Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, an extremely remote wilderness in Africa, is an environment that occupies a place close to my heart. From the moment I laid eyes on the land, a silhouette of the landscape was etched into my memory forever. A scar I am grateful to have. The Kara tribe is one of the smallest in Omo Valley, holding a modest population of merely 1,500 people. A stark contrast to the dense city I travelled from, where houses almost overlap and roads converge to freeways. It was raw, uninfluenced by contemporary society, and possessed tranquility that settled me throughout my entire stay.
Over the course of their existence, the tribe has formed clusters around three major villages, spanning from North to South Labuk, Duss, and Korcho. Each with their own unique niche, but united by their shared attachment to the land. Deduced from oral history, the Kara tribe was formerly the dominating power in the Lower Omo. An almighty force to be reckoned with. However, two apocalyptic catastrophes, the tobolo (a deluge) and a bout of grind’o illness that swept the tribe towards the end of the 19th century, decimated all but a few adults. I could see the shadows in their eyes as they detailed the series of afflictions their prior generations faced. Intangible darkness filled the space as the words dissolved into the air.
Contemporary burdens they face include the second largest hydroelectric dam in Africa being built on the banks of the Omo river, as well as the slow off-selling of pastoral lands to foreign investors for the development of sugarcane and cotton plantations. Interference in what was formerly untouched, sacred land, leaves the Kara tribe with few options to prolong their livelihood. Defining characteristics of the tribe centers around their physical appearance, which is striking enough to captivate my gaze, and hold it to this day. Photos do not do their beauty justice.
Intricate body painting and scarification techniques are elements of their culture that have endured the generations and are still practiced to this day. Even though the shapes and patterns evolve, the act remains identical to the first scar and stroke of paint. There is beauty in such purity. I am so accustomed to seeing the artificially vibrant colours that occupy the city I live, that the earth-derived pigments swirled onto their bodies garnered a new type of awe. I could feel the pain behind the scars that adorn their skin and narrate their stories without the use of words. Communication with no words is the most primal form of human connection.
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