Kara & Nyangatom

Omo Courtship


Kara & Nyangatom

The Omo River Valley in southwest Ethiopia is one of the last unspoiled wilderness regions in Africa, sheltering a number of pastoral peoples, of which the Kara is the smallest tribe numbering fewer than three thousand.

They live in four small villages of domed huts. Across the river to the west live the Nyangatom, their closest neighbours.

Both the Kara and Nyangatom are renowned for their colorful face and torso painting, designed to attract the eye of the opposite sex during courtship time. Their artistry is ephemeral – a kaleidoscope of constantly changing designs. Each morning during the courtship season men go down to the river to paint their bodies with fresh new designs before they go off to court young girls. After rigorous courtship dancing the designs wear off, only to be refreshed the following day with entirely new and innovative patterns.

Both the Kara and Nyangatom consider the chest, face and hair to be the canvas on which they express their boundless creativity. They are outstanding painters, using organic colors drawn from the mineral deposits found along the steep riverbanks and in the hinterland – yellow mineral rock, white chalk, and red ocher pigment containing iron ore. To this palette they add black charcoal.

Body painting is one of the oldest art forms in Africa. Evidence of its origins is found in early African cave paintings and rock engravings dating back to the Stone Age. The human handprint, used by the Kara to decorate their chest is one of the most ancient recorded designs. The Omo River peoples share a deep passion for their ancient cultures. Sadly they are being forced off their traditional homelands. The Government of Ethiopia is leasing their land to foreign investors for the development of sugar cane and cotton plantations. Upstream on the Omo River the Government has built the Gibe III, the second largest hydroelectric dam in Africa – diminishing the flood waters of the river so essential to the pastoralist’s survival. Traditional cultures that have evolved and flourished in the Omo Valley, known as the birthplace of modern man, are now tragically facing extinction.