Omo Valley: Camping with the Kara Tribe
As the smallest tribe in Africa (with a population of less than 1,000), the Kara’s existence is shielded from the rest of world.
Constrained by geographical isolation, their contact with modern society is minimal which allows them to still practice a rich canvas of ancient traditions.
To visit the Kara tribe is to venture back in time and experience traditional living by an inspiring group of people. Ones who thrive in a wild and hostile environment.
After spending a couple nights in Jinka, visiting the Mursi and Ari tribes, we embarked on 5.5 hour journey over bumpy dirt roads to reach a remote Kara village.
Although long, the drive itself was gorgeous as we passed through diverse ecosystems: from lush mountains to sun-kissed grasslands, and pristine river valleys.
With the Omo’s vast picturesque landscape on our horizon, the hours in the Jeep seemed to fly by. And once we arrived at the village, we were comforted by pure authenticity… it was just us and the villagers, who were going about their daily lives.
As soon as we set the Jeep in park, we were warmly welcomed with ear-to-ear smiles by a family that lived in a nearby thatched hut.
They were more than eager to get us inside, so they could proudly show us their home. And no, they didn’t ask for any money or try to sell us anything. All they wanted was a genuine interaction – from asking questions about our culture, to sharing insights on theirs, it was a time to fulfill each other’s mutual curiosity.
While their hut was large (relative to the Mursi), the interior was decidedly spartan. There was only a makeshift woodfire oven, bags of grain (which were used as food and furniture), and a few multi-purpose items. And yet, even with the bare minimum essentials for survival, this was one of the happiest families we had met in a while.
When asked if there was anything that they desired to have, they expressed that their traditional lifestyle was a choice – they were happy and extraordinarily grateful for what they had. There was “nothing” that they wanted except for access to food, water, shelter, and health. Everything else, to them, was superfluous.
While it was a privilege to spend an hour with this inspiring family in their home, it was time for us to explore the rest of the village. So we thanked them for their sincere hospitality and left to roam the dirt paths.
As we walked through the village, most of the adults were performing laborious day-to-day tasks while children were running around, snacking on fresh sugar cane stalks.
And yes, the sugar cane stalks looked damn delicious… we were hungry and jealous.
Flying high from the sugar, many of the children would run up to us… just to hold our hands and try to play with us. Full of laughter and smiles, each child wanted their picture taken so they could see themselves frozen in time, on the LCD screen.
It was easy to see that there was a deep sense of joy in each of them and their boundless energy was infectious. It was one of those rare moments where you truly get to witness ‘less is more’ in positive action. Contrary to kids in major cities that are glued to their smartphones and TVs, these kids were truly ‘present’ and much more connected to the environment and people around them.
As we continued to roam the village, we came across a young girl standing on some unstable logs, eagerly signaling for us to come over.
She was trying her best to greet us with a big ol’ smile and a never-ending barrage of “hellos.” So we responded to her bubbling enthusiasm with “hopo” (a basic Karo-language greeting) and began to walk over to her family’s hut.
Out of nowhere, her father came charging over with a massive bow and arrow. And with a warrior’s intensity, he yelled at her furiously… ordering her to go inside. As she complied, he turned to focus his rage solely on us.
While tightening his grip on the weapon, he studied us with a keen yet wary look. Silent and tense, he was calculating our intentions – just like any concerned father would.
Thankfully, after a few moments of brooding tension… he loosened up a bit and (sort of) greeted us. Still no smile, but at least he recognized that we weren’t a threat.
Shortly after receiving his stamp of approval, the young girl re-emerged from the hut with some home-made paint – a mix of white chalk, iron ore, and charcoal. And since she could speak a tiny bit of English, she politely asked if we would allow her to paint our faces – as a sign of respect.
Without any hesitation, we agreed – in fact, we were beyond grateful.
Both of our faces were painted in a semi-intricate pattern that’s typically used to represent ‘status’ within the Kara community.
As the young girl painted our faces, she was deeply inquisitive… unfortunately, her curiosity was far greater than the limits of her English vocabulary.
She did however, know enough English to make us promise (multiple times) that we’d show her photos of the world beyond the Omo Valley.
She was deeply interested in seeing pictures of our travels around Thailand, which is May’s home country. And since this would be her first time seeing anything about Asia, she was more giddy than a kid on Christmas morning.
Keep in mind… this village has no electricity or running water. The internet, even mobile phones, just don’t exist here. What these villagers know about the world, comes solely from word-of-mouth stories.
The kids were amazed by pictures of white sand beaches surrounded by azure waters and towering limestone karsts. They had never seen photos of the beach before and were chock-full of a million questions…
What lives in the water!? How many crocodiles are there? Why is the water so blue???
As we entertained the never-ending curiosity of the kids, we were kindly approached (read: saved) by another welcoming family. They asked if we would like to join them in their home for tea. Of course, we took them up on their generous offer.
The family brewed us a traditional tea, called buno, which was made with boiled water from the local river. Out of respect, we drank the tea which was served in communal wooden bowls. Largely an acquired taste, buno is both intensely bitter and moderately fruity. While I slurped down a full bowl of buno, May could barely stomach a few sips.
*Buno – for the past 1000 years or so in Ethiopia, the husks of coffee cherries have been dried and darkly roasted until almost black. They’re then infused with boiling water for a long period of time, which creates a nutritional brew that’s rich in caffeine, tannins, polyphenols, and mineral elements.
Shortly after finishing our tea, we began to hear an uproar of people singing and laughing outside. So, the family encouraged us to go and join the festivities.
Turns out, an evening celebration was unfolding – the tribe’s women were vivaciously dancing and singing, having a grand ol’ time while the men were plastic jerry cans of fermented sorghum (the village’s homemade beer). We were repeatedly invited to drink and dance, but we respectfully declined the requests. Instead, we remained passive spectators with some of the sober members of the tribe.
Notably, some of the warriors also remained sober and manned guard around the village. Fully stocked with weapons ranging from donga sticks to automatic rifles, they stealthily patrolled the village’s perimeter – seeking out any potential threats.
From what we could tell, only the most experienced warriors were allowed on guard. Since each warrior had multiple scarification symbols on their arms and chest, it meant they’ve all previously killed enemies in battle.
As the evening wore on and drunken celebrations reached there peak, so did testosterone-fueled displays of machismo.
At one point, a warrior with a spear ran barefoot down the cliffside… barreling towards the crocodile-infested river below. Without hesitation, he dived head first into the murky water and swam for ~20 yards to a rock that was nestled in the middle of the river. There, he patiently waited until he successfully caught a fish with a single strike.
The displays of machismo didn’t end with the crocodile whisperer, as some of the warriors began to drunkenly spar with donga sticks.
In the Omo Valley, stick fighting is a way for young men to display their virility and resistance to pain, in an effort to impress women (surprise, surprise). More importantly, it’s a way for tribes to compete with each other in a non-lethal format.
Every year, a gladiatorial stick fighting competition occurs between the tribes. It’s an event where hundreds of warriors gather to… beat the shit out of each other.
As the sun began to set, the stick fighting slowed to a crawl and the villagers returned to their huts for a good night’s sleep.
Along with our guides, we started to clear out our goat-filled campsite for the evening. However, these goats were stubborn as hell and refused to budge.
Look, we’re not going to sugar coat it… where we camped was laden with dung and inhabited by all sorts of flying and crawling insects. To make matters worse, it was still very hot and humid at night. Long story short, we slept in a smelly-ass goat sauna.
We awoke at 6:30 am, to a beautiful sunrise and an already bustling village. As a tribe that lives off of the land, wasting a second of sunlight is a cardinal sin.
Near our tent, a few warriors were preparing for their upcoming hunt. They were sporting a mix of bows and arrows, spears, and automatic rifles.
Funnily enough, the only piece of modern technology in this village was the Kalashnikov. A piece of Russian ingenuity that made its way into the Omo Valley via South Sudan. To own one of these rifles is a symbol of wealth, as much as it is an assault weapon.
Renowned for their marksmanship skills, Kara Tribe warriors have successfully fought off invasions by the larger and better armed Nyagatom tribe for generations. And since guerilla warfare is frequent, the tribe’s most-skilled warriors must always be vigilant… even while on a hunt – an enemy ambush is a question of when, not if.
Unfortunately… this would be our last day with the Kara tribe. We truly wish we could’ve spent more time learning from the villagers, but we had to head to Turmi to continue our expedition and document a Bull Jumping Ceremony by the Hamer tribe. Overall, the Kara’s primitive yet elegant lifestyle provided us with a clearer outlook on essentialist values and sustainable living.
Their ancient culture possesses remarkable qualities that enriched are understanding of community, presentness, and connectedness with nature. We’re forever grateful to the kind villagers that opened up their way of life to us – it was truly an honor, one that we were humbled by and will never forget.
Location: Near Dus Village, Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Tour Company: Omo River Tours
Main Guide: Aron Tamene Teka
Tip #1: Many villagers asked if we had extra bars of soap or clothes. While we gave away some extra shirts that we had, we wish that we had purchased bars of soap and clothes from Jinka and brought them with us. We highly recommend that you bring these (locally purchased) gifts with you.
Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to be assertive. The Kara tribe are highly tactile and can be considered aggressive at times. If they sense timidity, some of the tribe’s kids and women will surround you and demand gifts. Unless you are stern with them, the “harassment” (or whatever you want to call it) will never end.
For example, when I was preoccupied with photography, May was surrounded by a group of aggressive women and children who chased her until she climbed up on top of our Jeep’s roof. She was there for ~10 minutes while they shook the car, until the Chief’s son and I went to go “save” her.
Tip #3: If you plan to camp, bring your own tent and sleeping pad. We recommend the Gossamer Gear DCF Two tent (which is ultralight and has ample ventilation) and the comfortable Thermarest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad. Since it’s warm at night, there’s no need for a quilt, it’s better to just use a thermoregulating liner.
Tip #4: Pay for photos in advance. Prior to booking your trip, make sure that your guide is able to pay a flat fee to the village chief for all photos taken. This will streamline your experience and reduce all of the hassles that may occur with individual payment.