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01/24/2011
Omo valley, a trip through time

Ethiopia, known as the queen of Africa due to its wide variety of scenery that embraces all the different souls of the dark continent, is an incredible mosaic of races and ethnic groups, an enchanting blend of nature and human roots. But, above and beyond its obvious exotic appeal, this country conceals and conserves real live traces of an unimaginable past. One week of tricky off-road terrain, with no tracks and no signposts, is enough take you on a journey thousands of years back through time. The itinerary followed by Michele Dalla Palma leads us back to the dawn of humanity, an archaic dimension of existence where time stands still, far from any kind of modern contamination. From Addis Abeba to Jimma, the coffee capital, leaving every last trace of "westernisation" behind, and drawing ever closer to the real heart of Ethiopia. “The sensation is tangibly one of entering a suspended space-time dimension, of being propelled into a primitive era, where beliefs, rituals and traditions map out the rhythm of each day, and of whole lives,” exclaims Dalla Palma. This experience brings him into contact with the Surma tribes who live in a primordial world, which in its every aspect and expression seems to be frozen in a period thousands of years ago. The diminutive Surma people, nude, painted all-over in a bright yellow, to the point that they seem like real aliens, run nimbly through the savannah, in perfect symbiosis with the nature than surrounds them, and with their microcosm made of legends, superstitions, beliefs and rules, whose origins are lost in the mists of time. In the waters of the Magalogne, the Surma manifest their cult of physical beauty, painting their bodies with powders extracted from coloured stones. Each gesture is part of a ritual that has been precisely reproduced through time for countless generations. The young shave one another's hair, creating decorative patterns; the women casually parade their lip plates and the scarifications on their graceful bodies. Having left behind the territories of the Surma people, the adventure continues through the wild landscapes of the Omo National Park, amid the expanses of desert, until we reach the villages of the belligerent Nyangatom, stockaded with thorny branches. Their stern, distrustful glances speak of a difficult existence, sorely tried by life in this hostile environment. On board improbable vessels we follow the river Omo to the villages of the Karo and Hamer peoples. The Karo live in typical straw hut villages; they have dwindled to a few hundred people, and their age-old culture is at risk of dying out. Like the Surma, they have a cult of physical beauty, enhanced by scarification and skin painting using vegetable and mineral pigments. A cap of curls made using mud, butter and fat, onto which they sprinkle red powder, and a nail piercing the lower lip, which the women tend to move continuously with their tongues, these are the distinctive features of the Hamer people. This ethnic group is respected and admired by all the other nearby populations for the beauty and sensuality of its women, and in its territories, one experiences atmospheres and impressions of ancient tribal traditions. These are the last primitive ethnic groups in the heart of Africa. Leaving the wild, unspoilt landscapes of the Omo valley behind us, the scenery changes completely, as we make our way once again towards the civilised world, with its cultivated fields, roads first signposted, then paved, towns, and every other sign of “civilisation”.


Michele Dalla Palma