Lower Omo Valley – A Different Standard of Beauty

Some like blondes, some like brunettes, some like skinny and some like curvy. And some like girls with a big ceramic plate inserted in their lip.

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In the Lower Omo Valley in South-West Ethiopia, every tribe has its own standards of beauty. The Banna twist their hair into yarn-like strings and then color their hair red with mud. The Surma paint their bodies with a white chalk-mix. The Karo adorn themselves with jewelery made of all sorts of junk (pens, cans, candy wrappers). The Hamer women wear iron chokers showing whether they’re the (more important) first wife, or the second wife. And the Mursi insert clay plates in their lips, the bigger the better.

Traveling to the area south of Arba Minch is a bit like entering a parallel universe. The markets are filled with people with the most incredible outfits and styles. This is the Africa I read about as a child, in the National Geographic. Bare-breasted women with corn in their hair. Scrawny adolescents with leg-bracelets made of beads. Pretty girls with their two lower front teeth pulled out for the sake of fashion. It seems unlikely that they didn’t dress up like this just to impress visiting tourists. But this is actually what they wear, their style, their culture. Their taste.

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Our guide, Wasagne, told us about an anthropological study from a few years back. They brought a Mursi man to Addis Ababa, to Bole Street where the most beautiful Ethiopians hang. They asked him to pick out the most gorgeous woman, but he couldn’t. According to him they were all ugly because none of them was wearing a lip plate.

Someone compared the Lower Omo Valley with a human zoo, and that is a rather accurate description. The tribes go crazy for tourists that pay a few cents for each photo. Everyone tugged at our sleeves, scratched our arms and used sweet words, winks and threats to get their photos taken. Unfortunately we are part of a tourism movement that will eventually destroy the still-authentic culture of these tribes. Soon enough they will learn what they would have to wear and how to style themselves in order to attract more tourists.

But until then, it is an absolutely astonishing experience to visit these people who lead a life so different from ours. And a great gift to be in their presence.

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