Omo Valley: A Day with the Dassanech Tribe

Land of Origins

The Dassanech

Located in the most remote section of the Omo Valley (the borderlands of Kenya and South Sudan), the Dassanech tribe thrive in an extremely difficult and harsh environment.

From constant drought conditions to flash floods, to armed conflicts… the Dassanech tribe live on the margin and must constantly adapt just to stay alive.

We knew getting to them would be difficult and possibly dangerous, but worth the risk. 

Our Experience

Village Bound

The southwestern section of the Omo Valley (near South Sudan) is a hotbed for arms and animal trafficking. This area is notorious for armed robbery and is rated as “DO NOT TRAVEL” by the US Embassy. Well… we decided to go anyway! 

After registering our passports with the final militia checkpoint and answering a few probing questions by wary officials, our 4WD sped off to meet the captain of a pre-arranged boat trip – one that would take us to a lesser-known Dassanech village near the South Sudan border.

With a bit of hesitation, we carefully hopped into the wobbly tree trunk boat.

Us: “Are there any hippos?”

Guide: “No, no, no… no hippos.” 

Us: “Are there any crocodiles?”

Guide: “Uhhh… maybe the tribe eat them, hopefully. Lets go.”

Swaying from side-to-side, we floated down the murky (possibly crocodile infested) river slowly. Given that we had to constantly shift our weight around to keep the boat steady and not tip over, there was no time for relaxation – only vigilance.  

Once we made it to the right point along the river, we jumped off the boat and immediately kissed the ground. We then walked for ~30 minutes across an empty and arid landscape to reach a small, quaint village on the edge of the desert. 

Leaving the river’s green oasis behind, the only signs of life were vultures circling the skies above and the occasional dung beetle rolling their feces dinner back home…

Since the village was nestled on a scorched plain, natural beauty became a distant memory. Our only sight was the oppressive sun painting the land yellow with its powerful rays. But what the village lacked in scenery, was fully masked and compensated by the warmth of its people. 

As soon as we stepped foot into the village, a couple dozen Dassanech tribesmen and women gathered to greet us with vibrant song and dance.

Given that we were the only travelers around for many, many miles… we truly appreciated this extreme level of hospitality. With smiles abound, there seemed to be a deep-seated sense of happiness amongst the villagers.

As the power of laughter overtook the villagers, the celebration of our arrival carried on for a lot longer than we expected. 

10 minutes had passed and there was no sign of this Dassanech fiesta abading.

While snapping photos of all the funky dance moves, the Dassanech children were running up to me and tugging on my shirt.

They wanted their photo taken and didn’t want to feel left out. One by one, I snapped a close-up photo of each of them and then showed them the pic. Funnily enough, they were full of smiles off-camera but turned stone cold when looking into the lens.

After 20 minutes of non-stop celebration, the desert sun’s strength was becoming oppressive. Seeing that we were sweating bullets and turning lobster red, a kind family invited us into their home for shaded comfort and a freshly made cup of buno (coffee cherry tea).

More than ten people call this hut, home… yes, you read that right, 10+ people live in a space that would be considered a 4 person tent for camping. And lets not forget, this space also includes their kitchen. 

In practical terms, living conditions like this force you to reassess what truly matters – to embrace the mundane and eliminate redundancies. 

What’s most interesting is that the family that lives in this hut is grateful for everything that they have. And even with their minimal amount of possessions, they don’t long for more, they’re not on the path to find the next shiny object. Why? Because they only hold onto things that matter, things that serve a purpose. Excess isn’t apart of their vocabulary, it’s not even in their train of thought.

Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s the way nature works and how these people choose to live. Instead of moving to Addis Ababa to find work, they choose to stay in these conditions, because this is where they’re able to find contentment.

Being happy with less, is a lesson we all can learn from the Dassanech.

As we were leaving, one of the kids ran up to May and began holding onto her leg – refusing to let her go. His baby vise-grip was intense, and he began profusely crying as his mother was trying pry him free.

Only footsteps away from the hut, the child stood at the doorway and cried for us to come back…  

For the next few hours we roamed around the village and spent time with different families. We were even lucky enough to watch and sort of haphazardly help with a new home being built. 

Turns out that this simple construction is quite labor intensive and takes a week to build.

After spending 8+ hours with the wonderful people Dassanech tribe, we had to start heading back to Turmi so we could continue our expedition across the Omo Valley. 

In all honesty, we weren’t ready to leave and wish we had more time with them. But… all good things must come to an end – otherwise you’ll never truly appreciate those moments.

As a goodbye, some of the villagers gathered together to sing and dance for us again. 

This time they were primarily jumping, which immediately reminded us of our time with the Masaai tribe in Kenya. However, the similarities ended there and our experiences with both tribes were vastly different – culturally speaking. 

Overall, the warmth of the Dassanech can only be understated. They are truly a kind hearted people that deserve more spotlight and visitors in the Omo Valley. 

Our Insights

Useful Information

Location: Near South Sudan, 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. We highly recommend that you bring this (locally purchased) gift with you. 

Tip #2: Buy some of the goods being made by the villagers – your money will go directly to them and the prices will be cheaper than at markets

Tip #3: 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.  

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