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29 October 2014

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The Nyangatom are some of the most feared warriors in the Omo Valley, locked in bloody feuds with the tribes that surround them.

After the team left the Nyangatom village, Locho, one of the young men, lost his life in a tribal raid. Such raids have always been a part of life here.

17 November - We've received a report from the Omo Valley saying that the Nyangatom have just returned from a raid to reclaim hundreds of cattle, sheep and goats that were taken by the Turkana last month. More than twenty Turkana were killed and many more injured. We don't know whether the Nyangatom suffered any casualties.

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The Nyangatom live in the dry, semi-desert lands of south-west Ethiopia and southern Sudan, where their lives revolve around their herds of zebu cattle and raising crops including sorghum, maize and tobacco.  They face serious competition for access to scarce water and grazing resources.  Ongoing droughts have made the situation worse.

Despite these problems, the Nyangatom have grown in recent years. One estimate suggests the tribe’s numbers have almost tripled over the last three decades to about 14,000, partly due to the activities of Swedish missionaries who provided health care and relief supplies until they left in 2002.

Today the Nyangatom face new issues. Their lands lie within the Omo National Park, created by the Ethiopian government in 1966 and the Nyangatom fear that their rights to grazing and water will be restricted as they have often been in the past.

Nyangatom life

The Omo Valley is a patchwork of many different tribes. Two of them, the Nyangatom and the Toposa, arrived in the Valley from northern Uganda about 150 years ago. Their common origin unites them in the face of their many enemies, including the Turkana to the south and the Suri and Baale to the north.

The Suri insult the Nyangatom by referring to them as the Bume ('the smelly ones') - although their tribal name is actually a corruption of another insult. They were once referred to derisively as Elephant-eaters (nyam-atom), which they turned against their enemies by a clever pun, transforming it into Nyang-atom (literally 'yellow guns').

Linguistically, the Nyangatom have most in common with the Turkana and the Mursi. These three tribes speak Nilo-Saharan languages, whereas other tribes in the region (Karo, Hamar and Dassanesh) speak Afro-Asiatic languages.

Despite the language differences, the Nyangatom are famous among the tribes for their storytelling and singing. The favourite animals of the young men of the tribe are called song cows and song bulls; in ceremonies and during fights with neighbouring tribes, the tribe sing about them. You can hear these cattle songs sung by children round the village and they're picked up and copied by other groups throughout the region.

In the face of the tension between tribes trading still takes places. In particular, the Nyangatom – who have no tradition of pot-making – seek out the colourful pots made by the Mursi and Karo women.

In the valley itself, the Nyangatom have established two different kinds of settlement. Members of the tribe who for whatever reason have lost their cattle live along the western bank of the Omo River where they grow sorghum (a tropical cereal grass) and catch fish.

It's impossible to raise stock along the river, because of tse-tse fly - the main cause of sleeping sickness. Those people living on the river who do manage to get cattle usually put them in the hands of relatives to the west, who spend much of the year moving with their herds in an area that stretches from Kibish on the Sudanese border to the western pasturelands of the Ilemi triangle and the Toposa rangelands.

These herders' huts are of woven twigs rather than mud, in temporary herding camps which can be packed up and moved quickly in times of need. The men of the village spend their time away from the village, finding pasture for the livestock and protecting them from frequent raids. 

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Nyangatom conflict

The Nyangatom and the Toposa, who face hostility from many of their neighbours, consider each other close allies. They call each other ‘grandmother’s thigh’, and it’s not uncommon to see Nyangatom families, with their livestock, living in Toposa villages. These tribes don’t fight each other and, when a large animal like a goat or cow is killed, they offer a hindquarter to members of the other tribe living in the area.

But they are surrounded by common enemies. Neighbouring tribes regard them with hatred and talk of atrocities from two decades ago, when whole villages were wiped out by the Nyangatom. Moving with their herds in the Ilemi Triangle, the Nyangatom are constantly in fear of Turkana on their southern flank, and the Suri and Baale to the north.

Elsewhere, in the Lower Omo Valley, the Nyangatom face raids from the Mursi, the Dassanech, and the Karo and Hamar to the east. But despite the conflict, strong friendships between particular individuals are possible, despite traditional conflict between their tribes.

The 20-year civil war in neighbouring Sudan meant the traditional weapons of spears, bows and arrows were replaced by automatic rifles in the 1980s. The Nyangatom had been one of the weakest tribes in the valley, but they were among the first to get hold of AK47s. They pushed their Suri foes far to the north, and they will still shoot one another on sight. Together with the Toposa they established an important pastoral and military settlement at the foot of Mt Naita – a traditional Suri territory close to the Ethiopia-Sudan border.

The tribes are fighting over the diminishing resources they need to run their herds: water, and land. Cattle raids are frequent, bloody feuds commonplace, and death a real prospect. The men guarding cattle go armed with guns against attacks by neighbouring tribes. They will try to take animals, the Nyangatom will stop them or die in the attempt; and raid is followed by counter-raid.

When these warriors kill an enemy, they scar their upper body to release the bad blood.

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Nyangatom organisation

The Nyangatom are divided into about 20 clans. Membership is by the paternal line – you belong to the clan your father belongs to. These clans vary in size from a few members to several hundred.

The Nyangatom are also divided into territorial sections. These might be called after a migratory bird (Storks, Flamingos, Ibis); or have ethnic names (Kumam; Ngaric); or other names from nature (Castor Tree).

The main form of social organisation is by generation-set. The men of one generation-set father the men and women of the next. Each generation is given a name. The very earliest ancestors are called the Founders; their sons were the Wild Dogs, then the Zebras, the Tortoises, the Mountains and so on. The oldest generation-set still living now are called the Elephants; then Ostriches and the Antelopes; or the Birds and the Ibex as they were referred to in the programme. The youngest generation are now known as the Buffaloes.

Fathers and sons always socialise separately. The Elders remain in the village, while the job of the boys is to herd the goats, who browse on bushes round the village; and the women milk the livestock.

As part of their initiation, the sons have to show they can look after their Elders. In a ceremony watched by the whole village, the young men each attempt to kill a bull with their spear. A single thrust into its right side pierces the liver and causes a massive haemorrhage, which kills quickly without spilling too much precious blood. It’s the way the men show they can provide for the tribe.

Once they are initiated, they will become the dedicated fighting force of the village. It’s their job to defend the tribe and the cattle. They will be the ones to spend their days out with the herds, risking their lives to protect them.

According to tradition, about every 50 years the Elders hand over sovereignty to their sons. In the past this involved a barely hidden form of human sacrifice. After the ceremony the asapan man, who acted as a medium during this transmission of power, lost his status as Father and was sent to die in the bush. The ceremony was outlawed by the Ethiopian Derg (the junta that ruled under Mengistu Haile Miriam 1974-91).

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The future

The Nyangatom face regular drought. Lake Turkana and the south of the Omo Valley are slowly drying up, pushing all the tribes northwards. Drought has killed many cattle and goats, and led to food shortages. With ever-growing pressure on water and land and no guarantees of access to these important resources, the future of the region remains uncertain.

The management of Omo National Park is also beginning to take effect. Nyangatom land falls inside the park, which was created as a reserve in 1966, and also covers tribal lands of the Mursi, Dizi and Suri. After years of inaction, in November 2005 the Ethiopian government handed over management of the park on a 25-year lease to the Dutch-based African Parks Foundation.

The Nyangatom are concerned about the effect that the new management will have on their livelihoods. In the past, their access to grazing and cultivation areas has been restricted. To date the Foundation has not signed any agreements with the tribal groups to guarantee their land rights. Nor has it published its agreement with the Ethiopian government.

The Foundation believes it can ensure a sustainable future for the park, its people and wildlife, but until agreements over land and water are signed and enforced the future of the Nyangatom is uncertain.

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