My wife Alexandra and I, Eric, have been touring Africa since 2009. Although we travel only in a camper van, not a rugged 4×4, we have always wanted to meet the Mursi People. They’re the ones with a clay lip plate, that live around the very remote Omo Valley in Ethiopia. So, finally we set off on our Ethiopia overland adventure to meet the Omo Valley lip plate people.
First off we had to get to Jinka, which is the base for most trips into the Omo valley. When we first arrived in Jinka we checked in at the Jinka Resort Hotel, where they provided a little spot in the shade for us to camp. Our plan was to drive down into the Omo valley the next day, crossing Mago National Park. But you’re not allowed to enter by yourself, so we had to arrange an armed guide. We obtained a contact for a guide called Demelash, and gave him a call. He agreed to come to our campsite to discuss everything so it looked like our adventure was on.
Speaking to Demelash we learned that it was not an easy task which we wanted to undertake, and we had to discuss which vehicle we should use. I was concerned about our vehicle and wondered if it would be possible to make the trip with only a front wheel drive, so we decided to rent a 4×4 for the day. However, Demelash was convinced we could do it all with our own vehicle so we made an appointment for the next morning, as he wanted to pick us up early.
In the morning Demelash arrived on time for our Mursi trip. First of all, in Jinka we had to change money – large bills into five Birr notes, which is roughly about 20 cents – because you have to pay for every photo you take. We left Jinka and after a river crossing we reached the entrance to Mago National Park.
Ethiopia overland adventure
Passing high mountains with steep slopes we hardly managed to get up the mountain ridge. I have to say that I was a little concerned but later the route only took us downhill. Then suddenly, in the road, three naked warriors of the Mursi tribe blocked our way.
Thankfully, Demelash could speak the Mursi language so after a lot of arguing and endless discussions we were allowed to pass. It was certainly an interesting experience to see the men who had painted their whole body with white stripes. A few kilometres further on we had to take a soldier with a Kalashnikov on board, because some African native tribes can be dangerous, in terms of being quite demanding and hostile on occasions. It wasn’t long before we arrived at a village where the Mursi chief suspiciously approached our car.
The chief demanded cigarettes from me, which I gave him because he was being very aggressive. Then Demelash started to discuss prices with him. Parking was 200 Birr, entrance into his village was a further 200 Birr, which seemed a little steep as the village only consisted of some trees and some mud huts. For photos the price was four Birr for men and five Birr for women and children.
As we were taking photos, after each click the chief checked the display to count how many photos actually were taken. Photo – money, photo – money, this was the way things were going to be done. Demelash looked after the money for us, and he was the one who paid and discussed the tariffs. Every now and then he had to argue over the tally and the tension was building, with people fighting each other and constantly discussing costs. We were always prepared to make a hasty retreat into the car, and the soldier seemed prepared to use his riffle, just in case. Everything has to be done quickly so as not to escalate the tension of the situation.
Omo Valley lip plate people
The Mursi are a tribe definitely still existing in the Stone Age. They live in small grass huts, with men herding the cattle and women collecting roots, often with their babies on their back. The women use lip plates, which are made of clay, and are often up to 20 centimeters in diameter. They start when the girls are young. They cut the lip and insert first a small plate, maybe around five centimetres, enlarging the plate over time. Women are topless, wearing only skirts of natural leaves. The men are completely naked, artfully body painted, although some of them dress when foreigners are in sight.
After an hour or so we left the village, relieved that nothing bad had happened. On our way back, we met some young men. They didn’t appear to be that aggressive, but still we had to be careful as you can never be sure what might happen.
Our Ethiopia overland adventure was an experience like we have never had before. But it was also tinged with sadness because you can’t help feeling that the Omo Valley lip plate people that will not survive too long into the future. Roads are being built rapidly to make this area accessible to the modern world. This is removing the remoteness that served as protection for the Mursi people. Will they survive these developments intact? You have to say it is unlikely.
If you have enjoyed reading this article, you can read more blogs by Eric and Alexandra:
We started 2009 in Tunis and crossed Africa to Cape Town http://www.african-road-trip.com. In Cape Town we decided to carry on, but had to change our car, so we bought a Land Rover Series and started again http://www.landroverseries.com/. Last but not least, we gathered all our overland experiences on a site http://www.overlandtraveltips.com/ where we provide useful information for those planning a trip through Africa.