In The Land of Dessanach Tribe, Ethiopia

Why go there?

Ever since I turned 7 and was able to read travel magazines, I start dreaming one day to be just like Indiana Jones and visit any authentic tribe. Today most of them are already vanished and the very few remained are extremely difficult to reach from my home (Sofia).

Around the beginning of January 2014 I read an article about the construction of “Gilgel Gibe III Dam” in Omo Valley, Ethiopia i realized how fast the clock is ticking. I had to hurry up, if i wanted to learn from first hand more about the local tribes before they are gone and assimilated by the civilization.

Crossing the river

And there you go on Apr 28th I was on the bench of Omo river accompanied by the team i have built for my expedition. Shortly before the outbreak of the monsoon rainy season in Eastern Africa, we were waiting at the riverbank not far from the small Ethiopia - Kenya border post.

Patience is important. Things happen when they have to happen. It’s hard to impose any strict schedule. And we were waiting, waiting...and waiting...till our boat finally came.

All of us had to be very calm seated inside the tinny boat made of the tree trunk. We had to avoid any unnecessary movements, because in the dark, red, nontransparent Omo river crocodiles reign.

Omo riverbank

Omo riverbank

Our boat is with the flow. The opposite riverbank is very steep. Once set foot on it, several Dessanach kids pop up from behind the trees and approached me. All of them were shouting “farenji - farenji”. Fassil - my local guide, explained that this is the word used by most of the lower Omo tribes for a "white foreigner".

This kid ran to the village and bring the news that there is “farenji” coming.
I was amazed by the size of the trees and how tinny all human being appear next to it. Their roots were massive. Totally speechless...

First contact with Dessanach tribe

In just a glimpse and I was surrounded by about 150 women and kids. Fassil told me that at this time most of the men are in the bush with the cattle.

Dessanach Girls at Omo Riverbank 

Dessanach Girls at Omo Riverbank 

Even though there is a big river and right next to it small forest with nice shadow, the location of the  Dessanach village was half km away, in the middle of the dust field. Been in the Equator, I immediately understood how much the sun can burn.

Once entered the village the tribe’s chief came to greet me. Eveyrong was looking with surprise at the “farenjy” with the funny white skin.

I wanted to photograph Dessanach tribe!

So, i noticed a perfect hill very near the village. I looked into my compass to discover the direction of the sunset light; I’ve selected several dessanach people to be my models. All we need was to wait until 6:00pm. Only 4 hours time to make contact with the tribe.

I moved back to the small forest, because if i had continued to stay directly under the sun, i could turn into roasted meat.

Each step i make, was followed by the tribe. Everyone was walking with me. Literally!

In the forest i was awarded by the breeze...so nice, surrounded by hundreds of Dessanach people. Everyone was extremely curious to learn something about the other. It was great idea to bring a local translator with me. He help me to communicate with the tribe and make better connection.

In my conversation with Dessanach i learned interesting facts.

Who are the Dessanech?

They number about  25,000 people and inhabit the most southern region spreading on both side of the Ethiopia-Kenyan border.  Living around Turkana lake and Omo river they are know as “the people of the delta”. Most of Dessanech are predominantly nomads, surviving from their cattle. Relatively recent they have starting to grow sorghum along the fertile Omo river banks which made their subsistence a bit easier.

Inside the tribe there are strict rules. Men are responsible for the cattle, which is the source of life for the entire tribe. They also take care of the tribes safety. Men spend most of their time in the bush together with the cattle, constantly moving. This explains why i was received mostly by women and children when i visit their village.

Women take care of the household by building huts, take care of the children & old people, collecting the crops, cooking, and of course always having ready food & coffee for their husbands.
Dessanach tribe live in polygamy. Usually a man can have as many wifes as long as he posses enough cattle. 
A woman is worth up to 20 caws. When a man wants to marry, he needs to buy his wife from her family.

What to do, if a man doesn't have enough cattle?

He and his friends attack the nearest tribe and steal their cattle. This is the reason for the frequent armed conflicts in Omo valley.

I’ve noticed that some of the warriors carry AK47 and wondered how they got this wapens. Very simple! AK47 is worth 5 caws. Everything in Omo valley is measured in cattle.

Sharing is Everything

Georgi surrounded by the kids of Dessanach tribe, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Georgi surrounded by the kids of Dessanach tribe, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

I also wanted to share something with Dessanach tribe. Having found in my pocket the trusty cell phone with thousands of pictures from home and my previous around the world trips, I start showing those to the little kids. It’s hard to find words to describe, the reaction of everyone. Seems this was the first time in their life to see colorful pictures from remoted places.

For each picture i was explaining what it represent. Frankly speaking, it was really challenging to tell them what is snow...For the kids it was impossible to experience snow on the Equator.

Photoshoot at the top of the hill & the value of a human life

Dessanach tribe's chief

Dessanach tribe's chief

All of us were having so much fun sharing things about our cultures and lives. Time was really flying and then I realize there are only few minutes left till sunset. We walked all the way back...half km to the hill i picked. I went to its top, open my tripod, set my camera, open the stand for the light, mounted the flash & softbox, made a test shot with the help of one of my crew members. Guksa (the driver) was holding the light equipment, because there was already strong wind. Fassil helped me select several Dessanach people who agreed to be photograph in exchange for small gifts. So, the girl was standing still, i was behind the camera, Fassil was fighting with the softbox and the wind...i was looking in the camera view finder and could see that there are Dessanach people in my frame. Of course, they were curious and this is why they were staying in my view. Anyway, after 3-4 attempts and help by some elders...i had the perfect setup for the picture i had in my head. I was just a button click away of achieving it...and then i hear somebody shouting and screaming. I turn left and what to see. On the dusty ground there was an old woman laying down. Next to her was the tribe’s chief who was kicking her. He was looking for his AK47. He wanted to kill her...As Fassil later explained, because she wanted to be the next to have her picture taken, but...the tribe’s chief wanted to be the next in stead of her.

Crazy! The tribe's chief was about to kill his wife just for a picture!

I tried to confront the couple...and promised to make picture of all of them...together, one by one, just not to kill each other…

At that point of time Fassil told me that the situation has escalated to much. Obviously the tribe’s chief was drunk and too violent. The best solution was to live the village immediately.

After I returned to our base camp on the other side of the river, we sat down to chillax with a cold beer. I downloaded the pictures from that day...and was surprised to notice that actually...i have managed to make the shot i have imagined in my head.

Dessanach Girl in Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Dessanach Girl in Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia