Omo Valley Dash

Words and pictures by Mike Copeland. Words and pictures by Mike Copeland.

Mike Copeland was on assignment in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, filming the giant crocodiles that are found in the Rift Valley lakes there, when he heard about the Hamer tribe’s Saturday market. This was to be held in Dimeka, more than a day’s drive away. The trouble was that it was already Friday evening!

The Omo is a remote river in a remote region of an already remote country, and it flows through the lands of some of the wildest tribes in Africa – tribes like the Hamer. Relatively unaffected by modern influences, and scattered in small groups around the countryside, they still practise their old ways and come to town once a week to trade at the market in Dimeka. We had to get there. But, with over 300 kilometres of rough road ahead of us and no wheels, we were stuck.

Fortunately, we were being looked after in Ethiopia by the amazingly well-connected and helpful Todiwos Belete, whose reaction was, “Chigger yelem!” (“No problem!” in the Amharic language). Also, we were staying at Arba Minch’s best hotel, Paradise Lodge, and Todiwos managed to talk the owner, Ato Eyasu, into renting us his Cruiser for a couple of days.

So the next morning early, with high hopes and extra bottles of water, we hit the road south. The first couple of kilometres were on reasonable tar as we passed through lush tropical banana plantations, but we were soon on the dirt and feeling a lot hotter and drier. Huge thorn trees hosted conical bee-hives, and the sorghum fields were protected by human scarecrows – young kids who sat on platforms, cracking whips and chasing away birds.

After 100 kilometres we were able to refuel at the town of Konso, and even had time for a quick drink at the local hotel. But then it was off again, crossing mountains where farmers were hand- harvesting tef (the local staple grain) from their precariously terraced lands.

Then we dropped down again to cross the Weita River and enter the arid deep south. We made another short stop at the cross- roads here to rest the Cruiser, which was taking it all very well, and find something to eat. The only lunch we could find was tibs (grilled bits of meat) and njera (a spongy, pancake-like bread made from fermented tef), but they filled the stomach and even tasted good when chased down with the strong local coffee brew.

More steep mountains to climb, but now we were close. Dimeka was buzzing as we entered; it was easy to find the market as it teemed with colourful Hamer people. The women are the most striking, adorned with thickly-plaited, ochre-coloured hair hanging down in a fringe, and wearing leather skirts and bibs. Their bodies are covered in thick welts which are a result of self-inflicted wounds treated with charcoal, and over everything they wear layers of white cowry shells. Copper and brass bracelets cover their arms; a thick necklace with a protruding wedge signifies that the woman is married. A gourd on a leather thong for liquids, a skin-bag for food across the shoulder and maybe a pair of ever-lasting tyre sandals for the feet – tough ladies!

The men like wearing very short skirts of colourful woven cloth (tartan is popular) and vests or tee-shirts. They wear beadwork around the legs, arms and headband, and will usually be carrying their own personal carved headrest which also doubles as a low stool for sitting on. The market is not for tourists, but to trade for the goods the tribe needs. So, little piles of basic foodstuff, tobacco, spices, medicinal herbs and firewood cover the area, with surprisingly little livestock on sale. Towards the end of the afternoon, groups gathered to pass around gourds of home brew, or even the stronger araki spirit. But no fuss, no bother, no trouble – just a normal Saturday afternoon in Dimeka!

We dragged ourselves away from this rare glimpse of African culture as we still had to reach Turmi (an hour away) for the night. There Ato Mulugeta, owner of the Buska Lodge, welcomed us with cold beer and a barbeque of freshly-slaughtered kid goat, and we slept blissfully in comfortable tented accommodation. What a way to end an exciting day!

The return trip to Arba Minch lacked the urgency of the previous day’s dash down to Dimeka, and we could stop and enjoy the magnificent scenery and unique birdlife of this fascinating country. So, if you’ve not yet visited Ethiopia, I urge you to go. Todiwos Belete will help you at www.kurifturesortspa. com, or check out Paradise Lodge at www.paradiselodgeethiopia.com or Buska Lodge at www.ethiopiatravel.com.

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