby school with her chores at home which entail collecting water from a nearby pond and taking care of her family’s goats.

Meet Nania and her son Koro from the Mursi tribe. Nania like most Mursi women likes to wear her lip plate on special occasions. Nania lives in a small hamlet deep in the Mago National Park far away from any reliable source of water. For this reason life in the village can be very hard, especially during the dry season. Nania owns a couple of cows which she milks daily to feed her family. She never boils the milk as she believes that in doing so all the cattle in the village would be cursed and die. Instead she keeps the milk in dirty plastic bottles, given to her by people traveling through the area. The bottles of milk are scattered around inside her warm hut; sometimes for days before it’s consumed. Needless to say, this practice, coupled with dirty drinking water from nearby puddles, result in chronic bowel problems for Nania and many other people in the area.

Meet Nachuna and her son Olabile from the Surma tribe. Nachuna runs her own household and owns her own fields. She is free to spend the profits from the crops as she whishes as opposed to women in other more male dominated tribes. Nachuna sometimes wears a lip plate. At the point of puberty she had her bottom teeth removed in order to get the lower lip pierced. Once the lip was pierced, it was stretched and a lip plate was inserted in the hole of the piercing. She, like all Surma women, sees this as sign of beauty. The size of the lip plate also indicates her value in cattle on the day of her wedding day. The bigger the plate, the more valuable she becomes.

Meet Kato from the Hamer tribe. Kato lives in a small village near the town of Turmi together with her husband and his other two wives. Kato is the third wife as symbolized by the two metal necklaces she wears. This makes Kato more of a slave than a wife. Because they live so close to a town, her family has become to rely on the products which are on offer in Turmis’ weekly market. In order to afford this, Kato is made to walk for hours with a heavy load of firewood on her back which she tries to sell to locals. Like all Hamer women, Kato braids her hair and then applies a deep red clay mixed with animal fat to it. This custom is a very important one for Kato and all Hamer women as it makes them more attractive.

Meet Dara from the Karo tribe. Dara, like all Karo people, enjoys decorating herself with paint and flowers found in the nearby slopes leading down to the Omo River. Dara has pierced a hole on her lower lip in which she places a metal nail, or in this case a flower for adornment. Dara has no clothes other than a long skirt made of cowhide. She lives in a small hamlet known as Konso, found on a plateau overlooking the stunning Omo River. Every afternoon before darkness Dara descends the steep slopes down to the river, and after washing herself she returns with heavy containers filled with water used for cooking and drinking.

Meet Lago from the Arbore tribe. Lago is a married woman who lives with her husband, her husband’s two other wives and their four children in a small village deep in the Omo Valley. Lago has to accept her husband’s right to beat her sometimes when he feels she deserves it. One of the guidelines for such behavior is that her husband must beat all his wives equally. Failing that, he risks being beaten himself by other male members of the community. Lago was circumcised as part of her wedding celebrations and her hair was then allowed to grow. Her hair now indicates her status as a married woman. Lago owns a small herd of goats from where she gets the milk to feed her children. Her many necklaces form part of her few possessions and she rarely takes them off, even for sleeping. The most treasured part of the decoration is the metal strap (old wrist watch) which she proudly wears as a center piece.

Meet Magantu and her baby girl Bartui from the Mursi tribe. Magantu chose not to pierce her lips for a lip plate like most Mursi women. She does however use the ear plates and makes creative use of the surrounding nature to adorn herself. Magantu lives in a tiny hamlet consisting of a handful of straw and mud huts. There are other such hamlets nearby, but no villages or towns for hundreds of kilometers. The Ethiopian government has recently opened a very basic and somewhat unhygienic clinic close to Magantu’s home. It has a handful of government civil servants who offer medical assistance. The problem is that most of the medicine on offer has a cost, unless it’s directly supplied by an NGO (non-governmental organizations). Magantu, like most other people in her area, owns a couple of cows. The milk from them is used for drinking and to mix with maize into a porridge. Blood from the cow is also drunk for extra strength. Magantu, unlike other Mursi living nearer to towns or water supplies, has no way of earning money. Even selling a cow is impossible since the nearest market is hundreds of kilometers away, and there is no means of transport. Therefore, Magantu simply can’t afford the medicine on offer in the clinic.

Meet Esinien, a young woman from the Nyangatom tribe. Esinien is still not married and lives with her family on the banks of the Omo River. Although she’s still very young, Esinien already boasts a number of scars on her body which she believes make her more attractive. As all Nyangatom women Esinien wears elaborate beads around her neck, the number and color of which convey her social status within the tribe. She enjoys singing, as well as listening to stories told to her by her elders.

Meet Ari, a young woman from the Bena tribe. Ari lives in a small village near the town of Jinka. Once a week she attends the local market in Kako were she sells dairy products produced by her and her family back in her village. Ari also likes to buy hairclips which she uses as decoration.