Somali model Fatima Siad calls New York City home these days, but this winter, eager to reconnect with her East African roots, she took a trip to Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley—one of the last remaining vestiges of pre-industrialized communities, and home to more than 15 ethnic tribes. Here, in her own words, the model tells Vogue.com how the culture, traditions, and irrefutable style of the people she lived among left an indelible mark on her.
The Omo River Valley, located along the southern tip of Ethiopia, is one of the world’s most remote areas. Many people have never even heard of it, and for those who are familiar, there is often a certain idea of the place and a preconceived idea of the indigenous people who live there. I was raised in neighboring Somalia, in a nomadic cattle-herding community similar to those in the Omo. I have vivid memories of the beauty of the landscape, as well as its often-harsh living circumstances. Living and working in New York City now, I longed to reconnect with my roots, and to explore and immerse myself in the distinct cultures of this part of the world.
In January 2016 I traveled throughout Ethiopia with Southern Ethiopia Tours, accompanied by my guide, Ephrem Girmachew, and his driver. Ephrem was my connection to the history and the people of the region, and our trip was possible only because of the recent expansion of roads. According to many environmentalists, despite the benefits of development in the area, the Omo Valley is also threatened by these changes. The Gibe III Dam, a controversial project, will more than double the electrical output in Ethiopia, but it will also potentially displace as many as 200,000 indigenous people who rely on the Omo’s natural flood cycles and whose land will likely dry up. It was important to me to visit before these indigenous cultures are potentially engulfed by this industrial boom.
I began, like most visitors, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital. What the city lacks in architectural beauty it makes up for in energy. It has the buzz of a city on the rise. Knowing that I would return at the end of my trip, I spent just one night in town before heading to the southern city of Arba Minch and a full day’s travel to meet the banks and hills of the Omo Valley, home to the bulljumping Hamer people; the beautifully decorated Mursi, whose women wear huge lip plates; the Karo, who paint themselves white; and the Dorze people famous for their cottonwoven cloths and beehive huts. I wanted to fully immerse myself in the culture of each group I visited.
My first stop was the small town of Turmi, home of the Hamer people. I was lucky enough to witness a ceremonial “bull jumping,” a coming-of-age ritual that all boys must perform as a passage to manhood. I camped overnight in order to take part in the traditional night dancing known asevangadi. The next morning, I met members of the Banna and Karo tribes—and there was more dancing along the lower region of the Omo River. From Turmi I headed north to Jinka, a village central to the Mursi ethnic group. The long drive took me through Mago National Park, known for its bird life and beautiful, riverine forests. From Jinka I went to the Dorze village in Arba Minch. Their lifestyles were more community oriented than the last three villages I visited. They use leaves from the false banana plant to build their homes and to make a food called khocho. At night I slept outside near the village huts; in the mornings the women invited me to their huts to drink bunna (coffee), and I helped them gather water and herd cattle, chores I’d done in my own childhood. They taught me to hand-spin cotton into fiber from which they weave scarves that take three days to produce. Captivated by their handiwork, I purchased several pieces.
On my final night in the village, I was struck by my wonderful, immersive experiences with all the people I had met. The Omo River Valley people are among the few remaining indigenous communities who have maintained the essence of life before industrialization, and I felt truly honored to be welcomed into their world.
We drove back from Arba Minch to Addis Ababa, where I spent the remainder of my stay in Ethiopia among my family. I situated myself into the rhythm of their lives and reconnected with the hustle and bustle of the city. I wore traditional habesha clothing, searched for vintage Ethiopian jewelry, and visited with my friends and family over chaat and hookah. The experiences I’d gathered and the people I met, I knew, would long stay with me and inspire me once I was back in New York City, with a newfound appreciation for my East African heritage. It was powerful returning home.