|A member of the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia's Omo Valley. Photo Credit: erichon/Shutterstock.com|
The country is a mosaic of cultures with diverse ethnic groups, each with their own unique costumes, hairstyles and rituals. In the South of Ethiopia, in the Omo Valley, travelers can encounter some of the country’s most extraordinary tribes. This is undoubtedly one of the most unforgettable cultural experiences any traveler could dream of; the tribe’s traditions, songs and dances are still as vivid as they have been for hundreds of years. This valley is as close as anyone can come to “untouched” Africa.
The most famous tribe is the nomadic, pastoralist Mursi tribe. When a Mursi woman reaches 20 years old, a slit is made beneath the lower lip and a clay plate inserted. Each year a larger plate is added, stretching the lower lip until it juts out so far that a six-inch plate can be worn and the woman can pull her lip right over her head. This is considered the height of attractiveness: the larger the plate, the more livestock her family will receive when she marries.
Mursi men take part in stick fights, which in the past sometimes ended in the death of one of the participants. Decorated with white clay, they hit each other with 6-foot-long poles. The winner is carried off by a group of eligible women who then decide which one of them will marry him.
The friendly Dorze people will gladly welcome travelers into their homes and teach them all about the construction of the unusual, beehive-like huts as well as share the secrets of traditional weaving. Travelers can also opt to stay the night in a traditional Dorze hut.
The Hamer tribe, known for distinctive hairstyles and highly imaginative bodily decorations, is definitely worth a visit. The tribe is well known for the “bull-jumping” ceremony, which usually occurs during harvest season. During this ceremony, teenage boys run over the backs of about a dozen bulls to prove their manhood.
Ethiopia has much more to offer than just its cultural tribes, though. The oldest independent nation in Africa, Ethiopia boasts heritage dating back to the first century. It is also the earliest known home of humankind; a skeleton of an older human ancestor believed to be more than 3 millions years old, Australopithecus Afarensis, was discovered in 1974 in the Afar region. The skeleton is popularly known as Lucy or Dinkinesh.
The country’s historical route of the North, which can easily be combined with a cultural tour of the South, takes visitors from the current capital of Addis Ababa to the former capitals of the Gonderite and Axumite Empires as well as to the sacred city of Lalibela and the rock churches of Tigray.
Especially Lalibela, a medieval settlement in the Lasta area of Wello, is considered the No. 1 sight in Ethiopia and one of the most astonishing man-made sites in sub-Saharan Africa. Lalibela is home to 11 Ethiopian Orthodox churches that were built in the 13th century on the orders of King Lalibela, not from the ground up but chiseled out of the town's red volcanic rock hills. Popular legend says that the toil of thousands of laborers on this “new Jerusalem” during the day was continued by angels at night.
Currency: The currency used in Ethiopia is the birr; $1 U.S. will buy 20 birr. ATMs are found throughout Addis Ababa and some of the major cities.
Getting there: Ethiopian Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance, operates flights from Bole Airport in Addis Ababa to Toronto and Washington. Other airlines offering services to Addis Ababa include Lufthansa, Kenya Airways, British Airways, KLM, Turkish Airlines, Emirates Air Line, Egypt Air and Gulf Air.
Tourist visas: Required for all visitors to Ethiopia. Visas can be obtained from the visitor’s nearest Ethiopian embassy or consulate before departure.
Climate: The best time to visit Ethiopia is from October to May, which is the dry season, although visitors can expect mild weather year-round.
Language: Although Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, many younger Ethiopians do speak English.