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The Omo Peoples, in Mind and Spirit

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They don’t dress like you. They don’t talk like you. And they don’t view the world the way that most of us do. There’s a reason why the fascinating inhabitants of the Lower Omo Valley of Ethiopia find so many cameras aimed at them by visitors, like bizarre exhibits at a human zoo. The Omo peoples seem like cultures lost in time, reachable in our world of now-Now-NOW communication and insatiable consumption of images, yet still somehow remote from our understanding.

In an era before the world was knit in a tangle of voices and a torrent of instant visuals, opening a National Geographic or anthropology book to ogle fantastic humans like these was glossy proof of a world still unexplored even in the era of moon shots. Indeed, it was only around the time of the Apollo missions to the lunar surface, about 50 years ago, when anthropologists began to study the Hamar, Mursi and other Omo cultures with rigor and sensitivity. Even then, the Lower Omo Valley was a far-out region beyond time. Just getting there, across basins and mountains, penetrating far to the south of Ethiopia’s populated highlands, would prove to be an adventure itself. What visitors found then continues to enthrall us.

Let’s start with land, a sacred space for these people. Most Omo cultures are pastoral, valuing cattle and the grazing lands needed to sustain them. Around the developed world, land tends to be a template for building something, for creating economic value, for leading us into the future. We talk about acquiring land, land barons, land to demarcate and parcel out, property in small plots or vast acreage, always defined and transacted. Governments in Africa are increasingly under pressure to document land tenure, which means they are bumping into traditional notions of how land is shared, valued, and managed.

In the Omo Valley, land is the context for communal life, an arena for natural and spiritual connections. Land is timeless, and fragile: these herders and occasional farmers know that land and water are linked, and the rains from above and the water spilling over the banks of the Omo River in rainy seasons define the margin of survival.

In the Omo Valley, land is the context for communal life, an arena for natural and spiritual connections.

In LAST DAYS IN NAKED VALLEY, I talk about the moral and cosmic framework of the Hamar people, as understood by the anthropologists and aid workers who have interacted with them. For women in the Mursi culture, there are issues of beauty and acceptance symbolized by the famous protruding lip-plate. (Which, by the way, is quite heavy, as I discovered.) For other cultures, the warrior ethos may shape tradition and resilience, keeping rival peoples at bay and territory intact.

Time passes in ways that we might find liberating. Time flows, and time follows. Seasons shape the pace rather than clocks, schedules, and deadlines. We might learn a more balanced approach to the passage and meaning of time from these people. And delve into the richness of the world we inherit each day.

Hamar women who visited supporters in America, an almost surreal journey, wondered whether the Creator of our world might touch theirs. Perhaps we could benefit from turning away from surface images of the Omo peoples, however dazzling, to delve into the Creation that enriches their existence – and might nourish ours.


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