The Mursi are one of the better-known tribes of the Omo Valley, with a population of around 8,000. They are described as being a traditionally migratory community, although in reality they only move from the banks of the Omo in the dry season to the grasslands during the rainy season. The Mursi place considerable importance on cattle, the exchange of which marks most relationships, such as marriage, and their diets are also based around cattle.
They speak a Surmic language, which comes from the Nilo-Saharan language family. Their history is kept alive through a rich oral tradition of storytelling.
The most distinctive and recognisable feature of the Mursi women is wearing ornamental clay disks (debhinya) on their bottom lips as symbols of beauty and adulthood. When a girl is in her early teenage years, her bottom lip is cut and kept open with the clay disk until it heals.
The Bodi tribe are neighbours of the Mursi tribe, and the two groups frequently trade. They are pastoralist people who place a lot of importance on cattle and do not typically take part in cultivation practices, preferring instead to trade for maize and other agricultural products at tribal markets. They are nomadic communities, moving to prevent the depletion of the land and to find new grazing areas for their cattle. Due to the importance of cattle in their lives, the main diet of the Bodi is also centred on cattle. In particular, they drink their milk mixed with their blood, which they obtain not by killing the animal by opening a wound in their neck.
The Suri are a traditionally pastoral tribe on the west bank of the Omo River, with a culture centred around cattle. However, in recent times the Suri are relatively settled and also carry out agriculture and cultivation of grains. Cattle bring status to Suri people and are a direct measure of a person’s wealth. Their tribe’s population is roughly 7,500 in total, with individual villages ranging from 40 to 2,500 people.
Each Suri household is run by a woman, who owns her own field and makes money from selling grains and beer. The Suri men are divided into different age sets (children, young men, junior elders and senior elders) with each set having specific roles within the community.
The Hamar tribe live in an area east of the Omo River and have villages in Turmi and Dimeka. Their huts are made up of wood, straw, and mud with sloping roofs.
The Hamar people are best known for their ritual where women blow horns and shout taunts at male members of their family, who then whip them. The women allow themselves to be whipped until they bleed as a symbol of their devotion to the men. One of the most recognisable features of the Hamar women is their hair. They fix their hair in short, dense ringlets and mix in butterfat and red ochre to give it a characteristic dark red colour. Colourful bracelets are also worn around their waists and arms, in addition to shells adorning the edges of their goatskin dresses.
The Daasanach tribe are found in the southern part of the Omo Valley and has a population of around 20,000. They live at the point where the Omo River delta enters Lake Turkana, in fact, their name means ‘People of the Delta’. They are primarily pastoral people, growing maize, beans, and pumpkins at the time of year when the delta floods. During dry seasons they rely on their cattle and goats for milk, meat, and hides. Their homes are dome-shaped, made from branches covered with hides with mats covering the floor, and they have their own unique language.
The lower class of the tribe are called Dies and are the people who have lost their cattle and hence their livelihoods. Rather than living with the rest of the tribe, they live near Lake Turkana and find food by fishing or hunting crocodiles.
Kara (Karo) Tribe
The Kara are a semi-nomadic tribe, and one of the smallest ethnic groups in the Omo Valley with a population between 1,000 and 3,000. They are found on the eastern shore of the Omo River and are related to the Hamar tribe. It is thought that previously the Kara and Hamar were part of the same tribe, which then separated in search of better lands. Due to this history, the Omotic language of the Kara people is linguistically very similar to that of the Hamar, and they share many cultural traditions.
The Banna tribe are a semi-nomadic pastoral population of around 10,000 living near the Kenyan border. Their history is linked to that of the Hamar tribe as well, leading to a similar language and culture. Their livelihoods are centred around breeding cattle, sheep, and goats, and during the dry season, they also collect and sell wild honey at local tribal markets.
Banna villages are set up with family huts built in a circle around the cattle in a central area. The huts are built with flexible poles folded inwards and drawn together to form a dome shape, covered in straw and cloth mats.
Nyangatom (Bumi) Tribe
There are two distinct groups within the Nyangatom tribe; the eastern group near the banks of the Omo River which has developed agricultural systems and permanent settlements, and the western group near the Kibish Basin which focus mainly on herding, although some cultivation is also carried out. The population of this tribe in total is roughly 7,000.