In December, I journeyed to southwest Ethiopia to photograph the rarely seen Surma tribe.
On the border with South Sudan near the Omo Valley, some 7,000 Surma people live in simple round thatch-roofed huts. Many generations live under one roof. There is no running water and virtually no Western amenities like toilets or televisions. The livelihood of the Surma people is based in agriculture — eating mostly barley and maize in porridge form — with cattle among their most prized possessions. Neighboring families or even entire tribes sometimes go to war over cattle; Fathers of brides will often accept cattle as dowries from future sons-in-law. Tribespeople drink blood and milk from the cows.
For special occasions, ceremonies and other important events, the Surma people, also known as the Suri, adorn their heads with brightly colored flowers as well as paint their faces and bodies. To create the paint, they mix leaves and petals from various flowers with crushed white or red rocks and water. There are no mirrors, so tribeswomen paint each other. Bright necklaces made by a nearby tribe are purchased at a market.
Body scarification, which results in small marks over the chest and arms, is another common practice. For men, scars symbolize opponents they’ve killed in battle. In the name of beauty, women may also enlarge their ear lobes to insert decorative discs, or their lips to accommodate a large clay plate. Tribal life could soon change or disappear with the construction of a road, which may bring technology and more tourists.
How to go
I carefully chose Oryx, which specializes in travel for both professional and amateur photographers to remote destinations planned and executed with cultural sensitivity. Group sizes are limited to six. The trip lasted approximately nine days and cost $ 5,850 per person plus international flights to and from Ethiopia.
A professional photographer, who knew the area and provided hands-on guidance and expertise to photographers, was our tour leader. A translator with knowledge of the Surma people and history of Ethiopia also accompanied us. He also coordinated photo shoots with locals and answered any questions we had about local customs and traditions.
It takes three days of travel to reach the Omo Valley from capital city Addis Ababa — one short flight and two full days of driving. Oryx provided large SUVs and drivers, plus a chef and other support staff as we camped with the Surma tribe.
I brought along my Canon 6D DSLR camera, a 24-70 mm lens and a 50 mm prime lens. I also packed my tripod, a reflector and several backup batteries. We largely used natural light for our shoots.
Oryx also arranged all payments/donations from us to individuals who were photographed with the chief of the tribe. Dates vary from year to year, but Oryx provides expeditions to the Omo Valley from November through February.