Through The Lens: Meet The Tribes Of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley

Wildlife photographer and conservationist Latika Nath stumbled upon the river and valley of Omo during a quest for the Ethiopian wolf. The result was a series of striking photographs revealing the life and spirit of eight primaeval tribes who call the valley home.

I went to Ethiopia to photograph the rarest wolf in the world and discovered River Omo, the largest Ethiopian river outside the Nile Basin. Sustaining on this river and living in and around the Mago and Omo National Parks are some of the oldest tribes known to man. These eight tribes of Ethiopia—Hamer, Bana, Mursi, Suri, Kara, Dassanech, Arbore, and Nyangatom—make up only about 2,00,000 people combined. And yet, they are endlessly fascinating. Their lives have remained virtually unchanged for over a century, but with development knocking at the doorstep, the tribes are facing challenges they had never imagined.

I visited Omo multiple times over two years and documented these tribes’ ways—donga stick fights, bull jumping, unique habits like blood-drinking, body decoration, dances, rituals and ceremonies, and architecture. Despite having little contact with technology and the outside world, the tribespeople possessed modern weapons and ammunition, including AK-47 rifles! Over 50,000 photographs later, I created a unique record of the beauty and dignity of these communities that live in harmony with the river. These photographs are part of my book titled Omo-Where Time Stood Still.

I also studied the fascinating fashion trends of the inhabitants of Omo. Broken watch straps are de rigueur for the fashionista here, while gas pipes, bottle caps, plastic tubes, keys, and even bicycle chains become fashion accessories. Colourful metal bullets are melted and transformed into bangles and earrings, and headgear is devised from flowers, fruits, and leaves. Beads are an essential part of jewellery, and goat and cheetah skin are painstakingly embroidered to create unique outfits; ash and thorns are used to create intricate and elaborate keloid scars—to decorate bodies.

From the breathtaking landscapes of Omo to men and women of extraordinary beauty and children who are masters of body art, these photographs take me back to a unique adventure in that obscure valley of Ethiopia. I hope they will do the same for you.

Two Kara women bask in the sun by the River Omo. The tribe has been reduced to a mere 1,500 or so, spread across three villages.
A Banna girl with whips crafted for the bull-jumping ritual, a ceremony that marks the coming of age of boys.
Two Suri girls show off their body paint and decorative headgear.
A Dassanech woman wearing elaborate headgear with crocodile teeth. The tribe hunts crocodiles with spears.
A Kara woman dons beaded jewellery and embroidered goatskin. The body painting is an elaborate pattern of dots.
A Hamar man wears jewellery made of beads and melted bullet casings.
Two Kara women paint each other. The ritual of body decoration is followed by every tribe member and is done afresh each day.
Two Arbore women wear elaborate necklaces and braided hair—the latter symbolising the fact that they’re married.

Children of the Banna tribe often walk on stilts.
A Mursi boy surrounded by his cattle.
A Nyangatom woman outside her house. A Nyangatom girl gets her first necklace of beads from her father. The girls do not remove their necklaces, wearing up to 8 kg of beads at once.
Surma children copy their elders and paint their faces from an early age, but later begin to show individuality and self-expression in their body art.
Two children dance to an ancient rhythm, accompanied by the shrill singing of friends and the hypnotic clapping of hands.
A Hamar girl with beaded neck chokers at a ceremony.
The Banna are innovative with their use of recycled materials. Here, a row of keys adorns a goat-skin skirt.


The Suri stretch their ear lobes to accommodate impossibly heavy clay plates.
The Mursi and Suri are the only tribes in the world that still wear lip plates.


A Kara boy holds a young goat and carries ostrich feathers to adorn himself.
A Suri boy has painted himself with minerals and charcoal, and used flowers and plants to create an elaborate headdress.
A Kara man with a traditional danza (clay headdress) carries an AK-47 and a berkota (wooden stool).


The Mursis with their warthog tushes, incredible headgear, painted faces, and impassive countenance, are a reminder of the mysteries of Africa.
A Dassanech woman wears a top made from the skin of a cheetah. Cheetah numbers are fast dwindling in Ethiopia.

Related: A Day In The Life Of Modern-Day Headhunters Of Mon Town, Nagaland

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