By Alex Jones
SHOCKING pictures show the strange customs of tribes in the Omo Valley where women are WHIPPED UNTIL THEY BLEED by potential suitors – and they seem happy about it.
Graphic photos of the tribes of the Omo Valley in south west Ethiopia portray women proudly displaying their fresh scars alongside old ones; a teenager donned in war paint cradling an AK47; and an elderly woman’s gnarled lip after she removed her enormous decorative plate.
The Omo River – and the valley that feeds it – is home to approximately 200,000 people, split over numerous tribes including the Kara, Mursi, Hamar, Suri, Nyangatom, Kwegu, and Dassanech. Inter-ethnic clashes are frequent and blood often split – sometimes to prevent cattle rustling or to defend territory but just as often in a whipping ceremony between two would-be partners.
The remarkable images were captured by British-born photographer Dale Morris (46). Morris, who has resided in South Africa for 15 years and travelled across every continent snapping wildlife, said it was a bizarre experience to witness the unusual customs from a westerner’s perspective.
“It is very different from what I grew up with, the attitudes towards women seem very peculiar to me,” admitted Morris.
“Scars have a great significance to many of the tribes in the Omo valley. What some may see as self-mutilation, tribespeople see as the height of style. Men and women deliberately cut themselves and rub dirt in the wounds to make patterned scars, it’s seen as a hallmark of beauty. Some tribesmen will also receive a scar after a ‘hero killing’ – murder to you or me. On my visits to the valley over the years I’ve seen men bearing as many as 30-40 marks across their abdomen or shoulder.
“The scars on women’s back are the strangest though. At certain point so the year, excited Hamar women will blow their horns and ring bells attached to their feet to taunt the men who come in from the fields to whip them. Women regard the scars as a proof of devotion to their husbands. They will dance, be whipped until they bleed but they show no sign of pain – just grin a beatific smile. I am simply here to observe and I make no judgement but I know I would react differently to being hit with a bloody stick.
“Once, I saw one 12-year-old girl flanked by her two older sisters. I think she liked one of the cattle herd boys and made it obvious that she wanted him to whip her. He seemed reluctant however. The pre-teen’s siblings took exception to his hesitation and started beating him – really aggressively, fists and feet, the lot. In the end he relented and started whipping her until blood spurted out of her young back. She couldn’t have looked happier.”
Life is expected to get more fractious in the Omo Valley in the forthcoming years, an area already dominated by ritual and revenge. The region was almost entirely untouched by globalisation until the 21st century but since its ‘discovery’, the lush landscape has been a mecca for tourism and businesses keen to monetise the diverse volcanic terrain. A massive hydro-electric dam, Gibe III, has now been built on the Omo river in order to support vast commercial plantations that are forcing the tribes from their land. Resources and space are harder to come by. Inter-tribal battles are becoming more frequent and bloodier as machine guns as well as spears enter the battlefields.
“It won’t be the same in a few years, hundreds of years of tradition will be lost,” explained Morris.
“It’s happening all over the world, there’s very few areas that have been left untouched. Now there’s new sugar plantations, manmade floods and droughts and people downriver have been left to starve. Isolation isn’t really an option in the modern world.”
One of the traditions that could well be lost is the extraordinary pursuit of bull jumping, a physical challenge which figuratively separates the men from the boys. Once a young male is of age, he will be asked to whip his bride-to-be, get drunk and naked, and then leap across a row of angry bovines. If he should falter or fall, he will live in disgrace for a full year before being allowed to attempt the challenge again. If successful, the youngster can join the ranks of warriors and men, ready to take his place in the village hierarchy. The bull jump is a ritual initiation to manhood for both the Hamar and Karo tribes.
For more of Dale Morris’ work, please visit http://www.dalermorris.com/