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29 October 2014

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The lands of the Dassanech have seen severe and sustained droughts for many years. In August 2006, in the harshest of ironies, their lands were struck by severe flooding.

Reports have estimated over 100 Dassanech lives have been lost. The Dassanech are a people living on the margins, having to constantly adapt to their changing environment. More »

January 2007 – We've had more news about the devastation caused by the flooding in the Omo Valley. We have been keeping in touch with the three groups we filmed in the area to check how they are coping with the floods. More »

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This is the most southerly of the tribes who live in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. In this harsh world, there are times when members of the Dassanech tribe lose their cattle and goats, and with them their livelihood. The way they deal with this, by switching to an alternative means of support by the shores of Lake Turkana, is an example of how life has to adapt in fundamental ways in the face of some of the most inhospitable conditions in the world.

From Dassanech to Dies

Cattle are central to the lives of the Dassanech – just as they are for the other tribes of the Omo Valley. As well as meat, milk, leather for clothing, houses and mattresses, they provide status in the tribe, and the bride-wealth that allows a man to marry.

But unlike the lush green hills of the Suri and Hamar, the lands of the 20,000-strong Dassanech are semi-arid. They live where the Omo River delta enters Lake Turkana - their name means ‘People of the Delta’. Despite the lake and delta, this is an incredibly dry region: there is nothing but desert to the west and southwest, daytime temperatures hover round 35 degrees centigrade, and malarial mosquitoes add to the discomfort.

The Dassanech survive in this environment by cultivating crops when the rains arrive and the Omo river floods. They also manage their cattle herds well, slaughtering the older ones in the dry season, when grazing is limited, and the meat is most needed. But in this dry land, survival is precarious.

When Dassanech people lose their cattle to disease, drought or a raid by a neighbouring tribe, they are unable to sustain their usual way of life. Instead, they become the Dies, or ‘poor people’ and turn for their livelihood to Lake Turkana, where they fish and hunt crocodile and even occasionally hippopotamus.

The Dies’ place in Dassanech society is unique. As cattle are a central status symbol, and they have none, they are looked down on. On the one hand, they are considered members of the tribe yet economically, and to some extent culturally, they are set apart.

The different members of the tribe do, however, help each other. In times of need, Dies provide food for the Dassanech families as well, sharing crocodile meat and fish with the villages. The Dassanech, in turn, give the Dies meat from goats or cattle. Dies do have access to livestock if they really need it. For instance, a man still needs to exchange ‘bride-wealth’ with his wife’s family in order to marry. Most Dies have relatives with cattle, and as bride-wealth is repaid over long periods of time, the cattle can be drawn upon over months and years as new calves are born.

In good times, Dies can acquire livestock again and return to being herders, by exchanging goods for small stock and acquiring more and more livestock over time. Ideally, being Dies is only a temporary thing until they can return to ‘being’ Dassanech again. For some, a generation or more is needed to complete the transition back to cattle herding. But for others, the shift has become permanent. It also follows that in times of plenty, there are fewer Dies. As famine spreads, their numbers increase.

For those who have lost their cattle, there is another option. That is to cross tribal boundaries, which have always been fairly permeable, and join with another group where an individual might have a family connection.

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Dassanech Society

Within the village, it’s the women who build and take down the huts during migrations. They are semi-circular constructions with no interior divisions, made up of sticks and branches called miede. The first part of the hut to be constructed is the ‘store’ - actually a small box-like structure made from reeds and rope from cow skin. This also the box used for moving items on the donkey back. It is set by one side of the hut and used for storing tobacco, coffee and other important items.

These huts are well ventilated, as it is important to have airflow through in such a hot environment. There is only one entrance, a small opening that is closed by animal skin – that way it is extremely difficult for an enemy to go through the opening un-noticed. Inside the huts are a hearth, an area where animal skins are laid for sleeping on, and the store. Women also claim the right-hand side of the hut (and of the porch outside) as their own.

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Hunting for Crocodile

Those Dassanech who have lost their herds and turned to fishing also risk their lives hunting for crocodile at night in the shallow waters of the Omo River delta. Even a small crocodile can provide a good meal for a family. In fact, the fishermen are in some ways luckier than their herding cousins, whose livestock is often at risk from the enduring drought now affecting the Lake Turkana region. They can still obtain good sources of protein from fish during even the harshest droughts.

The men hunt at night from small dugout canoes. They hunt in silence, making occasional hand gestures to instruct the oarsman to change direction. Using a torch – their only concession to modernity – to pick out the crocodiles’ eyes in the darkness, they slowly manoeuvre their canoes close to the crocodile before letting fly with a harpoon attached to a rope. Once the barb penetrates the tough skin, the crocodile has little chance. It is hauled alongside and repeatedly speared until it is safe to haul it inside the canoe. As Bruce found out, sometimes the crocodiles can be very large indeed and it requires great bravery and skill to ensure no one is hurt.

The tribes here have always traded between each other, for beads, food, cattle, cloths and so on. More recently, the trade has been in guns and bullets. Inevitably, as roads are made through the area, other goods like beer and food find their way into the villages.

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Dassanech Culture

The Dassanech tribe is not strictly defined by ethnicity. Anyone – man or woman - will be admitted, as long as they agree to be circumcised. Over the centuries, the tribe has absorbed a wide range of different peoples. It’s now divided into eight main clans, which to some extent reflect the wide-ranging origin of its members. Each clan has its own identity and customs, its own responsibilities towards the rest of the tribe, and is linked to a particular territory.

The largest clan is the Galbur, or Water and Crocodile clan. The Dassanech believe its members have the power over both water and crocodiles and are responsible for dealing with diseases of the glands across the tribe. The Turat clan is responsible for dealing with burns from the fire. They have powers to keep away snakes and to cure many diseases, and also have the ability to keep away enemies from their animals. Another important clan is Turnyerim, which has powers over drought. They pray for rains during dry periods and they can also cure snakebites by spitting on the wound.

Other clans claim to have healing powers over eye infections, scorpion bites, muscular problems, and so on. Members of the same clan are forbidden from marrying – or indeed dancing - with each other.

Dassanech girls are circumcised young, at around 10 or 12 years of age. If they are not circumcised, a girl can’t marry and her father won’t receive her bride-price, so he has a direct interest in her going through the ordeal. Until they are circumcised, girls are called ‘wild animals’ or ‘men’ to tease them – the idea is that their clitoris has to be removed before they act like women.

Girls may be circumcised in their mother’s house, or in another village, but always with other girls of their age going through the same ritual. The cutting itself is usually done by an older woman who will be helped by the girl’s relatives. She’s held down, and a leather strap is tied around her ankles or in between her legs. It is kept tied to restrict the girl’s movement, until the wounds have healed and the pain has subsided.

When the ritual has been completed, the girl is given sour milk to drink and a necklace by her mother. From then on, she is allowed to wear a leather skirt to show she is now considered an adult. Marriage for girls often takes place soon after.

The biggest ceremony in a man’s life is called Dimi. Its purpose is to celebrate and bless his daughter for fertility and future marriage. When he has gone through Dimi, a man becomes an elder. About 10 cattle and 30 smaller animals are slaughtered and other stock is traded for coffee. Men and women dress in animal fur capes to feast and dance, and the leaders of the village bless the girl.

Dimi ceremonies, with their need to slaughter cattle, take place in the dry season – when cattle aren’t producing much milk, and grazing has limited value. Slaughtering cattle at this time of year provides meat when other food sources are low.

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The Future

Lake Turkana – the largest desert lake in the world – periodically expands and shrinks. At present, it is shrinking and becoming more alkaline. The reasons are mainly climatic – drought in the region means that less water is flowing into the lake. Also, higher temperatures mean more lake water is evaporating. The situation has not been helped by the damming of several large rivers that once fed it, and the increased used of water from the Omo River for irrigation.

As Lake Turkana shrinks, the Omo River delta, where most of the Dassanech live, is growing in size as the river flow declines. It is now nearly 250 kilometres across at its widest point and is rapidly becoming a wetland of major international importance. It’s also beginning to attract more human settlement, risking further deforestation and overgrazing.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government and the African Parks Foundation threaten to take over and fence game parks in Southern Ethiopia. This could seriously restrict the access of local tribes, if not chase them out. The Dassanech fear that they will be denied grazing rights if a park is established in the delta area.

Though the Dassanech have begun to get help from the Ethiopian Government and outside agencies such as the United Nations, life remains tough. For longer term help, the people need practical solutions to relieve their ongoing problems of healthcare, water scarcity and a precarious way of life.

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