Before They - Photography Project by Jimmy Nelson


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The Omo Valley, situated in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, southwest Ethiopia, is home to an estimated 200,000 indigenous peoples who have lived there for millennia. The indigenous groups have always traded between each other, for beads, food, cattle and cloth. More recently, the trade has been in guns and bullets.
“A close friend can become a close enemy” 
The indigenous group live a simple life of hunting, gathering, raising cattle and growing sorghum along the banks of the River Omo. They have been influenced by evangelist missionaries and are Muslim by name. Traditional Animism is also still practised. The groups now share a polytheist mixture of beliefs.

Turmi Village, Southern Omo

July 2011

Hamar parents have a lot of control over their sons, who herd the cattle and goats for the family. It’s the parents who give permission for the men to marry, and many don’t get married until their mid-thirties. Girls, on the other hand, tend to marry at about 17.

Marriage requires ‘bride wealth’, a payment made to the woman’s family and generally made up of goats, cattle and guns. Although it’s paid over time like instalments of a bank loan, it’s so high (30 goats and 20 head of cattle) that it can't usually be paid back in a lifetime.

One effect is that whenever a family has a lot of livestock, the wife’s and mother’s brothers will claim outstanding bride wealth debts. It means that Hamar men can't stay wealthy and grow wealthier as their livestock is claimed by others. If a man can afford the bride wealth, he can have three or four wives. Women only marry one man.