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My Afternoon in Dimeka Ethiopia

While visiting the Omo Valley, I ended up getting stuck in the small town of Dimeka, Ethiopia where I spent an interesting afternoon drinking with a woman from the Hamar tribe. I also wandered around the tribal market. This story outlines my experience in Dimeka. I’ll also talk about a couple of things to see and do in the region.

a Hamer woman near Dimeka
A Hamer woman
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Traveling from Jinka to Dimeka by Minibus

My day started at 6 am in Jinka, the capital and largest city of the Omo region. I checked out of my guesthouse and walked a couple of blocks down the street to the small minibus station. My plan was to catch a bus to the Hamar village of Turmi. According to my map, it was only 100 km away so I figured I’d get there by mid-day at the latest. Of course, the trip didn’t go according to plan.

Only one shared minibus operates the route from Jinka to Turmi per day. I slept in and missed it the previous day so I decided to arrive early to make sure I’d get a seat. Of course, I was the first one there and every seat had to fill up before we could leave. After waiting around for 4 hours, the last seat finally filled up and we were ready to depart. A group of guys push-started the old Toyota van and we were off at around 10 am.

Jinka, Ethiopia

After traveling over dirt roads for about 2 hours in a fully packed van that was falling apart, I arrived in the dusty village of Dimeka in the Omo Valley. I happened to arrive on the market day.

I actually didn’t even know this town existed at the time. It wasn’t even on Google Maps. I thought the same bus would take me all the way to Turmi.

Dimeka is the largest of the Hamar villages. It sits about 70km from Jinka and 30km from Turmi. Supposedly the population is around 2000 but the town appeared much smaller to me. I believe most of the residents live in small huts scattered throughout the countryside surrounding the town, rather than in the town itself.

A woman from the Hamar tribe with her baby
A Hamar woman with her baby

The Dimeka Tribal Market

The draw here for tourists is the tribal market on Saturdays. Here, the tribes of the region gather to trade food and goods. The Dimeka market mostly attracts Hamar people. You may also see people from the Banna, Mursi, Kara, and Erbore tribes, which are located nearby. To attend the market, most people travel on foot. Sometimes 10s of kilometers. It is a weekly event.

The main market area is a large dirt square on one side of town. Some people also set up shop in the alley areas between buildings throughout the town. Most of the vendors are sitting on the dirt ground with their goods set out in front of them on display.

At the market, you’ll see a wide range of food and goods. For example, you’ll also see grains, honey, tobacco, coffee, tea, fruits, as well as corn, squash, tubers, and other vegetables. Some vendors also sell clothing, firewood, animal skins, beads, shoes, the red powder that women wear in their hair, etc. Around 400 meters to the north is a cattle market which is also an interesting sight to see. Pretty much everything people need in the part of the world is for sale in the market.

This isn’t really a touristy type of market. Most of the stuff is useless or unidentifiable to travelers. A few vendors sell souvenirs including masks, pottery, carvings, necklaces, bracelets, sculptures, various handicrafts, as well as the famous wooden pillows.

One important note is that you don’t need a guide to visit the town of Dimeka or the market. I was traveling alone by public transport. Someone may approach claiming that you need a guide to visit the area legally. Guides run this common scam to sell their services.

Of course, hiring a guide might be a good idea. They can help you understand what you’re looking at in the market. They can also help you communicate with the vendors and people around town. Very few people speak English here other than the guides.

Zac in front of a Hamar house in the Omo Valley
In front of a Hamar house

Finding a Hotel in Dimeka, Ethiopia

As soon as I stepped off the minibus, a group of men crowded around me aggressively trying to sell me food, souvenirs, and other stuff I didn’t need. I asked one of the guys when the bust to Turmi left. He informed me that only one bus per day made the trip. Of course, the delay in the mourning caused me to miss it. Now, I needed to find a hotel.

I wandered down the only street in the town looking for a place to stay. I walked from one side of town to the other in about 3 minutes. It was tiny with basically no infrastructure. The road was made of red clay. Most buildings were made from wood, mud, weaved leaves, and corrugated metal. There were a handful of concrete buildings as well. The city had no plumbing. I imagine the city’s electricity came from generators and solar power. It was basic.

I found that Dimeka only had 2 hotels. I walked into the courtyard of the ‘tourist hotel’ to inquire about the price. The manager quoted me $15 for a room that had fewer facilities than a prison cell. I tried to negotiate but he wouldn’t budge. Seemed like a rip-off to me. I had read that hotels in the Omo Valley like to overcharge foreigners. I suspected that that’s what was happening.

Next, I walked to the other hotel that was just a couple of doors down. This one didn’t have a name. An old old hand-painted sign hung on the wall indicating that it was a hotel. I walked into the compound where a few people who were sitting around on the ground greeted me. The manager identified himself and told me a room cost $15. After bargaining with him for a bit, I ended up paying $10 for a room that may have been worth $2. At least I had a place to sleep.

The room measured around 10′ by 10′. It had a concrete floor. The only furniture was a squeaky old bed and a small wooden nightstand with some condoms in the drawer. A single lightbulb hung from the center of the room. At least the palace had electricity. A torn old mosquito net hung over the bed. It had a window with bars across for security. The door was made from heavy steel and locked with a padlock.

The bathroom was a shared outhouse near the back of the compound. It was just a corrugated metal structure built over a concrete slab with a hold in the center. There was no shower. I was offered a bucket of water if I wanted to bathe myself but I didn’t bother.

By the time I checked in, it was the hottest part of the day. I wanted to rest for a couple of hours to beat the heat. Unfortunately, the room had zero ventilation. The dark metal roof didn’t help matters either. I imagine it was over 100 degrees in there. I decided to go for a walk and explore the town of Dimeka instead.

My Encounter with a Hamar Woman in Dimeka

Just after exiting the hotel compound onto the main road, I walked by a group of around 10 people sitting in the shade and chatting. As I passed by the group, a woman yelled out to get my attention. When I looked at her, she stood up and motioned for me to come over. I assumed she was some kind of scammer or wanted to sell me something but I figured I’d go talk to her anyway.

She scooted over and motioned for me to sit next to her. Shortly after sitting down, she passed me a small cup full of some kind of locally brewed alcoholic drink. It was a clear spirit. I can’t recall the name. It tasted strong but surprisingly smooth. After a couple of sips, I passed the cup on to the guy sitting to my left.

The woman who called me over was of the Hamer tribe. She dressed in traditional clothing and wore her hair in the traditional Hamar style, curled with butter and red clay. Some of her skin was smeared with the same red clay. She looked to be in her 30s or 40s but it’s hard to tell. I could see scars on her back indicating that she had been involved in the famous bull jumping ceremony where the women are whipped. She did not wear the traditional collar around her neck that married women generally wear. Instead, she wore a couple of colorful beaded necklaces. She also wore a series of brass bracelets up her arms and a colorful necklace. The only non-traditional piece of clothing she had on was a torn-up brown t-shirt.

Hamar tribal woman
A Hamar woman in Ethiopia. Notice the collar and traditional hairstyle

After sitting down, I quickly learned that the woman spoke zero English. Not even the basics. In fact, nobody in the group spoke any English.

After taking a few more sips, the woman stood up and motioned for me to stand up too. She grabbed my hand and started pulling me toward the road. Holding hands, we walked down Dimeka’s main street and entered a compound with a bunch of people sitting around on concrete slabs. It was a bar.

They specialized a locally brewed drink called Tej. This is a honey wine, or mead, with an alcohol content of around 10%. It’s popular in the Omo Valley and is considered to be the national drink of Ethiopia. I bought a bottle for my new friend and I to share.

While enjoying our Tej, we tried to have a conversation. I learned that my new friend’s name, written phonetically, sounded like Bahn-eh moo-da. I taught her my name as well. She picked it up pretty quick as it’s just one syllable.

I tried to explain where I was from. She didn’t seem to be familiar with the United States or California, which surprised me. She kept pointing at me and saying ‘Addis Ababa.’ Maybe that’s the only place outside of her town that she was aware of. I certainly don’t look Ethiopian, after all.

After a while, one of my drinking buddy’s friends came over and sat with us. We got her a glass and poured her some of our Tej. She taught me her name as well but I can’t recall how it sounded. We ordered a second bottle. I didn’t mind paying because each bottle only cost 10 birr or around 25 cents. It was cheap.

My friend began pointing at an old man who was sitting on a chair near the bar. At first, I thought she was just trying to introduce me to him. After a few minutes of struggling to understand each other, we finally found one word that we knew in common, ‘Coca’. She wanted me to buy the old man a Coca Cola.

I gave her the thumbs up and she told the server to bring the old man a bottle of Coke. He flashed me a toothless grin after taking a sip. It’s honestly impressive that you can buy a Coke in the smallest and most remote villages in Africa. Their distribution network is incredible.

In return for buying the old man a drink, my new friend removed one of the brass bands from her arm. She grabbed my wrist and secured the band around it by bending it slightly. It was a gift.

After finishing our honey wine, the woman pointed to an advertisement banner with a beer bottle on it and made a drinking motion. You can never escape ads no matter how far you travel.

I showed the woman that I didn’t have much money by turning my pockets inside out and showing her the few birr that I had inside. I didn’t want to be buying beers for the whole tribe, after all. She understood this. Of course, I had more cash hidden in my money belt. The nearest ATM was in Jinka.

The woman grabbed my wrist and we left the Tej bar. She led me to another small bar just down the street. The bar was just a shack with a few plastic chairs and tables under a shade tree.

We sat down and ordered a couple Ethiopia beers. While we drank, she taught me a short song. We sang as we drank.

After we finished our drinks, my friend used her hands to make the universal sign for food. She wanted to grab a bite to eat. We left the bar and walked to the end of the street and around a corner where we found a small restaurant.

The restaurant was really just a couple of wooden benches sat next to a pot of beans that were cooking over a bed of coals. My friend pulled a tattered 5 birr note out of her pocket and handed it to the server. She was treating me to lunch. The server brought us a small plastic bowl filled with beans.

Traditionally, the Hammer women feed the men with their hands. This is how we ate lunch. My friend scooped up a bite of beans with her fingers and shoveled them into my mouth. While I was busy chewing, she’d scoop up a small handful for herself. I tried to grab my own but this wasn’t allowed. She playfully slapped my hand away from the bowl.

Luckily I’m not a germaphobe or this method of eating wouldn’t have been too pleasant. Neither of us had washed our hands all afternoon. The village didn’t even have running water.

After we finished our first bowl of beans, my friend ordered another. Again, she removed a wadded 5 birr note from her pocket and handed it to the server. The server ladled beans into our bowl and brought it back to us. My friend continued to feed me.

I wondered how my friend earned money but I didn’t know how to ask with my hands. I assume her tribe sold surplus food that they grew and other goods that they made in the markets.

As we struggled to communicate, a group of young guys dressed in western clothes sat down on the bench next to us. I figured maybe they’d be able to translate a bit. Unfortunately, they didn’t speak much English. The most that I could get out of them was that my friend was a ‘good lady’ or something like that.

After feeding me the last of the beans, my friend and I left the restaurant. We wandered back down Dimeka’s only street back toward the shack where we had met. When we got near my hotel, my friend pointed toward the entrance, grabbed my hand and began pulling me through the door. She wanted to go into my room with me.

At this point, I wasn’t really sure what to do. I didn’t want to bring someone’s wife into my hotel room. After all, she wore her hair in the style of a married woman. I’m not familiar with the local customs but the whole situation became awkward at that point.

We stood in the street trying to communicate for a few moments. We were both confused. A man approached who claimed to be her brother. He spoke decent English. He just told me that she wants to come inside with me and that she is a ‘crazy lady’. Other than that, he didn’t have much else to say. I ended up saying goodbye to my friend and going back to my hotel room alone.

The following day, I woke up early and caught the once-daily minibus from Dimeka to Turmi. A couple of days after that, I caught a bus out of the Omo Valley and headed south to Kenya.

Zac and a guide in the Omo Valley
With a guide I met

Final Thoughts About Dimeka Ethiopia

Before the trip, I was worried that the Omo Valley would feel too touristy and inauthentic. This wasn’t the case, in my experience. I found Dimeka to be completely authentic. In fact, I didn’t see a single other tourist in the city the whole time I was there. I saw a couple of tourists in Jinka and one in Turmi. I did meet quite a few guides so maybe tourism is seasonal.

One experience I missed out on during my time in the Dimeka and the Omo Valley was the bull jumping ceremony. I asked several guides in Jinka, Dimeka, and Turmi when the next ceremony would take place. Nobody seemed to know. They basically told me that it was down to luck. Evidently, the ceremonies are more common during the harvest season when there is a surplus of food and other resources. I was traveling during the summer, which I believe is the off-season.

The bull jumping ceremony is a Hamar initiation ritual where the men must walk and jump across the backs of up to 8 bulls without falling down. During the ceremony, the young women are whipped or flogged with sticks. Evidently, these ceremonies take place in Dimeka frequently. You can read more about this unique cultural tradition here.

Have you visited Dimeka, Ethiopia or the Omo Valley? Share your experience and tips in the comments below?

If you’re planning to visit this part of the world, check out my guide to visiting the Omo Valley independently and on a budget.

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