The Indigenous Groups of Ethiopia

This Expedition will take you over a wide swath of Ethiopia in eastern central Africa. You’ll visit a number of indigenous groups, including the Afar and the nomadic Tigrayans, the Hamar, and the Mursi.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Untitled, 'The Believers' Series (2014) by Yafet DanielOriginal Source:

Each of these groups leads a distinct way of life, and all of them are tied closely to the land.

Introducing Ethiopia

Your brain assures you that you are indeed on Earth in Dallol, Ethiopia, in eastern Africa, but there is something other-worldly about the green and gold landscape in front of you.

And it’s unbelievably hot—some of the hottest average daytime temperatures on Earth have been recorded here. No border of Ethiopia meets the sea: you’ll need to rely on lakes, rivers, or rainfall for water sources. 

Nevertheless, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world, and people have lived here longer than almost anywhere else on Earth. 

The Great Rift Valley

The town of Dallol, formerly a mining town, is mostly abandoned. Nowadays, tourists come to see the unique landscape, largely the result of past volcanic eruptions. 

Dallol is in the northern part of Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, which is a long and low valley running down the center of the country.

Erta-Ale volcano is also in this region. It attracts attention because it has a lava lake in its crater—only one of five volcanoes in the world that does. It lies within a triangular zone of intense volcanic activity and has proven to be the most active volcano of them all.

The Mountains

On either side of the Rift Valley, there are mountains. These ranges make Ethiopia’s landscape more rugged than that of most other African nations. The Western Highlands and Lowlands border the neighboring countries of Sudan and South Sudan.

People living in the highland area enjoy cooler temperatures and some key water sources, such as Ethiopia’s largest inland lake, Lake Tapa. The lowlands are so hot, however, that not many people live there. The eastern mountain ranges are not as extensive as those of the west.

Neighborly Relations: The Afar and the Tigrayans

You left the small village of Hamed Ela early to avoid the hottest part of the day. Still the sun beats down, and there is no shade to be found in this arid landscape. 

Your guide has driven you as far as possible, as the land underfoot now is too soft for your heavy vehicle to go any further. Now on foot, you’re walking on the world’s largest salt marsh, more than 300 feet below sea level. 

Surrounding you are teams of traders with their camels, mules, and donkeys laden with salt, moving goods from village to town, just as their people have done for over 1,000 years.

The Afar People

The word salary means “to be paid for a regular or specific service,” and, if you look at its root, you’ll find the word salt. This is because, in the past, people used salt as money. 

Although paper and coins may be today’s currency, the salt trade is still a profitable way of life for the Afar people. There are about three million Afar people, living in Ethiopia and its northern neighbors, Eritrea and Djibouti, and not all of them trade in salt. 

But those that do run every aspect of the enterprise: from collecting caravan fees to mining the salt and ferrying it to market in other parts of Ethiopia or Sudan. The majority of Afar people follow the Muslim faith.

The Tigrayan People

Some of the salt traders are Tigrayan nomads. Originally from Tigray, a province of five million people in Northern Ethiopia, now they travel from place to place without a permanent home. 

Tigray’s eastern lowland plains are too dry to support year-round farming. In contrast, people do farm in the cooler more fertile Western Highlands. The majority of the population of Tigray practices Christianity, as do two-fifths of all Ethiopians.

In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest organizations in Christian history.

The Hamar People

Southern Ethiopia looks quite different from the North. This is the Omo Valley, where the hills are covered with green growth. And the weather is more hospitable to farming and livestock, as you can witness by the herds of goats and cattle grazing the land.

Here, the Hamar people—approximately 20,000 members strong—make their life. They share the land among the families, moving with their goat and cattle herds when the land is depleted. 

The Hamar people assign distinct and traditional roles within the community, depending on age and gender. This arrangement is not unique among the Hamar people; other groups in Ethiopia also have an organized division of labor based on gender and age.

Roles of Women

Typically, you will find a Hamar woman in the fields, tending crops such as sorghum, beans, maize, and pumpkins. Or you might find her collecting water or cooking food for her family. Women will join together to help each other with large work projects like raising a new roof.

Young girls, at least eight years old, might be helping their families by herding goats or farming. They also help with household chores, such as looking after younger children.

Roles of Men

All you need to do is follow a herd of cattle to find most Hamar men. Others might be plowing the fields with oxen or tending beehives in Acacia trees. Younger men might also be working their parents’ crops or defending their family’s herd.

They will not have goats or cattle of their own until their parents say they are allowed to marry, usually some time in their mid-thirties. The coming-of-age ritual for Hamar males involves leaping over a long line of cattle arranged side-by-side.

Economics: Turmi Market

It’s Monday, market day, and Turmi Market is buzzing with activity. The Hamar people are trading animals, hand-made goods, and homegrown foods. The goods for trade at the Turmi Market reflect the larger Ethiopian economy, which is predominately based on agriculture.

Coffee is the nation’s major export; in fact, coffee originated in Ethiopia, as did grain sorghum and the castor bean. Unfortunately, agricultural workers are at the mercy of floods and droughts. 

So the national government provides some financial relief for these natural disasters. It also tries to educate farmers on better farming practices and alternative jobs in manufacturing, textiles, and energy generation. Despite these efforts, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in Africa and the world.

The Market

Many of the people at Turmi Market have walked for hours to get here. You can see them getting their weekly fill of supplies and neighborhood gossip.

With only about one-sixth of Ethiopia’s population living in modern cities, including the country’s capital Addis Ababa, the majority of the population relies mainly on markets such as this one to sell produce and buy outside goods. Road networks and towns like Turmi are slowly expanding, as more people move to them to go to school and to find non-farm work.

The Tourists

Tourism is a growing industry in many rural villages in Ethiopia. You certainly can spot tourists at Turmi Market. They’re not hard to find. 

If they’re not bargaining for homemade goods, then they’re probably negotiating a fee to take a photograph of villagers in traditional dress. A local translator or guide is likely accompanying them, as English speakers are few and far between here. 

Amharic and Oromo are the two most widely spoken languages in Ethiopia, but there are about 100 officially recognized Ethiopian languages all together!

Leadership Roles: The Mursi

The Mursi standing proudly before you were willing to have their picture taken—for a fee. This fee was not the first you paid when you set out to meet these nomadic cattle herders who live near the Sudan and Kenya borders, and it probably won’t be the last.

Your guide (who also requires a fee) explains that the Mursi people now live within and between Ethiopia’s national park system, and the entrance to each park... requires a fee. 


As you ride the newly paved roads into the heart of the park, your guide further explains that the Mursi people, like most nomadic groups in the Omo Valley, have always moved freely with their herds, taking it upon themselves to settle any disputes with other groups over territory. 

But Ethiopia has undergone major government upheavals in recent times, and the fate of Mursiland, the traditional territory of the Mursi people, has reflected those changes. At the end of the nineteenth century, Mursiland was officially folded into the borders of Ethiopia. 

This was under the leadership of the Abyssinian king Menelik II. Today Ethiopia’s government is a republic, or a state in which the people have the power to elect representatives, including a president rather than a king or queen. 

Those elected officials have been playing an increasingly active role in defining and reshaping the land.

The Omo and Mago National Parks

The Omo National Park was formed in 1966, and the Mago National Park was created in 1978. The Mursi people, who number about 10,000, are not the only ones using and living in the parks. 

For example, in Omo Park, you also might find members of the ethnic groups Chai, Nyangatom, Dizi, Me'en, Bodi and Kwegu hunting, herding and farming the land. In Mago Park, you might find members of the Aari tribe tending their beehives.

It’s important to note, that these groups do not agree with the national government’s boundaries of the parks. 

The Mursi People

Nationalization of Mursiland has affected the way the Mursi people live. Road improvements bring outside goods and tourists, whose money the Mursi people can use to buy everyday necessities, such as medicine and agricultural tools. 

On the other hand, some people believe that the group, once famous for its wild and warrior culture, are relying too much on tourism. At any rate, most Mursi people continue to dress and act in a traditional manner. 

For example, it is considered beautiful for a Mursi woman to wear a clay plate in her lower lip and to wear elaborate headdresses made of natural objects like dried fruit and animal horns. 

The Mursi people continue to speak their own language (also known as Mursi) and to practice their own religion, which is a form of Animism. Animism is the belief that plants, animals, and other inanimate objects possess spirit.

Priests hold places of honor within Mursi communities, as do certain elders who have demonstrated their knowledge of tradition and skills at debating and storytelling.

Resources: The People of the Delta

Do not let the bright sun and clear blue skies fool you: during the night, the shallow waters of the Omo River delta hold an aura of mystery and danger. Ask the local men. 

Silently and stealthily, they ride in their small, dugout canoes through the dark, crocodile-infested waters. They use only flashlights to communicate with each other and to shine light on the eyes of the crocodiles that are moving slowly but hungrily in the water.

And when they do find a crocodile? They let loose a harpoon, which is tied to a rope, and pierce the crocodile’s scaly skin, hauling it back to shore where they will make use of all of its parts. To survive here, the people of the delta must rely on the resources around them.

The Land

As sweat drips into your eyes and mosquitoes buzz in your ears, you survey the land, which you note is mostly dry—despite the lake and delta.

How do the approximately 20,000 members of the Dassanech group live off this semi-arid land, where the Omo River delta enters Lake Turkana? They cultivate the land during the rainy season, when the Omo river floods.

Cattle also play a key part in their lives. A cow can provide a family with meat and milk; its skin can be leathered for clothing, housing, and mattresses.

Recently, the Ethiopian government has talked about establishing a national park in the delta area, and the Dassanech people are concerned that they will be denied grazing rights to this land.

The Lake & The Delta

Away from the grazing herds and near the water, you’ll find another group of people known as the Dies. They were once members of the Dassanech group but have lost their herds of cattle, often because of drought.

Without cattle, you have no status amongst the Dassanech people. So the Dies are forced to leave the land and turn to fishing and crocodile hunting to survive. The two groups do interact with each other, sharing resources in times of need.

The Omo River delta is directly affected by Lake Turkana, which is the largest desert lake in the world. Lake Turkana periodically expands and shrinks for various reasons, such as the damming of rivers that once fed it, over-irrigation of the delta, and climate changes.

Some experts have raised concerns about the building of a nearby dam by the Ethiopian government, called the Gibe III Dam. The dam would also affect the people of the delta, as it would replace the Omo River’s natural flood cycle with an artificial one.

The Houses

Dotting the land are the semi-circular homes of the Dassanech people. The women of the community build these structures, which are made of sticks and branches and cow skin. 

You might notice that there’s only one way in and out of a house—and it's a small opening at that, covered by a flap of animal skin. This is by design, as a security feature: No one can enter the home unnoticed. Those welcomed into a home will find a hearth for cooking (well ventilated), an area for sleeping covered with animal skins, and an area set aside for storage.

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