Jinka – South Omo Museum and Research Center


Story: Norman Sung
Photography: Norman Sung
Saturday, April 28 2018

Southern Ethiopia is very different from the north but just as fascinating. Instead of imperial cities controlling lands far and wide, different peoples from far and wide come to the Omo Valley and surrounding region and live there. Southern Ethiopia is a land of anthropology and ethnography.

I walked to the museum on top of the hill overlooking the small but rapidly expanding town of Jinka. The plan was to spend a few hours before going to Jinka's big, lively Saturday market. This was to be an orientation to the different peoples in the area before before my 3-day excursion to the Mursi, Hamer, Banna, Dasenach villages.

Omo Peoples and the Land

There are many more peoples in the region besides these: the Ari, Surmi, Bodi, Nygatom, Karo, Tsemay.... alas, I didn't have the time to visit them all. Different groups speak languages belonging to different language branches: Cushitic, Nilotic, Omotic. This linguistic anthropology approach reveals the origin of the different groups. Some came from what is now South Sudan / Sudan, others from Lake Turkana region or Uganda, others from parts that would be in north-eastern Kenya or southern Somalia now. Some of the groups are related or descended from one another – the Banna and Hamer are very similar in appearance and cultural practices, the language is practically identical, and both have more distant ties to the Ari.

The region in which these peoples live is a few thousand square kilometers in size. Jinka is situated higher and gets sufficient moisture to sustain forests. To the west, south and east are lower elevation savannas where there are few permanent rivers. The climate gets drier as we descend. This is evident in every direction we go: for instance, during the 90 kilometer descent south from Key Afar to Turmi, the forest becomes a lush savanna with many acacia trees and thick green bushes at first, and then the bushes become sparser and it becomes hotter as we continue the descent. This road took us from Ari to Banna areas, and finally to the mainly Hamer village of Turmi.

The two-road village of Turmi is only able to exist because there is sufficient water under the porous, sandy, riverbed year-round just east of town. There are cisterns but people also dig for water. The water is delivered to the town's residents and businesses in recycled 20L yellow palm oil containers, hauled by donkey carts, and poured into 1000L rooftop tanks (these are common even in cities with piped water due to possible erratic supply).

The land is rather flat on the 80 km drive from Turmi to Omorate, the slope barely noticeable. The area becomes gets drier still. Yet in the early morning, I saw many dik-diks (small antelopes) crossing the road, and several families of baboons under the sparse bush. At Omorate, I finally reach the region's namesake: the wide, deep and fast-flowing Omo River, whose headwaters originate in the Highlands not that far south and west of Addis, hundreds of kilometers to the north. The Dasenach live on the banks and the Surmi further west. The hill due south seen here marks the Kenya border and salty Lake Turkana, 20 km away, where the Omo River terminates. I can also see hills to the west, farther away – those separate Ethiopia from South Sudan.

The Museum

The museum was started by a German anthropologist who arrived some 30+ years ago to live with and study the various people starting with the Hamer. The museum contains his observations and comparisons, hours of videos documenting cultural practices, and many collected objects from each group.

A large dugout canoe the museum bought from the Karo people around 2006 grabbed my attention as I entered. On the wall was description of the buying process and interaction with the Karo – the social interactions during the few days of bargaining and how they physically moved the canoe, all described in a rather romantic way. To the right begin the object exhibit, grouped by different people, behind glass cases starting with the Karo and the Bodi with the others in the next big room: cowskin skirts and clothing, baskets, weapons, utensils, body decorations, musical instruments, games, then Mursi women lip disks and ear plates, the small stools / headrests (keri) that Banna and Hamer men carry around.... While I recall seeing some of these in the Addis museums, the grouping by people helped with the compare and contrast.

Most of all the groups have a pastoralist lifestyle element based on cattle, though many have also been practicing agriculture to supplement. A few groups, such as the Mursi, are still nomadic, moving from one location to another as they feel they need to, but others practice sedentary farming, living in villages with fixed locations, with only the men going out afar to tend their animals, sometimes for weeks at a time. Some groups have adopted raising goats in addition to cattle.

The styles and possessions of each group to some extent reflects these lifestyle practicalities – Mursi women carry a small pot that functions as a handbag containing money, utensils, her lip disk and useful items, and the huts are built simply with a low profile to be less visible to outsiders. Other groups create pottery, make animal skirts, Banna and Hamer men carry the keri which acts like a chair or pillow in one hand (useful for sleeping in the savanna with their cattle when they are far away from the village) and a stick for driving cattle in the other.

The museum has held roundtable discussions with representatives from different peoples on some cultural practices that can be considered controversial, such as ritualistic scarring, whipping of women and female circumcision. You can read the various views expressed.

Meet them in Person

The museum is a good starting point to get ready to meet the tribes. But there is no substitute to going out there and meeting the peoples in their villages in person – that is when you can put all of this together and see other nuances.

I found the Mursi society to be more hierarchical in structure. The elders (all men) stay at the village (the younger men are out tending cattle) but they stay apart from the women and children who are doing their daily chores. There are also designated warriors – one I met was very friendly and smiling, but I am sure I don't want to engage with him in a stick fight dueling. A typical group consists of 10 to 20 families. Others, such as the Dasenach, are more egalitarian and their villages larger – the elders and leaders live like everyone else, there are no special huts or symbols of hierarchy, and they seem to share everything, and about 500 people live in the one across from Omorate.

Market days are important social events for all groups. With the Banna, when a woman gets married, she moves to her husband's family and village, which may be somewhat far from her relatives. For instance, during the Tuesday market at Alduba which is in a Banna area just next to Hamer area, tons of people are hanging around under the trees drinking sorghum beer and chatting – this is their chance to see their relatives and friends from further away. Because of the travel time, markets typically get going only around noon.

I was lucky enough to see a Bull Jumping Ceremony of the Hamer near Turmi – they are relatively rare, only a few times a month during the dry season. This is an important coming-of-age ceremony for a “boy” to become an adult member of the society. Everyone is out in full force – relatives from the mother's side, from the father's side, close friends, uncles, and other acquaintances. Weeks before, the jumper (the boy) will show up at the market wearing a simple bracelet with no other adornments, and that is a signal that his family wants to arrange a jump because they deem he is ready. When others see that, they will ask him when the jump will take place. A personal invitation.

You must see the Ceremony in person to really understand it and absorb the whole atmosphere – it is very exotic. There are several parts to it besides the jump – the singing (where the mother's family relatives basically tells the history of their family), complete with horns and knee / ankle bells, face painting, and whipping. There is a very sacred part of the ceremony that you will see taking place amongst the cows where the boy, who is naked, sits across from two other elders, with the uncles forming a ring around them so you can't really see what is happening, and you see sticks being waved – this is where the boy professes to become a good member of the community and uphold the traditions of the people. Only after that do the relatives line up the cows, one beside another, 5 or 6 deep, and then he does the jump, starting with a young calf whose skin colour will become his designated nickname (the one I saw was a white one). He has to jump about 4 to 6 times from one side of the line of the cows to the other – that part is relatively quick. There are other ceremonies after.

Rapid Change

Alas, this whole area is changing very rapidly, with roads, dams, large-scale agriculture, irrigation moving in. Some of the guides have expressed pessimism for the future of these peoples and their way of life, and I too, share that concern. The changes are being imposed, so their ability to choose their destiny is limited. There is almost an American Wild West feeling to this area, and we know that has not turned out to be good for many of the people who have been there long before the new settlers came in.

My understanding is that the German anthropologist is no longer in Ethiopia and is back in Germany. Someone told me that the government has taken over the museum, though he is still listed as the Director on the plaque with a bunch of foreign and local staff. Regardless, I didn't see anything dated after 2006 – the museum itself might be frozen in time.

In the next part, I will talk about other places with outstanding art and architecture, and where such museums are an integral part of Ethiopian life.

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