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Omo river expedition 2008

Participants: Piotr Opacian – expedition leader & Maciej Tarasin
Distance covered: over 500 km from Gibe bridge to Mui junction
Equipment: Palava inflatable canoe

ADVENTURE

Italian explorer Vittorio Bottego reached the Omo river on 29 June 1896 during his second African expedition (1895–97). Just like ourselves he had encountered Mursi tribe at the banks of Omo river. This is how he described them: "…Living in a country until now unknown to the white man and to most of the surrounding blacks, it is easy to understand why their way of life is so close to that of animals ['tanto prossimi alle bestie']. …This savage tribe has detestable tendencies and bestial habits [‘tendenze detestabili e abitudini bestiali']…" On the last day of our expedition we were assaulted and robbed by a group of Mursi who considered us rightfully as intruder's on their own land.Few days later we camped in the river cross at Mui junction and we hang out with another group of Mursi. Suddenly 10 foot long crocodile swam in the slow current of the Omo river. Mursi aimed at him from his rifle pretending a shot. Then he smiled at us and put the weapon down.

TRIBES

Nowhere else on the planet do so many genetically and linguistically diverse people live as traditionally and in such a small space. 200,000 Omo pastoralists and hunters still pursue their ancestor’s lifestyles. Possessing few items from the modern world besides AK 47, the men, women, and children here ritually adorn themselves to express status and tribal identity, sculpting their hair with animal fat and clay, scarifying limbs and torsos, wearing jewelry of beads, bone, and metal, and painting their entire bodies with white minerals, black charcoal, and red and yellow ocher.

The Bodi (Me'en), Daasanach, Kara (or Karo), Kwegu (or Muguji), Mursi and Nyangatom live along the Omo and depend on it for their livelihood, having developed complex socio-economic and ecological practices intricately adapted to the harsh and often unpredictable conditions of the region’s semi-arid climate. The annual flooding of the Omo River feeds the rich biodiversity of the region and guarantees the food security of the tribes especially as rainfall is low and erratic. They depend on it to practice 'flood retreat cultivation' using the rich silt left along the river banks by the slowly receding waters. They also practice rainfed, shifting cultivation growing sorghum, maize and beans on the flood plains. Cattle, goats and sheep are vital to most tribes’ livelihood producing blood, milk, meat and hides. In July 2006 the Ethiopian government signed a contract with the Italian company Salini Costruttori to build Gibe III, the biggest hydro-electric dam in the country. According to independent experts, the dam, plantations and irrigation canals will have an enormous impact on the delicate ecosystem of the region by altering the seasonal flooding of the Omo and dramatically reducing its downstream volume. This will result in the drying out of much of the fluvial zone and will eliminate the riparian forest. Indigenous people such as the Kwegu who rely almost exclusively on fishing and hunting will be destitute. If the natural flood with its rich silt deposits disappears, subsistence economies will collapse with at least 100,000 tribal people facing food shortages. The potential for inter-ethnic conflict will increase as people compete for scarce and dwindling resources. In December 2008 we were probably the last expedition that was allowed to enter Gibe III construction site and paddle through. But first we had been interrogated and disallowed to take any photos. Sure as hell we took some.

© Maciej Tarasin.
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Omo river expedition 2008
Image: Magda Rut