Dassanech Tribe

Ethiopia’s most southern tribe

This is the most southerly of the Ethiopian tribes and the Dassanech live where the Omo River delta enters Kenya’s Lake Turkana – their name means ‘People of the Delta’. Despite the lake and delta, this is an incredibly dry region and the 20,000-strong tribe are renowned for adapting to these harsh conditions. To visit them, you will take a handmade boat made out of a hollowed tree trunk across the Omo River.

Cattle are central to the lives of the Dassanech – just as they are for the other tribes. As well as for meat, milk, leather for clothing, houses and mattresses, they provide status in the tribe and the bride-wealth that allows a man to marry. When the rains arrives and the Omo River floods they cultivate crops. When members of the Dassanech tribe lose their cattle and goats, and with them their livelihood, they turn to Lake Turkana, where they fish and hunt crocodile and even occasionally hippopotamus.

The Dassanech without cattle are known as ‘Dies’ and whilst considered members of the tribe, they are to some extent culturally, 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. 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.

The Dassanech tribe is divided into eight main clans, each has its own identity and customs and in turn, its own responsibilities. The Crocodile clan are believed to have power over both water and crocodiles and are responsible for dealing with gland related diseases. The Turat clan are responsible for dealing with fire burns and have powers to keep away snakes, cure many diseases and keep away enemies from their animals. The Turnyerim clan have powers over drought, they pray for rains during dry periods and they can also cure snakebites by spitting on the wound.

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. During ceremonies, men dance with big sticks.